When Not to Use a Skill Challenge

Posted on : 08-24-2010 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D


Dungeon’s Master has a post regarding the use of skill challenges. The general guidelines seem to boil down to “If you’re in combat, you should use skill checks. If you’re not in combat, use skill challenges.”

I’m not sure I agree with that. The problem I see with that kind of distinction is that you’re going to limit yourself artificially, and you’re going to wind up using the wrong tool for the job from time to time. Sometimes a skill challenge does belong in combat, and sometimes a series of checks outside of combat is exactly what you want. To me, the distinction is one of dramatic weight, rather than relation to combat.

Let’s look at an example: an investigative scene. At first blush, it seems pretty obvious that you’d want to structure this scene as a skill challenge, and in many cases you’d be right. But it’s not always the case. The question you need to ask yourself is: how important is this investigation to the plot? Let’s break our example down into two sub-examples.

In our first example, the party is trying to find a killer before he strikes again. Someone’s been murdering people in Fallcrest, and the PCs have been hired to find and stop this guy. They can make various checks: to find clues, to analyze those clues, to question witnesses, to follow tracks, to get past the lock on the murderer’s door, etc. Each of these checks, if failed, contributes to a common outcome: it becomes harder to find the murderer, and he possibly kills again before he is found. This is a skill challenge.

But the stakes aren’t always so high. Let’s look at a different kind of investigation scene, one where the PCs are simply trying to gather information on a new town they’ve arrived at. The PCs have arrived at Tom’s Crossing, a small village ruled by an Elder who acts as the spiritual and political leader of the community. They can make various checks: to learn about how the villagers feel about this, to learn about how the Elder feels about this, to learn about individual characters’ true intentions, to learn about the surrounding area, to learn where to buy the best goods and get the best rates, and so on. There is no unifying set of stakes here, no sense of dramatic weight lending urgency to the scene; the PCs are simply gathering information that may or may not be useful later. Each check carries with it its own set of much smaller stakes: do they get correct information? This I would handle as a series of skill checks, assigning skills and DCs to particular bits of information, and awarding some experience for good role-playing at the end of the scene.

And that’s the distinction that I draw: how high are the stakes? If you can point to one set of stakes, one consequence for failure and/or reward for success for the entire scene, and everything is working toward that, then you want a skill challenge. This can happen both in and out of combat. The above example details an out-of-combat situation, but disarming a deadly trap that causes the room to slowly fill with poisoned gas is another example of a skill challenge, and that could easily happen while you’re trying to fend off some undead guardians.

If the scene does not have a unifying set of stakes, or if those stakes have a very low dramatic weight, then you’re better served using individual checks. Building a skill challenge–a good one, at least–takes time, and running one can take some time, too. Not only that, but using a skill challenge where none is warranted puts artificial constraints on the scene and the characters’ actions, and the players will notice that artificiality. They’re smart like that.

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Comments (2)

Brian, thanks for adding to this discussion. As you are no doubt aware there is a lot still to be said about skill challenges and no two people are going to necessarily share the same point of view. I agree that sometimes skill challenges do belong in combat (I’m working on one such encounter right now).

I think the problem that DMs and players face with skill challenges since the release of 4e is the meta-game question everytime a skill check might be required. Which is, am I in a skill challenge? The real problem isn’t the skill check or skill challenge. Instead it’s a problem of implementation. Or to be blunt how good is the DM doing with the roleplaying / storytelling part of their job?

As you say players are smart and if they think they are in a skill challenge when they aren’t, they’ll treat it like one anyway because they want the reward.

In short, you’re right it’s all about the stakes. But the players only know what the stakes are if the DM tells them and that’s ideally done through the narrative, which with 4e and skill challenges is now a shared responsibility.

True enough; thanks for commenting. A lot of indie RPGs make a big deal out of making sure that everyone knows what the stakes of a conflict are before the conflict starts. Maybe D&D could use some of that injected into it. I agree with you, though, that it’s better when the stakes are made clear through the narrative, rather than just saying, “these are the stakes”.

The DM has a responsibility to be clear as far as what’s at stake, and while it might not be necessary to be specific about what’s at stake, the players should have an idea of the severity of the stakes, at least. In a combat, the stakes are clear: if the PCs lose, they’re going to be killed, captured, or the magic McGuffin is going to fall into the hands of the evil necromancer, or any of a number of other bad things will happen. When the PCs get into a fight, they generally know how high the stakes are. When the stakes are similarly high for a non-combat encounter, that encounter should probably be structured as a skill challenge to reinforce the height of the stakes. If the stakes are fairly low, a skill challenge is probably unnecessary and might even be detrimental to the narrative; that’s the point I was trying to make.

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