Skill checks – love them or hate them, they form the core mechanics of every roleplaying game, but too many checks or a poorly timed failure can grind even the best adventures to a halt. As a GM, if you’ve ever found your game stalling as players rethink an entire plan due to a failed acrobatics check, or have had your NPCs battered with charm roll after charm roll from the entire party, here are a few tips for you.
Even though games like Dungeons & Dragons and Dark Heresy have skill checks for nearly every possible action, this doesn’t mean they always need to be used. Just as we aren’t always consciously aware of all our actions, GMs should allow characters to subconsciously perform certain actions without having to roll a skill check.
For example, one of my party’s characters was a druid whose entire backstory revolved around growing up in the forests after gnolls slaughtered her village. As the dedicated healer of the group, the druid often spent many nights on the road or in the woods scavenging for herbs to craft healing potions. This was a routine she performed every adventure, so instead of having to waste minutes having her roll every time, I instead ruled that, thanks to her bushcraft experience, she’d always be able to forage some healing herbs unless she was in an unfamiliar landscape such as a desert – or if she specifically stated that she was scavenging for a large amount of herbs.
When a skill check comes about, keep in mind three things to determine whether or not you really need to roll the check:
1. Is the check critical to a situation?
2. Does the check apply to the character’s core background?
3. Is the skill something they have to consciously think of when they perform it?
Not only does this method of cutting out certain checks streamline your game by fast-tracking players’ most common routines, but it will also encourage your players to create more in-depth backstories and richer characters in order to reap in-game benefits while you as a GM now have more to work with to cater your world to the characters.
Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge:
One of the most difficult things for any GM is having their party separate player knowledge from character knowledge. A common situation I’ve run into for example is when a character fails to read a map, other players will suddenly not trust the navigator and try to read it themselves – even though the other character’s might not have any idea that their party member read it wrong.
Another common occurrence is the glorious “insight check,” where even a hint of another party member doing something suspicious prompts a hail of sudden insight checks from the rest of the party, despite them having no reason to suspect anything is the issue. These “meta” checks can seriously slow down a game and can often be frustrating for both GMs and players alike.
While some parties are able to keep player knowledge and character knowledge separate when it comes to these skill checks, not every GM is lucky enough to run games for such players. For the rest of us, set some basic rules when it comes to certain skill checks.
For example, when deciphering information such as reading a map or runes, all characters need to declare ahead of time if they are going to try to decipher the information. Once the dice are rolled, pass or fail, what’s done is done. Obviously in the case of a critical failure, where it’s pretty obvious the character has no idea what they’re looking at, other characters can take the map from befuddled navigator. Otherwise, this rule requires that the rest of the party put faith in their fellow party members, even if the players know otherwise.
Charisma checks are another frequent issue, where players might try to roll intimidation and charm checks on the same NPC after their other party members failed. To avoid this behavior, increase the difficulty of the check after each successive attempt, to represent these NPCs becoming increasingly frustrated with feigned affection or more resistant to failed questioning. By setting up specific rules for what the consequences of each type of skill check would be, GMs can reduce the amount of “meta” roles and keep the game moving.
Has a player in your party ever come up with meticulous plan, only for their plan to blow up in their face at the cost of a failed skill check? A failed check can really jam up a game and cause your session to grind to a halt as players stall to rethink a previously well thought out plan. While many games such as D&D, Dark Heresy, or Iron Kingdoms have pass-or-fail skill checks, there are a few systems out there such as FATE or Monster of the Week, which implement a failing-forward system.
A failing-forward system is one where, instead of a failed skill check resulting in the character being unable to complete their attempted action, the GM can offer a mixed success, where the character can complete their action – but at a cost. Let’s say a rogue is trying to sneak over a wall but fails his acrobatics check. In a failing-forward system, instead of the rogue being simply unable to climb the wall, the GM can instead create a scenario where the rogue scales the wall but injures himself tumbling down the other side, or loses his climbing rope and thereby compromises his escape plan. While the rogue would have to account for this hiccup, the whole plan to sneak over the wall is still primarily intact.
While mixed successes don’t need to be implemented for simple skill check rolls, the GM should be encouraged to use this strategy when there’s a risk that a failed check could effectively stop the game or lead to a TPK from being rumbled. It’s one thing if players make bad choices that get them into trouble – it’s another if they fall victim to bad luck despite doing everything else right.
Reserving the standard “pass or fail” system of skill checks to only critical and relevant moments not only keeps your game moving smoothly, but also gives more weight to the skill checks themselves. Momentum and player engagement is crucial to running any RPG, and with these strategies, you can avoid the rest of your party zoning out or halting the game, and leave more time for roleplay and the fun that RPGs have to offer.