So, yesterday I talked about my thinking behind when and how to use skill challenges. Today, I’m going to post a few examples of skill challenges that I’ve used, or am planning to use, in my games.
Finding the Goblins
One of the first skill challenges I designed and ran was in the Storm Point game. The party had heard rumours of a band of goblins in the countryside stealing from farms. The goblins were said to have a map to a lost Arkhosian ruin that the party wanted. The party had to find the goblins and recover the map, incidentally stopping their predations on the rural folk.
Now, in previous editions, either the whole thing would have fallen on the shoulders of the ranger, who could try to track the goblins while everyone else sat around with their weapons ready and nothing to do. Or I could have laid out a map of the area and let the party wander around until they happened across the goblins. But I thought it would be a good way to use a skill challenge to get everyone involved.
I set the level at 1 (they were first-level characters) and complexity 2. To round out the experience to a full first-level encounter, I put together a squad of goblin minions and a hexer. Then I thought about the different ways the party could try to find the party, looking at the skills they had.
Perception was a good skill for tracking. Nature for understanding goblin behaviour and habits. History to know the area and the good hiding places. I wanted to add some social interaction, so I decided that they could talk to the farm folk in the area with Diplomacy, and use Streetwise to find out about a halfling crime boss that had some dealings with the goblins. This latter one opened up more social interaction – they could use Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate to get the information from him. I also assumed that my players would come up with interesting uses of skills that I hadn’t thought of. I like to encourage that; it’s more fun, and it increases the player buy-in to the adventure.
Now, it was vital that the party get the map, or else the adventure wouldn’t happen, so I set the DCs for most of the skill checks to 10, which is the moderate DC for levels 1 to 3. On the fly, based on the approach used, I shifted the base DCs up and down by a couple of points – If they were rude to the farmers when asking for information, I boosted the DC to 12, but if they spent some time helping with chores, I dropped it to 8.Â
The fact that I needed them to get the map to move on to the next stage of the adventure also meant that failure in the skill challenge could not prevent them from finding the goblins. So, for failure, I decided that the goblins would be alerted to their coming and set a trap, with the hexer creating an illusion* of the goblins sitting around the fire while they were really hiding in the surrounding woods, ready to ambush the party when they attacked. If the party succeeded with no failures, the party would get the drop on the goblins and have a surprise round of their own. Success with one or two failures meant neither party had surprise.
In play, the party succeeded without any failures, and didn’t do anything really unexpected, so it worked pretty much as I had envisioned. Because it was one of the first skill challenges I created and ran, it was pretty bare-bones, without a lot of variety to it. Still, it fit the purpose I had intended, so it worked.
Descending the Rift
Later in that same adventure, I built a skill challenge to simulate the party climbing down through hundreds of feet of narrow chasm and caves. I did it this way rather than just mapping it out or reducing it to a single skill check. Mapping it out would have lengthened the dungeon crawl section of the adventure beyond what I wanted, and a single skill check wouldn’t add much interest or risk. Multiple skill checks would work, but if I’m having the party make multiple skill checks to accomplish something, I might as well turn it into a skill challenge, right?
Again, it was a level 1 challenge, to match the party level, and I made it a complexity 4 challenge to make it a larger section of the adventure. Appropriate skills I decided would be Dungeoneering, Athletics, Acrobatics, Perception, and Endurance, with DCs of 10 – again, the moderate difficulty for the level. As I looked over the other skills, I couldn’t see much that would be applicable outside those five, but I’m always willing to be surprised by a good idea from my players, so I just decided that any other skills would be a DC of 15 – the difficult DC for that level.
I also decided to add an extra complication: this sort of journey would be physically taxing and exhausting, so every round (which duration I set at half an hour), each character had to make an Endurance check, on top of the skill check made to advance the skill challenge. A success meant things continued as normal, but failure meant the character lost a healing surge through minor damage, fatigue, etc. The DC started at 5, and increased by 2 every round.
Again, this was a sort of adventure bottleneck. The party had to get safely to the bottom of the rift to get to the next stage of the adventure, which means that they needed to get to the bottom whether they succeeded of failed. So, I decided that, for every failure rolled, they would run into some difficulty on the descent that they needed to deal with: a rockslide (the hazard from the DMG), an attack by a cavern choker, and an area of bad air that would sap a healing surge from each of them, in that order.
The party made it down, dealing with the rockslide and cavern choker, but it took significantly longer than I had expected. The fight with the choker broke things up a little, but the skill challenge still went on a bit longer than I personally found to be fun. Not enough variety, and with needing 10 successes, it took some time to run through. If I were doing it now, I would cut it back to about a complexity 2.
Navigating the Winter Maze
In my Post Tenebras Lux game, I decided that the Winter Barrow was surrounded by a mystical maze of ice, snow, and magic, that shifted and changed moment by moment. There were a couple of things they could do before venturing into the maze to make it easier on themselves, but they didn’t do those things, so they went in raw.
Level 3 challenge, complexity 5. I set the complexity that high because I wanted them to have to spend a certain amount of time in the maze, dealing with the cold (1d6+3 cold damage per round, the low normal damage expression for that level). I figured the primary skills would be Perception and Nature for navigating the maze, Arcana for dealing with the magical aspects of it, and Insight to spot the illusory parts. I also decided that each of those four skills needed at least one success for the skill challenge to succeed.
This was designed to be a difficult challenge – I set the DC for the skill checks at 12, midway between moderate and difficult for the level. Now, for the adventure to continue, the party had to reach the barrow, but it wasn’t a one-shot thing, like the two previous skill challenges I’ve described. I thought that making failure of the skill challenge equal death or something similar was pretty harsh – after all, they were in the maze taking cold damage every round, so they were already suffering just from the time put in. And, speaking of time, the longer it took them to navigate the maze, the less time they had to investigate the barrow, which would vanish with the setting of the moon. So, I figured that having a failed skill challenge deposit the party outside the maze, forcing them to retry the challenge and spend more time, was appropriate.
I also wanted to emphasize the danger of being in the maze, so I decided that a failed skill check by anyone would cost that person a healing surge, either from the mystical cold sapping their strength or from a magical or illusory danger that they run into.
Now, this challenge went more smoothly than the Descending the Rift challenge, because both me and my players were more familiar with skill challenges and working them into the game. The players were better at describing what their characters were doing, how they were using their skills to deal with the challenge. This is the most fun part of the rules for me, seeing how the players come up with interesting ways to deal with the difficulties.
The tension created by the risk of the challenge – the ongoing damage, the cost in healing surges, the time pressure – kept people more focused on what was going on, and thinking about ways to contribute. For a long skill challenge, it worked surprisingly well.
Find a Campsite
This is a challenge that my players generally trot out, rather than me calling for it. I run it pretty free-flow, with a level equal to the party level, and a complexity of 1, DC set at the moderate value for that level. They tend to use Nature, Perception, and sometimes History and Insight to find a spot that’s out of the way.
The goal is usually to find a safe site that’s fairly concealed, so I let the results of the challenge determine the difficulty of monsters to find it. They usually make a Nature or Stealth check afterwards to increase the concealment, so I give them +5 to that roll if they succeed with no failures, +2 if they succeed with one failure, +0 if they succeed with two failures, and -5 if they fail.
They like this challenge and the way it works, so it’s become SOP for them when they’re in the field. We’ve got the challenge down to the point where it takes about 3 minutes to run through the whole thing. It’s not terribly exciting, but it’s fast, and they like it, so I like it.
This skill challenge is one that I designed, but never ran, because the game went off in a different direction. It was set up as a framework for an entire adventure, where the characters worked to take down a criminal network run by a halfling gangster.
I broke the entire thing into a series of small skill challenges, all of complexity 1, each challenge uncovering one piece of the network. I had a set number of businesses for the party to work their way up through to the big boss. Each challenge would take an amount of time based on the kinds of things the party tried – staking out a known criminal hangout watching for runners might take all night, while buying drinks and pumping people for information might only take a couple of hours. Main skills were Streetwise, Stealth, Perception, History, Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidation, but I foresaw a number of other possibilities, like Endurance for a stakeout or History to know which areas the gangs traditionally controlled.
Each successful skill challenge would give the party a line on one of the gangster’s businesses. A failed skill challenge would either lead them into a trap or send a group of hitmen out against something the characters valued – family, favourite hangout, whatever.
A total of five successful skill challenges were needed to make it to the big boss fight. I may still use this structure for something else in the future.
So, there are a stack of different skill challenge ideas. Let me know what you think.
*Yeah, I know goblin hexers don’t have that power, but they can if I want them to.