Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One
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.