A very good question that people sometimes ask:
When do you use a skill challenge?
You use skill challenges when it isn’t necessary for the players to succeed in order for the story to continue, and when the prospect of failing or succeeding is interesting.
Article done, right? Notsomuch. Elaboration follows.
Implicit to a challenge of any sort is the notion of failure. It seems completely negative and something you want to avoid at all costs, but failure is actually a powerful tool that enriches good stories. Sometimes you have to break up that straightforward progression of the story and force the heroes to do something else. Corner the players, force them to display character and perseverance. Judiciously used, failure becomes a positive and powerful feature for your D&D games. If you want your PCs to roleplay and deepen their experience, they have to be at risk of failing something that they really want to succeed at. It takes only the briefest look at storytelling in any medium to see that this is true.
In D&D, the traditional place for risking failure has been combat, which is problematic. Failure in combat has deep ties to the ending of a campaign. Failure usually means death, and it’s hard for players to perceive when the reaper is coming for the party. The anatomy of a total party kill is such that it’s difficult for your players to analyze or assess that it’s happening until they are firmly in death’s clutches. The healer goes down, then the defender…and soon those initial minor failures (minor for everyone but the players of the downed characters!) slide down the slope into complete failure. Combat failure is typically what we as DMs pull punches to try and avoid. Combat can be an interesting source of failure, but it is often fatal.
Skill challenges to the rescue! Skill challenges give us ways to offer failure, sans fatality. Your party can completely botch a skill challenge and still be up and around.
So when should your characters be at risk of failing? It clearly can’t be every action they take. Being at risk of failing for everything that you do makes your characters feel like everyday schlubs or worse, when they should feel like heroes. You don’t want your characters rolling to tie their shoes, or to walk in a straight line. This would get tedious so quickly that you as a DM would be at risk of failing to organize another session.
Failure for complex actions needs to be interesting in its process and interesting in its end-result. Players need to be engaged in the actions they are taking that lead to the eventual failure, and the meaning of them falling short needs to be clear and, well, sort of painful. To generate interest in the process, what you need is tension and a proper setting. It could be relatively mundane (a town on fire, with people that need saving) or wander into more exotic locales (playing a game of fantasy poker with souls as the wager). The end-result of a skill challenge becomes interesting when it has weight or consequence (“People might die if I fail, or a person loses his soul if I can’t win the game”). Those consequences are a real as anything in your fantasy world. When debating whether to make a situation a skill challenge or not, ask yourself if there is sufficient tension and consequence in the scene to warrant making your players work for it. If it lacks tension or consequence, you either let the scene be a straight role play or you tweak it until it gains the attributes it lacks.
Players haggling with a merchant to lower the price on a sword is not, on its own, worthy of a skill challenge. They can easily negotiate with roleplay and a few choice dice rolls. Or…we could increase the stakes by saying that the merchant doesn’t just take gold, and the sword is not just a sword. The merchant is actually (unknown to the PCs of course) a cultist of Vecna. He’ll take some material wealth but is mostly concerned with arcane power and secrets. The sword is an ancient sword of prophecy that the PCs have searched for in multiple locales and risked their lives to find numerous times. The merchant doesn’t know the true value or properties of the blade (yet), and the players must carefully negotiate with the merchant and not reveal the sword’s true nature, lest he refuse them and keep it for himself.
That…is skill challenge material. The merchant doesn’t just want money — he demands something of the players, something that they may not be willing to give. The sword is something they want to have, and failure means they are going to have to do something else to get it. Will they steal it? Will they fight him? The easiest way for the players to get that sword is to bargain with him, successfully, right now. I’ll repeat: tension and consequence make a scene appropriate for a skill challenge.
The only thing that you have to watch for is that skill challenges are not bottlenecks. Every skill challenge you place needs to have an alternate path. If the characters fail the skill challenge, they can decide to do something else, or are forced into another action. Be careful about having failure of a skill challenge fall into a combat. The only time that’s really appropriate is if avoiding the fight in the first place is the main goal of the skill challenge. Also, make sure that the rewards of the skill challenge are such that winning the skill challenge is more profitable than the combat encounter. If you have a skill challenge that gives you 400 XP, and not succeeding gives you 600 XP and a bunch of loot…what do you think PCs want to do, really? You get what you reward, so ensure that skill challenges, when you use them, give bigger rewards than swinging swords. You’ll drive the PCs to go all out to win every challenge.
Skill challenges are best used when you want the PCs to possibly fail at a complex action of sufficient tension and consequence. Don’t use them just to complicate simple actions, and don’t use them as bottleneck encounters. Ensure that your rewards are sufficient to motivate your players. When you meet these conditions, the skill challenge will reward you and your players with a rich gameplay experience.
- From the Archives: Failure is an Option: When to use Skill Challenges.
- How To Design a Skill Challenge #3 Part 3: Nesting
- How to Design a Skill Challenge, Part 1: Theory of Choice