Restructuring Skill Challenges

Posted on : 10-30-2010 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D, House Rules

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I really like the idea of skill challenges; I like that they add some structure to what otherwise might be hard to quantify with mechanics. I like that they provide a framework that allows the DM to know how to adjudicate things outside of combat, and how to reward non-combat encounters. However, I’ve run skill challenges–and seen skill challenges run–and I’m often underwhelmed by the results. I feel that the Rules Compendium provides a lot of good advice on how to run and create skill challenges; the example of play does a great job of illustrating how they can be run well.

I think that one of the main reasons why a lot of DMs are confused as to how to run a skill challenge is because of the way they’ve been structured in print up to this point. A skill challenge is generally structured to start with the goal of the skill challenge, then a list of primary and secondary skills that can be used, then the consequences for success and failure. While this structure is functional from a mechanical standpoint, I think it’s misleading. It implies that skill challenges should be run in a far more mechanical way, with far more black and white actions, than I feel that they really should be. I’m of the opinion that skill challenges should be run in a very organic, roleplay-driven way, with the players driving the action and the skills that are used, and the DM reacting and narrating appropriately. Rather than talk more about it, I’m going to provide an example of how to write a skill challenge to encourage this style of play.

Murder Investigation

(Complexity 2; 6 successes before 3 failures)
Setup: The PCs have arrived at a local inn to talk to a contact of theirs. However, upon arrival they have discovered that the contact has been murdered!
Goal: Investigate the murder scene and see where it leads.
Possible Actions
Analyzing the Scene (Suggested skills: Perception, Insight, Heal)
The players can look for clues, examine the body, and make inferences based on what they find. They can discover the following information by analyzing the scene, using moderate to hard DCs.

  • The lock on the victim’s door has been picked by someone extremely skilled.
  • The victim was killed using a curved, sacrificial knife.
  • A few smears of trailed blood indicate that the murderer left through the window.

Questioning Witnesses (Suggested skills: Diplomacy, Intimidate, Bluff, Insight)
The inkeeper, Tam, can provide some information.

  • Three patrons, other than the victim, were in the bar last night: a young elven woman, an older human man named Brek, and a male gnome (easy DC).
  • One of the patrons–the elven woman, left the bar, but Tam never saw her leave (moderate to hard DC).

In addition, a passerby is able to provide some additional information.

  • A slender figure was seen hurrying away from the bar, toward the docks, late last night (moderate to hard DC).

Success: Each successful skill check should provide one piece of the information above. If the PCs succeed in the skill challenge, they also learn that the elven woman (whom they should realize by now is probably the murderer) was seen boarding a ship called the Sea Bird late last night. The Sea Bird left early this morning, headed for a nearby town upriver. If the PCs hurry, they can make it to that town in time to find the elven woman. In addition, they get a general description of the woman.
Failure: Each failed skill check provides one of the following pieces of false information.

  • The window was broken from the outside.
  • The victim was killed early in the evening, before the elven woman left.
  • The gnome is a known ruffian and scoundrel.

In addition, the PCs find out the above information about the Sea Bird if they continue to investigate the elven woman, but by the time they discover this information, it’s likely that they won’t make it to the next town in time to catch her.

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Comments (3)

this is good

[...] Restructuring Skill Challenges, via Gamecrafters’ Guild. On 4E skill challenges. [...]

Yes, very good. I’m totally stealing it.

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