Skill challenges revisited – Part 2

Last time I talked a little about how I design skill challenges for 4E, and this time I’d like to go through some things I do when running them. As a short summary from the last post I’d always consider what failure brings, and what a partial victory would bring. This partial victory is a step below a fully overcoming the challenge. Lastly I’d have 2-3 ideal skills that would grant a bonus or an easier DC to checks, but not have a hard list of skills required for the challenge.

Use markers for success and failure – I have a stack of black and white baduk (Go) game pieces handy. During a challenge while I describe the results of the PC’s actions, I also hand out either a white (success) or black (failure) bead. It’s a small hint to the players they are on the right track for completing a challenge, and they can quickly determine the relative amount of successes and failures they have.

This is also a decent way to keep track of a longer skill challenge. If you have a challenge that is interspersed with encounters and other events, it’s a nice means to record their progress. You can always keep this information hidden and simply give them some feedback for the task. However having this simple prop relays how poorly or how close they are to succeeding.

Don’t give out the hard numbers – Like in a combat with offering HP totals and AC values, I don’t tell players they need X amount of successes before Y number of failures. I also don’t give the players target DC values. I will offer players some description how difficult a potential action might be, especially for high DC checks (ex. ‘You could possibly make a running jump across the bridge, but it will be exceedingly difficult’).

If you approach challenges with hard numbers and set DC values relayed to the players they’ll pick up on this. Keeping things to a narrative curbs the metagaming. I don’t mind offering a tally of failures and successes, but the unknown variables of how to tackle the challenge should avoid set values given to the players. This way the group has to make that choice of going all in or deciding to cut their losses if things go sour.

Everyone participates – The PCs can’t sit idly by and let one player do all the heavy lifting. They all have to try and contribute to tackling the problem, even just by using the assist another action. Most challenges I run go through rounds. At the end of each round players either win (including a partial victory) or they fail. Note that time can stretch out for hours to days if needed between each ‘round’ but the important thing is (like a combat) that everyone has an opportunity to do something.

Say, then do – I get all the players to first tell me what they are doing, or trying to do, in the challenge. Once I get it all in my head I figure out applicable skills and checks needed. Then everyone rolls. I determine successes and failures, line up the action for the next round and repeat the process. Get your players to narrate what they want to do first. Frequently you’ll have one player initiate the action with other PCs sort of metagaming to see the outcome, and then adjust their plans. I like everyone talking about what they want to do first, and then see if things work out.

Be flexible – If a player thinks of a really clever way to use Athletics during a negotiation challenge, I’ll let them do it at least once. Be accommodating to cool ideas. You want to encourage players to think of creative solutions to the challenge and pigeonholing them to specific skills won’t help. As mentioned though, I usually will let them make a check with an oddly applied skill once, then rein in any repeats (or bump up the DC to a horrendous amount). Still if your PCs pull out a fantastic idea for using a skill in a way you haven’t thought of, at least allow them to try for a check.

Don’t be a slave to the challenge structure – Ideally there should be a certain number of successes or failures before the challenge resolves. If things progress to a closure earlier, don’t force more checks to be made. There may come a point where your players make some sound arguments to influence some NPC. If they nailed it, don’t drag out the challenge, just award them a victory and move on (partial victories work wonders in this case).

Sometimes you might have PCs do something amazing (or pull a bone-head move). If so, consider awarding more successes or failures to them for that check. Alternately you can think about giving the player a huge bonus (or a penalty if needed) for the next check. As mentioned in the previous post, consider skill challenge rules as guidelines. It’s applicable to both designing and running them.

I hope these tips help DMs run skill challenges. While clunky at times, with enough under your belt you get a feel for how flexible they can be. All the while skill challenges provide a framework for resolving and rewarding great roleplaying. Don’t be intimidated with them and try to use them in your game.


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