The Challenge of Skill Challenges

I remember when I ran my first 4e adventure; I had trouble with a skill challenge.  I thought the system was clunky and slowed things down.  I thought skill challenges were just a way to take up space and XP when you didn’t have an encounter ready.  I realize now, I had no idea what I was doing.  In the years since, I feel I’ve gotten much better at skill challenges.  I’ve turned what was once a weakness into a strength.  Here are some tips to make your skill challenges better:

  • Have a reason and a plan.  Just throwing a skill challenge at your players isn’t going to make a memorable experience.  Make sure you have a reason for the challenge that makes sense in the context of the adventure and the ongoing narrative.  If the challenge is just filler, your players will treat it like filler, where if the challenge decides whether they catch their enemy unaware they feel much more involved.  This also raises the point that you should have consequences for the challenge.  If the players fail the skill challenge and nothing comes of it, why did it happen?  Or, if they succeed and gain nothing, again, why did you do it?
  • Skills are the focus, but don’t exclude low skill classes.  Trying to have skills that every player has is good, rewarding interesting player ideas is better!  By asking ‘what do you do’ instead of ‘what do you roll’ you have players coming up with interesting ways of using their skills to help the situation.  I had a player once try to use Insight to glean how a battle had played out from the battlefield.  I told him this would be more of a Perception or Nature sort of thing.  You should never punish good player ideas in a skill challenge, but always reward them.  Never say no, instead suggest a more fitting skill.
  • Have a good mix of group rolls and secondary skills.  Secondary skills are skills the players can role to assist of gain bonuses on future rolls.  They are incredibly useful for giving players a feel like everyone is contributing, even if only one player has the skill to run the challenge.  Group rolls show in a very tangible way that all the characters are currently experiencing the same difficulty.
  • Don’t be afraid to have various ‘steps’.  I like to make skill challenges where halfway through, the challenge will change.  For example, they track a group of orcs to their village, and with those last few successes, they sneak into the orc camp.  It’s a great way of making the challenge really light up and look like something tangible is actually happening.
  • Show your players how many successes and failures they’ve rolled.  This creates awesome tension, especially when they don’t know how many of either will end the challenge.

So there you have it, follow these tips and you can make skill challenges go from bland to the most exciting and engaging part of the game.  And to further help you, here’s an example of one I used that my players loved.  This was after Black Claw reanimated before them.  The challenge was to blow the hall they were (because Black Claw was too strong for them to fight) and then escape before it exploded.

Skill Challenge: Blow the Place in Time 8/4  600xp

Stealth: Moderate dc

Endurance: hard dc, failures don’t count.  Damage after surges, 7 hp

Arcana: Moderate dc

Thievery: Hard dc

Secondary

Intimidate: +2 to Endurance

Perception: +2 to others

Failure at this point: They lose 2 healing surges, any reduced to below zero are knocked unconscious and must make 3 death saves.

After 5 successes

Athletics: Easy dc

Acrobatics: Easy dc

Failure at this point: They lose 2 healing surges, any reduced to below zero are unconscious and must make 2 death saves.

The Arcana and Thievery checks were to set off the bombs and the Endurance check was to buy time for those setting off the explosives.  Failure represented getting caught in the explosion and collapse.  The after 5 successes is when they primed the bombs.  They needed to escape at this point.  Feel free to adapt this challenge and use it in your own campaign.

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