Good news, everyone! The article I posted the other day? That counts as the Long, Rambling Intro™ for THIS article! So, we get to jump right in! For those who are fans of the Long, Rambling Intro™, just go read that article again.
That said, I need to do two things before the first header. First, I need to say that THIS article is about tweaking the core action resolution system in D&D 5E. And that means also revisiting some of MY core ideas about what an action resolution system SHOULD and SHOULDN’T do. Second, the whole point of this article is to gently TWEAK the core mechanics of D&D 5E and – more importantly – to look at WHY tweaking it is valuable. These tweaks will be useful in building subsystems to allow for more complicated modes of play.
Now, here’s the deal – and this is important because I don’t want to deal with this bulls$&% in the comment section – some of the crap I’m proposing DOES ALREADY SORT OF TECHNICALLY EXIST in D&D 5E. That is, some of it is buried in variant rules. Some of it is lightly mentioned in the text. And some of it is lost somewhere in the poorly organized, poorly arranged pile of kludge we got instead of a DMG. I fully admit I ain’t proposing anything radical. Well, maybe one or two things will be a little more out there. But yeah, this is more of a tweak and clean-up job to make the various tools the system offers work together nicely and stand out in nice, obvious ways. Long story short: I don’t want to hear any crap about how “that’s already technically POSSIBLE in D&D.” Yes, it is. I am not trying to rewrite the goddamned game. I’m just trying to organize my toolbox. And to discuss the tools that are available and what they can do. And, in some cases, to clarify and reinterpret things the game designers did wrong.
So, let’s jump in.
The Core Mechanic
I’m going to begin by very clearly spelling out (and restating) the Core Mechanic of D&D 5E.
When a player declares an action – which includes a desired outcome and an approach anticipated to bring about that action – the GM determines the outcome and describes the result. First, the GM determines whether there is a chance that the action might succeed and a chance that the action might fail. If the GM determines the action can’t succeed, the action is a failure, though the GM may warn the player of the impossibility of the action instead. If the GM determines the action can’t fail, the action is a success. If the GM determines that the action can fail, but there is no risk or cost for failure such that the player can keep trying until they succeed, the action is a success. Otherwise, the GM uses the Core Mechanic to determine the outcome.
Under the Core Mechanic, based on the approach the player is using, the GM determines which Ability (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) governs the action. The GM also determines an appropriate Difficulty Class for the action. The GM – possibly with help from the player – determines whether the character has a relevant Proficiency. The GM also determines any circumstantial Modifiers. Modifiers can include a static bonus or penalty or the roll can be made with Advantage or Disadvantage.
Once all of that has been determined, the player rolls 1d20 and adds the relevant Ability Modifier, Bonuses and Penalties, and their Proficiency Bonus (if relevant). If the total equals or exceeds the chosen Difficulty Class, the action succeeds. If not, the action fails. If the roll is made with Advantage, the player rolls 2d20 and uses the highest single die roll. If the roll is made with Disadvantage, the player rolls 2d20 and uses the lowest single die roll.
If an action succeeds, the player either accomplishes their desired outcome or makes progress toward that outcome. If the action fails, the player does not accomplish their desired outcome and may suffer costs or risks associated with the roll. Regardless of the success or failure of the action, the GM may also apply consequences based on the player’s approach. The GM describes the results and applies any necessary consequences. Then play continues.
Phew. Seems like a lot, right? And except for the parts about my PERSONAL AND CORRECT approach to action resolution, it SEEMS like it’s in-line with the Player’s Handbook, right? Well, let’s look at some of the important departures.
For New Denizens of Angry: Approach and Outcome, Consequences and Costs
First and foremost, for those who are relatively new to this blog, welcome! You picked a weird time to jump in. And you are probably confused by this Approach and Outcome bulls$&%. These are things I spelled out a long, long time ago in one of my first “How to Run a F$&%ing Game” posts. Essentially, the idea is that a player’s job is tell you WHAT they want to accomplish and HOW they want to accomplish it. When a player says, “I want to pick the lock,” what they are saying is “I want to open the door BY picking the lock.” Simple, right? But important. Because that’s different from saying “I smash down the door,” which is saying “I want to open the door BY breaking it down.” But it also isn’t. The OUTCOME is the same: the door is open. But the APPROACH is different: how they get the door open.
Success and failure determines whether they get their outcome. In either case, a good die roll gets that door open. But their choice of approach determines the mechanics used. A Dexterity check and a Proficiency Bonus from Thieves’ Tools in one case and a Strength check in the other case. A battering ram might grant a bonus in the second case. Or a crowbar. But neither would be useful in the first case.
The Approach also determines the CONSEQUENCES. And those CONSEQUENCES aren’t always dependent on success or failure. Smashing the door down is LOUD, whether you succeed or fail. Someone will hear you. Picking the lock is QUIET. You get to keep the element of surprise.
Finally, if an action doesn’t entail any risk, it isn’t worth rolling because someone can keep trying until they succeed. As a GM, its you’re job to either determine the risks and costs of taking actions OR else just skip the die roll. Either way is fine. You might decide there’s no cost of breaking the door down. That’s fine. It just succeeds. But it’s still LOUD. Or you might decide that, if the door doesn’t burst open on the first try, the party loses the element of surprise and the thing on the other side has time to prepare. That first failure costs the party the element of success. If they want to try again, though, there’s no further cost for failure. They can just keep bashing away at that point. The enemy has already had the chance to prepare an ambush. So, a second die roll is unnecessary. Likewise, picking a lock doesn’t carry any risk or cost. Unless you determine the lock might break. Or the lock picks. Or there’s a chance someone on the other side might hear the lock picking attempt. Maybe they get to roll a check.
And, by the way TIME doesn’t count as a risk or cost unless there’s also a timer. Yes, it takes time to pick a lock and trying over and over IS time consuming. But if there is nothing stalking the party, no chance of random encounters every 10 minutes, no water or sand or acid filling the room, no ritual to stop by midnight, no guard patrol that will wander by, or no time bomb, TIME isn’t a cost. Missing an attack in combat, however, IS A COST – dips$&%s always miss this point – because actions and rounds are a limited resource and any round spent not making progress toward victory is a round the enemy can make progress toward your defeat.
Why Approach, Outcome, Cost, and Consequence NEED to Be Part of the Core Mechanic
Remember, the goal is to turn our action resolution into a robust toolkit for building subsystems and modes of play. And the other goal is to fix some of the wonky s$&% going on in the rules. They are minor wonks, I admit, but they are wonks nonetheless.
The Core Mechanic will serve as the core for every subsystem. We don’t want to build a whole bunch of new rules and s$%&. We don’t want to go back to the days when finding a secret door was one type of die roll and sneaking was another and attacking was another and so on. F$&% that mess. But to build useful subsystems, we need hooks. As it stands, the action resolution system only has one explicit hook: an action succeeds or it fails. Success and failure aren’t QUITE enough to do interesting things with. Costs for failure and consequences for approaches are things we can attach mechanics too.
It also fixes a couple of wonky bits. Most importantly, the rulebooks occasionally remind the GM that they shouldn’t fall back on die rolls for every little thing. But the rulebooks don’t give any sort of firm criteria for when to roll and when not roll. And the books don’t give the GM any firm alternative to die rolling. That is, they don’t explicitly spell out that it’s okay to declare an action a success or failure on the face of it.
Finally, it addresses TWO things that aren’t handled well by the D&D 5E rules as they currently stand. One isn’t really addressed at all and the other is sort of weirdly addressed in throwaway mentions in odd places. The first is the question of whether you can try again after you fail at something. The second is whether you can attempt something without a skill or without tools. And these are questions that 3.5 and Pathfinder TRIED to handle, but they didn’t do a great job. They made each SKILL explicitly state whether it could be retried, whether it required tools, and so on. But those things vary on a case-by-case basis.
So, now, the answers are clear. If an action can be retried over and over until success, we just assume that the character does just that. Retry until succeed. Otherwise, the action carries risks and consequences. So, every time the player makes an attempt, the situation changes. In some cases, the risks or consequences will invalidate a retry. In others, they will allow a retry after a cost has been paid but will carry further risks or consequences. And if the retry doesn’t carry further risks and consequences, there’s no point in rolling. The action just succeeds.
As for tools and training, by giving the GM permission to say “no, that is impossible and therefore it will fail” BEFORE considering the game mechanics, we can allow the GM to rule that tools are needed to even attempt something. Or specialized skills. The GM can simply say that a character with no tools and/or no access to equipment of any kind cannot simply turn an iron ingot into a sword.
No Skill Rolls
According to the Player’s Handbook, skills represent specializations of various abilities. Athletics, for example, is a subcategory of Strength. It’s a particular application (PHB 174). That is a ridiculous interpretation and it is, frankly, a massive problem. I could rant for pages about why that’s the stupidest explanation ever AND why it is literally contradicted by every other explanation for Proficiency Bonuses in all the books. But let’s just assume that I’m right without massive explanations. Because I am.
The PHB goes on to present a Variant rule called Skills with Different Abilities. Under that system, the GM can occasionally, in super rare and extra special cases not well defined, decide to connect a skill with a different ability.
There is a GREAT benefit to divorcing skills and ability scores. It allows people to play to their strengths and apply their skills more creatively and it creates more options for engaging with situations. This is especially useful in social situations, where the skills are poorly defined and only characters who specialize in Charisma will ever have any options in social interaction. It allows an Intelligent character a chance to persuade with reason rather than personality or to deceive with complex verbal puzzles and doublespeak rather than personality. It also fixes some of the weirder assignments of skills to ability scores. Animal Handling, for example, could easily be under Charisma instead of Wisdom. Some applications of Athletics would certainly fit Constitution, as do some applications of Survival.
My Core Mechanic explicitly divorces Skills from Abilities and explicitly tells the GM not to think along those lines. Moreover, it also explicitly divorces the skill from the outcome. And some skills are very explicitly tied to outcomes. And that makes some skills much narrower in focus than others. So, the GM must pick the Ability Score based on the Approach and then determine afterwards if any proficiencies for tools or skills are relevant.
The GM Decides the Rules to Use
Finally, the Core Mechanic very explicitly spells out that the rules for action resolution are TOOLS used by the GM to determine the outcome of ACTIONS chosen by the players. It may not seem like a big deal – because we all know that’s how it’s supposed to be anyway – but that wording is very useful to new GMs and new players. And some experienced players and GMs need to hear that too. Under these rules, a player who asks the GM “can I make an Insight check” is not playing the game properly. They are playing against the rules.
The Weirdness of Non-Actions
Now, let’s look at a wonky bit of D&D. And it’s a bit of D&D that’s been around since 3.5. The Core Rule SEEMS easy enough. Hell, even the original core rule – not my restated one – is pretty straight forward. Player or creature chooses an action. Ability check gets rolled. Action gets resolved. Right? Well, not quite. Let’s explore two weirdities. Avoidance and non-action.
Saving Throws are Weird
First, there’s avoidance. Under normal circumstances, D&D is clear about who the aggressor or initiator of an action is. If you hit someone with a sword, YOU are acting against THEM. You roll an Attack Roll. If you try to fool someone, YOU are acting against THEM. You roll a Deception check. If you try to sneak past someone, YOU are acting against THEM. You roll a Stealth check. If someone comes looking for you while they remain hidden, THEY are acting against YOU. They roll a Perception check. And if you cast burning hands at someone, YOU are acting against THEM. You roll a … well, wait just a f$&%ing minute. THEY roll a Saving Throw.
Weird, right? I mean, it probably doesn’t seem weird until you look at it in those terms. Saving Throws are the opposite of actions. They are reactions. And they are automatic. And the only actual reason they exist is because they used to exist. The fact that some spells have attack rolls and the fact that 4E completely flipped everything around and made Saving Throws passive just proves that. Moreover, the fact that the math works either way means they could easily go the other way. Sort of. That’s where things are weird.
In 5E, spell Attack Rolls are based on 1d20 + Spellcasting Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus. In essence, spellcasting is a skill. Some of the time, anyway. Spell Save DCs are 8 + Spellcasting Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus. That’s basically a passive check, right? Well, except Passive Checks are calculated based on 10 + Ability Modifier + Proficiency Bonus. Because 10 is the average roll on 1d20 rounded down. And that slight down-rounding means it SLIGHTLY favors people TAKING actions over people SUFFERING actions. Armor Class is just a Passive Defense that replaces Proficiency with an Armor Bonus. Except for some tricks of wording.
Why do Spell Save DCs use 8 instead of 10? To modify for the fact that MOST creatures and characters are not Proficient in MOST Saving Throws. Of the six possible Saving Throws, PCs are only Proficient with two of them. So, the 8 instead of 10 thing balances that out, favoring the defender and making up for the fact that there aren’t as many good ways to modify Saving Throws as there are to modify Armor Class. The other side of it is that, because magic – the primary source of Saving Throws – cost limited resources (spell slots), magic should be more effective. That is also why many spells also have partial effects, even on a successful save.
Am I saying that you could totally replace Saving Throws with fixed defenses and make any spellcaster make a Spellcasting Check against those Fixed Defenses? Well, yes, actually, you totally totally could. It’d be super easy, in fact. 4th Edition did exactly that because they were willing to say: “isn’t the fact that in some cases – for which there is no particular logic – you make attack rolls and ability checks and other times, your victim makes don’t die checks?”
And this will form the basis for a weird little combat module I’m working on. But don’t worry about that for now.
Because, no, I’m not proposing to rip out Saving Throws. That’s too big a change for this. I just want to extend the Core Rules a little. Not warp them. That’s the sort of thing that can be an active module.
But here’s where we can add an interesting roll. Saving Throws introduce the concept of Reactions. And I don’t mean the Reaction action type. But also, I sort of do. And this, again will come back in the weird little combat module. But this does provide a space for what I once termed the “click rule.”
The problem with Saving Throws isn’t that they are Reactive by their nature. The problem is they are a dice roll without a choice attached. You get TOLD to make a SAVING THROW. And that’s fine for combat. But outside of combat, it’s kind of dull. And we’re going to need something better if we’re going to do a better trap module or a stealth module.
The Reaction Rule. A GM can use the Reaction Rule whenever a character has a moment to respond to something unexpected. The GM describes what the character is aware of. The player then describes their reaction. The GM then determines if the reaction could avoid or mitigate the unexpected event, whether it can succeed, and whether it can fail. The GM then asks for a Saving Throw or Ability Check based on the action. Any spell that can be cast as a Reaction can be used in this instance.
Example: A player has stepped on a pressure plate that will trigger a trap-door opening underneath the forward rank members of the party, Alice and Bob. The GM tells the party “Alice, as your foot hits the ground, you feel a tile give way and hear an audible click. You’ve triggered a pressure plate. What do you do?” Alice, not knowing what is coming, says “I tumble forwards, trying to roll out of the way.” Bob, also unaware of what is coming, says “I raise my shield and stand my ground, gritting my teeth and trying to absorb whatever is about to hit me.” The GM determines that Alice’s action could conceivably carry her forward away from the pit trap. He asks her to make a Dexterity Saving Throw. Bob’s action, however, won’t do him any good. He plunges into the pit.
Example: Carol is trying to sneak past a patrolling goblin to steal a valuable thing. The goblin is walking ahead of her and she’s creeping silently behind, several feet back. Unbeknownst to Carol, she has failed her stealth check and the goblin is about to turn around because he thought he heard her breathing. “Suddenly, the goblin freezes. He’s about to turn, what do you do?” Carol thinks for a minute. “Is the cave wall irregular enough? Can I hide in the folds and crevices?” The GM says, “You could, but you’ll have Disadvantage since you have to move fast.” Carol thinks and says, “I’ll whip my dagger and try to take out the goblin before he turns.” The GM says “okay, give me a ranged attack roll with Advantage since the goblin is currently unaware of you.
I’m not proposing – yet – that all Saving Throws get replaced with Reactions. I’m just offering up a new and interesting type of roll INSPIRED by Saving Throws that have an in-built component of choice. It gives the party more control of their defenses when they are on the receiving end of surprises, even if they don’t know what the surprises are. And it gives the party a chance to recover or mitigate failed checks. These will be useful features in rules modules.
Knowledge Checks Are Weirder
So, that’s automatic reactions out of the way. We have a neat rule we can build on. Now, let’s talk about Non-Action Checks. A Non-Action Check is a check that literally involves the character doing NOTHING. And knowledge checks are the perfect example.
Imagine you are at the zoo and you see a giraffe in an enclosure. You don’t see the sign. You just see the creature. Instantly, you recognize the creature. That’s a giraffe! They are from Africa! From the Savannah! And they can’t make noise! Your head is filled with the things you know about the creature. You didn’t have to DO anything. You didn’t have to flex any brain muscles. Your brain’s JOB is to recall information when you need it. It responds to triggers.
Now, yes, sometimes it takes time for your brain to recall things. But making a conscious effort often gets in the way of that process. That’s why you tend to figure out, discover, or remember something you’ve been trying to remember hours later when you have stopped thinking about the problem.
Contrast recognizing a giraffe with solving a math problem. Say, long division. When you are solving a long division problem, you have to work through a series of steps. Actively. Divide this, subtract, carry, divide, subtract, and so on.
D&D does not distinguish between Active Skills and Passive Skills. Or rather, Active USES of a Skill and Passive USES of a Skill. Technically, for example, if someone with a proficiency in Sleight of Hand watches a street magician do a card trick, they should have a chance through simple observation and their experience to recognize how the trick is done. That’s a PASSIVE use of the skill, it’s your senses and your brain just firing away. Doing the card trick is an ACTIVE use of the skill. Likewise, seeing the symbol of a particular god and recognizing it and recalling facts about that god? That’s a PASSIVE use of the skill. But performing a ritual, like a sacrifice on a holiday or funerary rites, that’s an ACTIVE use of the Religion skill.
Why is THAT a problem? Because PASSIVE uses of the skill really CAN’T be described. And the trigger for a die roll should be the player describing an action. That is to say, if we were watching a movie of the game, we should be able to see the character DOING SOMETHING on the screen. And I don’t mean in the sense of banging on his head and saying “think, Pooh Bear, think” or squinting really hard.
What’s really weird is that D&D KNOWS this. It KNEW it even better back in 4E. 4E was very much devoted to “if YOU take the action, YOU make a roll.” That’s why 4E introduced Passive Perception and Passive Insight to represent your physical and social senses being pretty much turned automatically.
In the past, I’ve mentioned that PASSIVE use of skills should be automatic. That the GM shouldn’t make the players play the game of “finding the proper button to activate a skill.” Don’t make players “examine the thing” or “try to remember anything about the thing.” Now, let’s extend that with two extremely useful and powerful rules that are both better than the quick little paragraph about how, sure, you can use skills Passively sometimes if you want to but not really telling you how.
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.
Under this rule, flavor text information could be gated as follows:
This small, natural grotto is filled covered with strange glowing fungus.
[Nature] The fungus is naturally occurring and harmless.
[Herbalism Kit, Alchemy Tools or Arcana] The fungus is useful for making antivenoms and medicines.
A skeletal creature wrapped in tattered linens with glowing eyes.
[Religion 20] The creature is not a skeleton. It’s a lich. Liches are powerful magic users that have turned themselves into undead creatures. They retain their spellcasting abilities and have other abilities such as…
[Religion] The creature does not appear to be a normal skeleton at all.
This rule allows us to quickly set up flavor text for our adventures and provide GMs with information gated to relevant proficiencies. It removes the need for players asking questions. It also means that we’re now free to make skills useful in more active ways as well. Disarming a magical trap, conducting research, or puzzling out the steps to use an ancient arcane device to recharge a magical item might all be active uses of Arcana, for example. Animal Handling, for another example, can now also serve as an equivalent to Insight when dealing with animals.
Opposed Rolls. When a character attempts an action that puts it in direct opposition with another character’s skills or proficiencies, the DC for the character’s action is 8 + target’s Ability Modifier + target’s Proficiency Bonus for the relevant skill. If the target has Advantage or Disadvantage on the skill, apply +5 or -5 to the DC. Any bonus that can be granted to the target’s skill roll, such as from Bardic Inspiration or from a Cleric’s bless spell may also be applied to the DC. The notation for this is an Ability (Skill) Check vs. Ability (Skill). E.g.: Roll a Dexterity (Stealth) check vs. the scout’s Wisdom (Perception).
Example: Dave is trying to bluff his way past a guard. Dave would roll a Charisma check and add his Proficiency Bonus for his Deception Skill. The DC would be equal to 8 + the guard’s Wisdom modifier + the guard’s Proficiency Bonus for her Insight Skill.
Yeah, I admit this is already basically the way certain things are specifically called out, like Stealth vs. Perception and Deception. But now I’m codifying it as a standard rule. This gives us an easy tool for quickly resolving opposing rolls in various rules modules. Also, the notation is now nice and clear.
However, note that I’m using 8 instead of 10. Why am I using 8 instead of 10? Well, frankly, I think that SHOULD be the standard. It favors action. I’m using the same logic as for Spell Saves. Players use way more skills than have skills used against them. And using 8 instead of 10 favors the person rolling the die. That is, the person who is doing the action should be more likely to succeed.
Does that mean that I think DCs should be dropped? Should AC also be based on 8? The answer is, you could sort of argue that it already is. Armor Class is a Passive Ability, right? Like a Save DC. It has some special rules that allow it to get bonuses for equipment. But what it doesn’t include is a Proficiency Bonus, which runs from +2 to +6 throughout the game. But you could argue equally well that, at low levels, the base AC is 8 + Proficiency Bonus because 8 + 2 is 10. Now, I realize AC doesn’t scale with level, so that logic breaks down at higher levels. BUT, it is also subsumed by armor bonuses from spells, magical items, and actual armor. Likewise, the baseline DC for an Easy check – one that any character in the group should have a good chance of succeeding on with or without training – is 10. At low levels, that’s the equivalent of saying DCs have a base of 8 and the world adds a “Proficiency Bonus” of +2. A Medium DC, one that should be doable for a character with proficiency more than half the time, is the equivalent of the world having 8 + Proficiency Bonus + Advantage. A hard challenge is the equivalent of the world having 8 + Proficiency Bonus + Advantage + 5 Ability Modifier. And since easy, medium, and hard are the baseline difficulties for most of the game, it all works out.
When we’re building rules modules, using 8 instead of 10 as the logical baseline for Passive Abilities gives more characters the opportunity to participate in different modes of play even when they are lacking a specialization. An untrained bluffer can pull the wool over the eyes of a trained but low-level opponent most of the time.
Teamwork and Group Checks
Now here is where I piss some people off with an idea that is OBVIOUSLY TERRIBLE! Blargle-wargle-wargle. But this is where my logic for 8 instead of 10 as the baseline becomes very important. And trust me, this has some unintended side effects.
First, Teamwork. When two characters or more characters work together on the same task. This is already covered in the Aid Another ability. But it creates a bit of a problem. Under the basic rules, the character with the higher modifiers rolls a check with Advantage, right (PHB 175)? Well, there’s a problem with that. It gets in the way of other modifiers. For example, two characters attempting to kick down a door with their bare hands are just as effective as five characters with a battering ram. Because Advantage doesn’t stack. Now, honestly, in the basic game, that isn’t a big deal. But if we’re talking about adding modes of play which will involve an emphasis on teamwork and getting more people involved, we need to allow a bit more granularity. But we don’t want to add too much granularity either.
Working Together. When two or more characters work together to accomplish the same task, the character with the higher modifier leads the effort. The leader makes the appropriate ability check and enjoys a +2 bonus for one or two helpers or a +5 bonus for three or more helpers. Characters can only work together if it is task where such help is feasible and possible. In addition, a character can only help with a task if they would not be incapable of attempting the task on their own (due to a lack of Proficiency for instance).
Notice now that there is now some advantage when larger numbers of characters can combine their efforts and it also leaves room for Advantage and Disadvantage to come from other sources. Neat, right? Okay, now prepare to be pissed off. Because that rule is useful when two characters are working together to accomplish a single, specific task. But now we get to group checks. And the rule in the PHB is garbage.
Group checks occur when everyone in the group are all trying to accomplish something, but not quite as a team. For example, everyone in the group foraging for food, everyone in the group sneaking across a courtyard, everyone in the group searching for a hidden passage, or everyone in the group keeping watch as they move through enemy territory. Those don’t really represent the characters working together on one task. Rather, each character is trying to succeed or fail. But what unifies them is that the party does succeed or fail as a group. That is, if anyone finds the secret passage, everyone wins. If anyone gets spotted moving across the courtyard, everyone loses.
Now, PHB 175 gives a simple rule for those: everyone rolls a check and if there are more successes than failures, the whole group succeeds. What’s wrong with that approach? Well, there’s a few things. First, it’s five die rolls that need to be resolved and then counted. It’s always nice when everyone gets to roll dice, sure, but personally, I’d rather fit MORE actions in an hour of gameplay than more die rolls for the SAME action. Second, it doesn’t model the “all win if one wins” types of contests that make up the bulk of the action. Perception, searching, spotting lies, and all that crap? That s$&% happens a lot more often than the “all fail if one fails.”
Now, here’s the other problem. D&D is a game in which each player is encouraged to specialized and groups are encouraged not to duplicate their skills and abilities. So, in most tasks you generally have more weak links than strong characters. And with each character rolling on their own, “all win if one wins” tasks are hurt by this system. Far better if only the best character rolls one check. Sort of. I know you’re doing the probability math, but hear me out. I have another point.
The problem with group checks like that is that most parties tend to overlook abilities that help in skill checks or take an “every person for themselves” approach. So, any bonuses or clever ideas that can’t be shared among the whole party are either spread out OR ignored as useless because they can’t modify all five rolls.
In “all win if one wins” scenarios, it is better if only the BEST character makes the roll. No threshold must be overcome. The party is throwing their best modifier at the problem. And the party can focus their bonuses on one person.
What about the alternative? “All fail if one fails?” The classic example is, of course, the entire party is in disguise or the entire party is attempting to sneak around. Well, having only the best character make the roll is nonsensical. Now, it’s weighing on the weakest character. And that puts a lot of pressure on the weakest character. Admittedly. That one die roll will determine the outcome. But, the teamwork issue enters because the party can focus their efforts on shoring up the ONE weakest character instead of trying to shore up two or three weaker characters. The focus of the task isn’t “how are we all going to get through this,” but rather “how are we going to get Elaine through this?” And that is a much more manageable problem. Elaine can simply remove and stash her armor, for starters. And she can drink a potion of sneakiness. She can spend her halfling luck if she tanks the roll. Or Frank can give her Inspiration dice.
The point is, the BEST or WORST roll shifts the focus from everyone planning for themselves to everyone working together to focus on one character. It also expedites the resolution. And it adds to the tension.
See, Teamwork and Group Rolls are going to be very important in various modules. And when you combine these rules with the Opposed Skill Check rule that sets 8 as the basis for DCs, it becomes easier to get everyone working together. It makes these problems seem more surmountable and gives groups the option to decide how many resources to expend on a task.
Group Checks. When several PCs are trying to accomplish something as a group, the GM can call for a group check. First, the GM determines whether the group will succeed if any member succeeds (such as with searching) or if the group will fail if any member fails (such as with stealth). In the first scenario, the character with the highest base Ability Check modifier (Proficiency Bonus + Ability Bonus) rolls the check. In the second scenario, the character with the lowest base Ability Check modifier (Proficiency Bonus + Ability Bonus) rolls the check. Bonuses, penalties, Advantage, and Disadvantage are applied normally to the character rolling the check, but these should only be applied after the GM has determined which player has rolled the check.
The End and The Beginning
In the end, nothing I’ve proposed here is super radical. And frankly, none of it really changes the basic game very much at all. But that was the point. I didn’t want to change the Core Rules so much as expand and clarify them a little. What I really wanted to do was just add some variety to the toolbox. The real magic is what we can do with this toolbox. With these simple tools, we now have the power to add more modes of play to the game and to emphasize teamwork and clever thinking. And it’s that last part that is exceptionally important. The minor tweak to opposed DCs slightly favors untrained PCs. The ability to describe approaches that might mix and match different Ability Scores and Proficiencies allows weaker characters to throw their strengths at problems. And the expanded rules for Teamwork and Group Checks give the players more options when approaching situations as a team.
Now we just need to design some structures to take advantage of all this crap.