My skills challenges house rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Purpose

Skills challenges are a flexible, fun alternative to the three pillars of D&D adventures: social interaction, exploration and combat. They can replace any of these three, and also constitute a fourth encounter type in their own right.

Some example skills challenges:

  • using spare parts to build a rocket to get out of a skyscraper while preventing guards from melting the door to the spare parts room (Critical Hit #368)

Some advantages of using skills challenges:

  • provides constraints so that the DM can permit players more creative control over the environment and world than they would normally be allowed
  • do a better job of certain combat scenarios that are dull when played out under normal 5e combat rules
  • avoid players feeling that combat encounters are inevitable, by providing them an opportunity to escape/negotiate with their enemy (use a Hard skills challenge, where failure means fighting the enemy anyway, at some tactical disadvantage)

Preparing the challenge

  1. Set a goal for the skills challenge. Jot down some ideas about what will happen, narratively, upon a success or failure of the skills challenge.
  2. Choose difficulty:
    • Easy – players will surely succeed – 95% chance of success if appropriate skills used
    • Moderate – players will probably succeed – 70% chance of success without Expertise or appropriate spells
    • Hard – players will probably not succeed – 40% chance of success without Expertise or appropriate spells
  3. Choose complexity:
    • this is the number of successes required to succeed (the number of failures to lose is always 3)
    • choose based on the goal: roughly how many distinct actions are required to achieve that goal?
  4. Look up the DC for the skills challenge in the table.
  5. Determine any special bonuses due to NPCs, where it is generally up to the players when to call in a special bonus. An NPC might
    • negate two failures, one failure in each of two skills
    • offer advantage on two rolls, in each of two skills

Skills challenge DC table

Tier of play Easy skills challenge Moderate skills challenge Hard skills challenge Spell level
Local Heroes Com. 3–4, DC 10 Com. 5–6, DC 10;
or Com. 3, DC 15
Com. 7–10, DC 10;
or Com. 4–5, DC 15
1
Heroes of the Realm Com. 6–8, DC 10 Com. 9–15, DC 10;
or Com. 4–5; DC 15
Com. 6–8, DC 15;
or Com. 3 DC 20
3
Masters of the Realm Com. 3–4, DC 15 Com. 5–6, DC 15;
or Com. 2–3, DC 20
Com. 7–10, DC 15;
or Com. 4–5, DC 20
6
Masters of the World Com. 3–6, DC 15 Com. 7–9, DC 15;
or Com. 2–5, DC 20
Com. 10–15, DC 15;
or Com. 4–6, DC 20
6

We tie complexity to the goal of the challenge, but we don’t worry about making the DC appropriate to the goal. It can be an abstract number, tied purely to the out-of-character mechanics of the skills challenge.

Spell level column – see below.

During the challenge

The basic order of events:

  1. Roll initiative. Players resolve ties themselves.
  2. Take it in turns to attempt to accrue successes and failure. Players may use:
    • A simple ability check
    • An ability check plus a skill proficiency
    • An ability check plus a tool proficiency
    • An ability check plus a saving throw proficiency (see below)

The XGE p. 78 rule that grants advantage when a skill and tool proficiency both apply does not apply in skills challenges.

Choices

The GM can veto any ability, skill or tool choice when it is not clear that use of that skill or tool would advance the PCs towards their goal.

Narration

Players are encouraged to add obstacles, including antagonists (guards, locked doors, etc.) and helpful aspects of the environment, to the world. The GM can always veto such additions!

Narration must be appropriate to the stage of the skills challenge. Use of a skill that completes the goal can only be used when the players need only one more success.

Adding to the goal

It is best not to change the goal, but elements can be added. For example, rescuing an NPC in addition to escaping the castle.

Forbidden skills

A player may not apply the proficiency bonus of the skill, saving throw or tool they used on the last turn, or the skill, saving throw or tool used by the player who took a turn immediately before them.

There is no such restriction on simple ability checks.

Spellcasting

Characters with access to magic have three options.

  1. Make a Key Ability (Power Source) check and describe use of magic to move towards the goal. For example, a cleric might use Wisdom (Religion) to close someone’s wounds with divine magic.
    • This does not expend a spell slot.
  2. Cast a spell of 1st level or higher to give advantage on a check made by that player or another party member.
  3. On their turn, cast a spell of a level equal to or greater than the spell level given in the Skills challenge DC table for a free success.

DM discretion is important here:

  • failure of the check in options (1) and (2) does not mean the caster failed to cast the spell. Somehow, the effect was misapplied by the party, anticipated by antagonists, etc.
  • option (1) is for magical effects that have strong thematic fit with the character’s spellcasting class, and are relatively low powered (a good guide is that the spell should be lower level than spell level column of the Skills challenge DC table). This is because spell slots are such a precious resource in 5e
  • whether option (2) or (3) – or neither – applies depends on how appropriate the spell is to the scenario. For example, Fireball would grant an automatic success in a skills challenge involving many weak enemies
    • in particular, spell slots of the right level cannot simply be exchanged for successes – the spell to be used must actually be of use in achieving the goal of the skills challenge
  • if the skills challenge occurs over more than one day, option (3) is unavailable.

Magic items

Per the Critical Hits blog:

Magic items with a limited daily use, such as wands, should be counted like spells. Magic items with infinite use might provide one free success, or else a bonus for one character, for all their rolls in the challenge. Consumable magic items should usually earn a free success, unless it’s not clear how they’ll be of any use.

Saving throws

When

  • it is the first turn of the skills challenge; or
  • the previous player to take a turn accrued a failure

a player may use a saving throw proficiency to narrate a recovery from the damage caused by the failure, or something bad that happened just before the skills challenge began.

For example, when a failure triggers the floor to collapse, a wizard might make an intelligence saving throw to cast Feather Fall (under spellcasting option (1), which doesn’t use a spell slot, though they’d need the spell prepared), or a fighter might make a strength saving throw to wedge themselves in the corner of the shaft that has opened up.

Extra skills

We simulate an Endurance skill, used as in 4th edition, with the constitution saving throw. Proficiency in this saving throw is equivalent to proficiency with the skill.

Commentary

In 5e, characters no longer make skill checks. They make ability checks, and often a proficiency, granted by a skill or training with a tool, may be applied to the check. So we should really call these “abilities challenges”, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

This, plus the introduction of a skill-like role for tools, explains why there are so few skills in 5e. Tools take the role of very specific skills that can’t be used untrained, except that training is replaced by possession of the tools. Skills take the role of more general skills that can be used untrained and are more widely applicable.

What makes these different from all the other skills challenges for 5e rules you can find online? Well,

  • we conceive of the role of skills challenges in the game as does Rodrigo Lopez, GM of the Critical Hit podcast;
  • we also incorporate Rodrigo’s house rules; and
  • the DCs and complexities have a mathematical basis; thanks to the Critical Hits blog for doing the hard work, and for other ideas about spellcasting (used here under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 U.S.).

Further reading