Overt vs. Covert Skill Challenges

tavernscAs the maintainer of the (now massive) Skill Challenge feature, I read quite a lot about skill challenges, no matter if they’re positive, negative, or somewhere in between. I think SCs can mostly be broken down into three main camps:

  1. Overt skill challenges. These are the ones that are mostly “by the book.” Announce what skills are usable as primary and secondary, and what they do in the challenge. (i.e. “You can use Theivery to try and repair the raft and that’s worth a success, or Perception to aid that attempt.”) I had surprising success using this method at the D&D Game Day for Monster Manual 2, probably due to how the skill challenge was written. Additionally, the skill challenges that you find in books and online, ready to run, are like this. 
  2. Covert skill challenges. There’s a goal at hand that skills are useful for, but they aren’t explained by the DM. You ask what each PC does, and a skill roll is decided (either by the DM or the PC) and the DM decides what that counts towards. Success and failures are tracked invisibly (if at all) and the PCs may not even realize they’re in a skill challenge. 
  3. Bad skill challenges. Dice are rolled, successes and failures totalled, and nobody cares. These may be the result of poor design or poor DMing, and can exist as a hybrid with the previous two styles. If you’ve been in a skill challenge where it seemed like you were just rolling your highest applicable skill and the end result didn’t matter (or worse, lead the game crashing to a halt) then you’ve probably been in this kind.

Obviously, #3 is to be avoided. But the first two styles both have their advantages and disadvantages. I know there’s a lot of scoffing of style #1 amongst experienced roleplayers, but it has the advantages of being really easy for a new DM and for players who aren’t able to come up with a unique idea on the spot. Instead of being frustrating for those players, it can allow them to just say “I can definitely help the party by doing this” or even better “this is the option my character would do.”  Additionally, as I said, you can just grab a skill challenge ready to go (or perhaps with some DC adjustments). Players- no matter their experience level- will find a way to do something unexpected, and so you’ll still have to do some thinking on your feet to run one, but it minimizes the situation and (if you pick a good one to start with) ensures that a strong framework exists.

#2 is the option for DMs that are more comfortable. This method is most like previous editions, with the added benefit of some extra tools available for determining DCs and how long the challenge should run. Clearly, there are plenty of DMs with this level that can ignore skill challenges entirely, especially if that’s what your group is used to. For DMs that want to utilize it, but don’t have issues with thinking on their feet or players that get easily stuck, this can be an easy way to go. You’ll also find that players try to incorporate things that aren’t skills into this (like using powers) when it’s more wide open. Mike Mearls method (say that five times fast) of determing skill challenges on the fly is a big plus for this. This is also a good way to go for having a skill challenge that occurs unexpectedly but makes sense as one: “wait, they decided to negotiate with Demogorgon instead of running away! I didn’t plan for this!”

Either way, the key, as usual, is to know your group and your own limitations. One method might clearly be the way to go for your games, but I recommend trying to borrow liberally. If you run skill challenges as written, be adaptable. If you run open skill challenges, try stealing some ideas from the written ones.

Just try and avoid running a bad one. If there’s one thing that’s easy to pick up from the skill challenges critiques, it’s what NOT to do.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.


  1. CrowOfPyke says:

    I recently ran my group through a Skill Challenge of my own design – it was used as option for a combat encounter in the Spellgard module from WOTC. There are very few Skill Challenges in that module, and this added a different flavor to the game, provided an excellent RP opportunity and broke up the monotony of “yet another combat”. Best part? I didn’t tell them they were in a Skill Challenge. I let them feel the tension in the room, RP it out and asked them for skill rolls when appropriate. The players were clueless and it ended up being “the hit of the evening” – they were surprised when I told them afterwards that they had passed a Skill Challenge; got lots of kudos for a seamless integration, which was a delight for both the players and the DM. My advice? Try to run Skill Challenges as part of the game in a seamless way if you can. Sometimes you can’t, that’s understandable, but try to work them in seamlessly whenever possible.

  2. That would be what I call a covert skill challenge in the article above, with using inspiration from an overt skill challenge.

  3. I usually run a mixture of overt and covert because the typical metaconcerns of the game don’t bother me (my suspension of disbelief or immersion within the game are not broken by saying “roll some dice”). They have clear goals and I do tell player some skills to use, but I also always add “or you can surprise me.”

    They generally do.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Alternatives To Monster Math =-.

  4. Covert challenge reflect how I thought the skill challenges would run like when I initially heard about them, nice to see it set down in writing. I think it lets the skill challenge become a bit more of a role-playing excercise by making the characters come up with ways to make their skills fit the challenge rather than simply asking for rolls against a predetermined set of skills.

    Having said that, I think the current presentation of the skill challenges within published adventures can work either way you choose to run a challenge. The DM just has to keep an open mind about how much, if any, a given skill can influence the outcome of the challenge.
    .-= pjstoneson´s last blog ..DM Briefing Room: DDI Compendium In Action =-.

  5. I find folks that hate the idea of skill challenges likely find them too mechanical, and would cringe at running them as in situation #1. But I think the concept of skill challenges are solid, and I agree that for a new DM, WOTC has finally offered some tools to give structure (in running and rewards) to resolving a conflict that’s non-combat oriented.

    I think situation #1 is a good way to start, but eventually once players (and the DM) get into the groove of running them, DMs should move on to situation #2. I don’t think they need to be completely hidden, but interactive. Having all the players say what they want to do, then figure the skills, and THEN have everyone roll is a great way to run them.
    .-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..Fiddling with Skill Challenges: Part 1 =-.

  6. As a player, I prefer the covert style. I don’t want to know I’m in a skill challenge, it feels wrong. Like you said in the article, I find I’m more free when I’m not completely sure I’m in a skill challenge, or what it will really take to complete it.

  7. My best Skill Challenges have been Covert, with Overt interrupting game flow for me (not immersion, but flow). Most of the time, my attempts at Overt become Bad. (Counter to your experience, I ran the MM2 Game Day adventure covertly, and it worked beautifully. Best Skill Challenge I have ran yet, and the party didn’t even realise it was a challenge. Kudos to the designer of that challenge, whoever it was.)

    I track successes invisibly, with the NPC responses giving an idea of how the PCs are doing. I don’t announce that they are in one, though it’s usually pretty obvious. I don’t announce primary/secondary skills, and I give bonuses or easier DCs for really creative uses of non-primary skills.

    But that said, I’m not wholly hidden with them.

    If the players are getting paralysed by choices, I’ll give them a few major options of what they could try (the “listing what primary skills do” that you mention above), but these are only given as possiblities, and never tied to skills. Rather I’ll say “You could try repairing the raft, or convincing the passing boat to give you a lift”. Based on what the player decides to do, I’ll assign an appropriate skill to the action (I try to give them something they’re good at, if it’s questionable), and assign a DC from page 42.
    .-= Graham´s last blog ..Damn you, Dave! You and your… logic… =-.

  8. I generally try the covert option in my 4th ed games. Unfortunately it usually results in failures just as 1 player tries to do something and then realizes he/she has the inferior nature, or dungeoneering, arcana, etc. skill.

    What I am tinkering with is the players telling me what they are trying to do as a group. Then me announcing what skills are involved with what they decided to do (keeping the SC aspect of it secret) and just seeing who they put forward as a team to roll that skill.

    Thereby avoiding the first few failures that are inevitable as they try to figure out how to do the challenge the way the designer intended.

  9. How would you classify your skill challenge from your campaign where we fought off the black dragon in an airship?

  10. TheMainEvent says:

    O: I bet that was passive. Dave never told us in game terms what we could and could not do. We never tried to talk to it or anything, but I’m guessing we could have hit it up with some Bluff/Diplo or also done things to make the ship go faster (rather than delegating it to the dwarf pirates).

    As it stands, lashing the Deva Avenger to a barrel probably wasn’t one of the options Dave had considered…

  11. CrowOfPyke says:

    I was also using the “new” Skill Challenge system from the DMG Errata: lower numbers for the Success Threshold, but *every* Skill Challenge now only takes 3 Failures to fail completely. I like this system for covert challenges – allows more options to the players to succeed, even at skills they are not great with, and yet still involve some danger of failure.

  12. Kodor-Kaal says:

    I have not dm’ed any skill challenges yet but I will soon be guest dm’ing one or two sessions in my group.

    I am tinkering with an idea to not reveal the predefined major and minor actions in the skill challenge but to give each player an option to test-roll a skill every round in order to find a way to use that skill. If there is a predefined action assoiciated with that skill and the roll is high enough to beat the DC set for that action I will reveal that action for the players and the player who discovers it will get a +2 to the roll if he attempts this action this turn.

    Otherwise the players will always be able to present an action and a skill to perform that action with and I will tell them that:
    a. This seems easy/moderate/hard
    b. This is not possible

    If a player happens to present a action and skill that is close enough to one of the predefined skills I will reveal that this is a predefined skill and revard the player with a +2 to the roll if he attempt this action this turn.

    What do you think about this approach?

  13. Kodor-Kaal: I’m not sure about the test-skill piece, but I think telling your players how difficult attempting something is a great idea, as is letting them use close skills.


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