Complex Skill Checks

( ⇪ Adventuring Variants )

In a nutshell: Similar to 4e skill challenges. There are also complex ability checks.

A specific number of successful skill checks must be achieved to complete the task. The complexity of the task is reflected in the DC of the required check, the number of successful rolls required to complete the task (usually 3-6), and the maximum number of failed rolls allowed to occur before the attempt fails (usually 2-3). In most cases, one or two failed rolls does not mean that a complex skill check has failed, but if the number of allowed failed rolls occur before the character makes the required number of successful rolls, the attempt fails. Although three failures is a common baseline, GMs are encouraged to change the number if the situation warrants it.

The GM can also apply a penalty to future rolls in the complex check if the character rolls one or more failures. For instance, an intricate trade negotiation requiring a complex Diplomacy check might assess the character a -2 penalty on her checks for each failed check made as part of the complex check (representing the tide of the negotiation turning against her).

Each die roll is one portion of a complex skill check, and each die roll in the attempt represents at least 1 round of effort (it might represent more or less time, depending on the skill or task in question). Like skill checks, ability checks can also be complex. Complex skill checks are rarely used in situations that call for opposed checks.

Skill Challenges

A skill challenge asks the players to come up with creative ways to use their skills to solve a complex problem in a short amount of in-game time. Escaping a self-destructing building, a car chase where you’re hurling fireballs at eachother before they can get away, and other situations where you have a very limited amount of time to succeed are examples of skill challenges.

For Example: A techno-magical bomb is counting down, only a few moments remain! A closer look at the bomb reveals that it’s covered in symbols and strange clockwork mechanisms and tubes.

It functions similar to a complex skill check, except that each roll of the complex skill check is rolled with a different skill or ability, has a different DC, and all players “contribute” to the success of the whole party. Additionally, the players are each restricted to contributing a maximum of one skill check or ability check per “moment” (essentially rounds but longer), and the players might not know how many moments they’re allowed before they automatically fail the skill challenge. A GM may also limit the number of players allowed to contribute in a given moment.

Class skills with at least one rank are “eligible” for use in a skill challenge, as are all ability scores with a score of 14 or more. However, you must be able to justify how that eligible skill or ability could plausibly help in the current situation, and each player can only “attempt” to contribute with a particular eligible skill or ability once during the skill challenge (that is, a different player could attempt with the same skill, or the same player can attempt with a different skill). The GM determines whether the described use is at-all plausible, but generally should allow anything remotely plausible (albeit often with a higher DC).

The GM looks through the list of all skills and abilities that could be eligible for the party in a skill challenge at all, and picks a set with DCs based on their ECL (see below), and with some clear reasoning why that eligible skill or ability is plausible in that situation.

For Example: The party is at ECL 6, so…

  • Knowledge (Hypertechnology) because "it looks like some kind of hypertech device" (DC 18)
  • Intelligence because "you might be able to deduce which mechanisms to break" (DC 13)
  • Spellcraft because "you might know of a way to harness magic to counteract it" (DC 20)

The GM writes this set down beforehand in secret. They state aloud these skills and abilities along with the reasons why they’re obviously plausible, but not their DCs! The GM also writes down beforehand some other skills and abilities that are still immediately plausible, but just not so obvious that they should be immediately mentioned aloud.

For Example:

  • Know (Arcana) because "you might know of a way to alter the runes on it" (DC 20)
  • Knowledge (Religion) because "there might be some kind of holy symbols on it you can alter" (DC 22)
  • Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) because "you might find a way to partially dismantle it" (DC 20)
  • Search because "you might find a hidden partial bypass" (DC 20)
  • Spellcraft because "you might be able to overload it with magical energy" (DC 16 + Drop to half of your spell points, only available after succeeding at the Know Arcana option)
  • Strength because "a certain mechanism could be physically broken off by hand" (DC 14 + Lose 10 HP, only available after succeeding at the Know Engineering option)

If a player tries to suggest something close to these secret options, the GM should reveal it and its reasoning, but not its DC. The GM should also be inclined to allow an unlisted reasoning the PCs give, even if it’s only remotely plausible (it would just have a slightly higher DC than normal, see below).

The GM should also announce how many successes which once reached wins the challenge (usually 3-9, higher means harder), the number of failures which once reached loses the challenge (usually 3, higher means easier), and whether this is a “lethal” challenge or an “escalating” challenge. A lethal skill challenge should be used sparingly, and is one where if the group fails each PC will then have one more roll to personally escape instant death. An escalating challenge should be far more frequent, and says that for each failure the PCs will make an unavoidable situation after the challenge more difficult.

The GM may optionally also state how many “moments” the players have to win the skill challenge (more is easier, and running out loses the skill challenge), but the GM is encouraged to be descriptive rather than factual about how many moments they have left.

For Example: This is a tough challenge, but not a lethal one. The GM announces that 6 successes are required before 3 failures, and that the PCs only have 6 moments (one for every 15-30 second interval in the timer) before the bomb explodes. The GM secretly decided that if the bomb goes off, the specifics of the damage would mean most NPCs would be killed or knocked unconscious by the blast, but the PCs will likely survive the immediate damage, with the building starting to collapse on top of them and saving the unconscious NPCs becoming the next issue. Getting only 1 or 2 failures results in fewer NPCs dying or being knocked unconscious.

Moment Choices

The players then should look through their character sheets for all their eligible skills and abilities that they think might be plausible for this situation, and make a decision each moment for what they want to do. In each moment, a PC may choose to either (pick one)…

  • “contribute” directly to the skill challenge (each PC makes a separate contribution), or
  • “aid” on someone else’s contribution, or
  • “protect” a contribution from consequences (limited to one PC per contribution), or
  • be “on watch” to protect anyone otherwise-unprotected that moment, or
  • “take actions”, GM’s choice of how many.

If you choose to do nothing in a given moment, you’re “on watch”.

If you’re “contributing” or “aiding” in any given moment of a skill challenge, the contributing skill or ability must be “eligible” for you. If you’re “protecting” or “on watch”, then the skill or ability doesn’t have to be eligible. If you’re “aiding” or “protecting” or “on watch”, everyone you’re helping must be within 15 ft of you with nothing impeding your ability to assist in-person (such as iron bars). Each contributor in each moment can at maximum be “protected” by one character at a time. The GM might rule that a given choice in a given moment has penalties or unavoidable consequences, such as denying you your Dexterity Bonus to AC for that moment.

The GM may determine that a particular use of a skill or ability would take multiple moments to complete. If so, the contributor and anyone aiding them instead do a complex skill or ability check with each roll happening in a different moment (the complex check counts as the one “attempt” by the contributor for that skill or ability). Usually this requires two successes before one failure, but the GM must state the requirements before you start rolling the complex check. Success or failure at this complex check adds only one success or failure to the skill challenge no matter how many moments it took to complete. If the contributor quits the complex check, it’s an automatic failure of the complex check. Anyone aiding may choose to drop in or out of the complex check at any moment and do something else without impacting progress in the complex check.


If you “contribute”, the DC is kept secret by the GM. If multiple people are contributing, the group decides the order the contributions are attempted (as if it was a delay or ready action), although everyone might be in initiative anyway if there’s a combat involved in the skill challenge. If you succeed at your attempt, that counts towards the party succeeding at the skill challenge. If you fail, you immediately take 3 strife and possibly another immediate direct consequence appropriate to the skill challenge. Either way, you can’t attempt a contribution with the same skill or ability again for this skill challenge. Contributing might involve making an attack roll or some other roll immediately after succeeding on the skill check.


If you “aid”, it’s an aid another roll and follows all the normal rules of that option, where if you roll a 10 or better you grant a +2 to the contributor’s roll before the contributor rolls it. If your aid another roll for the skill or ability is a 10 or higher and also exceeds the contributor’s roll and they fail the check, you prevent their failure from counting against the skill challenge itself (or if it’s a complex check, against the complex check). If that happens, whoever rolled highest among those aiding takes any immediate direct consequence the contributor would get (if any) for failing. If however the highest aiding roll exceeds the contributor’s roll by five or more, the direct consequence affects none of you.


If you “protect” a contribution and an immediate direct consequence would affect that contributor or an aiding character, you must make a roll of the GM’s choice (usually a Spot check or Reflex save), and the GM must state the DC. If you beat that DC, you prevent any of you from taking that consequence (by pulling all of you out of the way). If you fail, you take that consequence instead. Some contributions can’t have protection because there may be no way for the protecting PC to get anyone out of danger.

On Watch

If you’re “on watch”, and any unprotected contributor would take an immediate direct consequence, you may voluntarily attempt a DC 15 Spot check followed by a DC 15 Reflex save and if both are successful you take that consequence instead. This can only be done once per moment. Some contributions can’t benefit from someone on watch because there may be no way for the PC on watch to get anyone out of danger.

Take Actions

If you choose one of the other options, that’s the only thing you’re doing for the entirety of that moment. If you’re “taking actions” however, you may take any miscellaneous actions of your choice. The GM tells you what combination of actions you could take in the current moment (which might change from moment to moment). Usually this is a standard action or an entire turn, but sometimes it can be longer (especially if everyone’s in initiative). If you choose to “take actions”, you must keep “taking actions” for the entirety of that moment. No actions you take can count as “contributing”, “aiding”, “protecting”, or being “on watch”.

Difficulty and Resolution

  • An eligible skill check has DC 13 + (1 per average party ECL) + plausibility modifiers at GM discretion
  • An eligible ability check has DC 10 + (1 per 4 average party ECL) + plausibility modifiers at GM discretion

The GM should have written down in secret at least 3 other skills or abilities which are more-or-less plausible (and may have different DCs). If a GM allows a skill or ability, the GM must write down in secret the DC for that use so that if another player uses the same skill or ability then the DC is consistent. Once everyone’s decided what they’re doing that moment, everyone aiding rolls, and then everyone contributing rolls. The GM chooses in what order the contributing rolls resolve.

An easy skill challenge is 6 moments, 3 successes, and 3 failures, with no player restrictions per moment and using the standard DCs. A harder skill challenge could be 4 moments, 5 successes before 3 failures, and restricting it to 3 players contributing per moment, and setting the main plausible skills and abilities to slightly-higher DCs.

Trying Again

Complex skill checks can usually be retried. However, like normal skill checks, some complex skill checks have consequences, and those consequences must be taken into account. (For example, a trap that requires a complex Disable Device check to disarm is triggered if the attempt fails, just as with a normal trap and a normal Disable Device check.)

Some skills are virtually useless for a particular task once an attempt to accomplish that task has failed, and this includes complex checks as well as regular skill checks. During all skill challenges, each character can only attempt a particular skill’s complex check once. Multiple characters can attempt that skill’s complex check in a skill challenge only if they each have at least one rank in that skill.

Interrupting A Complex Skill Check

Most complex skill checks can be interrupted without adversely affecting the result of the check. However, the GM is free to rule that interrupting a specific check affects the result. During a skill challenge between moments, or at the GM’s discretion during an ordinary complex skill check, an interruption (such as the contributor taking damage in combat) can count as one failed roll, as the challenge usually requires that all of your attention be focused on the skill challenge or complex skill check.

Aid Another

You can use the aid another action normally with complex skill checks. Characters aiding the character making the attempt must roll their aid another attempts each time the character makes a new die roll that is part of the complex skill check. The only way to aid another in a skill challenge is by directly “aiding” a contributor in a given moment.

Taking 10, 16, or 18

You can take 10 on a die roll during a complex skill check in any situation when you could take 10 on a normal check using that skill. You cannot however take 10 during a skill challenge.

You can’t take 16 or 18 when making a complex skill check or skill challenge. Taking 16 or 18 represents making the same skill check repeatedly until you succeed, but each successful die roll in a complex skill check represents only a portion of the success you must achieve to complete the skill check.

Complex Skill Checks

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