Thursday, February 7, 2013

RPG: In Defense of Skill Challenges

SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on running/playing Red Hand of Doom, by Rich Baker and James Jacobs, this blog makes reference to an event that occurs at the end of Part 1 (5 Parts total). Red Hand of Doom is one of the best written sandbox-style modules for DnD v3.5. If you haven't run it, you should.


A common complaint about 4th edition DnD is that it reduced all roleplaying opportunities to skill checks via the Skill Challenge mechanic. You should never let a game tell you that you can't roleplay, but I understand where the concern comes from because I felt the same way. Then I started playing with the mechanic.

What I discovered was that when properly used, skill challenges enhanced roleplaying while keeping high stress situations, like sneaking into a dragon's lair, stressful. I never used them for important social interactions, like swaying a council to heed a warning about an oncoming horde, in the same way I'd never have let a single Diplomacy check persuade them, but physical challenges like chase scenes and social interactions with less important PCs became much more interesting.

Below is an example of a skill challenge I constructed for the 3rd edition module, "Red Hand of Doom", which I converted to 4th edition. In this scene, the players are escaping the burning town of Drellin's Ferry as its being overrun by a horde they could not stop. In the module, the scene is vaguely described (something like, 'as the PCs escape from the burning town, they must evade patrols'), but this skill challenge allowed the stress of the chase to build and gave the players multiple options if they succeeded.

Drellin's Ferry is experiencing a high fire advisory.
Please do not ignite fireballs outside designated areas.
In fairness to those having issues with skill challenges as written, I use one new mechanic and one house rule to fine-tune my challenges. The Group Check is a type of Aid and is described under Stealth (Group) below. Group checks prevent a single bad roll from screwing the entire party, while allowing unskilled party members to slow down someone with crazy skills. Group checks represent skilled members giving less skilled members guidance during a non-combat situation, particularly when used with Stealth-, Nature-, and Perception-style checks. Having players roll group checks one at a time also adds to the suspense.

The house rule I use is simple--players must describe how they are using a skill and they cannot use the same description twice. You can't say "I make a Nature check to navigate the burning trees" six times for six successes. You can use that once (though I may give a -2 banal penalty for lack of imagination). If you want to use Nature again, you must think of something else. In the case of my PCs, one player used a Nature check to read the fire and winds to find an area of dense smoke which they used to hide their scent from the Gnolls. Even if a skill is 'passive' like Perception, Stealth or Insight, the player making the check must describe the scene, creating brilliant cooperative storytelling opportunities.

It's also important to note that the players were only aware of what primary skills would be helpful, while being clear that any skill was fair game as long as they could come up with a reasonable use for it. They were not told the specific mechanics except that they needed 10 successes before 3 failures and that Stealth (Group) checks must gain them 2 of the successes. As several of the PCs had poor Stealth checks, that increased the anxiety from the start.

The Ambush of Wyrmlord Koth
The players in my game managed to escape, barely, with 10 successes to 2 failures. They would have lost with 3 but one of the players used Intimidate to terrify a gnoll scout and negate one of their failures. Because they succeeded, they had the choice of either escaping, or ambushing Wyrmlord Koth in the woods outside of town. They chose ambush.

To increase player interaction, I gave them a variety of set pieces and allowed them to build the area where the ambush would take place. I then placed Koth's forces along one edge and the players were allowed to place their minis anywhere on the board. They were given a full round of surprise and Combat Advantage. Between the adrenaline rush of the skill challenge, cooperative storytelling behind the chase scene and an intense combat encounter, the session was a huge success.

If you have a deep-seated hatred of skill challenges, I encourage you to look again, not to replace roleplaying, but to stimulate the imaginations of your players. I found them to be a powerful tool in my DM's toolbox and will be using them again whatever edition I play.

Escape From Drellin’s Ferry Skill Challenge
by Rich Howard

The PC’s must escape the burning town and countryside around Drellin’s Ferry while being hunted by the red dragon Abrithiax, Wyrmlord Koth and packs of Gnolls.

Setup: The PC’s start the challenge at ½ Healing Surges (rounded up), ¾ HPs, 0 AP, and are down 1 daily and 2 encounter powers.  They must navigate the burning town and countryside of Drellin’s Ferry to either escape, or ambush, Wyrmlord Koth.
Level: 10 (DC: 14, 19, 23)
Complexity: 10 successes before 3 failures
Special Rewards: At 4/8/10 successes, each PC regains a single healing surge.  At 6 successes, they are allowed to take a short rest.  At 10 successes, they gain an Action Point.
Use of Spells: If PCs attempt to use spells in place of a skill check, they may gain a success, or both a success and a failure depending on the spell.  Area/Burst/Blast spells gain both a success and a failure.  Single Target spells gain a success but may only gain 2 successes total during the challenge.

For example, Treybur wants to use the Chill Wind At-Will power to put out a fire in the PCs way.  The fire is put out, gaining a success, but the area affect attack draws the attention of nearby gnoll patrols, gaining a failure.

Primary Skills: Stealth (group, 23); Athletics/Acrobatics (19); Streetwise/Nature (19)
Stealth (Group): One PC makes Stealth check.  All other PC’s must Aid.  Those who are aiding make rolls as follows: 15+ = +2 to primary Stealth Check; 10-14 = +0 to primary Stealth check; 9 or less = -2 to primary Stealth check.
Failed Stealth check results in 2 longbow attacks against randomly determined PCs (+10 vs AC, 1d10+4 dmg) in addition to the failure.
At least 2 of the successes for the challenge must be Stealth checks.
Athletics/Acrobatics: PC tries to navigate a treacherous path through the rubble and fire. On a failed check, the PC loses 1 healing surge in addition to the failure.
Streetwise/Nature: PC leads the party through the burning trees and buildings.

Secondary Skills: Bluff (14); Intimidate (14); Thievery (19); Insight/Perception (14)
Bluff/Intimidate: PC discovers a way to throw off their pursuers or persuade them to think twice about following.  These skills do not add successes, but instead remove a single failure.  They may only be used once each during the challenge.
Thievery: PC sets up a trap, opens a locked door into a non-burning building, etc, to allow the group a breather.  In addition to adding a success, the PCs regain a single healing surge.
Insight/Perception: PC uses his skills to predict when and where the hunters will move, or see their pursuers before the pursuers see them.  These skills don’t provide successes/failures, but do add a +2/-2 to any single check made by themselves or an ally.

Success: PCs may either escape Drellin’s Ferry, avoiding an encounter with Wyrmlord Koth, or they can choose to ambush Wyrmlord Koth’s group.  If the latter, the PCs will gain a full round of surprise, plus Combat Advantage.

Ambush Layout:
1)  Provide the players with 3D terrain pieces to layout the forest area where they want the ambush.
2)  DM then places Wyrmlord Koth’s party anywhere in the play area designed by the PCs
3)  Players then place their minis anywhere in the play area.

Failure: The PCs are trapped by Koth and his men.  Koth and the gnolls gain initiative in the first round of combat.


  1. Well, thanks for the spoiler! LOL! My DM is running us through Red Hand of Doom using Pathfinder. We are at Drellin's Ferry and told the local officials that they need to evacuate the town/village as there is a large force coming. We slowed them down by collapsing the bridge over the gorge. That bought us a few days time.

    1. Oh, man. Sorry about that! You'll love that module. It's a classic.