Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

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capnskillet7
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Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by capnskillet7 » Mon May 06, 2019 2:53 pm

I made a new blog post about this. I know some people dislike having to click links, so I will provide the link if you wish to read it on the blog, but I will also include the text here.
https://dmcapn.wordpress.com/2019/04/25 ... ges-in-5e/


I think as the years go by, the overall opinion of D&D 4th Edition has become much better. In its day, 4e was so controversial that a whole new RPG system was born (Pathfinder) for those who hated the system and preferred 3.5 edition. However, I was out of D&D for many years and never played 3e or 3.5. I got back into the game during 4e, so that edition will always hold a special place in my heart, even though I now believe 5th edition is the best edition.

This post is about using the 4th edition skill challenge mechanic in the 5th edition system. In a skill challenge, the party had to accumulate a certain number of successes before they had three failures. To be honest, I actually did not use it that much when I played 4th edition, because I did not fully understand it. Thanks to people like Matt Colville, I have come to a better understanding of the mechanic and have used it some in my 5th edition games.

In this article, I wish to explain how I run skill challenges in 5th edition, and I will give an example scenario. I will also mention variations that could be used in the rules, depending on how the individual DM likes to run their skill challenges.

Some Ground Rules for Skill Challenges


It’s a classic scenario in a role playing game. The party’s fighter feels something tug at his belt. He looks down and his coin purse has been taken. He quickly looks around and spots a short, cloaked figure moving quickly through the crowd to escape. “That kid took my gold! After him!” the fighter shouts. And the game is, as they say, afoot!

The 5th Edition DM guide has rules for chases, but we are going to run this one as a skill challenge. I have tried different approaches to arranging skill challenges, but I believe the best way to begin them is to roll initiative as you would in a combat encounter. I have run a couple free form, but I find that one or two players want to try to dominate or use the same skill multiple times. Initiative order assures that every player gets a chance to participate.

As each player’s turn comes up, he or she declares what skill they want to use to earn a success. The DM then decides the DC, either by making a list ahead of time or by simply thinking about how difficult that task would be in the given situation. I normally just stick with the 10 for easy, 15 for medium, and 20 for hard difficulty, but if the DM wants a particular skill challenge to be harder, then adding 2 to each of those might adjust the difficulty appropriately. For the chase scene, let’s stick with 10, 15, and 20 for our DCs.

As for what skills can be used, Matt Colville suggests to only allow a player proficient in a given skill to choose that skill. I see the merit in that choice, and I have chosen that approach in the past, but in more recent skill challenges, I tend to leave it more open. However, I do stick to the rule that one player can only use a particular skill once for a skill challenge. In some situations, I also only allow one success per round for a given skill. For example, if the Rogue uses perception to spot the thief, then he can tell the rest of the party, and no more successes can be earned that round from perception.

One more rule has to do with spell casting or ability use. If a player wants to use an ability or spell that costs a resource and it makes sense for the scenario, then I will award an automatic success for the use of that ability. I also allow the use of cantrips, but an arcana check must accompany them to earn a success. I might give advantage for creative use of a cantrip. As for abilities, suppose the monk wants to use the step of the wind ability, spending a ki point, then I would grant a success in trying to catch up to a fleeing thief.

Narrating the Chase

Now that we have some ground rules established, let’s run the chase scene! The DM declares that this is a skill challenge in which the party must earn five successes before three failures. Initiative is rolled, and the order comes up as follows: Rogue, Fighter, Wizard, Cleric.

DM: Okay, Rogue, you’re up first. As the fighter shouts about his purse being stolen, you look and just catch a glimpse of the small person as they disappear into the crowd. What do you do?

Rogue: I use my “second story work” ability to climb and get a better view of the situation.

DM: Good idea! I will award you advantage on a perception check to try to find the thief.

Rogue: I rolled a 19.

DM: Yes, you spot a small, hooded and cloaked form pushing its way past many people and then dart down a side alley. You can use the rooftops to keep eyes on the thief.

Rogue: I yell down to the rest of the party which way he went!

DM: Okay, Fighter, it’s your turn. Rogue just told you the thief took a left turn down the alley. You have a crowd of people in your way.

Fighter: I pull an Andre the Giant and yell out, “Everybody MOVE!”

DM: Roll an intimidation check. I will allow you to use strength instead of charisma, since you’re so buff.

Fighter: Ugh… 8.

DM: The people turn and look your way, and a couple of them look a bit startled, but for the most part they simply shake their heads and keep going about their business. You try to push through the crowd but you are having a hard time keeping up. That’s one success and one failure. Wizard, you’re up next.

Wizard: I cast misty step to get past the crowd!

DM: Fighter and Cleric, you watch as Wizard’s body dissipates into a cloud of swirling vapor. You see his body rematerialize on the other side of the crowd. Wizard, you look down the alley and see the thief running. He comes out of the other side and takes a left turn. Since you used a spell slot, I will grant you a success. That’s two successes and one faillure.

Wizard: I look back at the Cleric and Fighter and yell, “Come on hurry up, he turned left!”

DM: Cleric, it’s your turn.

Cleric: I am from this city. Do I have an idea of a shortcut to catch up?

DM: Make a history check.

Cleric: 12.

DM: Since you know the city well, that’s good enough. You see the stables to your left. You think if you cut through there, it will get you closer to the end of that alley.

Cleric: I head that way and tell Fighter to follow.

DM: You run through the open door to the stables and past a few horses then through the back door. You spot the diminutive form of the thief just emerging from the alley and into the street. You now have three successes and one failure. Rogue, it’s your turn. You just climbed onto the rooftops and are giving chase from above. The thief just emerged from an alley and took a hard left.

Rogue: I want to see if I can follow the thief from above and sneak up on him.

DM: Okay, it’s going to be a difficult stealth check, because some of the roof tiles are loose, and you’re having to run to keep up.

Rogue: 19!

DM: That’s pretty good! But it isn’t good enough. The thief looks up and notices you above. You catch sight of her face. Yes, it is a female, either a child or a halfling. She ducks underneath a passing cart and you barely see her run into another alley between two buildings. You now stand at three successes and two failures. Fighter, it’s your turn. Cleric has told you to follow her to the stables. She says she knows a shortcut through the stables.

Fighter: I follow her. Are there any horses that are not tied up?

DM: Yes, you see one. It is enjoying some hay from a haystack as its owner stands beside it.

Fighter: I want to leap onto the horse and try to catch the thief.

DM: (laughing) Okay! Roll Animal Handling.

Fighter: Natural 20! Total of 22.

DM: You leap onto the horse, take it by the reins, and send it charging behind the stables. The owner yells out, “Hey that’s my horse!” You see the thief emerge from the alley, duck under a cart, and disappear between two buildings. That’s four successes and two failures. Wizard, it comes down to you! You come to the end of the alley and just catch sight of the thief running down another alley ahead of you. There is a cart between you and the thief.

Wizard: Can I cast minor illusion of a city guard in the alley to trick the thief?

DM: Yes you may. I need an Arcana check to see if you can accurately aim your illusion with the cart in the way.

Wizard: I rolled 16.

DM: Wizard, you watch as the fighter comes barreling down the street on horseback. The cleric is close behind running to keep up with the horse. The cart that was blocking your view finally moves past, and you spot the purse thief running back out of the alley. You see your illusion of a guard standing motionless in alley, obviously having fooled the thief.

The thief looks and sees the four of you converging on her position. She has nowhere to run. Congratulations, you have succeeded in catching the thief. She drops the coin pouch and shrinks back against the wall of the nearest building, holding her hands up in surrender.

Varying Degrees of Success


In the example above, the party succeeded and caught the thief. If they had accumulated three failures before five successes, then the thief would have escaped with the fighter’s gold. However, the thief might have had other motives, such as leading the party into an ambush. In that case, the DM might have varying degrees of success, with consequences for each failure.

For example, the first failure could have resulted in causing the character who failed to arrive one round late to the combat. Two failures results in both characters arriving late. Three failures would mean the party loses the thief in that alley and then getting surprised by the other enemies lying in wait, so none of them get a turn the first round.

Recently, I ran a skill challenge in which the party had to navigate rowboats down a raging river. Each boat had a designated “pilot” that was leading the rowing of their boat. The drow bard had a sailor background, so I let her add proficiency for water vehicles to her checks. She passed her survival check to find the best route to navigate through the rocks. The paladin then used athletics to try to power the other boat through, but he failed.

The consequences of that failure were that everyone in that boat had to make a dexterity saving throw. One player and one NPC failed the check and fell into the water. This did not count as a failure in the skill challenge, but it was a consequence. The subsequent checks to get back into the boat did count though. I did not count the NPC’s failed check against the party, but since that NPC was the adoptive mother of one of the players, they still cared to save her. The druid used his octopus form to grab her with his tentacles and put her back in the boat, passing his athletics check to do so.

In the end, they passed the challenge, which required six successes before three failures. They had only one failure as a party, and setbacks had already been included as part of the challenge, which could have resulted in a separated party, but they overcame the setbacks and succeeded in the challenge. As you can see, there are different ways to build in consequences to skill challenges.

Skill Challenge or Group Check?

In my last article, I covered narrating group checks and building in consequences for failures. In some situations, either a group check or a skill challenge could serve to give dramatic tension to an adventure. It is ultimately the DM’s decision to choose which one they would prefer to use. Skill challenges tend to be more dramatic overall and give a “movie-like” scene, while group checks are more like a quick montage of what happened or they only cover a single, quick event.

A group stealth check, for example, is a better tool for deciding whether a party can gain surprise than a skill challenge. On the other hand, a skill challenge will bring a lot more drama for a chase. The chase above would not have been near as dramatic if the DM called for a group perception check or another skill. The DM just has to think about the situation and decide if it would be better to have a fully fleshed out and acted out scene or a quick explanation.

In the trek through the swamp covered last time, the group skill check did a good job of narrating the journey without taking too long. However, I have also used a skill challenge to navigate a swamp. In that challenge, each failed check had consequences. The first failure resulted in party members getting stuck in a smelly bog, which gave later enemies advantage to detect them. A second failure forced a saving throw to avoid damage from some razorvine. A third failure would have resulted in a combat encounter and put them behind on arriving at their destination. In this scenario, either a group check or a skill challenge could be fun.

Well, that’s my example and opinions on skill challenges. I hope someone gains something that helps in a future game. Until next time… Adventure on!

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by willpell » Mon May 13, 2019 11:11 pm

I've played in a game that did this. The first couple instances were a lot of fun, although it stumbled and became repetitive after a while, having trouble addressing some of the more unusual situations we found ourselves in. It would work a lot better with a much longer list of skills; most 5E characters have only four, and one of them is usually the best, so they have no mechanical reason not to try and kludge that one into any situation, however inappropriate it is.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by capnskillet7 » Wed May 15, 2019 4:34 pm

willpell wrote:
Mon May 13, 2019 11:11 pm
I've played in a game that did this. The first couple instances were a lot of fun, although it stumbled and became repetitive after a while, having trouble addressing some of the more unusual situations we found ourselves in. It would work a lot better with a much longer list of skills; most 5E characters have only four, and one of them is usually the best, so they have no mechanical reason not to try and kludge that one into any situation, however inappropriate it is.
I do not use skill challenges that often, and when I do I try to make sure there are options for players to use multiple skills. In a city chase, for example, the options are wide open. I would hesitate to use a skill challenge for brand new players, but my players have been at it for a little while. They have enjoyed the skill challenges I used so far. I don't require players to be proficient in a skill to attempt it, but some DMs do. I also require the use of a skill to make sense to earn a success in a given situation.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by willpell » Wed May 15, 2019 6:01 pm

capnskillet7 wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 4:34 pm
I don't require players to be proficient in a skill to attempt it
This is roughly the equivalent of saying "I don't need air conditioning to survive a 100-degree summer." Technically true, but you should have it anyway if you want to even bother attempting such a task.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by Hugin » Thu May 16, 2019 3:20 am

willpell wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 6:01 pm
capnskillet7 wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 4:34 pm
I don't require players to be proficient in a skill to attempt it
This is roughly the equivalent of saying "I don't need air conditioning to survive a 100-degree summer." Technically true, but you should have it anyway if you want to even bother attempting such a task.
That view is not how skill checks are represented in 5th edition at all - "Each ability covers a broad range of capabilities, including skills that a character or monster can be proficient in. A skill represents a specific aspect of an ability score, and an individual's proficiency in a skill demonstrates a focus on that aspect."

Thus, the rules say things like, "So a character who has proficiency in the Stealth skill is particularly good at Dexterity checks related to sneaking and hiding... Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check."

Therefore, saying that you don't require players to be proficient in a skill to attempt it is roughly the equivalent of saying "go ahead and use your natural talents to attempt this, even though you haven't spent any meaningful or lasting effort to improve beyond that".

Just putting things into perspective!

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by willpell » Fri May 17, 2019 8:46 pm

Hugin wrote:
Thu May 16, 2019 3:20 am
That view is not how skill checks are represented in 5th edition at all - "Each ability covers a broad range of capabilities, including skills that a character or monster can be proficient in. A skill represents a specific aspect of an ability score, and an individual's proficiency in a skill demonstrates a focus on that aspect."
The rulebook writers can say that in the text all they like; it isn't what's actually true within the game mechanics they designed.
Thus, the rules say things like, "So a character who has proficiency in the Stealth skill is particularly good at Dexterity checks related to sneaking and hiding... Without proficiency in the skill, the individual makes a normal ability check."
And has an average of +2 instead of +5, or a maximum of +5 instead of +10, to their check. This means that in most cases you shouldn't bother spending your action on an attempt to do anything that you don't have optimal odds of success on, since the action investment isn't any lower if you're unlikely to succeed.
Just putting things into perspective!
My perspective is just fine, thank you.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by Tim Baker » Sat May 18, 2019 5:06 am

capnskillet7 wrote:
Mon May 06, 2019 2:53 pm
I think as the years go by, the overall opinion of D&D 4th Edition has become much better. In its day, 4e was so controversial that a whole new RPG system was born (Pathfinder) for those who hated the system and preferred 3.5 edition. However, I was out of D&D for many years and never played 3e or 3.5. I got back into the game during 4e, so that edition will always hold a special place in my heart, even though I now believe 5th edition is the best edition.
This resonates with me. I had a similar experience, coming back to RPGs via 4e, except you can replace "5th Edition" with "13th Age."
capnskillet7 wrote:
Mon May 06, 2019 2:53 pm
This post is about using the 4th edition skill challenge mechanic in the 5th edition system. In a skill challenge, the party had to accumulate a certain number of successes before they had three failures. To be honest, I actually did not use it that much when I played 4th edition, because I did not fully understand it. Thanks to people like Matt Colville, I have come to a better understanding of the mechanic and have used it some in my 5th edition games.
I use 4e skill challenges in my 13th Age games as well, and really enjoy them. I used one today, actually. The party was below decks on a ship, trying to prevent the theft of a magic item from a spellcasting creature. The caster had set an ambush for the party (eel folk minions) and then opened a portal that led to the ocean, thereby pouring water into the ship. The party had to decide whether to engage in combat or to focus on closing the portal. Closing the portal required six successes before three failures. It was a tense, cinematic encounter, and the skill challenge did a nice job of modeling what I was looking for.

Nice job writing up an example for how skill challenges work in practice. I look forward to reading future posts!

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by Hugin » Sat May 18, 2019 4:13 pm

willpell wrote:
Fri May 17, 2019 8:46 pm
The rulebook writers can say that in the text all they like; it isn't what's actually true within the game mechanics they designed.
Say what?! What they said is a description of the meachanics themselves. Without sufficient training/focus you use your natural abilities; i.e. ability modifiers. With the training/focus you add in your proficiency bonus. That's exactly what they described.
And has an average of +2 instead of +5, or a maximum of +5 instead of +10, to their check. This means that in most cases you shouldn't bother spending your action on an attempt to do anything that you don't have optimal odds of success on, since the action investment isn't any lower if you're unlikely to succeed.
This might be true if attempting a task that is 'hard' (DC 20) or above, but most tasks that you attempt are not in these categories. In general, the mechanics as designed will provide most characters with about a 40%-50% chance of success for most common tasks being attempted. If a DM makes all the tasks a hard DC 20 or greater, that's DM style/house-ruling, not the game as designed.

Of course, if the character's natural ability for that task is poor, they'll have a much harder time with the task and should probably let someone else try, if the option is available. While for the truly tough tasks, the character with a good natural ability and learned/trained profiency in it should be the one attempting it. And that assumes you even have someone in the party to give you that option.

But to say attempting a skill check without proficiency is a waste in all situations is objectively false (unless all tasks are made a hard DC 20 or greater difficulty, but then it's a houserule and not being played as designed).

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by willpell » Mon May 20, 2019 5:24 pm

If you fail at the majority of tasks 40-50% of the time, then you would be incompetent to even live a normal life, let alone go on heroic adventures.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by Hugin » Mon May 20, 2019 8:26 pm

willpell wrote:
Mon May 20, 2019 5:24 pm
If you fail at the majority of tasks 40-50% of the time, then you would be incompetent to even live a normal life, let alone go on heroic adventures.
Once again, things need to be put into perspective. Rolling a skill check to attempt a task only happens "in an effort to overcome a challenge...that has a chance of failure" and you "only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure". You do not roll skill checks for normal life tasks, or for the easier tasks that are "so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure".

A moderately difficult task in the ability/skill check system means a moderately difficult task for heroic adventurers in a non-ideal situation where failure has consequences. Also note that the rules are quite explicit that even a failed roll can still provide progress in the task but by accompanied by some other kind of setback. So even a failed roll does not automatically mean that the task being attempted was not achieved.

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by shesheyan » Tue May 21, 2019 1:55 pm

Hugin wrote:
Mon May 20, 2019 8:26 pm
Once again, things need to be put into perspective. Rolling a skill check to attempt a task only happens "in an effort to overcome a challenge...that has a chance of failure" and you "only call for a roll if there is a meaningful consequence for failure". You do not roll skill checks for normal life tasks, or for the easier tasks that are "so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure".

A moderately difficult task in the ability/skill check system means a moderately difficult task for heroic adventurers in a non-ideal situation where failure has consequences. Also note that the rules are quite explicit that even a failed roll can still provide progress in the task but by accompanied by some other kind of setback. So even a failed roll does not automatically mean that the task being attempted was not achieved.
That is correct. As per 5e, rolls are only required in stressfull situations and success is possible even if the roll failed but with consequences. ;)

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Re: Using 4e Skill Challenges in 5e

Post by capnskillet7 » Tue May 21, 2019 11:26 pm

willpell wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 6:01 pm
capnskillet7 wrote:
Wed May 15, 2019 4:34 pm
I don't require players to be proficient in a skill to attempt it
This is roughly the equivalent of saying "I don't need air conditioning to survive a 100-degree summer." Technically true, but you should have it anyway if you want to even bother attempting such a task.
I do not believe this is a good comparison. A better comparison would be something like repairing my clothes dryer. I am not proficient in electrical work or appliance repair, but as those things are based on intelligence, and I am reasonably intelligent, I can use resources and figure out how to fix my dryer. And I have done so more than once. Similarly, I am not an athlete, but I have occasionally played sports for fun, and I have even made good plays in those sports games, despite not being a good athlete. Real life allows us to attempt things we have not trained, sometimes with good results, and many times with failures or consequences.

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