Skill Challenges

May 27, 2009 at 1:59 pm (D&D, Games) (, , )

The fourth edition of D&D added a feature so simple yet so broadly applicable that only now after a year of really looking at what the feature can do have people begun scratching the surface of what is possible.  That feature is of course Skill Challenges.  Many DMs just don’t know what to do with Skill Challenges in their games and so have not been able to make use of them.  It has taken me awhile to dig into Skill Challenges and find what I can get out of them and I will share with you what I have found so far.
Every Skill Challenge (SC) starts with a goal, find out who has been stealing from the dockside warehouses, follow a cloaked figure through a crowded marketplace, or even pillage your way through a dungeon.  When you want to use a SC in your game you need to know what the goal for the SC is.  This is an important step in your adventure creation.  Skill Challenges should be used to decide on the outcome of anything that is not combat.  You might even decide to string multiple SCs together all leading to the “Big Fight”.  For instance, your players may have their characters investigate a string of robberies (first SC), follow the culprit to his secret hideout (second SC), and make their way through all of his well placed traps and guards (third SC), before confronting him and his thieving cronies in their underground storeroom (the Big Fight).
The goal of the first SC would be to discover the identity of the thief.  It is important to know that no matter if the PCs succeed or fail in the SC the goal will happen.  The difference should be what the goal reveals.  For instance if the players succeed at the SC with no failed rolls then the thief should turn out to be one of their enemies or if they fail the SC with no successful rolls they discover that all the evidence they can find points to them being the culprits.  When you are planning your adventure you should plan each SC with both the goal and four possible outcomes, total success, regular success, regular failure, total failure.  Each different outcome should answer the goal of the SC in a unique way and lead either to a fight or another SC.  When you sit down to write a nights adventure you should keep in mind how long it usually takes your players to complete a SC or a fight.  You only need to plan far enough in advance to get you through one play session.
This method of adventure planning is more like writing a flowchart than a published adventure and it may actually be useful to sketch out a flowchart that you can reference in play.  You should attempt to place at least one big fight along every path that might occur, preferably near the end of the adventure.  The more failed SCs there are leading up to a fight the tougher you should make that fight.
I hope that this has been helpful to you DMs out there who have been struggling with Skill Challenges.  This is not the definitive answer to how Skill Challenges should work but it is the method that has been working for me.  I have more thoughts on ways to expand Skill Challenges to make them more dynamic and important but you will have to wait on those I am afraid.
-J.B. Mannon

1 Comment

  1. All About Skill Challenges - EN World D&D / RPG News said,

    […] links to more skill challenge topics than I can reproduce in this thread. At The Table, we have one, two, three posts on enhancing them. And not to forget the Core Mechanic's twelve part series on […]

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