Who's ready for another stupidly long post? That's the spirit!
The "Skill Challenge" is an interesting type of generalist gameplay procedure that's not a core experience of many games, but which often comes recommended as a good level design trick for all sorts of reasons. Here's kind of a funny game you can play: try asking a question on any RPG thread or forum or Discord community about "how would you adjudicate so-and-so challenge?" and see how long it takes for someone to recommend using a Skill Challenge (SC).
But even though there are so many people eager to recommend them, I have more... complicated feelings about them. So maybe it's worth taking some time to explore their design in a more dispassionate, neutral fashion.
Another reason I thought this could be of some value to write out is that, to my surprise, we cannot all agree on what precisely a Skill Challenge even is! Yes, individual variations are actually very common, and some of the seemingly-minor changes people make have a huge impact on the end result.
I'm splitting this post into two parts. Here in Part 1, I'm comparing and contrasting different versions of the SC, with occasional observations about them beyond just stating the rules. Once we've covered every major iteration of the SC that I can find, as well as a few similar systems from other sources, in Part 2 I'm gunna do a deeper analysis of the pros and cons of this system and its greater role in game design. Expect that article in a couple days.
I hope you like mechanics, because these two posts are detailed. There are tons and tons of "introduction to Skill Challenges" articles and videos out there if you want something quick. But this here is for the game design nuts. Even with me already splitting it in two, you'll still probably want to split this first part up into a few separate reading sessions.
The Basic Idea
So, in most D&D-like games, to accomplish something exciting, you gotta roll an ability check. Those typically get categorized somehow. And sometimes they'll have a "skill system" where you have very specific categories that you have to invest special training into to get that extra chance of success. But then you get, like, combat. Combat is a pretty categorizable activity that could be reduced to a roll, but it just about never is. Instead, you get to play it out in detail as a whole, complicated, extended activity, beat-by-beat.
So, y'know... why not have a procedure like that for other intensive activities?
I mean, plenty of games actually do have something like that for different activities. Hexcrawling through the kingdom, chase scenes, warfare, and so on all frequently get a little something extra, mechanically-speaking. But of course, the game usually trains you into the habit of just relying on the skill check system to resolve anything which would seem to fit into any of the skill categories. Correspondingly, modern crunchy games like to keep making their skill lists longer and longer so they cover more categories. So when you follow your training, what often results is something like,
DM: "You gaze into the abyss between the trees and smell the pungent odor of the swamp gases. Wading into the water ahead, it becomes hard to see past the thick fog and swarms of bugs in your eyes. The only path forward will take you into the heart of darkness. What do you do?"Player: "well... I guess we wanna try to navigate through the swamp as best we can."
DM: "Great, roll a Survival check."Player rollsDM: "Awesome! You succeeded!...[thinking to themself]Well shit, that's a bit boring, actually."
So someone had the bright idea to get a little bit more out of the existing skill system. Without changing anything about the rules as they already are, they merely devised a way to apply them that has a bit more depth and brainpower involved. Behold: THE SKILL CHALLENGE!
Every variation of the Skill Challenge essentially boils down to simulating an intensive activity using multiple skill checks performed in a row, where cumulative successes and failures on those individual checks translate to an overall success or failure by the end. So, typically it would be something like, "the party needs to roll 5 successful skill checks before rolling 3 failed skill checks."
And that's it. Honestly, it's simple enough that I secretly suspect a great deal of DMs kinda invented this idea on their own years before D&D ever said anything about it. But as we'll see, sometimes the devil is in the details.
You can maybe understand why this idea came from 4E D&D, if you're familiar at all with the system. It's the version of D&D where all the thought and effort was put into combat and barely at all into anything else. Sure, they included skills, but uh... the rules for them sucked. See, 3rd Edition had this awful problem with "the modifier treadmill" where your bonus on every check would just grow and grow and grow from all kinds of sources as you leveled up, and thus, the DCs would get inflated at the same time. Recognizing this problem, but not yet devising the "bounded accuracy" solution that 5E arrived at, 4E was the awkward middle stage where they said, "alright, your bonus will mostly be static and you won't keep investing more and more 'skill points' each level... but the base modifiers are still gunna be fucking unusably huge."
Here's what your bonus on a skill check is comprised of:
- The appropriate ability modifer (so far so good),
- Half your level (yes, always. And remember, this is the edition of D&D where you can reach level 30, not just level 20 or level 10),
- ...And a +5 if you're trained (yes, even from level 1).
So at 2nd level, you might already be adding a +9 to some of your d20 skill rolls. By 10th level, that could be a +14 or +15. And you're only 1/3rd of the way through the campaign.
So yeah, somebody on the dev team had just enough of a grasp on elementary arithmetic to notice that, unless the DM sets every DC ridiculously high from day 1, then it's kinda difficult to fail a skill check. Thus, the easiest way to add difficulty... is to ask the player to succeed at a bunch of them in a row.
This idea actually has precedent in the 1998 Sci-Fi RPG Alternity, in the form of the "complex skill check." Except that version typically 1) only involved 1 skill being rolled again and again, 2) only involved 1 participant, and 3) assumed that each check earned varying numbers of successes towards the goal. So, really, it's actually quite a different mechanic. I just felt that it was worth including some extra history in the interest of fairness (according to my best efforts at research).
So, here are the details of the original rules for Skill Challenges:
Here are just some of the examples they give: engaging in an audience with the duke, decoding a mysterious set of sigils in a hidden chamber, finding a safe path through a haunted forest, disabling a complex trap, negotiating peace between warring nations. The book explains SCs by first giving the DM instructions on how to create one, and only then really explains how they work.
Step 1: define the goal and context of the SC. The rules specifically say that the goal should be something helpful in advancing through the adventure, but failure shouldn't be something that derails it entirely or does more than just sends you on a long detour. It also encourages you to consider mixing the SC with a combat encounter. And another thing it briefly alludes to is the timespan of the SC. Does it happen at the pace of seconds like a combat encounter? Or does it play out over hours or days?
Step 2: decide the level and complexity of the SC. The level determines the DCs of the checks and the complexity decides the number of successes vs. failures the PCs need to succeed. Here's the "DC per level" chart for 4E:
|Notice the "increase by 5" tucked away at the bottom there. Pretty strange to me, since most of the time you'll be using this table is for skill checks.|
And here's the SC complexity chart for 4E:
Interestingly, complexity doesn't really translate to increased difficulty. Because the ratio remains the same as you increase complexity, you always have the same chance of overall success or failure. Instead, complexity really translates to the weight that the encounter carries in the adventure. According to the text:
If you expect it to carry the same weight as a combat encounter, a complexity of 5 makes sense. A challenge of that complexity takes somewhere between 12 and 18 total checks to complete, and the characters should earn as much experience for succeeding as they would for a combat encounter of the same level (it’s the same as taking on five monsters of the challenge’s level). For quicker, less significant challenges, or for challenges that work as part of a combat encounter, set the complexity lower. (Figure that each complexity is the equivalent of that number of monsters of the challenge’s level.)
Step 3: list the skills needed to complete the SC. These are the "primary skills" of the encounter, the things you anticipate as being the most obviously effective choices. Any skills not on this list are "secondary skills," and the DC for any player attempting to use one of those will be hard rather than moderate. In addition, a secondary skill can never be used by a single character more than once in a challenge.
Step 4: Come up with any other relevant conditions of the SC. Is there a time limit? Life-sucking energy in the room? A paywall that they can only get through by shelling out the cash? Could any utility powers, spells, equipment, or other assets also be of help? Dealing some damage to a person/object, or maybe voluntarily suffering some damage? I think putting a good amount of thought into this step goes a long way towards making a SC actually pretty interesting.
Step 5: Figure out the consequences for success and failure. 4E has a lot to say on the matter of calculating XP and distributing treasure and all that, you can imagine. But also, y'know, it should feel like the encounter mattered. If they fail, then advancing in the story will take longer, or maybe future encounters will be more difficult.
And then the text goes into talking about how to run a skill challenge. Have the players roll initiative, and each one must make a skill check on their turn to contribute. The player should always explain how they're using their skill. They shouldn't just say, "I want to make a Diplomacy check." They should say, “I want to make a Diplomacy check to convince the duke that helping us is in his best interest.” For things that seem like they should be a "group check" (the example given is if the whole party is climbing a clifface, shouldn't they all make an Athletics check?), then you just designate one player as the "leader" of the check and only their own attempt will count towards the running total of successes and failures. Everyone else should still roll, but only to "boost" the leader PC ("each player who rolls a 10 or higher can grant a +2 to the leader on their roll").
The rules also say that you should announce the beginning of a Skill Challenge and explain most of the parameters, just the same way as how players always know and understand the rules of combat before it begins. That means also explicitly telling them what the primary skills of the SC are.
You're also advised to make sure the list of primary skills has a good spread of interaction skills, knowledge skills, and physical skills so that everyone in the party has something to contribute.
Something I like is that they create a "pseudo-statblock" for Skill Challenges for you to rely on. Here's their example of a Chase Scene SC:
Urban ChaseMerchants scream and shoppers yell as your quarry shoves her way through the market. You’re not exactly sure what’s at stake yet, but you know you have to move faster than she is and catch up to her before she gets away.The PCs are hot on the heels of the only woman who can tell them what they need to know. Or the PCs try to escape as their enemies chase after them. A typical chase plays out in rounds, but it could take from minutes to hours in the game world.Setup: To catch up with or to escape from the NPCs, you have to navigate the cityscape faster and smarter than your opponent.Level: Equal to the level of the party.Complexity: 5 (requires 12 successes before 6 failures).Primary Skills: Acrobatics, Athletics, Perception, Streetwise.Acrobatics (moderate DCs): You dodge past an obstacle, vault over a crowd, or cross a narrow passage to close or lengthen the distance between you and your opponent. A failed check indicates that you take a spill and lose one healing surge, in addition to counting as a failure for the challenge.Athletics (moderate DCs): You run fast, scale a wall, leap a fence, or swim across a canal to gain an advantage in the chase. A failed check indicates that you get banged up and lose one healing surge, in addition to counting as a failure for the challenge.Perception (easy DCs): You spot a shortcut, notice a hiding space, or otherwise aid your cause. Using this skill doesn’t count as a success or failure for the challenge, but instead provides a +2 bonus or a –2 penalty to the next character’s skill check.Streetwise (hard DCs): You know enough about the layout of urban settlements to use the environment to your best advantage during a chase.Success: If the PCs are chasing a quarry, they catch up to their quarry (who might be carrying a monetary reward); this could lead directly to a combat encounter. If the PCs are being chased, they evade pursuit or lead their pursuers into an ambush (which leads directly to a combat encounter).Failure: The PCs lose sight of their quarry and have to work harder to find her later. She might take refuge in a den of thieves before they catch her, forcing them to deal with cutthroats or a crime boss to get back on the track of the adventure. If the PCs were being chased, their pursuers catch up with them, and a combat encounter starts immediately
It gives a bunch of these sample SCs. A lot of the text here is padding, for sure. But I suppose giving lots of examples for how acrobatics is being applied could help a DM give a flashy description if they aren't great at improv. A couple things I enjoy from this example is 1) Perception being included on the list, but only as a way to earn a bonus/penalty (makes the PCs' options a bit more dynamic), and 2) that the consequences could lead directly into a combat encounter! (makes a lot of sense to me).
Don't worry, each successive entry from here will (generally) get shorter since we only needed to go over the basic rules once.
|4/10 cover art. One of the blandest, most unspecific|
pieces of "fantasy adventure" art I've ever seen
The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 from 4E updates the SC rules and adds some new stuff, as well. Here's the important stuff:
- No matter the complexity, the number of failed skill rolls needed to fail the SC is always 3. Now, complexity actually is a measure of difficulty. And a pretty huge one, at that. A complexity 5 SC requires 12 successes before 3 failures!
- That DC-by-level chart I showed you before? Don't add 5 anymore because these are skill checks. The numbers listed are now considered accurate, making it even easier to succeed a roll! Maybe that's necessary considering the first change I just listed.
- The definition of "primary and secondary skills" has been changed. "Primary skills" are ones you come up with that'll advance the SC, and "secondary skills" are also ones you come up with that'll give some kind of other bonus (and are no more easy or difficult than a primary skill check). For example, the usage of the Perception skill in that Chase Scene SC I listed above would now be considered a "secondary skill." Here are some examples of recommended effects they could have:
- Cancel out a failure with another skill.
- Give one or more characters a bonus to a check with a primary skill.
- Allow a character to reroll another skill check.
- Open up the use of another skill in the challenge.
- Increase the maximum number of successes that a primary skill can contribute to the party's total.
- Introduce a new option that the PCs can pursue. a path to success they didn't know existed.
- Change the situation, such as by sending the PCs to a new location. introducing a new NPC, or adding a complication.
- Grant the players a tangible consequence for the check's success or failure (as appropriate), one that influences their subsequent decisions."
- Increase the difficulty of the characters' next encounter, or throw an encounter at them that's a clear result of the failure.
- Assess the characters one or two healing surges each.
- Impose a lingering effect, such as a disease or a curse that works like one, that hinders the characters for some time.
- Impose story-related consequences: The characters are too late to save the captives, they lose the duke's favor, or they fail to gain some key information to help them in the adventure.
- Require the characters to attempt the skill challenge again.
- Spring a quick combat encounter on them.
- Add more enemies to the current combat encounter.
- The character who failed the check loses a healing surge or (in a combat context) takes damage.
- The characters must spend time or money making up for the failure.
- For the rest of the challenge, no character can achieve a success using the same skill that was used for the failed check.
- lf the challenge takes place in a combat situation, the character who failed the check is dazed or even stunned until the end of his or her next turn. Or, an opponent is angered and gains a +2 bonus to its next attack roll.
- The next check using a specified skill takes a penalty. For example. if a character fails an Intimidate check in the midst of a complex negotiation, the next character who attempts a Diplomacy check takes a -2 penalty.
- The characters get a success (or a failure) with a particular skill.
- The characters reach a certain number of accumulated failures.
- The characters seek out a specific character to talk to, location to visit. or otherwise initiate their own change of scene.
- Each player has had a chance to take one turn in the skill challenge.
- Some amount of time has passed.
All in all, I mostly like these changes and additions. The new version of "secondary skills" is the sort of thing that makes this rather basic procedure into something more dynamic, and all the advice they give about constructing the encounter itself in interesting ways just goes to reinforce that goal. I also prefer the new version of "secondary skills" because it addresses one of the most common complaints about how they worked in the DMG 1: they punish creativity. While the rulebook says that the DM should validate and even reward players thinking creatively about the problem, the rules themselves instruct you to increase the DC whenever they do that. Ain't that some shit?
|2/10 cover art. What an ugly dragon|
picture. Foreshortening is easy to fuck up.
Between 4E and the D&D Next playtests that would eventually become 5E, there was a series of products called "D&D Essentials" that compiled all the good content from 4E into a final format and made them a bit more setting-agnostic. Many agree that, if you were to return to 4E all these years later, then the optimal way to do so is with the Essentials material. The Rules Compendium here does a really excellent job of collecting all the important stuff you need and cutting out the crap, so the main thing it contributes to the history of Skill Challenges is just, y'know... being the best presentation of them to date. Those two sections above that I just wrote for you condensed a total of 32 pages from two books. The Essentials book communicates all the useful info from those in just 7 pages. Although there are a couple of changes worth noting, too.
- It is presented as just generally much more flexible. Maybe instead of announcing to the party that a SC is about to begin, consider keeping it a secret! If you choose to keep it a secret, then of course you don't have the PCs roll initiative. Do you prompt the PCs to roll checks or let them decide when they want to attempt them? Do you tell the players what skills they'll be using, or do you let them improvise them? All of these are presented as equally valid.
- Here's the DC by level chart in Essentials:
Even easier now!
- "Most skill checks in a typical challenge are against the moderate DC of the challenge’s level (see the Difficulty Class by Level table, page 126). However, after a character has used a particular skill to achieve a success against the moderate DC, later uses of that skill in the challenge by the same character should be against the hard DC."
- Group checks are also different now. Instead of designating one leader, you ask everyone to make the check and simply require half or more to succeed. They ended up using this method in 5E, I believe. And this book also says that if you're using group checks in a SC, then the DC should be set to easy.
- Here's the new complexity table (they stick to the DMG 2's update of always requiring 3 failures):
- The "typical DCs" column you see there is very confusing to me. I read through the text again and again and it just doesn't seem to make any sense with the other things they say. Like, let's imagine you're doing a SC of complexity 3. The party will make a minimum of 8 checks, but how does the DM decide which 6 are of moderate difficulty and which 2 are of hard difficulty? Are the first 6 moderate and the final 2 hard? Maybe, except that the rules themselves say that the DC should always be moderate by default and should instead be adjusted up or down circumstantially, such as if the PC has an advantage (easy) or if they've already used that skill once before (hard). The book just says, "A challenge ideally includes at least four ways to gain a success against a moderate DC. Using too many hard DCs threatens to make a challenge too difficult, and using too many easy DCs (except in group checks) makes it trivial." But don't the PCs decide the "ways" to gain success? Or when it says that the challenge "includes at least X ways," is that referring to when you prepare the list of primary and secondary skills you anticipate being used? Except it can't be that, because elsewhere it says that the list of skills should be # of party members + 2, just like in the DMG 2. Every interpretation I come up with conflicts with something else.
- "For each success beyond six required in a challenge, one of the following advantages should be available.
- A success against a hard DC counts as two successes: a success against both a hard DC and a moderate DC.
- A success against a hard DC removes a failure that has already been accumulated in the challenge, instead of counting as a success.
- A success against an easy DC counts as a success against a moderate DC.
- A success against a moderate DC counts as a success even though the adventurer making the check has already used the same skill to gain a success against a moderate DC.
Everything else it says is repeated from either the DMG 1 or the DMG 2. So far, this is my favorite version of imposing a "limitation" somewhere for the right reasons: that being the rule saying that reusing the same skill again makes the DC now hard, which I think logically makes sense within the fiction (e.g. once you've already put out your best arguments for one Diplomacy check, how much more could you get from a second check?) and is a fair penalty (unlike the original version that penalized you for being creative and thinking outside the box).
|6/10 cover art. Fitting for the subject matter,|
but repurposing a movie still is a bit lazy.
A couple years after it was introduced in 4E, Wizards of the Coast decided to add it into their much-less-played Star Wars RPG as well, despite it being a 3E-derived system. It was brought up as an optional tool in a supplement book entitled Galaxy of Intrigue, which is actually where I first encountered the idea (since Saga Edition was one of the first RPGs I ever ran).
I think it makes a lot of sense, since Star Wars isn't as inherently violence-driven as good ol' hack-n-slash sword and sorcery. Here are the sample SCs they give:
- Breaching a bunker and recovering intel
- Asteroid field escape
- Covert infiltration
- Overland travel
- Searching a debris field
- Hacking the HoloNet
- Smuggling contraband
- Speeder bike chase
- Tactical leadership (like during a big space battle or other mass combat)
- Traversing a minefield
- Sabotage mission
Those all sound pretty Star Wars-y, right? When I ran this system, I used the speeder bike chase (in a city, the scene inspired by Akira with the soundtrack playing), covert infiltration (of a space station prison with the goal of freeing a specific inmate), and interrogation (of a character who'd been injected with poison and would be dead by the end of the conversation).
Here are some of the traits distinctive of the Saga Edition version of SCs:
- You don't rely on the initiative system, but players can't act again until all other participants have acted. So it's similar to the initiative system, but you can change up the order each "round," just based on who has an idea first.
- You can use the "Aid Another" action as your turn during the SC, but 1) you must be trained in the skill you're aiding, 2) the total bonus granted from allies giving aid cannot exceed 10, and 3) the book vaguely advises the GM to create a consequence where the SC somehow gets harder as a punishment for players choosing to Aid Another rather than contribute (sounds like bullshit to me but okay??).
- You can also just make normal ability checks. They don't have to always be skill checks. In fact, use your feats, equipment, combat actions, midichlorians, and so on as well.
- As for the transparency question, the book has a whole section describing this issue in depth and recommends that you pick either total disclosure, partial disclosure, or to make it a secret challenge.
- I won't bother copy/pasting the DCs-by-level chart for the rest of these games because they each have their own internal math, but the complexity levels for Saga Edition are distinct: "A complexity 1 challenge requires the heroes to earn five successes to succeed in the challenge; a complexity 2 challenge requires eight successes; and a complexity 3 challenge requires [eleven] successes. Regardless of complexity, if the heroes fail three separate skill checks, they fail the challenge overall."
- It's expected that the DCs of each skill check will be assigned on a case-by-case basis with no default, and that a big part of making your list of "primary skills" is deciding on each of their DCs ahead of time to save yourself the trouble of making a ruling later. But yeah, there's no distinction whatsoever between "primary skills" and any other kind. Those are just the ones you anticipated, but they're all equally valid.
- Give them some specific things to interact with and play their skills off of. It shouldn't be completely abstract or freeform. For example, if the party is doing a criminal investigation in a city, maybe give them a short list of city districts and primary figures involved in the crime to better inspire some informed ideas for skill applications. This is going to be an important point to contrast against other examples in this article, because I think it makes a huge difference. Not just in quality, but in the actual role of what a Skill Challenge is and what you're doing when you participate in one.
- Add challenge effects: probably the most distinctive addition to this iteration of SCs, pretty much every single one will have a built-in mechanical twist somehow based on the nature of the activity. This isn't unlike the "secondary skills" of the DMG 2 or even just the part from the DMG 1 where it tells you to consider other relevant conditions, but now it's more codified. Here are the ones they provide for you to use:
- Antagonist: the PCs have an opponent in the SC. Rather than PCs accruing failures when they fail a check, the antagonist is making their own skill checks and each "success" counts as a failure for the PCs. Luckily, the antagonist only goes once per round, a fraction of the number of turns that the PCs get. Also something nice: a PC's action can never make things worse!
- Catastrophic Failure: when a PC fails a skill check by 10+, they accrue 2 failures.
- Changing objectives: at some point in the SC, the objective changes, and the relevant skills and actions would logically change as well. There's no real mechanic here, but plot twists are a classic Star Wars trope.
- Containment: actions can only bring success. Failed checks have no consequences. Instead, a failure is only accrued if no PC earns a success during a time increment determined by the GM. For example, if nobody has a successful roll in a whole round, then the party earns 1 failure.
- Degenerating: the challenge doesn't end at 3 failures, it's just that each individual failure causes the DC for future checks to get one step higher. Each success decreases the DCs, too.
- Degree of Failure: With each failure accrued, there's an additional side consequence to deal with. For example, maybe every failed checks costs you money or forces you to have a combat.
- Degree of Success: Same thing, but you earn a little benefit with each success accrued. Think of the example of the interrogation: each successful check gives more info, even if you fail the SC overall.
- Extreme Success: when a PC succeeds a skill check by 10+, they accrue 2 successes.
- Individual Effort: instead of everyone contributing to a shared pool of successes, now every PC must roll their own number of successes equal to the SC's complexity.
- Initiative: the players roll initiative and must act in that order.
- Opposed DC: the PCs have an opponent in the SC, and rather than the DCs of each skill check being based on the chart, it's either based on the opponent's defenses or their opposed roll.
- Recovery: when a PC succeeds a skill check by 5+, they can choose to remove a failure instead.
- Restricted Skills: "You can implement this effect in three ways. First, you can forbid certain Skills from being used in the challenge. Second, you can limit the number of times that certain Skills can be used, either by an individual hero or by the party overall. Third, you can rule that when a hero accrues a Failure with a certain Skill, that Skill can no longer be used to earn Successes in the challenge."
- Second Effort: "With this effect, any hero who accrues a Failure can make a sacrifice to turn that Failure into a Success. The exact nature of the sacrifice is up to the Gamemaster, but examples include moving down the Condition Track, taking damage, or losing a Force Point."
- Timed Challenge: based on the description, this one is mechanically identical to the "containment" effect. Well, I think it might be different in that you still can earn failures the normal way. But you now also earn a failure at the end of each round that no one had a success.
There's a lot here to like and a few things to dislike. For one thing, that list of "challenge effects" is an excellent addition, and goes a long way towards helping you flesh out a SC. However, I find it kind of infuriating that the book recommends the GM punish players for trying to be helpful. I get that things are more exciting when each PC comes up with a way to contribute their own unique skills each round, but just consider the scenario of Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. Y'know, the primary example the book uses of a Skill Challenge. What action could anyone other than Han contribute except to Aid Another? Also, I don't care for having to assign a DC to each skill when there could instead just be a rule saying "use the moderate DC by default, raise or lower it based on XYZ conditions."
On the other hand, I really like the advice to not keep the challenge abstract. If you always give 2 or 3 details of things the PCs can interact with, that's usually enough fuel to inspire ideas in them. This is one which I'll be elaborating on further in the analysis section.
Matt Colville is largely responsible for re-popularizing Skill Challenges in the RPG world with this video he made about them (warning: this is from a while ago, before he scripted his videos and instead just frantically rambled).
Matt opens with the example of a party of heroes needing to escape a collapsing dungeon, like Samus at the end of a Metroid game. The first check they do is "retracing their steps back through the maze," their second check they do is "piecing together their mental map of the dungeon and inferring the correct door that would, based on sensible geometry, lead to a staircase upwards," their third check they do is "detecting a faint breeze at an intersection and inferring that it must be coming from the outside world, and therefore, the exit," their fourth check is a failure to find the exit by following some tracks (which has the consequence of one player getting injured by a falling block), their fifth check is to heave a big stone statue out from in front of a doorway they need to go through, their sixth check is to notice a secret doorway in a wall, and their seventh and final check is to notice tracks leading to the exit.
This is meant to be an illustration of a great way to use Skill Challenges, but... I don't love it. For a few reasons.
Firstly, the result of failure is... everyone dying. Not only is this strongly counter to the original 4E version, but it's just kinda unsatisfying. Don't get me wrong, I love PC death. I think there should be a healthy amount of it. I'm normally the one voice in any room of 5E fans who says, "death is a perfectly acceptable consequence for a player failing a challenge." But a complete total-party kill being contingent on the swingy success or failure of an improv-minigame feels a bit too far for even me. I want my players to always feel like their death was truly their own fault, if I can help it. Of course, Matt goes on to explain that his plan for if the party failed this SC would be to allow each PC to make one last Athletics or Acrobatics roll to possibly avoid getting crushed (since Matt's terrified of PC death and openly advocates railroading a challenge away from it in increasingly contrived (and hilarious) ways), but this raises an interesting question: how is it that the PCs would always be close enough to the exit to attempt one last "jump through the collapsing door" no matter how far into the SC they fail?
Another reason I dislike it is because the underlying scenario is lacking so much detail that the only way players could come up with applicable efforts is to just "step into the DM's shoes" and improvise sub-challenges in their own path. Like, if you're using a SC to run an interrogation, then the players know what their options are and what difficulties are present because they know what an interrogation is. They've seen them in movies before. If you're using a SC to run a race, then the players don't even need a visual to have a good idea of what sorts of things are helpful and hurtful in this context, because they know what a race is (although it could help). But in Matt's example, without any map of the dungeon or details of what's in it, the players are just kinda pulling challenges from their ass to solve. Some of them I suppose are intelligent inferences ("well if we're trying to find the exit, wouldn't the presence of some air flow be a clue?") but others are things that a player just decided ("okay, imagine there's a boulder in our path. Now imagine me lifting it out of the way. You're welcome." or maybe "Imagine there's a convenient secret door that I just made up. Now imagine that I notice it. You're welcome"). This is another topic I'm gunna delve further into in our last section on analyzing Skill Challenges from a game design standpoint.
A few other notes about Matt's version:
- He advocates openly telling your players when they've entered a SC and how many successes they'll need. He goes with the "you always need exactly 3 failures to lose" method.
- As far as I can tell, he doesn't have the players roll initiative. They just speak up when they have an idea.
- He makes no distinction between "primary" and "secondary" skills. Rather, he just gives the players a couple examples of skills that'll definitely work at the beginning, but then says "it's up to you to be creative in coming up with more" and treats those as equally valid. He still recommends brainstorming that list ahead of time, but just for the purpose of being able to come up with dramatic results for each skill you anticipate being used without needing to improv.
- He also says you should always prepare penalties for each individual skill failure. In his example, it was the consequence of a big rock falling on a PC and dealing some damage.
- He requires that you must be proficient in a skill to attempt it.
- Once you make an attempt with one skill (regardless of success) you cannot use that skill again.
This last point is the most distinctive of Matt's version, and one that has some pros and cons. He likes it because it enforces some variety in the skills being used and the number of players participating. If the SC is to cast a magic ritual from a scroll, then why not just let the Wizard keep making Arcana rolls again and again until you win? But if each skill can only be used by each player once, then you'll see some creative thinking from the Wizard applying different skills and you'll see the other characters attempting Arcana rolls despite not being quite as smart at it as the Wizard is. And this is probably necessary for a version that doesn't use initiative, since there isn't otherwise a built-in method of ensuring that each player will have a turn where they must contribute something.
But the problem is that there isn't really a good diegetic explanation for why this restriction exists. It's a "because I said so" bit of game design, and my players are the kind who'll always say, "okay, yeah, but why?" And no, that's not them being annoying. That's them taking my world seriously, which is the most flattering gift a DM could be lucky enough to receive and is something I don't think you should punish.
This is a pretty notable variation on Skill Challenges that dates all the way back to 2008, I believe before even the 4E DMG 2 came out. Maybe I should have put this example earlier in the post, but truth be told I didn't even discover it until late in this process. I'll be talking about version 1.2, which as far as I can tell is the final iteration. Here are the details:
- Every Skill Challenge is now always three segments long, whether those are rounds, minutes, hours, days, or whatever. Each segment, the DM asks each player for their action in no particular order, because they're all resolved simultaneously. That's right, everyone rolls at the same time. Then, at the end of the segment, the DM tallies up the number of successes and failures, and then moves onto the next segment and does it all again. After the third segment, the DM looks at the number of successes and failures and rules if the party obtained full victory, partial victory, or failure. I've embedded below the chart in the text showing how to calculate results based on the number of successful skill checks made after all 3 segments:
- Like some other versions, this one really discourages players picking the skill and then rationalizing how they use it. They're supposed to declare the action first, and then they work with the DM to figure out which skill would best fit. Good luck maintaining that mental distinction in play, of course. But yeah, they always roll against the assigned DC of the SC, and the DM might grant a +2 to their roll if they had a great idea.
- "Player Options: While engaged in a skill challenge, players can use the following:
- Bold Recovery: A player may spend an action point to reroll a skill check they have made, before they might know if the roll was a success or failure. The player must take the result of the reroll.
- Brazen Action (Combat Skill Challenge only): A player can take a ‐2 to all defenses. He gains a +2 to all skill checks related to a skill challenge. The benefits and drawbacks last until the beginning of his next turn.
- Critical Success: A natural 20 on a skill check is an automatic success. In addition, the player gets one additional success.
- Primary Skill: For most challenges, the DM assigns one or two skills as the center point of the challenge. Players using that skill receive a +2 to their skill checks. Example: In a negotiation with a Duke, diplomacy would be the primary skill. In a scene where the party sneaks into an orc camp, stealth would be the primary skill. If the players were researching a secret from ancient arcane texts, arcana would be the primary.
- DM NOTE: While Primary skills can be useful, you can choose not to have a primary skill for some of your challenges. If you do have a primary, make it known to the players at the beginning of the challenge. Also, most combat challenges do not have a primary skill.
- Unburdened: You may spend one healing surge and choose a skill that has an armor check penalty (such as endurance). For the rest of the skill challenge, you may ignore the armor check penalty for that skill. You may spend additional surges to select more skills."
- A full success on a Mental SC means you get the answers you need, a partial success means you learn some of it, and a failure means you get bad information. Not sure how the players wouldn't know that their info is bad though, since they're presumably aware that they failed the SC.
- A full success on a Physical SC means you get past the obstacle okay, a partial success means you get past but are either exhausted or have another hazard to get past, and a failure means you get damaged, exhausted, or maybe forced into a combat.
- A full success on a Social SC means you get what you want and the other party's opinion of you improves, a partial success means you get a quid pro quo, and a failure means you get nothing and their opinion of you lowers.
- More Combat: if the SC leads into combat, a success translates into a +1 on all the PCs' attacks during the combat and a failure translates into -1s
- Follow the Leader: if the SC would logically have a "leader" PC, then don't assign primary skills. Instead, the leader gains a +2 to all of their skill checks. Whichever skill they use for a segment becomes the primary skill for the rest of the group for that segment.
- Going for Broke: players have the option to take a -5 to their skill check during the final segment only, and if their roll is a success then it counts as 2 successes.
- Players Define Their Victory: before the SC begins, the players name several choices for what they could win on a partial victory. If they get a full victory, then they get all of it!
- Shifting Primary Skills: the primary skills of the challenge change during each of the three segments, as the situation keeps evolving.
- All or Nothing: scrap the "partial victory" thing and instead just set that as the target number for a full victory.
- Scrap the "3 segments" thing. Instead, you can use your move action to make a skill check (possibly moving up to half your speed as part of the action, if necessary).
- There's no penalty for failing the SC, there's just the general added difficulty of wasting your actions making checks that go nowhere when there's still hostile enemies trying to kill you.
- You also typically only need 2 or 3 successful rolls (sounds like a lot less than the default) but the list of relevant skills is usually much more limited.
- The results of a victory should be a major boost in the battle (e.g. bunch of enemies die, boss gets weakened, magic energy crystal gets deactivated, etc.), and there usually aren't any partial victories.
The rest of the document is fairly basic advice on further tweaks ("lower the DC if you don't have any skilled players!"), but that's just about everything worth including. This is definitely one of the more unique variations on the SC model out of everything I cover in this post. I haven't played this version yet, but I really like the sound of it. For one thing, codifying "partial victory" as always being included among the possible results is something that I think has a lot of potential (although the way the 4E DMG explains it, you should always get at least a "partial victory" since God forbid the players ever truly fail at anything). The fact that a SC is always exactly 3 segments is a bit artificial-feeling for me, but every version of the SC has something in it that feels contrived like that, it seems.
Oh, and if anyone out there has actually used this system, I'd love to hear about it. It seems like this Stalker0 fella must have had a decently serious following in the 4E community, just based on what little I saw.
...I don't actually have access to a copy of 13th Age. I'm not really a 4E kind of guy so it's never interested me much. Oh well, I hope it didn't have anything too mind-blowing in it that I'm leaving out.
I've seen all sorts of other tweaks over the years. A good deal of them are meant to be "Skill Challenges for 5E" but the variations are usually applicable to the core mechanic just in general. I'll list them out here.
The podcast Critical Hit from Major Spoilers features the "Lord Kensington" variation with a very interesting change: players cannot use the same skill they used last, or the same skill the person before them used. Much like Colville's version, this has the benefit of enforcing some variety but the detriment of not making any sense (i.e. being a "dissociated rule").
YouTuber "The Dungeon Coach" did a video similar to Colville's, with a few unique notes.
- His primary example isn't just mixing a SC into combat, but rather, running combat as a SC. He thinks it's fine to substitute dozens of attack rolls, bonus actions, and movements with a handful of general, wide-reaching actions punctuating the battle (and, thus, shows that the SC really doesn't need to be about "skill checks" as much as just "good ideas for reaching a solution." He allows flat ability rolls, saving throws, attack rolls, spell attacks, and even initiative rolls).
- He has a single static DC for all checks in the SC. The only variation is if advantage or disadvantage is imposed on a PC for some reason.
- None of the types of checks rolled by anyone on the first round can be used by anyone in the next round (but they become available again in the round after that). This applies every round. This is one of the more elaborate tweaks I've seen done for the sake of variation.
- You always have the option to "Aid Ally" to give another PC advantage on their next roll if you can describe how you're gunna help them, for which the DC is 5 less than the default DC of the SC. However, failing an Aid Ally check counts as a failure for the SC.
This version from "Professor Fluff" of the RPG Academy does a neat thing: instead of needing to make X successful checks, the SC has a "challenge rating" (basically HP) = 4 × the number of players. So for a party of 5 characters, the CR of the SC is 20. Then, for each successful skill roll that a PC makes, you take the margin of success over the DC and subtract it from the CR. Continuing the example, if the barbarian makes an Athletics check against a DC of 15 and rolls a total of 18, then they succeed by a margin of 3 and, thus, reduce the CR from 20 to 17. The SC is completed once the CR has been reduced to 0. Failed checks don't increase the CR, but instead cause some consequence the DM decided ahead of time (such as taking damage or something).
Scott from Optional Rule is pretty... hazy on how he does Skill Challenges (or even just how he defines them), but a good takeaway from this post is the technique of "progressive failures." Basically, instead of a task being a simple pass/fail roll, there are stages of failure. After your first failed attempt, nothing changes. You just don't make progress. After your second failed roll, you suffer a setback and now either require assistance or a change of approach. Only after your third failed roll do you suffer the full consequences of failing the task. See, it's like a good version of Colville's "infinite 'fail-states'" idea.* So if you apply this to a SC, then you now have a solid, easy-to-remember go-to consequence to impose on the players after each failed roll instead of just winging it.
"Kassoon.com" has a 5E SC tool with a rules explanation that, I will fully confess, is mostly pretty bad (in my opinion). I'm including it here because it uniquely suggests that 1) any time a PC figures out a way to apply a Long Rest feature to their check, it grants advantage, and 2) any time they can apply a Short Rest feature, it grants +2. Personally, I'd rather just judge it on a case-by-case basis for "how would this feature logically affect the situation?" but it's an idea that accounts for 5E's rules specifically.
Back in 2012, good ol' DM David did a "history of Skill Challenges" series of blog posts (which I'll be citing again later in the analysis portion). Probably his best contribution is to reframe the whole thing as an "obstacle course" challenge. Rather than the players each coming up with a sub-challenge that their skill could address, part of the DM's job in prepping the SC is to come up with sub-challenges. You don't just say, "you're trying to escape the collapsing dungeon, what do you do?" You instead say, "you're trying to escape the collapsing dungeon, but obstacles X, Y, and Z are in your path keeping you from doing so. How do you get past each of these specific sub-challenges?"
The Skill Challenge Handbook from the Mystic Theurge Workshop was an early attempt by a fan to seriously tackle this system and write the authoritative revision and guide to running them. Which is why I was a little disappointed to find that it didn't have all that much to offer that was really special. The most notable addition is this gambling-like rule: when the DM is creating the SC, they should create 2-5 complications for it which a player may choose to target with a "failure action." The standard assumption is that there's one type of primary skill or action for addressing the main tension of the challenge. But if you fail that skill roll, you could choose to use a failure action and now re-roll but with a different skill (presumably more appropriate to that little side complication). The benefit is that you might be better with that alternative skill, and each time you choose to take a failure action you'll also earn a cumulative +2 bonus on your skill checks in the SC, but the downside is that you have to suffer the penalty of the side complication. The example they give is the classic scenario of climbing a cliff face. The default roll would probably be an Athletics check, but if you fail on that roll then you could choose to address the failure action of "dodging falling rocks" and now re-roll, but using a Dex save or something instead. But of course, failing on this re-roll means you get smacked in the face by rocks in addition to getting a failure on the SC. I'll admit, this is one of the more fiddly houserules I've seen in this entire journey of researching Skill Challenges, although part of that must come from the explanation being so sloppy. I generally enjoy opt-in gambling mechanics like this.
Similar rules from other sources
|8/10 cover art. I mean, say what you will|
about the man, but how could you not be
stoked when you ask a question about a
game and its creator comes to answer?
Here’s my simple rule:For each region, I have a short list of mishaps. Each day, in addition to their travel activities I have the party make a group check appropriate to the area’s danger.I have one tweak to the group check rules - each result of 20 plus cancels one failure.For example, when crossing the mountains everyone makes a Wisdom (Survival) check. Moving through a goblin-infested forest might be Dexterity (Stealth).If the group check fails, the party runs into trouble, like triggering an avalanche or blundering into a goblin ambush.I also use the individual checks to track wear and tear. On a 5 or less, characters accumulate minor penalties that remain until they rest in civilization.This includes things like speed penalties (twist an ankle), max hp reduction (slip and fall off a ledge) and other minor mishaps (lose rations or damage armor for a -1 AC penalty). Nothing big, but it can add up with daily checks made for a two-week trek across the mountains.My campaign is a sandbox, so it makes picking which areas to visit more fun and makes the edges of the map feel more innately dangerous and risky.
I'm sure you can get some ideas about what to steal from this for Skill Challenges.
|10/10 cover art. I'm a fan of Graphite's style|
The layout of the maze is totally abstracted, although it will otherwise be a lot like an old school dungeoncrawl. Whatever system you're running, figure out the best way to represent a "navigating through a maze effectively" check. The party must make X number of successful consecutive rolls to complete the maze, with X varying based on the size and complexity of the maze. Each roll uses a 10 minute turn. As always, you're also rolling for random encounters as the party consumes time. In my case, I roll to see if they have one every dungeon turn, so if I were using this system then there'd be a chance every single navigation check that they run into something. These aren't always monsters of course. You make a table of random things you come across. They could be puzzles or traps or interesting rooms or whatever. In a way, preparing a maze is basically just combining the two steps you'd normally follow when preparing a dungeon: making the list of rooms and making the list of random encounters.
Consecutive successes are tricky to secure because all it takes is one failure to lose all progress completely. But logically, it makes a lot of sense. Each success represents you making incremental progress towards the goal, but even just one wrong decision will take you pretty far down an incorrect path before you realize you've made a mistake, and you'll be pretty lost again.
However, because of the added difficulty of the successes needing to be consecutive, I think it could be good to reward players for discovering or establishing landmarks in the maze that'll help serve as reference points. There can be a few built into the list of encounters (such as the center of the maze or a corner of the maze or a unique room), but there could also be created new ones if the players leave a distinguishable marker somewhere (like by drawing a chalk mark on a specific statue so they'll not get it mixed up with the others). For every landmark that's been found or made, they get a +1 bonus to all future navigation rolls, thus rewarding them for gradually "learning" the layout of the maze. Even if they needed 6 consecutive successes and they failed on their 5th, they don't feel so bad about starting over because their progress wasn't for nothing. They're racking up bonuses that'll make future rolls easier.
Go ahead and read that post in full (and perhaps my other post where I elaborate on it) if this sounds cool to you.
|10/10 cover. Anytime I can carry an RPG book|
that scares some older religious folks, that's
a victory for me.
So why not apply that to other situations?
Thus, Runehammer gives us the distinction between a "check" (your standard pass/fail d20+stat) roll and an "attempt" (first do a check, then roll your "effort die" to determine how much progress you made on completing the task). So now tasks like climbing a rope, deciphering an inscription, mending wounds, befriending someone, etc. all have a "HP bar," in a sense. This is always intended to be an abstraction, so don't worry about finding a diegetic representation for HP (e.g. a climbing challenge need not be framed as "every point of effort you subtract from the HP bar represents X feet scaled" or something).
So much like a SC, you can take a task slightly more complex than a regular check and allow the party to overcome it through a series of several checks, likely collaborating to get it done. However, because you're rolling "damage" against its "HP," it's impossible to say exactly how many different successful checks you'll need to complete it. That said, there is a built-in way to reward some efforts as being more effective than others. You see, effort is always categorized by where you're drawing that effort from, which will correspond to different die sizes. The default method is "basic effort," which uses a d4 (pitiful) and is good for all attempts. But a big part of the game is acquiring powerful loot, which always have a "damage die" that you roll whenever you use them for effort. So you might get a magic sword that has "d8 weapon effort" that you can roll in place of the d4 whenever "weapon effort" could reasonably apply to an attempt. Likewise, your enchanted headband might give you "d10 magic effort" that can applied towards magic-centered attempts, and so on. Lastly, if you ever roll a nat 20 on the initial check of an attempt, then you can roll an additional d12 of "ultimate effort" on top of whatever other effort die you're applying. Oh, and attempts typically have HP in increments of 10, so you can do the math on how much harder each additional 10 HP makes an attempt when the effort being applied is a d4 versus a d10 and all that.
|7/10 cover art. I personally would|
have chosen to make the cover a
depiction of the setting's main city,
which is the real main event.
So rather than being something that goes into your prep work, the game wants to train you into the habit of quickly recognizing when the PCs are going to face an obstacle that has stages or layers to it, and then make a quick ruling on if it deserves to split into 4, 6, or 8 steps. Then, you draw the clock and you ask the players what they do to advance through each obstacle. For each effort they make, fill in a cell. Better than just being a miniaturized and simplified version of the SC, you're actually supposed to combine clocks, having several running alongside each other at once. For example, if the players are going to infiltrate a rival gang's HQ, then maybe you'll set up 3 clocks for them to get through: one clock for the "perimeter security," one for the "interior guards," and one for the "office security."
Alright, is there an analogue to the failures from a SC? Sure! Just set up a "danger clock" for whatever growing complications or negative consequences there are in the current situation. This would fill up based on your discretion about how the fictional scenario is declining, but there's no hard mechanical trigger for it based on the player's actions like in a SC. For one thing, Blades in the Dark already covers "risk and consequences for failure" in its core mechanic, so it needn't be made into a special part of this super-structure.
There. That's every last variation on Skill Challenges I could find that I believe was worth mentioning. Just in case anyone needed them all in one place and didn't feel like buying the books, watching the videos, and rummaging around the internet on their own, I did it for you.
I hope you were taking notes along the way as to which variations you liked and which ones you didn't, and what difference they'd make. The more I read, the more I began to get this feeling like one's own preference on SCs is almost like a litmus test for their DMing style. Do you like planning or flying by the seat of your pants? Do you want to craft a challenge or do you want your players to have narrative power? Do you want to encourage teamwork or do you want to spotlight an individual for their special talent?
*No, but seriously, that's not even what the term "fail-state" fucking means, Colville. Each of those situations is literally the opposite of a fail-state.