Skill Challenge Assistance

4th Edition

I have dabbled in Skill Challenges in my game, but it has been hit or miss in the past. For my upcoming adventure I want to make one and wanted to get some advice on how to make it work.

Here is the basic premise: The group is 13th level and will have to cross a bridge to get to the bad guy who stole their quest item. The pit below them is a holding pen for young raptors. The bad guy's lackeys are going to try to push someone into the pit in the middle of the fight. I'll have some different ways to do this, but I really only want one player in the pit. Now in order for the player to survive, they and the rest of the group will have to try to distract the raptors long enough to allow the fallen player to get to the ladder (6 successes before 3 failures). After the third failure, the player in the pit is pulled under and will be eaten.

Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, Nature (anything else?)

Ok, is this too harsh? I started my game at 1st level and have never killed a PC, so I'm not a killer DM, plus the party has easy access to Raise Dead, so it would not be permanent unless the player wanted it to be. What about some valiant PC who jumps in to same their friend?

Any advice to make this work would be much appreciated.


Hit or miss skill Challenges are pretty much the norm in the begining - they really are tough to run well. In the campaign I play in I think the first 6 or so skill challanges where pretty underwhelming - then they started to get better and the other day I was talking to him and saying

'I can't wait until the Scales of War campaign is over so I can read the awesome part of the adventure where we tracked the where the arms shipments where going and his response was - you'll not really find it, that was a kind of embellished skill challenge'. I was really surprised...'But we had a flow chart and everything - we figured out that the arms where coming from the orcs and going to this merchant and that merchant, I mean we had to write it all down...'

His response was "Yeah, watching you guys make that chart was very helpful in allowing me to keep track of the different parts of the challenge."

I was pretty dumb founded - that significant part of the session (it took us close to an hour and a half to track everything down) was some of the best gaming I've ever been in.

So doing skill challenges well is very much a try and try again type procedure. Its the same with combat encounter design - but most of us pretty much mastered that sort of thing a long time ago.

OK more direct look at the challenge your presenting.

Whether your being to hard on them or not is really part and parcel of your 'contract' with your players. Different groups are going to have different feelings regarding when this is to much - but I think most DMs shy away from killing with skill challenges. Players can feel very cheated in this regards.

Still its definitely a balancing act - there is no excitement to a scene where your trying to outrun a Volcano that just blew its top off if there is no true danger.

I'd generally say you want to have already introduced the idea that stakes, with skill challenges, are high - they should have had the opportunity to respond in the character builder to that kind of reality in your campaign.

The next part of the skill challenge that concerns me is this one is in the midst of combat and open ended. I'm not sure why they are not using ropes and grappling hooks and such. What your describing sounds more like a hazard then a skill challenge but I may just be reading it wrong. Not even sure hazard applies - I mean there are rules for underwater combat - are the raptors not just monsters?

Maybe try and overlay a skill challenge on top of this where the raptors can be distracted otherwise normal combat applies? But I have trouble seeing how your going to smoothly slide into a skill challenge here. Its usually not a good idea to use the Skill Challenge System when another set of the rules normally applies and combat is the quintessential section of the rules that are well detailed.

I'm going to echo Jeremy and say that what you're describing sounds more like a terrain issue than a skill challenge.

It's entirely possible to run a skill challenge mid-combat, but I think in the situation you're describing that doesn't make much sense. The raptor pit is a hazard that forms part of the combat. If the pcs have the opportunity to turn the lackeys to their side, or use the raptor pit to their own advantage in some way, then it might become a skill challenge.

As it is, I can't see why Diplomacy or Bluff would have any effect on raptors. Intimidate and Nature - certainly. Endurance, Athletics and Acrobatics sound possible too, but I'd still dispute whether it needs to be a skill challenge at all.

I love the whole notion of skill challenges, mainly because they can become a great story-telling tool. My own preference is to use them either when combat is not the obvious response and there's a problem to be solved or (and I think this is better) when plot needs to go forward but there are several options available. The key thing is to keep flexible on the expected result and be prepared not to force a dead end as a result of failure.

Another useful thing to keep in mind is that while there may be obvious skills, you could end up eliminating half the party if they don't have them. When I'm designing a challenge, I try to think laterally and offer skills statted off as big a variety of things as possible. Umm. Editing this to clarify that by "eliminating half the party" I just mean they're going to feel useless, rather than suddenly dead. Although that could be an option too.

If you always end up going for Cha or Wis based skills (and they're the obvious ones for most social challenges), you're going to have a lot of the party twiddling their thumbs wondering if it's worth rolling an aid another. Keep it flexible, use secondary skills to reduce (or increase) primary skill check DCs and ask the players to think around the problem. You can bet your bottom dollar that the warden with +18 Endurance will find a way to use it if you offer them the chance, rather than his footling +4 Streetwise.

Apologies for the essay.

When I first envisioned this encounter, the raptors were just going to be added to the encounter as additional monsters. I had every intension to stat them out, but have been looking at an alternative way to run that part of the encounter.

The idea of making it a Skill Challenge is an attempt experiment and add a different feel this specific encounter. I am certainly able to make it a standard encounter, and may end of having to, but I wonder if there are other ways to handle this aspect to the encounter.

As for specific skills, since this is SC within a combat encounter, I was thinking I would not have to play to all character's skills. Those characters who do not have useful skills can just participate in the combat, rather than the skill challenge. Perhaps I could allow the person in the pit to use more physical skills to try to extricate themselves, while those on the bridge could use social/knowledge skills.

Raevhen wrote:

When I first envisioned this encounter, the raptors were just going to be added to the encounter as additional monsters. I had every intension to stat them out, but have been looking at an alternative way to run that part of the encounter.

The idea of making it a Skill Challenge is an attempt experiment and add a different feel this specific encounter. I am certainly able to make it a standard encounter, and may end of having to, but I wonder if there are other ways to handle this aspect to the encounter.

You can do this but it has issues. Essentially you can do anything with a skill challenge and when I was first looking at them I was in fact thinking along these lines. I've not even totally ruled the idea out but its pretty tricky. I mean its not hard to use a skill challenge to do a whole adventure - but you need a pretty compelling reason why you want to fast track over the adventure.

So yeah, you can use a skill challenge to represent any part of the game - but you might want to talk with your players about the concept first as this sounds like the kind of thing where your expectations of the what the game is about and theirs might well really differ. The fact that there are other rules to handle most of the actions your PCs are currently involved in, combined with the fact that they are currently obviously on the grid likely makes actually initiating the skill challenge difficult, though I suppose you could interpret 'I throw down a rope' as a skill check.

I mean I've done skill challenges in combat before, both as a DM and as a player but there is usually some pretty clear goal to the skill challenge. If your trying to figure out the controls so you can blow the dam thats obvious - the fact that the lead elements of the Orc army are hell bent on stopping you from blowing the dam just adds to the excitement.

However what makes this work, both for an in combat skill challenge and for an out of combat one, is that the players and the DM are on the same page. In essence your players should actually be able to articulate what their goal here is and how they plan to get to it and that articulation really ought to be pretty much the same one the DM is using. If its not then your skill challenge is about to fall apart because what your players think they are doing and how they plan to go about doing it does not line up with what you have prepped, nor with what your envisioning in your mind. Things get awkward in a hurry if what you've written down in the flavour text of your skill challenge bears no resemblance to what your players are describing as their actions and the expected outcome.

Raevhen, could you give a bit more detail about the whole encounter and the terrain involved?

There's no reason why you can't build a skill challenge into it, but the point about player's being on the same page is a very valid one. I completely agree with you that using them to mix it up is a great idea, but it would help to have more of a picture of what you're trying to accomplish with the whole enounter.

My advice for skill challenges is my advice for just about anything in and out of combat. Don't limit the players.

If someone has a creative idea for how to distract the raptors and it makes sense, then let it work. If it doesn't make sense have it fail.

The plot:

The players (13th level) are going after an enemy who stole a quest item from them. His fortress sits in the middle of a Raptor farm (Rage Drake Ravagers, sorry I forgot I renamed them when I modified them so long ago, I've just gotten used to calling them raptors) where he raises them for mounts for him and his followers.

To get to his villa, the group will need to cross a bridge above where the raptors roam free to a platform in front of a tower with a locked door. Upon the platform are guards, 2 Wardens, 2 Barbarians, and 1 shaman. On top of the tower looking down are 2 seekers. within the tower are another set of guards, a stair going up and down, and a door on the opposite side leading out to another bridge that connects the tower to the villa. Up leads to the top and the seekers, down leads to a stables with raptors and riding gear.

I envision the raptor area to be full of them and not a place the group would want to spend any time in (the raptors have been trained to not attack the guards, possibly because of something they wear, I have not decided yet), so instead of making it a nasty encounter, I thought I'd make it a place you just want to get out of if you fall in, akin to a pool of piranhas. Because of this, I thought it might be better to make it abstract (Skill Challenge) rather than a specific combat.

As for using any skill, I always allow players to do that, they just have to convince me of the validity of what they are doing. I believe in the word, "yes".

Looking at that set up, you could just turn the whole "Getting into the villa"s sequence as a skill challenge. There are good, easy consequences for success and failure and it opens up the door for the players to be creative in what they decide to do.

If they go bald-headed for a frontal attack - well, fine. You have the stats.

Could you not simply treat the Raptor area as terrain?

Any character starting their turn in the Raptor area takes XX ongoing damage and is considered to be Slowed (or some other condition to show the difficulty of moving in the area with raptors attacking them).

Any AOE damage that does YY will clear the effect area of raptors for a round stopping the ongoing damage and condition for that round.

The players would still have to use skills and other things to get out of the pit but it opens up the possibility of using powers and such.

I guess the more I think about it, I am realizing what everyone here is saying. The best way to do it is make it a terrain feature. I think what I was planning would have made it too abstract to take into account the players being creative with the rescue, like lowing ropes. With it being a terrain, I can just make the rules for ways to stop the damage, including things like using the intimidate skill to prevent the damage.

Thank-you all for helping me work this out.

Just as an update, I built the 3D map for the encounter I discussed, here. I'm actually quite proud of it.

With reason. If you put that down in front of our home group, there would be a twenty minute hiatus while everyone had a poke around.

That map is awesome!

Cool setup. Your players are lucky to have you.

Thank-you all for the kind words.

I am not an expert by any means, but I have made an attempt to define the challenge. First of all, I thought of making the rage drakes start of as minions initially, and if attacked with a spell, piercing, or cutting, would revert to a full stat creature.

Setup: Avoid being thrown in the the rage drake pit and being eaten alive.

Success: No one falls in or calm rage drakes (scare them away as minions) before they go into a feeding frenzy and NPCS retreat into tower.

Failure: Remaining rage drakes go into feeding frenzy and become full stat creatures.

Primary Skills - Nature, Perception, Insight, Acrobatics, Athletics

The basic premise is the bridge in the center is a trap, and depending on the initiative order of the NPC (activates it by a lever), the trap door will open and anyone on it falls.

For each person that is bloodied, when falling into the pit, minus 1 from the skill checks for nature or perception. -2 for each rage drake killed. For each minion that is hit with a blunt attack (on the nose) it retreats and take it out of the encounter.

Use Insight to notice the NPC activated the trap, or preparing to push someone off the edge. This unlocks bluff, to try to decieve the attacker to avoid getting pushed off and also add +2 to your saving throw to avoid falling (one time roll).

Use perception to notice the trap and the scars on the rage drakes nose when breaking them in to be ridden.

Use nature to determine how rage drakes react to bloodied state, and the use of blunt attack to scare it away. This also unlocks intimidate as a one time method to scare a minion away.

Use acrobatics to avoid being pushed off.

Use Athletics to avoid being pushed off.

Minions will start to attack once someone falls into the pit.

Well, there it is. Hopefully, it gives you some ideas to work with.

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