When should a game master call for a check?

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat. Until skills entered D&D, the game relied on checks like the d6 rolls that tell whether you spot the secret door or whether you can hear anything behind it.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a search check seems like a time saver. (In an upcoming post, I will suggest how to run these scenes without tedium and without skipping to a search roll.) Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip all the urban role-playing that the designers apparently found tiresome.

Some players lobby for checks as a way to bypass challenges they dislike. More than once, I’ve heard the player argue that their character is smarter or more charming than they are, and so a simple intelligence or diplomacy check should provide a solution to a puzzle or to a role-playing scene.

White Plume MountainAs a game master, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Dungeoneering check for that trip to White Plume Mountain.

While some actions require a die roll to resolve, as often as possible, I prefer to rely the logical cause and effect of the game world. Players say where they want to look, and I say if something is there.

I have a confession to make. When I run a game with skills, sometimes I feel bad if I fail to let players use their skills. After all, the game says you can use Search to find stuff, Diplomacy to sweet talk the Baron, and so on. The players invested in these skills while dreaming of chances to use them.

To help me decide when to call for a check, I settled on two principles:

  • Limit checks to situations where no more description of an action can determine whether it succeeds or fails.

  • Clever and specific actions that would probably succeed, do succeed, even when a skill applies.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as he speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a diplomacy check at +2, which the orator flubs. Sorry, you fail.

No more. Screw the check. Now, I will rise to applaud, and in the character of the Baron, rally my men to glory!

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also trump skills. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

When you apply these two principles, the players will lose a few chances to use skills. Accept that. Skills like Perception and Diplomacy rank as the game’s most frequently used, so players will still get chances to use these skills in situations with no obvious outcome. As for Streetwise, good riddance.

Related: Player skill without player frustration and Puzzle traps.

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4 Responses to When should a game master call for a check?

  1. Don Holt says:

    Wonderful post.

    But did it make Gary rollover in his grave? That’s not the rules.

    • DM David says:

      Thanks Don! I like to think this advice matches up with the way Gary might have run things. So far, I think I’ve only unsettled Gary’s spirit when I mocked his contention that AD&D stood as a completely different game than D&D.

      • Don Holt says:

        I think you give Gary too much credit. He did much to popularize and promote RPG’s, but as for making them better, I’m not sure I would stand with that statement.

        It’s odd how D&D Next is tending to return to some very old ideas. It might not have been possible if Gary were still with us.

        Granted, I’m extremely bias for two reasons, early RPG history (dungeons) AND coming back to the game when 4e was hitting the shelves. So I think of D&D as an RPG with wholesale slaughter occupying much of the play time, as opposed to a LFR type environment. And I sorta missed out on the video game component as well, whereas most RPG players these days did not.

        Your doing an excellent job in helping players distinguish a RPG’s from a video game, thereby enabling players to participate in story creation rather than merely following the program.

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