To Challenge or not to Challenge?
The first key to using skill challenges is to understand when to use them and when not to use them. It’s really basic, but clearly needs to be stated since people seem to keep missing the point. The questions you need to ask yourself before running any Skill Challenge are:
Would this be fun for the group (and can I make it entertaining)?
If the group fails, will interesting stuff still happen?
Is there more than one way to address the Challenge?
Yes to all 3? Go ahead. Otherwise, consider simply saying “Yes” and skipping it, or making it a single roll and keep it moving.
It’s like a level, not a door
One of the biggest mistakes I’m seeing is people are using Skill Challenges for Skill Checks. For example, picking a lock should be a single roll, not a skill challenge. Who wants to take 5-6 rolls to unlock a damn door?!? No wonder people think they’re boring.
No, think of Challenges as if you would a videogame level – there’s a big goal and probably several steps you have to take to get there. If the goal is to rescue the hostages from the bandit’s camp, make it one big skill challenge, don’t make it a series of them (“Scout out the Camp”, “Sneak in”, “Unlock the cells”, “Find the Weapons”, “Get out”, etc.).
You do this for two reasons: First, it makes each success feel like it’s got some weight- the players will have accomplished an actual step, not just “You’re 20 feet closer to climbing the mountain, roll again.”. Second, it makes it easier for players to bring in more skills and for everyone to have something to do because it covers a bigger range of options.
Second, whatever is happening in the fiction of the game comes first! Skill Challenges should not be crappy IF-Then trees where players guess a skill to use! Players describe what they’re doing to solve the problems and you should be willing to use whatever Skill or difficulty makes sense based on that.
Including being willing to give an auto-failure or auto-success if something is exactly what needed to be done.
This is how players from older editions who are used to narrating their way through problems fit in with Skill Challenges (“…then I carefully slide the jar on the silk, which should keep it from making noise…”).
This is where players think tactically and use their minds (as in Fictional Positioning) to solve Skill Challenges.
Another thing that’s necessary for DM’s to do is describe new problems that crop up during the Skill Challenge, regardless of which way the rolls are going.
“You totally snuck past the guards. But before you get to the cell, you see that their cell is right next to one of a griffon! If you want reach their lock AND keep your cover, you’re going to have to hope it doesn’t reach through the bars and take a snip out of you…”
You should come up with at least a half dozen possible Twists for any given Skill Challenge, more if it’s going to be high in Complexity. Twists not only make the Skill Challenge exciting and tense, they also open the door for players to use new tactics or skills, and most importantly justify why this isn’t just a one-roll skill check.
A Twist should come up either after failures or every 2 rolls in a Skill Challenge to set up a fun pacing dynamic.
Every roll has an effect
If you’ve followed the advice above, each success or failure should actually encompass a fair amount of actual action. It’s a good idea to give them some kind of benefit or cost to each part, so that way, it’s possible to win the Skill Challenge and paid dearly along the way (“We got across the ravine, but we lost our supplies!”) or lose it and still get something good from it (“We’ve been captured, but now we know the Lich’s soul is in the statue!”).
– Advance your plot/reveal exposition
– Give Misinformation
– Get items/equipment/Treasure Parcels
– Lose items/equipment (I go for support stuff, weapons, armor tends to piss folks off)
– Setting up another Skill Challenge later
– Quest Possibilities
– Making Allies/Enemies of NPCs
(You can always fall back on the give/get conditions or taking a Healing Surge, but those are pretty dull and better used for one roll Skill Checks).
Shape the World
Skill Challenges are best when they shape the setting. What I mean by that, is that the results of the rolls, of success and failure overall, has some lasting effect. This doesn’t have to be epic “The kingdoms of Karha and Lihga will never be allies!” but rather small, local stuff – “And the town of Mughi always gives you free food and place to stay, because you helped with the floods”, or “Sir Grahzar grants you leave to pass through his lands, but you are never allowed to draw your weapons except against beasts”.
Even if it’s small stuff, players then see how Skill Challenges matter and really invest in the outcomes.
Longer term thinking
Here’s a simple rule I have for myself: Every Skill Challenge that fails leads to another Skill Challenge or Quest- sometimes immediately (“Escape the Goblin camp!”) sometimes for later in the campaign (Quest- Convince Lord Desna to come BACK to his throne…)
The point is not to make it “one damned thing after another” but rather to get yourself in the right mindstate to think of failures that open up possibilities in the story, not failures that grind the adventure to a halt. By asking “what next?” and in a way that the players can do something about it, you produce an ongoing adventure from it.
(You can do this for successful ones too, but those rarely have as bad consequences for play if they’re not fully thought out).