Run a Skill Challenge in 5e That Actually Works

Number of PCs: , Encounter Level:
Easy: 0, Moderate: 0, Hard: 0, Damage: 0
Easy Skills (2-3):
Moderate Skills (2-3):


Struggling to make your non-combat sequences interesting with meaningful stakes? Because of how skills function, you probably run such encounters as a single check. "Make an Intimidation check. 21? Ok, you win." This can feel underwhelming in a team-based game when you try to raise the stakes. There are group checks, but they're also a single pass/fail and can make the paladin without stealth feel like a hindrance.

Try these rules for narrative encounters, which allow for any sort of freeform sequence to be carried out with clear mechanics, stakes, and resource management.

Challenge By Level
1-4 DC 7 DC 10 DC 151d10 or 2d10
5-8 DC 9 DC 12 DC 173d10
9-12 DC 11 DC 14 DC 195d10
13-16 DC 12 DC 15 DC 2010d10
17-20 DC 13 DC 16 DC 2118d10
  • Let the players go in any order or roll for initiative, but be sure to ask the quieter players what they're doing before letting the more vocal ones go again.
  • Number of successes required is equal to the number of PCs for a quick encounter, or double the number of PCs (PCs*2) for a normal encounter. Number of fails is half the PCs (round up).
  • Players describe what they're going to do and what skill they're using. You decide whether their use of the skill is Easy, Moderate, or Hard and consult the table for the DC. If the skill is Impossible, it's an automatic fail.
  • In general, there should be 2-3 Easy skills, 2-3 Moderate skills, and everything else should either be impossible, or Hard if it's creative or otherwise sensible use. You can choose the skills ahead of time, or decide after each player declares a skill and you choose where it belongs.
  • Long rest resources (wizard spells, barbarian rage) grant advantage on the check if they make sense.
  • Short rest resources (monk ki, druid wild shape) reduce the DC by 2 if they make sense.
Skill Categories
Arcane Mundane Profane Explain
Arcana Athletics Sleight of Hand Investigation
History Str Check Stealth Animal Handling
Nature Acrobatics Dex Check Insight
Religion Con Check Intimidation Performance
Medicine Perception Deception Persuasion
  • When selecting your 4-6 easy/moderate skills, try to include options from all 4 categories: Arcane, Mundane, Profane, Explain. This ensures everyone has a chance of success. Check Skill Info for details. As per the PHB, you can use different attributes for skills if it makes sense, such as Constitution (Athletics) for long-distance swimming.
  • Alternatively, instead of choosing whether skills are Easy, Moderate, or Hard, you can use partial successes. In this variant, any roll below Easy DC is a fail, any roll above Hard DC is a success, and anything in between is a partial success. With a partial success, you still gain a success, but something goes wrong: you take damage, a complication arises that makes the situation more dangerous, you lose an item, or this skill can't be used for the rest of the challenge. Choose randomly, rerolling if the result doesn't make sense for the situation.
  • The outcome of the challenge determines whether the players get what they want, or if the antagonist gets what they want. For example, if the PCs are fleeing then failure would trigger a combat in which the PCs are surprised and success means the PCs get away. In a negotiation failure means the opposition gets what they want and success means the PCs get what they want.
  • Instead of 3 fails, you can have a hazardous encounter where each failure deals damage (based on the table) or imposes a condition (at least 1 hour duration) or level of exhaustion. This is more appropriate for something like an avalanche, or crossing a frozen tundra.
  • Use the current number of successes and failures for your narration. At 2 fails, the players are on the verge of failure. If they need one more success, they're doing really well. If both successes and failures are 1 away, make it clear that the next action determines everything.

Play Example

DM: "You come upon a massive hoard of treasure. Gold coins and gems sit in piles that tower above you and reach the ceiling of the vast cavern."

Rogue: "Jackpot!" I start filling up my bag.

Wizard: "Easy now, let's be careful. Who collected all this gold to begin with?" I'm going to look around the room for anyone present.

Fighter: I also want the gold.

DM: As you look around, the loose gold shifts and falls beneath you. Soon, small avalanches start to form all across the hoard. As they clatter and clink from the tumbling towers, a large lizard-like eye is revealed and snaps open to stare at you. There's a rumble, and coins go flying everywhere as a gargantuan red dragon bursts from beneath the hoard and lets out a terrifying roar. What do you do?

(At this point the DM has the tool at the top of the page ready to record successes and failures. There are 4 PCs, and this is a level 6 encounter if they try to escape. The DM has decided that the Easy checks are Athletics and Investigation if they want to run away, and the Moderate skills are History, Persuasion, and Deception if they want to butter up and distract the dragon.)

Rogue: I'm going to try to hide behind the nearest gold pile. Stealth, 19.

(The DM marks a failure, since the dragon has a +16 to Perception hiding was never going to be an option for a party at this level)

DM: The dragon sneers and bellows. "Interlopers!" He smashes the pile of gold you were hiding behind, causing it to tumble down around you. "Do you think you could sneak into my lair and steal from ME?!" You can see wisps of flame leak from between his fangs as he glares at you.

Wizard: "We meant not to trespass, oh great one! We were... exploring, and were so taken with your magnificent hoard that we lingered to admire it."

DM: What skill are you using? Persuasion, Deception?

Wizard: Oh, sorry. Deception I guess since we were stealing from him. 12, not great.

(The DM marks a success, since the Moderate DC is 12)

DM: The dragon cranes his long neck around and chuckles, "magnificent? My hoard is beyond magnificent! It is the greatest wonder of this world!"

Cleric: Do I know anything about this dragon? Is this hoard actually a wonder? History, 15.

(The DM marks another success, 2 total)

DM: This dragon is likely Azzakh, the ancient red that devastated the elven kingdom of Suhnae. If you had to guess where this hoard came from, a good chunk of it is likely from their coffers.

Wizard: We can maybe use that, this dragon sounds pretty vain. I'm going to-

DM: Hang on. Fighter, what are you doing while this is going on?

Fighter: I'm looking for an escape route for when this goes bad. Investigation... 10.

(The DM marks another success since the Easy DC is 9)

DM: The dragon seems pretty distracted with the others and doesn't take notice of you looking around. There's two tunnels leading from this chamber, one straight up and another back the way you came. You remember there were a couple parts where it got narrow, so you could potentially get somewhere it's too narrow for the dragon if you ran.

Cleric: "Wait, you wouldn't be THE Azzakh would you? Terror of Suhnae, the great and terrible flame?" I give a low bow, "I am... humbled my lord." Persuasion, 13.

(The DM marks a 4th success, they're halfway there)

DM: The dragon seems to take great amusement in your display. "The elf-things were as frail and pathetic as you before I reduced them to ash."

Wizard: "Yes! It's an honor to meet the terror of the skies, you are even more magnificent than the stories describe!" Deception. Damn it, a 1! That's 3.

(The DM marks a 2nd fail, one more failure and they'll get into a very deadly combat)

DM: "Do you think flattery will spare you? Have the elves sent you to steal my treasure?! Spies! Thieves!" Flames billow around his maw and you can see his chest begin to glow red-hot as heat builds up within him.

Rogue: I run. Athletics I guess, 11.

(5 successes, they need 3 more successes before 1 more fail, so the other 3 party members all need to succeed here)

DM: You run down the tunnel you came from as the dragon roars in fury, swiping at you with its tail, but it just topples a pile of coins instead. What do the rest of you do? The dragon is furious, and you feel like your next actions are very important.

Fighter: I'm also running. Athletics, 16.

Wizard: I'm really not good at this. Could I cast Expeditious Retreat?

DM: Yes, that will give you advantage on your roll.

Wizard: Ok, great, I'll cast that and also run. Athletics, 4... and... 10?

(7 successes, they need 1 more)

DM: That'll just do it, both of you also go running down the tunnel as the dragon spreads its wings and take a deep breath. It's all up to you, Cleric.

Cleric: Hmm... it's probably going to breathe fire at us if we all just run together. Could I use Insight to tell where the dragon is going to fly and breathe and then... throw a handful of coins to distract it?

(Insight is technically impossible, but since this is a clever use the DM allows it with the Hard DC)

DM: That's pretty clever, sure. Go ahead and roll Insight.

Cleric: Selune please give me a good roll... 18!

(The last success needed, the PCs pass the encounter and get away)

DM: You all run down the tunnel as the dragon gives chase. You see it fly up above you and take a deep breath, but a handful of coins hit it in the face and clatter against the walls, throwing off its aim just enough that the red-hot flame billowing from its maw just barely misses. You can feel the intense heat as it scorches the surface of your shield, and it roars in frustration as you make your way around the bend and scurry into a side-tunnel that's much too small for it. Behind, you can hear its claws tearing at the stone.

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