Prolific Dungeon Masters Guild writer and editor R P Davis has released Skill Challenges in 5e as a conversion of the Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition mechanic to the bounded accuracy of 5th edition. It comes complete with examples and a stat block of sorts. Looking for a structured system for handling complex investigations, challenging social interactions, or simply a way to measure the challenge difficulty of non-combat encounters to award experience points for something other than killing monsters? This is gonna be your jam.
This 12 page guide (or ‘monograph’ as R P calls it) acts as both an introduction to skill challenges as a mechanic and covers all of the fluffy and crunchy details of using them in your games. Apparently, Davis plans on using this mechanic in several of his adventures published on DMsGuild, and therefore it makes sense to have an easily available resource for new DMs and players unfamiliar with the mechanics of 4th edition D&D, where skill challenges originated. Better yet, the book does an excellent job of cleaning up the purpose, uses, and presentation of skill challenges, a well-documented issue when 4th edition hit the market. In that way, this guide not only converts the system from one edition to another, but truly sings as a simple, effective, and complete way to teach the mechanic and build your own skill challenges with ample guidance.
Skill Challenges in 5e begins with the why’s and wherefore’s of using this system. It’s so important that I’ll repeat the author: skill challenges work best when they show up organically with the flow the of the narrative.
[blockquote]This helps ensure they stay focused on story-based solutions, describing actions, rather than focusing purely on mechanics. You’re still resolving each of their actions with skill checks, because when actions lead to conflict or uncertainty a check is called for.[/blockquote]
The guide covers options for using more than just skill checks, discusses ways to organize skill challenges (potentially using initiative order), and does a great job of explaining how to set and telegraph meaningful stakes for different types of social- and exploration-based challenges. Only then does it start down the road of rules mechanics, which converge flawlessly with 5th edition’s thematic elements and mechanics. You get robust advice on how to measure a challenge in order to award experience points, and plenty of step-by-step advice for building a skill challenge. That means understanding how many dice rolls, how many successes versus failures constitute different challenge levels, and setting appropriate difficulty classes to the checks. Skill challenges aren’t about simple pass/fail checks, but about potential degrees of success, and therefore the system presents results in the form of total victory, partial success, or failure.
The guide closes with an explanation of a skill challenge stat block along with a working example, followed by a couple variations that do a great job of showing how to leverage the narrative of a given scene to create stakes and results for total victory, partial victory, or failure.
The guide has a simple, very clean layout on a textured but not obtrusive background. I didn’t find any text errors, and there’s only one thing I would have considered moving out into its own or a different section: secondary skills. That section appears in the skill challenge stat block, rather than in the mechanics discussion earlier. I’m definitely nitpicking with this complaint, so I’m not subtracting any points for that.
There are several pieces of art, and the vast majority of them work well with the text. They depict complex traps or circumstances that adventurers deal with, or hazardous places that the party may be traveling through. Since you use a skill challenge to traverse, avoid, or overcome these things, they are a perfect fit.
This did a decent job explaining skill challenges, but I have found better treatment of the subject online for free. I'd hoped for more examples of good skill challenges within this, but was disappointed.