Skill Challenges in the 13th Age, Part 2

Skill Challenges in the 13th Age, Part 2


Last time around, I gave a lengthy discussion of a format I’m using for skill challenges in my 13th Age game and the rationale behind it. This time, very little discussion and lots of examples.  Have at ’em!


Multiple PCs are attempting to race through an urban setting, hoping to outrun their pursuers.

DC: 25 + κ                  Fail Threshold: 15 + κ

  • Cause  1 negative single-use Relationship die with a notable NPC or Icon (collateral damage)
  • Everyone loses a Recovery
  • Can only outrun some of pursuers
This is a straightforward scene for the most part. If the PCs burn through all three failures, it could lead easily into a single battle or small sidequest. If everyone drops out of the challenge before it is completed by some chance, it’s definitely time for an ambush! Also, I really like assigning one-shot Relationship dice to things since 13th Age’s economy modelling is almost nonexistent.



PCs must scale a cliff to reach a tower, keep or similarly fortified position.

DC: 21 + κ                  Fail Threshold: n/a

  • The alarm is sounded
  • One thing the PCs wanted to stop in the location happens
Only two failures and the’re both narrative since you don’t really want to spend a lot of time on this. The checks to look for here are not “do you climb” but “how do you climb stealthily?”, “how do you climb quickly?” or maybe “how do you plan your entrance route?” Remember you can use the failures in either order, so pick the one first that makes sense for what actions the PCs choose to describe.



The PCs have captured a fearsome beast, which they now try to domesticate… or at least train to not attack anything that moves.

DC: 22 + κ                  Fail Threshold: n/a

  • The first PC to fail is out of the challenge and the beast will never listen to her/him.
  • The beast is only tame so long as it has a constant minder
  • The beast is only sort of trained (PCs lose control on a d6 roll of 1 under dangerous or stressful conditions)
Like the cliff face challenge, mostly narrative. The final failure is basically a reversed Relationship die.



Multiple PCs are attempting to devise a new 5th-level spell, “Heedless Bond” which compels one character to remain Nearby another or be weakened for the duration of an encounter. (It will then be Ritualized to make a love spell as a separate roll).

DC: 30 + κ                  Fail Threshold: 20  + κ

  • The spell becomes save ends (16+)
  • The spell becomes save ends (11+)
  • The spell ends up being 7th level instead
  • The spell only requires line of sight, not actually being Nearby
Due to the nature of the thing being made, the Failure Threshold is important. This is one of the few times where a complete failure is appropriate if all PCs get forced out of the challenge. My players used a form of this skill challenge to build a firestorm cannon.     O_o



The heroes must close a portal to the Abyss while they fight off the demons emerging from it. The demons grow and evolve at a stupefying rate.

DC: 28 + κ                  Fail Threshold: n/a

  • Unlock one of the hordeling’s abilities (x4)
Start with a number of hordelings equal to one less than the number of PCs. Each round the portal is open, add one or two more hordelings. Unlike other challenges, this one would not actually end when all four failures have been reached, but there is a fight going on as well to keep everyone moving and engaged. By escalation 6 (and assuming a level 4 party) your PCs have an automatic +16 to hit that closing DC so they shouldn’t have too much problem with it by the end. I would increase the escalation die only with successive rounds of combat – not failed skill checks – but play around with it to see what works for you. As a bonus, have a hordeling:
Hordeling – Level 4
Initiative +6                 Resist: fire (12+)
AC: 19                                 PD: 15                            MD: 15
HP: 45
M: Claw  – +10 vs. AC, 9 damage
18+: Fury Swipes – increase to 16 damage
Unlockable Abilities
         Hit (even): Acid Secretion – reduce the target’s AC by 1 (cumulative) until the end of the encounter
         Wing Guard – gain +1 to AC for each additional Hordeling engaged with the same target
         Rapid Growth –  add +10 to current and max HP
         Vile Aura –  any target engaged with the hordeling only heals half the normal damage



The PCs are appointed to act as arbiter between two hostile factions. The factions both have reasons to like the PCs.  Before starting the challenge, a representative of each faction comes to a member of the party in private and offers a reward if the negotiation ends well for that faction. The factions have three disputes between them, of unequal importance.

DC: 16 + κ, DC 19 + κ, DC 21 + κ                  Fail Threshold: 11  + κ, 14  + κ, 16  + κ,

  • One faction will not give its reward at the end.
  • Neither faction will give its reward at the end.
  • The highest DC dispute will not get resolved during this negotiation.
  • A saboteur or spy from one of the factions is caught and exposed (a purely narrative failure designed to make the PC’s re-evaluate their stance)
Here we have three minor skill challenges thrown back-to-back. If the PCs attack the smallest one first and work their way up, the odds will always be about the same. Alternatively if they tackle the big one first, the rest get easier faster. However, the Failure Threshold is now only 5 rather than 10 so that if everyone fails out, the factions go right for each other’s throats. This challenge also uses purely narrative failures to mark time and heighten the fiction without messing with mechanics.


Six example skill challenges – if you try one out, please email me or comment to let me know how it works out. I love getting feedback from readers.  Also, Quinn has other ideas for how 13th Age skill challenges might run; look for his counterproposal in the near future!

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10 Responses

  1. Very cool! Was interested to see where you’d go with examples.

    I’d suggest at some point you take a crack at more succinctly defining what these skill challenge blocks mean. I had to reread your initial post to remember how it worked, not sure how but I feel like there might be a way to explain those same mechanics within a mock block to allow for easier groking.

  2. I like it. I’m curious, though. As it stands, you have a “win everything” number, failures, and a “you’re out completely” threshold. Did you think about adding a range where the conversation/situation continues and the status quo is maintained?

    For example, currently, we get the following situation. Let’s say everyone has the +4 bonus you mentioned, and we’re trying a Hard challenge with three failure results. In the first round, three people attempt to do a thing, and roll:

    18 (+4 = 22) failure, Escalation Die up to 1
    16 (+4 +2 = 22) failure, Escalation Die up to 2
    14 (+4 +4 = 22) failure, challenge over.

    Yet none of those were completely awful rolls. I could see the 14 adding a failure, but 16/18?

    As such, I’m considering adding one additional optional rule, not for use in all situations, in the spirit of existing 13th Age mechanics:

    Natural 16+ failure: maintain status quo

    What do you think?

  3. @Hawke Good call. Let me think about that.

    @Snarls I wasn’t really thinking of it in AW terms but yes. Sort of. 🙂

    @Graham Personally, no. I would never do that. I want this solved in three rolls or less. Allowing for the possibility of status quo outcomes can result in more rolls than there are story beats. It ends up looking like a 4E challenge that requires too many successes. (For a good example of this, look up the skill challenge “The Restless Dead” in the DMG2. Lord in heaven is that thing awful!) Too many rolls that don’t map to a reasonable piece of fiction really takes the ‘smooth’ out of gameplay. If you’re concerned about beating your players up too much, make each failure less drastic instead.

    Now that all said, if you try your rule and it works for you, I’d like to hear about it!

  4. @Ryven

    “three rolls or less” – ok, fair enough. But then I’m confused about why you raise the DC for more party members. For a 5-man party, for example, we’re looking at a DC of 27.

    First off, 2 people don’t get to participate. Then the rolls go:
    20+5 = 25, failure 1, die to 1
    19+5+2 = 26, failure 2, die to 2
    17+5+4 = 26, challenge over

    You can mitigate this and allow the others to participate by aiding the first two checks, but even then you may still fail without ever rolling less than a 17.

    My understanding was that the biggest benefit of having more people was that they got to try more things for a better chance of succeeding. Is this not the case? Am I missing something?

  5. (Sorry, just to clarify my question above, I was looking at a level 1 5-man party with +2 mod and +2 background, so 1+2+2 = a +5 bonus to checks)

  6. The number gets bigger because of the aiding. I always ask “who’s helping?” which may be a procedural point I should add were I to make a bigger production out of the system.

    Also, are you sure your math is right? The DC for Tame the Monster is 22 + k where k is the number of PCs *minus three* (see first post), meaning the DC is only 24 to start with. This is a Hard DC for Level 1. It should be hard. By level 3 it’s only Moderate and your PC starts at +9 (+5, +2 additional levels, +2 aid) meaning you hit flawless success on a 15 (then 13, then 11 as Escalation proceeds).

  7. Yeah, my math is right according to your initial post. The DC is:

    Hard: 22 + level + K

    K = 2*(N-3)

    So, N=5,
    K=4 (given as an example in the original post),
    and DC = 22+1+4 = 27

    Is the 2x not supposed to be there?

    If the 2x is correct, then even with aiding, the first person could roll a 19, the second a 17, and the third a 17 (nobody left to aid), and they would still all lose without rolling less than 17.

    If the DC is only 24, then we reduce that to rolls of 16/14/14 resulting in a failure, which isn’t nearly as bad.

    As for your “level 3 characters vs Tame the Monster” example, yes, but they’re tackling an effectively Moderate challenge now. (Moderate DC for level 3, 5 PCs, is 19+3+K = either 24 or 26 depending on that 2x) So yes, it’s easier, but I’m talking about an equivalent-level “Hard” challenge.

    I think the 2x is the crux of it. If K is multiplied by 2, then “Hard” DC challenges are crazy hard, and “Crazy Hard” DC challenges are nearly impossible unless you have high bonuses.

    (Crazy Hard example: level 1, 5 PCs, DC = 25+1+4 = 30
    Roll 1: 20+5+2 = 27, failure, die = 1
    Roll 2: 20+5+2+2 = 29, failure, die = 2
    Roll 3: 20+5+0+4 = 29, challenge over (+0 because nobody is left to aid)

    If K isn’t 2x, and the DC is instead a 28, then these people could still lose with rolls of 20/18/18, so the first roll is again an automatic failure. This one may be intentional, though, since perhaps only very skilled people should be attempting this?)

    I don’t mean to harp on this, but I am very confused by your intentions with the DCs and the difficulty setting.

  8. That 2x isn’t supposed to be there. I didn’t even see it the last few times I’ve looked over the post – I’ll go take that off here in a minute. Good catch.

    Another thought which may be simply be a difference of experiences at the table: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a level 1 PC settle for a +5 skill bonus. My experiences running 13th Age for a small handful of groups tell me the first person to attempt this challenge is going to be the 18 INT wizard with a +3 Background casting Charm Animal aided by the fighter wrestling the beast to the ground, resulting in a starting +10 against that 24. 14 to start is not so bad. If your players aren’t terribly keen on trying to squeeze as many points into a skill roll as they can, maybe bring everything down by 2 or 3?

  9. I was just using the +2/+2 example because that was what you referenced in the first post. As for bonuses, well, my group rolled for stats, so most of their “Good” stats are +2 or +3. +4 or better are rare, though 2 players have one.

    As for backgrounds, we have 2 players who only had 6 points, split as 2/4 and 1/2/3 respectively. The ranger had 10 points, split 2/3/3/2, and the Bard… well, the bard is an outlier here, with far too many background points to begin with, and then two talents that gave him more.

    So most of the time, with my group, I can assume a bonus of level, +2 stat, +3 skill (or vice versa, or maybe +3/+3). So at level 1, an average of +6/+7 for something they’re actually trained in.

    Except the Bard.

    I’ll have to put some thought into how I run this, or if I do. My personal opinion, though, is that the starting DCs can’t be geared towards the extreme high cases.

    The 2x being removed fixed a lot, though. I’d like to have “Hard” be a hard check for someone with decent skill (+7), where they’d have to roll a 16+ to hit it. So Hard DC = 23+K, or 22+level+K, seems right on. Similarly, a Crazy Hard would be a roll of 19, and a Moderate would be a roll of 13.

    We’ll see what I do with the K. I might remove it entirely, and also remove aiding, but I’m not sure.

    As for my previous thought of maintaining the status quo, I may just make the first couple failures blank for some of my challenges, if I feel it’s needed for the narrative.

    Thanks for your answers!