Training Grounds: How to Create, Run an Informal Skill Challenge
In the past, I have operated skill challenges in a number of different ways with varying results. One thing I’ve learned from each is that there is no one perfect way to conduct a challenge that seems to work for every situation. This type of skill challenge I am about to present, though, works well for situations involving sleuthing, researching, and investigations—and in situations where it doesn’t make sense to end a challenge after a specific number of successes or failures.
First of all, let me show you an actual example of how this type of skill challenge works. It has been published on this blog on an earlier date and was created and successfully used for one of my previous campaigns. “Mysterious Tracks” is an example of how an informal skill challenge can be used in a way to enhance an entire sequence of scenes involving sleuthing, investigations, and follow-up encounters. It does not follow the formula I am about to show you exactly, but it doesn’t veer very far from it. I’m a firm believer that formulas are guidelines, anyway, and not constraints. So, when you make your own skill challenges, keep this in mind: if you ever feel like you should veer from the formula, by all means do so.
That’s why I like to call it an “ongoing, informal skill challenge.”
Once that logical conclusion occurs, that is when the challenge ends and the players are awarded experience.
Now to show how one of these challenges is made and operated. I recommend creating and keeping handy a quick-reference “rap sheet” of all player character’s skills and passive skill levels while conducting this type of challenge so you can look them up quickly and covertly as needed. That way you can refer to the rap sheet without tipping off the players as to what skills are actually being checked until a successful roll or passive check provides them with useful information (this helps to maintain mystery and suspense).
Step 1 in creating an ongoing, informal skill challenge:
Begin with providing the player characters (PCs) some read-aloud text that provides them with obvious information and a set-up as well as background information. This sets the tone for the challenge and provides player characters with everything they need to begin taking action. Typically, I label this section “Obvious info” and place the read-aloud text right below it in italics. Like this:
Write the read-aloud text here and place it in italics.
Step 2 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
After the obvious info, I like to provide additional background and information that is meant for the dungeon master’s eyes only. This can include special rules, NPC reactions, details a DM will need to know in order to conduct the challenge effectively, etc. I label this section as “DM Background.” Like this:
DM notes go below this header, like this, but not in italics so the DM does not accidentally read it aloud to the players.
Step 3 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
After the DM background, provide a numbered list of difficulty class ratings (DCs) for information and actions that can be obtained and pursued passively by using PCs’ passive skills. Like this:
1) A passive DC12 perception check results in the PCs noticing...
2) If the PCs qualify for a passive DC14 perception check they also realize...
3) If the PCs obtain a passive DC14 nature check they recognize... In addition, if they at any point learn of the preceding information with a nature check, they can then also be made aware of the following should they also qualify for a passive DC20 nature check...
Step 4 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
Sometimes you want to provide additional clues or actions that can be unlocked by previous actions and knowledge gained via the passive skill checks in step 3. These "unlocked" passive checks and their results can either be made available in the initial “Passive Checks” section under the same appropriate number in the list, as was done for #3 above. Or you can list them separately in their own section as I have done here, below, under their own heading:
Unlocked Passive Checks:
1) If the PCs are ever made aware of the smell outlined in passive check #1 in the section above, a passive DC19 Healing check will also tell them that...
Step 5 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
Once the PCs progress to the point that they say something like they are conducting an investigation or they are attempting to discern the meaning of clues they have already found, etc., allow them to make active skill rolls for any information they failed to previously obtain using passive checks under steps 3 and 4. You can assume they are now on “high alert” for all situations and are now using ALL their appropriate skills, senses, observation, etc. to assess their situation and to find anything of importance that they may have previously overlooked. In other words, you don’t have to require them to state they are using such-and-such skill to do something specific. Instead, consider them to be using every tool in their toolkit to examine all clues and to do everything they can to interpret those clues.
I also prefer not to tell them what skills they are actually rolling for or why they are making those rolls unless they actually succeed. Then I only tell them the information they succeeded in gaining and which skill or skills provided it. This helps maintain mystery and suspense during the challenge. Of course, you can run your challenge however you wish.
Step 6 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
Occasionally, there are specific actions you don’t want to allow PCs to do unless they specifically say they are pursuing them, or there are other actions that you think should always require a roll. I prefer not to have very many of these, though. Why? In general, I prefer to allow players to almost always use passive checks in most instances, even if I make the DCs so high they will likely need to make a roll to succeed. I believe that if a PC’s raw talent is high enough, he or she shouldn't need to roll to succeed. For those instances in which I do require a roll, though, I provide an additional numbered list of DCs for those specific actions. Like this:
1) PCs who noticed the footprints mentioned in the passive skill checks section now have the option to track them. If they do so, though, they must succeed with a series of three separate rolled DC18 perception checks...
Step 7 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
“Success” and “failure” are dealt with differently in this type of challenge. Unless you choose to make an exception, keep track of actively rolled successes (only active ones) for the entire challenge, and this is for experience point purposes only. Successes and failures do not end the challenge. Instead, think of the challenge as an ongoing series of skill checks and rolls interwoven into an adventure or scene, and that challenge does not end until that adventure or scene ends.
Step 8 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
Now end the challenge somehow, along with the scene or adventure it is interwoven into. Generally, I do this either with read-aloud text that tells the players what has happened as a result of their efforts, or I end the challenge with some sort of encounter as I did in “Mysterious Tracks." If they make crucial skill checks along the way, I often give them advantages in this battle.
Step 9 in creating an ongoing, informal challenge:
Experience points for this type of challenge are awarded in a slightly different manner than what is outlined in a conventional skill challenge in the DMG. If PCs make it to the logical conclusion of the scene and skill challenge, they are considered to have automatically “succeeded” at the challenge. They should then receive an appropriate amount of experience points. This amount is rewarded to them based strictly on the amount of active skill rolls they succeeded at making and not passive successes. Active successes only count for this, not passive ones, because the PCs do not learn from a task they can do sleep-walking, and only when they stretch their abilities to the maximum do they learn something and experience growth. If they had to roll to succeed at a task listed under the passive skill section, though, that still counts as an active roll.
Once the number of active successes is determined, use the DMG chart on page 72 to determine the complexity of the challenge. Select the entry most closely matching the number of successes made and ignore the column for failures. That is the complexity of the skill challenge. Now determine the level of the challenge as usual, using the average DCs set for most tasks in the challenge, and compare it to the DC chart on page 61 of the DMG. You then, as usual, multiply the complexity of the challenge by the number of experience points awarded for a challenge of that level to determine an overall reward that should be divided by all members of the PC party.
How about you? Do you have any tricks or advice for creating and running skill challenges? Do you utilize an entirely different system, or do you not use challenges at all?