Don’t Roll the Dice When You Can Hide Them Instead

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Let me tell you what’s wrong with GMing advice online: there’s too many f$&%ing parrots. There’s too many people who just repeat the same s$&% as everyone else. It’s as memetic and viral as everything else on the goddamned internet. So, you have some idiot who attends one amateur level improvisation class and decides that the twin rules of never negating and always opening up the scene that combine into the “always say ‘yes, and…’” is the greatest thing ever for gamemastering. That idiot posts an article on their blog. Someone else reads it and repeats it. And then other people read and repeat it. And it spreads like a f$&%ing STD. And the advice that catches on the most is the advice that is novel, catchy, snappy, and easy to repeat like “yes, and…” and “fail forward” and “challenge the characters, not the players” and “make interesting choices” and “make failure fun.”

Now, there’s a couple of problems here. First of all, “catchy” and “memetic” are often terrible criteria and “novelty” is a crap-shoot at best. Second of all, advice bloggers tend to repeat this s$&% RIGHT AWAY. In their rush to share, they don’t think about what they are saying and they certainly don’t try it out in game. They just get so f$&%ing excited about the shiny, new, catchy idea that they just have to show off for everyone. Third of all, most GMs are absolutely terrible at knowing how to make games better for players.

Yeah, I said it. And then you have me. My advice isn’t catchy or novel or memetic. It’s messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. That’s how you know it’s at least REAL advice. Because running games is messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. And I rarely repeat s$&% other bloggers have said because I’m too busy ripping it apart in my nasty, critical, dismissive, egotistical brain. And, unlike most GMs, I am actually GOOD at knowing how to make games better for players.

In short, your average GM online is like a kid on the playground who just learned a new swearword. The day that kid learns the word “f$&%,” everything – as long as there are no adults around – is f$&% this and f$&% that and f$&% f$&% f$&%. I’m not like that at all.

That same sort of thoughtlessness manifests itself in other ways, though. And that’s what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about the Game Mastering Perspective, Randomness, and Incomplete Information. If it seems like I threw that in kind of abruptly, it’s because I didn’t think through how to transition out of my Long, Rambling Introduction™. I basically just wanted to make a joke about kids cursing at each other on the playground and compare online GMing advice to sexually transmitted diseases. Mission f$&%ing accomplished.

What the Hell Am I Talking About?

So, Perspective, Randomness, and Incompleteness. How the motherloving f$&% did I decide I need to write about that crap? What the hell am I even talking about? And how is any of it useful? And do I overuse rhetorical questions as transitions?

To answer the last question first: no. Rhetorical questions are awesome.

Anyway, two weeks ago, I posted an article about tweaking the core rules of D&D a little bit to build a toolkit for adding some extra rules. And one of the things I said exploded more than usual. Some people were just confused. Others were downright argumentative. And after TRYING to explain myself repeatedly in the comments and on Twitter, I realized that the confusion and argumentation were the result of a deeper problem. It’s about GMs overvaluing randomness and overvaluing incomplete information. And part of the reason has to do with the fact that the GMs can’t see the game from the other side of the screen.

Now, I’m going to admit I kind of f$&%ed up that Tweaking the Core article. There’s some messy bits that NEED to be fixed. I’m going to revisit the topic soon. BUT, I want to address the knowledge thing right now. Because, as a GM, you NEED to understand how randomness and incomplete information help – AND HURT – your game. And you NEED to understand why your perspective is totally f$&%ed up – BY THE VERY NATURE OF THE GAME ITSELF.

But before we dive in, I want to look at exactly what it was that caused so many problems. Because that will give us an excellent framework for discussing these big topics.

The Knowledge Thing

Here’s what happened. I pointed out that certain skills are essentially passive, automatic things. They are functions of a human brain and human awareness. When you walk into a room, you notice the things you can perceive (Perception). You recognize those things and your brain starts recalling facts and making connections about them (Knowledge skills). As you interact with things, your brain is also racing to make connections and evaluate things (Knowledge skills, Intuition). Barring those weird circumstances where you are trying to remember something – which almost never works, because your brain will either remember a thing or won’t – your brain does that s$&% automatically. There is no action, no choice, and nothing you can do to affect the outcome. You can’t try NOT to remember something. You can’t rub your head while your brain is remembering something to make it REMEMBER BETTER. It’s totally passive. No conscious effort required.

Now, in the game, those passive skills generally serve two purposes. The first purpose is exposition. That is, they give the players information they can use to deal with situations. Basically, the GM uses those skills to deliver information about the world and the things in it to the players. The second purpose is clues and warnings. Things like Peception and Intuition clue the players in that things may not be what seem or that there is something they need to investigate deeper. They might notice signs of a trap, for example, or that the NPC they are talking with is behaving a little cagey. Those little clues aren’t exactly passing off information. Instead, IF USED PROPERLY, they give the players a hook to tell them that there is more information to be had if they go ACTIVELY LOOKING.

In either case, the point is, those passive skills SET UP action. In the first case, they provide information that the players can use to make better decisions about their actions. In the second case, they provide incentive for the players to dig for more information.

Now, the same skills can be used actively. That is, the players can make a choice to do something, describe an action, and sway the outcome through their choices via those skills. A player might search for traps, right? That’s an active thing. The character has to actively interact with the world. They have to go over the area, poke at things, prod things, feel around, get down on hands and knees, sweep dust aside, brush cobwebs away, bring the light close, knock on a surface, clear mortar from between tiles to look for a seam, and on and on and on. That’s ACTIVE use of Perception. A player can ask leading questions and try to make a character nervous to see if the character breaks. That’s ACTIVE Intuition. A character can conduct a religious ritual to lay the dead to rest or consecrate an altar. That’s ACTIVE Religion. And so on and so on and so on.

The point is there is a distinction between things that happen automatically without effort (Passive) and things that happen only following conscious effort (Active). And those things should be treated DIFFERENTLY in the rules. Specifically, I said Passive rolls should be streamlined. They aren’t worthy of die rolls. Instead, I said, Game Masters can either go with a binary check for Proficiency (if you’re proficient with Nature, you recognize this as a dire weasel and know this information) or use the skill modifier to gate the information (if you have a +5 in Nature, you know this much; if you have a +10, you know this much more, etc.).

Well, HO-LEE MOTHER OF F$&%, you would think I shot an orphaned bunny. Now, to be fair, except for a few (now deleted) comments that were excessively rude and stupid, most of the people kept their cool. They disagreed, sure, but they were at least polite and rational about it. A few people on some other platforms weren’t so nice and polite. And, to be clear, I don’t care if you disagree with me. Disagree all you want and run your game any stupid way you want. What bothers me is when you (a) treat me like an idiot because you think I overlooked something, (b) get angry when I tell you that I didn’t overlook something, I purposely decided it wasn’t as important as my other criteria, (c) get mad at me for being “closed minded” when I refuse to change my mind and admit your “obviously superior” point is more correct, and/or (d) refuse to use your f$&%ing brain and even think through what I said.

I also hate when people don’t actually read everything I say before they argue. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, there’s two reasons why I proposed the different treatment. I’ll just quickly mention the one unrelated to the rest of this article because it seems – from the comments – a few people missed this. The first reason is because it makes it easier to write and run games. See, in general, the GM is never surprised by a Passive use of a skill. The GM knows, for example, that whenever the players walk into a room, Passive Perception is going to come up. Whenever the players encounter a monster or unusual circumstance, the players are going to fall back on their Knowledge skills for more information. And so on. These checks almost never come out of left field. And the result of all those checks is narration and exposition. The GM feeds the players information. Thus, from a perspective of both planning and game flow, the GM should be able to plan those things ahead of time, quickly work out the result, and weave the information into the narration. That prevents the description of the situation (the narration) from flipping back and forth between exposition and resolution without the players interacting in any way. You just don’t want a situation where the GM says “the room is big and filled with crates and dust. Roll Perception. [Roll] [Ask for result] It looks like there’s a depression in the floor in the middle of the room. Like a section of the floor is sagging. And there’s also a furry shape. Roll Nature. [Roll] [Ask for result] It’s a dire weasel. They are furious, ill-tempered beasts that fly into a frenzy when injured, but they are afraid of fire.” Those rolls are speedbumps in the narration. And they drag out the most boring part of the scene, the part where the players aren’t doing anything, the exposition.

Now, some folks in various comments asked about things like calculating Passive DCs on the fly and about how the GM is supposed to know when the players will actively do something vs. passively doing it and so on. In light of that explanation, you can see those questions don’t make sense. Passive checks, by their nature, can be preplanned. Hell, they could be part of the lore in the Monster Manual or part of the room descriptions in adventure modules. Wouldn’t THAT be useful?! They are simply cues for the GM to provide more information. And the GM decides when information is available and takes care of all the resolution behind the scenes and then just doles out the information.

Because Passive rolls are preplanned and only used when there is information handy, the GM or game designer can use any scale they want to determine how rare that information should be. There’s no reason to assume it should be calculated like any other DC in the game. In fact, I would say the threshold should be based entirely on the total skill modifier instead of on some average roll. It doesn’t matter.

The only time a GM needs to calculate a DC is when the players are actively doing something. And that’s when the normal DC scale can be used. You know, Easy is 5, Medium is 10, Hard is 15, and so on. And that is based on the difficulty of the task. See, that’s another weird thing about Passive knowledge skills. In those cases, a DC isn’t really a DC at all because there’s no task and therefore no sense of difficulty. Instead, the DC is more a number that reflects the “rarity” of the information. DC becomes a much more abstract term.

Anyhoo, that’s the easy objection dealt with. But let’s get to the other objection.

If It Isn’t Random, It Isn’t a Game

Now, to be honest, D&D has grappled with the same problem I’m dealing with here. Specifically, it dealt with Perception. Here’s the idea. When the players walk into a room, they should have a chance to notice anything hidden in the room based on their Perception score, right? And there should be a mechanical way to determine that. BUT, resolving it with Perception die rolls leads to a host of problems. First of all, it bogs down the game. Every time the party walks into a room, there’s five die rolls and five evaluations before the GM can give out information. Second of all, if the players can see the rolls and they see they all got low rolls, they will immediately mistrust the results. And that leads to panicked requests to “look around again” or to “search the room.” After a player rolls a low Perception roll, it is almost impossible to convince them there really isn’t anything to find. Third of all, if you force the GM to make the rolls secretly, the GM has to record all of the Perception rolls, roll them all, do the math, and then deliver the information. However you slice it up, it bogs everything down. And, again, remember this is the most boring part of the game. The effect is like putting a big-ole loading screen in front of every room. It’s awful for the flow of the game.

So, the designers invented the idea of Passive Perception. It’s a static number written on everyone’s character sheet and one that, presumably, every GM could record on their own list. Thus, they could quickly glance at the highest Passive Perception, look at the list of things the players could “notice,” and decide what information to dole out. And people freaked out.

The general argument runs something like this: without a die roll, the players will ALWAYS notice things below their threshold and NEVER notice things above their threshold. There’s no chance for them to ever notice more or less. They will never miss a hidden trap below their threshold. They will never spot a trap above their threshold. Moreover, there’s no chance that the alert character will miss something while the unaware character will luckily spot something. And there’s no point in having two really alert people, since the one won’t be able to roll well in the case that another rolls poorly. And that’s terrible.

We’re going to leave aside the fact that all we’re talking about is the initial chance to NOTICE something. When it comes down to actively searching for something, there IS randomness.

Now, I got the same objections to my proposal about knowledge skills. It isn’t random. It will ALWAYS work out the same way for a given party in a given situation. And that’s terrible.

Now, before I go on, I want you to seriously think about that for a moment. Especially if you’re nodding and saying “yes, it IS terrible.” Right now, before you read any further, squeeze those brain grapes a little. WHY is it terrible? WHAT is getting ruined in the game? And I don’t want you to just think. I want you to say it out loud. I want you to write it down. I want you to put it into goddamned words. DO IT.

Some of you may be a bit surprised to discover you’re having trouble putting it into good words or explaining why. And that, right there, is a BIG F$&%ING CLUE that something is askew between your earholes. I’m not saying your brain is broken or that you’re stupid. What I’m saying is that you should probably be wondering if you don’t have an incorrect assumption somewhere in there. Because, guess what? You do.

Now, those of you who actually DO have an answer, hold onto it. Because I can ALMOST guarantee that your answer is based on something that is actually bad for your game. And that’s what I’m about to explain. It comes down to two things: Incomplete Information and the GMing Perspective. And those two things lead GMs to overvalue randomness.

So, let’s rip into those poor assumptions and fix your brain so it can run games better. Because that’s what I do.

The Perfect Chess Game

Imagine, for a moment, that you are like me. Imagine you are a super-genius. You’re brilliant. And you are so brilliant that you can play chess perfectly. That is to say, you can look at a chess board in any configuration, you can see every possible move you might make, and you can hold them all in your head. So, you can look at the board and say “if I move my pawn there, the board will look like this; if I move my rook there, the board will look like this; etc.” And you can see every possible move at every possible movement. And you can perfectly assess the consequences of every move. You are a perfect strategist.

Now, imagine I am also like me. A super-genius perfect chess player. I can also see every possible move and predict every possible outcome. I never miss a move and I can also assess the outcome of every move.

If we sit down to play chess together, do we even need to play? The answer is, no, we don’t. Because we are both perfect strategists who can predict an arbitrary number of chess moves into the future, we can both predict in our heads how the entire game will play out and will both always use the best strategies. I can literally write down how that entire game happen. I don’t even need you at the table. And you don’t need me.

Do you want a simpler example? Well, there’s a board-game called Candy Land. In Candy Land, players move along a track by drawing cards and moving to the indicated space. The first person to reach the end of the path wins. There are no alternate paths and no decisions to make. Just draw the card and move. Imagine if we played Candy Land, but we laid out all the cards face up, in order. Just by looking at the cards, we can figure out how the whole game will work.

Another example? Tic-Tac-Toe. Once you hit, like, ten-years-old, you realize that Tic-Tac-Toe always plays out the same way. There’s only nine choices for the first player, eight for the second, then seven for the first again, then six, and so on. And once the first player makes the first choice, of which there is really only one optimal choice, every other choice is basically set in stone if the players are trying their best to win and aren’t stupid. That’s how Matthew Broderick finally beat Skynet in the The Matrix.

The thing that all of these scenarios have in common is that the players have all of the information they need to determine the entire course of the game. There are no surprises. Tic-Tac-Toe will always play out the same way. Candy Land is only surprising because you flip over one card at a time. Chess is interesting because players aren’t perfect. That is to say, they overlook moves and can’t perfectly assess every strategy and hold every possible board configuration in their heads. That means one player can’t accurately predict what another player will do.

One of the things that makes games (and movies and everything else we do for fun) fun is the element of surprise. We don’t KNOW precisely what is going to happen. Humans LIKE to be surprised. Surprise – or TENSION as we call it in games and fiction – emotionally engages us. We want a specific outcome, but we don’t know if we are going to get it. We want to see the cartoon fish reunited with her family. We want to find the baby Metroid and defeat Ridley. We want to win the race to the Candy Castle. But we don’t know if those things will happen. And even if we’re pretty sure they will (like knowing that the movie with the cartoon fish will probably have a happy ending), we don’t know how it will play out and what the outcome will cost the fish.

Tension creates emotional engagement and tension comes from surprise and surprise is only possible if we don’t know everything that is going to happen. The term for this in game design (and also economics) is “Incomplete Information.” In a game like Tic-Tac-Toe, players have “Perfect” or “Complete” information. Most of the time, players know exactly what the result of every move will be right through to the end of the game. In chess, players have “Incomplete Information.” They can’t predict their opponent’s actions and the human brain simply cannot run out every possible move and consequence for both sides through the entire game. In Candy Land, the players also have “Incomplete Information.” They can’t see the cards, so they don’t know how the game will play out.

Incomplete information is vital for adding emotional engagement. But it’s also vital for another reason. Most games would become almost completely unplayable if you had complete information.

Imagine if you could predict every move that your opponent could make in chess. How long would it take you to make a turn. Hours, right? You’d have to evaluate every move, predict the opponent’s move, evaluate your next move, predict the next move, and so on. And you’d have to do that, through the end of the game, for every possible move you could make. Now, unless you’re also a perfect strategist – which is impossible – that means that you’ve got to make a strategic decision every turn based on running out thousands and thousands of possibilities in your head and figure out the perfect one. You’re going to get a little overwhelmed if you try to pull that s$&%. The human brain can’t handle that. Even the best chess players only try to predict a few moves in advance and they rely on broad strategies and heuristics to provide mental shortcuts. And they also generally have a limited time.

Strategy and Sense

The other side of the coin – and this is IMPORTANT – is that people also hate being surprised in games. In most games, that’s because players need to feel like their decisions matter. They need to feel like they are in control of the outcome. And this is especially true in role-playing games. Players make choices and deal with the consequences of those choices. When I play chess, I know my choices affect the outcome. Moving this piece instead of that piece, taking this space instead of that space, at every turn, I’m making choices. And those choices change the outcome. If I win, I know that, to some extent, I won because of my choices. If I lose, I know that, to some extent, I lost because of my mistakes. If the outcome is completely beyond my control, the game doesn’t feel fair. There isn’t much point in playing.

Now, in order to make good choices, you NEED information. You need to be able to evaluate the situation and to predict the likely outcomes. And, moreover, you need to be able to connect the consequences of your choices with the choices themselves. That way, you can learn from your choices and get better at the game. THAT is all wrapped up in the strategic component of any game.

But, in role-playing games, surprise causes even more problems. A role-playing game has to be satisfying as both a game AND a story. And stories, to be satisfying, have to make sense. We demand a lot of sense from our fiction. The end of the story has to follow from the beginning, story details can’t just appear out of nowhere, motivations need to make sense, and so on. And Incomplete Information plays against that.

All in all, we have a love-hate relationship with surprise and incomplete information. We need it, we want it, and we hate it and despise it. In the end, a good game requires an extremely careful balance in terms of how much the players know and can predict at any given moment.

Hiding Stuff vs. Rolling DiceThe GM Perspective

GMs KNOW that there is a value on incomplete information. They know that players draw excitement from not knowing what is going to happen. They know players feel challenged by not knowing what is going to happen. Mature GMs eventually UNDERSTAND that the players also derive satisfaction from a sense of control, from a sense that their choices shape the course of the game. Hopefully, they do, anyway. I mean, if you’re reading my website, I’m sure YOU do. But hopefully every GM eventually gets there.

Now, GMs KNOW about that whole excitement thing because most GMs also draw excitement from not knowing what is going to happen. Many GMs enjoy being surprised just as much as they know their players do. But this is where things get f$&%ed up. To a GM, there is NO hidden information.

Take, for example, the 4E approach to Passive Perception. As a GM, if I’m running that adventure and I see a trap that requires a Passive Perception of 15 to spot, I know the outcome. I can just check the player’s character sheets and find out if any of the players will spot it. No surprise there. The same with a Passive Knowledge score – if you use my approach. I can tell you exactly who will know what information before we even sit down to play. Hidden information is never hidden from the GM.

Now, here’s the thing where some mental gymnastics take place. See? The game is filled with all sorts of hidden information. The map of the dungeon, which monsters will show up when, who the villain is, and so on. Most of the game is about discovering the hidden information. As GMs, we accept that part of the game because the whole point of the game is to gradually discover the hidden information. That part is fine. But that Passive Perception crap? That’s different. Because there’s nothing a player can do to discover that if the numbers aren’t there. So, as a GM, looking at that, it FEELS like a screwjob. And surely, the players will recognize that. Right? Surely, if they know their Passive Scores are determining what information they get, they will feel like they are not in control.

So, what’s the solution? The solution is obviously to roll dice. Dice return a sense of control to what is otherwise a binary numerical comparison. The players won’t feel screwed if they know there was a chance to discover the trap by rolling dice.

Except, as I noted above, hidden information – even when there is no control over the discovery – still FEELS like it could be discovered. Randomness – unless there is a sense of control built into the game – FEELS like a screw job. Now, yes, it is an illusion. But what’s really amazing is that even if you know the illusion is happening, when you’re inside the illusion, it actually still feels okay. Especially if it’s played off right.

For example, if you say to the player “because you’re proficient in whatever, you know this” or “your keen senses alert you to the presence of trip wire” or whatever, you’re helping support the illusion. Why? Because you’re emphasizing the CHOICE that brought about the consequence. You’re basically saying “because you were smart enough to select this skill from among all of the other choices, you get this piece of information everyone else would have missed and probably died because of.”

See, the problem with Knowledge checks is that they don’t involve any choices in the moment. They are the payoff – or LACK of payoff – from a choice made during character generation. That might be days or weeks or months ago. So, the success or failure of the check hinges on the die roll. Meanwhile, with ACTIVE skill checks, the choice that created the die roll is happening in the very moment. Sure, the die still determines the outcome, but the player is more focused on the choice that created the die roll. Random Knowledge checks are randomness without any sense of immediate control.

Even if you are a GM, you’ll still fall for this crap yourself. You’ll still feel good about the choice of a skill and feel like your foresight paid off if it’s just a matter of hidden information. How is that possible? Because, when you’re sitting behind the screen, you forget that you don’t know what is possible.

To a GM running the game, the Passive Knowledge/Perception thing is a list of binary checks, a list of yes/no answers and nothing more. But to the person on the other side of the screen, that page could literally have anything on it. Or nothing. There could be a thousand bits of knowledge or three or none gated behind various numbers. The space for possibilities is infinite if you don’t see the notes. Thus, when you ARE given information, you assume that if you’d had a lower score, you’d have been given less and if you’d had a higher score, you’d have been given more, and if you had different skills, you’d have different information, or you might have missed out and gotten no information. It ISN’T a list of binary choices to you, it’s a page of infinite possibilities.

GMs LOSE that perspective the minute they sit behind the screen. So, their sense of the value of Hidden Information as an alternative to Randomness gets really f$%&ed up. And that’s dangerous. Because, in general, unless the players have a lot of control in a situation, Randomness sucks. Randomness feels cold and unfeeling and unfair. Have you ever noticed that board games that involve rolling dice to see how far you move have fallen out of favor? And lots of board games – popular board games – involve randomness only in small doses.

GMs value randomness because they see rolling the dice as “doing something,” as a form of giving the players “control.” But in the absence of a firm choice or a chance to hedge the outcome or a knowledge of what the stakes are, dice actually steal control. And GMs also value randomness because they don’t benefit from much hidden information beyond the players’ choices. And, let’s be honest, most of the time, players don’t do much to surprise us. In the average combat scene, most players make their attacks and cast their spells and we know how it’s going to go. Right?

I’ll let you in on a secret: all those random tables for determining wandering monsters and random encounters and building random dungeons and random personality traits for NPCs and random events and random weather and random treasure parcels? None of that is for the players. The players don’t give a s$&%. The weather is what it is whether it is Hidden or Random Information because they have no control over it either way. They react to it. Those tables are for the GM. To surprise the GM. And that’s why some GMs – the ones who need MORE surprise in their game – love those things and others – the ones who can handle LESS surprise because they engage in other ways – they ignore them. And even decry them.

Sure, that randomness does do a few things for the players. But it’s mostly stuff behind the scenes that they aren’t involved in.

The point is, in general, GMs overvalue randomness and undervalue hidden information. And that’s why people flipped the f$&% out when 4E introduced Passive Perception. And when the 5E designers threatened to include Passive Ability Checks for things like breaking down doors. And when I wrote an article suggesting people stop rolling for Knowledge checks because it breaks the flow of the game and emphasizes randomness over choice. Hell, people flipped out when I suggested that sometimes, a GM should just declare success or failure and NOT do any die rolling. And it’s something that a lot of GMs still have a lot of trouble getting over.

I mean, come on, there’s some of you RIGHT F$&%ING NOW pursing your lips and thinking “no, this guy is an idiot. Randomness feels good. People like rolling dice.” Well, I dare you – I F$&%ING DARE YOU – to adopt my Passive Skill approach for a month in your game. Put on your big boy pants or your big girl panties and see what happens. Stick it out and see if I’m right. I know I am. I’ve already done the experiment.

Honestly, I should wrap up there. But I’ve got one more topic to touch on because there is one bit of weirdness that ties all the way back into a very old topic on metagaming. Don’t worry, I’ll make this one quick.

Hiding the Wrong Information

As much as GMs overvalue randomness and fail to see the value of hidden information, there is one weird place where GMs WAY overemphasize hidden information: monster statistics. For some reason, GMs live in absolute, abject terror that players will find out the AC and HP of a monster. GMs jealously guard monster statistics. And the argument is always “I don’t want my players metagaming.” Now, I KNOW some of the reason for that is a misunderstanding of how to challenge players. GMs KNOW that hiding information increases the challenge. They also KNOW that information is powerful and they want the players to EARN the information. Fine and dandy. I understand those motives, even if it’s misguided.

But I’ve also seen a not insubstantial number of GMs who forbid the players from doing things like watching die rolls and then announcing the AC of the monster when they figure it out. Or counting hit points and saying, “we’ve done 60 points to the monster.” These are the GMs who resisted the 4E rule about announcing when a creature was down to half its HP. And I’ve seen some GMs lose their f$&%ing minds over the idea that a player might read the Monster Manual.

And I honestly don’t have a theory as to why so many GMs seem to approach those extremes. I just can’t f$&%ing figure it out. I don’t want to get into an argument as to why it’s good or bad. I’ve argued before all of the reasons why there is nothing bad about letting the players know things like DCs and AC as part of their decision-making process. After all, the characters SHOULD be able to assess challenges and make reasonable guesses about monster’s toughness and evasive and defensive capabilities just by watching it fight for a second or three. Martial artists do it. I was a fencer once. My fencing coach TRAINED US to read our opponent.

Anyway, that’s just an aside. I’m just observing that this is a thing that happens and it’s stupid too.

Calm Down with the Dice

If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s this: die rolling is fun because it introduces an element of randomness. But that randomness is only fun FOR PLAYERS if they feel like they have some control over the randomness. The randomness needs to be driven by a choice OR the players need a way to react to the randomness to mitigate its effects. And the only time that really happens is when the players are declaring actions. Beyond that, rolling dice is only fun until the first bad die roll. After that, it feels like a screwjob. Random die rolls should be added SPARINGLY to the game. And ONLY when it is in direct response to a choice the players make or when it can be affected by a choice the players have to make. Passive Knowledge and Perception rolls DON’T MEET EITHER CRITERIA.

Randomness and Hidden Information serve the same purpose in the game. But they feel different. Randomness feels cold, impartial, and uncontrollable. Hidden Information feels discoverable and empowering. As a GM, it’s hard to see that stuff because of your position at the table. But it’s mostly true.

Mostly. Everyone knows an exception. I’ve had a few players in my life who were stuck, hard, in randomness. It took a while to break them of the habit. Part of it is training. Some have been trained to think it isn’t really a game unless you’re rolling dice. And some have been trained to inherently mistrust GM declarations as not being really a game. And some players are gamblers by nature and enjoy the random payoffs. But they are mostly the exceptions that test the rule. That’s the problem with people. Even when you know you are right, some people’s brains are just f$&%ing wrong. My advice stands.

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171 thoughts on “Don’t Roll the Dice When You Can Hide Them Instead

  1. Great article! It’s hard to break out of the “rolling for literally every situation” mentality, especially with players who are used to it, and have their dice ready to go whenever they open a new door. It’s definitely something I still struggle with as DM, but this article is such a good reminder that it’s a habit worth breaking.

  2. I’ll attest to this advice, especially regarding love of randomness. My games improved massively when I reined in my urge to call for rolls in low stakes situations that hurt game flow.

    I think the original urge came from lack of confidence in my own judgement. Lots of experience on both sides of the screen really helped.

      • Hahahahaha, despite “racking your brain” being a thing people can do, I actually agree with you on the subject matter of this article generally. I’m surprised you didn’t use your quick fix solution from the previous article here – if players *request* to do something active, let the most skilled player give it a shot as a proxy for the group effort.

  3. Sometimes perceptive people get distracted, or learned people have a brain fart. Or maybe they were sick the day at Adventurer’s School where they learned that Ankheg have an acid attack. The simulationist in me needs to model that.

    I freely acknowledge that in these situations I roll dice for me, and not for the players, and I try not to make them pay for it. I don’t have to look up character stats, because checks are just a point-and-click on the computer for me. I don’t think it slows down the game. You aren’t wrong about the hazards, but if its important enough to you as a GM, they are manageable.

    And they aren’t really serious hazards, except insofar as they are indicative of a larger problem. Hiding too much or the wrong information can be a real problem. Your comments on monster knowledge are bang on, but there are a bunch of related problems (which I started to write about until I remembered whose blog this is). You wrote about the symptom. Maybe you should write about the disease.

    • I tend to attribute player error to those issues. If I tell the player that his character knows trolls hate fire, then the next session they’re fighting a troll and the player casts create water, well their character had a brain fart.

    • I tend to agree with Beoric here, in that there is some (limited) value in the randomness for simulationist reasons, if you value that. Frankly, I am not sure it actually makes for a better game, but I like it anyways, and I think my players have gotten used to that being a part of my gm style (I plead run my game any wrong way I want in this case). I also like the randomness because sometimes it forces me to improvise, and being reactive to player actions or random activities has been inspiration for some of the most memorable bits for me in many games I have run.

      That being said, if there is a chance of failure/chance of success neither path should ruin the adventure. There’s no point in allowing for one or the other if you don’t have a way of making it interesting (and interesting might just be, you have got to turn around now…).

      So I guess what I am saying is that Angry is right, there is no reason to have random rolls for passive checks, or a lot of the randomly generated stuff we do. The best wrong way of doing it is probably if you do it during planning, what’s the difference between having the dice generate your module than running a module written by other people, in some senses. (Although at least in theory, other people have some idea of how to write modules).

      Still, I tend to think that a lot of the problems people have with this on either side come down to not properly weaving stuff into narration. It doesn’t matter if a trap is randomly generated, or has a random chance of being noticed. It doesn’t matter if the weather is random. What matters is that the players have a chance to change how that trap, or how that weather affects them, or that they have a chance to make use of the knowledge of something they couldn’t avoid later on.

    • “Sometimes perceptive people get distracted, or learned people have a brain fart.”

      Just because you’re a simulationist doesn’t mean you have to be the one modeling it. The game already has a mechanism for modeling brain farts: players. Players forget things their characters have noticed, they make tactical blunders, they neglect to take a course of action that should be obvious in the moment (e.g. “I look under the bed”). I can see these being the outcomes of a dice roll the players choose to make, but I’d be wary of forcing the players into a blunder when they were given no real choice to avoid.

      I see this as analogous to how Angry talks about traps. It’s the same thing, really. You’re either presenting a situation where the player is given no latitude for response other than a specific die roll, or you’re presenting an effect and asking the player to choose their reaction to it. The second is (arguably) a better simulation than the first.

      “Or maybe they were sick the day at Adventurer’s School where they learned that Ankheg have an acid attack.”

      Assuming that ankhegs are uncommon creatures in your campaign setting, the fix to this is to have the relevant knowledge DCs be higher than the passive skill scores. Not accounting for magic items, a DC of 20 is high enough to lock out automatic successes up to level 13 at least, and that’s with a +5 modifier in the relevant ability score.

    • When it comes to character knowledge, player error is only an acceptable simulation of character error if you are prepared to allow your players to forget things that their characters would likely remember.

      I am not a fan of punishing my players because they didn’t memorize the campaign bible (which I don’t write because I know better). The information comes to the characters much more viscerally than it does to the players, and they are much more likely to remember it, so if it has been established that a character knows a thing, and the player has clearly forgotten, I just remind them.

      To be frank, when it comes to knowledge checks, this situation just doesn’t come up that much. If I want them to know something, I just tell them. If it is secret knowledge then they have to work for it, and won’t be discovering it without doing something active. So it only comes up if I don’t really care if they know a thing, which probably means the information is not important, in which case I’m not checking for passive knowledge as a matter of course.

      At that point, if they are asking what their character knows, I am likely making it up on the spot, in which case they can roll a die to let me know just how much improvising I’m going to have to do.

      As for passive perception, if I have done my job properly I have already given my players enough information to know that they ought to be looking for … something … when I set the scene. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, it occurs to me that situations where passive perception would be appropriate just don’t come up that often in my game. My players don’t pixel-bitch, but you can bet that if they walk into a hallway and smell machine oil, or chalk dust, or there is white powder on the floor, or the pattern of flagstones changes, or there are pockmarks on the wall, they are going to try to figure out what is going on, and will proceed with caution.

      I think the only time I use passive perception – that is, the only time there might be something to look for in a situation where none of the characters is actively looking for it – would be when traps form part of a larger, more active encounter, like a combat encounter. But even then it seems like a bit of a kludge, because if the players are paying attention they may notice that the monsters avoid stepping in certain areas, and I kind of prefer attacks on Reflex (I play 4e) as a mechanic for modelling “you see the danger at the last minute and manage to avoid stepping onto the trap.” Or Angry’s “click” rule, to try to mitigate the results.

  4. i didn’t know about last articles shit storm and i thought this article was going to be about hiding checks like stealth and perception from the players so they don’t panic on a low roll or assume there’s nothing to be found on a high roll.

    for me, having to roll a perception is natrual. someone who is perceptive will still miss something every once in awhile. even if our minds are doing it in the background passively our attention can only be given to one thing at a time. we are effectively blind while our eyes are moving and not using smooth pursuit to follow a moving target.

    moving away from what “makes sense”, from a gameplay perspective i like passive checks. it helps moving things along like you say while still making use of a player’s choices. The downside to this shows up in a weekly game where a GM knows the character composition very well. Unlike in a convention game or if you’re writing an adventure for other GMs to use you are basically determining the player’s failure or success before the session even starts. you may as well just write your notes without numbers and just work their skills into the narrative. to make a comparison, if you know the highest the rogue in the party can roll is a 29 and purposely putting in a trap that requires a 30 to find. why would you include something to find that is literally impossible for your players?

    • So what? So f$&%ing what? I mean, don’t you design combats knowing the players should win? What’s the difference? That’s being a game designer. It doesn’t break anything. It just makes you feel weird.

      • you’re absolutely right, its a game design decision and it makes me feel weird having exact certainty that my players will pass something I just made. how do you get over that?

        • As long as you acknowledge that it makes for better games, and that the only problem is yourself feeling weird, then the best way to proceed is probably to just do it anyway and put up with the bad feeling for now.

          If it makes your games better, and you notice that it is actively making your games better, then after enough games your subconscious should eventually get used to it and it should stop feeling weird. 🙂

        • I’d say, create an encounter for witch you have exact certainty of failure from the players once in a while and see how that works out.
          Best case scenario, your players beats all odds and you discover how unlikely the concept of “exact certainty” is.
          The problem is in having no variety. If all encounters are doable, it is boring and makes you feel weird, not to mention your players will feel betrayed that one time they were not able to beat this fight and will become brainless lazy f♡cks in dealing with all situations.
          You want illusion of choice, not illusion of challenge.

        • Having certainty your players will pass something you made is only a problem if you’re trying to satisfy your own need for spontaneity as a DM. The players need never know that their victory was a sure thing. And even if they do no, they probably enjoy knowing their characters were good enough to get a pass on a particular challenge.

    • Put in a trap that requires a 25 to find. If the rogue makes it that far, well and good. If not, snap.

  5. Good article, good points. As always, you’re correct. However, your definition of incomplete information is off:

    Chess is a perfect and complete information game–opponent choices do not figure into information completeness, only the state of the game and tho goals of the players. The point you illustrate, however, stands.

    • Meh, close enough. Also, I disagree with the assessment of chess. And I didn’t even bother to distinguish between perfect and complete information. It was just a f$&%ing example.

  6. I’ll admit right here that as a GM, I tend to roll dice too often. Having been reading Angry for several months, however, I’m slowly breaking the habit.

    There was a time where I’d roll dice behind my screen just to make the players nervous. The result didn’t matter – the act of rolling, hearing the dice clatter, all that. But the real reason for doing this is because I’m stalling while I try to think of the next thing to present to the players.

    This is where all those stupid charts in the DMG come in to play. Treasure charts. Random encounter charts. Down-time carousing charts. You name it, there’s a chart for it. If not in any of the books, you can find some online. I’ve even made my own – I built my own Wild Magic chart (which is infinitely, imho, better than the rule-book version) and I’m in the process of building my own down-time activities chart (I started working on this a week before the UA article was released, but since its release, I’ve made some modifications.)

    But the real reason for these charts is not for the players’ benefit, it candy for me, the GM. It’s like stored energy in coal or manure. By itself, it generally does nothing, but when you set it aflame, pow! These charts replace the need for me to think up something on the fly because I have (or someone else has) already done the work. When the player wants to go out for a night on the town, I can wrack my brain to figure out what the outcome is, and most of the time I’ll do just fine. Conversely, I can, in advance, come up with twenty, thirty, or even a hundred ideas, write them in a list, and choose from that list when the time comes.

    Rolling dice doesn’t really have to be part of the process, but if I can craft in to it some aspect where a player choice influences it, I will. For example, the down-time chart I’m working on is a d100 chart with 6 columns (representing 6 different activities – from Having Fun to finding Odd Jobs and Making Money). The d100 roll is modified by 5 times a character’s skill (one of 3 or 4 appropriate to the list) then their level added. There are a couple cases where negatives apply – a non-rogue trying to be a thief, for example. A low roll results in something potentially bad. A high roll gives a positive reward. Most of the bad rolls are mitigated by giving the player the opportunity to make a choice, skill check, or save to avoid the worst of the consequences.

    But I digress. The real point of the chart is for me, the GM. It saves me from having to make up s**t on the fly. It’s not for the players. Since it’s my tool, I can even choose to override the result if I want.

    Understand, however, the GM can (and often should) mitigate any use of a published or prepared table by planning. If the story line says that “during the night, Astrix from the Assassins Guild will be paying a visit…” there’s no reason to roll dice. The charts are there to fill in the gaps where I’ve not prepared.

    • I’ve started using the random encounter charts to create an “adventuring day” during travel. Instead of 0 or 1 encounters per day there’s now 0-n days with nothing noteworthy and then a day of “oh shit how do we deal with all this” rinse and repeat. It makes the journey more memorable. So yes, the encounter charts are useful, but only as a launching pad to building something interesting.

    • I’ve actually been thinking about this recently.
      Passive Stealth would be for when you’re just generally being stealthy, but not specifically trying to sneak past anything in particular.

      For example, when sneaking through an enemy fortress, the players are just being passively stealthy, and anything that actively searches for them must roll Active Perception vs Passive Stealth.
      But when they encounter a guard patrol, they can actively stealth past them (roll for stealth vs passive perception), then once they are out of earshot they can continue being passively stealthy for the next corridor.

      This solves the infamous problem of players being able to temporarily stop being stealthy so they can reroll a bad stealth roll, then let the good roll ride for as long as possible.
      I believe that’s allowed by the rules, but it’s really poorly explained and inconsistent so I’m not exactly sure.

      • Eh, I disagree. To me Passive Stealth would be when a character hasn’t declared they’re being stealthy at all. They’re just walking about doing their normal thing. So if while walking down the street normally someone is actively listening (say the lookout at the edge of an alley while two thugs mug someone) I’d use Passive Stealth. A person trained in Stealth would probably walk with quieter footfalls, loose quiet clothing, and soft boots that would make them harder to hear than the heavy Fighter in loud clanky chainmail.

        Passive should only be used in situations where no character choice is present. And a person doesn’t really choose how conspicuous they are when they’re walking normally (in the moment). Unless they consciously are trying to be louder or quieter, in which case it becomes a choice and an active check.

        • Passive stealth is not a thing. Sneaking is something you do actively. You have to make an effort to “be quiet.” You move slower, you watch your footing, you choose to avoid lighted areas, etc.

          Seriously, why can’t people distinguish active from passive?!

          • I gave an edge case. You’re right that Stealth is almost always going to be passive.

            But to argue because this is the internet and I can: How is this different? You yourself said that something a character does automatically (seeing something, knowing something, etc) shouldn’t be rolled because it breaks the exposition. That they should be Passive Perception, or Passive Knowledge.

            So a character with a high stealth skill is walking down the street. They aren’t actively choosing to sneak, nor are they actively choosing to be loud. They’re just walking. Why couldn’t Passive Stealth be used in this weird incident?

            “Alex, you come across a mugging! And because of your light footfalls and soft soled boots the lookout doesn’t hear you coming. You turn the corner and come face to face with a tall lanky man, and two brutes holding a merchant at knifepoint.”


            “Alex, you come across a mugging! And because of your sturdy gait and heavy boots the lookout heard you coming. You turn the corner to see three men running away from a bloody body.”

            Why would the character have needed to actively roll Stealth? They never chose to be quiet, and yet one character could realistically (through training, gear, size, etc) be much quieter than another without a conscious choice.

          • Look, if you really feel the need to roll things this way, fine. Do it. Compare the Passive Perception of the mugger to the Passive Stealth of the character. But that’s not what stealth is. Stealth isn’t just being quiet. It’s a very intentional, deliberate thing. If a person is just walking down the street and not TRYING to go unnoticed, that ISN’T stealth. That’s just walking. I mean, if a special forces soldier in civilian dress is just walking down a street and not trying to conceal themselves, their stealth training HAS NO BEARING. Because they aren’t doing anything to use it. Why do people think stealh is just “being hard to notice.” It’s training in deliberate, careful movement with the intent to go unnoticed. I mean, you’ll notice that the rules for even being allowed to make a Stealth roll in D&D include rules about having some form of obscurement first or concealment first.

            Instead, what the GM should do is decide how likely a person walking down a street is to be noticed based on the situation and compare THAT to the Passive Perception of the mugger. Oh, and the mugger is probably being really alert and furtive. Most criminals actually pay a lot of attention to their surroundings while committing crimes because, you know, they don’t want to get caught by a cop or whatever. So, I’d apply a +5 bonus (the equivalent of Advantage) to the Passive Perception. But YOU could decide the criminal is so intent on his robbery that he has a -5 penalty (the equivalent of Disadvantage) on his Passive Perception. Those are ways to resolve it.

            But stop arguing just to argue. I hate that s$&%. It’s useless. You have the power to rule things any way you want. And one of the things that makes D&D actually great is that GMs can USE THEIR F$&%ING BRAINS TO ASSESS THIS SORT OF S$&% ON THE RARE OCCASION THAT IT DOES COME UP. Arguing corner cases and situations is stupid. Because there’s a rule for all corner cases and weird situations: the GM figures it out. So, whatever the GM says is the rule.

        • “To me Passive Stealth would be when a character hasn’t declared they’re being stealthy at all. They’re just walking about doing their normal thing.”

          This is a pretty weird situation, to be honest. Even if such a thing as “passive stealth” existed, it would be completely outweighed by situational factors. The logical endpoint of what you’re saying is a scene where two guys are standing in an empty street at midday, and one of them is somehow “more hidden” than the other by virtue of a higher proficiency bonus.

  7. I read the suggestion for identifying monsters using just training in the skill and thought “well that sounds cool.” Taking away dice rolls is certainly a good thing towards speeding up the game and just requiring training can work well in 5E. So as far as speeding up the game that sounds pretty nice. I’m not so much a believer in using passive DCs though, mostly because it creates a pass/fail thing, or situations where someone could have the correct skill but a bonus that isn’t large enough and in effect their training becomes useless. At least with a roll you’ll probably get a chance to know something, even if it’s a smaller one than someone with a good ability score in the skill. So that always felt more fair to me. Otherwise the standard for anything that goes mostly by passive is that you never train it unless your main stat is high. That may just be a personal nitpick of mine there, so I’m sure the issue may not be a problem with some people.

    Traps (and searching in general) are another story though. I *hate* passive trap detection. In my mind, the most important and interesting decision in traps (or even secret doors) is actually deciding to search for them. After that it’s basically just dice rolling to see if you can disarm the trap. There’s no mini-game like combat where you can decide how to correctly or indirectly deal with a trap once its detected. The most important choice you make as a player is actively deciding to search, and a passively-detected trap takes that choice away. Once detected, a trap becomes a speed bump that you then mindlessly go and try to disarm and a secret door becomes just another door. When the DM automatically has to tell you, “there’s a trap here”, you lose that feeling of having made a correct decision and being rewarded for it. While I can be fine in some cases with removing randomness, I hate removing decisions. Personally I’d be okay with saying anytime a PC actively searches that he can always find the trap/secret door/whatever without a roll, and that the character’s skill in searching just determines how long the active search takes. So an inexperienced guy may take 10 minutes to check a room, while a trained searcher may only take 1 minute. In any case, there should always be a cost of some kind. Choosing to search should never be something you should always do.

    • I’m almost starting to feel like basic traps have to be encountered otherwise what’s the point. Now I’m not saying that the trap has to immediately dish out damage. Angry’s “click” rule always applies offering the PCs a chance to escape or mitigate the damage (or even allowing others to disarm the trap before it fires). But trivial traps that are detected and just gone around seem like pointless speed bumps? Now detecting a trap that can’t be easily gone around so the players have to strategize etc that’s fine. But just stepping over a detected trip wire? What’s the fun in that?

      • It’s actually a lot of fun when they perceive the trap and watch what they do to get around it. Sometimes they are nothing more than inconvenient speed bumps. Other times, they become potential hazards in a combat scenario. They know the pit is there with the spikes at the bottom. So do the orcs. While the artillery (aka sorcerer) is standing in the back lofting her ranged spells, a couple orcs break ranks and bull-rush her. She avoids one and it goes tumbling into the pit. However, the other succeeds and off she goes!

        • Sometimes I put an easy trap in a dungeon just to put the players on guard. It’s a bit of a d**k move sometimes, but I want to set a mood or train the players to be a bit cautious because of something I plan to spring on them later.

          For example, at the bottom of the stairs entering into a dungeon they found a trip wire. This happened to be a “reverse trap” where if they stepped over the wire, they’d step onto a panel that would flip over dropping them into the pit below. When they cut the wire, the panel locked into place, rendering it safe.

          On their first entry into the dungeon, they cut the wire. No problem. They even observed the outline of the panel, so they carefully avoided it. After a couple combats, they decided to leave the dungeon to rest. When they returned the next day, the found the trap reset and the wire replaced. While the trap itself wasn’t a threat, what was an issue is that someone in the dungeon reset the trap, which represented the real threat they needed to be aware of.

      • My general approach to traps has been to have a passive DC that the party ‘scout’ is likely to hit to give them the feeling something is up. They see the thin wire or feel a breeze or even sense heavy magic in the air. This allows them to understand that something is going on and go through that room carefully, instead of them actively rolling for every five-foot square in the dungeon like was common back in the early dungeon-delving days or assuming that everything that they interact with is trapped.

        I find that my players enjoy this FAR more, and it ends a lot of slog that existed prior to me implementing the approach.

  8. So does it make sense to collect up the players various passive skills when creating the content for your campaign? And then deliberately create some information to dole out in particular situations given their skills? (and use your advice of calling out why they know this — your player spec choices)

    • You should create adventures the same way you create combat, use the platonic party (DC 10 for most passives). So you have some evil monster killing things in the woods. Well is it a stealthy monster? In that case it probably requires an aragon clone to notice its tracks (DC 14-15 passive perception)

  9. A dumb platitude that gets passed around (and could have been a good transition for the intro there) is “let the players roll all the dice!”

    Like it makes some sort of magical difference in the quality of your game. I’m sure the players leave saying “man we all died, but at least I got to hold a die.”

    • Holy f$&%, I hate this one. You know what? I own a lot of dice. You know why? I’m a gamer. You know what that means? I LIKE ROLLING DICE TOO. F$&% Monte Cook. F$&% Apocalypse World.

      • Hahaha!
        I now have this mental image of Angry jealously guarding a bowl of dice as his players try to roll them. 🙂

  10. For knowledge, I tend to think of the randomness of a roll to be more about whether you know about this particular monster or not. That is, deep knowledge rather than broad. Decent passive score means you have a good general idea about the area, high roll for something in particular means you’ve taken an interest in specifically that.

    I guess what I struggle with, eg with traps, is that if I just use passive checks, I essentially decide when designing the dungeon which traps they will find and which they will not. This screwjob feeling could probably be avoided if I was better at distancing myself from the characters’ stats (which I generally know before making the final touches on things) and just going with what makes sense for the dungeon, I suppose…

    • In general terms, traps suck. As do cursed items. Or trapped items. This isn’t to say I don’t use them, but the key is to use them effectively. Don’t take away agency, but provide it.

      Several months ago, the characters looted a supply room in a dungeon. In the loot they picked up a 50′ section of silk rope. They noted which character was carrying it and subsequently forgot about it. I knew this rope was defective in a special way.

      Each time they used rope, I asked, “Whose rope are you using?” Never did they specify the particular character carrying this particular rope… Until last Saturday.

      They’re on a mountainside and an air elemental is coming toward them. They used the rope and tie each other up around the waist to limit the risk of falling. One character noticed something odd about the rope. It seemed stiffer than normal. They worried about dry rot, but I pointed out that it looked fine. They didn’t pursue the matter.

      The air elemental engulfed one the characters and, using its special ability, threw the player away from the mountainside. Lots of bludgeon damage, and when the rope was stressed, the chemical agents woven through its core (non-magical, I might add) ignited and the entire rope disintegrated, doing a meager 2d6 damage to everyone, except the guy who got thrown out of it. (He took damage from the air elemental then from the wind wall the druid had set up – initially to keep the elemental out, but this time it served to keep the rogue IN.)

      The point is – the clues were there, but no one followed up. Upon noticing the rope’s seeming defect, they didn’t opt to switch to someone else’s rope. Obviously, they didn’t have time to investigate further with the elemental coming down the mountainside.

      Noticing the rope’s state was a passive check, not an active one. One character (who had the highest passive perception) made the observation and it was reported publicly. As a group, they had enough time and opportunity to react and do something different. They chose not to and suffered the consequences.

    • You should leave hints and clues that the trap may exist. Ones that don’t explicitly call out — there’s a trap here! Like, ruts across the floor, or a clean surface. Something that allows them to deduce what’s there (then they feel smart). Also, it reduces the ‘gotcha’ moment if there was some indirect warning sign.

      • This is definitely something the WotC adventure writers do a bad job of IMHO. They describe the trap and set a DC. But they don’t generally offer a clue to give the players

    • “I guess what I struggle with, eg with traps, is that if I just use passive checks, I essentially decide when designing the dungeon which traps they will find and which they will not”
      This is key to me. I want to create adventures which allow the players choices to matter–including at character creation. If I already know what their skills are as I assign the target numbers, it feels like I am taking the choice out of their hands and simply deciding whether they will succeed or fail.

      A couple of suggestions. Either simply use the Easy, Medium, Hard target values and try not to keep in your mind that what this means about your party’s chances, or roll for the target numbers when you create the dungeon (within a reasonable range, say d8 +10 if the typical skill value is disarm traps is 15). Yes, this re-introduces randomness, but it will keep the flow of the game and take the decision out of your hands while still rewarding the guy who focused on his disarm traps skill.

      • So the problem I always have about these discussions and complaints about traps is that they are always from the perspectives that they have to be fun for the players.

        Obviously it’s a game, but designing an element of the game world to interact in an interesting way with specific skills (or lack of) for the characters seems like a losing proposition for me and misses the point.

        To me, whether a trap (or lock, for example) is present or not, and the difficulty of detecting and disarming the trap is entirely dependent on who set the trap, the purpose of the trap, and their resources.

        For example, in part of a large dungeon my players were exploring, there are regions that are controlled by goblins and troglodytes. In some cases, large traps have been set, in plain view, to prevent the others from entering their section of the dungeon. The traps are deadly, difficult to disarm, and obvious. They are simply a deterrent to force the enemy to take a different route.

        For a highly skilled 10th-level rogue, though, it’s much easier to disarm. Because it wasn’t set to keep 10th-level rogues out. It was set to keep troglodytes out.

        Locks and traps protecting the hidden hideout of a thieves’ guild is quite different than the locks and alarms (not likely traps) protecting a noble’s villa. The thieves’ guild is aiming to keep everybody out, especially rivals, and their intent is to kill, not deter.

        However, the tomb that also serves as the lair for a centuries-old lich is expecting to protect his treasure (and its solitude) from meddling adventurers and high-level wizards. Its traps will be difficult to detect, difficult to disarm, and deadly.

    • Did anyone miss the part where I said that the Passive Perception check doesn’t HAVE TO reveal the entire goddamned trap. In point of fact, I specifically said the point was to “give clues that further investigation is warranted.” But, beyond that, just set the DCs as appropriate. Traps are honestly better if the PCs FIND THEM. And if you know the PCs will PROBABLY FIND THEM, you will design traps that are still a problem, even when the PCs find them. For example, a pit trap that covers an entire corridor is STILL a problem, even after you know it’s there. A hallway filled with tripwires – that will go off if cut – is STILL a problem. Concealment is only the trap’s FIRST line of defense.

      Or just don’t use booby traps anyway. Without good design, they suck.

      • I guess that’s what I was trying to say poorly above. A bad/boring trap design is a speed bump.

      • I wasn’t exactly certain on what you mean by that. I mean, I always assumed that there was supposed to be some kind of clue that a trap existed always, since it’s kind of a dick move to just spring a totally unexpected trap on the PCs (at least in my opinion). So what exactly is the passive perception revealing, or maybe more importantly what do you see if you fail to have the correct passive perception?

        • I’m guessing this is already pretty well covered in this tremendous (deservedly so!) thread, but I’m pretty sure this is all about the “gating” Angry mentioned.

          Reminds me of when my brother and I made our old MUD. (Er…if you’re too young to know: picture a text-only MMORPG; if you’re too old to know, picture a multiplayer online Zork,)

          We implemented conditional descriptions into rooms (and, later, mobs – items were only partly ready with this, we were aiming to expand later). So, for example, one room on the “fantasy world” home planet was the pre-entry to the spaceport on that planet. If you had high enough Intelligence/Perception, you noticed there was something weird about the dragon in the cave; if it was even higher, you noticed that the dragon was artificial and barely reacting to you; even higher than that, you noticed the hatchway below it.

          Of course, if your home planet was one of the other, more technologically-inclined worlds, that was worked into the conditionals, too: you knew damn well it was an animatronic dragon with a hatchway below it. (On the docket but never implemented: the dragon would be an actual – TOUGH – mob if you didn’t realize it was fake.)

          So various stats and other characteristics of your character determined how you saw the world (perception, understanding, tech-savvy, magic-savvy, professional credentials, training/skills…), and the descriptions were modified on the fly to accommodate that. Two different players – say, high-tech gadgeteer and low-tech warrior – could walk into the same room and see completely different descriptions…just as they might if they were teamed up in “real life.” Then the high-tech gadgeteer would see the low-tech warrior taking swings at the dragon, laugh, and explain the situation to him, opening the hatch and leading him down into the spaceport.

          Might be tougher at the table, where you *could* give multiple descriptions but then you’re either passing notes or giving players OOC info, which depends on your own tastes and players’ abilities to play it cool with either. But with the “best character wins for the party” approach, you just need one character to be savvy enough to get the highest-gated info.

          So (arbitrary demonstrative numbers here): Passive Perception + Traps 10, you might only notice a bump in the rug; Passive Perception + Traps 15, you notice it running along under the rug in a specific outline; Passive Perception + Traps 20, you realize there’s a pressure plate beneath the rug. But once you notice *anything*, you’re obviously going to *actively* examine it and (presumably) discover more information (or, perhaps, fail miserably to discern what it is you’ve found…or set it off while examining it!). On the other hand, if your Passive Perception + Traps doesn’t even hit that 10-gate, you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary…but you could still actively search if you think to do so, and thereby make a roll for it.

          I think a lot of this is me repeating what others (and Angry) have said, but I didn’t see a reply here to your comment, Dwarfslayer, so I thought I’d chime in.

          Personally (and speaking systemlessly to make it easier), I’d offer players the option of specifically saying that they’re “on the lookout” for traps – they’d get a bonus to Passive Perception there, but they’d also get a penalty to react to other stuff (like a surprise attack, which they weren’t on guard for) to account for their focus being on traps, at least until the other stuff broke their focus on put them back to “normal” (not on the lookout) status. any time they partook in any activity other than moving and keeping an eye out, that status would be quietly taken away unless they *specifically* re-invoked it. It would be up to them to keep that in mind – want the rogue to focus on traps? Remind her after you stop to fight the goblins, or (assuming she/the player is good enough) she’ll remind the DM that she’s resuming her “on the lookout” approach.

          Just some gaming thoughts I’ve been working on myself, along similar lines.

  11. I’ve just started DMing after a 30 year hiatus and have read, or listened to, many sources of advice. I think your articles tend to be the most thought-provoking and cogent. The thought provoked by this article was: ‘Holy s#&@ – I’d completely forgotten to use any passive checks in the twelve sessions that I’ve run so far!’
    Thinking about it, I don’t believe remembering to do them would have added anything to the story. What I will do is keep a record of the players’ passive perception scores and then pass individual players notes. It’s then up to the individual to decide what to do with the information.

    • I think passing notes slows things down too much. You’ll have to write it down and the player will read it while everyone waits. Then either they’ll stay silent while the others ask what was on it and start a debate, or maybe they’ll just read it out loud anyway. Either way you’ve added an extra minute or two onto something which should have taken a few seconds.

      Unless it’s a huge, revelatory piece of information, it might be better to just say it out loud and let the players decide how their characters are going to behave. It’s not a big deal for players to have information that their characters might not.


        • I agree but it can be necessary at times. In my current campaign I asked every player to decide on a ‘Dark Secret’ for their character. It had to be something that, if discovered, might warrant the character being thrown in jail or shunned in public. The kicker was that if they shared the details of this Dark Secret with the other players, either in or out of character, there would be tragic consequences.

          In that context it’s vital to have little notes and messages you can hand to the players. Obviously over the course of the adventure I create opportunities where the secrets might be revealed, but it wouldn’t be fair if I revealed that information on my own.

          Of course my case is somewhat different from what you dislike since my notes are meant to be kept private and not announced publicly, whereas most become public information immediately. I agree that if a character finds a note and reads it, you should probably just say what it says to the whole group.

          • I’m just gonna leave these here:



            I’ll also add that from experience as both a player and GM, having a player/GM pass notes back and forth just pisses off everyone else at the table, and people just become paranoid and start blaming each other for everything that goes wrong.

            If it works for your group, more power to you, but it just seems like it would create massive trust issues in a game that works best when the four people playing trust each other.

            I say this having been down that road as both a player and GM, and the results were not pretty in either case. I won’t be a player in a game for the GM who did this and kept doing it after the rest of the group voiced their frustrations*. As for the time I tried it: the campaign was a constant slog of bickering at best, and players downright sabotaging each other at worst. The party stayed together due to the motivations to do so being strong enough, but all around it was not enjoyable and one of the biggest mistakes I made as a GM.

            I may have just been unlucky/not skilled enough to pull it off, but that’s my experience with secret keeping. If you can pull it off and your players enjoy that playstyle, more power to you.

            *There are other reasons; the GM refusing to learn from their mistakes, not listening to 3 out of 4 players saying, “This isn’t fun for us, you need to change something” over the course of three campaigns that fell apart for the similar reasons, and a tendency towards trolling the players for the sake of trolling were also factors. But really, the final straw was this feeling that the GM was catering to the player who was passing notes back and forth, at the detriment to everyone else involved. (The PC in question was a kender. It was to everyone’s detriment, before you accuse me of being paranoid.)

          • I had a campaign where different players knew different secrets. Some liked it. One hated it so much he left the game and kinda still has a grudge against me.

        • I take care of that kind of stuff during breaks in the game. Everyone is smoking? “Hey, Bertrand the Rogue, come here so we can chat during the break.”

          That was never about stuff that the player/character was likely to share, such as information on the room they just entered. That would just be annoying.

        • Is it? Surely you could write one or two prior to the adventure – nothing too wordy, for example, ‘You notice scuff marks around a flag stone’ or ‘You think you hear scratching.’ Some could just be random things a person might perceive during the course of the day and have nothing to do with anything, you know, just to mess with them a bit.

        • This was my first HUGE mistake early on into GMing. Every player had some super secret special snowflake backstory (he’s a werewolf, he’s possessed, she murders the innocent as a pastime, etc.). I thought it was so great having these index cards. Nope nope nope, a thousand times nope. We stopped doing that REAL quick.

  12. I’ve always had the opposite problem – what was described as the exceptions to the rule in the closing part.
    Almost every player I’ve had seems to want to roll dice for everything. The complaint I most often get is “you didn’t have me make a single check in that encounter” and that’s because everything they attempted had either no chance of success or no chance of failure.
    Although I still don’t know that D&D works in terms of a game of skill with “some” elements of randomness. The d20 adds a massive amount of chance. Take a strength contest, for example. Someone with 20 STR should win against someone with 8 STR almost 100% of the time. But a +5 bonus vs a -1 penalty still allows for so so many rolls where that 8 STR character wins. And the players always seem to love that garbage. They love those stories where the half orc barbarian fails to break down a door but the gnome bard smashes through it easily. In fact, I’ve had to make my game MORE random to appease the mindless, smelly clowns that cycle through my game…

    • Players… If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have a game, would we? Still, it’s like herding cats sometimes.

      The fix for players rolling the dice all the time is to simply ignore them. “Can I roll xyz to see if I can figure that out or discover that secret or find that hidden thing?” No. I’ve already told you what you know and all that is relevant. My favorite thing is telling one player some information their character knows (skills, backstory, whatever,) then immediately another player, whose character wouldn’t know anything about it, says, “Can I roll to see if I know anything about that?” No.

      I remember years ago players trying a this trick: They’d sit quietly rolling dice, then suddenly announce, “I was just rolling for divine intervention, and I got double zero!” Uhm… No. You didn’t tell my you were doing that before rolling.

      In another game, a player allowed his character to die. He didn’t like the character, because it wasn’t good enough. So for the next hour, while the rest of us were gaming, he rolled and wrote down seemingly hundreds of sets of six (4d6/best 3) rolls. Finally he got a set he was satisfied with (no rolls less than 12) and proceeded to build the character. No.

      You have to make it clear that the only time they should roll dice is when YOU tell them to. This is always proceeded with “What are you doing,” or “Declare your action,” or whatever. You might discuss with them which skill or bonus they can apply. “I’m want to jump up, grab the chandelier and swing across the room, land, and attack the ogre.” Okay, that sounds like either Acrobatics or Athletics. Roll your d20 and apply your bonus. Done and Done.

      • Yeah, that’s already how I run things. Intention, approach, outcome, resolution etc. I know all of this site’s advice and content very well. 99% of what I know about DMing I learned here. Because I started with the advice on this site, I haven’t had any bad habits to unlearn – just good habits to learn first time around.

        As you said though, there’s no game without the players. Adding a little more randomness (or, more the point, the ILLUSION of adding more randomness) gives them what they want.

        • That was supposed to say intention, approach, outcome, consequences as per action resolution but I obviously missed a few words

        • Maybe you’re too generous about what has “no chance to fail” or too stingy about what has “no chance to succeed.” Or maybe you need to find ways to create costs and risks for actions so that it’s worth rolling dice. I gotta say, I run this way and it is rare as hell for me to run an encounter without any dice rolls.

          • My mistake, “encounters” was definitely the wrong word to use there. I should have clarified that I was talking largely about non-combat situations (mostly exploration and social interactions).

            The biggest problem I’ve ever had was with a low-charisma person that was playing as a high-charisma character. He would say things to certain NPCs that would unequivocally result in a failure, and then get mad that I didn’t let him “roll a charisma check”. Examples include:
            -Trying to bribe someone who, by their very nature, is obsessively law abiding
            -Trying to talk reasonably with a sea hag (in battle) after it had been established that she had completely lost her mind
            -Trying to seduce a female NPC whose defining trait was her unwavering (and in this specific case, magically charm-enforced) love for her partner.
            I tried to use your words to explain that Charisma is like Strength – it is the raw ability to exert your force of personality (or strength), and if you don’t use it right, it’s still not going to work. For example, even if your strength is through the roof, if you want to get past a mountain that’s in your way you need to use your strength to climb it, not punch a hole through it.

            Anyway, there’s a reason that guy is one of my “former” players.

            On a related note, I’d adopted your rule that “I will not allow players to ignorantly waste resources on actions that cannot possibly succeed”. To me, this makes perfect sense. I would enjoy this rule if I were a player. But every player I’ve had seems to hate being told “no”, even if I phrase it as “your character would understand that this is impossible, but you can still attempt it if you want”. Seriously. It hurts my brain. They directly told me that they would still rather be “allowed” to roll for certain actions, EVEN IF A 20 WOULD BE A FAILURE. Want to shoot an arrow at the moon? According to many of my past players, the “correct” answer for the DM to give is “sure, roll to hit”.

            The only conclusion I can come to is that players are – by their very nature – ugly, stupid criminals that should probably be arrested.

          • The reason players like that exist is because there are a depressingly large number of GMs (at least online) who would not only let them attempt that, but succeed w/ a nat 20.

    • The part about the strength contest, that is the thing about all that make me sad most about D&D 3rd edition and beyond. In AD&D you rolls under statistics, and that rapresent a lot better the fiction. I really would ear the opinion of angry about this, maybe i’m wrong or maybe he have a better solution for handling this types of contest

      • The “roll under” system was discarded because it is mentally and mathematically a mess. The problem is, it’s counter-intuitive as f$&%.

        I’ll break it down:

        So, you roll dice and your target is your stat. Which is fine and dandy, but it doesn’t address the difficulty of the situation. And the difficulty of the situation SHOULD be reflected. So, you have to apply a modifier. Fine. But the sign on the modifier gets confusing and where you apply it is weird. Do you add to the dice or the stat and do you add or subtract? And what about other modifiers?

        Now, subtractive (roll under) math is inherently trickier. It’s slower for the average person to think through subtraction than addition. And roll under involves a lot more subtractive math than additive math. That’s the same reason so many people got tripped up by THAC0. The designers had noticed that.

        Now, there’s also a weirdness to the logic. And it’s that weirdness that makes me call bulls$&% on the “reflects the fiction better.”

        Here’s the logic of the fiction: you apply a physical or mental ability to overcome a specific task with the help of tools or training.

        In the d20 system, that logic is perfectly reflected int he formula: ABILITY MODIFIER plus TOOLS AND TRAINING must exceed TASK DIFFICULTY (obviously with random element).

        That creates a clear line between ABILITY , TOOLS and TRAINING , and TASK. Each of those things in represented clearly and concisely. And, most importantly, the numbers are intuitive. The higher the ability, the more it helps. The higher the tools and training, the more it helps. The higher the number on the die, the more likely you are to succeed. The higher the number of the difficulty, the more difficult it is. That logic makes sense. And that logic makes it easier for a GM to adjudicate. The GM sets a difficulty on a scale of higher = harder. The GM applies modifiers that work out to higher = better.

        The roll-under system is a logical mess. TOOLS and TRAINING plus TASK DIFFICULTY must be less than or equal to ABILITY.

        Tools and training, which make the task EASIER, should not be on the same side of the equation as task difficulty, which makes the task HARDER. In fact, tools and training should be on the same side as ability because those things WORK TOGETHER against the DIFFICULTY of the task.

        And THAT is why it was dumped. You might like it better, but it was far from intuitive compared to the d20 system. Playtesting showed that. A lot of playtesting. And it does NOT reflect the fiction of the game better. Because the fiction is apply ABILITY AGAINST TASK not WORK AGAINST YOUR ABILITY, BUT BACKWARDS.

        • sorry i explained myself bad, what i meant about “relfect the fiction better” is not the concept itself of rolling under, but the numerical value. It’s not a “quality” problem but a “quantity” one.

          strength 18 vs strength 8 in Ad&d is reflected better by the fiction because in Ad&d every single point of a statistcs counts (for task, not bonus)

          having 18 in a stats is a + 8 bonus in the task, having 8 means having – 2.

          So in the fictional contest the one with strength 8 should win but is less frequent.

          About rolling under in general, yea I agree,it’s a real mess

          • This contest of strength… Why roll at all when there’s that much difference? Don’t roll for arm wrestling unless the contestants are somewhat evenly matched, like within a couple points of each other.

          • Well, if you want to get into the probability/bell curve thing, you’ll actually find that every point is not equally valuable. The difference between a 15, a 16, a 17, and an 18 is much smaller. As is the difference between a 3, a 4, a 5, and a 6. In fact, those differences are actually much smaller than under the d20 system where ALL increases or decreases in a ability score are worth precisely 1/2 a point.

          • One thing that bugs me about post-2e is that Ability Modifiers scale at half speed.
            Firstly, as you said having a high stat doesn’t help as much as it probably should.
            The d20 plays such a massive role in success that stats hardly matter.
            Secondly, odd-numbered Ability Scores.
            I absolutely hate odd-numbered Ability Scores, and I’m on the brink of scrapping them.

            By the way, when I played 2e (what little I played of it), I immediately house ruled that the checks make more sense.
            1d20 + Ability > DC
            (DC 20 for average tasks)
            Exactly the same probabilities, just rearranging the equation to make more sense.
            I did the same thing with Thac0.
            Replace Thac0 with [20 – Thac0],
            Replace AC with [20 – AC],
            1d20 + Thac0 > AC

            It was so easy to fix that it was kind of mind-blowing that it was ever like that to begin with, but I guess such is hindsight.

          • This is just a glaring weakness with AD&D’s D20 system.

            The D20 is a huge ol’ die, and modifiers are small. So yeah, surprisingly often, a big strong barbarian would not be able to hold the door when a kid tries to push it open from the other side. The GM must instead of overrule the system using logic to put sense back into things. And if the system must frequently be overruled, it’s not well designed.

          • @PsiJohnics – that’s a really reductive understanding of d20.

            Take the situation you just described. First of all, you’re under no obligation to call for a skill check if your judgment as DM is that there is no way the child could reasonably succeed. The whole purpose of a skill check is to model situations with non-zero success/failure probabilities.

            Second, on a pure math level, a 1st-level barbarian is going to have, say, a +4 Strength modifier. An actual child – 12 years old or so – would almost certainly have a negative Strength modifier. -2, maybe. So in a straight strength contest, there’s already a 35% chance the kid can’t even beat the barbarian’s worst possible effort (since the barbarian’s minimum check will be 7), and another 30% chance that the barbarian will roll a number too high for the kid to have a hope of reaching (19-24). Leaving a 35% chance of a contest where the child even has a hope of succeeding. That actually seems like a pretty decent mismatch to me.

            And that’s just assuming a straight-up Strength contest. If the kid is Small, you could – as DM – very reasonably rule that manipulating the door should impose disadvantage (like handling a Heavy weapon does for Small creatures) or even count as a grapple contest (which the kid automatically loses). That’s only a failure of the d20 system if you assume d20 is only die rolls and modifiers and ignore the large body of rules and suggested rules surrounding them.

    • Randomness to many players is the most basic way for them to get off the railroad. Indirectly, it also forces GMs to think in less railroady terms. For instance, if you take away the roll to pick a lock (assuming they can’t just retry over and over), then the GM simply decides if the PCs get through the door or not. And if the PCs can’t open the door, there’s really no need for the DM to even bother designing anything past that door. Beyond the door doesn’t exist because it’s effectively an impassable gate. And the “door” in this case could be a number of things, from a palace guard who won’t let you in, or an unclimbable mountain.

      But if you take away that roll, now there’s a choice. Maybe the PCs get through the door and maybe they don’t, and since it’s a dice roll, the PCs and the GM don’t know the outcome. By having that possibility, it forces a possible branch structure in the adventure, which to some DMs can be beneficial because there are a great many DMs who want their adventures to play purely like novels and not like cooperative story experiences. While good DMs will allow and build for branching by default, there’s many DMs who have to be forced into doing it.

      Of course this tendency also creates a lot of bad habits in players and DMs alike, where they tend to want to roll for everything, mostly because they have so many fond memories attached to rolling dice. Players might remember a good adventure plotline, but they’ll always remember some incident where the dice rolled a crazy result and the story went off in a totally unexpected direction.

      • You’re saying that the solution to bad GMing is more bad GMing. No! A bad GM can’t be saved except by working to improve themself. If picking the lock is too difficult for any character, they can still try breaking down the door, finding the key, or finding a way around. Your proposal doesn’t remove the railroad block, it just puts it in place sometimes. If the GM doesn’t want to design beyond a door, they won’t put a door there! But players who really want past a door will try different ways until they succeed or are assured of impossibility.

        • A GOOD DM won’t place a door if they don’t intend to accept the possibility of someone opening it. A bad DM might, because that’s what bad DMs do… make mistakes. Having dice rolls are a great way to teach newbie DMs that lesson quickly, because the presence of the dice ingrains in them the idea that the game isn’t fully under their control, sometimes they must accept that chance will screw up their plot. And lets face it, inexperienced DMs will be excessive one way or the other. Either they’ll be excessively chaotic and work towards order, or they’ll be excessively ordered and work towards chaos. No rules set can make you perfect out of the gate, but stressing chaos over order can actually be valuable for new DMs because those sort of games tend to be more fun for the PCs than the strict railroaded games. Plus you learn more from chaos, it encourages you to improvise. As it is, I know far too many DMs who only run modules and are terrified to go off-script.

    • You don’t have to let the d20 constrain you. If you feel there’s a smaller random factor, use a smaller die. Maybe arm wrestling is 1d6 plus Strength modifier. The math with the d20 is carefully designed to produce a specific combat experience, but changing it for one-off ability checks certainly won’t break anything – there is a cost is in added complexity, though.

      • I have considered this idea myself.
        Haven’t tried implementing it yet, just thinking about how it could work.

        It’s kind of a half-way measure between the randomness of the d20 and the predictability of the Passive 10, for tasks that only have a small degree of randomness.

        Unfortunately it doesn’t scale so easily with non-opposed checks.
        You’d have to recalibrate the DC scale for each die size, which damages the elegance of 5e’s universal DC scale.

        • An easy way to fix this is to make it a best of 5 contest (if opposed checks), or a series of 3 tasks with lower difficulties (if a non-opposed check). That way the scores will regress to the mean, and if the weaker player does somehow overcome, it feels that much more epic.

          You just have to describe it in a way that makes sense and doesn’t slow the game down.

          • Interesting.
            Like some kind of “Mid-vantage”, where you roll 3d20 (or even 5d20) and take the middle one.

            It sounds weird, and it might feel weird at first, but it would tend the rolls closer to the mean whilst still using d20s.

  13. My favorite solution to this problem is something I stole from someone else years before 4E. At the beginning of the game session each player would roll 10 perception checks and I would record the checks. Then, whenever a passive or active check was needed I would take the top roll, use it and cross it off. In the highly unlikely event of someone needing more than 10 checks in one session I’d just go back to the top. I still vastly prefer this method to Passive Perception’s static number.

      • Considering my addiction to randomness is what got me obsessed with D&D in the first place, I’m surprised at how mildly I seem to have it by comparison.
        I still overvalue it, but I’m now making conscious efforts to curb its use.

  14. Recently i played Descent, a well known fantasy board game about tactial combat and challenge. The game assume players have perfect information about the scenario, map, objectives and the monsters stats. The only thing players don’t know is the type of cards the gm have at disposal; this combination of elements create the perfect balance between surprise, improvisation and control of the situation.

    The game was really fun, it was a nice mix of nostalgia and modern game design; i return at when as a kid I played Hero Quest and D&D tower of doom (the coin-op from Capcom).

    This game experience inspired me a lot, i start thinking about implication of some rules in a tabletop RPG in general. The general thought was that, as Angry says, we can learn about game design from videogames, we can also learn a lot from board games.

    And then this article come out, and i really can’t get what problems bad gms have. Rolling for the sake of rolling is NOT fun. Perception rolls to open a chest is NOT fun. Rolling to not be surprisly screwed is NOT fun!! In modern board games or videogames there isn’t such a shit as roll to do something basilar to the fundation of the game like interacting with the scenario or uncover information or motivation of the character. STOP DOING THIS SHIT

    And if you think that you just need to roll because life is random and so should be RPG then roll a fucking D”milion” because that is like percentage in real life works

    And if u think that you just need to roll because it creates “interesting story elements”, then, i inform you, there is no such a television shows or movies with screw jobs over the top. And don’t say “Games of Throne” ffs…don’t do it…

    Sorry angry for being so angry myself, but really i can’t stand stubborn people. Thanks for this article again, as always, pls dont get bogged down but some random assholes of the glorious internet, see ya

  15. Yo Angry, what are your thoughts on the take 10 and take 20 mechanics from earlier editions that got dropped heading into 5e? The ability for the player to make an active choice on how much randomness they’re willing to tolerate is an interesting one, and in my experience it’s a choice lots of DM’s don’t like letting their players make.

    • Yes, GMs hated it because GMs overvalue randomness and feel that any challenge that isn’t rolled for is trivial. Take 10 and Take 20 were early attempts to deal with the same issues. But, honestly, the choice should NEVER have been put into the player’s hands. They are both based on identifying low stakes, low risk scenarios. But, in the cold light of modern day, it’s time we admit that those situations shouldn’t involve ANY dice. They were a hedge. Because the designers were afraid to tell GMs not to roll dice. More importantly, though, skill rolls should be used BY THE GM to resolve actions. The GM decides what gets rolled and how. Players shouldn’t be asked to or allowed to.

  16. Great article Angry, as always, and a much needed one…

    I blame video games for this problem.
    Wow, that sounded old and bitter for a second…
    I mean, I don’t blame-blame them, but many of my players play D&D like they’re playing a video game, and that’s a dangerous way of thinking in this case.

    Players often mistake “rolling a dice” with “taking an action”.
    I don’t mean that in the mechanical sense, but more story-based; They really only feel like they’re actively doing something when they’re also rolling a dice. Otherwise it’s just messing around and getting to the point where they can start “doing something”/rolling their dice.

    They think that, as long as they, the players, are not engaging in a material activity (pressing a button, rolling a dice) it doesn’t count as their characters taking action.

    And, in a video game, that’s true. In a video game, pressing that button is the only way of establishing a link between the player and character.

    In D&D however, simply saying what your character does is enough to constitute a link between player and character. But somehow, people forget that…
    In D&D, they think, rolling a dice is the equivalent of pressing a button on a controller and anything else doesn’t constitute an action or “doesn’t count”.

    In D&D, narrating what your character does is enough, but that seems to be way too subtle for some people.
    It’s those same players that also NEED a grid and minis and count their movement in squares…
    Somehow that material component (pressing a button, rolling a dice, having a mini) remains really important for some players to engage with their character.

    • And yes, the randomness of the dice probably also plays a big part there…

      A while ago me and one of my players were talking about different ways of adjucating actions.
      At one point he said to me: “You make very little use of the dice. You resolve situations based on what we, the characters, can and do and whether or not that would make sense/work in the world.”

      He said it like it was a bad thing…

      The first character I ever made playing D&D was a Warlock with 14 Int. Yes, he also had a high Char and Dex and Con, because those were mechanically relevant skills, but what I really wanted, was this caster who just knew a lot of stuff and I thought Wizards were boring.
      I took proficiency in Arcana, wrote a backstory based on my character’s Sage background, the whole shebang.

      During our first session, we encountered a magical symbol on top of a door, and naturally, the whole party, as first time players, rolled their Arcana checks.

      I rolled a 3, the barbarian rolled a 17.
      The DM looked at us, pointed to me and said “you don’t know anything about this sigil”, she then turned to the Barbarian and said: “You know this sigil had warding magic and will hurt any non-spellcasters going through this door”

      The other players thought it was funny, I mean, these were the classic D&D hijincks we’d heard so much about. Casters not knowing magical sigils, but barbarians knowing it… oh, the fun we had…
      That was 3 years ago and, to this day, I still feel pissed about how that went down.

      And so, when I DM, I keep a list of my players Passive scores (Perception, Insight and Investigation) and of any special proficiencies: some of the Int-based ones, but also anything that defines a character: things like Animal Handling or proficiency with Vehicles.

      And then, when my players encounter a magic sigil, I turn to the character who’s proficient in Arcana and say: “You know this is a magical warding sigil of some sort”

      To this day, whenever I start a situation like that, my players still look at me, confused with their “wait, shouldn’t he roll for that?”-expression on their faces…

      Except for the caster, the guy who was proficient in Arcana, he looks happy.
      And yes, after that, he still rolls his Arcana check to see what exactly that symbol does, but somehow, if he rolls a 3, he feels surprisingly ok with it. That’s enough evidence for me to know that you don’t always need a dice to resolve a situation.

    • Blame video games all you want. But the real culprit is how the rules are presented. The rules tell the players “to do a thing, you roll these dice and add this skill modifier.” And so, most GMs teach the game that way. You’re just looking for a scapegoat. It’s really popular for GMs to “blame vidya games for the way players these days do things with their facial piercings and their rock and roll and their sex parties.” But most video games hide their resolution mechanics. I mean, take a simple mechanic like jumping in a video game. Watch players explore a new video game. They try to jump everywhere. They try to jump over everything. They try to jump up impossible slopes and they try to jump around invisible walls. They experiment to see if their melee attacks can affect friendly NPCs. In short, many players respond by seeing how much they can get away with and how far they can push the mechanics. That’s the opposite of the “push the skill button” behavior you’re describing. And that’s because it isn’t video games doing it, it’s the rulebooks and the GMs. And no one is showing them different.

      • I’d want to add to this. I like to play some video games, too. The FPS games (which are about as close to action RPG as you can get) probably have very little randomizing going on. While I’m a programmer, this isn’t my specialty. The more sophisticated the game, the less randomness there is. Randomness, in my opinion, is an easy shortcut for accurate mechanical physics.

        Think about it. When you roll your dice, you think you are creating something random. In truth, there’s not a bit of randomness involved in the process. How the dice start in your hand, how much friction, the relative weight of the dice, the amount of oil transferred from your skin, the amount of force… all that and a lot more factors weigh in. A sophisticated computer can theoretically simulate the process without falling back on a random number generator (which, by the way, isn’t random, either.)

        Let’s switch the context slightly. In D&D and most table-top RPGs, brewing a potion involves making an appropriate skill check. Right? Arcana, Nature, Alchemy Kit Proficiency, whatever. Doesn’t matter. You roll the die, add your modifier, compare the result against the DC, and determine if you succeed or fail.

        In Elder Scrolls, however, there’s NOTHING RANDOM about potion brewing. If you have the tools, the appropriate skill level, and the ingredients, there is zero chance of failure. You might counter by suggesting that your taking randomly chosen ingredients and mixing them together to see if you get something, but in this case, you’re doing the randomizing, not the game engine.

        So my point is, which agrees with Angry, we can’t blame video games on a player’s desire for random results. I would actually argue the opposite. When playing a video game and a random result causes something bad to happen (or not get the results I expect), I’m usually quite pissed off, and if it happens too often, I’ll quit playing the game.

        • On a side note, there are indeed mobile apps that simulate dice rolling using a physics engine instead of any random number generation.
          You shake your phone and watch the dice fall where they may. It’s somewhat novel to play with. 🙂

  17. Speaking about passive rolls, do you think it is a good idea to turn ‘passive’ every roll made by monsters (including to-hit rolls and saving roll) ? The players would roll to see how well they dodge an arrow or how well they cast a spell rather than waiting for the DM to roll 16d20 to know the result.

    • I do that: instead of rolling attack, I let my players do defensive rolls. I only roll for spells, damage or stuff they can’t react to.
      The reasons are:
      – I’m too lucky, I told the players that the law of great numbers and their perception was thinking it but they felt much better when I started letting them roll defense. rather than take hits and not beeing able to react. I still roll high damage but at least I don’t dodge every attack they make and they succeed in defending themselves most of the time.
      – I was rolling too many dices, I’m also playing a character with them so I’m not too short on dice rolling either.

      • Angry has already addressed your posts, but something that caught my eye: “I’m also playing a character with them…”

        I’ve done this before – in my youth. It was a bad idea then, and it’s a bad idea now.

        I did this because we (me and the players) would shift GM’ing duties session-to-session, or adventure-to-adventure. But we didn’t want the GM’s PC to get left behind the others while leveling up. We also did this because the group was small and we needed the extra character to fill out the group. There are other ways to solve these issues.

        If the GM is running a character, the character is an NPC. NOT A PLAYER CHARACTER. I don’t care how well you think you can compartmentalize, you cannot run a PC as a GM and not be influenced in some way by your infinite knowledge.

        For the same reasons, I, as the GM, will not run a player’s character if they are absent from the session.

        There’s nothing wrong with running an NPC who is allied to the group, who earns experience and participates in battle and all that. But the subtle distinction between PC and NPC is incredibly important.

        If nothing else, one of your jobs as the GM is to keep the players engaged and actively participating. Each NPC (or PC) you’re running takes time and agency away from the players. For me, if I have an NPC traveling with the group, that NPC has a specific, clearly defined (to me) purpose and role. I do my best to minimize that character’s involvement, and they absolutely do not involve themselves in group decision making. Their role may be a component of the group’s decision, but ultimately, it’s up to the group, and the NPC doesn’t get a vote.

        I may have come down a bit harsh, but it’s something I’ve learned from experience.

      • One of my players didn’t like not getting to roll for dodge, she felt a lack of agency in being attacked, like she should be able to actively do something to avoid it (using the Dodge action feels too passive as it just imposes disadvantage).
        It wasn’t enough of an issue to ruin the game, but it was a very slight annoyance that I felt I agreed with.

        I considered making every roll in combat a contested check, where the attacker and defender both roll, which would have the side effects of streamlining the distinction between attacks and saves, and “possibly” increasing player engagement outside of their own turn.
        It also adds a further granularity to the advantage system, as there are two rolls being made that could both benefit from advantage in different situations (I suppose you could argue that AC is a passive check that can be advantaged, but the closest I’ve seen to that even being implied is the +5 bonus for 3/4 Cover).

        Unfortunately, in my opinion it too greatly reduces the effect of stats in favour of randomness, and it makes crits more complicated.
        If the game was designed from the ground up with this in mind, I think it could be a great mechanic, but as it is I’m still undecided on whether it improves or hinders the experience.

        Incidentally, if I was to design a system with this mechanic in mind, I would strongly tie it into the benefits of surprise.
        If you aren’t trying to dodge because you don’t know you’re being attacked, you don’t get to roll, and that means the only way the attack can miss is if the attacker messes up their own roll.
        Stationary targets (such as objects) also wouldn’t get to roll, because they aren’t dodging.
        A further possibility could be that you can only dodge so much per round, and any additional attacks treat you as a stationary target. This would take some design effort to not feel overly punitive, but it also creates a hook to build Defender-type abilities from.
        There could even be an interesting trade-off between sacrificing offense for defense.
        I think there already exists a game where you get a total number of combat dice per round, and you choose how many go into offense and how many into defense (I’m not sure which game that is and I certainly haven’t played it myself), which I really like the sound of.
        As I said though, this isn’t the sort of thing you can just add to D&D as a house rule and expect it to work well. You’d have to design the game around it from scratch.

        • Some systems do use attack and dodge rolls, like GURPS. Overall it’s a really clunky mechanic having two rolls to resolve something you should resolve with one, and you’re probably better off just having the PCs roll all the dice and having only a dodge roll (or AC saving throw might be a better term), if it’s a huge deal for the PC’s enjoyment. I mean… it doesn’t *actually* add any player agency by letting them roll the dice, but there are a lot of PCs who just feel more in control when they die as a result of their roll instead of another person’s roll. Not that I’m really a fan of having PCs roll all the dice… personally I’d only ever do that if it’s a huge deal for the rest of the group.

  18. Great article, and a good explanation of the reason why passive rolls can actually work in games; I am convinced, and I may even try it out with my group now if they agree. It may be difficult, but I’ll try; some of them actually were quite surprised when I started to award a success for their actions without rolling a die, but they quickly caught on and now they are quite happy about it.

    Also, the Long, Rambling Introduction™ was great. I have seen that thing happen so many times, especially in one case: whenever asking for ANY kind of advice on the right decision to make as a GM, you get almost every answer simply saying “Talk to your players”.

    No matter what you ask, every single problem has to be solved like that. I have seen people argue that if you ask for an advice about building a monster to challenge your party, you should immediately talk about the obvious problems in your group if the “normal” enemies can’t challenge them. Basically, if there is any kind of problem in a game, it’s automatically something that MUST to be adressed in a group talk, even if the “problem” is just “should I give this guy this magical item for free, to bring him closer to the average power level of the party?”

    Last time I asked for help it was about a way to make my group face a situation that would make their characters realize one thing: a few of their actions are not “appropriate” for the way they play their character (the old “we are heroes and save the world from evil, so we never have to answer to anyone whenever we bring destruction to a town or ruin someone’s life; we know it was inevitable and it was the best possible outcome, so we are good, no need to explain them” thing). I wanted to have them meet an NPC that would show them how their actions can have consequences even though they are acting for the good of the land, and I asked how to write the scene. I wanted to have the character confront the issue in some way, and see wether they would change their behavior, or embrace their way to solve problems and deal with it.

    People flipped the F#&! out. I was a horrible GM, and a horrible person, for daring to do something like that. No, the RIGHT way to solve this is only ONE: basically have an intervention with the entire group, explaining how their way to play is BAD and WRONG (even though I never thought that) and how they MUST change how their characters act immediately, without any in-game explanation, because apparently that’s how “adults” solve this problem…

    That’s why this is pretty much the only place where I discuss these things at this point.

    • Mt favorite is the “I dont know; sounds a lot like railroading to me…”

      People don’t seem to understand what railroading actually is.

  19. I’m back to knowledge, not because I want to speak the last word but because I feel that this passive checks stuff is the same as removing those skills. I understand it for perception, as clues for active searching, but I don’t like it for knowledge, and here’s why and what I think could be done about it.

    Why would you bother thinking of knowledge that the players will never know of? If you use only passive checks, any knowledge with a DC higher than that of the best character is just wasted, never to be found. You only wasted your time writing it down and figuring a DC for it.
    Even If you’re planning to play that scenario with different groups, in which some will have the info and some don’t, then the mechanics seems convoluted. I mean aside from the practical annoyance of asking everytime if someone has the right skill level in that particular knowledge branch, hiding this additional information will honestly not change the course of the game, or if it could then you should probably provide other ways to find out about it than a passive knowledge check.

    Everything else is knowledge that the players have or will have, and as such it doesn’t need a DC either.
    Instead of nature knowledge you could give the info because that character is a ranger or a druid and you can just forget those useless knowledge skills and let the player spend their skill points or whatever they’re called in D&D in useful stuff instead.

    So if I were to follow your logic to the end I’d simply remove the knowledge skills and distribute the knowledge as I see fit. And yes I think that unless you really add active usefulness to knowledge skills you should probably remove them.

    And now let’s try to find something useful to do with knowledge skills.
    Let me first give a few examples of knowledge checks that are beeing made nowadays in my opinion:

    ex 1:
    There are many television shows (at least where I live and I guess that there are some in the US too) where people get asked questions and they have a limited time to answer. There are questions for which everyone knows the answer but these people are under heavy to stress which is why they can’t remember(while I insult them safely from my couch).

    Someones asks you for a word or an artist name or whatever, you know the answer, but it just escapes you right now. Maybe you’ll remember in a few minutes but by then the conversation has switched to something else and nobody care about the answer anymore.

    The action in here that angry says is automatic is to concentrate, as in thinking of the subject and not let oneself be distracted by other things. Now try to remember where you went for vacations a couple years ago. Do it.
    Did you keep reading while trying to remember? Did you attack a monster at the same time? You can’t because it requires concentration. That’s an active knowledge skill. And you roll it because you know that you have the answer somewhere back there but you need a little while doing nothing else but think about it to bring it back up front.

    What does it have to do with RPG? If a certain knowledge is required to help solve a situation right now, I think it’s worth a knowledge check. Failing the check doesn’t mean that the character doesn’t now that thing, it just means that he doesn’t remember it when he needs it. Higher knowledge skill means he’s more familiar with it and is more capable of remembering stuff on the fly. The important notion here is “right now”.
    When is it useful for players to have knowledge “right now”? The answer is when they’re engaged in a fight, or when “after” is too late for the knowledge to be useful.

    Here are situation where active knowledge skill checks could be called for, I’ll honestly say that I haven’t tried it, that I will try it for my rules but I’m not so sure how it would fit in D&D.

    – remembering creature strength and weaknesses, or even effective stats during a fight. Maybe let the people make a check at the start of every round until they succeed or figure it out by themselves(like enemy AC or elemental or physical resistances/weaknesses) this could also work for the enemy’s items or spells (I’m not sure how D&D handles that) => that’s what will make people want to invest in knowledge skills, that’s where “knowledge is power” becomes true.
    If you want the players to be proactive about this, maybe instead of taking an offensive action they’ll rather rack their brain in a knowledge check to remember the troll’s weakness, try to remember if skelettons are susceptible to poison or mind spells or what that mysterious aura around that mage actually does. There’s a choice: roll that knowledge check and hope to remember or go for it and hope for the best.
    You could also add a bonus for each failed attempt so that thinking long enough will eventually produce the answer. People who don’t have the appropriate knowledge don’t get to roll, and yes I’d still go with that multi bonus because someone remembers that your vacations where right after you lost your dog and that helps you remember that you felt sad and your vacation in Italy wasn’t all that fun, and yes the answer was Italy (except it was not and I didn’t have a dog: it’s an example!!)

    – any knowledge that will help resolve a situation if it’s discovered soon enough, like remembering how to do the ritual that will save the day before the group gets swamped down by enemies. Or translate a message in a weird langage to open the treasure gate before it’s forever lost in the flooding, should they give up and get some air, concentrate on these hyeroplyphs a little more or find another way to secure the message?
    You won’t pull that too often unless your running an archeology campaign but once in a while it can be fun and rewarding for those who thought to bring a pen along their sword.

    For everything else I wouldn’t bother with knowledge checks or DC: it’s either common lore, stuff that at least one of the characters knows from their background, class or race. Or some mystery that discovering is the object of an encounter (or of an identify spell if it’s still used).

    PS: I went to Ski. And had to think about it for a few minutes.

    • You need to get over your addiction to randomness. “If you’re not rolling dice, you basically removed the skill” is NOT true. It’s the same thing.

      Realism has nothing to do with anything. “Worth rolling dice” is foolish if it takes away a sense of control and slows down your game. Seriously: what ACTUAL good is this doing for your game other than a vague sense of “worthiness.” You’re rambling, but you’re still just getting down to wishy washy “well, um, uh… it’s still worth it because otherwise it’s terrible.” And you wasted umpteen paragraphs to say nothing beyond that.

  20. There are people who didn’t like announcing when a creature is at half HP? What, did they not get how to describe this narratively in a clear way? It’s right there in the description (“bloodied”).

    I’ve found players tend to like that a lot, actually. Gives them a sense of progress, which in turn helps to keep them interested in the fight. Imagine a fight in Dark Souls where you had no idea how much each of your attacks was taking off of the enemy’s HP….it would be godawful.

    They also like to know when to use their abilities that key off of things like that (depending on the edition), and I think it makes sense that a fighter or rogue or anyone whose had some experience in a combat situation would be able to know how to kick an opponent when they are down, or to quickly take down the weak guy to even out the odds.

    And players also like to know how quickly they should/shouldn’t burn through their resources. If they get a halfway point indicator, it lets them gauge how well they are doing with that, and whether they need to use up those resources for this fight (“Oh, I bloodied that creature with a single attack I can use 3 times per day? Maybe I should save the other two for something else…”).

    Finally, from a GM standpoint, it helps me to decide on how a given creature is behaving, reminds me to change the behavior accordingly, and gives me a good point to look at the fight and make those decisions. Heck, depending on the creature(s) and situation, they might outright say, “Screw this, I’m out.”

    I suppose I’m preaching to the choir on this one, though.

    • A bit…

      In my game, we use markers (colored Post-it stickers) to show status. If the monster or character is between 1/3 and 2/3 hp, they get a yellow marker, and if they are in the lower third, they get a red marker. Some creatures don’t get markers because it’s impossible to tell (elementals, undead, constructs, etc.)

      This way I’m not calling out actual hit point values. I’m good at math so I can generally figure out what 1/3rd and 2/3rds are (though I’m seriously considering adding the calculation to the battle cards I created and use.) This also gives a non-active player something to do: “Put Ogre #5 in red, please.”

      • I mean, I feel like any system that gives the players a sense of progress is better than none whatsoever, and each group is gonna find something slightly different that they like. The important thing (in my opinion, at least) is that there isn’t a binary of dead/not dead.

        More demarcation (your system) sounds like it is good for players that are more mechanically minded, like to keep track of a lot of details, and make quick strategic decisions. If I had a group of players who really liked keeping track of a lot of information at once and were good at it, I’d probably try it out. As it stands, my players tend to get overwhelmed by information overload in combat and stuck in analysis paralysis, so the healthy/bloody/dead continuum is all they need.

        I also find that writing down less keeps me focused on the narrative/keeps the pace of combat consistent, but again, that’s just me and my group of players.

  21. The problem I have with this system is the following: I COMPLETELY agree with your method if I was writing an adventure module for many people, or if I was going to DM this adventure to more than one group, with different characters, or even a con.

    But the majority of the time, I DM only for my own group. They have the same characters session after session, with basically the same stats. In this case (and this case only), if I gate information behind passive skills proficiency or values, I am doing extra work that’s never going to be used.

    Since I always DM for the same characters, it becomes a binary system of: they get to see this and they don’t get to see this. And in the second case, my efforts are better applied somewhere else, instead of focusing on unreachable information…

    • I feel like you can still use it to make players feel special, so to speak. For example, if only one player passes the skill test, then you get to tell them, “Hey, you know this because you studied this stuff” It makes them feel like they made a useful choice, and makes them feel important to the party.

      Because the average player doesn’t go, “Eh, there was no randomness, so this wasn’t fun.” They go, “Look at me! I did this! I’m the best at doing this thing! If it wasn’t for me, we wouldn’t have some this piece of information!”

      This can be problematic if the party isn’t diversified, but that’s a whole other issue in and of itself. And as long as you get a relatively sane group of people who discuss how the party will work together beforehand, you usually don’t get that anyway.

      At any rate, making players feel special like that (i.e., that they are an invaluable resource to the party) is a pretty good use of extra work, at least in my opinion.

      • Yeah, you have a point, but I don’t need the extra effort of considering the passive skill values for that.

        In my group, I already know my players, so if I *already decided* to give some information (because it’d be a binary decision), I can simply say “Jack, since you’re proficient in nature, you know these red flowers make bunnies berserk.”

        I don’t have to come up with information gates and consider skill values, which would increase the effort to create the adventure. I just have to decide who to give it to automatically.

        • The “Tweaking the Core Rule of D&D 5E” did discuss that as an option (and I quote):

          “Passive Proficiencies as Knowledge. All Proficiencies (skills, tools, weapons, and armor) are assumed to represent both active uses of those things and relevant background knowledge, lore, information, and awareness. When a player with a Proficiency encounters something in the game, the GM should simply give them any relevant information based on their expertise. The GM is advised to gate information based on skill proficiencies in the flavor text and descriptions of items and monsters. In addition, advanced knowledge may be gated behind specific levels of knowledge. A character’s Passive Skill is equal to 8 + Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus. If the character has Advantage on such skill checks, the Passive Skill gains an additional +5. If the character has Disadvantage, the character suffers an additional -5. Any bonus that can be granted to a skill roll, such as from Bardic Inspiration or from a Cleric’s bless spell may also be applied to Passive Skills.”

          I think I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying, “Without randomness this is pointless, therefore we need randomness.” If you’re saying, “I’m not gonna figure out numbers, I’m just gonna say ‘If you are proficient in [x], you know [y],'”, then I think we are basically in agreement on the bigger picture and after that point it becomes a matter of personal preference on how much work you want to put into the details (which is purely for the GM’s enjoyment at that point, as far as I can tell).

    • I don’t understand this post. You say you have a problem with Angry’s approach. You say this approach lets you identify when you’re doing extra work that’s never going to be used. So, um, why is that a problem? To me, that sounds like a solution. Just don’t do that extra work.

      I mean, if you write two outcomes, and then roll the dice at the table, half your work goes to waste for no reason. If you decide while you’re writing that the passive check will be a success, you can just not waste your time on what would happen if it were a failure. See what I mean?

      Why is it a bad thing to avoid doing unnecessary work? Please explain.

  22. I’ve done some of this in my games even under 3.5 (e.g. “as a half-orc you recognize this clan of orcs blah blah blah). But, under 5e where skills are so much more limited I like it a lot.

    Question: is this passivity on all check or just ones where the character is trained? I know, RAW, perception is everyone; but for some reason I’m imagining being trained in say, history or religion, just giving you a shot in the arm on the check. Sure, other folks, untrained in those matters can roll to see if they’ve randomly heard something over the years; but the paladin, trained in religion and history, should just be given certain information because of their training. Is this what you have in mind here?

  23. Lots of video games do this same thing and no one complains. There was an old Vampire:The Masquerade video game that did the same. A high perception made interesting items sparkle, but you could always click the screen all over the place if you wanted to actively search. High social skills gave you new dialog options, high computer skills gave you hacking options. Knights of the Old Republic did the same thing. Even with stealth- you either sneaked by people or you didn’t. There was no randomness to doing it. And no one complains about those.

    So I don’t have a problem with lack of randomness. But it has come up time and again in RPGs about being second best in anything, if even by 1 point, and how that is detrimental. Only one person needs any given passive skill and having more than one person doing so is a waste. Having one eagle eye in the group is great, but everyone else is Mr. Magoo because there’s no point in anyone else taking perception. The same goes for knowledge skills, social skills- well, any skill that isn’t combat related as combat seems to be one of the few events that force all the characters to participate. Every other event is a group think channeled through the skills of one character.

    A character dying and then rolling up a new character is a prime example of where this often causes an issue. The new character is often forced to fill the same role they just left. If the face dies, and everyone else has the social graces of Rainman, then the player is forced to make a new face. And let’s say they don’t, but instead make a new perception optimized archer. Whoever used to be the perception king is now relegated to second tier status in the party.

    (OK I realize perception is good for avoiding ambushes and surprise rounds, but I think you can see the point I’m trying to make here)

    There’s thoughts rolling around in my head about ways to get around it, but I’d be interested in hearing other people’s opinion.

    • I posted my point of view previously, but I find your Vampire and KOTOR really nice examples. In my opinion, Angry’s method would work beautifully in these cases for a single reason: repeatability. You can play the game multiple times, or many people can play the game once, each choosing a different skill to improve in their character, and you see the world reacting to these choices.

      As such, Angry’s method would also work beautifully if you were writing a module for many people, or you were DMing for more than one group with different characters, or even in a con. Because in these cases you have the same repeatability, so you get to see the world react differently to their choices, and players feel it too.

      But in my case, I mostly DM for my own group. They have the same characters session after session, with basically the same stats. In my case, thinking of information gates and considering passive skill values are just wasted effort. Since the adventure will only be played once, it becomes a binary decision: players get to see the information or they don’t. And in this case, my efforts are better applied somewhere else, instead of focusing on unreachable information…

      • Not having to waste your efforts sounds like it’s a bonus to me. Less prep work means you can focus your energy elsewhere.

        It does bring up an interesting idea, though. That the extra information is useful to provide, but only after the fact. For instance, if you only play through a video game once, you have no idea that you could get different dialog options or that you were missing any hidden gear because of low perception. That part of the design is lost on you.

        But usually in these video games, there are indicators that you’re missing out on something. A guard you can’t talk past. A computer that won’t give you any information. A trap that goes off and causes problems. An enemy crowded room with more fighting than you want to take on. In each of these cases, the player can see how another skill could prove useful, even if they don’t know what the reward would be. Or they get the information after the fact. You can’t decode the secret tome you found, but when you take it back to town, you realize it was a description of the demon you just fought, listing its strengths and weaknesses. You didn’t need that book, but you can see how it would have been a nice option.

        This isn’t a method to force players to choose certain skills. There should be lots of ways in which their skills are often helpful and saving the day. But highlighting how different skills could affect the game lets the players make a choice about what skills they want to take and they know that the decision will make a difference in how the game is carried out.

        So even for your own group, I would perhaps start adding a bit of extra information here and there you know they won’t discover, but that they are aware exists and can have an idea of how that info might change the game for them.

        • Fallout I believe outright tells you that you only get this dialog option because you’re this good in this skill.

          And yes, I agree that knowing exactly what your players’ stats are going to be in advance is a good reason FOR using passive knowledge skills, as it means you can focus your creative efforts on the information you know they will have access to, instead of having to write out every little thing just in case someone gets a good roll.

          • I’ve always really loved this because it makes the point that you could play the game completely differently the second, third, and fourth time through the game. Are you charismatic? Good with explosives? Cool. The other guy is better with hacking terminal, fixing robots, and medicinal needs.

            The same goes for D&D. It forces the player to stick to their choices, or refocus on new ones. “I can never convince the guards of anything. Maybe I should put more points in CHA and take a CHA-based feat. Hm. Or I could stick to what I know: put more points into STR to bludgeon the info out of them…”

            As Angry put it best, the decisions were made…weeks or months ago at character generation.

  24. Ok, I’ll try to be more concise.

    The way you depict the knowledge skill does make it terrible.
    What you’re saying is it’s not worth trying to make the skill good at the cost of control and slowing the game.
    My answer is remove it and you’ll get even more control and speed: you tell the players exactly what you want and that’s it: no need to prepare DC checks or waste time asking what their score is.

    I know you’re talking D&D, but it’s not the system I use so what I need is to make the knowledge skill good and not just cope with it the way you seem to do.
    Why would my players spend points in a skill called knowledge instead of a skill called fight? (they actually can do that)
    If I don’t find an answer to that, then I will remove the knowledge skill, but I don’t want to because more skills means more choices for character development.

    So I offered a solution, in my system it means max 4 rolls in the whole fight, and that’s if they all fail.
    Again, I don’t know about D&D. Maybe you could space up the rolls. If you don’t like rolls they you can decide based on their score WHEN they will get the information: maybe at the 3rd round someone will suddenly remember it maybe they’ll only learn it when it’s too late. There goes my randomness addiction.
    If you don’t want them to learn it anyway nothing prevents you from not telling them.

    At the end of the encounter they should know how the knowledge skill could have helped them so that they actually think about investing in it instead of everything else.

    • It’s hard to say without knowing what system you are using, but I think that making it so that the knowledge skill can give the players useful info before/during a fight might help make it feel more useful. It makes the player feel special, especially if it can be used like the “scan” ability in Final Fantasy.

      I think the problem implementing something like this might be with the action economy (I might be using this phrase wrong; please correct me if I am) of your system. If you only have 4 rolls to resolve a given situation, that sounds like it favors the players failing, especially if the default outcome of not accruing enough successes is failure. In that case, the players will always favor low risk, because they have no ways of hedging their bets in the long term.

      In D&D, even if an individual fails a given action, odds are everything will be okay, and the rest of the party can make up for it. You can take higher risk actions as a result-if you do something other than attacking for one turn and accomplish nothing, all it does is extend the combat by one turn. In your system, on the other hand, missing one attack decreases your odds of success because you have limited chances to succeed.

      On the other side of the coin, if one success means the whole thing succeeds, then the dominant strategy is to just boost the stat that makes you win instantly. In that case, the “fight” skill is low risk/high reward, and investing in anything else is just gimping yourself.

      Either way, it comes down to the fight skill offering the highest reward for the amount of risk involved, and having no way of offsetting risk.

      Also, the odds/statistics of the system you use are much different than D&D. D&D is a resource management game system more than anything else. Failing a roll in D&D means using up resources to make up for the failure. In your system, it seems like there is no way to make up for failures.

      If you want to make knowledge useful in this system, then it absolutely has to be either very low risk or very high reward. Most (if not all) of the time the players should learn something that gives them a bonus that offsets losing a turn they could have been attacking. Or, it has to offer such a high reward that the risk of losing an action (which is very valuable in the system you have) is worth it. Otherwise, you’re right-it’s just not worth it.

      Also, it might be a good idea to give the player some resource they could spend to get extra rolls for a given encounter. That way, they have some way of offsetting crappy rolls (and with only 4 rolls, you need something like that).

      Basically, you have to make sure that every point spent in the knowledge skill has a roughly equivalent but different effect on the outcome as every point spent in the fight skill. That way, you don’t just have two skills with different names that do the same thing, and a diversified party will feel like they are all contributing (“If it wasn’t for Alice’s knowledge of monsters, Bob’s ability to swing a sword, and Charles noticing the gap in the monster’s armor, this would not have gone so well!”)

      And I am really curious about this system. Which game system is it? This sounds like it might be a systems problem more than anything else to me, but I can’t say without knowing what system you are using. It just looks like (from what you’ve said) that your system heavily favors randomness, has few ways to offset it, and you don’t want to tweak that. If that’s the case, then I’d say you just favor randomness. You may want to examine why that is, to make sure that your convictions are well founded (as we should all do), and that high randomness is really what you and your players want out of your game.

      • The closest system I know of would be the video games fallout 1&2. In a fantasy setting with magic and a limited inventory(those who played them will know what I mean). While I do use action points in “combat mode” it’s only those with the most action points left who get to play. Some actions (attacking with a big weapon or casting a big spell) cost more points than others (walking a couple steps or quaffing a potion). Once everyone has spent all their action points, the round is over. So a fight usually takes 3 to 4 rounds overall, and in one round you can usually move to a target and hit a couple times with an average weapon.

  25. When I saw passive perception/intuition in 4th edition, my first thought was, “How many skills can I apply this to? I love it.” I use it to give hints about traps, so players don’t search every crevice of a cavern for secret doors.

    As for knowledge skills, it sucks when a bad roll means the cleric who has studied religion his whole life and knows about the undead doesn’t recognize a skeleton for what it is because randomness.

    I have run games that had random encounters that I generated beforehand based on days traveled, (much like the Robert above that responded to Sligo). It streamlined the crap out of that campaign and the game ran much more smoothly. The players didn’t even realize that the encounters were randomly generated, and that seemed to improve the game to them.

  26. While I wholeheartedly agree with the “only make a player roll a skill check when it declares an action” rule, and that passive skills rewards the choices made by the players, there is one thing that diminishes this in 5E: the lack of decisions points.

    See, in 3.5, at every level the player had a number of skill points that he could assort however he liked it. That made the wizard’s choice to put two extra point in arcana or spend double points to improve his athetics much more important. I had a fellow player who was a Fighter, and he took 4 levels of the NPC Specialist class just to have more skill points!

    But 4E & 5E decided that players didnt like to put points in skills, or making new choices. So now you have a limited set of skills that are chosen at 1st level. So when you say to your 10th level Clerical player “because of your religion knowlege, you know that the cursed altar has the mark of Demogorgon”, you are rewarding a choice made 10 levels ago.

    • Strictly speaking, that is not true of 4e. If you want your skills to increase at the same pace that Hard DCs increase you need to continually invest in the skill in the form of feats, items, powers, or making sure your stat bumps are in ability scores related to the skill.

      Even assuming it is a bad thing to reward players for having the foresight to have made a choice 10 levels ago.

    • Oh, and lets not forget that while he may have made the choice to train a skill 10 levels ago, he made the decision not to retrain it one level ago.

    • Let’s be real, did anyone ever not put all of their skill points into the same skills every level?

      If your class got 3 skill points per level, you had 3 skills.
      To do otherwise was usually an unnecessary handicap.
      5e just assumes that everyone does that.

  27. Really, I agree with this (and the last article) almost entirely. But perhaps for a slightly different reason.

    I’ve never liked the situation where you can have somebody who has invested in a skill (they are trained, sometimes highly trained) could roll poorly, while another character doesn’t even have proficiency rolls well and outperforms the expert. While I agree there are always chances for some sort of failure, there are a great many things that somebody skilled at something won’t fail.

    The reason I love passive scores is that it provides a floor (and 20+modifiers the ceiling) to determine what a character is capable of doing. In most cases in my campaign, if somebody is proficient but fails an active skill check, the difference between the DC and the roll lets me set an amount of time it will take before they will eventually succeed. Depending on the task this could be rounds, minutes, or even hours or days.

    Things that fall within the passive score just succeed. They are things that don’t require any significant effort on your part, it’s become easy and often second nature for you. Things that are between your passive score and your maximum roll are things that you CAN succeed at, and eventually will, given enough time.

    If the time element doesn’t have any meaningful benefit at that point in the story, then no roll is required. Just narrate that it took a little work, but you were able to complete the task.

    If a time element might make a difference, such as in the middle of combat, then a roll is called for.

    I totally agree that people roll too many dice. And I particularly agree with the idea that people roll for knowledge checks when they shouldn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a player say, “I’ll roll an Arcana check to see if I know what spell it is,” or something like that. No need, I’ll tell you.

    But sometimes, remembering something, or working through a problem entirely in your head, takes time. And in the wrong situations, that time can be a significant hindrance.

    For example, when you were a kid you opened your locker multiple times every day. Your locker combination had become second nature. But on a day when you’re running late and you have to open it quickly or you’ll be late to class. Suddenly you can’t remember it. Then you do what is probably worse, you try to remember it. Your hands know how to do it without thinking about it, but as soon as you start to think about it, you can’t remember what it is. Can you get it open before it’s too late to get to class?

    Or can you figure out the secret word from the clues given before the trolls break down the door?

    Sometimes, even just thinking takes time. And for skill checks, the die roll is a way to determine how long it will take. It provides what players see as an impartial way to introduce that randomness.

    I’ve seen a great many systems for skill checks. Many times they attempt to introduce the complexity of combat, because combat is somewhat random, and suspenseful. For many groups, combat is a “game-within-a-game” that they love, and build their characters to “win.”

    Skill checks seem like they should be similar. But the reality is (as Angry has pointed out), is that they shouldn’t be. The only time I think you should make a skill check is when there is a consequence for either failure or a delay in success. Otherwise, no need to check.

    If the characters are wandering through a dungeon or the wilderness, their passive Perception score lets them notice stuff without rolling. If they are exploring the dungeon slowly, checking the walls for cracks, and using a 10′-pole to search for stones that are loose or sound different, then their passive Perception is 20+modifiers. They will find what they are looking for, and the penalty they’ve taken is time – it’s taking much longer to do so.

  28. I don’t mind players reading the Monster Manual, but I do draw the line at them reading it right there at the table and looking up the monster they’re fighting..

  29. Given that you’re called Angry and like to threaten beatings with various heavy rpg books, I assume you used to do sabre in your fencing days.

    • Very perceptive of you. I also fenced foil for a while. They tried me on epee because of my size, but that lasted two days because I kept falling asleep for how f$&%ing boring it is.

  30. I really want to see AngryGM’s opinions on Blades in the Dark. It seems to be structured around a lot of the game-narrative ideas he talks about. For instance with rolls the game pushes you to assume that there needs to be a consequence. The players only reach for the die after they declare an “action”, i.e. one of the things they have a stat in. Before proceeding with that the GM needs to set a “position” which requires a consequence, e.g. if the position is risky then the GM needs to have in mind a level 2 injury or a way the position worsens to desperate. That means that when a GM screws up and has the player reach for the dice when there isn’t a consequence, you immediately notice that you screwed up. There is also a general assumption of competence. There are no detection rolls or knowledge rolls because player characters are always assumed to be capable of doing anything with time and effort, it’s just they never have enough time and there is always opposition standing in the way.

  31. Awesome article. Well-reasoned out, good points, I will try this out.

    The GUMSHOE investigative engine (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, The Esoterrorists, Time Watch, etc) does this for knowledge checks. And it rocks! You never roll for investigative abilities, but you may at times spend on them for extra information.

    It’s so far the best system for investigative play I have seen. It beats Call of Cthulhu’s Idea, Know, and Luck rolls by far. You never miss a clue you have the right ability for, but you will still have to figure out what the clues point to and mean – the interesting part. 🙂

    So, I love this part of GUMSHOE, and it proves your point left and right. The only downside of that engine is that its resolution engine for general skill and combat rolls sucks. It bores the shit out of me. What you are proposing is basically hijacking the best parts of GUMSHOE (even if derived by your own conjecture and experience) into a game with a more interesting “action engine” and create a better game.

    I like it. 🙂

    (I’m amazed at how many people seem to have only played D&D and not GUMSHOE. It is quite popular and I found it even in half of the small game stores I visited in the US. Bought my “Out of Time” copy somewhere in rural Tennessee after all…)

    • My problem with Gumshoe is that, in a misguided understanding of how to make failure work and a terror that players might actually fail at an adventure, it also turns certain ACTIVE rolls into NOT ROLLING. It’s got the other side of the problem: fear of randomness.

      • Two steps forward, one step back. 😉 It’s hard for a game designer to let go of a new gimmick once found.

        Also, the engine was made by Robin D. Laws. Ever since I read Hero Quest 2nd Edition I have my doubts of him. He seriously advocated adjusting rolls for dramatic flavor without the least notion of realism, so that almost all rolls either pass/fail according to the GM’s whim without any rhyme or reason beside pacing or defy the odds. In other words: The role of the dice for him is to bullshit the players into believing that the GM is not completely and absolutely arbitrary.

  32. So awhile back you said something about sliding into mediocrity because you shared everything there is to know. Now you have 127 comments on this one recent article.

    You’re still illuminating us as to how sucky our games are even though you keep giving us the tools to desuckify ourselves.

    It’s great when you’re wrong. You’re getting better and better.

    When do I get to purchase the Angry RPG?

  33. I have been doing this for social stuff for a very long time, A charismatic PC just makes all the NPC’s much more chatty and helpful,.. I am honestly not sure how you could do it any other way. I only calling for a die roll when it is an outright lie or it has potential high risk/reward.

  34. This comment section is gold, and between it and the article addresses many of my hang-ups with passive scores:

    I hate passive perception from a content design standpoint. Since I have been treating it as an alternative to an active check, instead of a supplement, it means I know exactly what the characters will and won’t spot. Because most of the dungeon’s traps/secret doors/secret fun things have approximately the same DC, I get annoyed that the outcome for all those things is nearly the same in every circumstance. If notice they will spot it, I feel like I’m wasting my time even putting the “hidden” item into the game, and immediately want to raise the DC. If do bump the DC so they don’t spot this one, I feel like I’m deliberately screwing the players (well, I am). I’ve always been tempted to roll the dice on my side of the screen in planning mode, to ensure fairness — reverse the math so that it’s the same as them rolling.

    The flaws in the previous are: 1. Not using an ideal party’s passives, instead of the actual party’s (but even then, the real numbers might pop into my head and bias me); 2. Passive is not a replacement — you don’t automatically discover the trap/secret door/whatever, you just receive clues. This is a big difference.

    I also wonder if I’ve set the DCs too high when the players keep flailing around, certain there’s a hidden room they’ve missed (even if there isn’t). And then I wonder if I’ve set the DCs too low when they roll well and I tell them the whole secret story I took forever coming up with, which I wanted to slowly dole out. Argh!! But that’s just DCs in general.

    Sometimes I’ve felt that passive scores give me too much latitude to adjust the game in advance to advance whatever unfair ends I have (eg of hiding certain story factoids the players desperately want). But I think that’s because I’ve been giving too much power to passive scores. Perception in particular.

    • I have the same problem with not wanting to add content they won’t spot.

      In my case I tend to… decide if I want them to spot it rather than decide on the DC and add it.

      Personally I’ve found that writing the content as if for publication (although I don’t really plan on it) allows me to abstract away my specific party.

      Another trick (that I just made up) is to set your base DC to whatever you want -1 and then add 1d4 to everything. That way all your difficulties are still about the same, but there is some play for things. The minus -1 is useful because it sets yourself up for characters advancing themselves a little before they hit your content.

  35. “That’s how Matthew Broderick finally beat Skynet in the The Matrix.” that quote right there was worth reading the entire article… and dates us both horribly.

  36. Am I over-simplifying this process if, instead of focusing on DCs and whatnot, the focus goes to the information that (1) needs to be passed to the players and (2) the information that assists/rewards the players?

    For the first category, the passive abilities are used to determine the “who” and “why” of the information (e.g. Chase tracked the bandits to their hideout because he was proficient in survival or Jennifer recognized the holy symbol as being evil because she had the highest religion score). This is information that is/must be passed to the players, so why gate it behind rolls?

    The second category is the “additional” information to players who have relevant skills; at this point, its reward for their skill investment and, again, the passive scores allow the GM to tailor these rewards to the players rather than relying on randomness. This also prevents Tweedle the Barbarian from Nat-20ing the religion check while the Paladin of Bahamut who failed his “religion” roll can’t even recognize his own order’s holy symbol. There are some scenarios were an “active” player can usurp the passive score player’s win (e.g. the suspicious character who declares that “I would have put traps in that bookcase, so I’m going to search for traps before I start pulling out books” gets a roll to resolve that perception check and could upstage the trapfinding passive ability of another character), but (and so long as it didn’t become an exercise in micromanagement of PCs by players), it would seem to encourage players to describe what they are doing if they want to rolling dice.

  37. Are you aware that they’re called passive checks because they are passive on the part of the player? It’s because the player isn’t rolling dice. The character isn’t necessarily passive when a passive check occurs, although in some cases they might be.

    I mean, in some regards that’s not relevant. If you’re talking about passive on the part of the PC checks, and calling that a passive check, your article amounts to the same thing. But it’s a fairly important conceptual difference, and one that causes all sorts of messed up reasoning on the part of DMs on when it’s appropriate and not appropriate to use them.

    • I think he’s advocating that the mechanics reflect the narrative.
      He posted an article (I think recently-ish) about aesthetics and why he doesn’t like mindless reskinning, which I think explains it better, but I can’t seem to find it.

      Basically, the players’ actions should ‘feel’ superficially similar to their characters’ actions, so in this case a passive check should represent a passive activity.

      Personally, it bugs me no end when published adventures completely reverse this, and say that Passive Perception is for specifically looking for something, and Active Perception is for when they aren’t paying attention.
      It just feels wrong.

      • Passive checks, in general, are explicitly for when:
        A) the PC is doing something over and over again, but the player doesn’t need to roll the dice over and over again. (But not the same thing in the same place, that’s covered by the automatic success rule.)
        B) the DM needs to make a check ‘secretly’ for the PC so the player doesn’t even need to know a die was rolled.

        Generally speaking almost all Passive Perception checks fall into one or both of these categories. The PC is generally looking around and observing the environment actively over and over again as they go, and the DM doesn’t want the player to know something was hidden to be checked for.

        Passive Lore checks are useful for the same reason, it sometimes is something ‘passive’ on the part of the PC, but thinking about stuff and recalling stuff as you examine it is often active. (Something Angry got half wrong in the article. Recall doesn’t have to be either random nor passive. Head scratching and thinking about stuff absolutely does make recall more effective.)

        But so are ‘passive any check’ where the PC is actively doing something as they go, or a secret check is needed for something the PC is doing actively.

  38. I’m commenting before I finished, because you said to take a moment to write out why passive perception and passive knowledge is terrible.

    For passive perception, it’s because not having high enough numbers resulted in 6 giant badgers getting a surprise round immediately after the scene intro, without the players making any choices or having any input at all. It felt like the GM was playing with himself at the table. It was not fun. I stood up and left.

    For passive knowledge, firstly I agree that the examples you wrote would really bog down the game, but they also seemed very simple, so I’m not sure why you’re putting knowledge gates in front of them anyway. I don’t have proficiency in anything, but I still know what a big scary weasel looks like. But philosophically, I don’t like passive knowledge, because knowledge does not exist in concentric circles. Someone who knows significantly more than me about a subject does not necessarily also know everything that I know about that subject.

    For both of these though, the only real obstacle you’re putting in front of me here is a number you pulled out of your butt. As a player, I should get a chance to defeat that number, rather than you just deciding that I cannot defeat that number, or cannot lose to it.

    There, those last two sentences. That’s why I don’t like passive knowledge or passive perception.

    I thought about it and wrote it down. Now I’ll go read the rest of your article. Sorry if you already addressed these.

    • Alright, I finished, and this worries me. Your traps used to be hidden under leaves, behind tapestries, and in broken masonry on uneven floors, why are you now hiding them behind numbers? This feels like trying to stitch a bunch of bad ideas into something less terrible, and even if it works, it’s still taking a bad road toward a calculus lecture.

      I feel like your action adjudication handles this better and more simply than what you’re trying to do now. Hidden information is hidden. You have to hunt for it to find it. If you can see it without looking for it, then it’s not hidden.

      For knowledge: in action adjudication, players can ask a question or declare an action. If they ask a question, then it works the same: if it’s impossible for them to know, don’t answer; if it’s impossible for them to not know, then tell them; if there’s a way for them to check over and over again until they find out, then tell them; if it’s possible for them to know it, possible for them to not know it, and they can’t try over and over again, then you roll a die.

      That got people to stop asking me if they could “roll insight” on people.

    • Here’s what I gleaned from the article – I’ll write some examples here.

      Passive Check example:

      DM: “You enter the dimly lit empty room with a tiled blue floor. A dusty desk sits in one corner, while an empty bookcase leans against the other. As your eyes adjust to the darkness, Fred, you notice that there is one red tile on the floor – barely visible under the desk.” [You’re using Fred’s high proficiency in Perception to allow him to spot something strange about the room right away.]

      Active Check example:

      DM: “You enter the dimly lit empty room with a tiled blue floor. A dusty desk sits in one corner, while an empty bookcase leans against the other.”

      Fred: “Can I make a Perception check?”

      DM: “Sure, go ahead.”

      Fred: “Aw damn, I got a 3.”

      DM: “You don’t notice anything suspicious about the room.”

      Everyone else: “Can we roll too!?”

      [2 minutes later]

      DM: “George, you rolled a 17 so you notice a strange red tile under the desk.”

      So basically… you’re arriving at the same destination with a lot less steps involved AND it feels more organic.

      A lot of it is common sense too. Obviously, 99% of adventurers would know what a bear looks like. You don’t need to spend any time gatekeeping the fact that a bear is staring the party in the face. However, someone with a +7 in Nature may know that grizzly bears are much more dangerous than black bears and if you make a lot of noise in front of a black bear, it will probably just run away from you. If you try the same thing with a grizzly bear, it will rip your face off.

      So basically… your skill proficiencies provide bonus knowledge that is revealed immediately in the narrative. As it should be. What’s the point of putting 7 points into Nature if you can just roll poorly and suddenly not remember your bear knowledge. Then the city-dwellin’ bard who has never encountered a bear can throw in his natural 20 and somehow know more than you.

      Only rolling when there is a.) a chance of failure and b.) you need to make an active effort, makes much more sense to me.

      • Not to be contrarian, because I agree with you. But I do want to throw into the conversation the luck aspect:

        Scenario 1: Room with blue tiles, but barely visible red tile under the desk. While everyone “sees” the red tile – it sticks out obviously when their torchlight light shines into the room, perhaps only the low-wisdom barbarian considers it abnormal. “Why is that tile red and all the others blue?” The others say “I don’t know… let’s examine it more closely. Up until now, I didn’t think to examine it.”

        Scenario 2: Grizzly bear vs Black bear: The ranger or druid may not necessarily know this because there are no grizzlies where they learned their craft. However, the bard remembers the lyrics to a song, “If it’s black, shout back, but if it’s grizzly, time to flee!” (I just made that up, by the way.)

        I get that my examples are extreme and probably unrealistic. However, as a DM, it’s sometimes fun to adjudicate the rogue’s natural 1 perception roll when the warlock got a natural 20. The rogue is busy staring at the elf’s a$$ while she’s washing her hair, but the warlock was actually looking in the sky for his familiar, therefore, the warlock sees the flock of harpies closing in from a distance.

        • See, I know you said you agree with him, so I’ll try not to argue too strongly, but it’s not just that that situation is such a corner case as to not be worth catering for, it’s that catering for it actively damages the much better system that we could have by instead using passives to weave exposition into the narrative.

          I would like to adopt this interpretation of passives immediately, except I’m in the middle of an adventure and none of my players took any knowledge skills, so I should probably give some warning before suddenly deciding that none of their characters know anything ever again.

          • I don’t recall which article it was (in the last month or two) but Angry spoke of experimentation: don’t wait when you could just jump in and begin trying it. Don’t give up after one session if it isn’t working, either. Give it at least three or four session before you try to change anything again.

            As far as knowledge goes, one of the ways I “got around” the dice rolls (at least with bad passive skills) was to litter the world with books. If someone picks up a book on bears, all the info they need should be in there. Reading occurs during downtime. If you still feel the need, add a bonus to a roll or to the passive “check” for bear-related knowledge.

  39. Also way late to this, but I’ve been doing something similar in the Pathfinder system. Basically, unless there’s a consequence due to the time or a failure, or if the players push it to an active check, I assume everyone is taking 10 by default. Sadly it’s making some broken things more obvious, but it’s letting us get on with the story.

    (Yes, I called it a story. I think of it as such. It’s just that not even I know if the protagonists will prevail, or even survive. It’s choose your own with a vengeance.)

  40. Omg so many responses! Anyway, great article! These dice assumptions work both ways as well. I sometimes just decide things based on character stats and skills; I sometimes ask for – or make – rolls to figure it out… But the thing is, I don’t really follow a set pattern that the players can discern. Either way, I always roll the dice behind the screen, even if I’m not using them, because that SOUND makes things tense and keeps stuff moving. More than a few times I’ve ended a PC argument or pushed them into a quick decision just by rolling the dice. They just assume something is watching, or stalking them, or ready to kill them etc. and they don’t linger too long… Especially after you’ve hit them with a few natural disasters over a campaign, then they don’t know WHAT the heck you could be ‘rolling’ for at any given moment. The dice are a multi-purpose tool. Sure they physically represent possibilities, but they are also a powerful source of smoke-and-mirrors to keep your players guessing.

    • “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make”
      – Supposedly Gary Gygax, but probably not really.

      Whilst untrue in that there are plenty of good and valid reasons to roll dice, there is definitely something to be said about the act of rolling dice purely to show your players that dice are being rolled. 🙂

  41. Strange, this advice didn’t seem controversial at all to me as I’ve been doing it myself for years in one form or another.

    Passive Perception let’s players spot anything relevant such as ambushes/ traps, passive knowledge checks give players automatic information in context, passive strength checks let players knock down doors, passive. If players want to actively roll to add to this they can , although they need something specific to go on like a library to do research in or to describe what they’re doing to justify the perception check . Or something I’ve overlooked myself of course.

    It makes sense to me that if you have +5 strength it should be trivial for you to knock down a wooden door. I even allow a take 20 , but with the ruling that it would take multiple attempts and therefore trigger any failure penalties such as traps and make a lot of noise that would alert people. The only exception to any of this is in combat. I judge that in the heat of the moment it’s more difficult so we revert to dice to create tension . But when simply exploring the game gets

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