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Action: The Skill Challenge

Action: The Skill Challenge

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Welcome to 4th Edition week here at KQ.com. All this week will feature wonderful material designed for 4th Edition (while still being inspirational for any edition).


Skill Challenges are the “other kind of encounter.” Some players hate them, some love them, and many just don’t know what to think of them. There’s no reason that they can’t be just as exciting as any other encounter. Theirs is the potential of creative freedom: an opportunity to encourage roleplaying…

Using Action Points in Skill Challenges

One way to spice skill challenges up is to use action points when resolving them.

There are no types of actions to take when resolving a skill challenge; many groups just cycle through their players, asking for a check or some other response and then crafting a shorthand story from the results. This can seem very passive to players, and being able to use action points gives them a way to become more involved. How can players use action points?

  • Allow an additional check for an extra possible success.
  • Give a +3 bonus for a check on a trained skill.
  • Permit an untrained character to use a skill with the “trained” bonus for a round.
  • Make a skill check to negate a failure, and only allow such a reversal with an action point.

In this way, you allow players to utilize action points that might otherwise be lost before the next milestone and to contribute significantly to an encounter where their involvement might have been limited.

Feats and Class Options

New feats and class option greatly help those characters looking to excel in skill challenges.

Discerning Intuition

Prerequisite: Trained in Insight
: During a skill challenge, you may make an Insight check to determine either which skills result in successes or which skills result in failure. You gain a +3 bonus on next skill check attempt in the challenge.

Grace Under Pressure

Benefit: Select two trained skills. You gain a +2 bonus to those skills during skill challenges; this bonus increases to +3 during a skill challenge when using an action point. This bonus stacks with the possible +3 bonus for using an action point with a trained skill check.

Inspiring Demagogue

Prerequisite: Channel Divinity: Divine Favor
Benefit: If, during a skill challenge, you succeed in a skill check and use an action point in the same round, all allies within sight gain a +3 to skill checks before the start of your next round.

Outspoken Director

Prerequisite: Commanding Presence
Benefit: Any ally within sight who spends an action point during a skill challenge also has the choice to either roll twice and take the higher value, or add an additional +3 bonus, which stacks with other bonuses, to the check.

Warlords’ Option

The following is an alternative to the Commanding Presence options. Directing Presence also modifies any warlord power modified by Tactical Presence.

Directing Presence: When an ally you can see spends an action point during a skill challenge, the ally gains a bonus to the check equal to one-half your intelligence modifier.

Skill Checks in Combat

The big question when considering skill challenges and combat is, “Why bother making a check when you could be attacking?” Traditionally, a skill challenge in combat doesn’t contribute to reducing the number of foes the party faces, so there is little incentive to attempt resolving it. Instead, create combat skill challenges with checks that reward players for using skill checks and still contribute to combat. Consider allowing skill checks that…

Take out minions.

  • Use Arcana against a minion’s Reflex or Will defense to activate latent magic of an area and strike down an enemy minion.
  • Use Athletics against a minion’s Fortitude or Reflex defense to topple columns and statuary, drop hanging objects or collapse portions of the ceiling.
  • Use Dungeoneering against a minion’s Fortitude or Reflex defense to exploit a weakness of an environment, such as a wall or cavern collapse, or poisonous puffball mushroom.
  • Use Religion against a minion’s Fortitude or Will defense to invoke the power of the god in ritual commands to strike down weak undead minions.

Defeating the defense by a high amount might permit more minions to be defeated. Killing an extra minion for every five you exceed the defense is appropriate. Certainly all of these options require the GM to prepare a bit ahead of time, describing aspects of the battlefield that give the players clues as to how to interact with the environment. You might also consider a level appropriate Perception check to identify the skill challenge options as combat begins and give those with Combat Reflexes +3 to the check.

Damage Elite/Solo creatures, or inflict a status condition.

  • Use Arcana against a creature’s Reflex or Will defense to activate the power of a magical area to daze or confuse.
  • Use Athletics against a creature’s AC or Reflex defense to knock down objects which might trip or entangle.
  • Use the Intimidate skill against the Will defense of humanoid foes, causing them to be afraid.
  • Use Religion a creature’s Fortitude or Will defense to recite holy passages in a sanctified area to rebuke and slow.

Modify battlefield terrain.

  • Use Acrobatics to fling sand, soot, or iron filings into the air, slowing any who enter the spaces for a round.
  • Use Arcana or Religion to activate an old ward that makes certain squares impassable or inflicts damage to those standing there.
  • Use Athletics or Endurance to topple crates, pillars, or other objects and create rough terrain that remains until someone has moved through the spaces.

By creating skill challenges that influence the flow of battle, you give your players the chance to interact more with their environment, instead of just moving across a battlemat. It encourages players to look closer at the details of a room, chamber, or forest glen, searching for those options that will help them defeat an enemy faster or just give them an edge for the next round. Regardless, these challenges should add depth and entertainment to any battle.

7 thoughts on “Action: The Skill Challenge”

  1. Using Action Points in Skill Challenges:

    We use the ever popular reroll a skill check for the skill challenge (in the hope to have a better result), therefore your fine idea #4 has no meaning in our group.
    idea #1 and #3 come not into play as we do roll initiative or go around thetable for checks. We guard against one charakter doing all the checks and each charcter is allowed to roll any skill at the groups peril.

    I can include idea #2. One out of four is a good result.

    Feats and Class options:
    Discerning Intuition: DC is missing or do you assume page 42 DMG? This feat is worthless if there are no auto result skills.

    Skill challenges including auto successes and auto failure for skills are gaming the system. Which makes the skill challenges more mechanical during play. Thiey restrict the free flowing nature of the interaction.

    Grace Under Pressure:
    Skill Focus? I am hard pressed to find two skills i absolutly want to succeed at. This is even weaker than the +2/+2 feats in 3.X

    Inspiring Demagogue, Outspoken Director:

    Directing Presence:

    Skill Checks in Combat

    I dislike these checks, when there is no environment establish to support them.

    Athletics check to topple the brazier in order to kill minion is close blast 3.

    Arcana check in order to direct the trap to unleash its attack on a target of your choice.

    Dungeoneering check to choose the right rock in the overhang to strike to let a tunnel collapse.

    Religion check in order to invoke the god to whom this altar is sanctified to and kill minion is close burst 3.

    Good encounters have described environment. Each environment is special and not all options are available each combat.
    Not every combat has a chandlier.

    Inflicting status conditions by skill check follows the above. Given the proper environment any option can be done.

    the condition afraid in undefined.

  2. @rich & @steve: I’m glad you enjoyed them– please let me know how they work for you in play.

    @afbeer: I’m not sure how using an action point to reroll (a fine use!) makes using an action point to allow a check to negate a failure meaningless?

    Even if you don’t use a round or solicit actions from each player, I don’t see how allowing a second check or providing the trained bonus on an untrained check wouldn’t work– perhaps you can clarify what you meant?

    RE: Discerning Intuition– yes, as I said in the first comment: ‘Discerning Intuition should probably be amended to say “…make an Insight check of Moderate difficulty to determine…”’ This feat was intended to provide a way to easily reveal what skills might be most appropriate, or to show when a particular skill might be inappropriate. That seemed worth a feat– not ‘gaming the system,’ since there are times when diplomacy or intimdate may not work at all, or when using religion might trigger a hostile reaction, or bluff might be particularly effective. Ordinarily, you’d have to experiment to find these options within a SC, and with the feat, you make a check to reveal them– establishing a cost and a benefit for the information. It might not always be useful, but not all feats are.

    RE: Grace Under Pressure– I can see taking this feat for Stealth or Thievery, possibly Arcana or Athletics. It’s meant to provide that extra edge that ensures a character’s strengths can particularly shine in a skill challenge. It depends on the nature of the character and the tenor of the campaign. If skill challenges aren’t very common in your game, I can see how the feat would have less value. I think in a tricksy-urban-thief game, that feat would be gold.

    RE: Combat Checks– Yes, like I said, “Certainly all of these options require the GM to prepare a bit ahead of time, describing aspects of the battlefield that give the players clues as to how to interact with the environment.” If you don’t make that effort, then the checks definitely seem nonsensical. Incorporating this option means tricking out the battlefield with terrain options that encourage players to try new tactics. I like the suggestions you make here.

    RE: Afraid– yes, this isn’t a status condition, per se, but I was considering it in the context of the Intimidate skill and the description of possible success, where you “cow a target into taking some other action.”

    Thank you for the comments!


  3. Re: Action point reroll vs. action point for roll to negate failure. Please observe the qualifier ‘in our group’. The reroll is the more elegant way of doing what you propose.

    Re: #1 When we do not poll the players around the table, we often have the effect that some or in extreme case one character is repeatedly rolling, e.g in the case of a spokes person in a diplomatic encounter. Using an action point to be allowed to roll another check? Just follow the flow of the roleplaying and then you will be called up to roll again.

    Re: #3 ‘… at the groups peril.’

    Re: Discerning Intuition. I intended to say that having auto success and failure skills is gaming the system on part of the skill challenge designer not the player. For example i have tricked out intimidating sorcerer. i usually do not have any doubts about which opponents are resolved enough in their thinking, that i am unable to cow them into submission. This due to their description, role in the adventure and all the other cues i get from the DM during roleplaying. This is what i stated under Combat Checks. description, description, description.

    Re: Grace under pressure. This is weaker, because the bonus does not apply all the time.
    How does the stealthy group above feel, when detected outside a skill challenge?

    You are welcome.

    Skill challenges live and fail by description. Any complicated algorithm applying to DCs and availability of checks resulting out of earlier checks are gaming the system. It is better to have scenes for one or two skill checks. With the scene comes more description.

  4. Re: Action point reroll vs. action point
    “The reroll is the more elegant way of doing what you propose”

    In a sense, yes, but it doesn’t allow one character to make up for the failure of another, which was the other intended option. This might draw in more characters and increase participation.

    As to your other points (Save ‘grace under pressure,’ but I’ll leave that.), it seems they boil down to:

    “Skill challenges live and fail by description.”

    And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it might be the topic of the next article.


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