Skill challenges - who else likes them as the core non-combat sub-system?


The news about future D&D releases has led to some discussions about resolving non-combat challenges. I'm one of those who sees skill challenges as the core 4e mechanic for resolving these things, but am wondering about what others think.

The following is a fairly typical criticism of skill challenges:

Really, a "better Skill Challenge system" would go a long way toward solving this. One where characters could contribute uniquely, do significant things, make significant choices, and spend significant resources to acquire success, a skill challenge system that encourages expansion and use, rather than one basically designed to get past the boring parts, tell you if you win or not, and get back to the "real game."
But this description of the skill challenge system doesn't fit my own experience. Nor does it match the description in the rulebooks. I'm not sure where it's coming from.

Do characters contribute uniquely to skill challenges? Yes, in my experience, both because (i) they often have different skills, and (ii) even when they have overlapping skills they often use them in different ways (this is especially true for social skills).

Do characters do significant things in skill challenges? Yes - they perform impressive physical feats, or they make significant concessions or extract significant concessions in negotiations.

Do they make significant choices? Yes - they take risks, and make trade offs. Again, this is particularly evident in social contexts.

Do they use resources? Yes - following the guidelines in DMG 2, plus other ideas that are very common in online discussions of skill challenges, they expend powers, action points, ritual ingredients etc.

If you are using skill challenges solely as described in the first DMG, and have no familiarity with the mechanics that inspired them (eg conflict resolution systems in games like HeroQuest, Burning Wheel etc) then I could see how they might seem to have some of the flaws that the quote attributes to them. But post-DMG 2, or for anyone who is familiar with the play advice from those other games, I don't really see how they could look like this.

What I would like to see is a development of the skill challenge mechanics or guidelines to better integrate with the combat system, to help smooth over the transition from abstract, high-level resolution to tactically detailed, low-level resolution.

As to backgrounds/non-combat skills etc, I hope that this is done in a way that fits into the Utility and Skill Power framework and skill challenge mechanic, rather than introducing a further subsytem that is hard to integrate with the ones we already have.

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Argyle King

I have a love/hate relationship with skill challenges. I love the concept, but I don't always love how the concept is implemented in 4E. I rediscovered this love/hate relationship while preparing for the campaign I'm running now; I basically rewrote the DC table and ended up with numbers which are quite a bit different than what is suggested.

Likewise, it takes quite a bit of work to blur the barriers between skill challenge and encounter. The example given in DMG 1 of having a skill challenge to disable a trap in the middle of combat doesn't work out very well in actual play. Most of the time, it's far more efficient for the PCs to simply bash the trap than for one of them to essentially be taken out of the fight for several rounds. Over time I have learned to work with this and produce better results, but it requires that I go against a lot of the advice that I am given by the books.

One of my main complaints about the skill challenge system is also how binary it is. This is also one of my complaints about 4E in general; I don't like how so many things are reduced to being either yes or no. An idea I've taken from my experience from GURPS is measuring the margin of success and failure. If the PCs need 10 successes and get 9, yes, that is a failure, but it should still produce some sort of result and be better than if they only succeeded 2 or 3 times. Likewise, a highly skilled character should be rewarded for their investment and get something out of excelling rather than their success meaning the same thing as the untrained guy who does just enough to get over the DC hump.

When it comes to background skills and more in depth out of combat options, I'm not sure how much of a place they have in the grand scheme of 4E. I am one of the people who complained about 4E not having such things, but, after having more experience with 4E, I've come to realize that 4E has ideas about what sort of game I should be playing when I pick my dice and roll for initiative. While it is possible to go against those ideas, I probably won't get what I want when I do. I've come to terms with what 4E does well and what it doesn't; when I want to play a different kind of game, I've found that I'm better off playing a different game than trying to go against the grain of 4E's design.

I do believe it would be possible to use skill challenges to resolve more in depth combat activities. Being able to perform those activities isn't what causes the problem for me. What causes the problem is not having a satisfying way to quantify the results of those activities in terms that are meaningful enough. I in no way believe it's impossible to do something with any game system; I simply believe that certain aspects of gaming are more supported and/or less supported by different systems. 4E as a whole is the same way, and certain things are more highlighted and given more importance than others. There are certain aspects that -if I want to highlight them- I'm better off playing a different game for. Coming to realize this has allowed me to better enjoy 4E because I've stopped trying to work against the system and have learned to work with the system to better enjoy what it provides.

I'd love for WoTC to prove me wrong, and I wouldn't in any way be against bringing more elements in 4E and the 4E skill challenge system. However, I'm not sure if those elements -even if added to 4E- would be as satisfying to me as what I've found in other systems.

The Human Target

My experience- my players love them because they almost always win and get "extra" xp. Every time they buy horses or bar doors they want to have a skill challenge.

For me, I like the idea but find the implementation boring 90% of the time. Usually I'd rather my players just come up with some good ideas and make a few rolls and move on. We've been trying different ways of doing them though and its not too bad.

They are a great way to have a bar fight though.

Well, 4e, certainly the DMG2 explicitly, definitely discusses the concept of levels of success. All elements of the SC system are open to reinterpretation by the DM in the context of a specific encounter. In fact in a lot of ways it is inaccurate to call it a 'system', it is more a set of guidelines than anything else.

I can't really say much about your issues with the DCs except to say that the cases where I've run into people that are having problems with them always seem to have not fully understood the intent. The general objection is that the DCs are 'too easy', but this seems to arise from an expectation that a level +0 SC should be anything BUT easy. Yet a combat encounter of equal level is generally considered fairly trivial. Usually what you find is these people expect a level +0 complexity 1 challenge to be anything but utterly trivial. That would be like expecting a single level 1 goblin to challenge a level 1 party. Maybe your issues are different from these, but you might consider the official DCs in this light.

I find the SC system to be pretty competent overall. Whenever the characters face some sort of situation that isn't involving combat and does utilize skills I'm always thinking of it in reference to the SC system. Usually it falls out as a pretty straightforward SC, though often with different possible levels of success. There are any number of possible pitfalls with SCs, but they also work pretty well in most cases.

I think the main key is not to consider an SC to be some kind of isolated situation. Especially in the social context it is just an interaction with some NPCs. I'm not going to say to the players "now you're in an SC, so go ahead and try to game your skill checks to max your chance of passing it." The players will rarely in these situations KNOW that they're in an SC.

Obviously in other contexts it may be more apparent, but the thing to do I think is frame the SC in terms of goals, rewards, resources, and opposition. Don't think about it in terms of specific activities. The challenge should revolve around achieving goals, attaining rewards, spending resources, and overcoming opposition/obstacles. So for instance dealing with a trap during a combat skill challenge revolves around DEALING with the trap. HOW is up to the players. Whatever way they choose is still part of the SC. If they decide to smash the trap, well, that is one approach, but it will require actions and may have consequences and may give different rewards than having the rogue disarm it.

I think it would be great to have a book dedicated to knowledge about SCs and different approaches to them. DMG2 did some of that, but there is still some valuable ground that could be covered there. I think a good dissection of various SCs with a view towards analyzing their strengths and weaknesses would be good. Some of Mike Mearls articles got into that in various ways, but I think there is still a good bit of ground that could be covered. It might even be a good idea to provide some possible alternative mechanics for specific types of situations.

Argyle King

To give more context to my comments on the DCs...

The low DCs were often leading to grind. Most of the PCs were easily capable of exceeding DCs even when they rolled single digit numbers. Even using DCs from higher levels didn't seem to work out. As a DM, I'm not out to kill the PCs, but using skill challenges by the book became so trivial that it tended to lead to mindless rolling of dice to reach a conclusion which we already knew. This is similar to the problem that a lot of the 4E monsters used to have where the PCs would know early on in the fight that they had in the bag; all that was left was to spam at-wills until it was over.

The DCs aren't the only thing I've changed for my game either. I don't use the success/failure guidelines as written either. I've had skill challenges where the amount of failures weren't even kept track of. An example I can give of this is a skill challenge I ran where the party was trapped inside of a room which was essentially one giant trap. It was a different take on the navigation skill challenge; they had to discover how to get out. It took a set amount of successes to get out. There was no failure limit; each failure simply set off more of the trap and made the room more deadly. That's only one example of many, and it's one of the most tame examples of how I've broken from the SC guidelines because it was one of my first attempts to use the system differently. In my current game, skill challenges have only a passing resemblence to being the same system.


First Post
I love skill challenges but don't run them precisely by the book. The players try to do stuff, they roll skill rolls, the narrative moves towards success and failure based on their rolls and the skill challenge ends when all the rolls are done with the results weighted based on number of successes vs. number of failures with everything from a complete success to a complete failure being possible. I don't end the skill challenge if they get X failures. It goes until the issue at hand is resolved.

I also use stake setting. The Players are free to set stakes. "I want to catch the guy who is running away." "I want to discover the cult's secret plan." "I want to win the princess's favor." "I want to find a way into the castle." They can just state something they want in story terms and it becomes the stakes in a skill challenge.


I like skill challenges! =D

If I had designed them, I wouldn't have made the "3 strikes and you're out" rule. I think it would be better if skill challenges chipped away at your resources the longer you spent on them, like everyone loses a healing surge each round, but you don't fail unless you give up.


I really like the concept of skill challenges, and like 4e monsters, I feel that after 2 years of play experience, they're design is steadily improving (better integration into encounters, differing levels of success or failure, unique set-ups, more interesting consequences, etc.)

The Monster

The basic idea of skill challenges has been delightful for me; the idea of building an entire encounter using a structured sequence of skill checks has been a great help. Granted, the original DMG layout was very basic; DMG2 does a better job - the writeup in Galaxy of Intrigue (for Star Wars Saga) was very good, some twenty-plus pages of options before even getting to the examples.

That said, I set up and run skill challenges more loosely than most writeups I've seen; I tend to allow people to try whatever and make whichever skill check fits, given the situation and the action. Encourages creative play and role-play better IMO than a short list of strictly allowed skills which limit half the party to 'aid another' or pure suck. Once, I even had a player make an attack roll as part of a skill challenge (to spill a tray of drinks on some rivals during a cocktail party, to mess up their scheming).

I've found that the skill challenge motif creates the opportunity to make the 'boring' parts of an adventure non-boring, with party interaction, creativity, incremental success and penlaties for failure. The fact that it's often run as a boring set of die rolls, well, that's the GM's fault.
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First Post
My main complaints of skill challenges is that 4E does not give them as much explaination as they should and the artificiality of them. IE, the DM saying "This is a skill challenge you need x amount of successes in skill y"

The best explaination for skill challenges is in Star Wars Saga: Galaxy of Intrigue which gives you more options and has an amazing example of a scene we should know deconstructed as a skill challenge (it's the attack on the bunker in ROTJ when they're sneaking up on it, Han failed his Stealth check and Chewie enters combat).

I don't bother with actual constructed skill challenge any more, as they're not just artificial they are limiting. All right, some things can be solved rather specifically but I will not say no to an ingenious solution to a problem, particularly if it gets a few laughs.

There are plenty of times when a prepared skill challenge works well. Tallying failures also works well in many cases. For example sailing your ship to a foreign port. Each failure results in delay and damage to the ship, 3 failures could mean fighting pirates and possibly not arriving at all, or losing money on ship repairs, delay causing complication at the other end, etc. This is perfect for a high complexity challenge using the rules pretty much straight out of the DMG.

As I and others have said before, the challenge needs a narrative and progress, thus conditions change and different skills come to the fore. You can't win by just having one or two characters spam their best skill. Give it a level +5 or even 7 and it will be challenging enough.

Tony Vargas

The Skill Challenge system presented in the DMG1 was a nice idea, but very rough. The number were off, and the ways it might be implemented by the DM inadequate. Skill Challenges are one area where 4e still needs to be improved. Hopefully there will be some good stuff to glean from future suplements.

The Skill Challenge system presented in the DMG1 was a nice idea, but very rough. The number were off, and the ways it might be implemented by the DM inadequate. Skill Challenges are one area where 4e still needs to be improved. Hopefully there will be some good stuff to glean from future suplements.

Heh, I was just looking over some of the stuff in DMG2 again for whatever reason and it is really full of a lot of stuff about common issues. People should spend more time reading it. They did fail to get out certain things about SCs even there, but just the general advice on running a game can make a huge difference and SCs really work better the more narrative force your game has. The players need to be really wanting to push ahead and each SC should be either VERY short or really dynamic. The real tricky part is they can fail in a lot of different ways. Combat tends to fail in only a few predictable ways.


I like what I originally imagined them to be: a system where the players joined in in narrating non-combat events, choosing their own actions, setting the difficulty of those actions and in general contributing and having fun.

The result was lots of skill rolling, no risk, no strategy, and really the only input is narrative.


First Post
I can't recommend enough the awesome Dungeon adventure Dead By Dawn, which includes skill challenges into its structures to mimic the "barricade vs. zombie horde" feel of movies such as Dawn of the Dead. Very inventive.


I liked the skill challenge system in 4E so much I ported it to a bunch of different types of games, including Star Wars SE before it was officially added. Skill challenges are similar to Chases in Spycraft. The checks need to match up with narrative elements but provide a nice structured way to determine the outcome of some actions. As was mentioned a second read through the DMG2 would be recommended to anyone who simply declares SCs broken beyond repair. I think they tend to work pretty well in many cases. Here's some methods I've used to make them flow a bit better in games.

1. Group challenges contemporaneously and have them execute simultaneously. For instance characters need to talk to two different NPCs but have to do so at the same time so there's a physical limit on Aid Another since the characters end up dispersed.

2. Require by some narrative device that different challenges be done by different people. This way the skillful Rogue or Ranger don't end up dominating a challenges and everyone else just sits them out. I try to give each character a check to make and usually something they're good at.

3. Failures are penalized in modifiers to subsequent checks depending on the magnitude. Just barely failing a check might not get a penalty but really screwing up will have the recheck be even harder. I don't get sadistic about it but I find it adds tension because players are willing to spend action points to reroll a check rather than have it end up harder than the first time.

4. I reward players for giving good narrative descriptions of how they're going about the check. If they get really detailed and involved in their character's action I give them bonuses on the actual check. I'll rarely penalize a player for not describing their actions well but I make sure they know I want them to really get involved and will be rewarded for doing so. If they go all out in their description I'll just have them take 20.

5. I'll also run abstracted skill challenges where the characters have to act as a group. I have them all roll and take the lowest or mean value. This works well for something like the characters sailing a ship where they each need to do something similar. Every check spans a long period of time and the job only gets done as well as the worst person doing it. Failures increase the challenge for everyone and increase the time it takes to do the challenge overall.

6. I use skill challenges to let the characters attempt to completely non-combat and non-ritual related. I think this is way better than skills in underwater basket weaving and cake baking. Besides the obvious like sailing or haggling prices of things I let them try their hand at fishing or repairing a thatch roof for a farmer. In these cases I have failures simply add to the time it takes to get it done since these aren't usually life-or-death situations. I also have the action itself take place off-camera and we simply say some time passed and they accomplished their job.

7. Think about the thing the characters are trying to accomplish and come up with creative uses for skills. I like to include Endurance and the Knowledge skills to help all the characters get into the act. I think of this as the Goonies method of skill challenges. The different challenges faced by the Goonies in the caves were solved by different characters' specialties. Mouth could read the map, Annie could play the organ, Data's gadgets helped slow down the Fratellis.


I like the skill challenge system. I was indifferent to them until I participated in the one from the MMII game day adventure. Then I ran the one in H2. After that, I've always enjoyed them.

I like them for two reasons: 1) they match the way I was already handling some in-game actions, and 2) they have a failure tolerance greater than 0.

If someone wanted to do a complex task, I was already breaking it down into smaller parts and having the PCs roll their skill checks to complete each part of the task. I suspect I'm not the only one.

The only problem I ran into was this: how many failures should I allow for I say that them fail the overall task? If the check is repeatable and time is not a problem, why don't they just take 20 on all the checks? If the check isn't repeatable, then don't they fail after one missed skill check? I need a number of failures >0 and skill challenges give me a framework for deciding on that number.

That said, I set up and run skill challenges more loosely than most writeups I've seen; I tend to allow people to try whatever and make whichever skill check fits, given the situation and the action. Encourages creative play and role-play better IMO than a short list of strictly allowed skills which limit half the party to 'aid another' or pure suck.

That's pretty much how I've been running them. Works very well for me. :)

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