Tag Archives: checks

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

As a dungeon master, I rarely ask everyone in the party to make perception, investigation, or knowledge checks, because someone almost always rolls high. With these checks, just one high roll yields the information the players want. Why bother rolling for a virtually certain outcome?

I asked this question of Dungeons & Dragons fans and gained hundreds of responses.

Many comments mentioned that passive checks—especially passive Wisdom (Perception) checks—fit most times everyone might roll.

So why roll instead?

Even though DMs realize that saying “everyone roll” almost guarantees success, they ask because players enjoy rolling. For many players, the game only begins when the dice fly.

Plus, “everyone roll” is D&D theater. You know the outcome but asking grabs attention and spurs the players into real-world action. Jamie LaFountain writes, “Everyone rolling is a nice smoke-and-mirrors trick when you want to get a piece of information out to the group and give the illusion of risk of failure.”

Sometimes everyone rolls without a request from the DM. One person makes a check, and all the other players snap to attention and try too. For example, the character at the dungeon door looks it over, muffs a perception check, and then everyone else starts rolling and calling numbers. What should a DM do?

First, you might gently remind your players that rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a slight lapse of table decorum. “When I’m a player I loathe that everyone at the table feels the need to also roll a check,” Sam Witkowski writes. Such piling on robs the active player of their moment—their chance to be rewarded for their action. Checks should happen when a DM decides that a character’s action in the game world merits a check.

Ask the other players what their characters do. If nobody approaches to spot the door’s faded inscription, ignore their checks. If everyone takes a turn up close, consider any time pressure, but let everyone roll (and maybe a wandering monster opens the door from the other side).

Actions prompt checks, so making a perception check typically means taking a closer look. If the party just crosses a room and you want to see if someone notices a trap door, D&D’s rules suggest using passive Wisdom (Perception) rather than calling for a roll. You can limit passive checks to those closest to the trap door, so players benefit from letting the perceptive character lead. (And remember in dim light, the check is at disadvantage, a passive -5. Darkness counts as dim light for characters relying on darkvision.)

Players pile on lore checks too. These are checks against skills like History, Arcana, and Religion to discover if a character brings some knowledge to a situation. Everybody rolling for knowledge typically assures success. Such group rolls often show that the most unlikely character knows some bit of obscure lore.

Group knowledge rolls diminish the choices of players who invested proficiency in knowing things. If you always let everyone roll for an inevitable success, the value of knowledge skills drops to almost nothing. Success comes from making five rolls rather than from proficiency.

When everyone rolls, the one sage proficient in a skill will seldom roll a better success than the four know-nothings in the party. Still, some DMs enjoy the surprise of seeing the barbarian beat the wizard’s arcane knowledge. Such occasions can reveal character.

The next time every character wants to pile on a knowledge check, consider letting them, but ask players to roll only if they think their character might know something. Then if the barbarian lucks into a 20, say, “I’ll tell you about the enchantment on the door, but first can your tell me how someone fostered by wolves knows about wards forged on the plane of Mechanus?” Asking “how can this be so?” fuels creativity. “The barbarian may not know what that symbol means is or what civilization used it, but they remember seeing something similar 10 years ago on a crypt outside of Blahland,” writes Jonathan Hibberd. Either players add interesting bits of background to their characters, or they admit to knowing nothing.

Letting everyone roll a lore check works best when you have lots of information to offer. Every success yields a fun fact. By granting information for good rolls, you can make an information dump feel like a series of rewards.

For extra value, try to make the tidbits feel unique to each character’s background, nature, and outlook. D.W. Dagon writes, “A Religion check from a cloistered scholar is going to be resolved very differently to the same check from an outlander. It’s a great opportunity to bring forth each character’s unique backstory in a way which forwards story.”

DMs who want to see if a character discovers a secret may ask for everyone to roll. The player who succeeds gains confidential information. Don’t do this if you expect players to share the information. Players tend to guard secrets, even when they have no reason to.

Everyone roll almost guarantees success, but sometimes no one rolls better than a 6—including the character starting with a +5. If you call for everyone to roll, expect success, but be ready for a fail. If the adventurers must know something, then just tell them.

Some DMs keep track of characters’ proficiencies for this purpose. “If I can prepare,” Thomas Christy writes, “I love to find out who is trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” During the game, the players can reveal their knowledge in-character. When players remember their knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

You can treat knowledge skills as passive. Without a roll, tell players what their character knows based on, say, their Intelligence (Religion) bonus. I often reveal lore based on characters’ proficiencies and background. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine. This technique works especially well for the information players must learn to continue. Essential backstory feels like a reward for a character’s choices. Players won’t know what knowledge comes from their characters’ aptitude and what you had to reveal to advance the plot.

If you want to make checking for a bit of obscure lore into a real test, allow fewer characters to roll.

  • Limit the check to characters with proficiency. This rewards the cleric proficient in religion even if their knowledge is hampered by low Intelligence.

  • Limit the check to the active character, possibly just the person who asked, and then grant advantage based on the party’s advice and assistance. This encourages action.

  • Limit the check to the most knowledgeable character, and then grant advantage based on the party’s help. I love when this enables a quiet player to gain the spotlight based on their character’s aptitude.

You can impose similar limits on investigation. Limit Intelligence (Investigation) rolls to the best detective or to the active character, and then grant advantage based on the help from other characters.

Wisdom (Insight) checks commonly lead to pile-on checks. If you want any intrigue and deception in your game, then more than one person should never roll a Wisdom (Insight) check. Next week, I’ll explain how to cope with Insight.

Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Introducing the spot check

In this post, I cite “spot checks” to refer to third edition’s Spot checks, Next’s Wisdom (Perception) checks, and tests of awareness made with 4E and Pathfinder’s Perception skill.

The Spot skill and its descendents rate a character’s ability to notice something while doing other things like traveling, fighting, or resting. Before Spot entered the game, unless you searched, you noticed the things the game master decided you noticed. A thief might hide from you, but their success depended on their roll to hide, not on your ability to spot.

Spot the spider

Can you see me?

When the game master simply decides what the characters perceive, the game plays fine. After all, the game master adds things to an adventure to enrich the adventure. If you let the dice say that the PCs fail to catch a scent of brimstone, or fail to spot the cloud of bats erupting from the cliffside, then the game suffers.

Nonetheless, when Spot skill entered the game, game masters and designers dutifully worked spot checks into every situation. Whenever the party opened a door or topped a hill, everyone made a new round of spot checks. At some game tables, every bit of information had to be earned with a spot check.

I will explain why you should skip many spot rolls, reserving the spot check for a small number of specific circumstances.

Passive perception and taking 10

Fourth edition attempted to rein in spot rolls by introducing passive perception. In principle, a dungeon master could skip perception rolls and use the characters’ passive perception to determine just what they notice as they explore.

“Passive perception checks help you set the scene. They tell you right away how much of the details of a room or encounter area the characters notice.” – Fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide p.26

Passive perception extends the mechanic of taking-10. Instead of players stating that they take 10, the game master assumes it.

Passive perception avoids putting the players on alert by asking for a roll when they see nothing. And it avoids interrupting the narrative for all those rolls.

What’s not to like?

The problem with passive perception

Passive perception forces the dungeon master to do the extra work of tracking all the passive perception scores and of setting perception DCs. Typically, this extra effort only yields a process that amounts to the DM deciding in advance what the PCs will notice. Seem familiar?

Most DMs running for regular groups know the approximate perception bonuses of the PCs. If you bother to create something interesting or something that advances the adventure, would you hide it behind a DC that prevents the group from ever seeing it? Never. Not even authors of published adventures will hide things that enrich the adventure beyond the perception of a typical party.

Secrets add fun to the game, but only when uncovered. If the players overlook the secret door, it’s just another wall. – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

But suppose a virtuous DM devises an adventure that gives keen-eyed parties a significantly different experience than unwary parties. The players still never know that their keen-senses paid off. The work of managing perception stays in the DM’s head, its effects unnoticed by the players, extra work, arguably for nothing.

If you would set the DC required to spot something within the reach of the PCs’ passive perception or take-10 value, then skip the DC. They spot it. The players will not ask you to show your work.

As a diceless method of resolving spot checks, passive perception falls short, but it still works as a way to set a difficulty class. More on that later.

The play value of rolling to spot

None of this means that you must always decide in advance what the players see. Random rolls can add an element to the game.

  • Unpredictability makes role-playing games interesting, mainly for the game master. The printed adventure cannot surprise the GM. Only the players actions and the random luck of the die add surprises to the game.
  • Randomness helps the game master keep some distance from the characters’ fates. The players should see the course of the game determined by their choices and by the luck of the die, not by the GM’s whims and mood.

Ask for spot checks (a) when success is uncertain, and (b) success hinges on keen senses in the game world.

Group perception checks almost always succeed

The outcome of group perception checks is rarely uncertain enough to merit a check.

Anytime every player can attempt a spot check, someone will succeed. Suppose a party of five adventurers, all with +0 to their check, passes something that requires a spot DC of 15, what D&D Next considers a moderate DC. If one person rolls, the chance of success is 30%. If everyone rolls, each has a 30% chance of success, which means the odds of someone succeeding grows to 83%. This supposes that no one is particularly good at spotting—everyone has a +0. One alert character pushes the chance of success closer to 90%.

When the odds of everyone missing something amounts to a rare fumble, does stopping the action to roll make sense? With some groups, absolutely. In particular, younger players love to roll, so group rolls create excitement despite the minimal chance of failure. Let them roll.

“Listen or Spot checks can get repetitive and dull if players have to make them over and over, especially when it usually only takes one success out of the whole group to succeed, making their success typically a foregone conclusion. Think twice before asking for such checks. They’re interesting when the PCs are trying to find a hiding or invisible foe, but get dull fast when they’re walking through the woods and you ask for them for every hour of travel.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

For most groups, you can consider any ordinary group perception check an automatic success. Skip the pointless activity, tell them what they see, and move on.

When you devise adventures, never mistake a group perception task difficulty for a challenge. On the rare occasions a group fails to spot something, they fumbled. This certainty is not a bad thing. In most cases you want the players to spot the “hidden” things in your adventure, either because these interesting things enrich the adventure, or because they advance the plot.

Hard checks change the equation. These checks impose DCs so high that only one or two members of the party can even hope to succeed. That’s the water elemental stirring the reeds under the bridge, or the key glimmering below the school of silvery fish. In these cases, allow a roll. You must be comfortable with the likelihood that no one will spot the ambush or the key.

If your players have become accustomed to calling for group perception checks, you can tell them not to waste their time, or you can let them have their fun, knowing that their success is virtually certain.

Individual perception checks may merit a roll

Of course, many spot checks can only be attempted by a character or two. This gives you a chance to add an element of uncertainty, and gives your players a potential reward for investing in perception.

Sometimes a spot task may be limited to the characters…

  • leading the party in marching order.
  • with darkvision or another requisite ability
  • spending an action the heat of battle to look
  • with applicable talents such as the ability to spot traps or arcane phenomena
  • taking the role of lookout

The D&D Next exploration system turns some of these limitations into specific rules: “When a character chooses to keep watch as an exploration task, the character makes a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors) as the group travels during the current exploration turn.”

D&D Next writes this as a rule, but it applies to other games too. In many situations, only a few members of the party can make perception checks. Their skills pay here. Keeping watch is a task akin to mapping or tracking.

“Don’t be afraid, in some cases, to only allow one or two characters to make the check. It’s with in your prerogative to rule that most of the party is preoccupied in other activities while one character is more or less ‘keeping watch.’ This isn’t covered in the rules, but in a case-by-case basis, you can decide that only a character who’s trying to listen or keep an eye out has a chance of making a check.” – Monte Cook, “Dungeoncraft” in Dungeon 137

Group perception checks guarantee success, so individual checks like these represent a chance for players who invested in perception skills to reap benefits.

Even if only one or two characters can possibly notice something, you might ask all the players to make the roll, and then only consider the checks from those able to notice. This avoids giving clues about, say, the location of the breeze coming from the unseen exit.

Favor search over spot

Before you ask for a spot check, consider whether a search makes more sense. In most cases, this comes down to the circumstances, see “Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation.” Sometimes, you may be tempted to give someone a chance to spot something hidden, but hypothetically visible to spot. Favor making the players search. Searching plays better than spotting for a couple of reasons:

  • Searching engages the characters in action, forcing them closer for a look.
  • Searching invites the players to make decisions about when, where, and how to search, and how much time to risk.

If someone steps into a room, aces a die roll, and sees the key at the bottom of the fountain and the odd scratches on the floor behind the chest, you have replaced the interaction and decision making demanded by a search with an abstract roll.

Hiding and sneaking

When one creature attempts to hide from others, do not ask for spot or listen checks. Instead, use passive perception or take-10 scores to set the DC to sneak or hide. Pit the active creature’s stealth check versus the highest applicable take-10 score. In the case when a group could roll to spot, this method makes hiding possible, because group perception checks virtually always succeed.

In combat, if someone chooses to look for a hiding creature, they can spend an action and roll versus the hiding creature’s check. In Pathfinder and 3E, active looking takes a move action. In 4E, active looking takes a standard action.

The same system works for ambushes. If someone hides to ambush, they roll to hide. Later, when the ambush springs, compare the hide check against the highest passive perception or take-10 score of the targets.

While this procedure may not follow your game’s written rules, it makes sense because the targets of the ambush are busy traveling and, by default, taking 10 on perception.

Five questions to ask before calling for a Spot check

The game master almost always asks players to make spot checks, except when players take an action in combat to look for something.

As a game master, before you ask for a check, consider these five questions:

  1. Is something sneaking or hiding? Skip the spot check. Instead, use the party’s best take-10 (passive perception) scores to set the DC for the hide or sneak attempt.
  2. Can the thing to spot be noticed from the character’s vantage? If not, wait for the players to search.
  3. Does noticing something fall within the take-10 value of the most perceptive PC? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  4. Does everyone in the party have a chance to notice something? Do not roll. Something is noticed.
  5. Are only one or two characters in position to notice something? Ask for a perception check.

Next: How to run an ambush

Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

When players roll their own perception checks, they learn something from the number on the die roll. Players with bad rolls know that their search may have missed something; players with great rolls may trust the game master’s report that they found nothing.

As a game master, you can make perception checks in secret, but players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the GM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bysander watching the game rather than participating.

Who should roll perceptions checks?

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

Many players take pride in running their character without relying on any metagame information. These players can roll, obviously blow their check, and press ahead knowing that if a trap awaits, they missed it. If you have such players at your table, let them roll their own checks. Still, even for these players, knowing the rolls can rob the adventure of some sense of peril and mystery.

Some players take the unearned information that comes from the number on the die and they use it to make choices. For them, remind them that their characters don’t know they blew a search check, so the characters lack any reason to repeat the search. If they keep searching anyway, roll the second check for them, out of their view. And if you simply ignore the second roll, no one will know.

Roll substitution

If you want a game that emphasizes a sense of challenge and risk—or you have a table of unrepentant metagamers, I suggest an occasional roll substitution.

Tell the players, “Whenever you make a perception check, I will secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If I roll a 1 on the d6, the information I tell you will be based on my d20 roll rather than on yours.”

With this approach, most of the players’ rolls still apply, so players remain connected with the game. The visible roll gives the players a fair sense of how their characters performed, just as you might have a sense of your performance on a real-world test. But players can never feel certain that a 19 on the die means they found everything to find. And when someone rolls a 1, but sees a glimmer on the horizon, it may be more than a mirage.

Misdirection

If you only ask for perception checks when something can be noticed, the checks will put players on alert. Once or twice a session, when nothing can be found, you should call on players to make a Spot or Perception check. No matter what the roll, frown, shake your head, and tell them nothing. Not only will this unnerve the players, but it trains them to avoid assuming that they must have missed something.

Next: Is it noticed? How to run alertness

Choosing which type of perception check fits a situation

Both fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder apply a single Perception skill to all observation tasks. This cuts any confusion about which skill applies. Both D&D Next and third edition split the single skill into two or three.

3E D&D check 4E & Pathfinder check D&D Next check
Search Perception Intelligence (Search)
Spot Perception Wisdom (Perception)
Listen Perception Wisdom (Perception)

Magnification specs

For more on the advantages of multiple observation skills, see “A short history of perception in Dungeons & Dragons.”

In this guide, I sometimes refer to the perception tasks as Search, Spot, and Listen. In your game, apply the skill or check that fits the task.

Choosing which type of check fits a situation

D&D Next offers two types of observation checks, Intelligence (Search) and Wisdom (Perception), raising questions about which applies to a situation.

Spot and alertness checks

Wisdom (Perception) could have almost been called Alertness as these checks cover general awareness. When choosing whether to make these checks, consider the following observations:

  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks to notice something while they’re busy doing something else: traveling, fighting, and so on.
  • Characters usually make Wisdom (Perception) or Spot checks because the game master calls for the check. The characters are busy, but the game master wants to determine if they notice something unusual. Characters make Wisdom (Perception) rolls when they look but don’t touch.
  • Wisdom (Perception) and Spot match with Tarzan’s alertness.
  • Wisdom (Perception) checks show keen senses too, but this typically only applies in one situation: Characters listening at a door make Wisdom (Perception) checks.

Search checks

Intelligence (Search) checks apply when characters spend time to examine and investigate.

Characters make Intelligence (Search) checks when players call for the check by asking to search.

Intelligence (Search) matches with Sherlock Holmes’ use of intellect of observe.

If you spend a moment to scan the surrounding trees, or press your ear to a door to hear what might lurk beyond, you’re relying on Wisdom (Perception) rather than Intelligence (Search). As a rule, if you’re not positive that Intelligence is the right choice, then Wisdom is the ability to use.” – D&D Next playtest rules

Listen checks

Third edition included a Listen skill as a nod D&D’s long tradition of characters putting their ears to doors. Aside for listening at doors, Listen skill frequently overlaps with Spot. When characters might both see and hear something like the monsters sneaking close to ambush, just roll to spot. Allowing characters to use both Listen and Spot to notice one thing makes stealth too difficult and adds excessive die rolling. Reserve Listen for cases where nothing can possibly be seen.

Next: Secrecy, metagaming, and perception checks

Making aid-another checks more than a way to wring a bonus from the rules

Third-edition Dungeons & Dragons introduced the aid another action and rolls to assist a character making a check. This mechanic carried into fourth edition and Pathfinder.

Pulling Together - NARA - 534164Typically, in a role-playing game, the game master tells the players when to make a check. For more, see “When should a game master call for a check?” Ideally, rolls to assist with a check should work the same way. When a player describes actions she takes to help, the GM should ask for her to contribute an assist check. For example, when Jasper the rogue tries to convince blind Auntie Fears that he’s a member of the Family, his player rolls the bluff check. If Astrid whispers Family lore in Jasper’s ear, the game master asks her to make a check to assist.

Too often, rolls to aid another come when the players ask to make the roll. The GM tells a player to make a check, and then everyone at the table, and the pizza guy at the door, all start rolling to assist. Everyone has lost immersion in the game world and turned to wringing plusses from the rules.

Assist with specific actions

When someone asks to aid another, as the game master, you should ask, “How do you assist?”

Sometimes the answer may be obvious. If a boulder blocks the tunnel, the more muscle, the better. Sometimes, the answer requires some ingenuity, so the players need to explain what actions they take to help.

Limiting who can assist

In many situations, not everyone can crowd in to assist. If the whole party wants to smash a ordinary-sized door, they will need battering ram. Even in role-playing tasks, you can limit how many characters can plausibly help. No one wants to enter a car dealership and be swarmed as every salesperson pushes to assist the sale. Ye Olde Wagon Shoppe is no different.

Assisting in role playing scenes

In role-playing situations, you will typically talk through an interaction that leads to a check. If someone wants to assist with the diplomacy, intimidation, or deception, they must speak up and contribute as the scene plays out.

For example, when Jasper bluffs Auntie Fears, you would normally role play the scene and then ask for a check to decide if Auntie is fooled. If Astrid wants to assist by whispering background to Jasper, she must help during the scene. Once you call for a check to find an outcome, she cannot interrupt and declare that she assisted retroactively.

Aid another may demand a different skill

Players take specific actions to help, so their aid-another checks depend on the actions they use. Just because Jasper makes a bluff check doesn’t mean Astrid rolls a bluff check too. Astrid might need to make a history check, or depending on Auntie’s family business, a streetwise check. If Astrid draws her knowledge of Family lore from the diary she read after the last scene, she might even assist without a roll.

Look for chances to grant an assist check

Sometimes when players become totally immersed in the game world, they will act to help, and then forget to lobby for an assist check. Ask them for the assist check. Everyone wins when players act in the game world and you can reward them for it.

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.

How D&D Next almost made knowledge count (and then backtracked)

Have you ever seen the Antiques Roadshow on television? Folks bring in curios from grandma’s attic, and then an expert explains the history of each piece and assesses the item’s value. If the real world worked by the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, the show could dispense with the experts. The producers could simply round up a panel of yahoos from the Jerry Springer audience in the next studio, show them an 19th century jardinière (a flower pot holder, for those of you who just whiffed your knowledge check), and let some knucklehead roll a 19 or 20. “The distinctive crosshatching shows a genuine example of 1890s, New Orleans Art Pottery by George Ohr,” he would say before asking another panelist to flash her boobs.

In every D&D game, this pattern repeats with each check that allows the whole party to participate.

Edwaert Collier - Vanitas - Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull

I did not write this post to gripe about lack of realism; I’ve praised unrealistic game mechanics before.

I want the game to reward players who invest in knowledge skills. Instead, the moment the dungeon master asks for something like a history check, everyone at the table jumps in to roll. More often that not, the player who invested in history rolls too low to determine the nature of the ancient battle standard, while some bozo with an intelligence-8 dump stat rolls a 19 and starts reciting the history of the old empire’s vanished legion. Once again, the party’s scholar feels like a chump for staying in school.

If everyone in the party can attempt a knowledge check, the five or so rolls ensure that someone in the party will luck into all but the most difficult checks. Why bother investing in knowledge skills? Someone will hit anyway.

You could bar party members without training in an area of knowledge from making checks. Third edition imposed such rules, but I favor the fourth edition approach of allowing everyone to participate, even if they stand little chance of success.

The August 2, 2013 playtest packet included a Lore rule that offered a solution: Characters who knew some field of lore gained a +10 to intelligence checks rather than the +5 advantage typical for similar checks in 4E. The +10 bonus reaches high enough to grant the scholar a significant boost over the rest of the party. The rule yields two advantages:

  • The party’s expert stands a better chance of making a knowledge check than the rest of the party.

  • Knowledge checks can be hard enough to reward knowledgeable players with information that would otherwise be out of the party’s reach.

Despite these advantages, the published version of D&D Next will probably omit Lore for two reasons:

  • The designers favor a simple scale of difficulty classes that applies at every level, throughout the system. When characters gain a +10 for lore rather than the small bonuses for skill proficiency, the difficulty of knowledge checks must be set higher than suggested by the universal DC scale. If I wrote the Dungeon Masters Guide, I would simply coach DMs to favor harder DCs for knowledge checks.

  • The designers seem enchanted with the notion of using as few types of bonuses as possible. I suspect they would see a different lore bonus as clutter, not worth its benefits. The final playtest packet aggressively pushed all skill bonuses into a single proficiency bonus, while eliminating lore from the game. See “Proficiency and bounded accuracy” for more.

Assuming the design goes as I expect, and knowledge skills deliver the same, small bonuses as other skills, I plan to run knowledge checks using the following procedure:

  1. Allow everyone in the party to make the knowledge check.

  2. Give the players some minimal amount on information based on the (probable) success of someone’s roll.

  3. Ask for the check results from anyone with the applicable knowledge skill.

  4. If any experts succeeded on their rolls, give deeper information.

This method rewards players who invest in knowledge skills with an advantage, even though the rules as written rarely offer a benefit.

Proficiency and bounded accuracy in D&D Next

In my last post, I wrote about how the Dungeons & Dragons Next proficiency bonus jams all the tables and rules for attack bonuses and saving throw bonuses and check bonuses into a single rising bonus. This consolidation yields a simpler system, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game.

Attack roll tables from D&D Rules Cyclopedia

Attack roll tables from D&D Rules Cyclopedia

Proficiency bonuses increase slowly compared to similar bonuses in earlier versions of the game. They top at a mere +6 at 19th level. This slow progression stems from a principle the designers called bounded accuracy, because none of the designers come from the marketing team. Actually, “accuracy” refers to bonuses to the d20 rolls made to-hit, land spells, and make checks. Accuracy is “bounded” because the game no longer assumes characters will automatically gain steep bonuses as they advance to higher levels. See the Legends and Lore post, “Bounded Accuracy” for more.

Bonus to attack

Before third-edition D&D, armor class never rose much. In “‘To Hit’ vs. Armor Class,” longtime D&D designer Steve Winter charts the progression between to-hit rolls and AC. Steve concludes, “In AD&D, as characters advance up the level scale, they constantly gain ground against the monsters’ defenses. A 15th-level fighter doesn’t just hit lower-level monsters more often; he hits all monsters, even those of his own level, more reliably than before.”

This meant that rising attack bonuses eventually made attack rolls into a formality. Mechanically that works, because in early editions, as fighters’ gained levels, their damage increased not because each blow dealt more damage, but because they hit more often.

But attack rolls benefit D&D for two reasons:

  • Hit-or-miss attack rolls add fun. To-hit rolls offer more drama than damage rolls, and the rolls provide intermittent, positive reinforcement to attacks. See “Hitting the to-hit sweet spot” for more.
  • If to-hit bonuses overwhelm armor bonuses, armor and armor class becomes meaningless to high-level combatants. Perhaps this finally explains the chainmail bikini.

To keep attack rolls meaningful, fourth edition makes ACs rise automatically, even though nothing in the game world justifies the rise. (You might say that the rise in AC reflects combatants’ rising ability to evade attacks, but a rise in hit points reflects the same slipperiness.) The steep rise in AC meant that lower-level creatures couldn’t hit higher-level combatants and forced all battles to feature combatants of similar levels. In 4E, physical armor just provides a flavorful rational for the AC number appropriate for a level and role.

D&D Next returns to the older practice of making armor class a measure of actual armor, or at least something equivalent. At high levels, the game keeps to-hit rolls meaningful by limiting the proficiency bonus to that slight +6 at 19th level. With such a small bonus, to-hit rolls never climb enough to make armor pointless. For more, see “Bounded accuracy and matters of taste.”

In the last public playtest, and for the first time in D&D history, every class shares the same attack bonuses. In Next, characters don’t stand out as much for how often they hit as for what happens when they hit.

Bonus to checks

In third and fourth editions, characters gained steep bonuses to skill checks as they advanced in levels. Each game managed the bonuses in a different way, and each approach led to different problems.

In 3E, characters who improved the same skills with every level became vastly better at those skills than any character who lacked the skill. Eventually, DCs difficult enough to challenge specialists become impossible for parties that lacked a specialist. On the other hand, DCs easy enough to give non-specialists a chance become automatic for specialists. By specialists, I don’t mean a hyper-optimized, one-trick character, just a character who steadily improved the same skills.

In 4E, skills grant a constant, +5 bonus, and every character gains a half-level bonus to every check, so everyone gets steadily better at everything. This approach means that no character grows vastly better than their peers at the same level. It does mean that by level 10, a wizard with an 8 strength gains the ability to smash down a door as well as a first-level character with an 18 strength. To keep characters challenged, and to prevent suddenly mighty, strength-8 wizards from hulking out, 4E includes the “Difficulty class by level” table which appears on page 126 of the Rules Compendium. With this table in play, characters never improve their chance of making any checks, they just face higher DCs. Most players felt like their characters walked a treadmill that offered no actual improvements.

For more on checks in 3E and 4E, see “Two problems that provoked bounded accuracy.”

With the proficiency bonuses, D&D Next attempts to thread a needle. High-level bonuses should not reach so high that challenges for proficient characters become impossible for the rest. But the bonuses should go high enough to give proficient characters a chance to stand out and shine.

At the top end, a 19th-level character with an suitable 20 ability score and proficiency will enjoy a +11 to checks. This bonus falls well within the 1-20 range of a die roll, so most tasks within reach of specialist also fall within the ability of an lucky novice. If anything, the maximum +11 for a talented, proficient, level-20 superhero seems weak.

Two bonuses form that +11, the proficiency bonus and the ability modifier. To me, a proficiency bonus that starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19 threads the needle well enough.

New characters gain a +2 proficiency bonus as opposed to the +4 or +5 skill bonuses in the last two editions. This paints new D&D Next characters as beginners, little better than untrained. New characters must rely on talent to gain an edge.

However, talented characters barely gain any edge either. Typical new characters gain a +3 ability modifier from their highest score. I’ve shown that ability modifiers are too small for checks. Players make 11.3 attack rolls for every 1 check, according to plausible research that I just made up. With so many attacks, a +3 to-hit bonus lands extra hits. With so few checks, a +3 bonus ranks with the fiddly little pluses that the designers eliminate in favor of the advantage mechanic.

The playtest package’s DM Guidelines advise skipping ability checks when a character uses a high ability score: “Take into account the ability score associated with the intended action. It’s easy for someone with a Strength score of 18 to flip over a table, though not easy for someone with a Strength score of 9.” The D&D Next rules demand this sort of DM intervention because the system fails to give someone with Strength 18 a significant edge over a Strength 9 character. The result of the d20 roll swamps the puny +4 bonus. In practice, the system math makes flipping the table only sightly easier at strength 18.

Update: The published game grants level-one characters a +2 proficiency bonus as opposed to the +1 that appeared in the final playtest.

In a curious move, the final public playtest packet eliminates the Thievery skill. Instead, the designers opt to make thieves proficient with thieves’ tools. Why? This results from the elimination of fiddly little pluses such as the +2 once granted by thieves’ tools. Without the +2, why bother with the tools? Now thieves need the tools to gain their proficiency bonus. Somewhere, sometime, a confused player will add a proficiency bonus that they assume they have for thievery, to a bonus for the tools, and double-dip two bonuses.

Next: Saving throw proficiency and ghouls

How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game

In “From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance,” I discussed how the Dungeons & Dragons Next designers work toward a simpler, more elegant core game. This post describes some of the simplifications that appeared in the public playtest.

Advantage and disadvantage

Third edition D&D featured long lists of plusses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. D&D Next drops all the fussy calculation for the advantage and disadvantage mechanics: When characters gain a big edge, they gain advantage and use the highest of two die rolls; when characters suffer a handicap, they suffer disadvantage and use the lowest of two rolls. While less accurate than a tally of plusses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Fussy modifiers have appeared in every version of D&D, so when designers considered eliminating them in favor of advantage and disadvantage, they used the playtest to measure players’ reaction. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics gained broad approval.

Skills and ability checks

Other simplifications fell flat. D&D lasted 25 years without the complexity of skills, so designers tested a simpler game with just ability checks. Players rejected the simpler version, earning skills a place in the core system.

Still, when faced with choosing between richer rules and simpler rules, Next designers always opt for simpler. For example, using the same ability modifiers for ability checks and for attacks fails to distinguish exceptional characters from average ones, but the designers side with the flawed—but simpler—option of using the same ability modifiers for combat and for checks.

Proficiency

The last public-playtest rules try to get maximum use from proficiency. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools. Proficiency grants a bonus to attacks, saving throws, and checks, but not armor. The proficiency bonus starts at +1 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference will confuse some players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner. The designers must feel bound by the longtime use of “armor proficiency.”

Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The Next proficiency bonus jams all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus.

If this broad proficiency system reaches the final rules the final rules, then the bonus for all checks, attacks and saves will consolidate under the same formula:

ability modifier + proficiency bonus

Simple. Magic aside, all the other, fiddly bonuses that appeared in earlier versions of the game get replaced with the advantage-and-disavantage mechanic.

This change yields a simpler system, but it makes less difference in play than the advantage mechanic. Players only reference the tables for attacks and saves and so on when they level up. They enter the new numbers on their character sheets and move on. Once the game begins, the consolidation never comes up. Players who generate characters using a computer see even less impact. In comparison, the advantage-and-disadvantage mechanic eliminates half the tables on the DM screen—lists of bonuses applied to every attack and check. Advantage streamlines most rolls in the game.

The simplicity of a single proficiency bonus still offers advantages, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game. In my next post, I’ll examine all the repercussions.

Next: Proficiency and bounded accuracy

In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic

Imagine the scene: Fastfeet the Rogue and Joe Average need to cross a rickety rope bridge before kobolds have time to drop a bolder from the cliffs above. Fastfeet, with dexterity 20, stands as the quickest halfling alive. Joe Average. with dexterity 10, has a hopelessly mundane, non-D&D name. Let’s call him J’oe. Better.

The wobbly bridge has rotting and missing planks, so crossing it without slowing requires a dexterity check. The DM decides that the crossing counts as an EASY check: DC 10. No problem thinks Fastfeet, I’m optimized to have the highest possible dexterity. I just can’t roll a 1…or a 2, or 3, or 4. Hmmm, I may as well try diplomacy.

Fastfeet, the quickest halfling alive, still suffers a 20% chance of missing an EASY check. Despite being the quickest possible character, Fastfeet only gains an extra 25 percentage points in his chance over J’oe average.

The problem stems from the mere +5 that a 20 characteristic adds to the check. The D20 roll swamps it. This leads to two problems:

  • Exceptional characters do not noticeably stand out. Whether your character has a poor or a great characteristic, every ability check pretty much feels like a coin flip. This becomes particularly noticeable with checks that encourage everyone at the table to try. That’s when everyone puzzles over an ancient map fragment, the resident sage says she will try a history check, and everyone chimes in, “I’ll try too.” Most times, the expert character gets no chance to shine, because her numerical bonus barely exceeds anyone else’s. The success goes to the person who happened to roll a 19.
  • Even when an exceptional character attempts something easy, the outcome remains unpredictable, as in Fastfeet’s case.

I asked Mike Mearls about this issue, and he said that the DM could simply rule that a easy check is an automatic success for characters of advanced ability. The advice patches over bad math with DM fiat. As a DM, I would make that ruling, because the system’s rotten foundation forces it. I would rather see math that works.

You may think that I’m overlooking the skills that address my problem with the math. Forget skills. D&D next has no skill checks or ability checks, only checks. Unlike earlier editions, skills no longer provide a system for determining success, so for example, the skill descriptions no longer include rules for resolution. Skills represent a small number of areas where extraordinary focus and training might help your character make checks.  Skills stand as an optional rule for granting a bonus to a limited number of checks. Most checks rely entirely on ability modifiers.

This means that Fastfeet’s +5 won’t get any better. No athletics or balance skill exists to improve the odds. Even if one did, most characters only get 3 skills.

In 3rd and 4th edition, the DM typically asks for skill checks rather than ability checks. Fastfeet probably has acrobatics skill, granting another +4 or +5 to the check. Suddenly that easy check becomes easy.

Third and fourth edition assumed checks would be skill checks, so both the skill and ability contributed bonuses. Next assumes ability checks. Skills add an unusual bonus rather than an inevitable addition.

I think this simplification makes for a better game. In addition to the virtue of simplicity, an over-reliance on skills tends to encourage players to solve problems by looking at their skill list, rather than thinking about other things their character could do in the game world.

I like the new approach, but in D&D next, the system’s numbers still seem to assume characters always get a skill bonus stacked with an ability bonus. In practice, a first level character gets a maximum bonus of +5 to a typical check. Little mathematical difference exists between a character with extraordinary ability and one with average ability. In third and fourth edition, a level 1 character like Fastfeet saw a bonus closer to +9 or +10, big enough to make a practical difference.

The solution seems obvious. For checks, the ability modifier must double, to +1 for each ability score point over 10. Now Fastfeet enjoys a +10 to dex checks, appropriate for the quickest halfling alive and consistent with the bonus typical in earlier editions.
Obviously, Fastfeet cannot also enjoy a +10 on his bow attacks. The original modifier scale must remain as combat modifiers, separate from ability check modifiers.  The two scales introduce a small, necessary complexity.

On the other hand, calculating ability modifiers becomes easier. A character with 15 dexterity has a +5 ability modifier. As an added bonus, odd-numbered ability scores gain significance in the game. Suddenly 15 really is better than 14.

I realize this change bucks the history of ability modifiers established in 3rd edition, but I can trump that with an earlier precedent.  Check page B60 of the Moldvay basic set from 1981. “To perform a difficult task, the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20.” The mechanic flips the numbers, asking for a low roll, but your ability score has the same numerical effect as the modifiers I suggest. In the late 70s, I saw this mechanic used frequently. So the change qualifies as old school and it fixes the system. Seems like a win.

Still not convinced? Consider this. Over the course of an adventure, an exceptionally-strong fighter might make a hundred attack rolls. The +5 attack modifier she gains from her 18(00), I mean 20, strength improves them all. She dominates the battlefield. Over the course of the same adventure, the smooth talker with a 20 charisma may get 8 diplomacy checks, tops. Over the course of so few rolls, the 1-20 spread of the die buries the mere +5. The diplomacy skill can help. Still the most charming person you ever meet, in game terms, seems little better than the half orc who picks his nose as he negotiates with the elf king. The player who optimized the smooth talker hardly gets a chance to shine.