Tuesday, July 14

Using D&D 4e Skill Challenges in Solo Encounters

Dragon One of the greatest advantages D&D 3.5e has over D&D 4e is the implied set of options available in combat. D&D is a very good RPG system for combat, and has always excelled in that field.

3.5e introduced the flood of classes and races that we are all (I'm sure) familiar with. Each had a few unique mechanics, and each added it's own subtle layer to combat. Psionics would add an aspect to combat that fighters and wizards didn't have. Swordsages too. Each splatbook added a few new feats, classes, and thus a new dimension to combat.

4e, many complain, is designed to codify combat into a series of a similar actions. Your at-will, encounter and daily powers limit your character's capabilities, and thus your ability to be creative in combat.

In 3.5e, a tavern brawl might include kicking tables over, striking enemies with chairs, throwing mugs of ale (hopefully empty!), climbing under tables, hiding behind the bar, putting out torches to escape, and many more creative options. In 4e, you can Cleave or you can Reaping Strike. It feels like the game has had a lot of options sucked out.

Now, any good 4e advocate will tell you that it's nothing like that at all - in fact, they've properly set out damage according to level with a handy table in the DMG!

But something about powers smacks of “you're limited to using this, except in special cases”. And it's at least partially true - powers will suffice for most combats.

But the encounters I'd like to focus on are the epic ones - the ones where you're meant to think outside of the box. Solo encounters are the “boss fights” of 4e. They're meant to be hard. The potential for a TPK is meant to be an ever-present concern. And detractors from 4e point out that solo encounters are long, often monotonous as characters drop all their daily and encounter powers, then rinse-repeat at-will powers until one side dies.

This blog post is about proposing a new mechanic for solo encounters, inspired by computer games and novels.

Introducing the Use of Skills in Combat

Combat is described as a whirling mass of chaos - dodging, feinting, observing your opponent. The single discrete dice roll represents not a single strike, but a number of possible attacks - all the fighting that can happen in a six second round.

But a thinking warrior can make creative use of those six seconds. By combining non-combat actions with their normal offensive repertoire, they can “think outside of the box” and create opportunities in combat. In fighting computer games (particularly the FPS and 3PS fighting genres), we often see boss combats that are impossibly hard until an indirect attack is performed - sometimes, this will be a way to do additional damage, sometimes this will make the boss vulnerable for a short period of time.

By introducing skill challenges into combat encounters, we can inject the reward for out-of-the-box thinking in too.

Obviously, the skill challenges will be context sensitive. If we introduce the idea of “climbing” a dragon (a series of athletics or acrobatics skill checks) to access a vulnerable spot, we cannot hope to apply the same mechanic to fighting a solo unique kobold. Using intimidate to cow the kobold into weaker attacks might work, but it wouldn't be successful against a bloodthirsty hill giant solo creature.

So instead, I propose adding skill challenges directly into monster's information block - unless the skill challenge is specific to a locale instead of a monster. Climbing a cliff (athletics skill check) to get a better shot with a bow would have to be dealt with by a canny and flexible DM.

The format I propose for altering monsters stat blocks is to add an extra section when describing the monster, below the “equipment section”. In it, the skill challenge will be listed by an emboldened skill challenge name (to hint to a DM how the skill challenge applies), followed by a comma separated list of skills relevant to the skill challenge, with an associated DC in brackets adjacent to the skill. The list is followed by two numbers divided by a slash, indicating the number of success or failures required to conclude the skill challenge. Finally, the word “Effect:” followed by the result of a successful skill challenge will be listed.

The initial concept for the skill challenges was to suggest that a skill challenge attempt was a move action, and each was isolated to individual characters (so characters could not contribute to other's skill challenges). This model was too simple, but the range of capabilities were diverse enough that - barring a few guidelines - it would be impossible to describe the full range of options. Instead, a power-like set of keywords and descriptors can be added to the skill challenge, but DMs have the choice of overriding these keywords should they wish to.

Some Examples

Here are some examples, using NPCs I've generated for various campaigns:


We can give you gold! [Diplomacy]” , Gottfried exclaimed as he dodged the shortsword, firing (and killing) a distant goblin. “Your comrades have abandoned you, and we have no need to finish this battle. [Intimidate] Lay down your sword and walk away”, ducking below a broad swipe. “Your kin have abandoned you, you have no reason to continue fighting [Bluff]”, Gottfried's words finally struck home. The goblin hesitated for a moment, and Gottfried continued “My friends and I stand victorious - there is no need for this to end in more bloodshed”. The goblin grunted. He turned to one side, shoved his shortsword six inches into the tree they had been fighting under, grabbed the pouch from Gottfried's belt... and walked away.


Obviously, the ability to end combat with words is powerful. There are already intimidate rules - but, especially for notably cowardly creatures, the ability to undermine their confidence should not only be at the end of a combat. Note the “Group Contribute” keyword indicates that more than one character can contribute to the skill challenge.


Hunter circled the half-orc in the ring. The bastard's great axe had pulled a chunk out of his chest-plate in one great swing, and he was not taking any more chances. He thought he saw an exposed joint in his armour - if he could just find an opening. As the pit fighter took a moment to raise his axe for another swing, Hunter side-stepped, jamming his sword-blade into the exposed point - his reward showing in the red now tarnishing the sword-tip and the limp the half-orc moved with.


One obvious option for skill challenges is additional damage. Several prominent D&D commentators have mentioned how solo creatures have too many hit points and several have recommended reducing them. An alternative is to open additional mechanics that allow extra damage to be dealt by the party.

Note that unless specified, a single character must perform all skill checks - unlike the goblin above, there is no “Group Contribute” keyword. Note also that some skills can have different DCs.

Finally, the “stealth” check above should only apply when stealth is a viable option. DMs should use their discretion when allowing skill checks in these scenarios. A darkened room with multiple combatants might allow for stealth - a one-on-one pit fight would not. The skill challenge is still available - but it cannot be achieved by stealth skill checks.

Finally, I would like to look at dragons as the most fun (and awesome!) example. I won't reprint any of the dragons from the Monster Manual, but the following can be appended on to the “Adult Red Dragon”, described on page 83 of the MM.


Daranis shoved his sword into the thigh of the dragon. Raven Queen's touch, this scaly hide was thick! He put a boot against it, even as the creature roared in pain, and blinked a few feet up, again jamming the sword into a gap in the scales. Muscles straining he dragged himself up on the dragon's back, green flames licking the edge of the blade as he charged it with arcane power. Struggling as the beast tried to throw him off, he had to relinquish his precious bag of trophies to keep from being thrown. Eventually reaching behind the creature's head, he mustered all his power and struck a great blow to the base of the skull - the creature reared up in agony, finally dislodging him from it's back.


The “Climb to the Head” skill challenge uses “Attack” as a skill. In this case, the player is literally jamming a weapon into the dragon to gain purchase on the slippery scales. If the DM allows, the player may add the weapon's bonuses (proficiency, magic, etc.) to the roll. Note that the “free critical hit” does not apply the effects of weapons which give bonuses on critical hits.

The “Weak Point Underneath” skill challenge allows a player to get beneath the dragon - a dangerous endeavour - and stab the dragon in a weak point under the leg, crippling it. The “vulnerable” keyword means that while attempting this skill challenge, from the first time the player rolls until it is completed (in success or failure) the player has a -2 penalty applied to their defenses. The “Insight 1 required” means that at least one of the successful skill checks for this skill challenge must be an Insight check, to represent the player noticing the vulnerable point.

General Guidelines

Some good general guidelines for using skill challenges in solo encounters:

  • Find the associated defense for the skill applied, and use that for the DC. Acrobatics is normally countered by Reflex, Diplomacy by Will, etc.

  • Part of the fun of this system is in it's novelty. Switch the ideas up, try new ones. Good DMs can forego adding to the stat block entirely by using the system “off-the-cuff”, letting their players invent new skill challenges as they want - with the DM's approval (of course!)

  • Players should (preferably) not be informed of the skill challenge. It may be hinted at (your character notices some exposed points in the enemy's armour), but it shouldn't be “given away”.

Final Words

If these mechanics and concepts sounds familiar, it is possibly because they were inspired by Iron Heroes, which introduces the concept very well. The idea of mixing up combat and introducing novel sequences can add a lot of flavour to combats, and allow players to have equally long, but much more memorable, solo encounters.


  1. Nifty! I think tying skills to NPCs and monsters in that manner is a good way to encourage creative play. It's particularly interesting as a way to show off an NPC's personality, and I really like the way you implemented it. It makes for an interesting new layer for an encounter.

  2. I'm liking this line of thinking immensely.
    One thing I have observed as a player (but yet as a DM/GM) is the propensity of solo battles to becomem a tad repetitive.

    Any semi-mechanistic approach that can be taken to make the combat more lively and interesting should be considered and embraced if successful.

    So I'll be trying your approach on a future given Sunday. Hopefully it'll make a Solo battle I have planned much more interesting.

  3. Yeah, the idea has been bouncing around in my head for a while now. I'll admit the solo examples I used here where home-grown and so I think the ideas might have fallen a bit short of the mark - but I do think that adding skill use into combat adds a dimension to play that increases immersiveness, as well as adding on-the-spot creativity which is always fun.
    Mike Mearls: Awesome to hear from you, and glad you like the idea! I honestly expected a "I don't read fan blogs" form reply :P And good to know you approve, especially!
    Burgonet: Please, send feedback! I'll happily post updates and new ideas that this generates - I'm glad you've got something out of it. It was designed as a solo-monster improving system, though I'd initially created it for all monster types. Then I realized that normally, it's unnecessary. 8 successes? In 8 rounds, most normal combats are finished. By adding a mechanical advantage to solo fights, which are always long and drawn out, the encounters are shortened but at the same time combats are made more epic. Which appeals to me ;)

  4. I like this a lot as well -- there's a lot of room for some very creative ideas here. I wonder about how these alternatives are communicated to players -- I mean . . . do you tell the player at the start of the combat that these skill challenges are avaiable? Or do you see if they come up with the idea.

    The precedents are mixed, IMO, but a lot depends upon DM taste and the mechanics of a group. For instance, think about a spear trap. As DM, would you tell the PCs that they might be able to use every possible countermeasure (jump over the trigger square, hold a shield over the hole the spear comes out of, etc), or would you expect them to come up with the ideas.

    The trick is . . . players will come up with those ideas once they are taught that those ideas are possible -- if the PCs figure out that creative countermeasures are possible to deal with a trap, they will look for them without you needing to come up with them.

    So, something you might want to include in guidelines for this sort of alternative would be some guideance for coming up with solutions to these sorts of problems on the fly.
    What complexity do you pick?
    What DCs do you use?
    What sort of actions does a check require?

    Wookeh: You're right, 8 successes does seem like a lot, but they're move actions -- PCs CAN take two of those around, and a finish in 4 rounds. Add a few extra move actions (like from a friendly warlord) and you could shavea little time off that, too. But . . . the payoff has to be worth the effort. It needs to have some sort of rough equivalence to 4 or 8 rounds of just standing there and whacking on the dragon.

    I think the idea could be fleshed out in a lot of very interesting ways -- and it would help if you don't feel too tied down by the structure of the skill challenge system. For example, lets say that you're trying to create a system for a PC to scale the back of the dragon. Maybe it requires more than just one PC climbing to get it done. Maybe he needs to make four of the successes -- which would require two rounds -- but maybe the other four successes would need to come from other party members -- maybe the defender needs to keep the dragon's attention with intimidate checks. And maybe the climber needs some skill checks to assist his climbing -- things like a boost (an athletics check), some well-placed arrows from the archer (attack rolls to place arrows in the dragon's hide to provide convenient hand-holds), and so on.

    One of the things I really love about 4e is the way the game is built to encourage teamwork -- and building these challenges in that way could really be cool.

  5. @Radiating Gnome: You're right, and your insights are very welcome.

    One of the things that has always struck me about the fourth edition of D&D is that it encourages creative thinking in terms of rules. Skill challenges are a great idea - and encourage players to "break the rules" by finding interesting new skills to use, different approachs to aiding each other, and so on. True, you can stick to Rules As Written and force players to play it a certain way, but if you do, you're throwing away the spirit of the system.

    You echo the spirit of the idea of introducing skill challenges to combat in the fourth paragraph. There will always be a lot of variables. Putting solid skill challenges on the end of a stat block is fine - but a DM who is confident in this system should be flexible, and do things "off the cuff" or on the fly.

    And with that in mind, the answer to "how does the GM communicate this idea to players" is to announce that this *concept* is something they can use in their games, and explain the fundamentals. When players go "I want to try to scale up the dragon to attack it's head!", come up with the DCs (easy enough to get from defenses), come up with a reward (probably not too great an idea to collaborate with players on this, especially if your group is full of power-gamers!), and come up with a complexity (shouldn't be too hard if you can imagine the combat).

  6. I had a very similar idea about a year back, but I haven't really taken the time to revisit it - hopefully this post will get me to give it a shot! I described here...

    My take on it was basically "Low-complexity skill challenges are considered equivalent to a single monster. An Elite template is like adding an extra monster. Why not create an Elite template that adds a skill challenge, so that the PCs can defeat that 'half' of the monster with skill use?" I go into a lot more detail in the post (and there's some good discussion in the thread!), but bear in mind this was back before the Skill DC errata and before a lot of the new advances in thought on how skill challenges work. Still, I think there's some interesting stuff to be mined from there, so I'd invite you to take a look if you get the chance. :)

  7. Okay then.
    I'll be trialling this approach in 3-4 weeks or so, will let you know how things go.

  8. @Thomas - I read through what you said: Yes! What a great idea, templatizing skill-checks on monsters!
    My idea was initially to just allow skill-checks, but it introduces problems when players become familiar with the mechanics. By putting in "invisible" skill challenges, players are left to be creative, and the challenges can be made up on the spot.
    I *love* your idea though. I ad a crazy idea a few years back in 3.5e about templatizing *everything* (class, level, race, etc.) for mechanics. I think a template system can provide a robust solution to a lot of mechanical things that are difficult to represent.

    @Burgonet - Thanks! Email me or comment here, I'm interested in how it pans out!