Know When to Hold, Know When to Roll

As a game master it’s important to know when to ask for rolls. There are some game master’s who are roll happy and will request rolls for most tasks at any time. In my opinion rolling should be a dramatic action, it should mean something. As a player if I have to make five checks to track kidnappers through the wilderness there should be five distinct, individual situations that require checks. Assuming there is no significant difference in the situation of Tracking Check 3 from Tracking Check 1 the action is redundant and is breeding failure out of prior success or vice-versa. A character should not have an 180 degree about face without a discernible impetus.

Perhaps the biggest transgressor of unnecessary, undramatic rolls is thievery. Locked doors, traps, treasure chests and more. If you have a party who has slain all the baddies in a chamber and during the looting phase decide to open a locked treasure chest there is no need to roll the thievery. The party is going to get the loot within the chest, either by taking 20 on lock picking or if need be bashing the thing to pieces. If it is within the capabilities of the party to open the chest just concede they open the chest. There are a few times where this may not the case however.

1. The chest has an armed trap mechanism.

2. There are time sensitive events in play. A take 20 action runs the risk of more baddies showing up, catacombs collapsing on the party, the villain gets away etc.

3. The chest is beyond the skill of the party to open. The treasure is in a dweomer vault made with long lost technology the PCs will need to learn about to break into, or find the key.

“So What?” Test

This is the simple check I make when writing adventures for my games. Any time I think a check is called for I think of the repercussions of PC(s) failure. “If the PCs fail to unlock this iron door, so what?” Do they fail to enter an armory bristling with mundane weaponry? Assuming your PCs are carrying sufficient arms & armor failure means nothing, no need to call for a roll if the PCs really feel like entering the room. Now this changes dramatically if the PCs are escaping slaves/prisoners, mundane weapons and armor are very important. The armory will help PCs even the field in a combat encounter. This definitely requires a roll, doubly if there is a chance a wandering guard/slaver may stumble upon them in the process.

Dead End Failures

Make sure when writing adventures and calling for tests you don’t write the adventure into a dead end. PCs are “Pants-on-Head-Retarded” (Cred to Yahtzee’s Zero Punctuation) and will do everything the wrong way if at all possible. Why, who knows? So if that locked iron door from the example above leads the climax of the adventure and is the only way in or out failure becomes a dead end. Even with a laughably low Difficulty Challenge the rogue will somehow roll a natural 1, break his lock pick off in the door and set himself on fire meaning the adventure has nowhere to go. Best case scenario the fighter gets off an amazing natural 20 strength check and like some sort of super strength mutant cyborg knocks the iron door off its hinges.

The best way to avoid this is not to create bottlenecks where the adventure’s success hangs on a single roll. Bottlenecks are fine if you want to have a dramatic scene the group will be forced to come across so long as it does not hold potential for a dead end failure. Secret passage/doors are not an answer for the previous dead end failure example. Adventuring groups, in my experience, find a very small percentage of hidden passages and secret rooms. Unless you’re some sort of masochist and want to play out the PCs combing every inch of the current dungeon for a hidden passage.

Backdoor Dead End Failures

Exercise backdoor options for dead end situations. Here are some common ways to avoid dead ends.

  • Provide an alternate ‘fail safe’ solution
  • Find someone/something that can solve problem
  • Workaround/Detour option

For the iron door it is plausible that someone on the party’s side of the door has a key to the door. Let the PCs find someone who had a key or key ring (almost a necessity if no character has any thieving abilities). A key guarantees the PCs can get through the door.

There is almost a certainty there are people/monsters beyond the iron door. If the PCs bang on it long enough someone is going to come investigate and open the door. Allow them to hear someone on the other side of the door (no listening check).

Provide an alternate route and avoid the bottleneck altogether. It is of importance to realize any time you create a forking path the party may decide to use that path and potentially end up running through the adventure/dungeon backwards; BE PREPARED. You can use a secret passage here but the PCs should not have the potential to also fail missing it. Leave it partially open and let the party discover it first. They may decide to go through the passage upon discovery or come back to it later if they fail picking the iron door’s lock.

So make sure you know when to call for rolls and when to assume success/failure. Your games will not only run faster and smoother it will provide better dramatic pacing. Tell me about your experiences with this topic in the comments or suggest future topics!

One Reply to “Know When to Hold, Know When to Roll”

  1. Pingback: Improving DC/TN in D&D, Dynamic Adjudication | Red Ragged Fiend

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