So, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons uses maps and miniatures and dungeon tiles and markers extensively in combat.
But when it comes time to do skill challenges — the structured, non-combat “encounters” that let characters put their non-violent training to work — the tiles vanish, the markers disappear, and everything becomes very abstract.
What’s more, players are often left guessing which skills the Dungeon Master is hoping they’ll choose to use in order to proceed with the encounter. Sometimes, it feels like half the “challenge” is reading the DM’s mind to discern how she’d solve the problem she’s set up, and the other half is hoping your character has the skill training necessary to participate.
In short, skill challenges are a neat idea, but they usually bring the game to a screeching, derailing halt and go off in a very non-D&D-4th-edition direction whenever one pops up.
I’ve got several ideas, ranging from subtle to wholesale rewrites, on how to “fix” skill challenges, or at least make them something I’d like to run and play. Here’s the first of my ideas.
Skill Challenge Tiles
Just as you’ve got maps for combat, so also should you have something tangible, out there in front of the players, for them to look at and scrutinize and strategize over while facing a skill challenge. So I’ve created skill challenge tiles.
There’s one big central tile that serves as the framework around which the other tiles are placed. It’s a 7 x 7 square — all the tiles are made to fit on the battlemaps beside your dungeon tiles — and it includes a handy reference to skill check difficulty classes (DCs) and the types of things you can do with skills.
It’s also got places to track the number of successes and failures, using dice or markers.
The other types of tiles are the skill tiles. There are three tiles per skill, one each of easy (green), moderate (yellow) and difficult (orange). These correspond to the three levels of difficulty for skill challenges; the exact DCs, based on the challenge’s level, are printed on the central card.
The skill tiles are placed around the central tile, with the primary skills of the challenge — those which grant successes or failures — on the left side of the central tile, and secondary skills on the right-hand side.
Example: The Negotiation
This skill challenge is from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 76 — the sample skill challenge named “The Negotiation,” which also has an example of play. The orange d12 is showing that 8 successes are needed to complete the challenge, and the green d12 shows that 4 have been achieved. The red d6 is marking a failure — strike one out of the three that would end the challenge.
The primary skills are Bluff, Diplomacy, and Insight, and they’ve all got moderate DCs (yellow). The History skill is offset to the side, beneath Diplomacy, indicating that it’s only available to be used once a successful Diplomacy check has been made.
Example: Urban Chase
Also from the DMG (page 78), this example shows Acrobatics and Athletics as moderate DC checks, and Streetwise as hard. The Perception skill is easy (green) but it doesn’t give any successes or failures; instead, a successful Perception check gives a +2 bonus on the next character’s skill check, while a failure gives a -2 penalty.
Example: Lost in the Wilderness
I have some tokens of various colors made out of craft foam cut into one-inch circles. They’re good for marks, quarries, oaths, curses, bloodied, and other effects because they’re still readable when stacked under a miniature.
In this example (from DMG page 79), I show how you can use these kinds of tokens instead of dice. At the start of the skill challenge, I placed six green tokens on top of the “successes needed” box. As the players got successes, I moved the green tokens from the “needed” to the “achieved” box; the two failures (so far) are indicated by the red tokens on the fail boxes.
Example: The Angry Druid
This is a more complex skill challenge created by Mike Mearls for his “Ruling Skill Challenges” column in Dungeon Magazine. Here I am using the orange d12 to show the number of successes needed, and the tokens to show the number achieved so far.
Each of the primary skills can grant only two successes in this encounter, and so I’ve stacked them with two counters each — blue and green, just to make them more distinct, but they both mean the same thing. With a success, the tokens will be moved from the skill tile onto the central tile — as has been done already with the blue token that used to be on the Diplomacy tile. One success!
If you’d like to give these a try, you can download and print PDF versions of the skill challenge tiles from my game design website, Bold Pueblo, using the following links: