How I Learned to Love Not Making Skill Rolls

I had a thought about a post for today and luck of luck, this post about skill rolls pretty much lined up perfectly with what I was already thinking about

A slight tangent: The quote that doesn’t feel right to me, which is near the end of the article, is “rolling a die and adding a number to it is not inherently pleasurable” (paraphrased slightly). I do have a bone of contention here because not only am I certain that my players find it pleasurable (they have been known to come up with excuses to roll when it was not at all necessary), I think that a certain amount of gambling theory is based on people deriving pleasure from this sort of thing.

HOWEVER

I realize that this is not really what he meant in that sure, there may be some kind of weird feedback loop of pleasure that’s tickled by generating pseudorandom numbers, that said, that doesn’t really make for a fulfilling RPG experience and too often skill-heavy RPGs fall into the problem of players missing things that their characters should really have noticed because they rolled poorly and situations generally just forcing the DM to “fudge” because random chance has created completely unrealistic results (see: the mage arm-wrestling an ogre example).

I can’t remember who said it originally or where; it seems to be a great rule of thumb that if it’s logically coherent for a character to be able to do something, they should be able to do it without having to roll. The way I like to interpret it is similar to the “taking 10 or 20” concept from Type 3 D&D — if a character has a fairly open stretch of time to do something that would be expected of somebody with their abilities, they do it, automatically.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a place for skill rolls. If there’s a tripwire across the floor of the corridor and the players search the floor, they’ll find it automatically. However, if they don’t, there’s still a chance that somebody will roll a good enough perception roll. People still might to try and do things quickly and sloppily when they really need prep or attempt something under extenuating circumstances. These are situations where I feel that a skill roll is both appropriate and interesting for the group.

What caused me to think about this were two recent sequences of play in two different campaigns:

– the first, in the Tomb District of Fenrecz, was when the party was searching a tomb complex where they’d just dispatched the group of thugs guarding it as well as the captive demon who had been left sitting in a summoning circle (who really should have been more of a danger to them; however, the party continues to roll stunningly well on attack rolls, meaning that they probably think they’re considerably more bad-ass than they actually are). Aside from a door blocked off by a mysterious razor-thin wall of extremely strong wind, there was also a dais with a secret tunnel built into it.

Now, the party never did search the dais specifically. They did say that they searched “the room” and one of the party members also happened to be a dwarf. I decided that it would make sense that the dwarf would detect a draft coming from the dais, after all, the tunnel connected to quite a large series of rooms below and the dwarf had just spent upwards of 10 minutes in-game searching the room, so it seemed likely that this creature of the underground would notice something like that.

– the second situation was where a small group of adventurers had just finished clearing out a rural graveyard of a handful of zombies that had been terrorizing the local village. Without making any Spot rolls, they see a dark figure, a little small for an adult human, scurrying deeper into the forest that bordered the graveyard to the northwest.

I decided that the group would notice the figure even without looking into the woods specifically because the context seemed to lean that way: the figure is a teenage boy slowly being consumed by the soul of a necromancer trapped in a necklace he found. He doesn’t have any experience with adventurers and after seeing the party deal with his minions of the undead without taking a single point of damage to themselves, he’s a little shaken and is mainly concerned with getting back to his hideout. It just makes sense to me that he’d make a bit of noise and that a group of trained and paranoid adventurers would pick up on it.

Yes, in both cases an obvious link/hook has just been made to the “meat” of the scenario: an entrance to a megadungeon has been found, the party has seen a mysterious figure in the woods that, if investigated, will turn out to be the reason behind the undead attacks. I don’t think either case is one of “railroading” though because the party is not forced into investigating either of these hooks. In fact, in the secret tunnel scenario, the party initially decided to leave, with the idea that the tunnel looked to have been made by something relatively powerful and it would better behoove them to investigate the recent upswing in activity by the lizardmen in the southern swamp. Only after realizing that they don’t have enough money to charter a ship did they decide to return with the idea of finding some ancient baubles that they might use to fund their swamp adventure.

(The second scenario was a session that ended right at that point, so I have yet to see how they’ll react. It’s entirely possible that they’ll decide the figure was the woodsman Peter Collinsworth, spooked by the zombies, or, if they’d met him, the hedge wizard that also lives in the woods.)

Both situations are ones where if the party had all failed their rolls to either find the entrance or seen the figure, the GM would be highly likely to try and “fudge” or create some unbelievable situation to try and get the group “back on track”. It’s far better for the situation to be handled without the element of randomness, without impacting player agency.

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Filed under DM ramblings, Fenrecz campaign, mechanics

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