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Q-man

Designing Skill challenges

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Previously I rambled on about the ways in which I use skill challenges, and a bit about what lead me to that opinion. Iím still not done wasting time going on and on about these challenges. Having them lumped in with combat means that careful design of the challenges is key. Just like you canít randomly grab monsters and drop them on the battlemat and expect the encounter to be any good, you canít just toss in a skill challenge and expect it to work well.

Obviously the first thing you need to do is pick the obstacles and the goal of the skill challenge. Those are the key points to describing the scenario to the player, and how it ties in with the encounter and the story the campaign is following. When I offer tips about considerations to make when designing the challenge, Iíll apply them to two challenges that Iíve used to help illustrate. The first is the players needing to close a portal or put an end to some other magical effect, the second is the players are in a maze like crypt or dungeon and need to find their way to safety. Iím sure you can figure out the monsters and other creatures the harass the players while they solve these challenges, so Iím going to ignore that aspect and just talk about the challenges themselves.

First you need to look at the skills your challenge will use. Its not crucial to the challenge that you have a diverse set of skills, but it does make things easier on the players if you do. Its something of a risk to have a narrow group of skills available, the most likely result is that not all of the players will be able to take part in the challenge. Granted thereís combat going on in the background so they should all have something to do. However, if the challenge calls for Intelligence and Charisma skills only and the player with those skills canít make it the party might have some real difficulty.

First thing you need to look at is methods by which several different skills can be used to solve the challenge. Now its important to mention that your players wonít have this list of options, and the solutions they try might be things you hadnít thought of, so on game day youíll likely have to improvise anyway. This makes it sound like the list is pointless; I say its not, having it means that the challenge has a plethora of solutions and gives you some directions to nudge the players if they canít find a solution on their own. You donít need to have an answer for every skill that D&D has, but you should have enough so that each ability is represented. That should ensure that every player can participate in some way; if nothing else they can use their high ability score with an untrained skill and likely succeed in the check.

1) Stopping a Magical effect
  • Strength: Runes engraved on the floor are made from weak stone which can be smashed.
  • Constitution: The flow of arcane energy can be interrupted by placing your body in the stream, you might use an Endurance check to see if you block the energy or if it rips through you dealing damage.
  • Dexterity: You can use Thievery checks to attempt to decipher the magical workings and take apart the mechanism supporting the spell.
  • Intelligence: Arcana checks might help you discern the workings of the spell and allow you to inject or redirect some arcane energy to destroy the spell.
  • Wisdom: Dungeoneering and Perception checks are good catch alls, you might have seem this before and be able to recognize how the spell functions and be able to stop it.
  • Char
    isma: Perhaps the cultists or wizards that created the effect are still around, you might be able to use Diplomacy or Intimidate to make them stop the spell.

2) Escaping the Maze
  • Strength: Occasional pits or crumbling floors might require Athletics checks to jump over them.
  • Constitution: There might be patches of noxious fumes that can be resisted with Endurance checks, or merely the strain of running such distances while fighting need these.
  • Dexterity: Its probably worthwhile to Stealth ahead to scout for other enemies in your path.
  • Intelligence: Perhaps the walls are marked with runes or other symbols that Arcana checks might be able to decipher.
  • Wisdom: Dungeoneering checks might be able to determine which direction youíre heading, to ensure you donít go in circles.
  • Charisma: This one is kind of tough, unless you can find a less than hostile NPC to wheedle directions out of.

Not all of these examples is particularly good, but you should see how you can give all of the abilities some method of assisting the party succeed in the challenge with a bit of creativity. Depending on the scenario you are building it might be tougher to get all the abilities to work, and thatís ok. The party shouldnít have an easy time with every encounter, just be sure that there is some method in your story for overcoming a failure in this challenge.

You might also be able to trim off some abilities by looking at what classes your party is comprised of. If none of the classes depend heavily on Intelligence, its a safe bet that they wonít be much good at those skills, therefore you donít need to include solutions that depend on Intelligence. If your party is well balanced this isnít likely, but you never know.

You may want to take this a step further and look at what skills the party has trained. Based on what they have trained think up solutions that make use of those skills. Doing this will make it even more likely that the players can contribute a successful check to the challenge. The downside is that you are definitely going to be more limited in what skills you can draw from making the design a lot more challenging.

Now that youíve outlined which skills can be used to solve the challenge, you might want to go through and give a general weight to each skill. The idea here is to determine exactly how that skill would effect the challenge. If its directly related to the solution it gives a success, if its in opposition to the solution its an automatic failure, if its only tangentially related to the solution then it can offers a bonus to the next check, things like that. This gives you a bit of a cheat sheet to help you determine the effects of things the players might try during the challenge. This might also be a good time to think about the DCís that are needed for the skill; success checks should have some difficulty, while skills that only offer bonuses ought to be pretty easy. Again depending on how much the skill relates to the solution should determine its DC, a check thats in line with the solution ought to be easier than a check thatís hardly related at all. Just be careful you arenít hampering creative thinking, ideas that are a little bizarre shouldnít be stifled, but you do want to keep the players bound by the reality of your world. Depending on how the players make use of the skill you might have to come up with a result on the fly, so its up to you whether its worthwhile to do this or not. Perhaps for the first couple challenges itíd be useful just to find the proper mindset, but once you get the hang of it just improvise it.

1) Stopping a Magical effect
  • Acrobatics: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Arcana: Can be used to redirect the spellís energies; DC is Hard, Success. Can be used to determine how the spell works; DC is Medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Athletics: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Bluff: The cultists/wizards already know the full strength of your party, they canít be fooled into thinking you have more forces on the way; automatic failure.
  • Diplomacy: You might be able to reason with them to stop the spell by explaining that it will deal far greater damage than they were lead to believe; DC is Very Hard, Success.
  • Dungeoneering: You can work out how the spell works, making future attempts to disrupt it easier; DC is medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Endurance: If you block the beams of energy inside the ritual to disrupt it; DC is Hard, Success. Failing the check isnít a failure, but rather the player takes medium damage.
  • Heal: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • History: You can work out how the spell works, making future attempts to disrupt it easier; DC is medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Insight:You infer the mental state of the cultists/wizards making it easier to debate with them; DC is medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next Charisma check.
  • Intimidate:You might be able to frighten the cultists/wizards into stopping the spell; DC is Very Hard, Success.
  • Nature: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Perception: You can work out how the spell works, making future attempts to disrupt it easier; DC is medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Religion: You can work out how the spell works, making future attempts to disrupt it easier; DC is medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Stealth: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Streetwise: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Thievery: You meddle with the reagents and devices the spell is using to disrupt it; DC is Hard, Success.

2) Escaping the Maze
  • Acrobatics: Can be used to traverse the holes in the crumbling floor; DC is Hard, Success. Failing the check doesnít count as a failure, instead if allows more monsters to catch the party.
  • Arcana: Can be used to read the runes on the walls to determine the correct path out; DC is Hard, Success.
  • Athletics: Can be used to traverse the holes in the crumbling floor; DC is Hard, Success. Failing the check doesnít count as a failure, instead if allows more monsters to catch the party.
  • Bluff: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Diplomacy: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Dungeoneering: Can be used to determine which direction the party is heading, keeping them on the correct path; DC is Hard, Success.
  • Endurance: The passages are full of noxious fumes the party must be able to hold their breath or endure the effects; DC is Hard, Success. Failure does not count as a failure in the challenge, instead the player takes medium damage.
  • Heal: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • History: Can be used to remember which paths youíve already taken; DC is Medium, offers a +2 bonus to the next check.
  • Insight: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Intimidate: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Nature: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Perception: Can be used to peer ahead at what is down the hallway; DC is Medium, offers a +2 bonus to overcoming terrain or avoiding monsters ahead.
  • Religion: Can be used to read the runes on the walls to determine the correct path out; DC is Hard, Success.
  • Stealth: Can be used to scout ahead to avoid encountering additional monsters in the maze; DC is Hard, Success.
  • Streetwise: Does not apply to the challenge.
  • Thievery: Does not apply to the challenge.

All of this work is relatively quick to do, and if nothing else should help you really pin down how the challenge should work in the game. Its not going to cover everything that the party might try during the game session, but it ought to give you some decent baselines for quick ways to handle what they do try.

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Comments

  1. Otakar's Avatar
    I appreciate the Blog, Q-man. I have a hard time wrapping my head around skill challenges as well. They seem a little "soft" to me. In my few games the players didn't really do flips for them. They'd rather fight the monster.
  2. Q-man's Avatar
    It took my players a bit to catch on as well. I've found that you can get better results by making the skill challenge be a huge part of the combat.

    For example have them need to close a portal thats spawning creatures every round, or have them need to shut down a trap thats filling the room with fire or flooding the chamber. Things like that tend to get their attention since ignoring them for too long will get their characters killed.

    Once they catch on that you're going to hit them with puzzles during combat it gets easier to put in more subtle ones that aren't threats to their well being, and more interesting to the story.

    Well that stuff worked in my group anyway, your results may vary
  3. jpatterson's Avatar
    Ah, I see my comments on your previous content were premature, as you gave your examples here, excellent. Interesting stuff here. Something that occurs to me is that, and you probably have already done this, is to make the actual combat, academic, "mook fights", use it to hook the players in, so they are engaged in the situation, but it is actually relatively unimportant and possibly not really a credible threat, but it helps establish the skills challenge, so they can take care of the combat and be left with the challenge - not exactly a bait and switch, but it would keep things from being constant "thick" combat, for players less inclined to so much full-on hack and slash, as there can be a difference between "danger" and combat.
  4. Otakar's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Q-man
    It took my players a bit to catch on as well..

    Well that stuff worked in my group anyway, your results may vary
    That's an excellent idea! That would keep the fun going.

    I'm sure it's more of a "me" issue than "them" issue. I have a hard time making them fun.

    The only time I had a skill challenge as a player was during an "Encounters" game and it was not fun but it seemed more of the DM's fault than the players.
  5. Q-man's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by jpatterson
    Something that occurs to me is that, and you probably have already done this, is to make the actual combat, academic, "mook fights", use it to hook the players in, so they are engaged in the situation, but it is actually relatively unimportant and possibly not really a credible threat, but it helps establish the skills challenge, so they can take care of the combat and be left with the challenge
    Thats exactly what I'm shooting for! An encounter that is more of a structured role play event. The combat is just there to add a bit of tension to the scene, but the skill challenge is what is important. I haven't quite gotten my players comfortable enough with them to strip the combat down, but we're getting there.

    From your other comment you said you're not a D&D player, so it might be useful to explain how Skill Challenges are meant to work. Basically the players need to roll a series of skill checks, roll well enough and it counts as a success roll poorly and its a failure. What they need to do is get so many successes (easy challenges need 4, medium ones need 6, and so forth) before getting three failures. Getting the required successes means you've beaten the challenge, and gain some reward. Getting 3 failed checks means you lose and get some sort of punishment.

    I take the concept of failure a little loosely. In some cases it takes them towards failing the challenge, other times I'll give it other effects (like the damage from Endurance rolls in the portal challenge, or an extra combat like in the maze escape).

    Quote Originally Posted by Otakar
    I'm sure it's more of a "me" issue than "them" issue. I have a hard time making them fun.

    The only time I had a skill challenge as a player was during an "Encounters" game and it was not fun but it seemed more of the DM's fault than the players.
    I haven't been able to make it to any of the Encounters games, so I'm not sure exactly how it was played out. I will say this though, I haven't seen many skill challenges in the modules written by WotC that I was very intrigued by. So its possible that the material wasn't any good, and the rules imposed on Encounters games hamstrung the DM. I can't really back that up with facts or anything, but its possible.

    As for making them interesting, don't worry about it too much. Just start out with them being a side thing in your combat, like that spawning portal. Its not a particularly fancy or complicated challenge, but still gives you something to experiment with. There's nothing wrong with you and your players learning about them at the same time. Not that I'm an expert, but if you're building one feel free to PM me for ideas or suggestions.
  6. yukonhorror's Avatar
    a skill challenge I came up with that I think fits in with your mentality was to find a secret door. What player group doesn't want to find a secret door? It is in one of my TOEE blogs and I put it in my black pyramid of the ancient cloakers conversion (recycle reduce and reuse). Another one I have been thinking about is a trap of sorts. Maybe they are in a room of mooks, the falling ceiling is triggered, which invokes the skill challenge. With a certain layout of the room, you allow athletics, thievery, perception as main skills. But you also invoke charisma based skills and insight to convince the mooks to help you or they will die too. This allows the more "talky" skill oriented players to make an impact. Maybe air is being sucked from the room, so END checks are needed.

    One thing I have used, played , and seen is group checks. I.e. if a majority is successful, it counts as a success. In the example above, all players make END checks. Those that fail panic, and suck more air from the room (or whatever). My main goal in running skill challenges is to promote and reward creativity. It is is the standard, "I roll dungeoneering... what do I learn" I don't give them anything. But if it is "How do booby traps like this normally work? Can I use dungeoneering to find out?" I am all for that. And if it is something non conventional, but makes sense, I give them that too, "I am going to throw my axe just right to wedge it between the ceiling and the wall". I have posted some stuff on skill challenges in my blogs and in the forums. In this way, players with creativity can play to their strengths (instead of just aiding another or sitting out). You should start a forum topic so people can share their advice with skill challenges.
  7. wcpfish's Avatar
    Q-man.
    My two cents involving skill challenges is as follows. I do announce with my party that a skill challenge is upon them....puts them in that "mode", I also modify difficulty levels on the fly based on the creativity and my subjective judgement on how well the idea would actually work. I also have gradations of success. You can see a prime example of differing levels of success in my newest product "City Slices I: Marketplace Fun" available at rpgnow.com. I have six skill challenges, seven food vendors, twelve marketplace stalls, npcs, equipment to buy, exciting encounters, and more all designed for a city setting in general and a bustling marketplace specifically. Check it out and let me know what you think!

    William C. Pfaff
    President of Escape Velocity Gaming
    Updated 12-25-2010 at 01:49 PM by wcpfish (grammar)