Skill challenges can vary from the norms established in the Rules Compendium. Pass-or-total-failure checks can make for intense moments.
This past week, the heroes in my game decided to sneak through a forest occupied by gnoll raiders. This seemed like a great opportunity for a skill challenge, but I always try to deviate from the proscribed norm in my skill challenges. I want every skill challenge to be different and feel unique in some way. Some level of mechanical repetition cannot be helped, but I do try to keep it fresh.
For this challenge, I took a moment to consider the culture of the gnolls in the area. Gnolls, at least in my game, rarely manage to band together into anything larger than a pack. Any groups of gnolls patrolling the woods would likely be much more interested in saving their own skin than in alerting the others or sending for help. If the party acted tough enough, they could probably discourage the cowardly gnolls from harming them.
For skills, I ran with:
- Nature - for navigating the forest and finding their goal within
- Athletics - for setting a brisk pace and helping the party to traverse the difficult terrain
- Stealth - for avoiding the gnoll packs that patrol the woods
In a skill challenge, I require every player to contribute before anyone can try a second time, so I set my DCs to Medium. That would be enough of a challenge for untrained players, but it would give players that excelled in that skill a chance to shine. Eight required successes seemed like a fair number and would keep the challenge going for a bit without taking up too much time.
I did not want to use the normal failure mechanic in this challenge, so I decided to change it up. Failure at any skill would induce an immediate pass-or-total-failure skill check. In this case, I figured that a gnoll pack would get too close for comfort on a failed skill challenge roll, and the next hero would need to frighten the cowards off immediately or else the challenge would end. Play ran something like this:
Matt: “Liriel, how are you helping the party?”
Leanne: “I am going to use my elven grace to walk ahead and try to find the easiest path for the humans.”
Matt: “Okay, roll a Nature check.”
Leanne: ::rolls:: ::sighs:: “I got a thirteen.”
Matt: “This is just taking too much time – you cannot find an easy path for your friends to take, which slows down the party. The pack of gnolls you saw in the distance has decided to close on you while your movements are limited by the terrain. Miri, if you want to keep the party safe, you need to scare off these gnolls right now. Rolling an intimidate check can do that.”
Janna: “Oh yeah, I have got this. Miri lifts her spear high above her head and lets loose a blood-curdling cry.” ::does a fantastic Xena-style battle cry:: ::rolls:: “Twenty-nine! Who’s your barbarian?”
Matt: “The gnolls stop short of reaching you, thinking better of a confrontation. You are safe, for now.”
Failure on a skill check during the challenge meant that the next player needed to pass a difficult skill check for either intimidate (stated by the DM) or bluff (if suggested by the player). Failure on that second check would end the skill challenge, with a consequence based on the check that failed the challenge.
This challenge ran well. I am overt about when my players are in a skill challenge, allowing them to view it as tactical role-playing. I also have the players roll a simple initiative, with the highest player going first and then just going around the table from there. This meant that not every character was well qualified for scaring off the gnolls, and failure was a real possibility. They passed in the end, but only after two near-failures.
How do you mix up the skill challenge mechanic? What types of skill challenges would you like to see addressed in the future? How would you have handled this scenario differently?