Sep 012010

Skill Challenges are probably one of my favorite parts of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons.  I love the framework it provides to an ongoing situation or story.  I love that skills are actually really useful in a tangible and noticeable way.  I use them quite frequently in my games and they’re a fantastic tool.  Unfortunately they’re also quite hard to run in a fun and dynamic way.  It’s taken me a good deal of time and effort, but I finally think I’ve hit upon the core problem of skill challenges and a rather easy to implement solution.

The core problem with a skill challenge is that it’s dead easy to fall into a very static “roll and repeat” cycle.  The DM names a skill and difficulty, the player with the best bonus rolls, and you repeat the process all over again.  It’s easy to understand why this happens, too – that’s how the rules are more or less represented.  The Dungeon Master’s Guide does go into some good detail on framing the scene, but precious little is said about actually moving the story forward – and that’s what you have to do when running a skill challenge.

In my mind you should only make a roll during a “breaking point” in each scene of the skill challenge.  This is the point where the PCs have to act or react, for good or ill.  Furthermore, this action should move the story and change the situation regardless of success or failure.  The fastest way to fall into a static skill challenge is by not changing the situation after every roll.  If Bob the Bard fails his Diplomacy roll when speaking with the Duke that’s going to have as many consequences as a successful check.  Either the Duke leans in and whispers about the assassination plot or he calls for his guards to oust the PCs – either way something happens and the story moves forward.

By changing the situation, even slightly, after every roll you bring in new skills and change how the players see the situation.  The situation should never stay static once you roll.  Something has to happen, for good or ill, and new skills should come into play.  Which is easy to talk about here but hard to actually put into practice.  The simple fact is that running skill challenges like this requires a good deal of improvisation and thinking on your feet.  It’s not something that everyone is good at and I think it’s the main reason that the skill challenges are presented as they are now.

Furthermore, I don’t like listing what skills are used in the challenge.  Instead I frame the situation and ask my players “how do you resolve this issue?”  Players are a crafty bunch and often times they’ll come up with a unique solution that you hadn’t thought about using.  Try to roll with it, assign a difficulty as best you can, and keep the action moving.  This invests the players further into the story and lets everyone try and use their favored skills, ensuring that the action moves along at a brisk pace.  If your players get stymied or stuck you can suggest a few actions, but by and large try and let the players think of solutions themselves.  You’ll be surprised at how creative they can get when given the opportunity.

All of this is great on paper, but I know some of you are going “how in the hell do I plan for all these options?”  The short answer is that you don’t: there’s no way to know everything your players are going to do.  Instead I’ve found it’s much more useful to sketch out the situation and area and the possible reactions of all the characters involved.  I don’t need to know that Fytor is going to try and leap across the chasm and try to beat up my lizard shaman – all I need to know is that the shaman has henchmen and a few traps littered around.  Fytor goes from rolling Athletics to bridge the gap to rolling Acrobatics to evade all those nasty traps.

Even if you want something more structured you still need to move things along briskly.  Try to map out where each successful and unsuccessful check will take the PCs.  You don’t need a ream of notes, but knowing which skills the PCs will be rolling after every success and failure is rather helpful.  Even a simple outline of the flow of events can be hugely helpful when it comes time to roll the dice.

In short, remember the following:

  • Each skill check should change the situation and the skills available (even – or especially – on a failure).
  • Try to let the PCs name what skills they want to use, if at all possible.
  • If you know the situation and players involved you can wing everything else.
  • Either say yes or roll the dice.

Here’s wishing you luck on your next skill challenge!  They don’t have to be boring and they can add a lot to your game if you’re willing to just wing things a little.