Heading into 4th edition, skill challenges were one of the things I was most looking forward to, and one of the things I’m most disappointed in.
Ultimately, it was just too ambitious. You can’t hope to make a framework that will cover all non-combat situations equally well.
That said, if we distill skill challenges to the most basic essence, it’s still a good idea. And that most basic essence is this: Make something dependent on several skill checks instead of just one.
Now, that said, there are three rules that I’ll go out on a limb and say do apply to every skill challenge.
- There must be the possibility of failure. There’s some subtlety here, though. For example, failure is not possible if the PCs can keep trying until they succeed.
- There must be a consequence for failure. In the most abstract terms, this means that the PCs are tangibly better off if they’d made every roll than if they’d lost every roll. This doesn’t necessarily mean something bad has to happen if they fail, though. For example, it might be that rather than something bad happening, something good doesn’t. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
- Failure must be an option. Just generally good advice. If you ever find yourself planning something that the PCs simply can not afford to fail at, then you’ve failed at planning.
If there’s no possibility of failure, there’s no reason to roll the dice. If there’s no consequence for failure, there’s no reason to have the skill challenge in the first place. If failure isn’t an option, then you’re setting yourself up for having to choose between fudging things and railroading the PCs into what you need to happen or completely ruining your game.