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Skill Challenges: Impossible To Fail!

badass rogueI’ve noticed a rather startling trend over the past year in my two D&D 4E campaigns, and one that I think needs to be addressed: Skill Challenges never fail!  I’ve run scores of skill challenges in my campaigns, usually Complexity 1 or 2, and I cannot recall any that the player-characters have failed to dominate – and often without a single failed check.

Now some would argue that since a skill challenge of Complexity 1 or 2 is equivalent to one or two monsters, then the party should always manage to be victorious.  But that logic is a bit skewed, as a skill challenge is not a combat encounter, and failure does not result in the death of one or more characters in the party.  Numerous sources tell us that a skill challenge never ends an adventure or stops a plot.  Instead, a failed skill challenge simply changes the direction of the adventure plot, or possibly imposes a penalty to the next combat, or if used in during a combat, can make that combat harder in some way.  And a party of adventurers will still get experience points for a skill challenge, regardless of the outcome, so failing a skill challenge should not be a big deal.  Sometimes, as a DM, you kind of want the characters to fail a skill challenge, forcing them to have to take less direct path to resolving the adventure plot…

…except there is the real problem that Skill Challenges CANNOT ever fail!

The Mathematics of Skill Challenges

I know for some folks, statistics is a bad word in their gaming fun-zone, but when dealing any number system and probabilities (ie. dice), we have to deal with it.  I’ll try and keep the math to a minimum, even though it’s the problem behind the breaking of skill challenges.

18Skill Challenges have evolved only a little, while the Difficulty Class for Skill Checks have changed twice now since they were initially set down in the Dungeon Masters Guide.  The latest and greatest version of Skill Difficulty Classes was published in the Rules Compendium last fall, and it determines how hard it is to overcome a Skill Challenge.  But based upon those numbers, it is almost statistically impossible for a skill challenge to fail.

Assuming that a character is trained in a skill, and that skill is based upon a primary class ability score of 18 or 20 (+4 or +5 bonus), that character is automatically success with Easy Difficulty Checks, and will fail a Moderate Difficulty Check only 5%-10% of the time.  If a character is trained in a skill, and that skill is based upon a secondary class ability score of 14 or 16 (+2 or +3), that character is also automatically successful with Easy Difficulty checks, and will fail Moderate Difficulty Checks 15%-20% of the time.  Now if you present the party with a skill challenge, you are likely to find that there is at least one character which has that skill trained and with a decent ability score.  Statistically, this means that the characters will garner approximately 6.5 successes and 1.5 failures across a series of 8 skill checks.  And that means an automatic success for a Complexity 1 or 2 Skill Challenge.

Now admittedly, this number changes if you have untrained characters making attempts at skills just to be included in the challenge, or if a DM designs a skill challenge which specifically targets skills which the party has little or no training in.  And one could argue that there is supposed to be a Hard DC thrown into the mix for any Skill Challenge beyond Complexity 1, which can have a failure rate of 40% to 60% even for characters with training and good ability scores.

But here’s the kicker…

The statistics used above only assume a Skill Bonus equal to Training (+5) + Ability Score Modifier (+2 to +5) + Half of Level.  But as we all know, characters can cooperate using skills and gain an “assistance bonus” of +2 with just a single DC 10 roll.  And the calculations also did not include the HUNDREDS of bonuses to skills that characters can have from Backgrounds, Feats, Themes, Items, and Race!!!

A “Monty Hall” Choice of Skill Bonuses

Pick a skill, any skill, and it is possible to increase skills using additional stackable bonuses in the amount of anywhere from +4 to +8 to it!  And if you factor those into the statistics, they further reduce the chance of skill check failure by 20-40%!

Characters have literally hundreds of ways to add bonuses to existing skills, all of which stack, and can make it impossible for someone trained in a skill to NEVER fail an Easy or Moderate Difficulty Check, even without a decent ability score modifier.  Let’s take Diplomacy as an example, which is one of the most common skills used in social skill challenges.  There are 73 Backgrounds offering an untyped bonus, 97 magic items offering an item bonus, and one race (Half-Elf) offering a racial bonus, all to Diplomacy.  There are also several feats which offer bonuses to Diplomacy, dependent on class and race, as well as several utility powers which can add substantial bonuses to the skill, again depending upon the class.  And even if you have a class without a utility power that adds a bonus to Diplomacy, there are a half dozen of the new Themes that add a power bonus to the skill at 5th level.  Many other skills commonly used in Skill Challenges have even greater numbers of additional bonuses, such as Perception, with 79 Backgrounds, 4 Themes, 166 Magic Items, and 5 Races to garner bonuses from.

Now certainly, not every character is going to stack bonuses on their skills like this, but I think you will find that most players are drawn to the “honey pot”, and simply can’t resist selecting one or two of the above to augment a favored skill. But unfortunately, this makes all but Hard Difficulty Classes auto-successes, and even Hard DCs are still more likely to succeed than fail.

Final Thoughts

So if it is a statistical improbability that the heroes will ever fail at a skill challenge, why do I, as a Dungeon Master, bother to make them?  From what I’ve seen played out in my games, the chance of failing a skill challenge, unless I specifically “cheat” and stack the deck against my players buy using oddball skills or forcing the untrained heroes to roll against the challenge, is almost negligible.  And it looks like the real problem is the ease by which a character can be created with amazingly strong skills, capable of overcoming almost any Difficulty Class except for Hard.

It would seem like the only real solution is to either artificially cap off skills based upon character level, or that the way Skill Challenges and Skills are handled needs to be addressed.  I’ve already started working on some ideas on that topic, and in Part 2 of this blog, I’m going to be taking a look at some possible solutions to the problems with skills and skill challenges that I’m going to be trying in my own campaigns!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


23 Responses to “Skill Challenges: Impossible To Fail!”

  1. I’ve never really liked the Skill Challenge mechanic, and have pretty much eliminated it. Instead, I’m using what Chatty DM called ‘Mouseburning’ it.

    The great thing about that system is that _every_ roll matters. Failure doesn’t mean a dead end, but complications, and you don’t re-roll everything.

  2. Discerningdm says:

    Now that I think of it, I only run hard dcs for most skill challenges that “count”.

    In any reasonable party where every attribute is represented, someone will have the big bonus.

  3. Dave says:

    Well I suppose in the long term, the 4E designers had the opinion that the heroes should never fail. Eventually they win – so that they are happy gamers and buy more products. After all, it’s not that hard to design monsters with stats and powers that heros can’t realistically overcome and the random tables that used to produce a chance of an encounter with something the players shouldn’t be able to defeat are all gone now.

    Skill challanges always felt to me like a shorthand version of role playing. The one thing I have noticed in 20 years as a GM is that players will look for ways to use the skills they have when not spoon fed a forumla of what can be used. In the “old days” characters looking for information in a tavern would look at thier skills and decide what they wanted to try. Maybe use music (with a minstral, singing, instrument skill), or even if their best skill was armor making they would ask if anyone patrons looked like a smith with the plan to ‘talk shop’ and then maybe pick up the local info. Now it’s just – “Okay, you guys can use Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, and Perception…who’s rolling first?”

    Having all skills bump up with level being part of the equation is part of the problem. It also makes for the wierd effect of moving target scores. Why is Hard one number for 5th level and a different one for 15th level? Does the lock change depending on the level of the character approaching it?

    Frankly the system is broken enough that I’m not sure it can be fixed. I mainly use skill challanges as a way to move forward the action to the next junction more quickly and to direct the path of an adventure rather than let the players wander around looking for the next thing to do. I use the fact that players practically always win them as a means to direct the flow of the plot so that the ‘facts’ of how they ended up going from point A to point B make logical sense.

  4. @Arcane Springboard – I’ll check out that article as a possible solution – thanks!

    @Dave – I guess I view SC’s a bit differently than a shortcut to role-playing. Rather, I view them as a way to resolve issues WITH role-playing, rather than whipping out a sword and chopping their way through a problem. In fact, I sometimes don’t even write down Complexity 1 SC’s for Social problem solving – like your tavern information gathering scenario just note in my notes that one could be used here. I let the players start RPing, and based upon their interactions with the NPC (me), I’ll stop them and say, “Ok, make a Diplomacy check” or “That sounded pretty Intimidating… make a roll”, and tally up the successes and (rarely) failures. I do lots more detailing when I run a skill challenge as part of a combat encounter, where the characters can fight the big nasty thing, or they can shut down the altar that’s buffing the big nasty, or summoning minions, etc. And frankly, I love using SC’s to simulate traveling in the wilderness using group checks – those are an awesome addition to the game. But something needs to be done to allow the heroes to fail a skill challenge more than 1 in 50 times, to make the challenge a real challenge, and to force the players to have to take a different approach to solving the problem. Honestly, I think SC’s should fail about 1 in 8 or 1 in 10, otherwise, I shouldn’t even bother including them in my game.

    As far as the moving target scores, yea, I see your point – but then again, would the lock on a door of the 15th level lich be the same as the lock on the door of a 5th Level evil orc Shaman? I would sure hope the lich could afford a better locksmith!

  5. uhf says:

    I think the solution is 5e. :-)

    I think that I like the way 4e skills work, and how how they are resolved. But there are far too many bonuses to be had, and its entirely too easy to create a character who’s a one hit wonder with a skill.

    A while a go, I had a first level Goblin Rogue with a healthy 13- 17 (can’t remember) Stealth skill. He could already run and hide better than most.

    Feel that they need to fix this in the next edition, probably they need to just use a lower ‘trained’ bonus.

  6. uhf says:

    The purpose to Skill Challenges is to allow ‘all’ players participate, just like combat. Nothing more.

    Remember the old days? You get to a diplomacy encounter, and you send in the one hit wonder to resolve the situation… its all him, and the rest of the players were left to contemplate navel lint. It only got exciting when your star diplomat started rolling 1’s. (But its not you could do anything about it.)

    That’s the biggest thing that’s balanced about 4e. Everyone gets to contribute all the time.

  7. @UHF – I don’t think I’ll wait until 5e for a fix, as I’d rather get my own campaigns working right. But maybe the solution is going back to a 3.5ism- skill caps. Skill bonuses were capped by level and by whether they were primary or secondary skills. It might seem a bit arbitrary, but capping off a skill based upon character level might help resolve part of the problem, even though most players would feel annoyed by the idea.

    Ideally, I think you want a failure rate of 0%/25%/50% for Easy/Moderate/Hard DCs for characters trained in a skill. This would mean that Complexity 1 Challenges would still fail rarely, but that Complexity 2 and higher would have a chance of failing now and then. Discerningdm also mentioned using Hard DCs for skill challenges to make them count. While the Rules Compendium does mention to include a Hard DC skill in challenges of Complexity 2 and higher, it doesn’t state that the characters MUST attempt using the skill with the Hard DC. Perhaps adding the stipulation that the a certain number of Hard DC checks must be successful in order to solve the challenge might be another way of actually havinfg a skill challenge fail once in a while.

  8. Swordgleam says:

    Artificially capping skills will make people sad. I don’t see why you don’t just increase the DCs. I rarely look at the charts – I have people roll against a number that feels right. If that means they only have a 5% chance of succeeding because it’s a really high number, that’s because that roll represents something REALLY HARD.

    If I want a skill challenge to have a reasonable chance of failure, I make it that way. Who cares about formulas? Unless your players are serious gamists who feel the DM is merely a mechanical interpreter of the rulebooks, and that any straying is “cheating.” In which case get really creative with penalties.

    Really like the picture of the guy getting crushed by the d20, by the way. The coloring is just great.

  9. Anaxetogrind says:

    Let me first say I hit on this snag sometime ago. I worried I might be doing skill challenges wrong. The WoTC lowered the DCs and I was left wondering if I had really missed something.

    Now, I build my skill challenges based on level appropriate encounters the same way I build combat encounters.

    Example: My PCs (currently a 1st level party again) are trying to bypass a side gate and get into a keep that is locked up tight.

    I set the DCs based on the level of the guards and keep (creative way of saying based on my parties abilities). A fifth level hard DC to pick the lock, a 4th level moderate group Stealth check to sneak under the watchful eyes of the archers on the battlements. A 3rd level easy Bluff check for the female tiefling to shake her merchandise and pretend to be a washerwoman while the party slips down a side corridor. The mistress in his bed is another skill check to keep her from screaming for the guards in a panic. Finally a 3rd level complexity 1 skill challenge for entering the lord’s bed chamber during the night and convince him there really is an impending attack. All in all it adds up to about a 4th level complexity 2 skill challenge. Individual failures lead into other skill uses and scenes. Total failure (3 failed checks) means they end up locked up in the keep and when the lord comes to visit them in the dungeon that level 3 skill challenge is now a level 5 complexity 1 and the chain worsens with a failure there.

    I don’t use a single set of level 1 monsters/traps/terrain to build every first level encounter, nor should you use a set of level 1 DCs for your skill challenges. Having a spreadsheet of all your PCs skills when building the Skill Challenge is as important as knowing how many daze/stun/immobilize powers your PCs have available. If every party member can immobilize a group of melee only skirmishers. You wouldn’t want to use them often. In the same way you don’t want to build a skill challenge with a Thievery DC set at easy for a party with a Rogue, but a party with only divine characters and no avenger is going to struggle with a hard thievery check.

  10. TheClone says:

    I stumbled upon a very similar problem, when taking a look at an freshly made druid character. She has a perception and insight bonus of +9 on level 1. So I checked the DC tabel, which happens to have DC 19 as hard DC on level 1. So this character will automatically beat all hard DCs with her passive perception and insight. And considering the progress of the hard DC she will continue to do so until level 5 or so, if she NEVER uses any additional bonus like feats, powers or items. The +9 bonus is just trained plus her 18 Wisdom and done with it. That’s crazy…

  11. @Swordgleam – Personally, I think increasing DCs artficially will frustrate players just as much as capping skills. Most of my old veteran gamers have access to the Rules Compendium right at the table, and while I’m more storyteller than “mechanical interpreter of the rulebooks”, I know they would feel a bit cheated if I started just re-writing rules on the fly. Sure I fudge dice rolls like the next DM if it makes the story better, but I think they expect that we all operate from the same set of rules, and right now, the skill rules are broken.

    @Anaxetogrind – good point about the level change ups, and you’re right, we should be writing skill challenges like we write encounters, with a range of DCs. Sadly, there is no good mechanic for breaking down the Skill DCs of a Skill Challenge into a range of varying levels, and I don’t quite add up what you described as a Level 4 Complexity 2. However, I see what you’re driving at though and it’s not a bad solution, as long as you bumped up the Level of the Skill DCs at least two more than the average party level.

    One solution to having varying DCs in a single challenge might be to define each Skill DC as a “minion”. In the DMG under Skill Challenges, it suggests that running a Challenge of all Hard DCs was two levels higher, and all Easy DCs was one level lower. If we applied that idea to your example, a Level 4 Complexity 2 Challenge should be worth 350 XP. Your Level 5 Hard Thievery skill would be like a 7th level Minion (75 XP); the 4th Level Moderate group Stealth check might be a 6th Level Minion (63 XP; increased because group checks are supposed to be Easy DCs); the 3rd Level Easy Bluff would be a 2nd Level Minion (31 XP); the mistress in bed isn’t defined, but I’d imagine a Level 4 Moderate Intimidate would keep her quiet (44 XP); and then round it out with 3rd Level Moderate Diplomacy, Bluff, and History checks to convince the Lord of the impending attack (3 x 38 XP each). I tally that at 327 XP, which is pretty darned close to a Level 4 Complexity 2, so not a bad way to break down a challenge.

    However, keep in mind that increasing the Level by 1 or 2 does not always impose a sufficient challenge to really impose that great a chance of failure. For instance, 1st Level Characters facing those Level 3 Moderate DCs only have a 5% greater chance of failure than if they were Level 1 DCs. But overall, varying levels of DCs is a start to fixing the problem, and thanks for suggesting it!

  12. Kilsek says:

    Monty Haul on skill bonuses indeed… I’ve never liked the structure of skill challenges, as much as the idea of a scene involving many things besides combat, and featuring skills instead. That was a common thing and ran excellently before 4e structuralized it! I’m not sure we need skill challenges – at least not the way they’re structured.

  13. uhf says:

    I really really like the idea of capping off skill capability. At least then you will have some idea as to what range the skills will be in. Of course, what you should do is specify what the maximum ‘other’ bonuses that the players can get when combined with the stat bonus. (Perhaps.. ban feats that increase skills.)

    Even then, that may be too much. (Stats get better…)

    Capping also means that the players will be less focused in their approach to characters, so they will create more varied and (I feel) vibrant characters. This is a good thing in my books.

    By the way, I cap ability scores at 18. As a result I have few one hit wonders (with 20’s), and I get more variety out of my game.

    Do keep in mind the purpose of Skill Challenges. The purpose is for all the players to participate. If you set everything to ‘hard’, then you are really just excluding the less than capable players.

    Skill Challenges are also a turning point in the story. Failure must be an option, but it shouldn’t mean that the adventure is over.

    You may come up with a different alternative. i.e. a sliding scale of success that isn’t measured as PASS\FAIL. What you may cap is the number of rolls they can make (Kinda do already, right?) Crank up the difficulty, but give different ranges of success. i.e. Hard-5 to Hard is .5 of a success, and Hard-10 to Hard-5 is .25 of a success.

    Now… if you get 8 successes (all hard) you get something great. If you get 4 successes, eh.. you do OK. If you fail (2 successes or less) then something bad befalls you.

    I look forward to hearing what you come up with.

  14. Hunterian7 says:

    We don’t dish out XP for skill challenges. The outcome of a skill challenge only applies to the upcoming combat encounter or hands out a penalty on failure outside of an encounter (loss of a surge is common). Sometimes a failed skill challenge will result in two extra monsters with the same level as the PCs- and no XP for them to boot. We also always use the hard DC and there can be no assistance for other PCs. We fail them by 50% of the time and have on per extended rest. Positive results from skill challenges are for prima Dona players….;)

  15. @Hunterian7 – Well everyone’s entitled to “house rule” D&D, it’s always been a DM perogative, but personally I think you’ve swung the Skill Challenge pretty far afield of its original intent and function. I’m not sure how using Skill Challenges only as a punishment, not to mention the idea of reducing your players experience point gains, works in the D&D framework, but if your players accept this, I guess that’s there choice. I’d rather use Skill Challenges to accomplish goals rather than mete out unrewarded punishments, but I guess I coddle my prima dona players too much, huh?

  16. Hunterian7 says:

    It’s not that we use skill challenges as punishments, it’s just that we use them only for tactical reasons. Skill challenges are an oddity when figuring out what to do with them. One skill challenge will determine whether or not we start out in a favorable position or an unfavorable one. Another whether the frigid environment causes the PCs to suffer a minus 1 attack penalty. We stopped handing out XP for skill challenges since it skewed when to properly take an extended rest. We have found that one extended rest per level keeps things challenging. I was just kidding with the prima Donna comment, the ;) signified that. Didn’t mean to rub the wrong way…

  17. @Huntarian7 – I’m not sure what the use of Skill Challenge encounters has to do with extended rests. In my game, characters take extended rests when it is appropriate and possible – for instance, if they are delving and have the goblin caves on high alert, extended rests are neither appropriate or possible. I’d hate to think that your 1st level characters had only one chance at an extended rest before they reached Level 2… but hey, “house rules”.. whatever works for your group.

    But all that aside, I use skill challenges for a wide range of situations – when characters are traveling in the wilderness while following a map to a dungeon and trying to avoid hazardous terrain, well there’s a chance for a skill challenge. When characters are investigating a mystery in town, gathering information, or tracking down a villain – there’s another chance for a couple skill challenges. When an evil ritual has enpowered an altar to rip open gates into the Far Realms and letting more minions add into a combat, there’s a chance for a skill challenge to shut it down before the heroes become overwhelmed.

    Right now I have my characters in the Realms investigating who set a pack of assassins on one member of their party. They’ve used scrying spells to get some clues, and have tracked the assassins to their city of origin, and are now exploring avenues of investigation to find out who’s out to get them. Simple complexity 1 skill challenges let them work through the plot, uncovering elements of the mystery by handling building searches, convincing underworld contacts to divulge information, and following a suspect through crowded streets without being seen or losing their mark.

    I use skill challenges for a wide range of purposes in my adventures, and to keep everyone engaged in moving the story forward during an quest. That’s why it’s so important to me to want them fixed so that they continue to function as a useful tool and a chance for characters to earn experience points for something other than swinging a sword.

  18. Benoit says:

    I didn’t read through all the comments, so apologies if someone has suggested this:

    When my party of level 5 adventurers walks all over a level 5 combat, I will up the level of the combats I throw at them in the future. Level 8? Sure, maybe even higher. I think that’s pretty standard practice. So why can’t we do that with skill challenges? Yes, you’re all level 5, but you’re trying to hit the level 8 easy/mod/hard DCs.

    Same concept, applied to skill challenges.

  19. @Benoit – yes, that was one of the suggestions, and a darned good one! Check out the follow-up blog discussing some solutions to dealing with skills and skill challenges, Skill Challenges: Reforging the Tools

  20. Tom H. says:

    This is a bit of thread necromancy, but it’s more appropriate here than in your Reforging the Tools post.

    I think your math is wrong? Consider this statement: “Statistically, this means that the characters will garner approximately 6.5 successes and 1.5 failures across a series of 8 skill checks. And that means an automatic success for a Complexity 1 or 2 Skill Challenge.”

    That isn’t automatic success, it’s *expected* success. Overall success occurs if the successes occur before the failures. In your case of 80% chance of success at a moderate test, if the players need 6 successes before 3 failures, it’s a 79% chance of overall success – likely, but far from assured.

    (my grad-level probability courses were 15 years ago, so there could be a math error in there.)

    If I recall correctly, the DCs were lowered from what was initially published for exactly this reason – the odds of success at any one trial looked plausible, but when you did the math, the odds of overall success were laughably low.

  21. @Tom – I get what your saying, it *could* happen that 3 failures come up in the series before the required successes, but I think the chance of that is negligible.

    And while its true we could argue the statistical analysis of the skill roll process, it still doesn’t change the experimental data. I run two campaigns, and run at least 2-3 skill challenges per adventure for each campaign, and sometimes more if it is an in-town/mystery/investigation kind of quest. And since I bought the Rules Compendium, and started using the DCs and Skill Challenge parameters from that book, I have yet to see a single skill challenge fail in either campaign for the past 10 months. That to me says alot more about the nature of the beast than all the theory we can spout off.

  22. SirNight says:

    I’d just like to say that if a dragonborn fighter with demigodlike strength has taken years of athletics training, I sure as hell HOPE that he can climb a rope, tread water, or jump 10 feet (with a running start), which are all Moderate tasks. Sometimes the system isn’t broken, it’s the obstacles that are too easy. Try throwing that same fighter’s +10(ish) bonus at an unusually smooth brick wall (climb DC 25) if you want him to be challenged. Just don’t expect the other people in the party to perform the same feat.
    Yeah, it’s a level 16 Hard DC, but that fighter’s a beast.

  23. @SirKnight – I understand what you’re saying, but the problem is that the system for skill challenges is not designed around DMs throwing Hard or near Impossible tasks at the player-characters. They are designed around Moderate DCs, and Moderate DCs are nearly impossible to fail at Level 1, making the whole reason to have a skill challenge rather pointless. No one is denying that your Dragonborn should be allowed to do amazing things with his highly trained skill, but the fact is that because of bonus creep, its far to easy for that character to get an amazing skill bonus right from the moment of character creation.

    So what does that mean for this character by Level 30? If he’s already so amazing at Level 1, doesn’t it stand to reason that he will be leaping tall buildings in a single bound by Level 30? There’s a fundamental problem if just the skill system alone turns all the characters into Superman over the course of the game. It’s just more proof the system needs to be re-examined to avoid it being perceived as something silly and laughable.

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