Skill Challenges

A "skill challenge" is simply a setpiece plot situation in which the PCs are expected to use their skills and abilities to overcome some sort of challenge. Getting through the challenge without gravely unfortunate mishaps qualifies as "success", while anything else is "failure". The basic mechanism is fairly simple.

1) The DM decides how many successful skill checks constitute "victory", and how many failed skill checks constitute a "loss". It always takes fewer failures to lose than it takes victories to win- so the DM might say 3 successes/2 failures for a simple challenge, or 6 successes/5 failures for a complicated one. Successes and failures are tracked separately- they don't cancel each other.

2) Each PC poses their action and states what skill they're using. The DM decides whether or not it's a plausible skill or a useful action. If it's a particularly clever idea, the PC might get a bonus. If it's a real stretch of plausibility or utility, the PC might take a penalty on the skill check. Repeatedly using the same skill may earn penalties, as it's assumed you're exploiting all the easy angles for a skill early on.

3) The player decides whether to make an Easy, Medium, or Hard skill check and rolls it. The DCs for 1st-3rd level characters are 11 for Easy, 15 for Medium, and 19 for Hard. For this purpose, a 1 always fails a check and a 20 always succeeds. Note that this is the player deciding- they're making a game decision on how much to gamble on the roll. ICly, their PC is obviously doing the best they can. If a DM prefers, he can instead simply decide himself whether the action is easy, medium or hard.

4) If the PC fails an Easy check, they suffer some DM-decided bad consequence in addition to earning a failure. If the PC succeeds at a Hard check, they get some DM-decided extra bonus in addition to earning a success.

5) Repeat the process until the PCs earn enough successes to win- or get enough failures to lose.

For example, suppose that the PCs need to convince a group of village elders to spend a significant amount of their yearly harvest earnings on new weaponry for the villagers. In standard 3.5 rules, this would normally be handled by having the PC with the highest Diplomacy skill pose their argument and then make a roll. If it beat the DM-set DC, then the villagers would be convinced. If not, the villagers would decide to spend the cash elsewhere. This is a perfectly feasible way of doing things, but it tends to leave the rest of the party standing around watching- and even the most silver-tongued orator can suddenly blow his argument by rolling a 2 on the check.

Instead, try the scene with the village elders and three PCs- one a smooth-talking rogue, one a swordsage with no social skills, and one a likewise socially-misfit druid. Before the scene, you decide that it's a 4/3 social challenge- 4 successes wins, and 3 failures loses. You start the scene and pose the elders talking amongst themselves doubtfully about the situation. Then you tap the rogue to do his action.

The rogue thinks about it, and decides to play it safe. He's a Diplomacy expert, with a total of +7 to his check, so he poses the rogue sweet-talking the elders and pointing out how necessary and wise it is to lay up arms against future strife. He picks an Easy challenge and rolls. He rolls a 4 and barely makes the DC 11, so the group now has 1 success.

The druid hasn't got any social skills, but he's good with plants. He tries a Knowledge/nature roll, explaining to the villagers how he can hang around and show them how to plant in better harmony with the land, and help improve their crop output to make up for this year's expenditure. The DM decides that's a plausible way to do it. The druid's Knowledge/Nature check is +6, and he decides to go for a Medium challenge. He's got less chance of succeeding, but the group can afford a few failures and he wants to avoid taking the extra penalty for failing an Easy check. He rolls a 9, and barely makes it. 2 successes now.

The swordsage is a social cretin, but he's got plenty of Martial Lore. With that in mind, he launches into a pose of the swordsage waving his blade around and telling the baffled elders that they too can become glorious kung-fu blade devils and masters of such-and-such techniques, if only they get the right hardware. The DM decides this is a stretch, so gives him a -2 to the check, but lets him roll it. He goes for Medium, rolls a 12, and makes it. 3 successes. And so forth and so on, each PC taking their turn until victory or failure is had.

As an alternative, the DM could've decided the difficulties, omitting circumstance modifiers and just deciding that the rogue's angle was Easy, the druid's gambit was Medium, and the outre' swordsage was trying something Hard.

The same general technique works for all manner of complicated skill situations. Chases? The PCs make skill checks to catch up with their quarry or evade their pursuers. Negotiations? As exampled above, it works fine for that. Investigations? Let each PC do their own figuring on how to make their skills useful in finding out information. Even ostensible combat scenes can be run as an extended skill challenge, with use of spells and special powers giving bonuses on the rolls.

How to use skill challenges

For a DM to use skill challenges effectively, they need to figure out two things- what constitutes victory, and what happens if the PCs fail. Victory is the easier of the two- if the challenge succeeds, then things will end up pretty much as the PCs want them. They'll convince the villagers to buy the weapons, they'll disarm the multi-part trap, they'll navigate the churning mountain river, or otherwise get their purpose accomplished. It's easy to write a plot with this in mind. Just pick a few crucial moments in the storyline and turn them into skill challenges, with the PCs obliged to use their wits and prowess to win through. If they succeed, then things progress as your storyline expects. Dealing with the outcome of failure, on the other hand, requires more improvisational abilities. Since their failure will often be strongly touched by the way in which they failed, it's tough to figure out beforehand what an appropriate penalty for failure could be. Even so, you can generally predict major consequences well in advance; the villagers don't buy the weapons, the trap goes off on the PCs, or the party's boat comes apart on the river and they have to struggle ashore and fight their way overland to the destination. You should be careful to keep in mind what you're going to do if these challenges fail, so as not to derail the plot when the PCs suddenly prove incapable of accomplishing something. If you do get caught without a plan, you can let the players seemingly succeed at the task, and then spend a little time thinking about some unfortunate consequence of their tepid performance and how it can come back to bite them.

What if the players want to use their special powers or class abilities in the skill challenge? Some special abilities would seem to completely short-circuit a skill challenge; a brain-bending telepath that decides to use a mass mind control effect to force the village elders into buying the weapons is using a class ability he inarguably has, and there's no logical reason why it wouldn't work in the skill challenge. A player might decide to have his PC pull his sword and kill an inquisitive guard patrol rather than evade their notice, and if the PC is strong enough, there's no reason why he couldn't do that with relative ease. This should be permitted; players have abilities in order to use them. Die-rolling can be omitted in these cases, and the DM can simply decide for him or herself how the events will play out afterwards. Brute-force methods may bring immediate results at the cost of long-term complications.

A more subtle case is that of players who want to use abilities to aid their skill checks. A character who needs to hide might well decide to use an Invisibility spell instead of relying upon a simple Hide check. Someone who wants to use his Climb skill might augment it with the Up The Walls feat. In the case that you don't decide this is an automatic success, relevant power use should add +2 to +4 to the skill check. You shouldn't panic if a PC whips out a large rack of abilities that seem to bypass your skill challenge. PCs have these powers, and it's perfectly all right to let them simply win now and then, if they can explain adequately how their abilities are helping them. If a player seems particularly perfectly suited to overwhelm a challenge, you might omit the rolling entirely, and just roleplay out their success. Note that this does not mean you cannot then promptly arrange for some combat encounter or other situation where their depleted abilities are now taxed, or that it's unfair to face a character specialized in some trait with a situation they aren't optimized for. Sometimes a PC is excellent for some job- and sometimes he's got to figure out how to cope with what he's got.

It's perfectly legitimate to run a big, confused melee as a skill challenge. If the majority of the combatants are just popcorn that can't seriously challenge the PC individually, then it can be more convenient to just run it as a narrated challenge than to sort out 40 different attack rolls that will only hit on a natural 20. To add pressure to scenes like this, you might do a certain small amount of damage to the PC after every round, representing the nicks and cuts he takes from lucky shots and encouraging him to win quickly before he's overwhelmed. Failures might result in greater amounts of damage, while well-chosen use of combat maneuvers and spells might give additional bonii on the rolls.

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