This time, Bill Slavicsek introduces us to skill challenges, which can form the basis of an encounter all by themselves, or can be combined with a combat encounter to make a really memorable part of any adventure.
From the first discussions about D&D 4th Edition, we knew that we wanted a mechanical subsystem as robust as combat that could handle the other things PCs do in an adventure—namely, social encounters and challenge encounters. We didn’t want a system that reduced all the intricacies of a situation to a single die roll; we also didn’t want a system that failed to add to the fun of an adventure. What we did want, for the situations that called for it, was a system full of tension, drama, and risk… the very essence of any D&D encounter.
The Skill Challenges system leaves plenty of room for roleplaying, while providing a sound mechanical rules element that allows for die rolling and the tension of a random element. It’s a robust system that can be used for any social encounter that includes real consequences for failure, as well as for other skill challenges that don’t involve combat—from finding your way out of a mysterious jungle, to taming a savage beast, to researching an ancient spell, and more.
What follows is the opening section of the Skill Challenges chapter, a few key sidebars, and a skill challenge template right out of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
An audience with the duke, a mysterious set of sigils in a hidden chamber, finding your way through the Forest of Neverlight—all of these present challenges that test both the characters and the people who play them. The difference between a combat challenge and a skill challenge isn’t the presence or absence of physical risk, nor the presence or absence of attack rolls and damage rolls and power use. The difference is in how the encounter treats PC actions.
Skill challenges can account for all the action in a particular encounter, or they can be used as part of a combat encounter to add variety and a sense of urgency to the proceedings.
To deal with a skill challenge, the player characters make skill checks to accumulate a number of successful skill uses before they rack up too many failures and end the encounter.
Example: The PCs seek a temple in dense jungle. Achieving six successes means they find their way. Accruing three failures before achieving the successes, however, indicates that they get themselves hopelessly lost in the wilderness.
Is This a Challenge?
It’s not a skill challenge every time you call for a skill check. When an obstacle takes only one roll to resolve, it’s not a challenge. One Diplomacy check to haggle with the merchant, one Athletics check to climb out of the pit trap, one Religion check to figure out whose sacred tome contains the parable—none of these constitutes a skill challenge.
Encounters Have Consequences
Skill challenges have consequences, positive and negative, just as combat encounters do. When the characters overcome a skill challenge, they earn the same rewards as when they slay monsters in combat—experience and perhaps treasure. The consequences of total defeat are often obvious: no XP and no treasure.
Success or failure in a skill challenge also influences the course of the adventure—the characters locate the temple and begin infiltrating it, or they get lost and must seek help. In either case, however, the adventure continues. With success, this is no problem, but don’t fall into the trap of making progress dependent on success in a skill challenge. Failure introduces complications rather than ending the adventure. If the characters get lost in the jungle, that leads to further challenges, not the end of the adventure.
Sample Skill Challenges
Use the following skill challenge templates as the basis for skill challenges you design for your adventures. The level and complexity values are suggestions only; adjust as necessary to meet the needs of your adventure.
The duke sits at the head of his banquet table. Gesturing with a wine glass, he bids you to sit. “I’m told you have news from the borderlands.”
This skill challenge covers attempts to gain a favor or assistance from a local leader or other authority figure. The challenge might take only as long as a normal conversation, or it could stretch on for days as the characters perform tasks to earn the NPC’s favor.
Setup: For the NPC to provide assistance, the PCs need to convince him or her of their trustworthiness and that their cause helps the NPC in some way.
Level: Equal to the level of the party.
Complexity: 3 (requires 8 successes before 4 failures).
Primary Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, Insight.
Bluff (moderate DCs): You try to encourage the NPC to aid your quest using false pretenses. Characters can cooperate to aid a lead character using this skill.
Diplomacy (moderate DCs): You entreat the NPC for aid in your quest. First success with this skill opens up the use of the History skill (the NPC mentions an event from the past that has significance to him).
Insight (moderate DCs): You empathize with the NPC and use that knowledge to encourage assistance. First success with this skill reveals that any use of the Intimidate skill earns a failure.
History (easy DC): You make an insightful remark about the significant event from the NPC’s past. This is available only after one character has gained a success using the Diplomacy skill, and it can be used only once in this way during the challenge.
Intimidate: The NPC refuses to be intimidated by the PCs. Each use of this skill earns a failure.
Success: The NPC agrees to provide reasonable assistance to the characters. This could include treasure.
Failure: The characters are forced to act without the NPC’s assistance. They encounter more trouble, which may be sent by the NPC out of anger or antagonism.
Be sure to return Wednesday for a look at weapons!