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.