29 Dec 2011

Skill Challenges, First Impressions

Blog 21 Comments

The easiest way to get me (as a player) to check out of a game is to tell me I’m in a skill challenge. And even worse tell me what skills to use. Some DM’s like this approach. It gives structure to a difficult part of the game. Revealing the parameters guides players, helping them make good decisions. But. BUT. This comes at a price. Each time you say, “we’re in a skill challenge,” you’re reminding your players they’re in a game and no matter how good you are at telling stories, you likely lose any immersion you might have achieved up to that point.


I have a theory about why DMs have such a hard time running skill challenges. DMs want to run the game in the “right” way. Both 3e and 4e leave very little room for DM interpretation. If you have a question about how something works, there’s probably a rule for it somewhere. I want to climb a ladder? Well, bub, that’s a DC 5 Climb/Athletics check. I want to remember common knowledge about magic. Make a DC 10 Knowledge (arcana)/Arcana check. Combat, overland travel, and almost all the other moving parts of the game have been designed to the point that the game can more or less run itself. The “Dungeon Master” has always been something of a referee, but the role also expected the DM to be a storyteller, to bend the rules to fit the story as needed. In my experience, the more rules we have, the more “complete” the game, the less freedom the DM feels he or she has, and thus we have an army of DM engineers who exist, to some degree, to make sure the game runs as the rulebooks say it should. DMs present the information, tighten the screws, and make sure the monsters and traps behave as described.

With the DM being relegated to something akin to a game manager, it follows that DMs see a skill challenge in the same way they see anything else presented in rules jargon. The skill challenge is a mechanical procedure, some necessary hoop to jump through while chasing whatever quest they’re after. Why wouldn’t you, as a game manager, explain the rules? Why wouldn’t you just tell the players how many successes they need, what skills to use, and so on?

Because it kills the mood.  It’s a bit like going on a date only to receive a script for the entire evening, learning what your date plans to do, step by step, to get you in the sack. Not only is that creepy, but it pretty much guarantees that your date’s desired outcome will not happen. Revealing all the juicy bits of the skill challenge before the players begin has a similar effect. There’s no romance, no improvisation, nothing exciting about the experience at all. And what might have been an interesting exchange that culminates in a satisfying experience for everyone involved winds up being artificial and mechanical.

Just because game material present skill challenges as a mechanical construct doesn’t mean you have to run them this way. As a DM, reclaim your place in the game. Be the storyteller you’re expected to be and properly seduce your audience, win them over and immerse them in the narrative.  Let me give you an example.

Find the Secret Door

The skill challenge’s goal is to find the secret door. The door opens onto a passage that leads to the Evil Bad Guy’s secret lair, where he performs unspeakable experiments. If the PCs find the secret door, they can bypass the clay golem guarding the main approach to the lair. If they fail, they’re going to have to deal with the construct . This isn’t an ideal skill challenge, but it works for this example.

The secret door is a magical painting and the PCs have to activate the painting to move through it. I want to keep this simple, so the PCs need 4 successes before 3 failures. I also want to make sure there are a couple of strategies for dealing with the painting. Arcana and Perception seem to be obvious choices. I’ll throw History into the mix (the painting is a historical scene with a significant error). Thievery might be good (to sabotage the painting). As is Athletics (to break through the wall).

Five skills seem to be enough. I’ll set the Athletics DC at hard and all the other ones at moderate.

I want to structure this a bit.

Identification (Arcana, History, or Perception)

A successful check using one of these skills reveals something funny about the painting. Arcana reveals a magical aura, History some weird inaccuracy, Perception a faint breeze blowing out near the bottom. Success by 5 or more grants a +2 on all future checks related to the challenge.

Discovery (Arcana, History, Perception)

Characters examining the painting discover it covers up a passage. Arcana reveals the image can be manipulated to allow access to whatever lies beyond. History recalls a similar secret door from legend. Perception reveals a faint outline. Success by 5 or more grants an extra success.

Open (Arcana, Athletics, Thievery)

Characters can open the door. Arcana bends the magic. Athletics breaks the door down. Thievery sabotages the magic. A success by 5 or more grants an extra success.


The first time the PCs fail a check, the golem hears them. The second time, the golem moves its speed toward the PCs. The third time, the golem pulls a Kool-aid man and attacks.


The PCs find and open the door.

Running the Challenge (A not-so-good way)

DM: You enter a 10-foot wide passage that extends well beyond the range of your light source. On the right-hand wall, you see a large mural depicting two armies fighting. All is quiet. All is still.

Bobby: I want to check out the painting.

DM: OK. You’ve triggered a skill challenge.  You’re going to need 4 successes and you can use Arcana, Athletics, History, Perception, and Thievery.

Dan: Uh. Okay. I’m trained in Athletics. I want to make a check.

DM: What are you doing?

Dan: Flexing?

Running the Challenge (A better way)

DM: You enter a 10-foot wide passage that extends well beyond the range of your light source. On the right-hand wall, you see a large mural depicting two armies fighting. All is quiet. All is still.

Bobby: I want to check out the painting.

DM: Sure. The painting covers about 10 feet of wall and it depicts a battle between small furred humanoids and gnomes. There’s a jagged mountain in the background.

Tom: Sounds interesting. Do I know what battle this was?

DM: You might. History check?

Tom: Sure. (Tom rolls and succeeds. The DM ticks off 1 success).

DM: This looks like the Battle of Howling Horde. You can tell because of the Stone Tooth, the mountain in the background. It’s not an accurate depiction though. The Horde attacked halflings, not gnomes.

Bobby: Gnomes. Halflings. Is there a difference? Seems strange though. I want to search the painting.

DM: Sure. Give me a Perception check.

Bobby: Gotcha (Rolls and gets a success by 5; the DM marks down two more successes).

DM: You notice a faint breeze coming from the painting. It’s weird. You think there might be an open space behind the painting.

Dan: Out of the way. I’m going to kick it down.

DM: Make an Athletics check.

Dan: Damn. Rolled a 1. (The DM notes the failure and that the golem is now aware of the adventurers).

Bobby: Good job. Let me see if I can get this open. I’d like to try open this bad boy up the old fashioned way with my thieves’ tools. Thievery?

DM: Okay.

Bobby: Ah crap. I got a 9.

DM: (The DM notes the second failure. The golem is moving toward the party. The DM checks the passive Perception scores for the entire party. Accounting for distance, the only once who hears the golem’s approach is Bobby). You fail to open the compartment, but you hear heavy footfalls and scraping coming from down the passage. What do you guys want to do?

Dan: I draw my sword and take up a defensive position.

Bobby: I draw my crossbow and load it.

Tom: This painting might be magical. I’d like to detect magic.

DM: Arcana please?

Tom: Sure. (Tom rolls well and succeeds by 5; the DM notes two successes. That brings the party’s successes up to 5, more than enough to complete the challenge).

DM: The painting is magical and while examining it you see threads of power you can  manipulate that should cause the door to open. What now? You hear the footsteps growing closer.

Tom: I’ll tug the magical threads!

DM: Perfect. The painting shimmers and fades before your eyes, revealing a long, dark tunnel.

The DM didn’t ask for the last check. The party succeeded and so there was no more need for additional checks. Of course, the players may want to deal with the approaching monster.

If you read yesterday’s post, this skill challenge might be an unnecessary one. Just because it’s in the adventure doesn’t mean I need to run it. If one of the players decided to search the painting, the DM might have just skipped the entire challenge and let the player find and open the secret door with a single successful check. Or, if the players had an easy time, the DM might just ignore the secret door and let the player characters face down the golem, which likely alerts the Evil Bad Guy and starts a larger combat encounter. Regardless, the skill challenge example shows how such a scene might unfold, with a mixture of player initiative and DM guidance.

OK. I’m done talking skill challenges for a while.

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21 Responses to “Skill Challenges, First Impressions”

  1. Erik Nowak says:

    Yes! How to do it, and how not to do it. I’ve been guilty of your first example to some degree, especially in a time-tight LFR game, but I always strive for the latter presentation.

  2. OnlineDM says:

    I’m in total agreement. I am strongly opposed to a DM saying, “This is a skill challenge. Here are the skills you can use.”

    What works better is to say, “Here is a situation. How would you like to proceed?” And if the players get stuck for ideas, you can offer suggestions. “Well, Homer, you have keen elf eyes. Why don’t you give me a Perception check to take a closer look at the painting?” But only do that if they get stuck and are looking for help. It’s more fun to see what they come up with; they’ll often surprise you (in a good way)!

  3. Brian Heckathorn says:

    Very nice. Love the examples. I strive for the more narrative approach when I DM because as a player it drives me nuts when a DM goes totally mechanical during a skill challenge. It really annoys me when they go the extra step to make that mechanical skill challenge suck even more when they add some additional restriction like going around the table making each player participate in some way, even when it makes no sense for a player’s character to be involved.

  4. Shane says:

    I have always wanted skill challenges to work this way, but there’s an inherent problem with the scenario: What if Tom keeps asking all the questions and making all of the skill checks? The Skill Challenge mechanic is designed to get all party members involved; without indicating that this needs to be a group effort (which smart players will realize means “Skill Challenge time,” anyway), you’re likely to have one guy doing all the leg work while everyone else watches.

  5. Robert J Schwalb says:

    Tom might do all the legwork in this particular challenge. Bobby might suck up the spotlight during the next scene. However, identifying a scenario as a skill challenge invites players to game the situation. When skill challenge mechanics fade into the background, players tend to be more willing to experiment with their characters, to think beyond the character sheet and the skill block and do things they wouldn’t normally do. I would argue immersed players think less about what’s on their sheets and more about how to solve the problems in front of them.

  6. theweem says:

    I’ve never let my players know they were working with a skill challenge as it seemed too over the top to me to announce it as such. I can understand some of the benefits others might find in stating it outright, it just (as you have said) pulls them out of the moment, breaking immersion, and I do everything I can to avoid that in mine.

    Great post!

  7. Dan says:

    Its all crap. I never roll 1′s :)

  8. Brian R. James says:

    I’m happy to see OnlineDM address my primary concern with leaving skill challenges entirely up to player ingenuity. Not everyone is a great roleplayer, and certainly our characters have skills and abilities that we do not possess as human players. In other words, don’t penalize the PCs for lack of imagination on the player’s part. Even if I as a player don’t recognize the historical significance of the ‘Battle of Howling Horde’, my character surly would. See what I’m getting at?

  9. highbulp says:

    I agree this is how skill challenges should run, but what do you do about the “dogpile” effect? DM says: “roll me a History check to identify the battle”, and then every player rolls a check (whether the DM was talking to them or not)?

    In some games I’ve played, the DM has announced events as Skill Challenges as a way to indicate to the players that we’re stepping outside the normal rules/scope of game abilities. Where it doesn’t matter whether something normally takes a standard or move action, or whether a certain effect is part of a certain skill. It’s a way to say “you need to achieve this goal, what scenes do you want to play towards it (and what is the controlling “skill” for that scene?). It opens up stuff like “I’m going to try and use Arcana to create an illusionary wall for us to hide behind while we sneak past the guards”. And then the DC isn’t based on the skill, but what is being done with it, set dynamically. “I’m going to run this as a Skill Challenge” tells me “you might only have an at-will Burning Hands, but now you can play a scene where you set an entire room on fire.”

    This works really well for me since I also DM so like coming up with these stories, but it does stymie some players who want to know what they can do and then do it (the kind of people who are like “well I don’t have a ‘break through walls’ power, so I’m not sure whether I could do that…)

  10. Ashardalon says:

    I wish the rules as written, the actual game books, communicated all this.

    To be clear, I agree with all of your points. Great post!

    It’s just frustrating that the official published material has trained so many people to run Skill Challenges poorly. How many D&D players will ever see your excellent post? How many D&D players spend much time online at all reading about D&D? Or go to conventions where other gamers may pass this knowledge?

    I wish Skill Challenges were playtested more before being published. Even more, I wish the text describing the rules were playtested. It doesn’t matter if the rules are good/bad/whatever if the text doesn’t clearly communicate what the rules are to begin with. The text is more important than the rules/procedures/mechanics.

    I just hope all the negativity around Skill Challenges doesn’t translate into the entire idea being discarded in future editions. They never really got a fair chance.

  11. froth says:

    skill challenges are so horrible

  12. Richard Green says:

    Great post! This is how I want my skill challenges to turn out but they often don’t run this way. I’ll keep trying though ;)

  13. Chris says:

    Please try to get more clarifications and examples into Dragon articles. Skill challenges have become one of the key stumbling blocks in how 4e is played. I’ve played with some very skilled DM’s who still manage to mess up skill challenges in a variety of ways. As you pointed out, DM’ing 4e is more game management than actual story interaction. Skill challenges are an area that requires the most DM/player interaction and is the most unpredictable scenario. I’ve been in skill challenges like your good example that start well but then break down suddenly when the unexpected happens and the DM is thrown off his script.

    The toughest part I’ve seen DM’s struggle with is when a player wants to use a skill that isn’t part of the skill challenge script and makes a good role play case for the use of the skill. The DM is then exposed and has to start tap dancing around. This breaks immersion as much as just announcing the skills upfront.

    I’m a software guy and your example is what we call “The Happy Path” where everything goes according to plan. I would ask for just one more blog on how to run a Skill Challenge where the players don’t go with the plan and you run the risk of the whole thing falling apart.

  14. Nat says:

    I agree with Chris in his call for something that addresses variation from “the Happy Path.” I’ve long since stopped telling players we were in a skill challenge, and usually I don’t even bother setting primary skills any more. I just ask the players what they want to do, let them roll, and compare to the standard and hard DCs of their level. It’s a much more natural method (and more old-school!) but it does tend to create a situation where a.) players just come up with justifications for their best skills and/or b.) when I ask for a specific check, everybody rolls it (the “dogpile” as noted above). In other words, this open-endedness creates situations where the PCs simply can’t fail, especially since the errata’ed skill check DCs are still pitifully low compared to PCs’ best skill mods. Any advice for giving form to this chaos, or keeping these situations challenging? The second a player thinks outside the box with a skill, whoever has the best rank in that skill steps in and says “I do the same thing, only better.”

  15. Alphastream says:

    Great stuff, Rob. I’ve wondered what other formats might help with Skill Challenges and I like what you presented.

    Chris and Nat, I find failures can be the best parts. You provide the reaction (the NPC is offended, the door makes an ominous hum and seems ready to blast them with magical energy) and then you let the PCs drive. They might try something else. They might go off script. They might really keep failing (the NPC ends all negotiations, the door explodes with energy and then is covered by a wall of force), and now the PCs must seek another way to do things. With 4E we’ve created, as was said below, that idea of just lose a surge. No, the most fun is in figuring out plan B. Maybe it was pre-planned and is much harder. Or maybe it is run off-the-cuff. Either way it will likely be more memorable.

    Nat mentions the tendency some players have to constantly use their best skill. I find I can avoid that by creating compelling scenes. For example, in RP negotiations, a merchant might throw a number of questions their way. These questions might be answered through various means (history, diplomacy, nature, etc.). The key is to throw stimulating stuff at the PCs, like “You are working for House Valegar. I’ve never traded with someone from House Valegar before. It is said to be bad luck. What do you say to this?” A few moments later “This item you wish to trade for. It is exceedingly rare. Do you understand its materials and the holy rights involved?” I just have some bullet points, but they are meant to create reactions that are honest and reflexive and in-character, not to just trigger a single skill.

    The above can sound like work, but it isn’t so bad. It’s a few bullet points and then having your skill challenge involve aspects of the world. Maybe setting stuff how people dress in Waterdeep, the history of the Duchy of Geoff, or the habits of Balican templars… stuff PCs might know or that you set up in an earlier session.

    The other thing I find is that players learn not to roll auxiliary skills if you punish them for this. I use a lot of non-essential skills for which failure is not punished. For example, they might end up using history and religion to figure out clues about the merchant, but failing isn’t an actual failure. It’s just an opportunity to learn stuff. When players fail but don’t suffer they are more likely to try again. Then the big roll comes, and it is obvious. The merchant might say “you know nothing of my people and my faith, and yet you want to bargain. The moment has come, why should I deal with you?” or she might say “I am impressed with all that you know about my people and my faith, but I am unsure whether I should provide you with what you seek”. It becomes clear that this is the big moment and when they step up to make that roll (or rolls) it is obvious that failure will matter.

  16. Arbanax says:

    I loved this and the previous post, so thanks Rob, for putting these thoughts down. Firstly as a relatively new DM, I’ve run skill challenges this way because, yes I want to be faithful to the rules. Besides which as a newer DM, you need the rules to guide you – going off message without experience sounds messy and is easy to get in a real sticky situation. So yes I’ve tried to run Skill challenges because I’ve felt less comfortable with going it my own way. However I’ve struggle to implement them, my group can be quiet passive at times, so I’ve also broken out of immersion and told them we’re in a skill check etc. It has worked, in so much as we’ve got through a skill check, but I am now beginning to wonder, as per you last post, whether we just ignore them, or run them as RP and lets see where that gets us. Now we’ve been playing for over a year, they are getting more used to using skills unscripted so maybe the training wheels of skill challenges are becoming less necessary – especially in the 4 hits before 3 strikes kind of tick list.


  17. Haste Podcast: ‘Real’ D&D Year In Review, Pathfinder Comic, Skill Challenges Presentation. | Words in the Dark says:

    [...] Schwalb, D&D freelancer and author of many, many books recently wrote a few pieces on skill challenges and how to handle them, or to simply ignore them. Some great insight is provided here, Micah and I [...]

  18. Gargs454 says:

    Heh, you talk about the example not being a particularly great skill challenge and then show a good implementation of it and it makes me wish my games went that way. :p

    The biggest problems I’ve encountered are a) fear of trying because a PC is not skilled in a particular skill, b) mass assist (even with the new rules for assisting the odds usually favor a mass assist) and c) a desire to spam one skill. Using the above example, if my group initially asked for a an arcana check, the highest arcana character would make the attempt then everyone would want to assist it. Once it proved succesful, they would just keep spamming Arcana.

    Some of this can be solved by limiting the number of successes for a particular skill. Additionally, I will at times make people explain how they are assisting. With skills like Arcana, History, or Religion though in particular it becomes fairly easy to make an explanation that’s reasonable. Thievery, Athletics, Acrobatics and other “physical” or “social” skills are often easier to limit the assists on for this reason.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with AlphaStream though that often the best way to encourage participation is to either a) not punish individual failures or b) not stick to the strict 3 Failures limit. The Colossus of Laarn Skill Challenge presented on the D&D site was a great example of this. Failures simply meant that the Colossus was still attacking. Chase scenes can be similar too. Rather than use a set number of failures, create a set number of rounds. The PCs need 8 successes in 3 rounds. Now there’s no real penalty for a PC who fails a check, but the potential reward is greater.

    I have to admit that I still really like the idea of skill challenges, I just haven’t had a lot of luck with them. I don’t think it helps that a couple of my players are much more combat-oriented (which is fine). The “problem” with the combat oriented player though is that when we get into a skill setting, they just shut down. They might occasionally toss a d20 if asked, but that’s about it. As a result, I’ve tended to not use them as much simply because I want to be as inclusive as possible.

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