3 Things to Not Do with a Skill Challenge

My brother came to me yesterday concerned that he’d totally screwed up a skill challenge. He’d been in a hurry, and had pulled down some WOTC content to run as is. He didn’t comment on the rest of it, but the Skill Challenge had really bugged him because it just didn’t work. We talked a little in general terms, but then he mailed me a copy of the challenge in question.

It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a dog. I’m not going to drill into the details because I don’t want to bust on someone else’s work, but I’m going to extract a couple general guidelines of things NOT to do.

1. Treat Complexity as Complexity
This is an easy mistake to make. After all, it’s called complexity, right? But the problem is it’s not. It’s just a measure of how often your players are going to need to roll the dice, which means what it should really be considered is a measure of how interesting a skill challenge is going to be. A skill challenge that uses few skills and is basically just doing the same task over and over again should be a low complexity challenge, especially if it’s really just a transition between other scenes where you have the group go “Gosh, I’m glad we have a ranger/rogue/druid/whatever”.[1]

2. Make Heavy Use of Aid Another
While the Aid Another action (make a roll against a target of 10 to give an ally a +2) is technically a combat action, it is so commonly applied to skill checks that I’d be shocked if it has not gotten the official nod somewhere by now. This is a good fallback for making sure everyone can participate in a Skill challenge: even if you don’t have the appropriate skill, you can usually Aid Another. The problem is that Aid another is duck tape[2] not mortar.

If most of the players at the table are performing Aid Another actions, that is pretty much a hallmark of a very boring skill challenge. Not only is Aid Another very much like doing nothing, once the characters are past level 5 or so, that DC of 10 starts getting trivial on stats and level bonus alone. But worse than that, every Aid Another roll is needlessly extending the challenge because it’s not going to get counted as a success or a failure. If you have, for example, a complexity 3 challenge with only one character with the appropriate skill and everyone else forced to Aid Another, your best case scenario is that you’ll have to have 8 rounds of rolling to succeed. How exciting does that sound?

It’s also worth noting that Aid Another can wreak holy havoc with the difficulties of your challenge, especially once the AA actions are pretty much a guaranteed success. It is entirely possible to get bonuses so high that rolling is pointless, and in doing so you’ve managed to make a boring event even more boring.

3. Make Outcomes Universal
Ok, this one I’m a little more sympathetic to. The idea is simple: have triggered events that will occour at various points within the skill challenge, such as attacks or scenes with NPCs. That’s pretty cool in the abstract, but it can get pretty lame when these event have no bearing on the skill challenge. That is to say, if the players are going to get attacked by a band of orcs after 2 failures or four successes, then that is intensely lame if that’s all there is to it. If the event is going to be threaded into the skill challenge, then the events of the skill challenge should color the events. I’m a fan of having different outcomes on success or failure, but if you must have the same events (like the Orc Attack) then at the very least frame them differently based on whether they were triggered by a threshold of successes or failures. [3]

Bottom line, not only does this make the skill challenges more dynamic, it is more respectful of your players, and it feels less like they’re just getting railroaded.

There are other points I could dwell on, like “Pay attention to your difficulty numbers” or “If you include one-off outcomes, be clear about how they could happen” but I would eventually run myself out of steam, so let’s just leave it at a nice, tidy 3. Hopefully those will help next time you’re going to use a skill challenge, or create your own.

1 – In a lot of these situations, I’m more inclined to just run what I call a “Table Check”. Everyone at the table rolls once, total impact is shaped by the proportion of outcomes. It can be simple majority, or it can be that some number of successes (as low as one) are needed. This can be a much faster way to handle transitory skill challenges in a way that lets the experts strut their stuff without needing to pretend that every endurance roll on your journey across the steppes is actually a thrilling event.

2 – Random aside: I ended up discovering in the deep cable that it really is duck tape, but the misuse (duct tape) is so prevalent as to have supplanted it. If you doubt this, I suggest trying to use it on your ducts sometime.

3 – My favorite trick is “Winner gets to place his minis last”.

13 thoughts on “3 Things to Not Do with a Skill Challenge

  1. ChattyDM

    Skill challenges are one of the things that are the easiest to design badly and yet get published in 4e IMHO. As you say, they may look okay on paper but play boringly.

    They aren’t the end all of skill-based non-combat encounter, just a badly explained and yet to be mastered template for structured skill-based resolution of complex tasks.

    I’ve used them successfully (usually unscripted) to simulate mapless fights. I’ve also embed them in combat encounters as either PC goals monsters try to interrupt or as an alternative win condition (see my KQ article on that, all based on play examples)

    Great post.. gets to the heart of the ‘don’ts’ of SC.

  2. alan-de-smet

    In this official podcast, they discuss ways to minimize player use of Aid Another in a skill challenge, which implies that they accept it as legal.

    Ultimately, skill challenges are inherently broken as published, even after the errata. It unfortunately, because it’s a great idea, and can really shine if you’re willing to essentially write your own system. (I think your own custom skill challenges to simulate a siege and changing a city are both excellent examples that blow away anything I’ve seen from WotC.)

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @chatty They really are a great tool, but there’s so little real guidance out there that it seems they’re too easy to misuse.

    @alan Thank you. The irony is that those actually were written for WOTC, but were part of the swath of Skill challenge material that didn’t make it into the DMG2. Thankfully, they were kind enough to let me post them because I admit I was pretty proud of the work.

  4. Seth Clayton

    I’m on the fence about skill challenges. While I’ve used them and my players seem to enjoy them, I’m not sure that they really provide a great way of resolving non-combat challenges.
    I’ve struggled with both the ‘keystone’ skill challenge, where if they don’t get it, the adventure comes to a halt, and the lose/lose situation (or win/win as the case may be). I do think that the win/win does have some merit (I ran one where the PCs negotiated their own reward, with failure resulting in only a small reward and success meaning a bigger reward), but I think that it’s a special circumstance.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    @Seth I will always endorse “Win/Win”, or more specifically “Win/Win with complications”. A skill challenge that stops the game upon failure is a *bad* skill challenge, at least in my mind. I’ll accept some leeway with “Win” – if you can lose and still move things forward, then ok, fine, but that’s very situational.

    Some folks find that overly touchy-feely, or too easy, but I think that comes form a poor understanding of exactly how nasty “With complications” can be. As an example, a skill challenge to track a killer might _seem_ to be about whether or not the players find a clue, but it’s _really_ about “Do the players find the clue before or after a well-liked NPC is murdered?”

    Win/Win is not a way to pull your punches. It’s a way to make your punches matter *more*, by tying them to situation, and by making players feel they could have done something about it.

    -Rob D.

  6. Noumenon

    My most recent skill challenge went like this. Ogre Savage has speed 8 and is getting away with the museum exhibit. Rogue rolls Acrobatics to leap onto a horse outside the museum and give chase. Fighter rolls Endurance to try to doggedly run him down (he’s wounded, after all). Paladin tries Intimidate to make him feel like they’re hot on his tail and about to catch him. Wizard tries Nature to see if there’s a flock of birds scattering or something. There were three made checks and three failed, so I’m forgetting some approaches.

    So as a “table check,” I could either have set a high DC and the one person who makes it is the one whose approach succeeds, or I could set a lower DC and say if three of the four succeed, they track him down. I kind of like it because I’m not comfortable rolling the same skill over and over again — I never go higher than complexity 2, and my party has never figured out the concept of Aid Another.

    On failure I was going to make them investigate, I had a tip from a bard and a hermit ready to give clues, but they interrogated a kobold and I gave in because I was concerned about the pacing. Seems to me that interrogating him should have been part of the skill challenge, though.

    What I should’ve done is make them take along the bard I’d set up as an annoying rival, rubbing it in that he knew where to go and they didn’t.

    Anyway, four skill checks isn’t quite enough for some skill challenges. Maybe I’ll do a table check and the ones who succeed on the first check, get a narrative description of their approach working, and then they get a chance to succeed on a second check. Then they can change their approach or go with the same one. In this case the complexity could be expressed as the number of rounds you have to make it through. A character could spend an action point to roll again in the round after they’ve been eliminated — this is where someone could have jumped in to interrogate the kobold.

    “Aid Another” could be expressed as giving up your chance to go to the next round in order to give a bonus to someone else’s check. I should take this idea to Enworld and let them pick it apart!

  7. Noumenon

    Oh, I had a question about your other footnote (great post by the way, when even the footnotes have great original tips).

    I like the idea of letting mini placement be a reward, because placing everybody in a lump at the start of the room like they do in the Gen Con Dungeon Delves is very gamish. But how do you do it, exactly? Do you say “Anywhere within two squares of the door?” What if they place themselves somewhere where they would’ve had to walk over a pit trap or right by a monster to get there?


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