Skill Challenges – Comparisons, Game Incorporation, and House Rules

I’ve spoken at some length already about my feelings toward skill challenges and in general those feelings have been rather positive. This article is meant as a wrap-up of all of the previous discussions and to be sort of my “final word” on the subject. In all likelihood I will mention them again but probably not at this length. I hope that this post will not end up being tragically rambling but then that is my writing style and I am trying to touch on several related topics so I’ll do my best but don’t count on it.

How do Other Systems Handle “Skill Challenges”?

The first thing I wanted to touch on is the idea that Skill Challenges are a bright shiny new idea that has never been done before. It has been pointed out by others that in some ways Skill Challenges are little more than what would be called an “Extended Test” in other game systems and I feel the need to examine this a bit further.

The two systems I am most familiar with that have an extended test system of some kind are Shadowrun and the Storyteller System. Both of these allow for situations where successes must be accumulated in order to complete a certain task and both use these systems to create “drama in the dice”. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, rolling dice is fun and exciting and thus a series of rolls that determine your success or failure creates a certain amount of drama and tension.

The problem with some of these situations is that there is no certain end point to fear unless the situation specifically calls for one and thus you are often just rolling until you succeed. While there is often a chance of a “botch” or a “glitch” to occur these can happen on each and every roll and thus, while success is accumulated failure simply happens without warning.

The best example I have of a situation that creates its own end point beyond the chance of a glitch is Gumball (who has been mentioned before) trying to open a door in Shadowrun. The longer it took Gumball to break through the electronic lock the longer his teammates needed to hold off the goons that were coming at them. This made every one of his rolls important and exciting. However if there was no stream of gunfire going on then each roll was only interesting to see if there was a glitch or not.

Skill Challenges in the new Dungeons and Dragons have a point where the skill challenge fails because too many failures have been accumulated. While the DM might need to come up with a logical reason why the players can’t just keep trying to make the game “feel” better, the game has told the players “you can’t keep trying” and sometimes this makes the game play a lot easier.

While I like the extended roll concept in both Shadowrun and the Storyteller System, the Skill Challenge system adds the idea of using multiple skills to handle a larger problem and in a game like Dungeons and Dragons I think this works quite well. Some have commented that this takes away some of the role playing but I think if it is handled properly it can still work.

Certainly Skill Challenges are not perfect and I think a game could be quite poor if a DM started using them in every situation that could possibly call for them. However, the fact that multiple skills come into play over a series of rolls, which can include several players, creates a “team” feel for what is meant to be a team game and allows more players to be involved in any particular event. These facts make me very happy that they decided to include Skill Challenges in D&D 4th Edition.

How are Skill Challenges Incorporated into a Game?

This has been one of the hardest aspects of using Skill Challenges for me as a DM. When the players burst into a room and see a group of orcs playing cards, and the orcs spring to their feet and grab weapons, tactical combat ensues. But when does a Skill Challenge begin?

Fitting a Skill Challenge into the game in a way that does not completely eliminate role playing but makes the players aware that they are in a challenge seems to be the hardest part of running one. I have had only limited success in preventing Skill Challenges from devolving into a series of heartless rolls which, while they are dramatic, do not give the feeling of being in the world and acting with your character but just feel like you are playing a game.

The other challenge is making players aware of what skills the challenge uses without simply telling them. Thus far I have generally made it pretty blatant what skills they were expected to use as their primaries but tried to keep things fairly open as far as what secondary skills they can use if they have a good reason for it. I am sure I can handle this aspect of Skill Challenges better in the future and it is something I want to work on.

In my opinion this is the largest flaw for Skill Challenges. Some DMs have expressed a hatred for Skill Challenges based partly on this problem and the lack of role playing that it can create but I feel that with some practice and the right players Skill Challenges can overcome this problem and become an integral part of the game experience.

House Rules I Use for Skill Challenges

If you took the House Rules discussion about Skill Challenges, added in all the modifications people have made, mixed in some complaints and proof that the whole of it is basically broken, and then baked it in the oven of discontent for a few months until it became a whole role playing game you would have a cute little game called Scion. As I myself am a big fan of house rules when they are needed (and a rather large opponent of them when I feel that they are not) I began to read up on what others were doing with Skill Challenges.

The original system is not as bad in my mind as some people seem to feel it is. It isn’t all that hard to modify things to be a bit friendlier, and thus prevent the incredible number of failures that will result from using those rules, without making a completely new system. Stalker0 over at EN World decided that a new system was in order and he created that system. I find this interesting but not entirely necessary. On the other hand Keith Baker posted some suggestions about Skill Challenges on his blog and I felt my solution needed to lean slightly closer to his ideas. Still, I think Stalker0 makes some interesting points.

When Wizards changed Skill Challenges one of their solutions was to lower the DCs for all of them. The new numbers they came up with made Skill Challenges rather easy in my opinion. While I can see that when building Skill Challenges a DM does need to make certain that his players have a chance of completing them, the table Wizards made to replace the old table in the DMG makes things far too easy.

For example, a level 3 Skill Challenge with a Medium level of difficulty has a DC of 10. A trained character with a decent attribute in the associated skill will have a +9 to their roll. This feels just as broken as the old numbers to me.

The other change that they made was to have all Skill Challenges fail after three failed rolls rather than the old system that caused a failure when failures accumulated equal to half the needed the success and this, to me, has a completeness feel to it that I like.

I am using a rough table that has difficulties set at two less than those printed in the DMG and I am keeping the old rule of failure occurring at half the number of successes needed. While I consult the table when designing a Skill Challenge I use it only as a guide.

My table looks like this:

Party Level Easy Medium Hard
1st – 3rd 13 18 23
4th – 6th 16 20 24
7th – 9th 18 22 26
10th – 12th 20 24 28
13th – 15th 21 25 29
16th – 18th 23 27 31
19th – 21st 25 29 33
22nd – 24th 26 30 34
25th – 27th 27 31 35
28th – 30th 28 32 36

One of the problems with Skill Challenges, as others have pointed out, is that they are all-or-nothing. Encounters in Dungeons and Dragons allow for the expenditure of resources to better achieve victory but there are no resources directly associated with Skill Challenges. I think that there should be some form of Skill Pool but until these rules are designed I am using some of my own (or stolen from others) creation.

Corrective Actions:

Corrective Actions allow you to spend an Action Point once per Skill Challenge. An AP can be spent in one of two ways:

  1. A character may spend an action point on any Skill Challenge roll when they are the primary actor to allow them to re-roll the die.
  2. A character may instead spend a AP and make an “assist” roll when they are in the vicinity of another character who has just failed any roll. If they successfully assist the character that player’s failed roll is erased but that player does not get to re-roll.

Dramatic Surge:

Once per Skill Challenge a character may spend a Healing Surge to add +2 Power Bonus to a roll they have just made. This Healing Surge counts as a “Second Wind” and prevents the character from using a Second Wind in the standard way if the Skill Challenge is part of a tactical encounter.

Critical Success/Failure:

A roll of a 20 when a character is the primary actor on a Skill Challenge roll results in both a success and an elimination of a failure but a roll of a 1 always results in a failure and also eliminates a success.


In addition to these rules changes I am adding into my Skill Challenges Secondary Skills which do not add successes or failures to the players’ tally but instead make other skills easier to use. Generally this will be a –2 to the difficulty of that skill for all players who can benefit from the knowledge. Secondary Skill can also possibly “unlock” additional Primary Skills as is mentioned in the DMG. These rules are touched upon in the DMG and have been mentioned by others as well.

Skill Challenge Errata?

Essentially I think the best way to “errata” Skill Challenges is to keep them open and make them different each time. Thus my House Rules are more House Guidelines. I also happen to like the idea of the Complex Skill Challenge which has Skill Challenges within a Skill Challenge. The best way to see what I am talking about is an example, like the one from my game I’m including here.

An Example

The players have traveled through a series of catacombs, following a group of men from a rival kingdom. Upon reaching the opening (a large cave which looks as though it has been excavated recently) the players find that there is an enemy camp set up just a outside the entrance. Most of the camp is further away from them but a small group is just to the east near a large amount of explosives.

It becomes clear that the enemy kingdom is planning to use the catacombs as an easy way to invade the kingdom the players are from. To stop them, they decide to use the explosives to destroy the cave entrance and some of the catacombs which connect to it.

Skill Challenge Complexity 5, 12 Successes before 6 Failures.

Primary Skills: Dungeoneering DC 20 (Aid possible), Stealth – Without Distraction DC 24 – With Distraction DC 18 (Aid not possible)
Note: A minimum of four successes must come from each of the primary skills.

Secondary Skills:

Thievery DC 18 – A successful Thievery roll will not add to the number of successes but will inform the player that, without a distraction, sneaking over to the explosives and back without being noticed by the group camping nearby will be extremely difficult.

History DC 20 – A successful History roll will not add to the number of successes but will inform the players of the way the catacombs were constructed in order to assist any player making a Dungeoneering roll. (Dungeoneering rolls become 18.)

Nature DC 18 – A successful Nature roll will not add to the number of successes but will inform the players that certain stones scattered across the ground outside the cave dampen sound better than others. This will assist any player making a Stealth roll. (Stealth rolls become 22 without distraction or 16 with distraction).

Options for distracting camp:

  1. Lead them away

    Leading them away will require a secondary Skill Challenge using Stealth and Athletics as the primary Skills. Both DCs are 20 and it is a complexity 2 Challenge with 6 successes needed before 3 failures. The group is considered “distracted” while this challenge is going on until it fails. Upon a failure, tactical combat will ensue.

  2. Talk with them

    This could involve pretending to be explorers of some kind who have just made their way out of the cave, or it might involve pretending to be part of the army. If the players go the former route the Primary Skills are Bluff and Diplomacy, while going the latter uses Bluff and Intimidate. In any case the DCs are 20. This is a complexity 1 Skill Challenge with 4 successes needed before 2 failures. As with the choice above a failure will result in tactical combat.

  3. Tactical Combat

    Should the players not wish to be tricky, some of them can simply rush the group and “distract” them while the rest of the party takes care of planting the explosives. The group consists of only human minions equal to twice the number of characters in the party. Every other round of combat more will arrive to help equal to half the number of characters in the party. (Note: If the players decide to take on the whole camp they will encounter more than minions but these details are left up the DM.)

    Upon completion the characters can easily run into the cave and detonate the explosives without further difficulty. Upon failure the cave is still destroyed but the players lose the ability to further explore this area of the catacombs as well as any other penalties deemed appropriate by the DM.

    I used this Skill Challenge in my own game. Unfortunately the players had a series of bad rolls and ended up failing the challenge. They were level 3 at the time and this is essentially a level 4 challenge but I feel they could have done it had I fully implemented the House Rules I discussed above. At the time we were only using part of the Corrective Action rules and the Critical rules. I am certain the Dramatic Surge rules would have been just enough to enable them to achieve victory.

    In Conclusion

    I know there are tons of people who are making their own House Rules for Skill Challenges and I don’t necessarily think mine are “the best” but I do like them for my play style and think they help in making Skill Challenges a bit more dramatic. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. I am also not adverse to modifying the rules further if people have good suggestions!

    Matt Says:

    I have to say we’ve had some great moments during a skill challenge with some of the best coming from the Crital Success and Failures. Granted it’s just a lucky (or unlucky) roll of the dice. But there have been many victory high-fives when a failure is erased from the tally when a 20 rolls, and the hanging of heads when a 1 is rolled. So far those specific rules have added to the excitement of skill challenges. I like the others from a theory perspective, but as Josh mentioned we haven’t fully used them yet.

    Also players have started to discribe what exactly happened after the result of the roll has been revealed. This has carried overed into the general feel of the group outside of these skill challenges. For instance, two of our players have to be some of the unluckiest dice rollers I’ve ever seen. This has carried into how my character sees them as adventures, inept and he doesn’t have a lot of respect for them (thusly can care less about their opinions in group matters).

    My point being that even though skill challenges do remove some initial roleplaying, I agree with Josh’s statement that you can incorporate other roleplaying oportunities during the skill challenge, and afterwards.

    As a player in the game, I’m having a great time with the house rules Josh has added and so far I’m liking Skill Challenges as a whole.


    While I often take the stance of valuing role playing over roll playing (and to be clear I’m simply talking in broad terms, not trying to further impugn D&D 4th), there is definitely something to be said for an exciting dice system. If your game is going to use dice, and almost all of them do, it’s much more fun when the act of rolling dice and interpreting their outcome contains built-in excitement.


    I have taken to breaking skill chalenges down a bit more then the game calls for, for instence a recent skill chalenge I did was the party tring to find a hidden cavern in undermountain, they needed 6 seccesses before 3 failures. But instead of just having them roll it out I handled each attempt like it’s own encounter. As to say I made 6 sites of note that they would pass each with a possible encounter, I then made a list of primary/secondary skills that made sence to bypass the site, Secondary skills added a +2 on a seccess or a -2 on a failed roll and sometimes allowed aditional primary skills to be tried. If they passed a primary roll they avoided the encounter for the site and moved to the next site if they failed then I ran the short encounter (party lv -3) then moved onto the next one, if they failed 3 times I entered in a encounter after the 3rd short 1 that was chalenging (party lvl encounter)this encounter included as loot a way to find the chamber quickly avoiding the other sitres but drained there resources a bit. Handling it this way gave each roll a short story and made the skill chalenge a bit more exciting also allowed for a slightly more memorable chalenge.

    the same thing could be done for say a locked vault, Each skill would effect the lock in a difrent way so simply describing how each roll effected the Vault and adding a bit of roleplay behind each roll, basicaly after each roll describe how it turned out and allow the players a chance to react making the chalenge much more interactive and therefor memorable, simply rolling sucesses or failures then moving onto the next roll takes a bit of the fun out of the chalenge I think.

    well thanks for taking the time to listen to me and my opinions.