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I'm curious about skill challenges and looking for official literature regarding how to implement one but am not finding anything. Are skill challenges in 5e homebrewed?

Note that a skill challenge differs from a contest. A skills challenge is a series of ability checks. A contest is a single ability check. Skill challenges were official in the previous edition of D&D.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jun 12 at 6:16
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Skills challenges are a common homebrew mechanic

A skill challenge involves a series of ability checks where the cumulative result determines the outcome, rather than any individual check. They are a good solution for complex situations where a single ability check fails to encompass the scale of the task. Typically they are a collaborative effort between all party members, each contributing the skills they can to achieve some goal.

If you are looking for "official literature" on skill challenges in 5th edition you won't find any. At present they have not been published as official content for this edition. Skill challenges were an official mechanic introduced in 4th Edition that proved to be very popular. Guesses as to why this mechanic didn't make it into 5th edition are off topic here so I won't go into that.

I highly suggest watching this Matt Colville: Running the Game video on skill challenges. In it Matt goes through how they worked in 4th edition and then how that can be used in 5th edition. Additionally many people will have seen skill challenges used by Matt Mercer in Critical Role.

Skill challenges at my table

Based on viewing that video and then some playtesting, here is how I use them in 5th edition (I also use a similar method in Pathfinder).

  • DM chooses the DC. Skill challenges involve a series of ability checks against a set DC. The DM chooses a DC between 10 and 20 to reflect how hard this challenge is. Typically I would use 12 or 15 for most challenges. Disclosing this DC is at DM discretion and it dependent on style. I have done a few either way and it never caused an issue.
  • DM decides on the number of required successes. Skill challenges require some number of successes to reach the positive outcome. Typically this should be at least 3 and I have required as many as 7 in the past. Similarly to the DC, whether you inform the players of the required number of successes or not is up to the DM. It doesn't have a major impact.
  • Three failures is a fail. Regardless of the number of required successes, if the party reaches 3 failures before reaching the required successes, they fail. A "three strikes" approach like this seems to sit well with most players and helps prevent the challenges from dragging out.
  • PCs choose a skill to attempt. Based on the narrative situation the players can choose a skill to assist them in reaching their goal. PCs may choose any skill in which they are proficient, provided they can narratively justify how that skill would help them. Each PC may only attempt each skill once.
  • DM narrates the result. Whether the party passes or fails the DM then narrates the result of the overall skill challenge.

I have used this system multiple times as a GM, as has the GM of the group I play in. It has proven to be an enjoyable solution to complicated situations. Some examples where we have used it:

  • Navigating a ship into safe harbour through a storm. PCs used survival, nature, athletics and perception.
  • Swimming through white water rapids. PCs used athletics, acrobatics, survival and arcana.
  • Escaping pursuit by slavers. PCs used athletics, acrobatics, survival, stealth and perception.

Skill challenges work particularly well for chase scenes, escaping disasters or other high action non-combat scenes. How you set the DC and number of successes takes some practice and experience to get right. Often it requires a balance of the two to get a fair challenge with the appropriate feel. I suggest 5 successes with a DC of 12 as a good starting point if you haven't used them before.

Conclusion

Skill challenges are one of the more common mechanics that aren't officially supported by the rules. I encourage you to watch the video I linked and check out some of the other skill challenge questions on this site. If you have questions about how I have used them you can ping me in chat. Good luck!

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