Not much to elaborate on.

Reading the DnD4e rules, it sort of bugs me that a "skill challenge" counts the same as a combat encounter. They don't seem to be very equatable to me, both in terms of time taken to accomplish, and "character effort". Or to put it another way, not as much thinking or as many die rolls are required in a skill challenge, as in a combat encounter.

Based on the first answer I should clarify my premise: Assuming a really good DM and engaged players, I believe a skill challenge (even of a high complexity of say 8 or 10) doesn't seem to take longer than 15-30 minutes. However, most combat encounters seem to last at least an hour. (And perhaps longer if role-played fully)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there a reason they should take the same amount of time? \$\endgroup\$
    – dpatchery
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 14:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would probably stop playing if a SC took the minimum of 30 minutes that the average combat takes. I would be bored to tears, especially if I lacked the skills needed for the challenge. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't know... I once put my players through an SC of more than 30 minutes, and nobody complained... I didn't announce it was an SC, though, just went with their calls and rolls, if their improv and ideas made sense for the SC. I don't know if I'd run an SC the same way, but nobody was bored. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMNoob That's an intuitive thought, but variety tends to add interest. Consider: If time was the important factor, wouldn't it be simpler to just time the session, and grant XP based on the duration? \$\endgroup\$
    – AceCalhoon
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's all in the method... I recently ran a revised version skill challenge a the start of book Ii of the Reavers of Harkenwold (where the PCs must convince the local farmers, shepherds, and villagers to follow the local leader in defense of the town) - and it took about 90 minutes, and everyone loved it. The party went to each of 12 local groups in turn, role-played a personalized response for each group and then rolled (an) appropriate skill(s) to see if that group joined the effort. As an important side-effect, they formed a defense plan along the way... Certainly worth full XP. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 16:24

5 Answers 5


Treating SCs and combat equally in terms of XP rewarded removes the incentive to choose the path of greater XP.

Consider a typical low level adventure. Bandits have kidnapped a farmer's wife. The PCs are charged with her rescue. They reach the bandit's hideout. The GM makes it clear to the players that he is prepared for them to fight it out, stealthily break into the hideout, or try to diplomacize with the bandits. The latter two options are skill challenges.

At no point in figuring out how to rescue the farmer's wife should the players think that fighting will earn them more XP. The choice should be in character, not mechanical. Even if the players aren't aware of XP as explained in the DMG, they will pick up on the fact that you give out more XP for murdering people than talking to them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I must admit, this to me, makes the most sense and is the best answer so far. I feel bad for not realizing it myself. It also explains why a proposed alternative of time based xp sounded reasonable, but unnecessary. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ while not the best answer, it's the only one mentioning the most important element: The path of Most Reward. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 20:36

You tagged this with , so I'm assuming you want the reasoning behind the design choice.

Essentially, they're the same because they were intended to be equally engaging. The entire design principle behind the addition of skill challenges to the game was to make non-combats work in the same way as combats: lots of rolls, tactical choices, maneouvering for advantage, complicated and chaotic outcomes. The designers didn't see why social conflicts shouldn't have the same degree of give-and-take mechanical complexity and plot importance as fights, and so they tried to create a non-combat system that mirrored the combat system.

With that intended equivalence in mind, it's easy to understand why combats and skill challenges would be given equivalent XP values, though whether the designers succeeded in making the two subsystems equivalent in actual play is debatable.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure the designers tried to do Skill challenges work like that... tactical choices, lots of rolls... I'll grant you the "complicated and chaotic outcomes" bit. I'd just say they thought "Hey, combat's done, how can we make the rest of the game fit into the reward cycle?" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adriano They did explicitly try to mirror combat. I wish I could find the teaser posts about it during the run-up to the edition's release, but so much of that stuff disappears every time WotC reorganises their site. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh! It's good then that I joined the D&D wagon this late... Thankfully, I missed that. I take SCs as an "excuse to meaningfully assign XP and rewards for roleplaying" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, thank you for understanding the intent of my question. I really hope there is more to your answer, because as Adriano pointed out, they seem to have failed miserably at that goal. Though it is certainly better than the situation in 3.5 where your skills were almost pure fluff. I guess what is missing is the "bad guys" doing skill checks against the party. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:56

Ok, two things:

  • The time and effort taken on a skill challenge depends on both your DM's roleplaying and yours. If you can get scott free on a SC just by saying "I use Diplomacy, 26", you're not roleplaying anymore tha if you fight and say "I move into range and hit it with Lance of Flame, 26". Read this question for more on this.
  • Not all skill challenges are the same as a combat encounter. In fact, only an SC of complexity 5 counts as a full encounter, and has a high number of successes to accomplish against 3 failures, with extra rolls for advantages considered.

Stemming from my second point is the fact that you can mingle skill challenges with combat to represent things that the heroes must accomplish in addition / instead of just mashing enemies to pulp (sorry, "render unconscious" for the squeamish), e.g. the classic trap that the rogue has to deactivate in the middle of the battle.

So, both encounters and SCs depend on you and your DM to be any good. Thing is, it's easier to forget this with encounters, because the tactics and powers are funny even if not roleplayed. At least for the player, who might not be saying in full what his gruesome spell of evisceration does, but imagines it. The rest of the table kinda misses on that, though.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This! I first thought the same about SC's but after thinking about it in scope of the gameplay and having a chance to try one out I was sold. Not every encounter need be a combat lest that become tiresome and boring. There are multiple ways to overcome a difficult situation and fights are just one of them. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 14:08

For the most part, the answer is "because they do." However, there are a lot of things to be said about that.

Character Time

The first thing worth noting is that from a character-time perspective, skill checks will typically last dramatically longer than most combats. An epic, hours-long, battle royale that takes twenty rounds to resolve occupies only two minutes of time within the context of the game world. All but the shortest skill challenges will exceed this time... Some by very large orders of magnitude.

Mechanical Focus

D&D has historically focused its rules on combat mechanics, providing only a summary for non-combat activities. This means that combat is much more detailed and structured than non-combat encounters, while non-combat stuff relies more on role playing to keep it up. Mechanical detail and structure eats time.

DMs' Toolbox

Having the ability to provide encounters with different XP per unit of real time gives the DM flexibility. If they want their players to level up faster, they can mix in a larger percentage of skill challenges. If they want to slow things down, they can use fewer.

It's Difficult to Abuse

Because players have a limited ability to control the encounters presented to them in even the most sandboxy games, it is very unusual for a group of players to abuse the game by focusing on the "easy XP" of skill challenges. You can't farm them, in other words. It it ain't broke...

Odds of Success

Finally, I don't really have the depth of experience with the system necessary to say this with any authority, but I'd suspect the odds of success at a given skill challenge aren't much different from the odds of success for a given combat encounter (if anything, I'd expect the skill challenge to be more likely to fail). Skill challenges will certainly have a higher standard deviation on success rate, as player skill is less of a factor (especially if the DM is stingy with RP rewards).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another reason is to encourage/reward players for taking those non-combat skills and using them in-play. (3E suffered because while you could be awesome out of combat, it did little for you in hard XP. The only exceptions were when you could find a loophole to abuse, such as crazy-high Diplomacy.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a very good answer. I didn't think about the fact that combat is really only 2 minutes of the character's life. Also, I think the above comment could be an answer on its own. Both are very good points. I'm curious about the odds of success, but for some reason I thought SC are easier to win / less risk then combat. Lack of abuse is also a good point. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ The correlation between time in game world in combat and time at the table in combat is really jarring. For instance in this question the goal is to delay attackers 10 rounds or roughly a minute in game world time. That's not very long. \$\endgroup\$
    – mirv120
    Commented Jun 20, 2011 at 18:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Taking literally every round as six seconds is not always believable. Treat it more as a suggestion than a rule. Time flies like a banana, they say. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 14:28

It seems from the various answers given, that it's really a combination of factors.

1. Path of Greatest XP SC (Skill Challenge) and Combat give the same XP so that players and GMs don't choose one style of play over another based solely on XP gain. This allows the mechanics to play a secondary role to the story or campaign. It also explains why traps are the same XP value as Monsters.

2. Character Time While combat might involve more risk of life, a SC takes more time from the characters' point of view. Thus the amount of effort between a SC and Combat, from the characters' view could be argued to be roughly equal.

3. Player Time A well run skill challenge, will in fact take just as long to play as combat, and can be just as taxing or engaging on the players.

4. Character Effort A dangerous trek through the swamp, or subduing a wild crowd can be costly to a character if failed. (i.e. losing a healing surge is a mechanic for a failed Skill Check) Therefore in many cases, a SC will in fact require the same amount of effort or heroic actions from the character as a normal combat encounter.

5. Player Effort To overcome a SC, a player will usually attempt to use their best trained skill. To get that best trained skill to be applicable to any given skill challenge, can be just as rewarding or difficult as picking the correct tactical position and power during combat. That is, the player must be creative to find a way to have a History roll be applied to tracking a monster.

I'd just like to note that I think the rules compendium doesn't make it clear enough that a skill challenge can have results such as lost healing surges, or deadly combat as a failed result. That is, the mechanics as described in the books don't expand enough on the possibilities of engaging and interesting skill challenges.

Is there anything I'm really missing?

  • \$\begingroup\$ The Skill challenge example in the DMB at least both describes the effect of a partial failure (lost time to find the antagonist, giving him time to escape), and final failure (combat). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 12:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might just be me, but I see a big difference between story failure (i.e. lost time) and mechanical failure (lost healing surge). And also a normal activity (combat) as a failure, vs a really tough activity for a failure: deadly combat, or combat with creatures above the normal level gap \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 12:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ The point is that they can't predict what exactly does GMNoob want, but they do mention options for dealing with failures in an SC. I've seen failures costing healing surges and combat as a result of total failure mentioned in my Essentials books, so I don't really see your point. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 13:28

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