Welcome to the kick-off of a new column that breaks down gaming into what’s really important, ten things at a time!
If you’re unfamiliar with me, I’m Logan Bonner, a game designer/writer/editor. I previously worked on Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast, and currently work on Dungeons & Dragons and various other games at my house. My work appears in products like Monster Vault, Arcane Power, and The Slaying Stone. I also created and released Refuge in Audacity, the over-the-top game of powergaming and blowing up planets.
For this first column, I decided to tackle a subject that’s had a ton of words spilled on it, but still gives plenty of DMs trouble: skill challenges. I’ve singled out ten quick steps you can take to make your skill challenges more than just a series of rolls.
1. Know when to use a challenge and when to not.
Most events in the game that call for skill checks don’t really need skill challenges. Use them only if completing the task will really feel like an accomplishment, and will take some clever thinking to finish. Skill challenges work best when you have multiple ways the characters can succeed. If everyone has to climb the cliff, that’s a pretty boring skill challenge. (Hell, it’s boring skill check.) If the characters are preparing a village’s defenses to stop an orc attack, now you have something. Each character can do something different to help. Above all, if you’re having trouble running skill challenges, or your players aren’t enjoying them, you can stop using them entirely.
2. Keep the complexity low.
It’s a common mistake to go with high-complexity challenges. They seem more interesting, right? In actuality, you’re better off going with shorter skill challenges in general to keep your players from getting bored. You can even break up a big, multi-stage skill challenge into smaller, separate pieces. If you find out your players are really enjoying the challenge when you’re running it, it’s easy to extend the scene.
3. Keep story at the forefront.
Skill challenges look pretty mechanics-heavy on the surface, but run best when the story takes over and puts a nice veneer over the nuts and bolts of the system. Decide, based on your preference and the play style of your group, whether or not to announce when the players are in a skill challenge. They might be more immersed if they haven’t been told they’re in a challenge. On the other hand, some powers trigger while in a skill challenge, and announcing the challenge lets players know that there’s something at stake and they’ll be spending some time on this task.
4. Set the scene.
When you build a skill challenge, have a few paths to success in mind and bake them into the challenge. (But don’t get too attached to them. See step 7.) When you start the challenge, describe details of the location, situation, or adversaries that will hint at paths to success. The vizier’s beautiful jewelry suggests that he might be open to bribery. The guard who keeps uttering oaths for the gods’ protection is probably superstitious. A description of a broken path through the mountains shows the PCs that they should expect to climb and walk long days and prepare to do so before they depart.
5. Put actions first, skills second.
Instead of coming up with skills PCs can use, then describing how they use them, think of it the other way around. What are the smaller goals within the challenge. One step to convincing the king to help might be distracting his vizier. Set that as a goal, and allow it to be achieved in multiple ways—with or without skill checks! A challenge should also make the characters feel like they’re being proactive rather than just reacting to what NPCs are doing. (That’s not to say they need to be the ones in control of the situation—fleeing from a mob can be an interesting challenge as the PCs come up with ways to delay or escape their pursuers.)
6. Ask questions.
You ask a player what her character wants to do in a chase scene, and she replies, “I roll Athletics, I guess.” To encourage the players to get more detailed, ask some pointed questions. “Do you climb up the cliff face to intercept the fleeing bandit? Do you leap from rock to rock to speed yourself along? Or something else?” Try prompting your players to describe scenes that make the action more interesting.
7. Improvise, and allow improvisation.
Your skill challenge is not perfect. Your list of primary and secondary skills is not sacrosanct. Players will come up with good ideas of how to use skills, so be ready to come up with new twists on the fly. Lean toward easier rather than harder. It’s tempting to say that new additions use hard DCs, but that’s really just penalizing players for thinking differently than you. It’s good policy to leave DCs low to encourage more improvisation.
8. End it if it needs to end.
Let the story dictate where the challenge ends. If the adventurers need 5 successes, but one of them does something that should just end the challenge, go where good sense tells you to, not where the rules do. Did the adventurers give the vizier a 500 gp bribe? Hey, skill challenge complete!
9. Failure’s not the end. Have a plan for failure.
This point appears in most writing about skill challenge, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. The game must go on when the skill challenge is done. Failing it might make moving on painful, but it shouldn’t drag your campaign to a halt. Think ahead and have some alternative routes the PCs can take if they fail. It helps if you foreshadow them before the adventure so the players see what they’ll go through if they don’t bring their A game.
10. Rules are made to be broken.
The skill challenge rules can be used for all sorts of things they weren’t intended for. Have a challenge give magic items, powers, or alternative rewards instead of XP. Create a monster that has to be hit by different power sources to destroy its magical armor, and set up the mechanics for that as a skill challenge. Have a challenge that goes from day one of the campaign and triggers successes whenever the characters bond with one another.