While my time with 4th Edition was short, I remember the early and the later days of the edition. I enjoyed the notion of rules to remove ambiguity, especially for players and DMs who played during an era where the players’ results were at the whims of their dungeon master. My first D&D campaign I played was under a harsh and cruel DM, the battles were insanely hard and the adventure led us to places that were unfathomable, but by the end of the campaign it was truly a rewarding experience. We earned the things we acquired or gain later on in the campaign. Though this harsh treatment can be a huge turn off for new players who are not sadists by nature, so to me (and this my opinion, I am not inciting an edition war here) 4th edition brought about this balance both in gameplay and the interactions between DM and player.
There was one aspect that I truly enjoyed from 4th edition but with my own modifications along with the inspiration of another, skills challenges became a true challenge for the players and really put me in my paces as a DM. I loved the final form of my own variation, I enjoyed it immensely. Here is what I loved about the idea of skills challenges, and I’ll try to break it down:
- Skill challenges provided another form of an encounter with structure
- Skill challenges, using the variant, allowed players and myself to be truly creative with our uses of skills
- Unlike traditional methods using skill checks or group skill checks, skill challenges can still advance the narrative without resulting in a standstill
- Used sparingly, it creates variety in play sessions from typical checks and combat encounters
Before we go into explaining the various points above, I think it would wise to share my variation of a skills challenge, which was originally inspired by the guys over at the Critical Hit podcast from the Major Spoilers network. I had fiddled with the notion myself prior to finding the podcast but the final tuning came from the introduction of the podcast’s variation and house rules, which has brought endless bouts of joy for me as I watched the players squirm in terror (I’m quite evil you see).
Skill Challenges Variant for 5E
- When setting the stakes for your skill challenges, consider the size of your party and then the number of successes to determine the difficulty of this encounter. I presently have used the method of 2(x) + 1, +2, or +3 depending on difficulty and stakes, with x being the number of players in this encounter. The principle idea is that firstly I wanted every player to have at least two opportunities during the skills challenge to succeed and be creative. The additional success increases the chance of failures but all to provide pathways to expand the narrative.
- Increasing the number of required successes is only one aspect to adjust the difficulty of a skills challenge, adjust the difficulty check (DC) will also influence the overall stakes. For example, a DC 15 for a party of four characters at level 4, means that the average proficient skill maybe around a +5 or +4 at best, meaning a roll of 10 or greater is typically necessary to succeed. In this regard, it may be considered an easy or medium difficulty encounter depending on successes needed. If the DC was set to an 18 with the same playgroup, the average roll required would need to be a 13 or higher, obviously making it harder to roll successes. The skills challenge would be similar to a medium or even hard encounter depending on success and failure ratios.
- Successes are nothing without failures, and even that number is flexible in my variant. Typically in 4th edition, most skill challenges were set with three failures to end the challenge. In a normal party of four players, that is acceptable. But flexibility allows for a wider breadth of both torment (for the players) and challenge. For example, let’s say a party of six characters at level 6 are in the midst of a skills challenge, the number of successes for a medium difficulty would be 13 successes using the formula above, the DM decides to make it somewhat challenging for the players and sets the overall DC for all skills to succeed to be 17. For level 6 characters, using their most proficient skills with a +6 modifier (assuming no stat increases were taken), meaning an average roll of 11 or higher is necessary to pass. If we were to use the basic 3 failures, the stakes, in this case, would be considered quite high. Perhaps it is high, but if we wanted to lessen the impact or prolong the stakes, increase the number of failures before ending the encounter is reasonable and gives the players more opportunities. If this skills challenge were with 4 failures, let’s say, then even with 3 failures punched in, if the players do succeed that is roughly 16 times the dice were rolled, that’s 16 ways the narrative was directed. A wonderful storytelling opportunity.
- Initiative is rolled for all players involved, obstacles are also given initiatives if applicable. An objective is given by the DM to the players, such as “navigate your ship through a storm” or “finding the murder suspect in town”.
- Players relay to the DM what sort of action they wish to perform, the player may suggest a skill to implement their roll but ultimately the DM defines the skill used for the roll. Dice are rolled, the results are tallied, and the DM and/or players push the narrative forward based on those results. This step can be strenuous for new DMs but it offers a greater opportunity for new and shy players to be creative. The best hint is to be as logical with the actions and the results when narrating the outcomes of a skill roll.
- Players can neither use the same skill consecutively nor sequentially. Meaning that a player cannot use a skill from the previous round and the same player cannot use a skill a previous player used before them. Example: If Brian used a Dexterity (Acrobatics) check and succeed, on Irene’s turn she cannot use Dexterity (Acrobatics) on her turn, and she previously used an Intelligence (Arcana) check and thus cannot use that skill either. An important aspect to consider if you use the variant from the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook on Skills with Different Abilities (which I use immensely) is that this repetitive ruling is targeted primarily at the skill name itself. In other words, a Strength (Intimidation) is considered the same as a Charisma (Intimidation) check.
- Some checks depending on context may incur Advantage or Disadvantage, be mindful when handing these out on a player’s roll.
Like I said above, using skills challenges sparingly will give a bit of variety to your game sessions, the reason it had such disfavor with many during the era of 4th edition had to do with the rigid structure of the game using encounters to qualify milestones for action points and level experience points. Again this is just something fun I enjoyed and luckily it has proven to be an excellent teaching tool for critical thinking for my players. To think of creative uses for their skills and even their narration of their actions have become quite imaginative. I hope this at least give some familiarity to those playing 4th edition and into 5th, and some added variety of complexity for new and veteran players testing the waters with 5E. If you have suggestions or opinions, I would love to hear them. Leave a comment or even contact me via Facebook or Twitter.
…so why is it not allowed to attempt the same skill as another player within the past round? I can sort of wrap my head around not repeating a skill attempt if you tried last round (there should be a reasonable break between attempts, I guess, sure), but how does my teammates attempt to scale the wall prevent me from doing the same?
The thing about a skills challenge is I always look at all results whether success or failure as “yes” or “yes, but” respectively. So if a teammate failed a skill check, the following player cannot repeat that skill because the narrative has moved past the wall at that point. Now say a player failed a skill check, another player further down the initiative order (or before depending the actual initiatives) has the ability to use the skill.
Here’s an example, Bob uses Acrobatics to traverse thru the wall, Bob missed the DC and thus is marked as a fail for the skills challenge. I, as DM, would narrate something like “you get to the wall and beginning climbing, but the walls seem to offer not a lot good places to get a firm grip, delaying your progress.” Amber is behind Bob on initiative and cannot use Acrobatics, Jim is after Amber and can elect to use Acrobatics if he so chooses. The point is that a failure doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t do the action, it just didn’t go as planned. In a skills challenge, you want to enable a player to do things,the failures signify snags and mishaps. I hope that makes some sense. If you have anymore please feel free to ask them.
It makes sense from a gamist view, but not a real view. In the gamist sense, you’re attempting to generate creative solutions by placing constraints on player actions. True success comes from overcoming adversity. In a real sense, however, so long as there’s space on the wall, and I’m a competent climber, I go around Bob. The example is illogical, defies reason and breaks immersion in the game. That’s not to say there won’t be situations where these rules should apply – Diplomacy as a skill is a good example – but I don’t see how it can be a general rule, applicable to all situations.
Or… and I just noticed this… are you saying that the condition of the wall was determined by the result of Bob’s skill check? Because that’s an interesting method but, again, breaks the verisimilitude of the game. Why should Bob’s training (or lack thereof) in a skill decide the conditions of an independent world?
Verisimilitude is relative, my players enjoy skill challenges the 2-3 time across an entire year. They never felt the immersion was lost.
A skills challenge is an exercise of narration using skills as a point of reference to infer a choice or action of a player character. The thing I’m sensing out our discussion thus far is that, and I’m stressing it here, communication between player and DM. Even if Bob isn’t proficient with scaling a wall, he says his character decides to do it, with or without the rest of the party. Success and failure is determined, we move on. The parameters are as limited as the imagination of the players and their DM. That is the real skill, for the DM to drive narrative and offer unique challenges to the players.
This isn’t for everyone or every system, you have to know your players well to get the best of a D&D experience. My veteran players who have played 4th and older editions of D&D and other role playing games comment often about the uniqueness of the skill challenges and the skills implemented to drive the narrative forward. So QED, it’s all about the DM’s skill set at the end of the day.
Unfortunately, I have to agree. It’s unfortunate because I prefer to avoid “your mileage may vary” arguments. They just sit wrong with me. But I agree because the underlying argument – that effective communication is more important – is the better position.
This is where I’m hung up, I think: the skill challenge may be an effective technique for one DM and her party, but not all DMs. Why? If it’s a good technique, shouldn’t it be something we can teach to other people? You say it’s not for everyone or every system: why not?
Effective communication is more important and it’s something that we’ve been learning and teaching for generations. Why can’t we apply it to our games?
I don’t force my players into Skill Challenges often because I came from the era of AD&D and 3.5 D&D, so trust me I’m all for players resolving their actions and defining their goals. But as a DM I have a responsibility to drive the narrative based on their goals, and throw curve balls every once and a while. I’m not saying Skill Challenges are the be all end all great thing, I honestly do not find them that great. But it serves an interesting tool or helping players think outside of the box every once and a while. Also the way a skill challenge is handled is really up to your DM, if you have a spiteful DM or a DM who is very rigid, a skills challenge is a battle of attrition. I’m sorry that you something you enjoyed out of the system was brought to its knees and ruined. I think out of the year I have played with my group, we only used skill challenges twice this entire year. I only use it to help drive home the narrative or add something to an objective the party have already decided upon. I don’t take it away from them, if they want to chase a crime syndicate through a city, I’ll let them. There just might be some curve balls here and there, whether it be combat or social interactions. I don’t need have to define rigid objectives for the party, the party define what they want to do, I just toss a few curveballs along the way to slow them down but never do I purposefully deny them what they want to do. They were fun in 4e, I just figured I would bring some nice memories with some twists. But I believe I emphasized somewhere in my article about using them sparingly. Too much of anything is bad. Just like too much combat with little character interactions with NPCs or even fellow player characters is downright boring. As much as a DM is often viewed as some tyrannical overlord, if my players do not like skill challenges I stop using them. But they have provided some interesting moments and challenges, but I try to let their own actions and thinking define those moments. A skill challenge is something I do once and a long while, just to change the pacing. But I still want to thank you for your input and your thoughts, criticism is important as I am not some “ultimate” authority on the matter. I’m just a guy who wants to share my thoughts and ideas, along soon to be our adventures that my group and I have had the past year of playing.