Skill Challenges for Combat Groups

by Mike Shea on 24 May 2010

Some groups love role playing. They love weaving detailed intricate stories among themselves. They love thinking how their character would think. They love sitting back, closing their eyes, and imagining what they would feel if they lived in the world being described to them.

Some players, however, just want to crack some skulls. You've probably seen some of these skull-crackers. You might have a table full of them at your own game. While you describe the details of the town in which you wander, they stare at you blankly. When you ask them questions of their plans or motivations, their mouth hangs agape. Whenever you start to read something that sounds like flavor text, they go to the kitchen for another bag of Cheetos.

When the battles begin, however, these players are ready. They have detailed plans of battle, strategies for the most effective use of their dailies, and combinations of powers so devastating as to make the largest dragon weep.

These sorts of players have a bane, however. A kryptonite. They often hate skill challenges. They see them as a waste of time, as filler for an otherwise gourmet meal. They see them like the young romance love scenes in the movie Transformers.

It can be hard to get these players to enjoy a skill challenge but today we're going to try. Lets look at a few ways you can slide skill challenges into your game, adding some fun and variety into an otherwise rigid episode of Walker, Texas Ranger (two fights before the second commercial break, please).

Keep it Behind the Screen

First, don't tell your group they're in a skill challenge when you begin to run one. Like a good battle, stay as detailed in your descriptions as possible. Give your players something to really understand and work with, not just an opportunity to throw their primary skill at something. The less they see the mechanics of a skill challenge, the more likely they are to miss that a skill challenge is even going on in the first place.

Remember, these skull-crackers are often strategists. They like to plan things out and optimize a situation. Feed off of that by giving them a chance to use their skills as part of their plans. Give them a chance to defend a fortress or set up an ambush for a large party of orcs. Use skill challenges as a way for them to further optimize the battles they so enjoy.

Give Them Something They Want

Combat-focused players are more likely to focus on a skill challenge when they know the stakes. Make it clear to them how they will find advantages in successfully navigating a skill challenge. Show them that these challenges are more than just filler or a way to steal their healing surges. Show them that, should they succeed, they will gain a great advantage otherwise missed if they simply kick in the door.

Run Challenges Within A Battle

My favorite challenges recently are those that take place during a battle. A combat-focused group is more likely to forgive a skill challenge that takes place during a battle. Perhaps your main villain has a protective shield that must be disabled. Perhaps performing a challenge will dramatically alter the battlefield such as tipping over the archers' towers. Small 3/3 challenges within a battle can really add to the excitement of the battle, make it unique from other battles they may have seen, and build out a story.

Dave the Game has talked about using skill challenges mid-battle as a way to keep combat short and insert an end to a battle that isn't simply full defeat. A couple of tips for in-combat skill challenges: keep them short and let players use minor actions to do them. Most combat-focused players aren't going to waste a standard on a skill challenge when they could be firing arrows or stabbing with swords. Minors, however, are more easily spent.

Keep Them Short

Above all, do no harm. Keep your skill challenges short, perhaps no more than a single roll per player for larger ones. If your players really don't like skill challenges, make sure they run fast. Edit them down and don't be afraid to end one early if you see your players beginning to get bored. Nothing says you can't turn a 12/3 into a 9/3 if the table is beginning to cool.

Skill challenges are a tricky beast. Unlike combat in 4th Edition, skill challenges leave an awful lot up to the DM. How good or bad one is depends greatly on how well the DM runs it. Spend some time on it and know how well your players like them. If they don't, keep them brief and focused.

Above all, never forget the rule of fun. Keep it fun and you can do no wrong.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide. Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.