Tome Ep 131: Skill Challenge Advice


Skill Challenges have been a long developing, changing, and debated topic in 4e D&D. This month (April) I am calling Skill Challenge Month and towards that goal I am planning a couple of episodes of how to make them work and be awesome. To those ends, I am joined in this episode by Dave Chalker where we are going to build a Skill Challenge from scratch and talk about how to get the most out of a skill challenge as a player.



FRP Games Pick of the Episode - Plane Above


Critical Hits



  • pdunwin

    I like skill challenges, but I didn’t like the skill challenge made in this episode. I wish I could talk to you about it directly. Feel free to contact me directly or leave a message at my D&D Community site, if you’re interested in a dialog.

    The main thing was its linearity. That’s one of the main complaints about skill challenges, that they’re too structured. Even if that’s not inherently bad, I can’t imagine a party following the order you set forth without significant prompting. Prompting is fine if no one as any ideas, but this one seems to require the use of certain skills at certain times.

    It is very unfocused. It would make more sense as a collection of smaller skill challenges. Not every skill challenge needs to or should appeal to every skill. If you have people bored, try running two challenges concurrently.

    I liked the branching, and the attention paid to not having the challenge end if a certain skill isn’t passed (or isn’t tried).

    I’m no expert and you both probably have far more experience than I do, but I worry that your approach is going to turn off more people than you’ll turn on. Maybe some examples of actual play would help me understand.

    Apr 19, 2010 at 12:14 pm
  • Dave T. Game

    Well, there are a couple things at work here.

    First, we were making up a skill challenge on the spot, as we went, so that probably contributes to it feeling like it was linear.

    Second, a race is inherently linear, and it would be up to the PCs how many detours they wanted to make. If I were to run this for my PCs (and as I mentioned, I did run something similar recently), I’d tell the party that there is another group after the same book they are, and see what they come up with from there.

    My style of running Skill Challenges- which we didn’t get into in this episode- is not to keep the PCs bound to the skills we come up with beforehand, but just give the DM guidelines of what they could use (and some ideas if they get stuck.) So if the party did something completely unexpected, at least we know “bad guy party will reach the party at time X.”

    Hope that helps. Thanks for listening.

    Apr 19, 2010 at 1:22 pm
  • Jeff

    I tend to agree with both of you, with some proviso.

    A. I think that Skill Challenges are perfectly valid as both linear and non-linear. And more. I REALLY like not limiting what SCs CAN and CANNOT do. So I’m perfectly happy with a linear challenge like the one we presented in this episode. I guess I didn’t realize that there was such a controversy over linear challenges and that that was such a big critique.

    B. I tend to agree with Dave in that I try not to limit my PCs into what skills they can and can’t use. I leave things pretty wide open. I thought we might have mentioned that at one point, but maybe not. That creates some open-ness to a more linear challenge. That said, my players seldom surprise me with what they want to do.

    All that said, maybe you’ll be more happy with what you get in the planned/partially recorded Skill Challenge Special. I just recorded a segment tonight where myself and Mike Shea from help Tracy from SaraDarkmagic build a non-linear skill challenge.

    Apr 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm
  • pdunwin

    I agree that skill challenges CAN be non-linear, I just don’t see HOW without a lot of prompting and limiting of of the PCs to specific courses of action. It also seems as though it would limit the DM as to how he could describe failure of the challenge if it occurs very early. I guess I had a bad experience with a linear skill challenge at one of the Game Days and it turned me off from them.

    I do place some limits on what skills my players can and can’t use, but I generally try to follow the oft-overlooked advice from the DMG: allow rolls of secondary skills (the original term for skills not listed in the challenge; listed skills were called primary skills) at a Hard DC and/or only allow one such use per player or per party (the DMG is vague on the last point, but either could work, depending on the scenario.) I generally ask my players to “sell me on it”. New and clever ideas have a better chance of being allowed. I’d like to discourage using Athletics to impress someone or Religion to call for divine aid in every challenge, simply because those ideas are overused and boring to me.

    I am very eager to hear or read some actual play of skill challenges.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm
  • TreacleMiner

    Good show.

    Though next time you should edit out the long spaces between question/response when there is a delay on the line with your guest.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 1:39 pm
  • Jeff

    @pdunwin: Yeah, I’m sorry if I seemed abrasive with my over use of capitalization before. I mostly agree with you. I haven’t had the experience of bad skill challenges that were bad due to the linear nature of them. I’ve had bad skill challenges because I didn’t know what I was doing in running them and I messed them up pretty bad as a DM. But I’m quite pleased with the challenges that I’ve made and run recently and there have been a good mix. The trick to the linear version is that you still give freedom to do whatever they want. Ask the players for actions, not skill checks. If you want to talk about it more, let me know, I’m happy to chat it up some more.

    @Traecleminer: I understand your concern and appreciate the feedback. As it is I spend about 2 minutes editing every 1 minute that’s released. I know I could do a lot more editing and get rid of every pause or delay, but I simply lack the time for it. I’d rather get rid of the big glaring pauses and mistakes and move on to the next episode so I can get more content out to you.

    This episode there were more spaces than usual, because I was typing the skill challenge details that I hope to format up and share on the Vorpal Network forums. That delayed some of my responses. I’ll try to do better in the future, and thanks for listening.

    Apr 20, 2010 at 6:14 pm