There’s no shortage of articles on the internet about how to construct skill challenges in 4th edition D&D. I would know – I browsed a great many of them trying (and failing) to wrap my head around how the hell they were supposed to work. It doesn’t help that across the range of Wizards’ official 4e modules the way skill challenges are handled changes from author to author as they try to make sense of the same system.
But! Having played some 4e over the past few weekends, including a pretty good skill challenge involving the most idiotic magical construct ever*, I think I have at last got a sort of handle on how to structure them so they avoid most of the pitfalls of the basic system.
The key to constructing a good skill challenge is to divide it up into stages: a series of possible hazards and difficulties that the characters might face in pursuit of a greater goal. Ideally you want one stage for every required success + 2 (because the maximum number of die rolls in a skill challenge is a victory while remaining only one step away from failure) but a few less than this is okay**. Every stage should be conquerable in one or two die rolls.
Note: If you can’t divide your skill challenge into stages then it’s not a skill challenge. It’s either a stage in a larger challenge or it’s a simple skill check.
Example: The journey to a distant ruin is going to require overland navigation, contention with difficult weather, booking passage on various forms of travel, and dealing with a border patrol. That’s only four stages, but I reckon each of those is good for 1-2 skill rolls so it should be okay for a complexity 2 skill challenge.
Then flesh out each stage, noting the problems that will appear and how the characters will have to handle them. Try to include a wide variety of skills and hazards which force all the characters to make checks, not just the ones who are exceptionally good at what they do. Also note if any checks are required (the challenge can’t succeed without at least one success in that skill), support (rolling the skill doesn’t count as success or failure in the challenge, but modifies other rolls), group (have to be made by everyone; if more people succeed than fail, then it counts as a success), have a maximum utility (i.e. “you can only get one success from this skill in this challenge”) or have other special effects. To flesh out the example:
The Journey to the Tomb of Gorthag (Complexity 2 Skill Challenge)
- Navigation: Nature (Medium) is the skill which you navigate with, and one Nature success is required for this skill challenge. There is no limit to how many successes you can rack up with Nature. Navigation is supported by History (Medium) and Religion (Medium) to know more about where the tomb is – success on a check in either of those skills grants a +2 bonus to Nature, while failure adds a -2 penalty. Religion and History can only be rolled once for this stage.
- Terrible Storm: This is a group Nature (Hard) check to find shelter. Characters can cover additional people with a single Nature check by increasing the DC by 5 per person. Everyone who fails the check (or is not covered) loses two healing surges.
- Forced March: This is a group Endurance (Medium) check. Everyone who fails loses a healing surge, regardless of whether or not the check succeeds or fails as a whole.
- Finding Passage: This is a Diplomacy (Easy) or Streetwise (Easy) check to locate transport. On a success every character must either buy passage ([suitable amount] gp) or work. Working requires an Athletics (Hard) or Endurance (Medium) check; success or failure does not affect the skill challenge but failing costs two healing surges. If characters do not pay or work for their passage this check counts as a failure for the challenge instead of a success. The party can gain a maximum of two successes by finding passage.
- Border Patrol: The patrol can be avoided using a group Stealth check (Medium), deceived using Bluff (Hard) or bribed using Diplomacy (Easy) and [suitable amount] gp. Failure not only counts towards a failure in the skill challenge but also costs a healing surge for everyone in the group in the ensuing struggle. [Note: You could play out the fight, but that would get tedious fast and the net result – lose one healing surge – is about the same.]
Pass/Fail: If the characters succeed at the skill challenge they arrive at the Tomb of Gorthag in good time. If they fail, then they still get to the tomb but have taken such a circuitous route that Gorthag the Undying has had time to reinforce his undead legion with [suitable penalty, like extra undead minions in every encounter].
And then all that’s left is to run the challenge – the best way is to pick and choose which events to hit the characters with based on what they do and let the skill checks flow organically from the story.***
With a group that strikes out into the wilderness I might run this challenge as a navigation roll followed by the storm, then another navigation roll as they push on across the hills. As they cross the border they meet a patrol, then they have to make a forced march check because they’ve been travelling for days, then they encounter another patrol in the hinterlands, and then one more navigation and forced march roll if they’re still 1-2 successes short of victory.
A different group might open by seeking passage to the approximate area, travelling first by ship and then inland by barge. They encounter a patrol as they cross the border. Then they must locate the tomb with a navigation roll and head cross-country to it (navigation or forced march, depending on approach). En route I’d hit them with the storm to get that final sixth check they need for success.
Or maybe a group would fail their navigation roll, fail to weather the storm, then seek passage on more sheltered transport – except they fail the roll to bribe the guards at the border and by the time they’ve sorted out all that they’ll be late to the tomb.
Or perhaps they pick up a teleport ritual and zap there overnight. These things happen to the best of us.
*As judged by my character R-12, who as a warforged considers himself in a good position to judge the quality of intelligent magical constructs.
**Yes, this means that the higher-difficulty skill challenges should have about 20 separate bits. No, I still have no idea how to make that work.
***If you ask me, this is the problem with most skill challenges as written: because 4e specifically removes causal power from the narrative fiction of the game, skill challenges can often feel very disjointed unless you break them right down and take steps to control the pacing.