When you run a skill challenge, give players choices beyond which skill to use.

A young boy holds a pair of binocular up to his eyes while looking excited.

Trying to find a specific location in the wilderness is a great opportunity for a skill challenge, especially when you are an overexcited kid with binoculars.

Skill challenges provide a way to engage the entire party in something other than combat. A well-formed skill challenge can pull quiet players out of their shell, and they can also provide a structure in which more dynamic players can still thrive. Giving your players choices beyond which skills to use in the challenge makes the entire process feel more authentic and enjoyable for everyone at the table.

In my most recent game session, the players decided to kill off the chief of the gnoll raiders in the forest near their frontier capital. The players specifically wanted to find the primary camp of the gnolls and stage a raid so they could lure out the chief and kill her. Since I had made a detailed hex map of the area, I decided to put it to use as part of the skill challenge of finding the camp.

The Challenge

To begin with, I provided a map to my players of the frontier province they were exploring. Areas of note included a swamp containing friendly trolls and the path they walked to enter the forest. Each hex is about two and a half miles across – a reasonable area to inspect fully in one day.

I set the following requirements for this skill challenge:

Timeline: The heroes have fifteen days of supplies with them. If they cannot find the hex containing the gnoll camp within fifteen days, they must return home.

Relevant Skills: The following skills were of use on this challenge – Intimidate, Nature, and Stealth, each at a medium DC.

Inspecting a hex: Inspecting a single hex takes one day, and the players may choose any hex to inspect on that day. Going once around the table, the party (five players) must pass each of the skills once in order to determine if the camp is located in that hex.

Failure: Failing at one day’s checks gives no progress and increases the encounter level against the gnoll chieftain by one, since the gnolls perceive the heroes as a threat.

Success: Passing all three skill checks with the five rolls from the party reveals if the camp is in that hex. Passing for all three skills with one additional success also lets the party reveal if the camp is in either two adjacent hexes or one non-adjacent hex. Passing for all three skills with two additional successes (a full party success) also lets the party reveal if the camp lies along a specific border or allows five hexes of the players’ choice to be revealed. The first full party success will reveal the half of the province in which the camp is not located (by either and east/west or north/south split).

Special Choices: The path the heroes followed into the province could be inspected two hexes at a time, since they had already covered some of that ground. The players could also choose to inspect two hexes in a day, but that would increase the difficulty from a medium to a hard DC. Trolls allied with the PCs let them know that the gnolls were not based in the swamp.

I chose to be upfront with my players about their timeline, the minimal results of passing, the possibility that more successes would yield greater results, and everything in the special choices section.

On their first day of searching, they chose a hex to the southeast of the hills, and they passed with flying colors! With their first full success, I immediately let them know that the camp had to be to the west of where they were searching. Using PowerPoint, I marked off the hexes they knew did not contain the camp.

I should point out that allowing the players to decided where to search almost cut this skill check short. On the first day of searching, they players were strongly debating inspecting the hex that contained the camp. While this would have ended my skill challenge before it even really got going, it would also have given the players the thrill of “beating” the DM at his own game. We all love that feeling when we play, so I wasn’t about to deny it to my players if they managed to luck out on this one. Thankfully, they instead chose an “empty” hex.

A couple days of decent success let them eliminate most of the path they had traveled into the province, and a failure made the gnolls less afraid of the heroes. This allowed me to telegraph that failures would make the gnolls harder to defeat in the end.

It is another full-party success, and the heroes chose to reveal if the camp lied along the southern “river” border of the province. A few smaller successes helped to fill in more of the area. At this point, I expect them to find the camp at any point.

With another full-party success, the players decided to fully inspect the northern border.

Another couple of failures increased the threat of the encounter with the gnoll chieftain by another two levels. At this point, when they do find the camp, the combat there would be much more of a challenge. A full-party success on day fifteen allowed the heroes to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and locate the gnoll camp at the base of the hills.


This challenge went smoothly, but failure was possible even with the luck of the dice on the players’ side. This type of challenge works best when a complete failure really does not mean a dead-end for the story. In the case, failure to assassinate the gnoll chieftain would only make it more difficult when the heroes eventually march their army into this province and try to bring settlement to the frontier.

In this case, when the payers succeeded, they knew it was in part due to the choices the made, not just their luck at rolling a d20. That type of empowerment is a great thing to hand your players, since it helps to reinforce the idea that their decisions really do matter and they are active participants in the story.

Credit Where Credit is Due

While the mechanics are different, I stole this idea for a searching-based skill challenge with a component of human decision from my friend Ian’s Dark Sun game, where he had us Templars kicking down doors in Urik as we tried to find a prison escapee. He used MapTool to show our party’s position on an actual aerial view of Baghdad, which was just fantastic.

How do you incorporate player decision making into skill challenges? What types of tools, like the maps in this challenge, do you use to show progress? How have you varied your skill challenges from the norm to add a little spice to your game?

6 Responses to “Skill Challenges – Needle in a Haystack”

  1. I really like the idea of integrating a skill challenge with other mechanics. The map itself could have just been used, with the players deciding, “We go there,” and you revealing what they see, like D&D Minesweeper. Conversely, you could have had them just use a standard skill challenge. This mix makes the challenge seem much more interesting.

    I have started thinking of skill challenges even more as skill-centric “combat” encounters. I have modeled at least one with “hit points,” with a successful check usually doing “1 damage,” and then looking at other ways that unusual skills and abilities can affect the outcome, as well as failures. I also have tried to encourage players to use any skills they can think of, not even revealing when the internal mechanics are actually a skill challenge. I have found this works better than the examples given in the DMG1.

    • Oh, and I almost forgot – welcome back, Matt!

      • Thanks for the welcome back, Eric!

        Burning Wheel, and it’s sci-fi counterpart, Burning Empires, are RPGs that have some great methods for handling social confrontation as akin to combat. I don’t know that I’d recommend buying the books just for that one piece, since they are expensive, but it is an interesting read. Come to think of it, Mouse Guard may have the same rules as well, since it is built on a Burning Wheel variant.

        Maybe I should try to hack together a set of social combat rules for 4e – that could be interesting.

        • Oooh… Social Combat for D&D? That’s something I’d like to see…

          I’m nearing the end of an unannounced 1-month blogging hiatus myself, so I’m right there with you about life getting uppity. We make the best choices we can and work with the results of those choices.

          Welcome back.

          • Thanks, and the same to you, Wombat.

            With one request here and a few comments about it off of this site, I feel that I really should pursue this social combat angle. This will be a fun challenge.

  2. [...] Skill Challenges – Needle in a Haystack from Matt Brenner at Blood, Sweat, and Dice walks us through a skill challenge he used in a recent game: finding a camp of gnoll raiders in an expanse of wilderness. [...]

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