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How To Make Skill Checks Not Suck

Posted By Phil Vecchione On September 7, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

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.

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How To Make Skill Checks Not Suck"

#1 Comment By Robert On September 7, 2009 @ 6:07 am

Good article. I would’ve framed some things differently, but I think the basic ideas would’ve remained the same.

#2 Comment By retrothomas On September 7, 2009 @ 6:22 am

Excellent points, Phil. I’ve been learning Burning Wheel and I’ve been integrating these ideas into my games recently.

Skill checks are vastly superior when they aren’t stop signs on a DM railroad but instead bring fun and interesting consequences to player actions in the game.

In my opinion, it’s a bit sad that D&D 4th says so little about skill checks. I remember the first time my wife’s ranger fails a roll to spot tracks in the woods and ends up standing there like a buffoon. They’ve got a bunch of rules for calculating DCs for finding tracks but not one about how to make skill checks fun and interesting (that I can remember).

These days on that failed roll I’d probably do something like have her lose the track in places, possibly stumbling into other hazards like enemies or having to make an athletics check to jump/ford a raging river or something silly like that. At the very least, add time onto the tracking efforts with a neat description such as “you find the goblins’ trail after covering a lot of ground and leaving many tracks of your own.” That then introduces the possibility of someone following her, and then she’s more involved in the game because she’s concerned about what might happen.

Skill checks really should make things more fun and heighten player involvement rather than being a stop sign on the DM railroad. I know that now :p

#3 Comment By Bastian.Flinspach On September 7, 2009 @ 6:22 am

I would like to add, that sometimes it is perfectly reasonable to ask for skill checks that have no meaning whatsoever, just to make players who bought skills for roleplaying reasons not to feel useless. Although it is better if they can at least get an advantage out of such rolls.

Also, just asking for rolls to make players nervous is sometimes also a good thing.

#4 Comment By DNAphil On September 7, 2009 @ 7:18 am

@Bastian– I would say rather than making meaningless rolls for the players sake, that if a player took points in a skill that they are interested in, then the GM should create situations where that player can use his ability.

As an example, in my Corporation game, one of the players took his highest skill in Business. Now Corporation is a fairly combat heavy game. But since this player wanted to take his highest skill in Business rather than combat, I created an adventure, where the goal of the mission was to buy out a small company. After some investigation and a little combat, the crux of the game balanced on the characters ability to negotiate the deal for the sale of the company. The better his rolls were, the lower the cost of the buy out would be.

#5 Comment By retrothomas On September 7, 2009 @ 8:37 am

@Bastian.Flinspach – my opinion is that if a character picks a skill it’s my job as a good GM to integrate it into the game in a meaningful way.

When players pick stuff for their characters they’re deciding what they want to be doing in the game, and what matters to their character, so I prefer to give those characters a chance to shine and to use their skills in the situations they find themselves in.

With some creativity, player skill can really be brought to the front of the excitement and not just used for combat-centric purposes. Memories that come to mind are the group’s ranger using his Nature skill to extract venom from a giant snake and keep its eggs alive on the way to find a buyer, and the time said ranger used Athletics to lift up and support a wagon full of goods so that the Dwarves in need could repair it and fit a new wheel.

I think it’s important to understand what matters to characters and find ways to involve those things significantly in play.

#6 Comment By Tommi On September 7, 2009 @ 9:30 am

Good post.

I’d say that simply finding the book but taking longer time at it is hardly interesting unless one is in hurry; in which case, sure, though making the threat come through might also be interesting.

I’d prefer: Find the book versus find the book just as someone else has picked it up and is on his way to loan or read it. Violence, persuasion, thievery, bribery: Players have lots of options, which is always good.

I would also place more emphasis on the difference between task and intent. With successful roll, player achieves the intent as character completes the task. With failed roll, the task fails, creating complications, while the intent might or might not come true.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On September 7, 2009 @ 10:42 am

A few more points onto an excellent OP…

1) If the rules are sufficient, allow for some clever additional skill use from the players. If they have more than one skill that might help, give them a little bonus for for the other applicable skill. In Bastian’s case, it throws the onus back on the players and makes them feel better about the other skills they have used.

2) Allow the dice to influence the description. In your description, if they easily make the roll, maybe it takes only 45 minutes to find the book. If they seriously screw it up, they find the wrong book and think iot is th right one, and have to go back in the morning. Players love this.

#8 Comment By Nojo On September 7, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

This simple post is why I read Gnome’s Stew. Thank you.

It made me rethink knowledge checks.

In many games (ex: Dark Heresy), knowledge skills come into play fairly often. “Roll your Forbidden Lore, Heresy or Chaos, to see if you know anything about this Brotherhood of the Horned Darkness.”

As written in many systems, the players either know something or not. Some (Dark Heresy again) give the GM great help for how much information to give based on the degree of success.

But what of failure? If a character is trained in a school of knowledge, say Forbidden Lore (Chaos), they should at least know how to find our more information.

Player: “Damn, missed it by that much.”

Instead of: “From the name, you think they are bad guys.”

You can give them a pointer to deeper knowledge: “You know they are a chaos cult, but don’t know much about them. However, if you had access to a library with forbidden books on chaos, or could get a message back to your old mentor Flavious Textacus, you should be able to find out more.”

The degree of failure could indicate how hard it would be to come up with the information.

#9 Comment By Omnus On September 7, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

The caution here for this article is that less checks are not necessarily the goal, as that marginalizes “skill classes” like the rogue or bard in 3.x D&D. The point is to eliminate superfluous checks or “all-or-nothing” checks. Rolling to find the tavern in town (the one on the main street) is silly, but yes, I’ve had DMs call for that roll. I’d also quail at the situation where a failed roll means abject failure and a stoppage to the plot (especially the way my dice have been rolling lately). However, I’d urge DMs not to strip these checks away wholesale. There’s a reason D&D got better when they added skills to the game. A good DM, I think we all agree, tries to spread the spotlight around. Allowing playful competition among the players to try to outperform the others is a fun mechanic that never gets old.

I’d also argue that the skill challenge system in 4th Edition, which is still kind of broken, tries to make those skills checks interesting by making them part of the narrative of the adventure. My players fought the system tooth and nail, however, and I’ve found myself shelving it pretty quickly. They rarely have a hard time calling for skill checks themselves as they figure out good ways to use their abilities, and I find they do a good job at keeping the skills of their characters in focus.

So sayeth Omnus.

#10 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 7, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

Phil – Well done! This one is a must read for all GMs IMO.

#11 Comment By DNAphil On September 7, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

@Tommi- Yes. Example #2 is really not fully formed. A fully formed version of the example I gave, really turns into Example #3. My point with two, was more about not having the failure case halt play. That there are a number of definitions of “failure”.

@Omnus– Re: the Rouge, I fully agree. That is a class focused on skills, so if anything the GM owes it to the Rogue to make for some really good skill checks, since that is going to be one of the Rogue’s main roles in the game.

Just because the character has a lot of skills does not mean that you should have a lot of needless checks in the game to make them feel good. The Rogue will enjoy making 3 critical skill checks, under high drama, then 100 skill checks when nothing is on the line.

The challenge for the GM with a class like the Rogue, is that you need to create situations over the course of several adventures that challenges the array of skills for the Rogue, and not just a handful week after week.

As for the Skill Challenge I think it is a mechanic that really has not been explored well. I think that the concept, that is a non-combat mechanical challenge is great, but the mechanics are somewhat hard to use, and many times fails to give the same feeling that combat gives. But I would look past what is written in the DMG and make your own challenges.

As an example, I did for an Iron Heroes game, a skill challenge, where the players had to cross this unstable mine tunnel. I made up a list of skills that would apply, and crafted a set of outcomes for each success and failure. I capped it off with a number of successes and failures that would lead to the conclusion of the challenge. It worked great, and gave the players to use all sorts of skills they often don’t get a chance to use.

So don’t give up on the Skill Challenge, rather take the spirit of the rules, and not the letter, and make something that your players will find interesting.

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 9, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

Great article! I wish I knew this back when I started my GMing.

To keep it quick, I make sure to define the terms of the check, at least in my head. If she succeeds, she gets this, if she fails, she gets that. Now roll.

I tend to reward really high results as well. In a d20 based system, a natural 20 might result in more information, a +2 to your next lockpicking attempt, or a +2 to your backstab.

And of course, I also punish really low results, usually with slapstick comedy.

#13 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-09-11 On September 11, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

[...] How To Make Skill Checks Not Suck I hate skill checks that decide the fate of a game. I’d rather have good role playing than bad roll playing decide the fate of a campaign. DNAphil over at Gnome Stew has some good words on how to avoid scenarios like this that can spell certain death for a game session or an entire campaign that was designed with care and built with hard work. [...]

#14 Comment By Rafe On September 15, 2009 @ 11:20 am

Given some BW influence in there, I think the one thing really sets up all rolls, skill, stat or other is: What do you want to accomplish? What is your intent? If the failure result has nothing to do with the intent of the person rolling, you’ll come up with a boring result or a go-stop situation.

For instance, I know you addressed the second example being half-formed, but I think it was half-formed because there was no implied intent. The way it was, it should have been hand-waved. The third example had the implied intent of “We want to navigate to the temple quickly in order to catch them off-guard.” The failure reflects the intent.

Tommi’s options (comment #6) were great and could have been opened up even more. The book is just plain gone. Now it’s a short investigation to find out who has it or where it’s been placed. Maybe the book was simply removed by a senior scholar because he recently discovered it contained special, dark, tempting or restricted information. It’s now in the library’s vault along with other treasured and/or dangerous tomes. Sneak in, or approach the senior librarian about it?

The point is, find out why and how they want to accomplish something (their intent) and, if they fail, mess with the intent in a way that doesn’t stop play.


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