4e’s Best Mechanic: Skill Challenges

This article was sponsored by Mitchell Wallace. Thank you Mitchell!

Okay, I’ve waited on writing on this subject for long enough. Today we’re going to talk about a mechanic that I’ve implemented in every campaign I’ve run since I’ve heard of it, Skill Challenges. It is the unsung hero of everyone’s favorite version of Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. 

Okay, okay. It’s no secret that Dungeons and Dragons 4e is still widely hated by many in the tabletop RPG community. I mean, not by everyone. I mean, I really loved my time playing it. But, just stick with me here. This is the number-one, absolute best thing that came from 4e. But before we get into that, first we need to discuss why it was one of it’s least popular mechanics in its day.

What is a Skill Challenge?

First, let’s take a look at skill challenges. In its simplest form, the basics of a Skill Challenge is this:

Players must take turns to achieve X successes before Y failures in order to achieve their goal.

Well, I’m sure this seems familiar to you! You’ve probably been doing something like this in many of your games already. There are even other variants on the basic premise of skill challenges in many other popular TTRPG’s. Have you ever heard of clocks from the game Blades In The Dark? These are just modified skill challenges, albeit more polished ones. Tracking successes against failures to determine the overall outcome. 

Original Rules & Problems

As with 4e itself, 4e skill challenges weren’t universally adopted or loved in it’s day for three reasons. The first: The rules were poorly written in the rulebook. The rules as originally written were unclear with a poor example of a skill challenge. While it gives the basics of the rules, it does not show you how to use skill challenges effectively. In the early days of 4e there were countless posts on how to run skill challenges, or just complaining about them outright. Wizards still has an excerpt out of the 4e Dungeon Master Guide available on their website for those that really want to see what I’m talking about.

Secondly, the rule structure was too rigid. How it’s originally pitched, it looks like a skill challenge puts more emphasis on exactly which skills you can use, and how they work. Based on the “Complexity” and difficulty of the skill challenge characters would have a specific number of successes, sometimes with high DC’s, before reaching a certain amount of failures. This also usually gave a very one-or-the-other result as opposed to shades of grey.

Finally, and worst overall, it was incorrectly pitched in the rulebook. The two examples, characters finding their way through the wilderness, and trying to negotiate with a duke. To be honest, both of these examples are perfect for skill challenges. Multiple checks to navigate the woods makes sense, though it may not be a very interesting example at first glance. Negotiating with a noble is also a great time for a skill challenge, it’s always harder to convince someone to your side if they’re predisposed to something else. I mean, these are both good uses of a skill challenge, but neither example shows off it’s greatest strength: dramatic tension.

How to do Skill Challenges

In a Tabletop RPG it can be difficult for your players to feel tension growing during scenes. How close are they to success or failure is pretty easy to determine in combat, but that’s not always the case with other aspects of games. Enter the skill challenge!

Dramatic tension is the true superpower of skill challenges, if they’re done right. And there are a lot of factors that really aren’t stated in the original DM Guide. As the character’s succeed or fail, the story progresses, but it’s the players that are driving forward the situation in their own way. This can give real agency to the players during scenes where time is of the essence, or that have high stakes, without relying on a single roll for each player to determine whether or not it turns out in their favor.

As mentioned before, I add skill challenges in one shape or another with every game I run. And these are the generic rules that I use.

  • Always tell the players when they are entering a skill challenge and the number of successes and failures. Not having transparency cheapens the skill challenge making it seem arbitrary.
  • All players will take turns to accomplish a goal. Difficulties of these checks can fluctuate as they make sense. They can take one of two actions:
    • A player may try to affect the outcome, which will either add a success or a failure to the skill challenge.
    • A player may attempt to aid another in their roll, granting advantage (or it’s system equivalent) on a success, or disadvantage on a failure. These do not stack, but can be applied to other players.
  • No player may take an action until all other players have taken an action.
  • Whenever a character succeeds or fails, the entire party progresses, or falls behind. 
  • Players may roll any skill that makes logical sense within the context of the challenge.
  • Players may not use the same skill (or it’s system equivalent) twice in a row. Other players, however, may use the same skill within the same round as long as it makes sense within the context of the scene.
  • After any player takes an action, the GM will increase the stakes, or set the scene as appropriate.

An Example

Let’s take two characters, Gar’Lund, an Orc warrior, and Kevin, a humble druid. While exploring a rather small dungeon, Kevin unwittingly sets off a trap.

[DM] : Kevin, you grab the jewel on the top of the alter, and start to hear a deep rumble. You try putting it back, but it’s too late. All of the stone doors in the room start to slowly lower and you realize that you’ve made a mistake. This is going to be a skill challenge to escape the dungeon before you are locked in. You need 3 successes before 2 failures to complete this challenge. Gar’Lund, you have the first action.

[Gar’Lund] : WHAT DID YOU TOUCH? (I’m going to try to brace the door with a large branch buying us time to escape. I got a 14 on my Athletics check)

[DM] : That’s a success! You brace the door just long enough for Kevin to slide through. You again see the narrow beam acting as a bridge over the large chasm. The deep rumbling threatens to collapse this section of the dungeon. Kevin, it’s your move.

[Kevin] : No time for hesitation! (I’m going to use Acrobatics to run across the beam at top speed! Dang it! I rolled a 4)

[DM] : That’s a failure. Kevin, you slip from the beam and are narrowly able to grab hold of the beam before plummeting. Gar’Lund, what are you going to do?

[Gar’Lund] : You could still exercise some caution! (I’m going to use Acrobatics as well, to balance on the beam and help Kevin up. Awesome! I got a 17 total.)

[DM] : Success! Gar’Lund, you’re a strong guy, but also pretty nimble. You quickly make your way across the beam, grabbing Kevin by the hand and hurling him to the opposite side. However, the rumbling is finally catching up to you. The entrance to the dungeon is beginning to collapse as rocks rain down from above. Kevin, if you succeed on the next check you both make it out, but a failure means you will be trapped. What do you do?

[Kevin] : (That’s too much for me. I want to roll Insight to direct a safe passage to grant advantage to Gar’Lund)

[DM] : That makes sense to me, DC of 12. Roll it.

[Kevin] : (Yes! An 18.) ‘Lund! Look out! Go that way!

[Gar’Lund] : Got it. (OK, I think I’m going to use Survival to navigate the best path and run through. I got a 7, and a 17… so 17.)

[DM] : A full success! The bricks at the dungeons entrance crumble away, leaving just a pile of rubble as the two of you just barely make it out in time. 

Give Skill Challenges a chance

I know we’re not the first one to talk about skill challenges, and their application to other games (especially 5e). But this mechanic is simply too powerful to ignore outright. Whether or not you use skill challenges, it’s still a powerful took to keep in your GM toolkit!

Have you ever had experience with Skill challenges? Are there any systems that use a similar mechanic you want to shout out? Let us know in the comments!

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