Sunday, 16 August 2009

Nuanced Skill Checks in Skill Challenges

I saw this post earlier this week at Geek Ken and it got me thinking. I don't necessarily agree that WotC are reworking skill challenges although I do think they need to provide more guidance on how to use them. Mike Mearls' articles are good but more is still required. However it got me back to thinking about how I used skill checks in a challenge and the variety of ways I use them. So in no particular order here they are.

1. Simple checks: Roll against the DC. Results in 1 success or failure. The bread and butter of skill challenges.

2. Lead character and Aid Another: One character makes the roll, but other characters in the party can use Aid Another against either a DC of 10 of the Dc of the challenge to add +2 to the roll. Sometimes I limit this to one or two characters, in the case of Diplomacy checks, other times I let the entire party assist, in the case of an Athletics check to close a castle gate against a regiment of hobgoblins. In many cases if the Aiding player fails to assist I'll impose a -2 penalty to the main check. This discourages shouts of I'll assist from the players and makes the check more realistic. Results in 1 success or failure.

3. Specialist Knowledge: generally made against a hard DC this uncovers a key piece of information that helps the rest of the encounter. For example, an Insight check to uncover a key protagonists motivation adds +2 to all future diplomacy checks. A Nature check to identify a mysterious creature as an ancient spirit of water thereby adding +2 to all History, Insight, Diplomacy and Religion checks due to a better understanding of the creature.

4. Automatic Failure: Limited occasional use of this type of check and where it should be obvious or logical. Don't try and Intimidate the Duke unless you really are powerful and mighty, don't try Diplomacy on rabid cultists. Important to let the party know the immediate result of such use.

5. Remove one failure: Always against hard DC's - a success here removes one failure. I allowed a use of Heal in a siege to enable the PC's to patch up some wounded defenders and get them back on the walls.

6. Group check: All players roll against a DC. If the majority of the players in the party succeed then they gain 1 success, if an equal number or majority fail it counts as a failure. This was used effectively in a wilderness escape challenge where the PC's were being chased by a horde of humanoids. The party had to make Stealth or Athletics checks to determine their progress.

7. Uncover an option: Success in the challenge opens up a new line of attack - particularly useful with Insight. I used this to enable the party to use Intimidate against a Priestess who was being obstructive. They needed to engage with her first, but with appropriate questioning and by listening carefully they were able to identify her fear of being blamed for failing to uncover cultists. A suitably pitched Intimidate check then followed.

8. Lose a healing surge: I generally use this with Endurance checks - following a shipwreck and after time spent out in the wilderness. It doesn't usually count towards the success of the challenge but it does reflect that what the PC's are doing may be physically dangerous. It was also used to good effect in a series of battle encounters where PC's leading units into battle were injured if that round of the fight went against them.

9. Higher DC for a benefit: The PCs were running away and hadn't had time to spend a short rest having used all their encounter powers and were low on hit points. They had the option of increasing the DC of group checks to grant one PC a short rest. It increased the risk of failing the challenge and being caught by their pursuers but they would be able to fight much better if 2 or 3 of them had their powers back. It also added a tactical element as the players discussed which character should rest first.

10. Succeed or face the consequences: Used with some amusement in a boarding an enemy ship skill challenge. Each PC had to make a check to leap up from a rowing boat over the side of a longship. Those that failed were stuck holding a rope balanced precariously between two swaying boats. Those that failed by 5 or more ended up in the sea with further swimming checks etc required before they could join the fight.

There are, I am sure, loads more options but it gives a flavour of what can be done and how varied skill challenge checks can be. If you have any favourites or good uses for checks let me know.


  1. Some nifty ideas. I've adopted the mentality that a failure in a skill challenge doesn't necessarily mean it was a complete failure. Rather, the party is in a disadvantageous position or uses a less optimal solution to solve their problem. I do like how you continually mold the appropriate skills depending on the progress of the party during a challenge.

    As for the recent Dungeon article, I got a little irked at the concept of the DM rolling off against a player's skill check. I think skill challenges are still the most difficult thing for a lot of new DMs to pull off. Variants are great, but I wish official WoTC stuff would work a little closer to their original framework in the ruleset.

    A progressive challenge is great. Adding additional encounters during a challenge depending on a success/failure during a turn is great. But pulling out a ton of houserules for an official publication indicates (to me) they really are not too happy with the mechanics of skill challenges, and that the rules need a bit more tweaking.

  2. @Geek Ken I think you may have nailed it with the view that WotC aren't that happy with the mechanic. The version published in the DMG was errated within days of publication to the point where it was embarrassing and indicates something seriously went wrong with their internal editorial and quality control process. I think they have been playing catch up ever since.

    I also agree its vital, from the DM's point of view, to see failing a skill challenge as an opportunity not a problem. It should open up more hazardous options, additional combat, greater cost, more time etc.