The skill check. Next to combat, the skill check is the mechanic most used to drive the plot of a game. Most games have a skill system, and most rules do not do a good job of making skill checks interesting. That’s where we come in. With a little helping from the Stew, we are going to show you how to make your skill checks rock.

When it comes to skill checks, there are some games that are doing it better than others. I would like to cite now the ones from which I have drawn the most inspiration:  Burning Wheel, the Gumshoe System, and Dogs In The Vineyard. The tips below all draw from these systems, as well as from my own experiences.

Anatomy of The Skill Check

To make sure we are on the same page, let’s cover exactly what I mean by a skill check. The skill check has the following components:

  • The Challenge—the thing that has to be overcome, i.e. sneaking past a guard, finding out a secret from the barmaid, picking a lock , etc.
  • The Skill—the ability the character uses to overcome the challenge.
  • The Check—the mechanical resolution of the challenge using the rules that you are playing.
  • Failure—when the check does not overcome the challenge, i.e. the guard hears you, the barmaid keeps her secret, the lock remains locked, etc.
  • Success—when the check overcomes the challenge, i.e. the guard is unaware as you sneak past, the barmaid confesses everything, and the lock springs open, etc.
  • Hand wave—when the GM decides a skill check is not required.

When a Skill Check Sucks

Most games drop the ball on skill checks because they do not properly prepare the GM for how to construct an interesting challenge. They provide a description of the skills and their mechanics and give some very dry examples for how the skill is used, for example, make a DC 15 to decipher the cryptic text. Yawn.

The mistake most GMs make is to overuse skill checks, calling for them at times when they are not needed. The GM is not fully at fault, since most rule books do not instruct the GM when to use a skill check and when to hand wave the check and keep the story moving along. Because of this, players are plagued with checks such as, roll to find out if you can find the tavern; roll to jump down a few stairs; roll to see if you know the main crop of this region.

What Makes A Good Check

A skill check is a decision point in the game. The outcome of the check will result in either a success or a failure. The following tips will make your skill checks more meaningful and more interesting:

Tip #1—Only require a skill check when it’s interesting to the story.

Eddie Valiant: You mean you could’ve taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?
Roger Rabbit: No, not at any time, only when it was funny.

Aside from my love for the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the point is that while you can ask for a skill check any time during a session, the only time you should ask for one is when it is interesting to the story. Also, don’t fall for that trick where the players ask you if they can make a skill check, thinking that because they asked, they need to roll. Sometimes players want to know boring stuff.  When they do, give it to them for free, and look all benevolent.

You do not need a skill check for the characters to know what the major crop of the town is, unless knowing it somehow drives the story forward, in an interesting way. Be aware of when a check is not necessary, and don’t be afraid to just hand wave the check and move on.

Tip #2—An Interesting skill check is one where both the success and failure have meaning.

Because a skill check has two outcomes, you need to address both within the context of the game. The obvious outcome that is addressed is the success case, the thing that is trying to be achieved. It is often the failure case that is neglected, being relegated to the mechanical opposite of the success case. Let’s look at two examples:

The Challenge: Make a gather information check to discover the location of the book in the library.

Boring:

  • Success:  Find the book with the clue for the next scene.
  • Failure:  Don’t find the book, do not advance to the next scene. Try again.

Interesting:

  • Success:  Find the book in 1d4 hours, with the clue for the next scene.
  • Failure: Find the book in 2d4 hours, with the clue for the next scene.

In the Boring check, the players are stuck having to make additional checks until they pass, and the game comes to a grinding halt, until someone can pass the check. In the Interesting check, the difference between success and failure is how long it takes to find the book. The book is going to be found, because it has to be found to get the next scene. The interesting check keeps the game going, and the success and the failure both have meaning in the game.

Tip #3—The best skill checks should have something at stake.

A good skill check is more then just a roll that is made in the course of a game. The skill check should drive the story forward. It should reward success and penalize failure. You can do this by making the success and failure outcomes have some mechanical effect on an upcoming scene. A successful check grants the characters some bonus in the upcoming scene, and a failure puts the characters at a disadvantage. Lets take a look:

The Challenge:  Make a knowledge check to find the fastest route to the temple.

  • Success:  Reach the temple in 15 minutes. The guards are not prepared for the PCs and only 2 guards are at the front door.
  • Failure: Reach the temple in 45 minutes. The guards are aware the PCs are on their way. Ten guards have fortified the door.

In the above example what is at stake is reaching the temple before the guards are ready for them. In both cases, the PCs reach the temple, but the encounter they have when they get there is dependent on the outcome of the check. This makes the check  much more interesting. A wounded party, low on supplies, will want to get there before the guards set up. If a timed ritual is occurring in that temple, that the players need to stop, then the failure outcome creates two issues:  more time has passed on the casting of the ritual, and the larger encounter is going to take longer to clear, giving the ritual more time.

DC 15 to Use In Your Next Session

The next time you sit down to write your next session, think carefully before you put a skill check into your notes. Do you really need it there?  Are both outcomes interesting?  Will failing this check derail play?  Make those skill checks count.

So, what are you doing with skill checks?  What ways are you making your checks interesting.