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Skill Challenges for 5E, Part 2

Skill Challenges for 5E, Part 2

Skill challenges are a great way to bring the same sort of structure and excitement of combat to non-combat encounters. PCs use different skills as a group to tackle what’s in front of them and achieve success together.

Last time, we discussed how to run skill challenges and why. Today, we plan for PC success and failure in the skill challenge—both mechanically and narratively.

Success and Failure, Mechanically

A concrete way to think about success and failure is by the numbers: what are the odds that the players succeed at the skill challenge? The two factors that most influence this are the PCs’ choices and the DC you set for them.

While you can’t control the former, you have total control over the latter. Trouble is, setting a DC to give the PCs specific odds of success is surprisingly complicated.

The details are only really interesting to those of us fascinated by probability, but the concise reasons are that you can’t predict what players will do, and the only way to precisely calculate odds is to know exactly what proficiencies players will use in what order. Fortunately, you can get close using averages.

The odds are nearly impossible to calculate by hand, so players won’t be able to do mental math to figure them out. And if they’re invested in the outcome of the challenge, the tension will be there. Even with an 80% chance of success, 1 in 5 times it won’t go their way.

Because the probability is so hard to calculate, there’s no single formula for all player counts. To get a percentage of how often PCs succeed, I had a friend (Craig Hughes, credit where credit is due) write a program to run a million trials based on a few variables. Very roughly, the results are boiled down into a table, if PCs play optimally. In the table, “the average” means the average of each PC’s highest three modifiers. (Because PCs are likely to make 2 or 3 checks during the skill challenge, this is the best approximation.)

DC SettingChance of Success
5 higher than the average80%
7 higher than the average60%
8 higher than the average 45%
9 higher than the average30%

As you run skill challenges in your games, adjust along the way. If they seem too easy, increase the DC next time you run it. If they seem too hard, decrease it. 

Success and Failure, Narratively

Odds don’t actually tell the story, and that’s one of the joys of D&D. Since you won’t know if the PCs will succeed or fail, you need a plan to tell the story either way. Here are some important tips for planning for that success or failure.

  • Don’t make success the only way to advance. When you rely on dice, nothing’s guaranteed. Even if you’re sure the PCs will succeed, know how the story moves forward if they don’t.
  • Make the success sweet. Whatever the PCs try to do, make sure that it’s exciting to achieve. During the challenge, it keeps players interested. After the challenge, if they win, they’re excited for the next part of your session.
  • Make the failure sting. You don’t want a failure to derail your session, but you definitely want it to mean a detour. If players realize that they’re getting to the same place regardless of how they do, it takes the tension out of skill challenges.

Setting the Stakes

So what should the stakes be when setting up a skill challenge? Broadly speaking, players are either exploring or roleplaying, and the stakes depend on which one they’re doing. Decide that, then focus on a question about the consequences of a challenge. Start that question with “Will they _______ ?” to make the stakes clear.

For example, if PCs are exploring:

  • Will they make it in time? Will the villain escape before they can face them? Will the evil mage cast the spell that will make the last combat that much harder?
  • Will they reach their destination safely? Will the PCs have to face an additional combat that could drain their resources? Will they take damage from the environment?
  • Will they find what they’re looking for? Will they have something to trade the warlord for their beloved NPC’s freedom, or will they have to fight? Will they figure out how to disarm the trap?
  • Will they get the lay of the land before the big battle? Will they have advantage on the first roll or two in the showdown? Will they misread things and have disadvantage on their first attack rolls?

Or, if PCs are role-playing:

  • Will they make a good impression? Will they get on the good side of the patrons at the tavern? Will the mayor pay them a bit more for the job?
  • Will their distraction work? Will they distract the guards while the rogue steals the map? Can they create enough problems to keep the convoy from leaving, but without getting caught making trouble?
  • Will they get the information they want? Can they ask the right questions of the townspeople to find out who the masked thief could be? Will they keep the loose-lipped prince talking long enough to find out about the secret passages beneath the castle?
  • Will they be convincing? Will their lies keep their patron from finding out that they pocketed the magic ring? Can they convince the townsfolk that they’re not the murderers so they can stay long enough to uncover the real culprits?

Know Why Success or Failure Matters

Most importantly, make sure you know why success or failure matters. In terms of the three pillars of D&D, succees could help in combat, in exploring, or in roleplaying. Potential benefits:

  • Combat benefits: avoiding damage, gaining advantage in an opening round of combat, or getting a magic item to help them gain resistance.
  • Exploration benefit: opening up a new part of the world, making it easier to travel from one place to another, getting somewhere without complications.
  • Roleplaying benefit: helping someone the PCs care about, getting on the good side of an important noble, or earning more gold for a pet project.

Think about what makes your players tick and lean on that! A lot of GMing well comes back to that, and success and failure in skill challenges are no different.

Upcoming Articles

Next time, we’ll talk about how to respond to players questions about what they can and can’t do in skill challenges. What if they use magic to help? Can they just pass and let someone else go? Then, in the final articles, I’ll present some twists on the basic formula.

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