Running Skill Challenges in 'Dungeons & Dragons'

While skill challenges aren't an official part of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition ruleset, they can still provide a fun alternative to traditional exploration or social encounters.

Although most Dungeons & Dragons fans didn't like the game's Fourth Edition ruleset, it's generally agreed that it produced a few innovative gameplay mechanics. The most notable of these is the skill challenge, a mechanic in which a party collectively attempts to solve a problem by making a series of individual skill checks. Usually, the players need to get a certain number of successes before they hit three failures either to avoid some sort of combat encounter or gain some sort of extra benefit.

Fourth Edition rules had specific guidelines for running a Skill Challenge, but none of those were brought over for Fifth Edition play. However, that doesn't mean that DMs can't still use Skill Challenges in their games. For instance, Critical Role DM Matt Mercer uses skill challenges in his campaigns to great success, forcing his players to improvise on the fly without necessarily using their combat skills.

If you're looking for a basic guide for adding Skill Challenges in your own Dungeons & Dragons game, R. P. Davis has written a Skill Challenges in 5th Edition supplement available on DMs Guild. The guide provides relatively simple rules for running a Skill Challenge, modifying the basic Fourth Edition complexity system into three levels and providing examples.

The key to Skill Challenges is that they provide more narrative options than straight successes or failures. For instance, Davis provides the example of a Hazard Challenge in which the party attempts to cross some whitewater rapids. While each success gets the party closer to their goal, each failure should come with some sort of penalty, such as losing gear in the water or getting swept downstream. While the party might succeed in eventually crossing the river, they might lose valuable time or end up soaking wet in an frigid environment depending on their level of success.

Skill Challenges are also useful when players are trying to persuade an important NPC or avoid a combat encounter. If the group is trying to convince a lord to arrest a scheming enemy, a DM could use a Skill Challenge to determine the DC of the eventual Persuasion check. If the party encounters an enemy that they're outmatched by, the DM could opt to use a Skill Challenge to see if they can outrun, avoid, or somehow avert a dangerous combat encounter.

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The strength of Skill Challenges is that they help build the narrative of a story. Not only do they provide levels of partial success, they can also make the entire party feel useful, especially when someone comes up with an innovative solution to a problem. If you're looking to spice up your D&D session, try building a simple Skill Challenge and watch your players surprise you with their solutions!

To read more about Skill Challenges, be sure to pick up R. P. Davis's Skill Challenges for Fifth Edition, which can be purchased for just $0.95 on DMs Guild.