Four Skill Challenge Tips

by Mike Shea on 6 July 2009

Skill challenges are mysterious business. While D&D 4th edition gives us the most refined combat system in over thirty years, the skill challenge system clearly has room for improvement. Unlike the combat system, skill challenges leave many dungeon master's scratching their heads.

Numerous articles, posts, and podcasts have discussed skill challenges in detail. Today, we will look at four quick tips for making your skill challenges better at your table. Many of these tips were discussed between Jeff Greiner and myself on The Tome Show episode 105.

And now, the tips:

Keep Skill Challenges Short

Like most creative works, skill challenges often work best when they're short and to the point. In a recent D&D Podcast, lead designer Mike Mearls said that multiple tiers of 3/3 challenges work better than one large 12/3 challenge. Keeping the number of steps short and stacking a few challenges together moves the story along better than a single large challenge.

Keeping the plot of the challenge simple and direct will also help your players understand their own goals.

Keep Challenges Specific

The more specific and direct your challenge is, the better your players will understand it. Instead of having one large skill challenge for traveling across a barren wasteland, break it up into some specific challenges like crossing a deep gorge, avoiding a cloud of man-eating flies, and tracking the Man in Black. In the description of your challenge, explain the important parts in detail. Make it clear what your players are able to do with this challenge. Are there knobs and levers or arcane sigils? Give your players clues for what they might be able to do.

Make Rewards and Penalties Known

Skill challenges can quickly become boring if players don't know what they are going to gain. If they know that failing a trap will make a fine treasure inaccessible, they will work harder to do it right. After describing the challenge, describe what the party might lose or gain should they succeed or fail. Give them a reason to accomplish the challenge.

One note - leading into combat on a failed challenge is a poor penalty. In many cases, your players would like more combat, not less, and it will further reduce the time you spend on the encounters you planned.

Reinforce Storytelling

First off, don't tell your group it's a skill challenge. The best challenges are undetectable by your players as a skill challenge, they are just an interactive part of the story. Embedding them into roleplay scenes or combat can hide the mechanics and give players a richer and more interactive world. Second, describe what players are able to do in story, not in mechanics. Don't tell them a strength check can open the door. Tell them a good swift kick or bash might break it down. Have your players do the same. Don't let them get away with saying "I roll a 22 strength check". Correct them by saying "what exactly did you do?". They'll get the point.

No doubt in months to come we will see further improvements and refinements to this new system. In the mean time, however, these quick tips might help bring the mechanics of skill challenges into a living part of your campaign.

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