Skill Challenges are a widely-written about topic. The nebulous nature of the challenge, paired with its newness to the system, all create difficulties when approaching. Reading about, listening to, and running skill challenges has led me to put in my two cents regarding how I run skill challenges. The best skill challenges are like great macaroons: crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the inside. First, I'll explain how I use the three act structure to create a challenge, then I'll explain how they are run.
Three Act Skill Challenge
Before I ever read about the three act structure to adventure making, I was applying a three-scene structure to my skill challenges.
The first act is exposition and preparation. The problem is presented in the first act: a ritual must be prepared, the city is on fire, the ancient tome is being stolen. The players are then asked to prep for their plan to fix the problem: gather components, rally the fire brigade, sound the alarms and give chase. The players get prep time equal to their success. I take the number of successes, divide by 2 and subtract one. When they reach that number or their first failure they initiate act two.
The second act of the skill challenge is incitement and climax: the ritual is cast, the fire is fought, and the thief is chased. Successes in the first act will dictate the difficulty of the second act's checks; if they made it through all the successes, drop the difficulty one tier (hard to moderate, moderate to easy) if they failed early, increase the DCs by two (12 DC becomes 14). This goes on until they reach the number of successes (total needed divided by 2) or the second failure.
The third act is all resolution and dénouement. The consequences for the challenge thus far are given. The ritual is either a success (it does what it was supposed to) or a failure (incorrect result, it blows up, it summons demons!) the city is either extinguished or the fire still rages. You've captured the thief or backed him near a dead end. If the PCs haven't made the cut yet (they should have one success needed) this will be the most difficult part. If they have over 4 checks to make, increase the DCs a tier. If they have 4, 3, or 2 checks left, decrease the DCs a tier, and if there was only one check left when they started the act, make the DC an easy one.
At the end of the challenge, the PCs reap the consequences of their rolls. If they did well the challenge goes well (the ritual goes off without a hitch, the fire only causes minimal damage, the thief is caught), but if the challenge went south the players have to deal with some difficulties (the ritual summons demons and the PCs have to fight, the fire nearly wipes out the town and the PCs are blamed, The thief gets away, but leaves his orders about where to take the item). This punishes the PCs for failing but keeps the game going. The absolute last thing you want is a dead-end situation where the PCs have to either backtrack or wonder what they are to do next.
Running the 3-act Skill Challenge
The three act skill challenge runs a lot like a 3-scene play. I present the act's challenge, and start taking rolls around the table. I do make everyone take a turn, but they can choose whatever skill they want as long as they describe it. There is a small caveat to that. No player can use the same skill twice in a row, and no character can use the skill the last player used. If it fits in perfectly with the scene (Arcana to draw the ritual circle, Diplomacy to rally the brigade, Athletics to chase down the thief) then I make it an easy DC. If it fits in a little bit but not really in the spirit of the act (Streetwise to search for components, Nature to find the nearest water source, Intimidate to scare the thief into stopping) I make it a moderate DC. If it has nothing to do with the spirit of the scene (Acrobatics to jump from rooftop to rooftop to deliver components in the fastest fashion, Perception to see where the fire is strongest, Insight to see why the thief stole the item) I set the skill to a hard DC. I keep taking tallies until they hit the successes or their failure.
After the rolls, I narrate the scene. I tell the PCs how the scene played out based on their skills, and transition them to the next act. Then they roll, go until their failure, and narration begins again. Same for the final act.
By the end of the challenge, they won't know whether they won the challenge or not, because it's not about winning or losing, it's about the story. That's really what skill challenges are about: crunch then fluff. Just like a great macaroon they start off hard and crunchy but end with incredible fluff that leaves everyone satisfied.
Skill Challenges are one of the most written about facets of 4e. I'm not bold or stupid enough to think this will end the writing on Skill Challenges, but hopefully it will be an aid to others. If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them!
And if you want to make the macaroons pictured in this article, be sure to visit http://www.namthip.com/2009/06/i-heart-u-french-macaroon.html, that’s where I stole the pics. I made them yesterday and they are delicious!