by Mike Shea on 28 February 2011
In D&D 4th edition there are few areas less clear than how to run great skill challenges. Some groups love them, some hate them. Some DM's have no problem with them, some feel like they're steering a burning boat into an iceberg.
The Dungeon Master's Guide 1 and 2 and the Dungeon Master's Kit all include rules for handling skill challenges along with examples. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a hypocrisy built into skill challenges. Consider the following two common skill challenge perceptions:
You should plan out the specific things your group can do to succeed in a skill challenge.
Players should describe to you what they plan to do when they are making a skill check.
Wait a minute. How can you both plan out the specific actions required to navigate through a skill challenge but also assume players will choose the actions you laid out?
Instead, let's propose a new way of building and planning skill challenges: don't bother.
Instead, keep skill challenges down to the bare minimum. Instead of tracking successes or failures, simply let the skill challenge grow and expand as the story moves forward based on the actions of your players. When you plan on a challenge like this, only outline the following attributes:
What is the overall goal of the challenge?
Begin by clarifying the goal of your challenge. This might be sneaking through a keep full of hostile enemies or negotiating with a corrupt official or steering a boat down a river of rapids. Keep the skill challenge relatively small in scope. A series of small challenges is better than a great big overarching one.
What happens if the PCs succeed?
This one is usually easy. What happens when the PCs successfully navigate the challenge? Most of the time you have this success in mind when you first develop the challenge. The hard part comes with the next question.
What happens if the PCs fail?
This question is a lot harder to answer. You can't have failure end the game. You have to assume they will fail. If you can think of a way to make failure interesting, it will work a lot better in your game. In general, avoid having failure lead to combat. Extra combat is simply a time sink in your game. Considering 4e D&D battles already take an hour, adding an extra hour just because they rolled poorly is more punishment than its worth. Likewise, simply draining healing surges or applying damage is also not very creative. Instead, try to change the course of the story against the PC's goals but without either stopping them completely or simply adding time onto their quest.
What about the list of skills usable for this challenge? What about well-defined DCs for specific actions? Turns out you don't really need all of that. The most interesting things done in skill challenges usually break outside the mold you would normally have in mind anyway. Instead, leave it relatively open and let your players decide what they will do and how they will do it. Remember to keep an open mind about it. Let them be creative.
Think about the situation, not the mechanics
A good skill challenge comes from the details you put into it. Think about the specific situation. Think about the motivations and backgrounds of the NPCs with which your PCs will interact. The more detail you put into it, the better it will be. Don't worry about the mechanics of the challenge. You can always figure out what skill one should use after they've come up with an idea. Instead, build out all the details you need to clarify the situation in the heads of your players.
A few small tips
With that in mind, we will end with a few specific tips for running great skill challenges:
Don't tell them they are in a skill challenge. Just describe the situation to them.
Reinforce the creativity of your players but don't let them come up with something just because it's a trained skill of theirs. Avoid min-maxing by asking them to deal with the situation, not just pick a skill.
Ask them "what do you do?" Offer a hand-full of suggestions if they get stuck.
Ask them how they might surmount the difficulty, don't ask them what skill they want to use.
For ambiguous comparisons of action to skill, offer the player a couple of choices. They might use either nature or arcana to detect magical fields in the area for example.