Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One
Rule #4: Don’t Make the PCs Ask Questions
Remember when I said that PCs can only ask questions or declare actions. Ideally, they should never have to ask a question. A question is a speed bump to role-playing. And it means nothing is happening in the movie of your game. Let me explain.
The idea of role-playing is that the player is presented with a situation. The player projects himself into the mind of the PC and decides what the PC does in that situation. That’s role-playing. But when the player has to double check whether or not something is in the PC’s head to make the decision, they have an extra step between situation and decision. A speed bump.
Meanwhile, thinking about things and figuring things out are not actions. When someone is thinking about something, outwardly, it is kind of hard to tell what’s going on. They could be thinking, they could be daydreaming, they could be pooping. But the one thing they aren’t doing is moving around doing something interesting to watch.
There are a lot of DMs out there who will describe a circle of strange runes on the floor but wait for one of the players to do something that indicates they would like to make a knowledge check (like ‘examining the runes’). This is f$&%ing insane. When you see a sign written on the wall across the room in a language you understand, you don’t have to wander over and examine it (unless the text is too small). You just read it. Pretty much instantly. And if its a language you recognize but don’t comprehend, you recognize the language but you don’t know what it says. If you see a thing and you know what the thing is, the information pops into your head unbidden. That’s how brains work. And eyes. If they didn’t work that way, we’d spend all our time examining things and pondering things and squinting at signs from three feet away.
So, as soon as a PC is exposed to a thing they might recognize or know something about, they should recognize it or know it. Or at least make the die roll. Recognizing a monster and its particular traits and weaknesses should be part of the flavor text. Immediate flavor text. It should not require a PC to wander over and examine it to load the part of their brain that has the information in it. It should not require a player to ask!
DM: “On the floor of the room is a strange circle. Anyone who is trained in Arcane Mystical Knowledge, please roll a check.”
DM: “Arathicus and Bob recognize the circle as a summoning circle. A demon summoned into such a circle is bound, unable to leave it or return to its home plane unless the wizard lets it out.”
Of course, researching things is a different matter altogether. But then, the PC is DOING SOMETHING, aren’t they?
A Digression: When to Roll Knowledge Checks
Since I’ve brought up the subject of skills that essentially just determine whether a PC knows a given fact, you might ask whether or not they are bound by the same rules about when to roll and how often to roll. The short answer is YES!
Knowledge skills are a huge pain in the ass. On the face of it, it seems like they should always be rolled. A PC might know something, they might not, and, depending on the difficulty of the information, they could therefore succeed or fail. And not having the information usually makes things harder or impossible for the PCs. So, you should always roll one roll for each useful bit of knowledge. Right?
But, knowledge skills aren’t really skills at all. While you can make an argument that the PC is rolling to “remember” something, they aren’t that cut and dry. They are more of a random roll to see if some particular piece of information is in the PC’s head. Otherwise, there is no reason for the PC to have different knowledge skills. The skill would be “remembering” and the chance would be the same for every thing the PC was ever taught.
I will discuss knowledge checks more later. Because they can really, really f$&% up a game for no good reason. But ultimately, when it comes to knowledge checks, I tend to use passive scores. That is, if the difficulty of the knowledge in a given system is equal to the average roll for the PC (e.g.: 10 on a d20 plus the skill modifier in d20 games), the PC knows the thing. otherwise, not. So, both the training and the score are still useful, but I don’t have to waste time with die rolls. To facilitate this, I keep a list of knowledge skills by PC.
I go back and forth on the knowledge skill problem, but, for a time my players were trained to know that I would tell them anything they knew or recognized about the world the moment it became relevant and if I didn’t tell them, it meant their PC didn’t know it. We spent a lot less time with the players “examining things” and asking questions about this term or that monster.
But, look, if you like rolling for knowledge, it isn’t going to break your game (except in some ways we will get to in a later article). It is justified. So feel free.