Resurrecting the Skill Challenge

Hello, everyone! Today starts the series of articles regarding system tweaks which I’ve attempted for Fifth Edition, and what the system does and does not support. Admittedly, this is a system tweak that several people have already attempted, but I felt it was an important enough game mechanic for any storyteller to have in their toolbox that it warranted another article about it.

Skill Challenges

Those of you who have followed the development of D&D probably remember skill challenges best from their less-than-popular incarnation in 4e. However, they have been present for some time before that. Originally, skill challenges were introduced in 3.5’s Unearthed Arcana supplement as Complex Skill Checks, in which a character would use multiple individual rolls to execute a task, usually a longer or more complicated job. From this system onwards, a character had to reach a certain number of successes before (typically) 3 failures. In the 4e Player’s Handbook, these skill checks became a group endeavor, typically involving an entire party of characters attempting to reach a predetermined goal(such as negotiating a complicated treaty or traveling a dangerous road).

So you may be wondering, “Why bring back a mechanic from 4e? Wouldn’t it have made it to Fifth Edition’s core rulebooks if it were such a useful one?” I believe that the designers simply neglected to include it out of a desire to distance 5e from what was (at least vocally) a controversial iteration of D&D.

A Skill Challenge can add several benefits to a game, though:

  • Skill Challenges cover loose amounts of time. It’s easy to run a skill challenge which takes place over split-second decisions in your story, or to narrate away years of downtime in a story, and either will take about the same amount of time at the table through a Skill Challenge.
  • Skill Challenges, simply put, allow a character to use their skills. In some campaigns, skills don’t see much use simply because some have very loose usage – most combat effects require saves rather than skill checks, and some skills, such as Intelligence(History) or Dexterity(Acrobatics).
  • Skill Challenges give players a bit of narrative control, without invalidating a storyteller’s role in making a campaign. An open-ended Skill Challenge will let a player not only select what skill they’re using(with a few restrictions) but also add a little creative flair in describing how they use it. Some players may be more comfortable with this than others, but these low-impact descriptive uses of skills take some of the burden of narration off of the storyteller by letting players describe how their character is awesome.

That said, there are a few scenarios in which a Skill Challenge is not an appropriate use of your time. Generally speaking, if there is a negligible or no chance of failure in a scene, there is no reason to run a Skill Challenge.

Running a Skill Challenge

Skill Challenges are fairly easy for a storyteller to run, and you’ll likely decide that you want to customize it in some way for yourself. What follows is how I typically run a skill challenge, which relies heavily on the Lord Kinsington Skill Challenge rules. For examples of these rules in action, I recommend listening to Critical Hit, an incredibly fun and long-running 4E podcast.

Starting a Skill Challenge – Step By Step

  1. Declare the players’ goal – A Skill Challenge must have a clearly defined goal. Maybe the players are trying to convince two armies’ generals to sign a peace treaty, they’re trying to reach a specific destination, clear a crowded ballroom before an irate dragon appears, or maybe prepare a fancy dinner. Whatever the case may be, ensure that the players have a goal and that they know what it is.
  2. Decide the Skill Challenge’s Complexity – The Complexity of a Skill Challenge is the number of skill checks the party needs to succeed before they experience 3 failures. A general rule of thumb is that a Skill Challenge of average complexity will require a number of successes roughly equal to the number of party members. Fewer successes required will make for an easier skill challenge, while each additional success required will result in an exponential growth of the chance of failure. A Complexity of 9 or above is unreasonable for all but the most infuriatingly difficult Skill Challenges. Whether or not you declare this Complexity to your players is your prerogative(much like whether or not you announce the hit points of a creature).
  3. Decide on the consequences of the Skill Challenge – Since there’s a chance that your players will fail a Skill Challenge, you must be prepared to face that possibility. Decide in advance what sort of punishment will face your players if they fail. This could be a narrative consequence, such as the generals from the earlier example leaving in a huff and resuming their war. An example of a mechanical consequence of a skill challenge could be the dragon from the previous example arriving before the heroes can clear out the ballroom, initiating a combat encounter crowded with innocent bystanders. A less dire example of a mechanical consequence could be that characters traveling to a specific destination get lost along the way and don’t gain the benefits of a long rest since they’re too busy navigating back on-course.
  4. Roll Initiative – Like a regular combat encounter, determine the turn order in which the players will act. If a player did something which initiated the skill challenge and warrants skill check, immediately put that

Running the Skill Challenge

Each player takes a turn describing a skill and how they use it to work towards their goal. After a player describes the skill they want to use and how they’d use it, you decide whether to give that player the green flag to roll or ask them to adjust their description in some way.

Keeping Things Interesting

When selecting a skill to use, a player should remember these three rules:

  • The skill they select must somehow contribute to their goal. If a skill doesn’t help the party in some way, there’s no point in doing it.
  • They can’t use a skill that they’ve already used. If everyone uses their character’s best skill every round, there’s no variety to the scene.
  • They can’t use a skill that the last player used. This is why rolling initiative is important to running a skill challenge – the random factor may clump characters with similar skill sets together in turn order, which, with this rule, won’t create a repetitive scene and encourages players to be creative with their less-than-optimized skills.

Once you’ve approved a player’s skill choice and how they’re using it, consider what DC you want to use. Some quick DCs to work with are as follows:

Trivial 5 or less
Easy 6-10
Average 11-15
Difficult 16-20
Expert* 21-25
Nearly Impossible* 26+

*Whenever the use of a skill will require an Expert or Nearly Impossible DC due to factors a player can observe, I will warn the player of how unlikely it is to succeed before allowing them to make the check.

Sometimes players will “fail” a DC on a skill where outright failure does not make sense. For instance, more often than not, pushing a boulder will give you a consistent result. In these situations, instead of narrating the consequences of the failed check as failure to do the achieved tasks, describe the player’s actions as taking longer for various mitigating circumstances.

Ending a Skill Challenge

Typically, a Skill Challenge ends in one of three ways: The players have succeeded a number of times equal to the Skill Challenge’s Complexity, the players have failed 3 skill checks, or the Skill Challenge has reached a logical narrative conclusion(whatever the characters set out to do has been achieved, or has become impossible). Implement the consequences you decided on when setting up for the Skill Challenge if it’s a failed attempt, or continue the game if the players have succeeded in this challenge. If possible, devise a reward for a successful completion, such as an experience point reward(using the guidelines set in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for a comparable combat encounter), equipment, or narrative rewards.

Overall Conclusions

Skill Challenges are a cheap-to-implement, flexible, and convenient method of running scenes without combat mechanics. They can play like a power montage in high fantasy games and delicate operations in grittier campaigns. They allow skill-based character classes to shine and encourage players to think creatively about how their characters approach a problem. Honestly, it’s a shame that they weren’t mentioned in 5e specifically, but unfortunately, it feels that Wizards wanted to quietly distance 5e from its unpopular predecessor. I firmly believe that Skill Challenges should be in every storyteller’s list of tools, regardless of the campaign being run.

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