5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

December 3, 2012

Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One

Originally, I wrote this long, rambling introduction about picking a role-playing system to run modern-era mystery games and about arguments with people about binary skill systems and why I personally prefer the freedom binary systems afford over things with narrative dice pools and hippie-dippie drama point bulls$&%. But I realized it was just a bunch of garbage meant to forestall arguments about which game systems were superior and justify all of the great advice I am about to selflessly bestow on all of you. I got to thinking: if the advice is truly great advice, won’t that be self-evident? Shouldn’t it stand on its own?

Well, it does. And I don’t need to justify myself to any of you. I’m f$&%ing awesome and I know it. I don’t have anything to prove. But you do deserve an explanation as to what this series of feature articles is going to be about. I have a feeling none of you will buy it if I just say “they are about awesome!” So, cue the rambling introduction. I hope its not as long.

I tend to focus on mysteries, investigations, and conspiracies in my games (interspersed with a kick-ass dungeon crawl now and again) which focus on the PCs using their skills and knowledge to overcome obstacles, gather information, and figure out what is really going on so they can fix it. In discussing those games on Twitter, a few folks have brought up some common issues they’ve run into and some great discussions got started.

When you start looking at mystery gaming, most of the issues (apart from the big one about how to structure a mystery story) are really about using the game’s skill system to its fullest potential. And the same techniques you use to run a great investigation apply broadly to just about any skill-based encounter or adventure in just about any RPG system. When I decided to write about the topic of skill-based gaming, I started by listing a few topics to touch on and the list just kept growing. You could write a book.

Well, I’m not going to write a book. But I’ve never been above milking a topic until there is nothing but chalky, white dust issuing from a shriveled… this metaphor turned disgusting. I’ve always been willing to exhaustively explore the full scope and scale of a topic, splitting infinitives with reckless abandon as I go.

So, what you are reading is the first feature article about Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System. And its a great starting point. And unlike some of my previous articles, its more broadly applicable. So, whatever your genre, whatever your game system, you should be able to use this advice. My own D&D/Pathfinder/d20 roots will be on display, of course, but I am using the same skills in my Hackmaster 5E game. It’s awesome! check out the free basic game.

Wow. Now that’s an introduction.

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42 Responses to 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

  1. Andrew Asplund on December 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Where I would suggest that you only roll for a skill check if *failure* is interesting. I’m a big fan of “failing forward” myself. It’s not that you failed to accomplish the thing. It’s just that the outcome ended up being undesirable.

    Did you try to pick the lock to that door while you ran from the monster? Maybe, it’s not that you failed, but that there was something even worse on the other side.

    Sometimes, it’s as easy as saying that they’re performance was *too* good. I will use an example from the show Leverage: if you watch the episode “The Morning After Job,” there is a scene where two of the characters try to pass themselves off as police officers to get some important documents. The local prosecutor, assuming that they’re cops, gives them the paperwork but also tasks them with taking a prisoner back to county lockup. So, instead of just getting the papers they were looking for, they now have a handcuffed felon that they have to deal with. The way to think about it thematically is that they failed their “Bluff” check because they were too good at it.

    Anyway, that’s some sort of off thoughts about skills.

    • The Angry DM on December 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Whereas I actively avoided bringing up the “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” bulls$&%. Hahaha. Can you tell I get a little worked up about skills?

      First of all, in essence I am saying that you should only roll when failure is interesting. That is, if failure doesn’t cost the party something or carry some consequence, you should not roll. The word interesting is kind of a useless word. Because it is utterly subjective. Telling DMs to “make failure interesting” isn’t helpful. Telling them what makes failure interesting is useful. In this case, it has to cost the party something or endanger them or kill them. Costs or consequences.

      The concept of failing forward, however, rankles me. I’m not going to lie. For a couple of reasons. First of all, its a waste of time in a focused, goal-oriented adventure. Take the “escort the prisoner” example you offered. The party is trying to accomplish something – solve a mystery, achieve a goal, what have you. If they fail at something, they have a set back and have to find an alternate route to their goal. They can’t get the documents and need to find another bluff to pull or another source of the information they need.

      But that “failure forward” means they still get what they were after, except we have to be distracted by some unrelated garbage first. I don’t want to waste time playing out the PCs escorting some felon to prison. Especially because, in order to make that interesting, I need to have an escape attempt. Its a distraction. Stop doing what you were doing.

      I want failure to require the players to find a different path forward, not force them to wander a mile out of their way then pick up where they left off.

      Moreover, failing forward is not failing. It says that no matter what, you will succeed at the adventure. Its just a matter of how much you have to put up with before we all decide its time to end the story. That’s fine if you want to tell “an interesting story,” but it is not a challenge. The players don’t accomplish something. They don’t solve something. They just either succeed forward or fail forward until they get to the end.

      Now, if you want to play that way, I won’t begrudge you. But I wouldn’t run a mystery like that. A well-crafted mystery is a complex thing and it is very hard to create a good one players can solve. I would caution any DM from rewriting reality to make failures fail forward and distracting the party with extraneous sidetracks.

      I will also reiterate that the concept of “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” is too focused on the outcome of random die rolls to be the source of what’s interesting in the story. The focus is on the choice they made. The fact that the party chose to impersonate police officers as their approach should be the focus, not the fact that they failed at it by “succeeding too well.” In the end, it comes down to whether or not you are willing to let the PCs lose: http://angrydm.com/2010/07/winning-dd/

      • Andrew Asplund on December 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

        When I first read about failing forward, it was something that I read about in the context of collaborative story gaming. To that extent, I immediately thought of how I play Fiasco with my friends. I suppose what I mean is that my mindset had already shifted towards collaborative narrative control.

        When I first spoke to my players about failing forward, one of them came back to me with a very lengthy discussion about how, as he understood it, failing forward was no different than sophisticated planning on the part of the DM. Couldn’t every example of failing forward be just as effectively achieved by good planning on the part of the DM? It took me a while to realize where the problem in our communication was. As I saw it, failing forward was something that the table did together, not just the DM.

        If a character tries to outrun the city guard and fails some sort of skill check associated with running, there are any number of options and I would expect everybody at the table to think about it. Maybe the character got caught, but by a suspiciously corrupt lawman. Or, maybe a mysterious stranger arrived in a wagon to assist him in the escape, only to expect compensation later. Or, as it ends up, maybe getting caught by law enforcement was just as interesting as outrunning them.

        One thing I’ve learned in the past six months is that the group is much better at building an interesting narrative than I am by myself. Giving players control, such as with failing forward in skill checks, just lets them do that.

        But, that’s me. I’m a very atypical D&D DM. Perhaps I should change my name the the Hugging DM.

        • The Angry DM on December 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm

          And that is fine. But we also have to admit that collaborative story telling and building a narrative is a different form of gaming with different goals. In fact, it might not even entirely qualify as role-playing (which I know is going to get me into trouble) because the players have a degree of control over the world external to their character and the goal is to build an interesting story just to see where it goes. Therefore, the decisions they are making are on a level a bit above “playing a role.” I suppose its just a semantic distinction, but again, it is as a cross purpose to mystery gaming.

          A mystery game relies on a serious information gap between the players and the DM. It also relies on a solution to a mystery that exists as a reality to be discovered. In essence, the DM is giving the group a puzzle to solve and they have a set of skills and abilities to use.

          Again, while failing forward and collaboration are valid styles of play, they are very different styles of play to traditional role-play and they suit certain types of games and certain goals, but not others.

      • Ash on September 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm

        This is exactly what people say when they don’t understand failing forward. First of all, failing forward is BUILT ON only rolling when failure would be interesting. Failing forward is NOT always succeeding. It can be failing epically. Failing forward IS keeping the story moving. If there is a particular lock that needs opening, and it’s the only things the PC’s have to do, and they can’t do it, what happens? Without failing forward, end of campaign. If your campaign doesn’t immediately end, you’re failing forward.

      • John E on January 18, 2015 at 5:48 pm

        The concept of “failing forward” made me cringe. The world would feel so arbitrary and pointless if my Pickpocket fail spawned a motherf5%&/ monster on the other side of the door. Meta!
        Sure, all good RP stories are based on some illusioniary work from the GM, but it HAS to feel logical. Or I’m out.

      • Collin Trail on February 1, 2015 at 10:36 am

        First of all, great article. I was introduced to the second and third rules in a slightly different form via Burning Wheel, and had already ported them to other games. I enjoyed your take on them, and the other three rules which were new ideas for me, and it’s great to have them all in one place as a resource I can point friends to when we discuss skill systems.

        But I was a little confused by your comments on failing forward, because it seems like you took interpret “fail forward” to mean “complications followed by ultimate success”. That is one technique one could use, but I don’t think it’s what failing forward actually refers to. Basically I agree with Ash’s explanation of the term, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t using the term wrong, so I poked around for a minute and found three different explanations of failing forward.

        “Do not let the game come to a grinding halt just because the players failed at something; rather, try and work that failure into part of the continuing narrative.”

        “The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure.”

        “Whenever a character fails, the consequences of that failure should drive the game forward, rather than bringing it to a halt.”

        I think the main thing is not to have such a strong pre-conception about how the players will tackle a problem that a single failed roll leads to a loss of momentum. I’ve played in games where the GM didn’t want us to succeed in any way except the one they had planned for, and when we failed a critical roll kept trying to justify rerolls until we finally succeeded and the game could continue. I think we can agree that’s worth avoiding. In practice I think following your second rule results in “failing forward”- if you never roll without considering that failure must be a possibility, and have consequences, I think you will catch the situations where a failed roll would stop the game and hopefully come up with better failure consequences, or perhaps skip the roll entirely.

  2. wlkeR on December 4, 2012 at 5:33 am

    Thanks, I needed precisely this sort of article just now! I’m working to reduce time spent on mechanics to get more out of my game, as we play once in a blue moon, and waving off most skill checks is one good way to achieve that.

    The only downside is, I’ll never again get to hear “20! I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s awesome!”

  3. Mike on December 4, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Nice article. One thing that bothers me about the not rolling for things that they will succeed at eventually is how do you determine how much time it takes? If you are playing with random encounters, time is always a factor. Do you just assume they take 20 in every circumstance?

    Another thing, when are you going to write an article about HackMaster? HackMaster is pretty much the polar opposite of D&D 4e. It’s pretty rare to find someone who likes both.

    • TheAngryDM on December 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Well, if time is a factor, than you have a situation where rolling might be appropriate, but I’d probably word it differently. So, the party is picking a lock: does the party succeed before the get the attention of some random monster. Roll the lock pick check. If it fails, a monster shows up some number of minutes into the check and the party fights. Then they can try the check again. But I know we’re now wandering far into the territory of bending the nature of skill rolls over backwards.

      Alternatively, you can just roll multiple rolls and tick off time as normal. Or roll one roll for each time increment of random encounters (say, every ten minutes).

      But, at the end of the day, I generally just wing it. A lock pick attempt takes five to ten minutes. Bashing a door open takes generally a minute at most. Searching a small room with some furniture thoroughly takes fifteen minutes. Unless time is an issue, I tend to use time scales as follows: seconds, a minute, a few minutes, several minutes, a quarter hour, a half hour, an hour, a couple hours, all morning/afternoon/evening, half the day, the whole day. Lock picking takes several minutes. Punching someone is done in seconds. Researching the location of the shrine is going to take the whole day. The party spends all morning in the market trolling for rumors.

      Hackmaster 5E and D&D are thematically similar than I think people give either credit for. They are both success-oriented action-RPGs when you get down to it. I realize there are differences when you start to look at different editions and I admittedly am not a big fan of 4E. I have thought about doing a review of Hackmaster 5E, but I wouldn’t do dedicated articles to specific Hackmaster topics. I’m trying to stay more general and give folks stuff that is useful in a variety of different games.

      • As If on August 30, 2014 at 12:07 am

        One approach I use is to ask “How long will you keep doing this if nothing happens?” (Note that I didn’t say “if you find nothing” but rather “if nothing happens”.)

        This technique is alternated with another in which I let them roll the dice, and on a fail I tell them “Well you found nothing… and nothing found you.”

        I’ll do this whether there’s something to find or not. The didactic purpose of both these techniques is to remind Players that time is always ticking, and random encounters may happen anywhere. So keep it moving, people!

  4. Mike on December 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I’d love to see you review HM. Even though I was an early playtester, I still waffle on whether I really want to run a campaign of it. The system can be very nit-picky (especially the skill system) and the books are pretty expensive. Kenzerco’s glacial pace of producing new material also bothers me. But there are a lot of things I do love about the new HM.

  5. DMpanu on December 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I agree with you that failing forward is not desirable. Success is only sweet when failure is sour. I do however feel that you should always try to move the story forward on success or failure.

    Looking forward to the series.

  6. Miyagi on January 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    This is great. Where are the next sections? Isn’t it January:)

  7. Jon on March 17, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Great post! I heartily agree. Your blog is a lot more practical than mine. I need to learn from you how to get my head out of the clouds. I talk big about boundaries and scaffolding, and you make it a lot more practical with your five rules.

    • Jon on March 17, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      Cross link: I liked this post so much I suggested on “tearing 4e a new one” that you consider that fights should follow these same rules. At a minimum, it addresses your 4e issue. Of course you also pointed out there that its not the dm, but the system. System matters. I agree. But the entire complaint people have about the problem of the fifteen minute workday assumes fantasy heroes should be in combat all day, which is a characteristic of d&d and d&d only. Fights should follow the same five basic rules as skill systems. And if they don’t, and players nova and rest, there isn’t really a better way to do it than a system that balances all classes for encounter 1 as well as encounter 5.

      The real problem with the fifteen minute workday is that I previous editions it made wizards really powerful for two encounters, and then the whole party would rest. The fighter and rogue, balanced to be better than the wizard late in the day, never saw that happen.

      • The Angry DM on March 17, 2013 at 9:53 pm

        Considering I am writing about D&D (and Pathfinder, to some extent), I think it is quite fair that I write about uniquely D&D problems. Though I do not quite agree with your assessment.

        That being said, part of the reason I LIKE D&D and play it is because I like a combat focus and I like a series of action encounters that wear a party down as they work toward a goal. D&D claims to be built on that assumption and the reason I criticized it as I did in that other post is because, despite that claim, the system was built to provide players with different incentives, forcing the DM to work against the in-built incentives to create the play experience the game promised. And I proposed a fix.

        I don’t find “it is not broken because the DM can fix it” to be a compelling argument and I do not find “just play a different system” to be useful advice. My goal is to actually try to provide fixes for people who run into the same isolated problems I do in systems they otherwise want to stick with for a variety of other reasons.

        • Jon on March 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm

          I think your solutions are good, but I think the problem doesn’t exist. Not really. I think it’s a problem we created.

          The fifteen minute workday is the name of a problem caused by the imbalance between casters and non-casters in original, 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition D&D. The problem, as you clearly know, was that, absent a story reason to keep going, casters could expend their most powerful spells every round until they ran out, then rest and repeat. Because casters were balanced to assume they mixed high- and (mostly) low-level spells in each encounter, having casters use only top-level spells caused them to be significantly more powerful than non-casters.

          Like many DMs, I spent over a decade (before 4e) working out ways to fix the fifteen minute workday problem — that is, the caster/non-caster imbalance that results from short adventuring days. The best strategy was to eliminate the fifteen minute workday itself, by doing some of the things you pointed out — applying time pressure from plot events, using wandering monsters, etc. Fixing the system itself was too hard.

          I think we all came to conflate the fifteen minute workday with the caster/non-caster imbalance. It was impossible to patch the system to require casters to mix in low level spells, so we all focused on eliminating the fifteen minute workday.

          So now people think that the fifteen minute workday is the problem, when in fact it’s the filler fights and the goblins that exit just to wear the party down that are the problem, because they’re a legacy of the band-aid we all used to keep casters from dominating the game. They’re not important to the plot. They’re filler. They’re usually not that tactically challenging, and they usually have the default binary outcomes, “kill or be killed.”

          But your other point, that some groups might want to play that way — with cocky, reckless bravado rewarded by the system — is valid. That’s badass “van art” fantasy, and I think it’s cool; but we have to agree that it’s its own subgenre of fantasy. The Fellowship didn’t slog through an average of four or five battles every day they had one.

          I think your solutions would work, though limiting dailies seems to go too far, to me. I proposed some more ideas on my blog as I was thinking up this response. One system-based solution was inspired by old school tournament play, so if you know any Fourthcore folks, send them the link.


  8. […] to take an action. Now, I’ve said a lot on the subject of using the dice to resolve actions (Five Simple Rules for Dating my Teenaged Skill System), and I promised follow ups on all aspects of resolving actions. Well, here we […]

  9. Jaist on August 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    this is spooky, I just finished writing the weekly newsletter for my gaming club and it says nearly exactly what you were saying in part 1. here’s some copy pasta from the newsletter, if you can give me any suggestions about what else to say to them to get them out of the “i roll an x” habit that’d be fantastic

    Describe your actions
    “i perception check the fountain.”
    Boring. what does that tell me about what the PC expects? nothing.
    “I run my hands along the fountain, wondering at the beauty of the craftsmanship, peering close, I try and make out what the symbols are.”
    sweet, I, as DM love this, youve just helped me realize the world in a physical, descriptive way, you are helping to tell the story, youve put yourself in there. youve listened to the description and you are reacting in a way that shows it, but it’s not all about stroking the DM’s ego.

    “I roll a check” (and now expect to do something the DM hadn’t even considered).
    A lot of the time you guys will pick up with laser focus on something that isn’t vital, you’ll miss the right clue or you’ll think of a solution that the DM hasn’t thought of. DM’s love this if you describe what you are doing. It is the bane of a DM’s existence if you just say “I roll a check”.

    Describe your intent
    for an extra bonus, add an expected outcome on the end
    PC1: “I push against the statue, hoping that it will topple onto the pressure plate below, triggering the trap without anyone getting hurt”
    DM (with a surprised eyebrow cocked, rolls a strength check) “the statue starts to topple forward”
    PC1: “I shout LOOKOUT BELOW!”

    This is role playing and this is where DnD gets fun.

    If the DM is still stumped it’s at that point you should probably suggest a check. Meta gamingly, this probably means you are barking up the wrong tree, ask for further clarifications.

    • Jaist on August 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      oh yeah, and I cut out this because I don’t want them to fully realize the number crunching implications behind what they are doing, i want them to role play first and then find out the in game benefits of doing it, I feel like I have to leave something behind the screen…

      a description like this means you don’t have to declare EXACTLY what check you are doing. you might think it’s a perception check and are happily surprised with it turning out to be a religion, history, arcana or thievery check. even if you fail you can meta game and ask whoever is proficient in the check to have a go.

  10. Wiatt on December 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you Angry DM!

    I started DMing about two years ago with a group of five of my best friends, and I knew nothing about DMing, breaking the game, or strange caviats and homebrew rules. I essentially improvised all my DMing until about a week ago, which lead to many campaign restarts, various broken parts of the game, and very little excitement about the game from the PCs because of lack of roleplaying and interaction with the world.

    After reading this article, I was inspired, and, after having read your article about creating awesome encounters, I set up a couple of encounters that I thought were interesting, and the players ate them up. Now we’re set on a good campaign and I’m excited to see how things turn out.

    Specifically, the idea you presented about the Pros and Cons in each encounter was particularly helpful, as was the removal of skill checks that can’t fail. Using these, I’ve really trimmed up the content that I deliver into a more comprehensive and interactive package.
    (And my improv is actually pretty useful within the framework of the larger world I’ve created.)

    Just thought I’d say how much I appreciate your blog.
    The DM Remade

  11. Tom D on March 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    First – thanks. I like this write up.

    5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System –>
    A Digression: When to Roll Knowledge Checks

    – I like (and have used before reading this) the idea of knowledge skills being passive. However, similar to your ‘don’t roll without a real failure option’ rule I have used them actively: Can they remember in time? In these cases, it is actually a INT check with a modifier based on the skill – and only available if they could have known passively in the first place. These are to be used in specific (emergency? whatever follow your rule 2) situations. For example: the party walks into some room, see summoning going on and have a timeframe before said ritual magic wipes everyone’s teeth from existence. Those who know, can panic appropriately while those who don’t just see some magic that they can presume is bad but don’t have a basis for urgency – and therefore target the sword weilding bodygaurd first since he is more immediately threatening. The roll simply allows the team to change the target (or not) appropriately.

  12. Thomas on March 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Can I request a printer friendly PDF?

  13. […] article by Angry DM, which is a view he doesn't support at all. The article I meant to link to is this one here.] You don’t have to agree with such a bold statement, but there’s still something to […]

  14. […] 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Skill System by The Angry DM […]

  15. Michael on May 15, 2014 at 7:29 am

    The angry DM has actually made a good case for ditching dice rolls altogether in D&D because life is deterministic.

    My alternative view is the mechanics of D&D are based on everything having a random element and that there is always a failure mode.

    e.g. You go in a room and suddenly feel that there is something there roll Perception if you succeed you recognise something which could be worthless, if you fail you dismiss the feeling- no amount of extra looking is going to allow you to perceive something.

    You can fail with any skill check. Botching any physical task and you simply can’t do it again-failing to pick a lock and the lock is jammed up.
    Fail a knowledge check and you simply can’t remember something pertinent to the situation and now your brain has dismissed a link between what you see and the knowledge that’s inside you.

    • Colin on July 9, 2014 at 3:01 am


      You propose a perception skill check that has two boring possibilities:
      * Success = the character recognizes something that could be worthless.
      * Failure = the character cannot dismiss the feeling that there is something there, but no amount of looking will help.

      Both of these are bad, boring, grindy results. In both cases, the players’ attention is focused on worthless things and a distraction from the story.

      How much time & attention should be spent on this distraction. At the end of the evening of play, is anyone going to remember that 15 minutes of game time looking around the room that didn’t have any worthwhile info? I don’t think so.

      I think your players don’t want the action that so hard to find.

      • TheAngryDM on July 9, 2014 at 10:02 am

        This is actually precisely why I don’t propose using excitement or boringment as the measure of whether a die needs to be rolled. Failure to find something that is vital is, in itself, interesting as the players have to adapt to that. They have to find a way to cope with a problem without a given resource. BUT, they also don’t know how and why they missed that resource, just that they lack it. The outcome of the die roll itself is not interesting, but it leads to an interesting game consequence.

        That is why my rule is: only roll dice when an action can succeed, when it can fail, and when failure carries a risk or consequence such that the action can’t be tried over and over until success.

        At the end of the day, people who lose their s$&% over the occasional die roll whose consequences are not immediately apparently (and therefore “boring”) are wasting more energy than it would take to simply make the die roll and move on. And the general rule of “make failure interesting” provides too much of a focus on random outcomes. It is the choice to act that should be the interesting part.

        Moreover, “interesting” is a useless word for advice. It isn’t actionable. It is subjective. My rule (can succeed, can fail, risk or consequence that prevents redos) leads to almost the same place, but it isn’t subjective. It is a rule everyone can understand and follow without a value judgment on what makes something engaging.

      • Michael on July 15, 2014 at 3:49 am

        All of this starts with the relationship between character and player. You aren’t your character (who is awesome) but rather his great advisor who can communicate in his language- its seems a poor immersion for the “Common” language to just be English. You helped him become awesome and want him to become incredible.

        1. You mean your player doing some meta-gaming cannot dismiss the feeling that there is something there. Your character dismisses the feeling(insight) immediately.

        2. Some examples to show this insight dismissal happening. A lion has a sudden feeling that there is an prey somewhere over there. He looks hard using his awesome perception and maybe mentally decides it was nothing. You come across an unmarked chemical and with a flash of insight search your memory search for what it might be with its confirmation test. If you don’t have broad-spectrum tests (IR….) then you can’t fiddle with it since might be explosives or poisonous.
        3. As DM, you need to encourage players to realise life is full of duds- most circles aren’t portals but just circles. Give them easy tests that they succeed but its nothing important.

        • Jon on July 15, 2014 at 7:07 am

          All you accomplish by flooding your world with duds is to trick the *player* not the *character.* What’s the point of that?

          “You die in an awful trap!”

          “There was a trap?”

          “Of course! There was a trap there but you didn’t even look for it!”

          “But every time I searched for traps I found nothing!”

          “Well you shouldn’t have got complacent!”

          “My character isn’t complacent. She has +30 Perception! That’s supposed to represent discernment and alertness!”

          “Well I didn’t trick your character, silly player, I tricked *you*! Hahahahaha!”

          That’s not a game I want to play.

        • Jon on July 15, 2014 at 7:08 am

          See Ken Hite and Robin D. Laws’ discussion of red herrings in RPGs for another, more nuanced look at tricking players vs. tricking characters.


  16. Michael on July 17, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Many bad parts to your scenario- Jon.
    1. The lack of a passive ability to check for traps is system failure- houserule that if they walk slowly their brain will pick out signs of potential trap at +20 difficulty.
    2. The single skill failure that give instant death. So you have a Charisma failure with instant death- we annoy the king and his elite archers/wizards kill us. A bezerker is teleported on to us and one attack failure and we all die. Did your players buy-in into an extremely brutal campaign.
    3. Your trap layout must be dull- killer traps are rarely catch-all as the builders have to be able to avoid them. Characters might be able to avoid traps by being smart/outthinking you.

    4. Your players won’t have to meta-game their characters without any duds/decoys.
    I’m noticing something- it must be deadly so I blast away as its always something dangerous/important.

  17. Roger on August 25, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Regarding picking locks: I don’t remember if 3.x was one of the games that gave a penalty for failed checks, but I used to use a house rule for picking locks that if the roll failed by 5+, the character would brake a pick, and that increased the DC. If they failed by 10+, the lock would jam or the broken pick was found to be necessary. This was actually inspired by the old SSI Hillsfar game, where you had a set of picks with various shaped ends, and the locks tumblers had corresponding insets. Now, the insets were all run together, so it wasn’t always obvious which pick would fit, and sometimes it was, but even when you had the right fit, the tumbler didn’t always cooperate, and if you chose wrong, or if you mashed the button too hard, your pick would break. Do you see this as a(viable?) Cost of Failure, or even a “Ticking Clock” type situation?
    I have to say that one thing that really sold 4e for me was the skill challenge concept. I always wanted a way to give XP for things that weren’t just combat, but could never find anything that seemed to fit. Second edition had individual awards, but using those always seemed to have various characters off doing their own thing and not working as a group. I’ve seen other award systems, most of which that are arbitrary or completely independant of challenge, which doesn’t suit my sensibilities.
    So I started thinking that if I used your rules, couldn’t every skill roll be considered a “challenge”? If a character only rolls when there is a Risk, and auto succeed if there is none, that means that characters only receive XP on meaningful(or maybe goal oriented?) rolls. Also, rule #1 to me seems to be very immersive, requiring the player to play the situation, not their skills. And even when a player describes an action they are good at, like “I pick the lock on the moneylender’s front door”, based on their skills, I could easily answer with “OK, roll a perception/streetwise/insight check”(so they don’t get spotted by the guards/correctly identify which house is the moneylenders/remember that the moneylender has a nosy neighbor).
    Maybe the skills that are “Challenges” should only be for skills that come under the 5th rule? Do you think that this approach would work, or just be subject to abuse(like so many other variants)? I was kind of thinking that a mini challenge would be worth a minion reward based on the characters level, so that 4 successful skill checks would still be the same thing as a level 1 challenge, but without the hassle of trying to balance successes vs. an arbitrary number of failures.

  18. Shania on October 8, 2014 at 2:05 am

    (Starting off: I am not an experienced DM/GM/God. The things I say could sound great in my head, but would suck when used in an actual session. I do hope to be able to start DM’ing soon, so criticise and curse all you want. It would help me a lot.)

    I agree that many DM’s ask for rolls far too often, but I am afraid that if you follow all these rules, it’s almost a bit too less. In my opinion, there should be more scenarios where it’s “allowed” to make several die-rolls.
    If something is impossible, I do agree you shouldn’t have them smashing on an un-penetrable door for hours, because it simply won’t work, but I think that having them try once can’t hurt. For example, we take our inpenetrable door. Nobody in the party is very skilled with picklocking, so the PC’s decide to smash the door open. Instead of straight up telling them, let them attempt once. No matter what they roll, you simply tell them they failed, and that the door didn’t even budge. If they didn’t get the hint and try again, simply say it doesn’t work. Don’t let them roll again.
    This way (I think), you can take care of those META-gaming bastards only trying their best when they know the moment is tense, while they shouldn’t be able to know IC. Besides, wouldn’t you feel better to have atleast tried, instead just hearing that it won’t work?
    What I’m trying to say, is that D&D is also an RPG, and it’s much easier to get sucked in the setting, when you give them atleast one attempt for everything. I agree with not having them roll when succes is garanteed and there is no time-limit, but otherwise you could have them try. Besides, Rolling dice = Fun.

    Now, another way to break down the rolls (atleast, for as far as the PC’s know,) is by making some skill-rolls yourself. For example, while the party is wandering through a dark forest, you secretly roll a spot to see if the party notices the predator that’s stalking them. If they don’t, the predator ambushes them. If they do, they have a chance to attack him first or do whatever they want. The outcome would be, instead of suddenly asking a roll, and the players awkwardly call they rolls, you can have the predator immediatly jump on top of them, which would make the whole scene much more exciting and intense.

  19. Antonio Novaes on October 18, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Would you mind if I translated this? With the due reference, of course.
    This is actually an awesome material, and i’d like to make it more accessible to a portuguese speaker audience.

  20. Luke on November 7, 2014 at 10:29 am

    First of all thank you for taking the time to write these, brilliant articles full of good advice. Would you be able to upload a PDF of this article as you have for the second and third please, having them on hand when I don’t have an internet connection is really handy.

  21. James on November 25, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    F’ing fantastic read man.

  22. […] que esse artigo é uma tradução livre do original em inglês criado pelo AngryDM, e que também foi postado no Storyteller’s […]

  23. bigjeff5 on January 26, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    I just want to say THANK YOU for this entire series!

    Also, you’re right to ignore the mechanics BS because this stuff is far more universal than I ever thought it would be. I’m an inexperienced GM (who as you can tell already, doesn’t really do D&D) for a system that is pretty much the opposite of D&D, and is very not binary, and all of this stuff applies. Every bit of it. I came across this while looking for some encounter set pieces I could use in an upcoming game I’m running. This and the rest of the posts in this series are so much better than what I was looking for.

    See, my friends and I primarily play one of those hippie-dippie bulls$&% narrative dice systems, and we love it (no drama points though, that sounds awful). I think we like it because it gives us prompts to add more descriptors. So, to use an example from one of the later posts, when we drop the giant spider in front of the party, the narrative dice are there saying “hey! You need something else here to make this actually any good!” So, while we don’t necessarily get a Giant Spider protecting her eggs that the party can work around, we do get that sometimes and it makes it better.

    D&D games we’ve tried in the past haven’t been very fun, and I think it’s because we’ve been missing this giant piece in our gaming. We rotate GM’s, in case you’re wondering why all the we’s and we’ves and whatevers. We don’t do that collaborative GM’ing beyond players coming up with cool things for their characters to do, which is standard RP stuff. Plugging up this hole will both make our gaming better, and make binary systems like D&D and others more playable.

    Anyway I am about to read “How to Build F$&%ing Awesome Encounters” and I’m really looking forward to it!

  24. […] que esse artigo é uma tradução livre do original em inglês criado pelo AngryDM, e que também foi postado no Storyteller’s […]

  25. […] Lembrando que esse artigo é uma tradução livre do original em inglês criado pelo AngryDM. […]

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