Way too many words have been spent writing about skill challenges. Ultimately they are something most RPG players want, and something I haven’t seen satisfying versions of in a d20 system. I think the problem comes from a combination of oversimplifying them, and poor preparation. Skill challenges should be as thought out as any monster fight, and have just as much time invested by the DM.
Skill challenges should typically be used to determine how long it takes the PCs to do something. For example, open a complex lock while the room floods with water, hike across a frozen plateau, or navigate a maze.
Broadly, during a skill challenge, the DM should announce which skills will be tracked. Then each player takes a turn rolling any of those skills and announcing their result. Each skill has a DC and if the player meets or exceeds that DC a success is scored. The challenge ends once a certain preset number of successes is scored. Often times a DM will ask a player to track total number of successes so far and to announce the total every round. As a best practice, pulling a skill associated with all of your system’s attributes is important. This makes it easy for every player to participate without feeling excluded.
I’ll break down skill challenges into three main groups, each of which has slightly different rules and governs different encounters.
Open ended skill challenges are used when there is no consequence for failure, and the DM needs to determine how long something took. These typically work best for travel and exploration situations.
EX1 – Navigate the Uncharted Forest.
In this challenge, the PCs are asked to cross a forbidden forest with no trails. The DM determines that this is particularly dense forest and it can be crossed at a rate of 10 miles per day assuming at least one success. For each additional success past the first, the DM grants +2 Miles to the distance traveled. The DM will highlight the following skills for use. Athletics to perform the hiking DC 18. Handle Animals to keep beasts at bay DC 22. Knowledge Local Area to have heard of secret paths through the area DC 18. Perception to find the best path DC 16. and Tracking to find an old path and follow it DC 16. The PCs are each allowed one check per day each, and the DM has decided that the forest is 100 miles long.
The DM will track successes to measure how many days travel it takes the PCs to traverse the forest. It may also come up that the PCs run out of food, but they may choose to avoid that with the Knowledge Nature skill DC 15, but that success here will not count towards travel days.
EX2 – Escape the Maze
In this challenge the PCs are trapped in a maze and must escape. This particular maze is a part of a local tradition and enjoyed by adults from around the region. The team with the fastest time wins a prize. The DM sets the measured time frame at 1 hour with each additional success subtracting 10 minutes each. A team needs to go through 10 rounds of checks to escape, but each team will have a varying length of rounds (thanks to success or failures). The PCs are allowed to roll the following skills. Acrobatics to navigate obstacles DC 10, Athletics to hurdle gaps DC 10, Gather Information to quiz other teams they run into inside the maze DC 15, Perception to find the true way DC 8, and Tracking to follow previous teams to the exit DC 12.
The DM will track successes, and the fastest team to escape is the winner.
A closed skill challenge has a set consequence for failure. For example, disarming a trap that floods a room or stopping an arcane ritual from summoning a demon. These typically work best when the PCs are trying to prevent something from happening.
EX 1- Shrinking Room
In this challenge, the PCs have been trapped in a room with walls that slowly close together. The GM has decided that in 5 rounds the walls will push the PCs into a hole in the floor that leads to a steep fall into an alligator pit. Each round is the length of a normal combat round. The PCs will need a total of 12 successes to stop the walls from closing in. They can use Athletics to force the walls to slow DC 18, Disable Device to turn off the mechanism DC 15, or Diplomacy to convince the operator to stop DC 20.
The DM will track successes in total, but they will also track how many rounds have passed and which skill option is the successful one. If the PCs disable the device it is broken and they can escape to battle the guard. If it is jammed with athletics, the guard may attempt to un-jam it or battle them. If they convince him to stop, he may try to help them escape and fake their falls.
EX 2- Summoning a Demon
In this challenge, the PCs see a cultist performing a terrible ritual they have identified will summon a demon. The DM has ruled this will succeed in 4 rounds, unless stopped.
To stop the ritual they need 10 successes. During this challenge, there will be
NPC skeletons that have been summoned and attempt to battle the PCs. A round will last a normal combat round. The PCs can choose to kill the cultist by dealing hit point damage, or stop the ritual. To stop the ritual, the PCs must use the following skills. Arcana to counter the magic DC 20, Disable Device to break the ritual alter DC 25.
In this encounter the DM is tracking Successes total, Rounds Remaining, and the traditional combat encounter.
A skill challenge with two sides actively competing. These skill challenges are used when two factions are actively competing against one another. They tend to work best for chases.
EX 1- Tug of War
In this challenge, the PCs are pulling one end of a rope while another team is pulling the other. The goal being to pull the loser into a puddle of mud, the winner earning a fair prize for strength. The DM asks for a check every round, which is the standard 6 seconds, and records the results. He should also roll for the opposing team in secret, if they are not players. Whenever a side is ahead by 6 or more successes, that team is the winner. The skills allowed are Athletics to pull DC 15, Endurance to maintain grip DC 16, and Bluff to taunt DC 18.
In this encounter the DM is tracking total net successes scored for both sides. Whichever gets the most is considered the winner and pulls the other team into the mud.
EX 2- Urban Chase
In this challenge, the ninja PC notices a pickpocket running off with vital and expensive spell components from the wizard’s pouch. The ninja and thief are in this challenge. The DM determines that if the thief can get 3 successes ahead of the ninja, he can disappear, but if the ninja is ahead by 3 successes he can catch the thief. The DM decides to allow the following skills. Acrobatics to dodge pedestrians, and objects, DC 12, Athletics to sprint to catch DC 12, Bluff to trick them into slowing DC 15, Diplomacy to convince them to stop DC 17, Gather information to get points in the right direction DC 15, Tracking to follow the thief DC 12, and Perception to spot the thief DC 15.
In this encounter, the DM tracks total successes by both the ninja and thief. Whenever one is ahead by 3 successes, this encounter ends with the indicated output.