Air War: A Skill Challenge

Spelljammer War Captain's CompanionLast weekend, as part of the finale to a major plot arc in my game, I wanted to make a skill challenge to represent a fleet of airships breaking through the enemy’s air forces in order to get the party to their objective (the Big Bad Guy and his reborn Primordial). I’ve done a few airship skill challenges before, thanks to a motley Dwarven pirate airship. Escape from the giant dragon air skill challenge and “oh crap the airship is crashing” skill challenge both had been done, so for this one, I envisioned something like the space battles in Star Wars, like the trench run but in a more open space.

Thus, I consulted Gamefiend, the mad genius of skill challenges, for his help in designing it. One Skype call later (and then another day of planning later) I came up with the following skill challenge. It is stretching the skill challenge framework quite a bit and turning into its own mini-game, so be prepared for that right away. I’ve made it slightly more generic for use in your campaign, along with some notes for adapting.

Air War


A ragtag fleet of 6 airships needs to puncture the enemy’s air forces in order to deliver the party to their objective. The party has been given command of the flagship of the fleet, which is equipped with listening coins to be able to communicate with the captains of the other ships. The goal is for the party to reach the end, while saving as many of the other ships as possible. The DM is encouraged to staff the other airships with important NPCs, absent PCs, and allied forces to increase the drama and importance of each ship to the party.


Give the party the fleet tracker (I’ve attached the one from my campaign here). Each ship, aside from the flagship, has one special ability that can be used once during the entire skill challenge at any time. Each ship also has 3 damage points (think of them as “mega-HP”). Designate one PC to captain the ship.

Choose Actions

In each round, the DM will describe the wave of enemies that the PCs are currently fighting. Then, each PC will have the opportunity to take one action. The most important actions will fall under one of the three categories:

  • Fight! The PC uses his skills to increase the fighting ability of the fleet. Common skills include: Arcana (tossing magic spells at the enemy), Diplomacy (coordinating the fleet to take out prime targets), History (call upon military strategies), and Dungeoneering (point out weak points on the enemy).
  • Flight! The PC uses his skills to try to mitigate incoming enemy fire. Common skills include: Acrobatics (barrel rolls and other dodge maneuvers), Athletics (manning the sails), Nature (use knowledge of winds and terrain), and Endurance (use knowledge of survival to brace for impacts).
  • Feint! The PCs uses his skills to put the enemy off-balance and setup for the next engagement. Common skills include: Bluff (trick the enemies into a bad position), Intimidate (steering the fleet into “chicken” scenarios to rattle the enemy), and Insight (try to predict what the enemy will do next).

See the section on the monster waves below for skill DC information.

Other possibilities can include (but are not limited to):

  • Use a power. The PC says what power he is using, and how. Generally, this will go towards one of the three common actions listed above, but will be more effective or give an automatic success. For example, a daily attack power like Fireball might give an automatic “Fight!” success.
  • Identify the enemy. This defaults to a Perception check, or a standard monster knowledge skill check depending on the foe. This gives the PC knowledge of what the wave is strong or weak against (see the monster wave section below).
  • Assist another PC. While this doesn’t help towards the challenge, it can provide a bonus to another PC on an important roll.


The PC captain rolls 1d6 for each ship still remaining in the fleet, plus 1d6 for every “Fight!” success. This is the amount of damage dealt to the enemy wave.

The DM rolls 1d8, and subtracts 1 for every “Flight!” success. This is the amount of damage dealt to the PCs’ fleet. The PC Captain choose where to assign this damage among the fleet. Any ship that takes damage also deals damage to every PC onboard. Consult page 42 “limited” damage for the appropriate amount, increasing the amount of damage with each point dealt to the ship. Any ship that takes 3 damage crashes: its special ability is lost, it no longer contributes to combat, and may have other repercussions depending on who is on it.

The DM notes all “Feint!” successes. Each one is a +2 to all skill checks in the next round.

If the PCs destroyed the enemy wave, it moves onto the next one. Otherwise, see the note in the monster wave for how it proceeds. If the PCs pass the last wave without losing their ship, they win the skill challenge. If the PCs’ ship is destroyed, the DM should adjudicate what happens, possibly involving a “crashing” skill challenge.

Enemy Waves

Below are some examples of enemy waves. I used 6 waves altogether, which seemed about the right length.

  • Catastrophe Dragon Swarm: 30 HP. Easy DC to Feint, Medium DC to Fight, Hard DC to Flight. Attacks every round until destroyed.
  • Storm Giant Cloud Castles: 35 HP. Easy DC to Flight, Medium DC to Feint, Hard DC to Fight. Attacks two rounds, can be left behind after the second round.
  • Air Elementals: 20 HP. Easy DC to Fight, Medium DC to Feint, Hard DC to Flight. Attacks for one round, then joins next wave.
  • Lightning Storm: Cannot be fought or feinted. Deals its damage, then is left behind.
  • Ground Force Giants: 30 HP. Easy DC to Feint, Medium DC to Flight, Hard DC to Fight. DM chooses where to assign damage to the fleet. Can be left behind after first round.
  • Stone Giant Colossus: 50 HP. Easy DC to Feint, Hard DC to Flight or Fight. Guards the objective and must be defeated before the end.


Play a Final Fantasy airship theme while conducting the challenge.

That’s it. The PCs in my game passed, losing only two ships, with a full complement of damage to every other ship in the fleet. Let me know what you think or if you have any questions.

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, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Wow Dave, I think this is an awesome skill challenge! I just hope lots of people can get some use out of it. What level were the PCs in your campaign for such an epic skill challenge?

    Thanks for sharing!

    Jason P.

  2. That sounds awesome.

    I think you closed it out strong in implementation. Great stuff! It was really fun jamming out on this stuff with you, we’ll do it again soon.

    One thing for people to note: Clustering skills under action categories is a great way to group and use skills in skill challenges. How did the players respond to the Fight/Feint/Flight skill groups, Dave?

  3. Jason: Thanks! The party was level 16. I actually scaled the damage up a little because I had 6 PCs instead of 5, so I’ll add that as a recommendation.

    gamefiend: Yup, hope I didn’t steal your thunder there 🙂 I mainly relied on my usual approach to skill challenges, which is “What does your character do?” and helped classify it from there via some prompting. That sort of automatically clusters it. There was still some “Uhh, can I use this skill?” but my hope is that the different DCs between waves discourage that kind of thing overall.

  4. I’ll be honest: I was bracing myself not to like it. I feel like the strength of skill challenges lie in their abstract nature, providing lots of actions and reactions which are the fodder for rich, cinematic descriptions.

    But as detailed as this one was, I like it for the room I feel it leaves for those descriptions. I liked the shifting DCs. A DM could fit those to lots of different types of opposing forces and obstacles.

    I was surprised there wasn’t more detail as to what happens if the PCs fail. Of course that will depend a lot on all the preceding narration, and the exact nature of the campaign, but a skill challenge can live or die on its failure mode.

  5. Brilliant, just brilliant.
    My low-paragon party is building their fleet right now. The have some awesomeness ahead of them 🙂
    Thank you.
    .-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..4E slotted encumbrance rules =-.

  6. Dave.. You are the wind beneath my wings. 🙂
    .-= wrathofzombie´s last blog ..A Pathfinder Game Cometh =-.

  7. I think I know at least one character in my party who would absolutely love this (Josh), as he’s been trying to get an airship / fleet of airships together for the entire game. No doubt you’ll be playing through your own mechanics sooner or later Dave. 🙂

  8. I’ve always enjoyed mass battles in role playing games, and I’m always looking for ways to implement them.


    .-= Tourq´s last blog ..Classic Fantasy, Make Your Fantasy Setting Fantastic =-.

  9. Ameron has already told me he’ll be using this skill challenge in this week’s game. You’ve created a very nice dynamic for the challenge and I look forward to playing through it later this week. You allow the PCs to feel powerful, but there is the very real possiblity of damage or role playing repercussions.
    .-= Wimwick´s last blog ..D&D Encounters (Week 11) =-.

  10. pdunwin: Yeah, I thought you might have mixed feelings on it. I tried to write some consequences for failure, then decided it would be too tough to adapt for every group. It could even be a method of TPK for some particularly evil DMs…

    Snarls: If you use it, lemme know how it goes.

    wrath: I always knew I was full of hot air.

    Bartoneus: I can’t wait for our fleet of an airship, dinosaurs, and time machines to engage in battle.

    Tourq: Gamefiend and I may tackle using a similar setup for ground-based combat too, seems like it could work well.

    Wimwick: High praise indeed, thanks!

  11. highbulp says:

    I too know exactly where I will use this kind of thing in my campaign (though it won’t be for a bit)… 😉

  12. lochutus says:

    Sounds fantastic. I would love to hear it played out on gamefiend’s podcast, perhaps a re-run?

  13. Wow… really impressive, and I’m definitely going to be using this sometime in my campaign. I added a link to this post on my site’s News page – definitely think this is a must read piece for DMs to realize how amazing skill challenges can truly be!
    .-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Gearing up for Summer at Neuroglyph Games =-.

  14. Well done, sir. While I don’t play 4E, this kind of skill challenge is something I can weave into almost any game with minimal alterations.

    And? Super cool.

    .-= Fraser Ronald´s last blog ..On the Assumption Railroad =-.

  15. Noumenon says:

    Yeah, this is really good stuff. Good comment by gamefiend about clustering too.

  16. As a player in Dave’s game, I can tell you from the player’s perspective that the skill challenge worked out well. Regarding how Dave says “What does your character do?”, this open mechanic allows for a good deal of creativity.

    For example, my “spellstorm mage” wizard in his campaign used the Sudden Storm spell on a cloud riding storm giant castle to help with our evasion. He also helped our evasion by simply thunderwaving dragons that tried to board the ship. The psionicist in the group dominated a colossus trying to swat at the ship and made him just stand still long enough for us to fly ropes around his ankles and bring him down AT-AT style. The room for possibilities is endless!

  17. Chris Sims says:

    Very nice!

  18. Great job, Dave!