Dungeons & Dragons Game Mastering

Skill Challenge Solutions

On Monday, I presented a list of problems that I’ve run into when using skill challenges in my D&D games (Challenging Skill Challenges).  As I mentioned in that post, I’ve had a few ideas to help with those problems that I’ve been working on implementing.

Force Descriptions

In order to help my players role play during skill challenges, I’m trying to get better at forcing them to describe their character’s actions rather than letting them jump right to a skill check.  Sometimes this is a bit forced, but I think it has the potential to make skill challenges a lot more interesting.  I also hope that my players will get used to providing descriptions and begin to do so without any extra prompting.

Player: I got a 26 on Nature.  Does that help us?

DM: I don’t know.  What are you doing?

Player: [thinks a bit] Cassi is going to look for a game trail.  If animals have a way around the cliff, then we should be able to follow their path.

And What Are You Doing?

Another thing that I’m trying to work on is asking players to describe what their characters are doing while an active player makes a skill check.  While the player might just say that their character is standing back while someone else does the talking or works on the mechanism, the question will at least get the more passive players involved and it might even result in a good situation for that player to make a skill check.

DM: Okay, Ander is making good progress on the trap’s mechanism, but what is Rangrim doing?

Player: [startled out of a daze] What?  I guess I’m just watching the rogue work.

DM: Sounds good, can you make a Perception check?

Player: Okay.  [rolls dice] I got a 17.

DM: You notice that some of the metal gears Ander is working on look like they have been weakened by rust.  Maybe if you point it out to him it will help him disarm the trap a little faster.


I haven’t actually tried this idea out yet, but I’m hoping that it will help keep all of the players interested while just one is acting.  If a player fails a skill check, then another player can spend an action point to step in and make a new check in its place to avoid a failure.  The recovery check wouldn’t need to be with the same skill and would represent the second character jumping in to help the first recover from a mistake.  If using the rules for advantages presented in the Rules Compendium, then this should not count towards the number of advantages in the challenge since it requires the player to spend an action point.

Structured Challenges

To help guide players towards alternative skills and add variety, I’ve been adding a bit more structure to skill challenges.  Rather than just working off a list of primary and secondary skills that can be used for the entire challenge, I include a set of sub-challenges that I can present to the players.  These sub-challenges contain a unique challenge and potentially have a different set of relevant skills.  I have recently been preparing 3-4 sub-challenges for high-complexity skill challenges.

Progress Tracking

In addition to coming up with sub-challenges, I also have been putting a lot of thought into how the situation should change as the players accumulate successes.  I try to take some general notes about things that can happen in response to a success, and also to drop in a few key events that will occur once a certain number of successes are obtained.  Just forcing myself to spend more time brainstorming this in advance seems to really help a lot.  If stages of success make sense for the challenge, then they combine nicely with this approach and each success stage serves as a key event.

Failures as Setbacks

While the rules suggest that a group fails an entire challenge after accumulating three failures, I’ve largely switched to each failure causing a setback but not keeping track of the number of accumulated failures.  The failure results can also be tied to the sub-challenges I have prepared.  For example, if the players are confronted with a rocky cliff as part of a wilderness navigation challenge, a failure on a Climb skill check could result in losing a healing surge to represent an injury while climbing.  For skill challenges that are time limited, simply having each check consume a set amount of time whether it succeeds or fails could be sufficient.


Especially when running high complexity challenges, I find it useful to break up the skill challenge with an intermission of some sort.  I think the change of pace helps to give the players a break from the series of skill checks, and it also offers an opportunity to highlight the riskiness of the situation.  For example, during the sewer navigation challenge, I dropped a fight against some stirges and a giant toad into the middle of the skill challenge.  Since my players like combat, this is a good way for me to pique everyone’s interest and give them a break from the series of sewer obstacles.

Example:  Putting it all Together

Closing the Black Portal

The cultists have opened a portal to the Shadowfell and if it is not closed soon the town of Thornbridge will be overrun by undead.  The black portal seems to seep dark energy into the surrounding crypt, and the runes surrounding it glow with a menacing red light.

Level: 6

Complexity: 4 (requires 10 successes)

Primary Skills: Arcana, Athletics, Religion

Arcana (DC 15): A character can analyze the magic of the portal, attempt to counter its magic, or otherwise use his or her arcane abilities to counteract the portal’s magic.

Athletics (DC 23 or 15): A character can physical move or destroy a stone with one of the glowing runes.  Use the hard DC until the characters have reached the key event, at which point the stones become easier to move due to the portal’s weakening power and you should begin to use the moderate DC for the rest of the challenge.

Religion (DC 15): A character can study the runes, channel divine energy against the portal, or otherwise use his or her religious knowledge and divine abilities against the portal.

Secondary Skills: History

History (DC 23): A character can use his or her knowledge of history to help give ideas for sealing the portal.  Limit of one success.


  • The portal is a link to the Shadowfell.  While it isn’t capable of allowing physical travel, it does allow the foul energy of the Shadowfell to leak into the natural world.
  • The runes surrounding the portal are what maintains the connection to the Shadowfell.
  • A glowing rune flickers and then slowly fades.

Key Events:

  • When the players have accumulated 6 successes, let them know that half of the runes have become dim and that the portal appears to be becoming less stable.


  • Your attempt backfires and a pulse of necrotic energy emanates from the portal.  The character that failed on the check loses one healing surge.

Gathering Spirits Sub-Challenge:

Faces begin to appear in the portal and the voices of the dead spirits echo through the chamber.  The spirits each seem to be asking questions and making demands, but you can tell that the pressure they are putting on the portal threatens to completely open the gateway to the Shadowfell.  If the characters fail this sub-challenge, then a mad wraith or 4 wraith figments emerge from the portal and attack.

Diplomacy (DC 23): A character can talk with the spirits and convince them to leave the portal alone.

History (DC 23): A character can answer the questions posed by the spirits at which point they depart.

Intimidate (DC 15): A character can threaten the spirits and cause them to flee back into the Shadowfell.

Religion (DC 15): A character can repel the spirits with divine energy.

Necrotic Burst Sub-Challenge:

As the portal becomes increasingly unstable, it releases a powerful pulse of necrotic energy.  The characters must each make a DC 11 Endurance check.  If any character fails, then he or she loses one healing surge.


The characters are interrupted by a group of cultists and undead after they accumulate 3 successes.  The group is composed of a human transmuter, 4 human thugs, and 2 ravenous ghouls.

Suggestions from Others

I’ve gotten some good responses to Monday’s post.  A lot of people seem to have hit some of the same problems, and I got a few good suggestions in the post’s comments:

  • The Angry DM has a good overview of skill challenges geared at players posted on his site:
  • John made a good suggestion to reward players with a +2 bonus on a check for good roleplaying during skill challenges.
  • Wolfie suggested having knowledge skills simply give a bonus on the next roll rather than counting towards successes and failures.

Remaining Problems

While I feel these ideas are helping me get more out of skill challenges, a couple of the problems I highlighted on Monday still aren’t addressed.  I still feel like introducing my players to a new skill challenge is a little clumsy, but my hope is that the progress tracking will help make it easier for players to understand that they need more successes rather than a higher roll.  I also still want to find a better way to deal with knowledge-based checks.  Wolfie’s suggestion of having them provide a bonus sounds like a good starting point, but I worry about it reducing the number of options for skills to use towards successes.

Let me know if these ideas help you out or if you have other ideas to address the problems, especially those I haven’t solved yet.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

One reply on “Skill Challenge Solutions”

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