New Skill Challenge Mechanics

I love the idea of Skill Challenges. They’re a dynamic yet way of codifying complex skill checks and running skill-based encounters. They’re a lovely framework and addition to the game. But I’ve always felt something was missing with Skill Challenges, that something just wasn’t quite right. I believe the total lack of resource management in the Skill Challenge system is a problem, and one that must be rectified.

At its most basic level, D&D is a resource management game. Each round is broken up into three actions to be spent, while players balance the expenditure of powers and health in each encounter to gain the maximum number of encounters per day. Players also determine which encounter to spend their Daily power(s), when in each encounter they use their Encounter powers, how many Healing Surges to use, and when to spend that ever important Action Point. But there are no resources to manage in a Skill Challenge; there’s no opportunity for pyrrhic victories or partially successes: Skill Challenges are either absolute victory or complete defeat. Sometimes, the penalty for failure might be the loss of Healing Surges but lost surges occur after the Challenge, and thus are not a resource being managed. Likewise, the few (very few) powers grant bonuses to skills all but grant automatic successes. During a Skill Challenge, you cannot spend Healing Surges or Action Points or use most Magic Items. A long drawn-out day of multiple skill-based encounters (as long as they’re successful) will not leave a party exhausted and spent, and they’d be just as ready for combat if they’d spent the entire day at a spa having a hot stone massages and facial.

Disclaimer: this article, while focused on rule options for Player Characters, does require a little extra DM buy-in. Run this by your Dungeon Master first and make sure she’s okay with everything. I’ll also throw-in some extra DM advice for no additional charge.

Using Healing Surges

Healing Surges are an abstract representation for physical health—much like hit points—but denoting overall energy and health. Healing Surges are a good gauge of how tired a PC is and how much longer they can adventure. They’re the 4e equivalent of the standard video game fatigue bar.

Players can spend a healing surge to “unlock” an alternative skill, one not part of the base skill list of the Challenge or unsuited for the particular type Challenge.

For example, the fighter can use Athletics to strike a pose an impress the king, but in doing so he has to really exert himself and loses a healing surge. The wizard can use her command of the magical arts to use Arcana in a travel-based Skill Challenge, but it’s physically and mentally exhausting. The difficulty of using this unlocked skill should be a Hard DC, but the chances of success might still be higher than using an un-optimized skill.

Whether or not a skill can be unlocked via a Healing Surge is up the DM. And at the DM’s discretion, a skill might require two Healing Surges to unlock if using the skill is very implausible. Each character can only spend a single Healing Surge per encounter. Player should still try and “sell” the skill, justifying its use for that situation.

Design Background

Not every skill is automatically useful in every Skill Challenge, and it’s awkward using skills unsuited for a certain type of encounter. However, some characters just do not have appropriate skills for every type of Skill Challenge: the fighter might have amazing Athletics, Endurance, and Perception but no social skills sidelining them during an important negotiation. The typical response is just to allow them to use any skill without penalty, just so the player doesn’t feel bored.

Current design recommends two types of skills for a Skill Challenge, primary skills that tend to be Moderate DCs and grant successes and secondary skills that are Hard DCs are might cancel a failure, confer a bonus, or grant a limited number of successes. This subsystem adds a third type of skill, a tertiary skill that confers a potential success at a cost.

DM Advice

One of the design tenants for Skill Challenges is to add a variety of skills, and DMs are encouraged to design Challenges to match their party. One advantage of allowing alternate skills to be used at the cost of a surge, is that Challenges can be designed with fewer built-in skill options and DMs can restrict themselves to the most obvious and logical skill options, during which players can either remain passive or choose to participate at a cost. And players are encouraged to build characters with a range of skills, rather than trusting the DM to build Challenges to accommodate their narrow focus.

Using Action Points

Action Points are used to “break” the action economy of the game, allowing a character to do more in a single turn. There are a couple ways Actions Points could be used in a Skill Challenge while sticking with the concept of breaking of the action economy.

Action Points can be used to enable a character to potentially negate a failure. A character can spend an Action Point (as an immediate interrupt, triggered by a failed check) to re-roll a skill check. Alternatively, after a character has earned a failure, a different character can spend an Action Point (as an immediate reaction, triggered by a failed check) to make a new skill check to cancel the triggering failure.

Design Background

Using the base rules, Action Points are a little useless in a Skill Challenge because Challenges seldom rely on initiative or a strict turn structure. There’s no advantage to spending an Action Point because it’s easy for the rest of the party to pass, delay, or use the Aid action, allowing a single character to roll away repeatedly.

Maintaining stricter turn tracking for some or all Skill Challenges (not returning to a character until the rest of the table has had their turn) has a few advantages, and one is making Action Points interesting for Skill Challenges. The character suited for the Challenge is encouraged to spend an Action Point to stack an extra success, because the Challenge could conceivable fail before their turn comes again.

Adding a player-based method of cancelling failures also adds a lovely “safety net” mechanic to the Skill Challenge system. There’s no pressing need for players to rely on their best skill for every roll, because if they try something else and fumble there are ways to recover.

DM Advice

The catch with allowing Action Points to grant an opportunity to cancel a failure is that Action Points reset every day, so if a Skill Challenge is not followed by a combat encounter, the expenditure of the Action Point has little sting. There’s some balance as players do not know there’s no planned combat, as long as they’re not forewarned. If the design of the Challenge suggests it is very unlikely for a combat to follow, it’s permissible to make the Challenge a little bit harder and not “pull any punches”.

This optional rule also takes some pressure off the DM to include “baked-in” methods of cancelling a failure in a Skill Challenge. The players can respond to a series of bad rolls and failures with their own response, deciding if success is worth spending resources on or not. It also allows DMs to present harder and longer Skill Challenges knowing players can marshal resources to succeed if they wish.

Final Thoughts

So that’s how I add a little flair to the Skill Challenge system.

I’d have loved to have thought of a way to use Magic Items in Skill Challenges. Too often wonderous magic items are reduced to just providing a brief tactical bonus in combat. But there was no satisfying solution that didn’t negate the existence of items that already work with Skill Challenges, and there’s so much variety in items for a single large fix.

Regardless, I hope this offers some options and new ways of thinking about Skill Challenges. They’re a great system but are entirely the purview of the DM and very little has been aimed at players. It was about time for a change…

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