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Skill Challenge Follow-Up: Example Challenge

Written by loganbonner - Published on July 29, 2011

In the previous installment of this column, I covered some tips for making good skill challenges. This time around, I’ll give you an example of a weak skill challenge that can be made better using these ten pieces of advice. I might do this on occasion when a topic could use further discussion.

Initial Skill Challenge: The PCs reach a canyon they need to cross. It’s complexity 2, requiring 6 successes before 3 failures. They can use Athletics, Nature, and Dungeoneering as primary skills.

1. Know when to use a challenge and when to not.

This is a good candidate for not being a skill challenge at all. It could just be a single group skill check. (Check out Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for some simpler alternatives to using skill challenges.) In this case, though, we’ll alter the situation so it’s more fertile ground to build a challenge upon. Let’s say instead they find the Gorge of Sorrows, the site of an ancient battle between dwarves and orcs. It’s been long abandoned, but some signs of life are returning. We’ll add some different ways to cross: an old rope bridge that can be carefully crossed, rapids to raft through in the valley below, and a roc living nearby that can carry across adventurers if bribed.

2. Keep the complexity low.

Even with those options, let’s call this a complexity 1 challenge. Unless we’re going to also include some other type of variety (like some social interaction), we should keep complexity really low so the players don’t get bored. Better to leave them wanting a bit more than to have the challenge overstay its welcome.

3. Keep story at the forefront.

When running this challenge, it’s probably not necessary to tell your players it’s a challenge in advance. Present it as a problem to solve, and let them come up with ways to get past. You can just keep track of the successes behind the screen.

4. Set the scene.

Add little details to make the location come alive. You can put in some descendents of the dwarves moving back into the area, describe the creaking, collapsing bridge, and place broken arrows from the ancient battle (and maybe some hidden magic items, even).

5. Put actions first, skills second.

We’ve figured out a few ways to cross, but there’s no need to really define which skills to use now. It’s likely the adventurers will use Acrobatics to cross the rope bridge, but they might also use the Make Whole ritual to gain an automatic success. Negotiating with the roc might just be Diplomacy, but a ranger could hunt a rare beast using Nature and give it to the bird as a meal.

6. Ask questions.

Have some questions in mind related to the different parts of the challenge. If a player just wants to “cross the bridge,” ask loaded questions. “Do you carefully walk across? Tie a rope to yourself for stability?” Try to get out a little better description.

7. Improvise, and allow improvisation.

The adventurers might come up with a way to cross that doesn’t use any of the things you set up, and that’s okay! Let’s say a player decides that, since dwarves used to live here, there might be some underground tunnels that connect to the other side. Go ahead and add them, and put Dungeoneering as a possibility for the challenge.

8. End it if it needs to end.

In this example, you might hit a situation where some good checks get all the adventurers across with fewer than four checks. Maybe most of them ride across on the roc and another has a way to teleport over. They’ve met the goal of the challenge, so you can call it there.

9. Failure’s not the end. Have a plan for failure.

The characters have been failing every roll, and not even one has made it across. Fortunately, you planned for this. A group of dwarves coming to resettle the area arrive. They have boats that can take the adventurers across, but now the party owes them a favor or payment.

10. Rules are made to be broken.

This challenge is pretty straightforward on its own. What’s a way this could branch out? (To be clear, it doesn’t need to, this is just to illustrate an example.) Maybe this valley is one in a series of tests. Some great power is keeping track of the adventurers, following them across different obstacles as a sort of adventure decathlon. This skill challenge keeps going over the course of multiple adventures, and the party’s level of success determines whether they’re deemed worthy.

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Written by loganbonner

Logan is a freelance game designer, writer, and editor. He worked on numerous projects at Wizards of the Coast, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

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4 Responses to “Skill Challenge Follow-Up: Example Challenge”
  1. DM_Caddoko says:

    This was awesome, every time I read a post on this site it gets me wanting to go build a campaign, thank you for this!

  2. Darren says:

    I’m sorry, I know little about skill challenges, but for this sort of problem it sounds stupid to use them.

    A canyon to cross? Don’t limit the players with a set of skills they need to use to get across. Let THEM work out how, and then tell them yea or nay, and let them try!

    Even, give them a couple of “easy” ways out, such as the said rope bridge (but have it broken, or ropey (no pun intended)) and the roc, but don’t tell yourself “if the roc is bribed it will let them across.” Tell yourself that the PLAYERS are the ones to decide what to do.

    As DM you don’t WRITE the story, you are simply the editor for the players’ story. You’re there to correct typographical errors or logic problems and help them along, not to decide how it should be. That’s their job.

  3. DoveArrow says:

    Personally, I don’t see how the skill challenge you’ve put together would play out in game. If I were to create such a challenge, I would probably do it this way.

    1. Know when to use a challenge and when to not.
    You are absolutely right that figuring out how to cross a gorge really is not a good candidate for a skill challenge. Even the examples you give of bribing a roc, or crossing a rickety bridge are scenarios that can and should be resolved with a single skill check. Instead, have the players travel through the gorge, rather than across it. Here you have a lot of opportunities for different types of group checks. For example, the players might need to make Athletics checks to swim across the river, Acrobatics checks to ford the river where its extremely rocky and slippery, or Insight checks to know which branch of the river they should take, etc.

    2. Keep the complexity low.
    I agree that the complexity of the challenge should remain low. Giving the players an opportunity to navigate their way through the gorge using various skills is fun, but after a while, I can imagine it would get pretty boring.

    3. Keep story at the forefront.
    The Gorge of Sorrows was the sight of a battle between dwarves and orcs. Keeping that in mind, try seeding your skill challenge with encounters that involve this plot line. Perhaps the players can use Nature checks to identify the signs of a nearby orc encampment, granting them a +2 bonus to later Stealth check to sneak past them. If they fail this second check, they alert the orcs and must fight them.

    4. Set the scene.
    Using skill challenges in this manner automatically sets the scene. The players can see how deep or rocky the river is, where it forks, and how fast it moves. That said, perhaps when they come across the orc encampment, the signs they find might include broken bones, spear points, or other artifacts found in the river.

    5. Put actions first, skills second.
    When the players come to a particularly deep part of the river, don’t tell them that they need to make Athletics checks to swim across. Let them tell you what they want to do, and then tell them what skills they need to accomplish it.

    6. Ask questions.
    If the players are swimming across the river, you might ask them what they’re doing to help less capable swimmers. If they come across an orc encampment, you might ask them what they do to sneak past.

    7. Improvise, and allow improvisation.
    Don’t worry if the players don’t use the skill you expected them to use. If they decide that they want to construct a makeshift raft to get across a particularly deep part of the river, go with it. Tell them they need to make a Nature check. If they succeed, they find the driftwood they need to construct the raft.

    8. Failure’s not the end. Have a plan for failure.
    If the players fail the skill challenge, they must spend the night in the gorge and try again the next day to get out. Note: I realize that this was technically 9 and not 8, I think it should come first.

    9. End it if it needs to end.
    If the players can’t seem to make it out of the canyon, no matter how hard they try, and they’re just not having fun anymore, end it. Tell the players they make it out of the canyon alive, but weakened.

    10. Rules are made to be broken.
    In general, if a player fails a group skill check, they just fail it. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Lidda fails her Athletics check to cross the river. However, Krusk reaches out and grabs her with an Athletics check, catching her before she drifts too far down stream. Technically, this sort of action isn’t covered by the rules. However, it makes sense that Krusk should be able to grab Lidda and keep her from drifting away. In such an instance, allow Krusk to replace Lidda’s failed check with his own.


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