Some Help Understanding Skill Challenges

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I'm not sure I fully grasp the concept of skill challenges, or even how to pull off something similar. After reading up on any thread I could find on the subject, the general concensus was to ignore skill challenges as they had been written and instead present the players with a problem and have them come up with a solution. Well that's fine with me, but I'm having trouble creating a similar scenario. I'll describe what I'm trying to accomplish:

The idea is that the players are trapped in a room that is slowly filling with noxious gas. If the party takes too long to escape, they fall unconscious and wake up captive in the heart of their enemy's encampment. I feel confident that the players can find a way out of the room without me coming up with anything specific for them, but if the idea is that everyone gets to contribute a skill check or idea, how do I organize their attempts? Should I have them roll initiative, or just go around the table clockwise? Or just have them do it freeform?

Moreover, how do I give them a sense of urgency? They only have a limited time to escape the room, but I'm not sure how to manifest that in game mechanics. Should I maybe use an egg timer, or have them take turns and mark off the turns? But then that leads back to question one.

Or maybe all of these are bad ideas. If you were going to put your party in this situation, how would you go about it? 
I love skill challenges.

Skill challenges as written ARE "present the players with a problem and have them come up with a solution." I think what you should do is ignore skill challenges as they are commonly understood. Skill challenges are no different than any skill-based obstacle in past editions. For instanct, any skill can potentially work in a skill challenge, but the Primary skills don't require any justification. But that's not really your question.

In the situation you describe, there's no need for initiative order, because even if you used it characters could delay or ready actions. But it's fair to allow only single set of actions for a given character before everyone else has had a chance, and after everyone has had a chance to then mark off a "round." Giving the PCs only a set number of rounds to complete the challenge is fine. I recommend three.

The key to skill challenges (and really any other aspect of the game) is to have plans for both interesting success and interesting failure. Once you have those, you basically can't go wrong. Describe, describe, describe, roll some dice, and go.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Thanks, that's exactly what I needed. That'll be helpful with not just this skill challenge, but with ALL of them -- I've had such a hard time figuring out how to run them from just the books.
Thank you! 
Thanks, that's exactly what I needed. That'll be helpful with not just this skill challenge, but with ALL of them -- I've had such a hard time figuring out how to run them from just the books.
Thank you! 

I can understand that. The books give a lot of good advice, but their concrete examples are somewhat lacking. Freeform is the watchword. Skill challenges seem like they're very mechanized, but they're not really. The whole thing about the number of successes and failures is just a pacing mechanism to keep the encounter from being completed in one lucky die roll, or asking for repeated dice rolls and never knowing when to stop. The DM can always decide when to stop, but I find that having those counters helps me craft my descriptions, which are really what the bulk of any skill challenge should be about: descriptions.

Best of luck, and don't hesitate to ask. But be wary of advice telling to to ditch skill challenges entirely, especially since the follow-up advice often turns out to be the same thing skill challenges already do (or at least allow for).

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

I'm not sure I fully grasp the concept of skill challenges, or even how to pull off something similar. After reading up on any thread I could find on the subject, the general concensus was to ignore skill challenges as they had been written and instead present the players with a problem and have them come up with a solution. Well that's fine with me, but I'm having trouble creating a similar scenario. I'll describe what I'm trying to accomplish:

The idea is that the players are trapped in a room that is slowly filling with noxious gas. If the party takes too long to escape, they fall unconscious and wake up captive in the heart of their enemy's encampment. I feel confident that the players can find a way out of the room without me coming up with anything specific for them, but if the idea is that everyone gets to contribute a skill check or idea, how do I organize their attempts? Should I have them roll initiative, or just go around the table clockwise? Or just have them do it freeform?

Moreover, how do I give them a sense of urgency? They only have a limited time to escape the room, but I'm not sure how to manifest that in game mechanics. Should I maybe use an egg timer, or have them take turns and mark off the turns? But then that leads back to question one.

Or maybe all of these are bad ideas. If you were going to put your party in this situation, how would you go about it? 


Don't worry about initiative. As far as a sense of urgency, I would require each character to make an Endurance check on their round. A failure causes the character to lose a surge. Other than that, set your number of successes (you don't even need to worry about failures since failure will already be punished by leaving them in the chamber longer losing surges, or you could be really wicked and maybe after 3 failures something goes wrong which eliminates all of their successes and sets them back to square 1), let them come up with solutions, and call for skill checks as appropriate.
Owner and Proprietor of the House of Trolls. God of ownership and possession.
Don't worry about initiative. As far as a sense of urgency, I would require each character to make an Endurance check on their round. A failure causes the character to lose a surge. Other than that, set your number of successes (you don't even need to worry about failures since failure will already be punished by leaving them in the chamber longer losing surges, or you could be really wicked and maybe after 3 failures something goes wrong which eliminates all of their successes and sets them back to square 1), let them come up with solutions, and call for skill checks as appropriate.

What does failure look like in this case? Losing all of one's surges doesn't knock one unconscious. And if it does, it means certain people are left not participating after a while.

In general, err on the side of making skill challenges too hard. I find that this makes it easier to root for the players and puts the focus on allowing cool ideas, rather than blocking them.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

Don't worry about initiative. As far as a sense of urgency, I would require each character to make an Endurance check on their round. A failure causes the character to lose a surge. Other than that, set your number of successes (you don't even need to worry about failures since failure will already be punished by leaving them in the chamber longer losing surges, or you could be really wicked and maybe after 3 failures something goes wrong which eliminates all of their successes and sets them back to square 1), let them come up with solutions, and call for skill checks as appropriate.

What does failure look like in this case? Losing all of one's surges doesn't knock one unconscious. And if it does, it means certain people are left not participating after a while.

In general, err on the side of making skill challenges too hard. I find that this makes it easier to root for the players and puts the focus on allowing cool ideas, rather than blocking them.



I agree with basically all of Centauri's ideas on skill challenges.

I will however add to this that after your players, and you, have gotten used to skill challenges as their own entity putting them into combats opens up a whole new world of dynamic encounters.  Being able to mix and match things like this, especially if completing the combat makes the challenge easier of vice versa, gives you a lot of design space to create more full "scenes" rather than just "combats". 
Currently working on making a Dex based defender. Check it out here
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All good advice here. The one thing I would add is that I've found it's better not to force everyone to roll something every round if they're not really into it. Some players enjoy skill challenges more, and some PCs are built to do much better in skill challenges than others. A Fighter with Athletics, Endurance, and Heal might get tired of making up weird ways of participating in a skill challenge convincing the duke to share his plan with the party. Nothing wrong with letting that guy sit back or go make a sandwich while the bard does the talking.

That being said, once you feel more comfortable with the traditional skill challenge, I highly recommend Matyr's advice to mix skills into encounters. Sometimes I have little mini-skill challenges within encounters and sometimes I just say, "You can do X with a minor action Religion check (DC 18)."  I let them roll a "terrain check" at initiative (streetwise for towns, nature for forest, etc) that gives them at least three of these types of options. Just make sure the options provide viable alternatives to just plain ol' killing - for example, I rarely ask them to give up their standard action unless it's to do something equivalent to an attack.

My current group is very combat focused and would kind of zombie-stare through skill challenges, but they've really responded to using skills in combat beyond my expectations. Do this long enough and your players themselves may begin to come up with ideas of new ways to use their skills, which is just great IMO.
What I typically do for skill checks is use the system built into a lot of LFR modules.  The type of action it takes for you to do a lot of checks determines how difficult that check is to do.  If they want to attempt it as a minor action its hard DC, as move it is medium, as standard it is easy.  Certain things require certain kinds of checks (maybe moving a bit of wall takes at least a move action) but that as a general rule tends to work quite well.
Currently working on making a Dex based defender. Check it out here
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Need a few pre-generated characters for a one-shot you are running? Want to get a baseline for what an effective build for a class you aren't familiar with? Check out the Pregen thread here If ever you are interested what it sounds like to be at my table check out my blog and podcast here Also, I've recently done an episode on "Refluffing". You can check that out here
All good advice here. The one thing I would add is that I've found it's better not to force everyone to roll something every round if they're not really into it. Some players enjoy skill challenges more, and some PCs are built to do much better in skill challenges than others. A Fighter with Athletics, Endurance, and Heal might get tired of making up weird ways of participating in a skill challenge convincing the duke to share his plan with the party. Nothing wrong with letting that guy sit back or go make a sandwich while the bard does the talking.

Yes, this is why skill challenges should not only be interesting to fail, but shouldn't be the only thing going on.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

What does failure look like in this case? Losing all of one's surges doesn't knock one unconscious. And if it does, it means certain people are left not participating after a while.

Well for one no one will be happy to lose all their surges even if they are still alive. Two, although they should just list this as a standard rule, every entry I've seen that causes someone to lose a surge includes "if the character has no surges remaining, he loses HP equal to his surge value" and 0 HP will cause someone to go unconscious.
Owner and Proprietor of the House of Trolls. God of ownership and possession.
It really just feels like a way to get the players to roll dice more than they should/could.  Try finding a different way to deal with skill challenges.  Rolling 5 out of 8 really wastes time and feels hollow.
It really just feels like a way to get the players to roll dice more than they should/could.  Try finding a different way to deal with skill challenges.  Rolling 5 out of 8 really wastes time and feels hollow.

Yes, it does, if that's how one runs them. No one suggests that's how one should run them. Clearly they should be as vividly described as any other scene. They're no different than what skill-based challenges have always been, they just address many of the common questions about such challenges.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

It really just feels like a way to get the players to roll dice more than they should/could.  Try finding a different way to deal with skill challenges.  Rolling 5 out of 8 really wastes time and feels hollow.

Yes, it does, if that's how one runs them. No one suggests that's how one should run them. Clearly they should be as vividly described as any other scene. They're no different than what skill-based challenges have always been, they just address many of the common questions about such challenges.


Yea...but forcing something like that in the game that requires a huge ammount of literary talent to describe a scene in great detail is hard to do for, say, someone like me who never describes battles or anything of the sort.  I've played in games where every little thing is described in great detail, and it just bogs dowwn the game.  It's fine, by all means if you can describe how a feast tasets in a way that the players mouthes begin to water, then do it.  Skill challenges just seem like forced rolling to me.  I could tell a PC to roll once and then describe the scene or action in little detail and it'll gett acroos to the players better than a long winded "Roll best 5 outta 8" that skill chalenges force.  All in all, In my games, I've found needless rolling takes away from game time, and if it can be done simply, it will.  My players both accept and appreciate that fact.  They'd rahter get back into the meat of playing D&D.
It really just feels like a way to get the players to roll dice more than they should/could.  Try finding a different way to deal with skill challenges.  Rolling 5 out of 8 really wastes time and feels hollow.

Yes, it does, if that's how one runs them. No one suggests that's how one should run them. Clearly they should be as vividly described as any other scene. They're no different than what skill-based challenges have always been, they just address many of the common questions about such challenges.


Yea...but forcing something like that in the game that requires a huge ammount of literary talent to describe a scene in great detail is hard to do for, say, someone like me who never describes battles or anything of the sort.  I've played in games where every little thing is described in great detail, and it just bogs dowwn the game.  It's fine, by all means if you can describe how a feast tasets in a way that the players mouthes begin to water, then do it.  Skill challenges just seem like forced rolling to me.  I could tell a PC to roll once and then describe the scene or action in little detail and it'll gett acroos to the players better than a long winded "Roll best 5 outta 8" that skill chalenges force.  All in all, In my games, I've found needless rolling takes away from game time, and if it can be done simply, it will.

Vividly does not need to mean long winded detail.

Some encounters make sense to resolve with a single roll. Others don't resolve well with a single roll, any better than an epic battle would resolve well with a single attack. It's about finding the right pacing for the scene.

Skill challenges are not just forced rolling, any more than battles are. Battles just benefit from having a more straightforward fiction to describe. Skills are more open ended and can have a wider array of responses from the game. The success/failure ratio and other aspects of skill challenges helps the DM imagine those responses.

Finally, the DM doesn't have to be the only person to describe a scene.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

One thing that strikes me about the OP's scenario is that it seems like a situation where one good idea could (and maybe should) eliminate the entirety of the challenge. If it's possible for a single action or skill to eliminate the threat, it's probable you don't want to use a skill challenge at all. For example, if the player makes an athletics check, and the locked door of the room weakens some, the most likely and reasonable response for that player is to say "I hit it again". In that case, it might be better to simply let the player make a single check to break out, with the players losing a healing surge if the check fails. You gain little by making the player roll athletics 4-12 times instead of once.
 
If a skill challenge is resolvable by only one skill, it might be a good time to add in an additional complication. For example, perhaps the gas induces insanity (causing members of the party to attack their allies, and requiring intimidate or heal to break them out). Alternatively, you could mix a simple skill challenge with a combat (perhaps golems or other creatures immune to poison), allowing those who aren't trying to break the group out to deal with the monster.
One thing that strikes me about the OP's scenario is that it seems like a situation where one good idea could (and maybe should) eliminate the entirety of the challenge. If it's possible for a single action or skill to eliminate the threat, it's probable you don't want to use a skill challenge at all. For example, if the player makes an athletics check, and the locked door of the room weakens some, the most likely and reasonable response for that player is to say "I hit it again". In that case, it might be better to simply let the player make a single check to break out, with the players losing a healing surge if the check fails. You gain little by making the player roll athletics 4-12 times instead of once.
 
If a skill challenge is resolvable by only one skill, it might be a good time to add in an additional complication. For example, perhaps the gas induces insanity (causing members of the party to attack their allies, and requiring intimidate or heal to break them out). Alternatively, you could mix a simple skill challenge with a combat (perhaps golems or other creatures immune to poison), allowing those who aren't trying to break the group out to deal with the monster.

But it wouldn't be very difficult to turn that into a skill challenge, if the DM wished.  The tank can go to bash down the door, but maybe it's magically sealed.  Now the wizard needs to make an arcana check so the fighter doesn't get zapped each time he takes his shoulder to the wood.  Also, where is the gas coming from?  The rogue can use thievery to undo the grate in the ceiling -- or wherever -- and stuff his cloak up there to buy a few additional rounds.  All the while the cleric can use heal to give a boost to her comrade's endurance checks.

Note this isn't to say that if the PCs come up with a really cool way to sidestep the challenge that they shouldn't be rewarded for that, but busting down the door is a pretty straight-forward solution to the problem where it makes sense for the other PCs to help in any way that they can. 
Skill challenges generally work best when they're used to represent an extended, dynamic activity rather than a single, straightforward one. Escaping the gas trap room is essentially a single activity, and it isn't particularly dynamic (they get out, or they don't, but the situation itself doesn't change much).

Where skill challenges really shine is when each check - successful or not - moves the narrative ahead to a new scenario or decision point, and there's no "batter away at the same problem until it breaks" involved.

Unfortunately, the DMG1 skill challenges are all examples of bad skill challenge design, and they all break the principles of good skill challenge design set out in the DMG2, which also presented much better examples ("War by Other Means" and "Navigating Sunderham" being prime examples). It's the best place to look if you want a better understanding of how to effectively use the skill challenge framework.

But to come back to the gas trap room, it would work as part of a larger narrative:

--

"You're caught in the gas trap room (blah blah blah). How do you escape?"

Based on the result of that check (which might be a group check), you then move on to...

(Success) As you escape the chamber, you hear the sound of guards approaching; you've a bit of a head start, but you don't know the way through these tunnels. What now? (Next check.)

(Failure) As you stagger out of the chamber, choking on the gas, you find yourselves surrounded by the guards. What do you do? (Next check - or combat.)

--

  In other words, it looks rather like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure where every check means turning to a new page (for better or for worse).

Here's a little bit of followup if anyone cares:
I used the three-round setup suggested on the first page. On round one, the room would fog up, adding a -2 to any rolls the players made. On round two, the players' NPC companion would pass out. THe idea was that the enemies, not knowing who she was and not seeing her as a target, would kill her and move on if the players didn't escape. On round three, the players would pass out. Each of them would make a constitution save to wake up before they were captured by the bad guys -- those players would defend themselves until they were safe or until they were defeated, and then the whole group would be moved to the heart of the enemy camp, where they would have to escape. I designed a large, sprawling enemy camp with adventure hooks of its own and special loot to find. Just in case.

However, the first player to roll for the skill challenge was a Dragonborn Paladin with training in strength. He said, "Okay, I want to try to kick through the wall." N-not the door? Why not? Being a new DM, I didn't really see that coming, but I rolled with the punches and set the DC reasonably high for a thick brick wall and thought, "Okay, it's not likely he'll be able to do it."
He rolled a twenty and kicked right through that wall. Then he went berserk on the enemy soldiers. Nobody was harmed by the poison fog.

On one hand, I wasted a lot of time designing not only the skill challenge, but an enemy base, too. On the other hand, I learned a lot about skill challenges, proper world-building and location-in-motion writing, and how to deal with it when the players think outside the box and derail my expectations. So, successful adventure! And now I know where the enemies are hiding, so if my players decide to hunt them down, I already have their destination all built up.

@Skaevola, I wouldn't say that it was time wasted.  I'm sure you'll be able to put that enemy camp to use at some point.
Yeah, if you ever develop something and don't use it, don't worry - file it away, because odds are good that you're going to need something just like that down the line, even if it's in an entirely different campaign.
Yeah, totally -- like I said, if they decide to hunt down the enemy in their camp, I'll have the camp prepared and ready to go! It's a permanent fixture in the world now, so who knows how the players might end up there?