This is part 2 of 6 of the series: GMing, Basically

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

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Originally, I wrote this long, rambling introduction about picking a role-playing system to run modern-era mystery games and about arguments with people about binary skill systems and why I personally prefer the freedom binary systems afford over things with narrative dice pools and hippie-dippie drama point bulls$&%. But I realized it was just a bunch of garbage meant to forestall arguments about which game systems were superior and justify all of the great advice I am about to selflessly bestow on all of you. I got to thinking: if the advice is truly great advice, won’t that be self-evident? Shouldn’t it stand on its own?

Well, it does. And I don’t need to justify myself to any of you. I’m f$&%ing awesome and I know it. I don’t have anything to prove. But you do deserve an explanation as to what this series of feature articles is going to be about. I have a feeling none of you will buy it if I just say “they are about awesome!” So, cue the rambling introduction. I hope its not as long.

I tend to focus on mysteries, investigations, and conspiracies in my games (interspersed with a kick-ass dungeon crawl now and again) which focus on the PCs using their skills and knowledge to overcome obstacles, gather information, and figure out what is really going on so they can fix it. In discussing those games on Twitter, a few folks have brought up some common issues they’ve run into and some great discussions got started.

When you start looking at mystery gaming, most of the issues (apart from the big one about how to structure a mystery story) are really about using the game’s skill system to its fullest potential. And the same techniques you use to run a great investigation apply broadly to just about any skill-based encounter or adventure in just about any RPG system. When I decided to write about the topic of skill-based gaming, I started by listing a few topics to touch on and the list just kept growing. You could write a book.

Well, I’m not going to write a book. But I’ve never been above milking a topic until there is nothing but chalky, white dust issuing from a shriveled… this metaphor turned disgusting. I’ve always been willing to exhaustively explore the full scope and scale of a topic, splitting infinitives with reckless abandon as I go.

So, what you are reading is the first feature article about Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System. And its a great starting point. And unlike some of my previous articles, its more broadly applicable. So, whatever your genre, whatever your game system, you should be able to use this advice. My own D&D/Pathfinder/d20 roots will be on display, of course, but I am using the same skills in my Hackmaster 5E game. It’s awesome! check out the free basic game.

Wow. Now that’s an introduction.

Rule #1: Players Can Only Declare Actions or Ask Questions

When the DM asks a player: “what do you do,” there are only two valid responses. And neither one involves the name of a skill.

First, the player can ask the DM a question about the world or the situation. “Do I know anything about the strange rune?” “Do I recognize the name ‘The Clan of the Pointed Stick?” “Do I see anything hiding on the ceiling?” Notice, none of these things require the player to mention skills. The DM can respond with an answer or ask for a specific roll. “Make an Arcane Lore check, but only if you’re trained.” “Yes. The strange old man in the mask mentioned it last week. It is apparently a clan of martial artists.” “Make an Observation roll with a -5 penalty because its dark.”

Second, the player can describe what action his PC is taking. And he should do so as if the D&D adventure were a book and his PC was a character. It doesn’t matter what skill or ability score the player thinks his PC should roll; what matters is what the PC is actually doing in the world and what the PC is hoping to accomplish. “I’ll give the door a solid, standing kick.” “I get a running start and jump over the chasm.” “I subtly offer the guard a bribe to let us pass.” The DM will ask for rolls as appropriate or determine the result some other way.

In the first situation, players often shoot themselves in the foot by trying to use specific skills in situations in which they are clueless. How does a player know if the Order of the Star is a matter of divine lore, arcane lore, local knowledge, or history if he doesn’t recognize the name. And yet, players often respond with “can I roll a Hisory check” based on the fact that it is their highest skill and they want to roll that one.

In the second one, players treat the game world like a point-and-click adventure game. Like there’s a button labeled Climb, one labeled Diplomacy, and one labeled Religious Knowledge. Again, this causes them to sometimes choose the wrong skill. But it also causes them to focus on pushing buttons instead of thinking about the living, breathing world. In the long run, this can prevent them from coming up with complex plans that combine several actions. Or considering any action that doesn’t easily or obviously fit into a single skill.

This rule needs to be enforced and reinforced constantly. I like to use shame and sarcasm:

DM: “… and the guard refuses you entry to the Citadel.”
Player: “Can I roll a Diplomacy check?”
DM: “Sure, knock yourself out.”
Player: “27.”
DM: “Wow, that’s a really good roll. Anyway, that was fun, but what do you want to do about the guard?”
Player: “I meant I wanted to roll that check at the guard.”
DM: “Well, he’s impressed by your roll too, but he didn’t bring is twenty-sided die. Besides, he’s on duty and can’t play dice games with you right now.”

Rule #2: Only Roll When There is Chance of Success, A Chance of Failure, and A Risk or Cost of Failure

DMs make their players roll too many f$&%ing dice. It’s fun to roll dice, sure. But only when it’s dramatically appropriate. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time and makes die rolling seem trivial, robbing the game of dramatic tension and frustrating the players. Every time a player describes an action, the DM has to decide whether a die roll is called for. And he should do so by asking these questions:

Can the action actually succeed? If the action is impossible, either because its just f$&%ing impossible or because the difficulty is so ridiculously high the player can’t succeed, don’t roll. Either tell the PC that it is impossible or narrate the failure. Done.

Can the action really, truly fail? This is actually trickier to figure out because a lot of actions seem like they can fail, but they really can’t. For example, if the PCs are ransacking a dungeon room, barring anything magically hidden or designed never to be found, they will turn up everything eventually. If they are researching information in the library, they’ll eventually turn it up.The trick is decide whether the PCs are constrained. Assuming a lock is within the PC’s skill level, they will eventually pick the lock and get it open. But if the room is filling with water or monsters are beating the snot out of the PCs, the question is not whether they succeed, but whether they succeed in five rounds. That is something they can fail at.

That is why it is not enough that success and failure are possible. We also have to ask whether failure carries a cost or penalty. In the case of the lock being picked while the room floods, the penalty for failure is death. The party is risking something if the action doesn’t succeed. Searching for a trap and trying to disarm the trap both have a risk: you might blunder into the trap and set it off before you find it or disarm it.

The assumption is that, lacking any constraints, the party will keep trying something over and over until they succeed. The DM should take that into account. When the party attempts an action, assume they mean to keep trying until it succeeds. If the party could freely do so, then it is not worth rolling. They succeed. And beware not to impose constraints that don’t really exist. “Because it will take an hour” is not a constraint. “Because it will take an hour and the place will explode in two hours” is a constraint.

It is also important to note that “missing out on something” is not the same as a risk or cost of failure. If the party is trying to pick a lock on a door that leads to massive treasure, there is nothing that keeps them from trying until they succeed. There is nothing that establishes a failure point. A risk or cost of failure is something that requires the party to decide whether it is worth continuing to try (time is running out to escape from the bomb) or else establishes a point of final failure (the bomb went off, you died). If there is nothing in the scene that would (a) cause the party to stop trying to succeed or (b) keep them from being able to try again and again, just give them the success and call it a day. The roll is a waste of time.

A Digression: Dump The Penalty for Failure Until You Fail Forever

Some games include the “penalty for failure until you fail forever” rule. This is most often associated with lock picking for some bizarre reason, but it crops up in other places too. Basically, it amounts to this: every time you fail at something, you suffer a penalty to retry it. After a certain number of failures, you have to conclude that the thing is beyond you and you can never succeed.

This is a stupid, arbitrary rule. Why does failing to pick a lock make it harder to pick? Trust me, it doesn’t. And if the difficulty of the check is low enough for the player to be able to roll it, it is not beyond the PC’s abilities. The rule only exists to prevent players from rolling over and over until they succeed. Well, so does my rule. And my rule does it much, much better.

So, dump the “penalty for failure until you fail forever” rule if your system has it. Just ignore it. And while it you’re at it, just ignore any of those codified rules about when you can and can’t retry an action in favor of a common sense approach.

Rule #3: One Roll is Usually Enough (Unless Something Changes)

Once you’ve decided that a die roll is actually called for because there is a chance to succeed, a chance to fail, and a cost or risk associated with failure, the next decision is whether to break the action down into one die roll or several. The answer is almost always that one roll is enough.

Rolling the same check over and over is boring. And, truthfully, the idea of “attempts” is silly. Its easy to say each blow against the door in an attempt to break it is an attempt, but how do you know when an attempt at lock picking ends and another begins?

Instead of focusing on individual attempts, focus on the situation. Specifically, when does the situation change. If the PCs are trying to pick the lock on the tower door to rescue the beautiful monster from the evil princess before she sacrifices it to her dark god, the PC is going to keep trying to work that lock until something changes. Like they hear the monster scream and gurgle and die. Why break it down into multiple rolls? What sense does that make?

Corollary to Rule #3: Reevaluate the Action for Rule #2 Before Every Roll

Unless it is dramatically appropriate (see Rule #3a below), one roll is enough unless something changes, right? Well, it is important to keep Rule #2 in mind before every roll. Before every attempt. That is, after a single attempt (whatever that means) fails, ask yourself whether the next attempt actually needs a die roll or not. Usually, it won’t.

Imagine the PCs are trying to break down a door. On the other side of the door is an ogre enjoying his Ogre Treats Cereal. If the PCs smash open the door on the first try, they will be surprised to see the ogre and the ogre will be surprised to see them. Neither side will be able to ambush the other. Initiative will be rolled as normal. However, if they fail to smash open the door, the ogre will realize someone is trying to get in and he’ll prepare an ambush.

So, something changes. Therefore, it is appropriate to call the first roll a single attempt that can succeed or fail by itself. And then the party can try again after that failure.

Imagine the PCs do fail. The ogre is alerted and gets ready to ambush the PCs. The PCs don’t know it. They’ll find out when they finally get through the door and walk into an ambush. Meanwhile, they decide to try the door again. Do you make them roll for the second attempt?

The answer is NO! Why? Because even though they might succeed or might fail, there is no longer any risk. They can just keep battering at the door until it breaks open. The ogre has already prepared his ambush. He’ll wait for the PCs. The second attempt is an eventually success: “you give the door a few more solid kicks. Eventually, it flies open with a heavy wham! And a javelin flies out of the door into your chest.” Done and done. All it took was one roll.

Now, let’s go back to that “Princess Sacrificing the Monster Scenario” for a moment. Because, I can already hear readers screaming at me that I’ve just made the entire outcome of the adventure hinge on a single lucky or unlucky die roll. Yes. Yes I did. The monster lives or dies based on how quickly the PCs can pick the lock. And while it is perfectly valid to boil it down to a single die roll, this is also a case where you could drag it out by using multiple die rolls.  HA! You didn’t think I was going to say that, did you?

Rule #3a: Rule #3 Doesn’t Count if The PCs Can See The Ticking Clock

When there is a source of rising tension that the DM can easily communicate to the players so that the players are aware of the tension and can use it as a cue to change their minds, it is okay to break a complex action down into multiple “attempts” and require multiple die rolls. But each attempt needs to represent something. Each attempt might represent a minute of time passing. The party may or may not know when the ritual will be over (maybe knowledge of the ritual will help them figure it out), but the DM can describe what they hear through the door. The rising crescendo of the princess’ voice as she incants, the roar of the soul-vortex as it expands, and so on. The DM needs to be able to ratchet up the tension with every die roll and remind people things are getting worse to keep the PCs sweating bullets and maybe give them a chance to decide to change their approach (“Get out of my way, I’m busting this door down!”). In short, there needs to be a ticking clock and the party needs to be able to see it.

Of course, time is not the only possible resource that each attempt can waste (remember, if you are rolling, there needs to be a cost or consequence). If the party is gathering rumors in town, money can be the ticking clock. Crossing a desert? It’s hit points or fatigue. Building a thing? Materials can be broken, used up, or wasted. But remember, the party needs to see the resource dwindling or the consequences thereof.

Just remember that rolling the same die roll multiple times is boring by itself. And, eventually, no matter how much tension you inject into the scene, the players will eventually recognize they are just doing the same repetitive task over and over. So use this technique sparingly, keep it brief, and use it for the really big stuff. Otherwise, one roll will do it.

A Digression: Auto-Success and Metagaming

If you have been paying attention, you will notice that my rules are handing the PCs a lot of automatic successes. And if this is a problem for you, well, you should stop doing it. After all, it’s your fault. Getting the most out of your skill system means cutting out a lot of the crap. You are wasting everyone’s time requiring skill check for useless actions that have no downside. You’re just rolling dice for the sake of rolling dice. I totally understand that some doors in a dungeon will be locked or stuck. That makes things fun and flavorful. But it doesn’t make it worth wasting time on. If the party has a trained member who is skilled enough to possibly pick the lock, that is good enough. You don’t want them rolling forever on it while everyone at the table gets bogged down by a string of bad luck. And you don’t arbitrary limits like: ‘you only get three tries and then the lock apparently self-destructs.’

Put another way, when you designed the obstacle and didn’t make it possible to succeed, possible to fail, and give it a price or consequence, YOU decided it wasn’t worth wasting time on. You didn’t add in any risk. Any drama. You did that. Not me with my rules. You. You. You. My rules are just here so we can ignore your pathetic attempt at meaningless challenges.

You may also be sitting there worrying about the evil players who will catch on to my dastardly rules and realize that, whenever they have to make a die roll, it is something important and possibly dangerous. Of course, if they have special abilities and resources to spend to improve their checks, they will only ever use them on important things. They will always try to aid each other when its possible because its important to succeed. They will try their hardest at every challenge, those metagaming bastards.

Yes. They probably will. They will realize that die rolls only happen when its important and risky. And they won’t accidentally waste their best abilities on meaningless garbage. And that is what you are complaining about: you can’t trick them into wasting resources on stupid, usless crap and they won’t have those resources when something really big and important comes along. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a pretty s$&%&# thing for a DM to want to do.

Besides, when you get down it, you are basically complaining that the heroes are adjusting their efforts based on the level of risk and the importance of task. Its like, when things are most important, they actually try harder. What crazy behavior! Yes, SOMETIMES, the PCs won’t have any in-world way of knowing this door is more important to break through than that door. Fair enough.

But… if you only waste die rolls (and therefore table time) on stuff that is important, you will waste less time on unimportant crap that can be handled with one quick remark, and fill your game with more meaningful challenges for the PCs to spend their resources on. They will still have to manage their resources. Its just, they will be managing them between important things.

Rule #4: Don’t Make the PCs Ask Questions

Remember when I said that PCs can only ask questions or declare actions. Ideally, they should never have to ask a question. A question is a speed bump to role-playing. And it means nothing is happening in the movie of your game. Let me explain.

The idea of role-playing is that the player is presented with a situation. The player projects himself into the mind of the PC and decides what the PC does in that situation. That’s role-playing. But when the player has to double check whether or not something is in the PC’s head to make the decision, they have an extra step between situation and decision. A speed bump.

Meanwhile, thinking about things and figuring things out are not actions. When someone is thinking about something, outwardly, it is kind of hard to tell what’s going on. They could be thinking, they could be daydreaming, they could be pooping. But the one thing they aren’t doing is moving around doing something interesting to watch.

There are a lot of DMs out there who will describe a circle of strange runes on the floor but wait for one of the players to do something that indicates they would like to make a knowledge check (like ‘examining the runes’). This is f$&%ing insane. When you see a sign written on the wall across the room in a language you understand, you don’t have to wander over and examine it (unless the text is too small). You just read it. Pretty much instantly. And if its a language you recognize but don’t comprehend, you recognize the language but you don’t know what it says. If you see a thing and you know what the thing is, the information pops into your head unbidden. That’s how brains work. And eyes. If they didn’t work that way, we’d spend all our time examining things and pondering things and squinting at signs from three feet away.

So, as soon as a PC is exposed to a thing they might recognize or know something about, they should recognize it or know it. Or at least make the die roll. Recognizing a monster and its particular traits and weaknesses should be part of the flavor text. Immediate flavor text. It should not require a PC to wander over and examine it to load the part of their brain that has the information in it. It should not require a player to ask!

DM: “On the floor of the room is a strange circle. Anyone who is trained in Arcane Mystical Knowledge, please roll a check.”
DM: “Arathicus and Bob recognize the circle as a summoning circle. A demon summoned into such a circle is bound, unable to leave it or return to its home plane unless the wizard lets it out.”

Of course, researching things is a different matter altogether. But then, the PC is DOING SOMETHING, aren’t they?

A Digression: When to Roll Knowledge Checks

Since I’ve brought up the subject of skills that essentially just determine whether a PC knows a given fact, you might ask whether or not they are bound by the same rules about when to roll and how often to roll. The short answer is YES!

Knowledge skills are a huge pain in the ass. On the face of it, it seems like they should always be rolled. A PC might know something, they might not, and, depending on the difficulty of the information, they could therefore succeed or fail. And not having the information usually makes things harder or impossible for the PCs. So, you should always roll one roll for each useful bit of knowledge. Right?

But, knowledge skills aren’t really skills at all. While you can make an argument that the PC is rolling to “remember” something, they aren’t that cut and dry. They are more of a random roll to see if some particular piece of information is in the PC’s head. Otherwise, there is no reason for the PC to have different knowledge skills. The skill would be “remembering” and the chance would be the same for every thing the PC was ever taught.

I will discuss knowledge checks more later. Because they can really, really f$&% up a game for no good reason. But ultimately, when it comes to knowledge checks, I tend to use passive scores. That is, if the difficulty of the knowledge in a given system is equal to the average roll for the PC (e.g.: 10 on a d20 plus the skill modifier in d20 games), the PC knows the thing. otherwise, not. So, both the training and the score are still useful, but I don’t have to waste time with die rolls. To facilitate this, I keep a list of knowledge skills by PC.

I go back and forth on the knowledge skill problem, but, for a time my players were trained to know that I would tell them anything they knew or recognized about the world the moment it became relevant and if I didn’t tell them, it meant their PC didn’t know it. We spent a lot less time with the players “examining things” and asking questions about this term or that monster.

But, look, if you like rolling for knowledge, it isn’t going to break your game (except in some ways we will get to in a later article). It is justified. So feel free.

Rule #5: Differentiate Approaches, Because Success Needs Consequences.

Now we come down to the most difficult rule to explain and the most difficult rule to follow. Sadly, it is also the most important. And it could be an entire article by itself. In fact, it probably will be.

Suppose the party is running away from something and they come to a locked door. They could double back and try to find a different route through the dungeon. They could bash down the door. Or they could pick the lock. Which they actually do is a fairly simple decision. Which skill is their highest: Dungeon Navigation, Door Bashing, or Lock Picking. A simple mathematical puzzle.

Now, suppose the party is evading something and they come to a locked door. They have the same basic set of options. But…

The thing is behind them but they don’t know where or how far. If they double back, they might wander right into it. Especially if they fiddle with the door for a little while and then decided to double back. And they might not be able to find another route to the surface before they get eaten. And…

The lock is a fairly simple lock. Its not hard to pick (easy check), but lock picking is complex and time consuming. So it will take three successful checks to pick the lock. Each die roll (success or fail) will use up a minute of time during which the thing in the dungeon is getting closer. Of course, the door can be relocked behind the party, slowing the thing down. And…

The door is stout and reinforced. It will be hard to kick open or bash down (hard check), but once it’s broken, it’s broken. The party only needs one success. And each failure might injure the basher. Of course, if they do bash the door open, the party won’t be able to lock it behind them and slow the thing down. And…

The lock is delicate. Once the party attempts to smash the door open, the lock will probably (definitely) be damaged and be impossible to pick.

Assuming you know all of this, which solution is best? Not such an easy thing to say, is it.

Most game systems treat all skills equally. Whatever skill you roll, the basic mechanics are the same. Even the games with fancy narrative dice and degrees of success and lucky or unlucky breaks. The dice are focused on the outcome of the action. That’s what they are there for. There is this belief that non-binary rules and degrees of success somehow change that. But they don’t.

What makes the game interesting, what makes the game a role-playing game, is the decisions the players make. What actions they take. But to focus on that, you have to treat different actions differently. And to do that, you have to make sure that the PCs actions have consequences, regardless of success or failure.

When writing a complex skill-based encounter, the first thing you do is come up with the problem or obstacle. Then, you need to come up with the different approaches (the different methods of solving the problem) the PCs might attempt. After you list the approaches, you need to answer two questions for every approach: (1) Why would the party take this approach over the others? (2) Why wouldn’t the party take this approach over the others? If you can come up with more than one for each, good for you. If you can’t come up with one pro and one con, you need to rework your situation.

For example: the guard won’t let the party pass. What are the likely approaches and the pros and cons?

  • Plead/Persuade. Pro: No real risk. The guard just says no. Con: Not likely to work.
  • Bribe. Pro: Likely to succeed. Con: Expensive.
  • Intimidate/Threaten. Pro: Doesn’t cost anything. Con: If it fails, guard may call other guards to fight.
  • Bluff/Deceive. Pro: Doesn’t cost anything (again). Con: If the guard figures it out, he won’t listen to the PCs again. Might report PCs.
  • Sneak In. Pro: No interaction with guard needed. Con: If the PCs get caught inside, they will be in big trouble.

Notice, I can’t come up with a good pro for Bluff/Deceive other than “doesn’t cost anything” which means it is no better or worse than Intimidate/Threaten. So, when I write my adventure, I might put in some ‘fraudulent papers’ that the party can stumble over that give the bearer permission to pass the guard if they can convince the guard they are real. That gives them a reason to choose that option because, with the fraudulent papers, it becomes ‘likely to succeed.’ Also, that actually becomes a pretty favorable approach, but it only works if the party finds the fraudulent papers, so that’s okay.

Corollary to Rule #5: Approaches Are Actions, Not Skills

Notice also, I haven’t broken down this list by skills because SKILLS ARE JUST TOOLS TO RESOLVE ACTIONS. I’ve come up with approaches. Sure, some of them might mirror some skills. But if the PCs try to sneak in by hiding in the back of a merchant’s cart instead of rolling a Sneaky Skill check, I can go with it.

As a general rule, I always prefer to have to figure out which skill or ability check to roll to suit a particular action. I want to be able to wiggle on skills and abilities. If my list of guard approaches looked like this:

  • Diplomacy Skill
  • Stealth Skill
  • Intimidate Skill
  • Bluff Skill

When the PCs describe their action as “rolling in on the back of the merchant’s cart,” I’d have to try and cram that into one of those four skills to figure out how it should work and what the consequences are. On the previous list, its pretty obvious where it falls. It must be “Sneaking In” because that is the one that avoids all interaction with the guard and leaves the PCs wandering around inside with no authorization and the potential for big trouble. That works even if I decide that “riding in the back of the cart” doesn’t require a skill roll. It just works. And I might decide that because now they have to stay hidden once they are inside, so they will have plenty of dramatic rolls to make in a few minutes.

As a rule, I tend to set skills, abilities, and difficulties at the table except for a few vague notes (like: difficult check or not likely to work to remember me to set the difficulty high). That list of approaches for the guard at the gate is actually pretty close to the sum total of the notes I would bring to the table for that encounter.


Players can only ask questions or declare actions, and they should never have to refer to skill names to do it. Only ask for a roll if the PC can succeed, can fail, and there is a risk or cost for failure. One roll is sufficient, unless that roll changes the situation. Of course, you can roll multiple times if there is a ticking clock the party can see, but don’t overdo that. And when designing complex encounters, focus on approaches and make sure each approach has at least one reason to prefer it and one reason to avoid it.

With a few corollaries and a lot of explanation and rambling, those are my five rules for getting the most out of your skill system. With those to serve as a general framework, I’m going to explore a variety of topics related to skill-based adventures and encounters, mysteries, investigations, and interaction scenes. Hopefully, folks will find my advice useful, either to write engaging mystery adventures and campaigns or to improve the flow in the non-combat portions of the game or just to start fights with me in the comments section because I appear to have an upper extremity lodged into a lower orifice. After all, I did tell you it was perfectly okay to hinge the climax of your adventure on one lock-picking check.

50 thoughts on “5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

  1. Where I would suggest that you only roll for a skill check if *failure* is interesting. I’m a big fan of “failing forward” myself. It’s not that you failed to accomplish the thing. It’s just that the outcome ended up being undesirable.

    Did you try to pick the lock to that door while you ran from the monster? Maybe, it’s not that you failed, but that there was something even worse on the other side.

    Sometimes, it’s as easy as saying that they’re performance was *too* good. I will use an example from the show Leverage: if you watch the episode “The Morning After Job,” there is a scene where two of the characters try to pass themselves off as police officers to get some important documents. The local prosecutor, assuming that they’re cops, gives them the paperwork but also tasks them with taking a prisoner back to county lockup. So, instead of just getting the papers they were looking for, they now have a handcuffed felon that they have to deal with. The way to think about it thematically is that they failed their “Bluff” check because they were too good at it.

    Anyway, that’s some sort of off thoughts about skills.

    • Whereas I actively avoided bringing up the “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” bulls$&%. Hahaha. Can you tell I get a little worked up about skills?

      First of all, in essence I am saying that you should only roll when failure is interesting. That is, if failure doesn’t cost the party something or carry some consequence, you should not roll. The word interesting is kind of a useless word. Because it is utterly subjective. Telling DMs to “make failure interesting” isn’t helpful. Telling them what makes failure interesting is useful. In this case, it has to cost the party something or endanger them or kill them. Costs or consequences.

      The concept of failing forward, however, rankles me. I’m not going to lie. For a couple of reasons. First of all, its a waste of time in a focused, goal-oriented adventure. Take the “escort the prisoner” example you offered. The party is trying to accomplish something – solve a mystery, achieve a goal, what have you. If they fail at something, they have a set back and have to find an alternate route to their goal. They can’t get the documents and need to find another bluff to pull or another source of the information they need.

      But that “failure forward” means they still get what they were after, except we have to be distracted by some unrelated garbage first. I don’t want to waste time playing out the PCs escorting some felon to prison. Especially because, in order to make that interesting, I need to have an escape attempt. Its a distraction. Stop doing what you were doing.

      I want failure to require the players to find a different path forward, not force them to wander a mile out of their way then pick up where they left off.

      Moreover, failing forward is not failing. It says that no matter what, you will succeed at the adventure. Its just a matter of how much you have to put up with before we all decide its time to end the story. That’s fine if you want to tell “an interesting story,” but it is not a challenge. The players don’t accomplish something. They don’t solve something. They just either succeed forward or fail forward until they get to the end.

      Now, if you want to play that way, I won’t begrudge you. But I wouldn’t run a mystery like that. A well-crafted mystery is a complex thing and it is very hard to create a good one players can solve. I would caution any DM from rewriting reality to make failures fail forward and distracting the party with extraneous sidetracks.

      I will also reiterate that the concept of “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” is too focused on the outcome of random die rolls to be the source of what’s interesting in the story. The focus is on the choice they made. The fact that the party chose to impersonate police officers as their approach should be the focus, not the fact that they failed at it by “succeeding too well.” In the end, it comes down to whether or not you are willing to let the PCs lose:

      • When I first read about failing forward, it was something that I read about in the context of collaborative story gaming. To that extent, I immediately thought of how I play Fiasco with my friends. I suppose what I mean is that my mindset had already shifted towards collaborative narrative control.

        When I first spoke to my players about failing forward, one of them came back to me with a very lengthy discussion about how, as he understood it, failing forward was no different than sophisticated planning on the part of the DM. Couldn’t every example of failing forward be just as effectively achieved by good planning on the part of the DM? It took me a while to realize where the problem in our communication was. As I saw it, failing forward was something that the table did together, not just the DM.

        If a character tries to outrun the city guard and fails some sort of skill check associated with running, there are any number of options and I would expect everybody at the table to think about it. Maybe the character got caught, but by a suspiciously corrupt lawman. Or, maybe a mysterious stranger arrived in a wagon to assist him in the escape, only to expect compensation later. Or, as it ends up, maybe getting caught by law enforcement was just as interesting as outrunning them.

        One thing I’ve learned in the past six months is that the group is much better at building an interesting narrative than I am by myself. Giving players control, such as with failing forward in skill checks, just lets them do that.

        But, that’s me. I’m a very atypical D&D DM. Perhaps I should change my name the the Hugging DM.

        • And that is fine. But we also have to admit that collaborative story telling and building a narrative is a different form of gaming with different goals. In fact, it might not even entirely qualify as role-playing (which I know is going to get me into trouble) because the players have a degree of control over the world external to their character and the goal is to build an interesting story just to see where it goes. Therefore, the decisions they are making are on a level a bit above “playing a role.” I suppose its just a semantic distinction, but again, it is as a cross purpose to mystery gaming.

          A mystery game relies on a serious information gap between the players and the DM. It also relies on a solution to a mystery that exists as a reality to be discovered. In essence, the DM is giving the group a puzzle to solve and they have a set of skills and abilities to use.

          Again, while failing forward and collaboration are valid styles of play, they are very different styles of play to traditional role-play and they suit certain types of games and certain goals, but not others.

      • This is exactly what people say when they don’t understand failing forward. First of all, failing forward is BUILT ON only rolling when failure would be interesting. Failing forward is NOT always succeeding. It can be failing epically. Failing forward IS keeping the story moving. If there is a particular lock that needs opening, and it’s the only things the PC’s have to do, and they can’t do it, what happens? Without failing forward, end of campaign. If your campaign doesn’t immediately end, you’re failing forward.

      • The concept of “failing forward” made me cringe. The world would feel so arbitrary and pointless if my Pickpocket fail spawned a motherf5%&/ monster on the other side of the door. Meta!
        Sure, all good RP stories are based on some illusioniary work from the GM, but it HAS to feel logical. Or I’m out.

      • First of all, great article. I was introduced to the second and third rules in a slightly different form via Burning Wheel, and had already ported them to other games. I enjoyed your take on them, and the other three rules which were new ideas for me, and it’s great to have them all in one place as a resource I can point friends to when we discuss skill systems.

        But I was a little confused by your comments on failing forward, because it seems like you took interpret “fail forward” to mean “complications followed by ultimate success”. That is one technique one could use, but I don’t think it’s what failing forward actually refers to. Basically I agree with Ash’s explanation of the term, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t using the term wrong, so I poked around for a minute and found three different explanations of failing forward.

        “Do not let the game come to a grinding halt just because the players failed at something; rather, try and work that failure into part of the continuing narrative.”

        “The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure.”

        “Whenever a character fails, the consequences of that failure should drive the game forward, rather than bringing it to a halt.”

        I think the main thing is not to have such a strong pre-conception about how the players will tackle a problem that a single failed roll leads to a loss of momentum. I’ve played in games where the GM didn’t want us to succeed in any way except the one they had planned for, and when we failed a critical roll kept trying to justify rerolls until we finally succeeded and the game could continue. I think we can agree that’s worth avoiding. In practice I think following your second rule results in “failing forward”- if you never roll without considering that failure must be a possibility, and have consequences, I think you will catch the situations where a failed roll would stop the game and hopefully come up with better failure consequences, or perhaps skip the roll entirely.

        • Every well designed adventure will have multiple paths to the end, possibly as many as it takes (possibly with increasing costs to the characters or detrimental effects on the world), but an alternate path doesn’t have to open up simply due to another attempt’s failure. It’s okay for the guard to simply not accept your bribe and kick you out, provided that there is a sewer, another guard later, a roof entrance, etc. that can be tried. Players will get a disconnect if they try to bribe the guard and fail and he tosses them out, right into the sewer entrance to the palace.

  2. Thanks, I needed precisely this sort of article just now! I’m working to reduce time spent on mechanics to get more out of my game, as we play once in a blue moon, and waving off most skill checks is one good way to achieve that.

    The only downside is, I’ll never again get to hear “20! I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s awesome!”

  3. Nice article. One thing that bothers me about the not rolling for things that they will succeed at eventually is how do you determine how much time it takes? If you are playing with random encounters, time is always a factor. Do you just assume they take 20 in every circumstance?

    Another thing, when are you going to write an article about HackMaster? HackMaster is pretty much the polar opposite of D&D 4e. It’s pretty rare to find someone who likes both.

    • Well, if time is a factor, than you have a situation where rolling might be appropriate, but I’d probably word it differently. So, the party is picking a lock: does the party succeed before the get the attention of some random monster. Roll the lock pick check. If it fails, a monster shows up some number of minutes into the check and the party fights. Then they can try the check again. But I know we’re now wandering far into the territory of bending the nature of skill rolls over backwards.

      Alternatively, you can just roll multiple rolls and tick off time as normal. Or roll one roll for each time increment of random encounters (say, every ten minutes).

      But, at the end of the day, I generally just wing it. A lock pick attempt takes five to ten minutes. Bashing a door open takes generally a minute at most. Searching a small room with some furniture thoroughly takes fifteen minutes. Unless time is an issue, I tend to use time scales as follows: seconds, a minute, a few minutes, several minutes, a quarter hour, a half hour, an hour, a couple hours, all morning/afternoon/evening, half the day, the whole day. Lock picking takes several minutes. Punching someone is done in seconds. Researching the location of the shrine is going to take the whole day. The party spends all morning in the market trolling for rumors.

      Hackmaster 5E and D&D are thematically similar than I think people give either credit for. They are both success-oriented action-RPGs when you get down to it. I realize there are differences when you start to look at different editions and I admittedly am not a big fan of 4E. I have thought about doing a review of Hackmaster 5E, but I wouldn’t do dedicated articles to specific Hackmaster topics. I’m trying to stay more general and give folks stuff that is useful in a variety of different games.

      • One approach I use is to ask “How long will you keep doing this if nothing happens?” (Note that I didn’t say “if you find nothing” but rather “if nothing happens”.)

        This technique is alternated with another in which I let them roll the dice, and on a fail I tell them “Well you found nothing… and nothing found you.”

        I’ll do this whether there’s something to find or not. The didactic purpose of both these techniques is to remind Players that time is always ticking, and random encounters may happen anywhere. So keep it moving, people!

  4. I’d love to see you review HM. Even though I was an early playtester, I still waffle on whether I really want to run a campaign of it. The system can be very nit-picky (especially the skill system) and the books are pretty expensive. Kenzerco’s glacial pace of producing new material also bothers me. But there are a lot of things I do love about the new HM.

  5. I agree with you that failing forward is not desirable. Success is only sweet when failure is sour. I do however feel that you should always try to move the story forward on success or failure.

    Looking forward to the series.

  6. Great post! I heartily agree. Your blog is a lot more practical than mine. I need to learn from you how to get my head out of the clouds. I talk big about boundaries and scaffolding, and you make it a lot more practical with your five rules.

    • Cross link: I liked this post so much I suggested on “tearing 4e a new one” that you consider that fights should follow these same rules. At a minimum, it addresses your 4e issue. Of course you also pointed out there that its not the dm, but the system. System matters. I agree. But the entire complaint people have about the problem of the fifteen minute workday assumes fantasy heroes should be in combat all day, which is a characteristic of d&d and d&d only. Fights should follow the same five basic rules as skill systems. And if they don’t, and players nova and rest, there isn’t really a better way to do it than a system that balances all classes for encounter 1 as well as encounter 5.

      The real problem with the fifteen minute workday is that I previous editions it made wizards really powerful for two encounters, and then the whole party would rest. The fighter and rogue, balanced to be better than the wizard late in the day, never saw that happen.

      • Considering I am writing about D&D (and Pathfinder, to some extent), I think it is quite fair that I write about uniquely D&D problems. Though I do not quite agree with your assessment.

        That being said, part of the reason I LIKE D&D and play it is because I like a combat focus and I like a series of action encounters that wear a party down as they work toward a goal. D&D claims to be built on that assumption and the reason I criticized it as I did in that other post is because, despite that claim, the system was built to provide players with different incentives, forcing the DM to work against the in-built incentives to create the play experience the game promised. And I proposed a fix.

        I don’t find “it is not broken because the DM can fix it” to be a compelling argument and I do not find “just play a different system” to be useful advice. My goal is to actually try to provide fixes for people who run into the same isolated problems I do in systems they otherwise want to stick with for a variety of other reasons.

        • I think your solutions are good, but I think the problem doesn’t exist. Not really. I think it’s a problem we created.

          The fifteen minute workday is the name of a problem caused by the imbalance between casters and non-casters in original, 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition D&D. The problem, as you clearly know, was that, absent a story reason to keep going, casters could expend their most powerful spells every round until they ran out, then rest and repeat. Because casters were balanced to assume they mixed high- and (mostly) low-level spells in each encounter, having casters use only top-level spells caused them to be significantly more powerful than non-casters.

          Like many DMs, I spent over a decade (before 4e) working out ways to fix the fifteen minute workday problem — that is, the caster/non-caster imbalance that results from short adventuring days. The best strategy was to eliminate the fifteen minute workday itself, by doing some of the things you pointed out — applying time pressure from plot events, using wandering monsters, etc. Fixing the system itself was too hard.

          I think we all came to conflate the fifteen minute workday with the caster/non-caster imbalance. It was impossible to patch the system to require casters to mix in low level spells, so we all focused on eliminating the fifteen minute workday.

          So now people think that the fifteen minute workday is the problem, when in fact it’s the filler fights and the goblins that exit just to wear the party down that are the problem, because they’re a legacy of the band-aid we all used to keep casters from dominating the game. They’re not important to the plot. They’re filler. They’re usually not that tactically challenging, and they usually have the default binary outcomes, “kill or be killed.”

          But your other point, that some groups might want to play that way — with cocky, reckless bravado rewarded by the system — is valid. That’s badass “van art” fantasy, and I think it’s cool; but we have to agree that it’s its own subgenre of fantasy. The Fellowship didn’t slog through an average of four or five battles every day they had one.

          I think your solutions would work, though limiting dailies seems to go too far, to me. I proposed some more ideas on my blog as I was thinking up this response. One system-based solution was inspired by old school tournament play, so if you know any Fourthcore folks, send them the link.

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  8. this is spooky, I just finished writing the weekly newsletter for my gaming club and it says nearly exactly what you were saying in part 1. here’s some copy pasta from the newsletter, if you can give me any suggestions about what else to say to them to get them out of the “i roll an x” habit that’d be fantastic

    Describe your actions
    “i perception check the fountain.”
    Boring. what does that tell me about what the PC expects? nothing.
    “I run my hands along the fountain, wondering at the beauty of the craftsmanship, peering close, I try and make out what the symbols are.”
    sweet, I, as DM love this, youve just helped me realize the world in a physical, descriptive way, you are helping to tell the story, youve put yourself in there. youve listened to the description and you are reacting in a way that shows it, but it’s not all about stroking the DM’s ego.

    “I roll a check” (and now expect to do something the DM hadn’t even considered).
    A lot of the time you guys will pick up with laser focus on something that isn’t vital, you’ll miss the right clue or you’ll think of a solution that the DM hasn’t thought of. DM’s love this if you describe what you are doing. It is the bane of a DM’s existence if you just say “I roll a check”.

    Describe your intent
    for an extra bonus, add an expected outcome on the end
    PC1: “I push against the statue, hoping that it will topple onto the pressure plate below, triggering the trap without anyone getting hurt”
    DM (with a surprised eyebrow cocked, rolls a strength check) “the statue starts to topple forward”
    PC1: “I shout LOOKOUT BELOW!”

    This is role playing and this is where DnD gets fun.

    If the DM is still stumped it’s at that point you should probably suggest a check. Meta gamingly, this probably means you are barking up the wrong tree, ask for further clarifications.

    • oh yeah, and I cut out this because I don’t want them to fully realize the number crunching implications behind what they are doing, i want them to role play first and then find out the in game benefits of doing it, I feel like I have to leave something behind the screen…

      a description like this means you don’t have to declare EXACTLY what check you are doing. you might think it’s a perception check and are happily surprised with it turning out to be a religion, history, arcana or thievery check. even if you fail you can meta game and ask whoever is proficient in the check to have a go.

  9. Thank you Angry DM!

    I started DMing about two years ago with a group of five of my best friends, and I knew nothing about DMing, breaking the game, or strange caviats and homebrew rules. I essentially improvised all my DMing until about a week ago, which lead to many campaign restarts, various broken parts of the game, and very little excitement about the game from the PCs because of lack of roleplaying and interaction with the world.

    After reading this article, I was inspired, and, after having read your article about creating awesome encounters, I set up a couple of encounters that I thought were interesting, and the players ate them up. Now we’re set on a good campaign and I’m excited to see how things turn out.

    Specifically, the idea you presented about the Pros and Cons in each encounter was particularly helpful, as was the removal of skill checks that can’t fail. Using these, I’ve really trimmed up the content that I deliver into a more comprehensive and interactive package.
    (And my improv is actually pretty useful within the framework of the larger world I’ve created.)

    Just thought I’d say how much I appreciate your blog.
    The DM Remade

  10. First – thanks. I like this write up.

    5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System –>
    A Digression: When to Roll Knowledge Checks

    – I like (and have used before reading this) the idea of knowledge skills being passive. However, similar to your ‘don’t roll without a real failure option’ rule I have used them actively: Can they remember in time? In these cases, it is actually a INT check with a modifier based on the skill – and only available if they could have known passively in the first place. These are to be used in specific (emergency? whatever follow your rule 2) situations. For example: the party walks into some room, see summoning going on and have a timeframe before said ritual magic wipes everyone’s teeth from existence. Those who know, can panic appropriately while those who don’t just see some magic that they can presume is bad but don’t have a basis for urgency – and therefore target the sword weilding bodygaurd first since he is more immediately threatening. The roll simply allows the team to change the target (or not) appropriately.

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  13. The angry DM has actually made a good case for ditching dice rolls altogether in D&D because life is deterministic.

    My alternative view is the mechanics of D&D are based on everything having a random element and that there is always a failure mode.

    e.g. You go in a room and suddenly feel that there is something there roll Perception if you succeed you recognise something which could be worthless, if you fail you dismiss the feeling- no amount of extra looking is going to allow you to perceive something.

    You can fail with any skill check. Botching any physical task and you simply can’t do it again-failing to pick a lock and the lock is jammed up.
    Fail a knowledge check and you simply can’t remember something pertinent to the situation and now your brain has dismissed a link between what you see and the knowledge that’s inside you.

    • @Michael

      You propose a perception skill check that has two boring possibilities:
      * Success = the character recognizes something that could be worthless.
      * Failure = the character cannot dismiss the feeling that there is something there, but no amount of looking will help.

      Both of these are bad, boring, grindy results. In both cases, the players’ attention is focused on worthless things and a distraction from the story.

      How much time & attention should be spent on this distraction. At the end of the evening of play, is anyone going to remember that 15 minutes of game time looking around the room that didn’t have any worthwhile info? I don’t think so.

      I think your players don’t want the action that so hard to find.

      • This is actually precisely why I don’t propose using excitement or boringment as the measure of whether a die needs to be rolled. Failure to find something that is vital is, in itself, interesting as the players have to adapt to that. They have to find a way to cope with a problem without a given resource. BUT, they also don’t know how and why they missed that resource, just that they lack it. The outcome of the die roll itself is not interesting, but it leads to an interesting game consequence.

        That is why my rule is: only roll dice when an action can succeed, when it can fail, and when failure carries a risk or consequence such that the action can’t be tried over and over until success.

        At the end of the day, people who lose their s$&% over the occasional die roll whose consequences are not immediately apparently (and therefore “boring”) are wasting more energy than it would take to simply make the die roll and move on. And the general rule of “make failure interesting” provides too much of a focus on random outcomes. It is the choice to act that should be the interesting part.

        Moreover, “interesting” is a useless word for advice. It isn’t actionable. It is subjective. My rule (can succeed, can fail, risk or consequence that prevents redos) leads to almost the same place, but it isn’t subjective. It is a rule everyone can understand and follow without a value judgment on what makes something engaging.

      • All of this starts with the relationship between character and player. You aren’t your character (who is awesome) but rather his great advisor who can communicate in his language- its seems a poor immersion for the “Common” language to just be English. You helped him become awesome and want him to become incredible.

        1. You mean your player doing some meta-gaming cannot dismiss the feeling that there is something there. Your character dismisses the feeling(insight) immediately.

        2. Some examples to show this insight dismissal happening. A lion has a sudden feeling that there is an prey somewhere over there. He looks hard using his awesome perception and maybe mentally decides it was nothing. You come across an unmarked chemical and with a flash of insight search your memory search for what it might be with its confirmation test. If you don’t have broad-spectrum tests (IR….) then you can’t fiddle with it since might be explosives or poisonous.
        3. As DM, you need to encourage players to realise life is full of duds- most circles aren’t portals but just circles. Give them easy tests that they succeed but its nothing important.

        • All you accomplish by flooding your world with duds is to trick the *player* not the *character.* What’s the point of that?

          “You die in an awful trap!”

          “There was a trap?”

          “Of course! There was a trap there but you didn’t even look for it!”

          “But every time I searched for traps I found nothing!”

          “Well you shouldn’t have got complacent!”

          “My character isn’t complacent. She has +30 Perception! That’s supposed to represent discernment and alertness!”

          “Well I didn’t trick your character, silly player, I tricked *you*! Hahahahaha!”

          That’s not a game I want to play.

  14. Many bad parts to your scenario- Jon.
    1. The lack of a passive ability to check for traps is system failure- houserule that if they walk slowly their brain will pick out signs of potential trap at +20 difficulty.
    2. The single skill failure that give instant death. So you have a Charisma failure with instant death- we annoy the king and his elite archers/wizards kill us. A bezerker is teleported on to us and one attack failure and we all die. Did your players buy-in into an extremely brutal campaign.
    3. Your trap layout must be dull- killer traps are rarely catch-all as the builders have to be able to avoid them. Characters might be able to avoid traps by being smart/outthinking you.

    4. Your players won’t have to meta-game their characters without any duds/decoys.
    I’m noticing something- it must be deadly so I blast away as its always something dangerous/important.

  15. Regarding picking locks: I don’t remember if 3.x was one of the games that gave a penalty for failed checks, but I used to use a house rule for picking locks that if the roll failed by 5+, the character would brake a pick, and that increased the DC. If they failed by 10+, the lock would jam or the broken pick was found to be necessary. This was actually inspired by the old SSI Hillsfar game, where you had a set of picks with various shaped ends, and the locks tumblers had corresponding insets. Now, the insets were all run together, so it wasn’t always obvious which pick would fit, and sometimes it was, but even when you had the right fit, the tumbler didn’t always cooperate, and if you chose wrong, or if you mashed the button too hard, your pick would break. Do you see this as a(viable?) Cost of Failure, or even a “Ticking Clock” type situation?
    I have to say that one thing that really sold 4e for me was the skill challenge concept. I always wanted a way to give XP for things that weren’t just combat, but could never find anything that seemed to fit. Second edition had individual awards, but using those always seemed to have various characters off doing their own thing and not working as a group. I’ve seen other award systems, most of which that are arbitrary or completely independant of challenge, which doesn’t suit my sensibilities.
    So I started thinking that if I used your rules, couldn’t every skill roll be considered a “challenge”? If a character only rolls when there is a Risk, and auto succeed if there is none, that means that characters only receive XP on meaningful(or maybe goal oriented?) rolls. Also, rule #1 to me seems to be very immersive, requiring the player to play the situation, not their skills. And even when a player describes an action they are good at, like “I pick the lock on the moneylender’s front door”, based on their skills, I could easily answer with “OK, roll a perception/streetwise/insight check”(so they don’t get spotted by the guards/correctly identify which house is the moneylenders/remember that the moneylender has a nosy neighbor).
    Maybe the skills that are “Challenges” should only be for skills that come under the 5th rule? Do you think that this approach would work, or just be subject to abuse(like so many other variants)? I was kind of thinking that a mini challenge would be worth a minion reward based on the characters level, so that 4 successful skill checks would still be the same thing as a level 1 challenge, but without the hassle of trying to balance successes vs. an arbitrary number of failures.

    • 3.0 had challenge ratings for traps and skill puzzles, so that defeating one would award appropriate xp.

  16. (Starting off: I am not an experienced DM/GM/God. The things I say could sound great in my head, but would suck when used in an actual session. I do hope to be able to start DM’ing soon, so criticise and curse all you want. It would help me a lot.)

    I agree that many DM’s ask for rolls far too often, but I am afraid that if you follow all these rules, it’s almost a bit too less. In my opinion, there should be more scenarios where it’s “allowed” to make several die-rolls.
    If something is impossible, I do agree you shouldn’t have them smashing on an un-penetrable door for hours, because it simply won’t work, but I think that having them try once can’t hurt. For example, we take our inpenetrable door. Nobody in the party is very skilled with picklocking, so the PC’s decide to smash the door open. Instead of straight up telling them, let them attempt once. No matter what they roll, you simply tell them they failed, and that the door didn’t even budge. If they didn’t get the hint and try again, simply say it doesn’t work. Don’t let them roll again.
    This way (I think), you can take care of those META-gaming bastards only trying their best when they know the moment is tense, while they shouldn’t be able to know IC. Besides, wouldn’t you feel better to have atleast tried, instead just hearing that it won’t work?
    What I’m trying to say, is that D&D is also an RPG, and it’s much easier to get sucked in the setting, when you give them atleast one attempt for everything. I agree with not having them roll when succes is garanteed and there is no time-limit, but otherwise you could have them try. Besides, Rolling dice = Fun.

    Now, another way to break down the rolls (atleast, for as far as the PC’s know,) is by making some skill-rolls yourself. For example, while the party is wandering through a dark forest, you secretly roll a spot to see if the party notices the predator that’s stalking them. If they don’t, the predator ambushes them. If they do, they have a chance to attack him first or do whatever they want. The outcome would be, instead of suddenly asking a roll, and the players awkwardly call they rolls, you can have the predator immediatly jump on top of them, which would make the whole scene much more exciting and intense.

  17. Would you mind if I translated this? With the due reference, of course.
    This is actually an awesome material, and i’d like to make it more accessible to a portuguese speaker audience.

  18. First of all thank you for taking the time to write these, brilliant articles full of good advice. Would you be able to upload a PDF of this article as you have for the second and third please, having them on hand when I don’t have an internet connection is really handy.

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  20. I just want to say THANK YOU for this entire series!

    Also, you’re right to ignore the mechanics BS because this stuff is far more universal than I ever thought it would be. I’m an inexperienced GM (who as you can tell already, doesn’t really do D&D) for a system that is pretty much the opposite of D&D, and is very not binary, and all of this stuff applies. Every bit of it. I came across this while looking for some encounter set pieces I could use in an upcoming game I’m running. This and the rest of the posts in this series are so much better than what I was looking for.

    See, my friends and I primarily play one of those hippie-dippie bulls$&% narrative dice systems, and we love it (no drama points though, that sounds awful). I think we like it because it gives us prompts to add more descriptors. So, to use an example from one of the later posts, when we drop the giant spider in front of the party, the narrative dice are there saying “hey! You need something else here to make this actually any good!” So, while we don’t necessarily get a Giant Spider protecting her eggs that the party can work around, we do get that sometimes and it makes it better.

    D&D games we’ve tried in the past haven’t been very fun, and I think it’s because we’ve been missing this giant piece in our gaming. We rotate GM’s, in case you’re wondering why all the we’s and we’ves and whatevers. We don’t do that collaborative GM’ing beyond players coming up with cool things for their characters to do, which is standard RP stuff. Plugging up this hole will both make our gaming better, and make binary systems like D&D and others more playable.

    Anyway I am about to read “How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters” and I’m really looking forward to it!

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  23. Failing to pick a lock actually CAN make it harder to pick. It’s happened to me before. I was trying to pick a lock, and my tool broke inside the lock. Couldn’t get it out, couldn’t continue to pick. Ruined the lock and kept me out.

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  25. i think your rules here are excellent, and the reasoning behind them is really solid.
    the only exception is this line: “This rule needs to be enforced and reinforced constantly. I like to use shame and sarcasm”
    if someone NEEDS to use shame and sarcasm to keep people in line, then theyre probably a bad GM. If someone LIKES to use shame and sarcasm to make people follow the rules, then theyre probably a bad person. theres other, more effective ways than to make someone feel bad for doing something wrong.
    table top gaming is supposed to be something that we all do for fun and the GM, being in a role of power, shouldnt be encouraging crap like that.

    • In this case, I’m inclined to assume the bad person one. Or, maybe, it could be a joke. Mostly, I just have to fight the urge to use shame and sarcasm to respond, because while Angry might not be a bad person, I definitely am.

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  27. I know this article is old, but I’m kinda sifting through your old stuff.
    One of the big questions I gotta ask myself when it comes to skill checks, retries, how to handle skill and success and failure (at least outside of combat or combat-like situations) is: What exactly do I check for when I make a check?
    For example:
    The group is trying to track a monster. The monster didn’t really try to hide its tracks, since it’s big and scary and doesn’t have to sneak around. It’s been walking through an open, muddy plain. Do I want the group to make a check? No, of course not. They can very much see all of the monster’s tracks.
    Now, if the monster was sneaking, trying to hide its tracks, if the environment was difficult, like rocks or something like that – that’s where failure is possible, and they probably have to roll a check.
    Another example
    The group’s skill monkey tries to pick a lock to open a door. What exactly is the guy rolling for here? Now, normally you would say “He’s attempting to pick a lock and the roll tells us if he succeeds”. But that’s boring, as stated above. Now, Angry suggests “Just don’t make the roll” – I propose a different course of action. In cases where retries would theoretically be possible, have the check be about something else – Have it be about if the character, under the current circumstances, is ABLE TO DO IT, not just if the character succeeds the actual thing.
    This also solves a different issue, one that I regularly had (before implementing this idea) with my groups: Climbing checks. Now, what happens when a character fails a climbing check? Do they climb for a bit and fall the rest? Do they get stuck? Of course, you can handle this however you want. But with this system, it’s relatively clear.
    “I want to climb that wall”
    “Roll a climbing check”
    “You realize you won’t be able to do that, this wall is too difficult for you”
    Of course, circumstances can change, and a well-placed orc in the character’s back might just give them the necessary push to do it anyway, but at the current moment, they aren’t able to do it. And with a natural 1, they might just start to climb the wall and realize halfway through they’re not skilled enough. That creates a different encounter – now the other characters have to save their comrade, who got stuck halfway down the wall. And then they have to find another way to get around this obstacle.
    It’s certainly more interesting than them climbing the wall several times, always falling down and taking Xd6 damage each time – like a bunch of idiots.

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