4e: Encounter Builder Checklist #2 – Skill Challenges

Hey guys, after a fun gaming weekend, it’s time to continue on with what I started last week, the Encounter Builder Checklist.

Skill Challenges are explained in detail in the DMG, but are essentially an extended contest wherein the players attempt to utilize their skills against a series of checks.  The skills used are suggested by the players, but the GM is encouraged to come up with a list of eligible skills and appropriate DCs for any given task.  That being said, it’s a great system to bring D&D out of it’s purely combat focus and to emphasize creativity and clever skill use.  In addition, it’s pretty handy in things like social conflict, or intellectual conflict.

  • Failure isn’t Losing – When handling Skill challenges, it’s always good to remember that failing a skill challenge doesn’t always mean that all hope is lost.  A failed skill challenge is an opportunity for GMs to implement complications, and to raise the stakes.  Consider putting yourselves in the shoes of your players in this case.  Rather than making them feel worse about losing the challenge, ramp up the difficulty a notch and watch your players buckle down to give their best to handle the consequences.
  • Be open to suggestions – Players are a wily bunch and I’ve often been surprised with their resourcefulness in the field.  Like I mentioned in the earlier playtest report, the team of players I ran for last saturday managed to find a way to deal with two Fire Beetles that were giving them trouble by Comboing some spells with Skill Checks.  While not completely a skill challenge in an of itself, I certainly didn’t plan for a Flaming Sphere with Ghost Sound on it to seduce Fire Beetles in the game.
  • Be Dynamic – Skill Challenges are mechanically a cool system, but what it doesn’t come with is instant excitement.  Build up your skill challenge and heap on the descriptions.  Much like combat, that can quickly lose the excitement of the moment as soon as the GM and a single player end up haggling on the finer details of a power description, Skill Challenges must keep moving.  Pacing is once again crucial as you don’t want them to breeze through a skill challenge without any sense of Tension.  When handling a chase scene for example, give descriptions between rolls, making it so that they never consider the fact that all they’re doing is rolling dice in sequence.
  • Be Diverse – 4e might have a smaller skill list than 3e, but it’s still important to use all of them.  The more commonly rewarded skills include Theivery, Bluff and Diplomacy, but that doesn’t mean you should stop there.  Unless the skill really has nothing to do with the task at hand (like using Nature against a complex Arcane formulae building on sprit binding and true names)  give the players a chance to exercise their skills to the fullest.
  • Reward Roleplay but don’t penalize rolls – This is an interesting issue that pops up now and then whenever rules encroach into roleplay territory.  Which matters more, a natural 20 roll or an eloquent delivery by a player that leaves the table in stunned silence out of sheer Awesomeness™?  Consider merging the two.  A good speech should provide a positive bonus to the roll, perhaps even lowering the difficulty of the task.  Or, a not so tactful statement might have been offset with a sufficiently high roll.  Another possible alternative would be to roll first, and roleplay the result.  It might not necessarily be advantageous to the silver tongued player, but it’s certainly more fair to those without the same level of skill as a player.

Skill challenges are a great “sub-game” when used properly, and will reward players who are quick on their feet, even if they’re not tactically minded.  With a little forward planning, the GM will find that skill challenges are a great alternative to yet another combat.

7 thoughts on “4e: Encounter Builder Checklist #2 – Skill Challenges

  1. I hope they serve you well Questing GM! The more I run 4e, the more these little things start making themselves apparent in my mind. This blog has certainly helped me in learning the system faster than I would have without any form of writing to digest the ideas I’m getting.

  2. I am loving this series – keep them coming.

    Perhaps you or some other commenters can draw my attention to how to use Thievery in a game a bit more. None of my PC’s are Rogues, per se, but as you noted – I want to use all the skills to some degree in most games, even if only a little bit.

  3. Hi Matt!

    Hmm… Thievery is pretty handy, but let’s take the basic PHB options first:

    Disable Traps
    Open Locks
    Pick Pockets
    Sleight of Hand

    These are all pretty staple Rogue things in concept, but interestingly enough the PHB no longer disallows other characters from trying any of these things.

    Maybe if we can spin off each of these uses to more specific / situational tasks we can find more use for them:

    The Disable Trap function of Thievery can also be used to Disable a device, or to render objects unusable. If the party ever found itself in the armory of a castle that they plan to besiege later, a little bit of Thievery might be just the thing to make sure that bowstrings snap, and that long swords shatter after one or two swings.

    Open Locks is pretty specific in and of itself, so I don’t really have a means to stretch this any further.

    Picking Pockets isn’t just about taking things from people, but sometimes also for slipping objects into a person’s pockets. Whether it’s a small magic item that acts as a scrying bug into the corrupt noble’s robes, or slipping incriminating evidence where you need it most for the Town Guard to find on the mark’s person later.

    Sleight of Hand is fairly broad, and isn’t really just about palming objects. Switching an object with a replica falls under this use, and I’m fairly certain that it’s not a far cry for a player to attempt to use Sleight of Hand to pull off some Shell Games, or other quick money making games of “chance” to part commoners with a few coins.

    Not mentioned here are other possible uses of Thievery as a knowledge skill. Gathering information from seedier types in a town as well as gambling “skill” could also be governed by Thievery.

    Hope this helps!

  4. Other uses for THIEVERY!!
    (Though still under GM discretion of course)

    1. Disarm with Finesse.
    By pulling out an opponent’s weapon from his scabbard.
    Or cutting the straps of his scabbard and letting it drop.

    2. In the same vein, Pilfer Items: Magical in nature or just plain shiny, from a target’s person.

    “You see a Lord and Lady strutting down the boulevard. But what catches your attention is the Lady’s big… diamond, hanging on a golden chain around her neck.”
    “I STEAL IT!!”

    Could be used in conjunction with another skill when in combat. Bluff or Intimidate, perhaps.

    “The blood-red brooch on the wizard’s robe begins to glow eerily has he begins his eldritch chanting.”
    “I STEAL IT!!”

    3. Rogues can moonlight as Magicians or Prestidigitators.
    It can serve both as a distraction and a source of income!
    Checks can be made when in more exclusive towns or establishments.
    Like in a Church or in a distinguished court.

    4. Find Concealment
    Thieves have been taught this since Thief Elementary School. While sneaking in a fort or guild, a player can use this skill to look for the best place to hide.
    Of course Stealth would be the main skill when sneaking towards the desired location.

    5. Remove Clothing
    From bedroom foreplay to the heat of battle, managing to take off your target’s clothes, or plate mail, by knowing which straps to sever, will always be to your advantage.

    6. Conceal Equipment
    When walking into a highly secured fortress, a thief best knows where to hide tools or blades that will escape the scrutinizing gaze of guards.

  5. thievery saved us last game lol, we had to disable a trap that throws a ranndom element per turn at any close characters and then re-assemble it just to keep things interested.

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