The skill check is a simple part of the entire d20 family of gaming systems, and it’s about as simple as it gets. Need to find a letter in a box? Roll a d20 and add the appropriate skill modifier. Need to forge a weapon? Roll a d20. Need to convince a visiting noble to back you at the gala? Roll a d20. Need to disarm a complex trap in the middle of combat or navigate through a forest? roll a d20.
It gets dull when everything other than combat is just resolved by rolling a d20. There’s a single moment of tension and then no matter how complex the task it’s over instantly.
Which is why I like to play around and do something different once in a while.
Collective Skill Check
Not every check is a single character trying a single thing. Two people work together to hold a door closed. Several adventurers cross a narrow rope bridge over a perilous chasm. A party of adventurers attend a noble ball. Sometimes, there is one key character taking an action and others assisting them. Other times, everybody involved with the check needs to be on the ball – or at least contributing. In these cases, the party needs to make a total skill check.
Every character present in the situation that calls for a total skill check must roll a skill check. This will often be the same check (Athletics, or Balance as examples), but may be instead one of several related skill checks (such as any of Diplomacy, Bluff, or Knowledge (nobility)), and compared against a break-even DC: the minimum a character can contribute to a situation.
The highest roll is the leader of the collective skill check, but that value is modified by the amount any characters fail to meet the break-even DC. So if the leader has a 25 on their check, but they have an ally who rolled a 12 and another who rolled a 13 against a break-even DC of 15, the party’s total is then 20.
That total is then the party’s collective score, and compared against the DC for the challenge, which would be a similar difficulty to a standard check. Making collective challenges more or less difficult can then be managed by raising or lowering the break-even DCs.
This way, skill checks becomes about the party acting together. The most skilled or lucky member of the party can still carry the rest of the group, but more forethought is required as to whether or not the gruff and often drunk warrior to the royal ball – or at least, more effort must be taken to clean them up beforehand.