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Skill Challenges: Reforging the Tools

character plottingLast Monday, I started a discussion about how infrequently player-characters were failing at Skill Challenges.  In Skill Challenges: Impossible to Fail, I identified that a combination of low Skill Difficulty Classes, coupled with a bonanza of available skill bonuses, made it nearly impossible for a trained character to fail an Easy or Moderate skill check, and even Hard wasn’t really all that Hard anymore.

So in this blog, I want to look at ways to make Skill Challenges actually challenging again, so that they have a decent chance of success, but not so great that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.  After all, if Skill Challenges only fail 5% of the time, there is almost no reason for a Dungeon Master to spend time designing them, or for players to bother running them at the gaming table.

[Editor’s Note: I want to thank all the Readers who commented on last Monday’s post, as the range and variety of the responses helped considerably as I prepared some solutions to the Skill Challenge issue.  Thank you all!]

A Reasonable Challenge

I think that a good place to start is deciding what level of Skill Challenge will be considered a “reasonable challenge”, and what the expected failure rate of a skill check in that challenge will be.

If we start with a premise that a trained 1st Level character, with an optimal ability score of at least 18, that character will start with at least a +9 in that skill, barring additional bonuses from race, background, feats, items or themes.  Ideally, at least in my game, I want that character to always succeed at an Easy DC, fail about 25% of the time on a Moderate DC, and about 50% of the time on a Hard DC.  And that would mean that a character that has only training to rely on, and without an ability score modifier, would have failure rates of around 45%, and 70% for Moderate and Hard checks, before additional bonuses.

But right away we have a problem, because a trained character with an optimal ability score has only a 10% chance to fail a Moderate Check and only a 45% chance to fail a Hard check according to the revised Skill DC tables in the Rules Compendium.  And obviously, with additional bonuses from other players using Aid Another rules, plus the bonuses from the aforementioned sources such as race, backgrounds, and so on, the chance of a successful skill check, even for a Hard DC, starts rapidly climbing toward 100%.  Therefore, we clearly either need to change the Skill DC table, or there needs to be a way to make Skill Challenges more difficult, but without the DM just throwing up his hands, and using all Hard DCs.

Level Up Your Skill Challenge

skill overkillOne method of making Skill Challenges harder (recommended by Anaxetogrind on Monday’s blog) was to use higher level checks to create an overall higher level challenge.  Just as DMs typically creates combat encounters anywhere from one to four levels higher than the average party level, Skill Challenges should be designed at higher levels than the party level, to make them tougher to overcome.  And of course, a higher level Skill Challenge would be worth greater experience points, because of the increase in level over the average party level.

Unfortunately, increasing the Level of Skill Challenge by just one or two levels does not necessarily increase the chance of failing the challenge by a significant amount.  Based upon how the Moderate Skill DCs are set down in the Rules Compendium, a Skill Challenge four levels higher than the average party level increases the DCs in the challenge by only 10%.

However, a skill challenge can be made a little more difficult still by increasing its level, and by using a mix of even higher level Skill DCs within the Skill Challenge, just as a DM would have a variety on monster levels in a combat encounter.  If we considered each skill use in a Skill Challenge as a minion, we can compute the overall level of a Skill Challenge by tallying the experience individually by skill check, and comparing it to an XP Target amount.

I know there is no rule for doing it, but it seems pretty logical once you get rolling.

Under the old rules for Skill Challenges in the Dungeon Masters Guide, it was suggested that increasing all the Skill Challenge DCs to Hard increased the level of the challenge by 2, and dropping it to Easy reduced its level by 1.  If we are creating a variety of DCs in the challenge, we can use that old rule to determine the XP value of each skill check.  As an example, a Level 3 Moderate Skill Check will become a Level 5 if we up it to Hard, or a Level 2 if we drop it to Easy.

So using this method, let’s say we re-create a version of The Dead Witness from the DMG (p. 78), where characters are questioning a corpse using a Speak with Dead scroll, but using varying Levels and DCs for the skills, and using the mix of Moderate and Hard skills as suggested in the Rules Compendium.  We’ll create it as a Level 5 Complexity 2 for a group of 1st Level Heroes, so it should have a target value of 400 XP.  The characters can use each primary skill twice, and a successful Insight opens up a chance at the Religion check which can be used once.

Primary Skills: Bluff, Diplomacy, History, Insight; Secondary Skills: Religion

  • Bluff (Level 4 Moderate DC): 44 XP x 2 = 88 XP
  • Diplomacy (Level 3 Moderate DC): 38 XP x 2 = 76 XP
  • History (Level 5 Moderate DC): 50 XP x 2 = 100 XP
  • Insight (Level 3 Hard DC): 50 XP x 2 = 100 XP
  • Religion (Level 4 Easy DC): 31 XP x 1 = 31 XP

Treating each possible check like fighting a minion in a combat encounter, we get a total of 402 XP for the Skill Challenge, hitting the experience point target pretty well.  The Level 3 Moderate checks are 5% harder, and the Level 5 Moderate checks are 15% harder to hit, respectively, than a Level 1 Moderate, while the Level 3 Hard is 10% more difficult than a Level 1 Hard check.

While it is not a massive change in difficulty, it definitely is a move in the right direction, and will make it a bit harder for trained characters with a strong ability score bonus to breeze through the skill challenge encounter.

When You Need a Hand…

In the Rules Compendium, Aiding Another rules for assisting with skill checks is a bit oddly written.  The DC is 10 + half the assisting character’s level to add a +2 bonus, but this to me seems too easy.  It would be more appropriate to say the check is 10 + half the Skill Check’s Level, so that if a 1st Level Character wants help on his Thievery against a Level 5 lock, the check to aid him should be DC 12 (10 + 5/2) not DC 10 (10 + 1/2).  I know this is only a slight change, but again, if we are using this in conjunction with creating Skill Challenges with skill DCs higher than the average party level, this can increase the chance of failure again, and keep the skill challenge from being a cake-walk from having every moderate check assisted.

Build a Glass Ceiling

Another idea put forth, and this was from one of my own players, was to impose a “soft” cap on skill ratings.  Players are free to design a character that is trained in a skill, and has additional bonuses from background, feats, race choice, themes, and items.  However, they are only able to use a skill rating of 10 + Character Level to resolve skill checks.  That’s roughly equivalent to a 1st Level character with skill training (+5), an 18 ability score in the stat that compliments the skill (+4), and a +2 bonus from one of additional source, say a racial skill bonus.  A player can select feats and backgrounds to get additional bonuses, but the character will not be able to fully use those bonuses for several levels.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about this particular solution, as I would hate to be stifled in my character creation process if I was a player. As a Dungeon Master, I recognize that a “soft” cap very neatly resolves part of the skill bonus “Monty Hall” problem that exists in 4E at this time, and might help players create characters that have a more well rounded skill set, rather than a wunderkind with one or two skills an “uber” level.

Replace that Broken Table

The last recommendation to make skill challenges more difficult, and actually possible to fail, is to simply redo the Skill Difficulty Check table in order to offset the plethora of bonuses that exist in 4E right now.  As mentioned before, characters can pick up bonuses to their skills from so many different sources in D&D that having a skill rating at 1st level well into the “teens” is not unheard of.

To combat that, the Moderate and Hard Levels of the Skill DC table should be increased, and the weird bumps in it smoothed out.  I never understood why, at certain levels, the chart as listed in the Rules Compendium deviated from following the character’s skill “half-level” advancement, but maybe someone can explain it to me sometime.  The chart is redesigned with a failure rate of 25% and 50% at Moderate and Hard for a character with both training (+5) and a good primary ability bonus of +4.  Trained characters with almost any ability score bonuses will still be able to beat an Easy DC automatically, with any roll of the dice.

Level Easy Moderate Hard
1 8 15 20
2 9 16 21
3 9 16 21
4 10 17 22
5 10 17 22
6 11 18 23
7 11 18 23
8 12 19 24
9 12 19 24
10 13 20 25
11 13 20 25
12 14 21 26
13 14 21 26
14 15 22 27
15 15 22 27
16 16 23 28
17 16 23 28
18 17 24 29
19 17 24 29
20 18 25 30

These new Skill DCs, coupled with using skill challenges 1-4 Levels higher than the average party level, will offer a reasonable chance for a failed challenge, even to players that stack bonuses from race, background, feats, theme, powers, and magic items.

The Old 3d6 Method

failed skill checkThis is another “new table” option I have considered to make skill challenges more difficult, because it also combats the bizarre tendency of untrained characters beating a trained characters in a skill roll due to bad dice luck.  Under a d20 skill check, any number on the dice has an equal probability of coming up.  And time and again, I have seen an untrained character using just his ability score bonus beat out a character trained in the skill, all because of weird dice luck.

Using 3d6 in place of a d20 creates that bell-shaped probability curve, making rolls of 9-12 on the dice appear nearly 50% of the time.  While it can be argued that this tends to create mediocre rolls, it does mean that a trained character will likely beat out an untrained character in skill checks almost every time.

I have included a table of Skill Difficulty Classes which should work with 3d6 rolls, and roughly generate the same failure rate as the d20 method:

Level Easy Moderate Hard
1 11 17 20
2 12 18 21
3 12 18 21
4 13 19 22
5 13 19 22
6 14 20 23
7 14 20 23
8 15 21 24
9 15 21 24
10 16 22 25
11 16 22 25
12 17 23 26
13 17 23 26
14 18 24 27
15 18 24 27
16 19 25 28
17 19 25 28
18 20 26 29
19 20 26 29
20 21 27 30

Please note, that if you use this method, the Aid Another check changes to DC 13 + one-half the level of the skill check, and again, roughly keeps the same 50-50 probability as a d20 roll.  I have not decided whether to use this 3d6 method or not in my games, but it is tempting, and also opens up the possibility of adopting the Dragon Age RPG system of the “dragon dice” to add more role-playing to the skill roll.


I think that it will take a combination of several of the “house rules” I mentioned in order for skill challenges to be made more difficult for characters, to ensure that they remain a challenge and keep players on their toes.  The skill system needs a bit of an overhaul, particularly since add-on bonuses have become so easy for characters to obtain, and can take their skill ratings to obnoxiously high levels without any real effort or adversity.  As funny as this sounds, characters DO need to fail skill challenges on occasion, in order to force them into taking new approaches to solving a problem, or to create new challenges for them to overcome.  So as long as there is a reasonable chance to fail a skill challenge, then it remains a solid part of the Dungeon Masters’ toolset, and well worth using in adventure after adventure.

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.


3 Responses to “Skill Challenges: Reforging the Tools

  1. Hunterian7 says:

    I’m a fan of the new revised DC table drawn up above. The Hard DCs listed actually mean a good chance of failure and the moderate DCs are sighing striking distance of PC that are skilled.

    The aid another revision, with half the skill level instead of the PC level, will make it a bit more even. Our groups have ruled that to aid another a PC rolls as normal against the skill and assign the usual penalty or bonus.

  2. Dave says:

    Nice work you did there. I actually like the 3d6 skill rolls. It even leaves the possibility of granbted a 4th d6 to a player’s roll for an especially clever idea. Of course, those characters woth re-roll a d20 powers will have to have a ruling on how that will work into things.

    In point of fact, I like it for single skills rolls out of challanges too. What about the taking a 10? On 3d7 the most commonly turned up number is 7. Do characters take a 7 instead?

    Let’s face it, the only reason all D&D rolls are based on a d20 is a design decision to make the game “easier” by only having one roll. Not because an equal probability random number that jumps up 5% a notch is best to simulate all situations.

  3. @Dave – actually, on 3d6 your average is 10.5, so you can either have them “take 10″ or “take 11″ depending on how nice a DM you are. Actually the idea of throwing in a 4th d6 for a particularly good idea is pretty nifty too, as it makes players want to work harder at problem solving, rather than just sit back and let the dice do all the work.

    @Hunterian – Yes, the aid another rule just seemed odd to me too. Having the 1/2 player level meant that the DC perfectly followed the +1/2 Level characters get added to their skills, so it never got more difficult or easy. Having it increase by 1/2 of the Level of the skill check means that for higher level challenges, it’s proportionately hard to help out a comrade, rather than it be super easy to throw that +2 at them.

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