What a DM needs more

Mike, the creative mastermind behind Campaign Mastery is hosting the RPG Blog Carnival during my favorite month of the year as the world faces a pandemic and as our carnival faces dwindling participation numbers… I know, I know, I have to set my priorities straight. Mike has asked us to think (and post) about what we need more in our games: “What does your current game not have enough of, and how can you correct that?”. The more I have thought about this, the faster I reach to the conclusion that the so-called three pillars of D&D in its 5e (combat, exploration and social interaction) are hugely unbalanced when we consider mechanical elements such as class features and non-ritual spells. And that’s why my idea is that what we need more are out-of-combat non-ordinary challenges.

It’s well known that when 4e was released, Pathfinder managed to keep enfranchised players under its umbrella. What came next, known as the Edition Wars threw fan against fan with little quarrel and absolutely zero benefit. You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about 4e lately because of what Mike asked, and it’s mostly due to skill challenges.

A legal audience with a prosecutor accusing them of a crime, an enigmatic riddle engraved in a stone wall, the labyrinthic nature of a forest in the middle of the night… all these are examples of situations that can be solved by the characters with a skill challenge. The main difference between a combat challenge and a skill challenge isn’t the presence or absence of physical risk, nor the presence or absence of attack and damage rolls, nor the use of spells and rituals. The difference is in how the encounter treats PC actions.

“Skill challenges can account for all the action in a particular encounter, or they can be used as part of a combat encounter to add variety and a sense of urgency to the proceedings.”

-Bill Slavicsek

The Basics

Back in the day of 4e, skill challenges required player characters to make skill checks as they accumulate a number of successful skill uses before they rack up too many failures and end the encounter. Calling for a skill check is not a skill challenge by itself, though: when an obstacle takes only one roll to resolve, it’s not a challenge. One Diplomacy check to haggle with the merchant, one Athletics check to climb out of the pit trap, one Religion check to figure out whose sacred tome contains the parable… none of these constitutes a skill challenge.

Skill challenges have consequences, positive and negative, just as combat encounters do. When the characters overcome a skill challenge, they earn the same rewards as when they slay monsters in combat: experience and perhaps treasure. The consequences of total defeat are often obvious: no XP and no treasure. Success or failure in a skill challenge also influences the course of the adventure, but doesn’t finish it abruptly. Take care to not fall into the trap of making progress dependent on success in a skill challenge: failure should introduce a complication rather than ending the adventure. For example, if the characters get lost while exploring the wild jungles of Xen’drik, that leads to further challenges as they have to return to a known location looking for a better detailed map (which probably they don’t know are useless in Xen’drik anyway).

The following is a classic example of a skill challenge template for 4e. Using it as the basis for an updated version we removed the complexity value as it never kind of made sense to us anyway. In our version of skill challenges, you get to decide how many attempts you want to try in order to succeed. The difficulty depends on that number: easy challenges require to pass a third plus one of those attempts and hard ones require two thirds of them. The medium difficulty can be reached right at half plus one of them.

The Negotiation

The duke sits at the head of his banquet table. Gesturing with a wine glass, he bids you to sit. “I’m told you have news from the borderlands.”

This skill challenge covers attempts to gain a favor or assistance from a local leader or other authority figure. The challenge might take only as long as a normal conversation, or it could stretch on for days as the characters perform tasks to earn the NPC’s favor.

  • Setup: For the NPC to provide assistance, the PCs need to convince him or her of their trustworthiness and that their cause helps the NPC in some way.
  • Involved Skills:
    • Deception (DC 10-15): You try to encourage the NPC to aid your quest using false pretenses. Characters can cooperate to aid a lead character using this skill.
    • Insight (DC 10-15): You empathize with the NPC and use that knowledge to encourage assistance. First success with this skill reveals that any use of the Intimidate skill earns a failure.
    • History (DC 5-10): You make an insightful remark about the significant event from the NPC’s past. This is available only after one character has gained a success using the Persuasion skill, and it can be used only once in this way during the challenge.
    • Intimidate: The NPC refuses to be intimidated by the PCs. Each use of this skill earns a failure.
    • Persuasion (DC 10-15): You entreat the NPC for aid in your quest. First success with this skill opens up the use of the History skill (the NPC mentions an event from the past that has significance to him).
  • Outcome:
    • Success: The NPC agrees to provide reasonable assistance to the characters. This could include treasure.
    • Failure: The characters are forced to act without the NPC’s assistance. They encounter more trouble, which may be sent by the NPC out of anger or antagonism.

Before leaving, I must say that my very good friend the Dungeon Coach has already devised a new way to do skill challenges in 5e. This guy is not only fun but utterly creative with his homebrew content. I *highly* recommend you to go and watch his channel (and like and subscribe and ring the bell, you know the drill).

Oh, and in line with this topic, I’m about to finish a separate article with a very challenging challenge (oh, yeah, I just used a participle right after the same verb’s infinitive). Get ready for “Obstacles and Obstructions” (easy with the alliteration here), where D&D meets American Ninja Warrior, inspired on the Wonder Woman 1984 trailer, just because inspiration is literally everywhere.

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