Skill Challenges, as far as I’m aware, first made their appearance in D&D 4e. The idea was to present a challenge to the players that had to be defeated or overcome through use of Skill or Ability Checks checks – almost like a combat encounter, but with less stabbing. So, for example – navigating through a treacherous swamp might find one PC using a Survival skill and another Acrobatics and a third History. Each player got to choose which Skill they used and as long as they could (reasonably) justify how it made sense the DM would allow it. A Player couldn’t use the same skill as the person before them (so you couldn’t have everyone just do Navigation/Survival checks) which was supposed to promote creativity but often led to some weird twists of logic, like using History to navigate a swamp. Each Skill challenge was given a rating which translated into needing X number of successes before Y number of failures with each individual check being a mark to one side or the other.
When I was reading about Skill Challenges I thought it was a great idea, however, no matter how I tried I was never able to execute a skill challenge in a satisfying way. While that very well may be my failings as a DM, I latched onto the idea of skill challenges but not the execution. With D&D 5e I’ve used a modified version of Skill Challenges that, for me at least, has worked much better.
Here is how I’ve modified skill challenges for D&D 5e.
First, I decide what the Challenge is going to be. The options here are almost limitless. Environmental Challenges work well; navigating a swamp, surviving a powerful (magical) thunderstorm, traversing a barren desert. It could be tackling a huge enemy like a 3 story walking engine of destruction. An enemy that you want the PCs to fight but for which normal Combat wouldn’t really work. As a general guideline if you think the scene would play out well in a montage of each PC getting one or two short scenes with how they are contributing – that’s probably a good candidate for a Skill Challenge. For my example we’re going to use an avalanche of tumbling rocks/boulders.
Now I need to decide on how difficult I want the challenge to be. A good starting point is 4 points of challenge per PC for each round I expect the challenge to last, give or take (this is not an exact science and I’m not smart enough to do the math, but ball park figures 4 per PC per round using works out for me).
In our example we have four PCs so our challenge rating is going to be 16 (Four PCs x 4 = 16).
Next, decide what the consequence for failure will be. Round by round and overall. Only in extreme cases should total failure mean death to the PCs. A Skill Challenge shouldn’t be a campaign ender, but you can have consequences like losing Hit Points or Hit Dice or maybe it slows them down enough so that they can’t stop something from happening. The consequence should make narrative sense. There can also be round by round consequences. For our example I’m going to say that for each round the challenge is still active, each PC will take 2d6 damage and the difficulty of the Skill Checks needed to overcome goes up by 1 (so if I would normally call for a skill check and set the DC at 15, in round two it would be 16 and in round three it would be 17) – keep in mind I’m expecting this to only last one round. Maybe two.
Now you’re ready to present the challenge. In the game you don’t necessarily say ‘you’re in a Skill Challenge,’ you would just narrate what’s going on.
Example: “As the four of you are making your way up the steep slope of Mount Tumbly Rocks, you feel a sharp jolt in the ground and hear a thunderous crash as a wave of rocks, some as small as pebbles some as large as horses tumble down toward you. What do you do? Uthgar, you’re first”
Now that the challenge has started the first player will decide on what they want to do. Maybe Uhtgar wants to try and plant his great club in the ground in front like the blade of a plow and cause the tumbling rocks to ricochet off to either side, leaving him untouched in the space behind it. (Uthgar is strong, not smart). As the DM I’d call that an Athletics check and set the difficultly for that skill check (let’s be generous and say 15). Uthgar’s player rolls and gets a total of 18. First off, he passed so great job and no negative effects and in addition to passing he got 3 points higher than the DC. Those 3 ‘extra’ points are used to lower our initial challenge rating of 16 to 13 ( 16 minus 3= 13).
Next up is Calishia the wizard. She decides to use the Thunderwave spell to blast the rocks out of her path. While this is a normally an attack spell, here I’d say it’s an Arcana check that uses the spell slot [big caveat – I love this type of problem solving, but if you don’t that’s fine – assume Calishia is doing something else like an acrobatics check to dodge or some such]. You set the DC for this at 13 and they roll and get a 21 (great roll). That’s a success and 8 points higher than the DC. We then use those 8 points and reduce the challenge rating to 5 (16 – 3 = 13 and 13-8 = 5).
Next up is Jatelyn the Rogue. Jatelyn decides to try and jump back and forth on top of some of the larger stones and get above the avalanche. The DM calls this an Acrobatics check and sets the DC at 16. Jatelyn’s player rolls and gets a 7 – failed! A failed roll doesn’t affect the challenge rating (so it doesn’t go back up by the difference) but Jatelyn has a consequence, in this case you could say they take damage as they fail to land properly and are struck by a tumbling boulder or maybe you have them swept down the mountain some and now they have disadvantage on the next check (or any consequence you think appropriate).
Lastly we have Solle the Cleric. She sees Jatelyn getting swept down and decides to use her rope skills and effectively lasso him while at the same time anchoring herself to a nearby tree. Sounds awesome, but difficult so we set the Dexterity check at 18. Solle rolls and gets a 19 total. Jatelyn is lassoed and Solle is safe behind a tree and has reduced the Challenge Rating to 4 ( 16-3 = 13, 13-8 =5, 5-1 = 4)
That’s the end of the round. If you’ve decided on a round consequence you’d apply it now. Maybe everyone gets hit by a few smaller stones and takes damage or the wave of crashing stones gets more intense so next round all the checks are harder – any can work, just make it make sense to the narrative.
I had planned on this challenge taking one possibly two rounds and unless they players get some truly tragic rolls they should be able to get the remaining 4 points this round (I’d probably have everyone go again even if technically the Challenge is over before that, a failure could still make things interesting and this way everyone gets equal spotlight time).
Now they have time to do a quick rest and continue on, looking to see who or what caused the avalanche in the first place.
I’ve used Skill Challenges like this several times and have really enjoyed how they play at the table. I hope that someone reading this may try something similar in your game, and if so please let me know how it works out for you, good or bad.
I hope this has been helpful and remember, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!”
E-mail us at Podcast@TheRpgAcademy
Follow us on twitter @TheRpgAcademy
Visit our Facebook Page
Join our new Google+ Community page: The Rpg Academy
Become a backer: Patreon.com/TheRpgAcademy and get episodes early and other great rewards