Jul 152011

How many times has your game slowed down because of a failed skill check?  Heck, how many times has your game slowed down because of a successful skill check?

To be fair, I have never GMed a game before, so I can’t really know for sure all the gears that keep the game running.  I can, however, hear the grinding when certain skills are used.  I’m not talking about when certain skills are used occasionally, more like when certain skills are over-used.  Sure, you could say that because it’s a skill, is on your character sheet, and has a modifier, that it should be rolled.  But does it have to be?

“Ok Shadowrunners, you only have to climb two stories high to get on top of the office building.  Roll your Climbing.  Oops!  Looks like the street samurai failed.  He ends up taking longer to get up there than the rest of you.”

Really?  Was that at all necessary?

“Alright guys, roll initiative.  This should be a really easy encounter, as your enemies are several levels lower.”

Then why go through with all the rolls (and the time that goes with it), if you’re sure we’re going to win?  Isn’t it enough just to say that we take out a bunch of mooks, and save an hour of game time?

“Alright guys, roll Perception…  Ok Mike, you see… Ok Dan, you see what Mike saw and… Ok, Sarah, you see what both Mike and Dan saw and…”

I have to tell you, as a player, I hate this.  Rolling for Perception is pointless most of the time, not counting just before an ambush.  GM, just tell us what we see.  I never invest in the Perception skill, because I know that with all the Perception rolls being made around the table, we’re going to make it anyway.  Making so many Perception rolls, and then telling each player what they see is usually just a pointless mechanic.  It gets used so much simply because it happens to be in the game.  This is one aspect of the game that I say needs to be removed.  It slows the game down!

I know what you’re saying: “Ah, but your players could then miss an important clue that helps you in the adventure.”

If the GM puts a clue in the game, and we don’t find it because we failed a Perception roll, that’s a failure – Not on the players, but the GM.  It’s an even bigger failure if the PCs fail to complete the adventure.  How many movies or TV shows have you watched where the main character’s fail to find a clue?  None, because that would stop the movie right there.

  • “Well, uh, you guys ended up in the Pit of Despair and died because you failed to notice the hidden amulet.”
  • “Well, uh, you guys completely bypassed the adventure because you failed to notice the assassin creeping away.”
  • “Well, uh, your TPK was a result of your failure in the Perception check.”
  • “Well, uh, you guys failed…”

No, GM, you failed. Not only have you slowed the game down, but you made it come to a screeching halt.

Ok… if we have to roll for Perception, then just make the person with the highest modifier roll, and give him a +1 bonus for each of the other PCs in the group.  That’s what everyone sees, because you know that (normally) the person with the highest check is going to tell everyone else what he saw anyway.

I could go on and on about several skills, but my point is that, as a player, I would have more fun if my GM would not have us roll so many skill checks.  Not every skill check is going to have an impact on the story, while many simply end up slowing the game down.  I know that I seem to have it out for Perception, but I’m talking about most skills.

Sheesh!  After reading what I just wrote, I can see that it might seem a little harsh, and even written with a bit of arrogance.  Sorry about that.  It’s just that in our last session the game took forever because of so many unnecessary rolls, and really wasn’t a fun night.  If the GM had just exercised a bit of the tactic I’ve talked about here, we would have accomplished so much more (and we only meet twice a month).  I think that on some level, a lot of your players might feel the same as I do, so I can only ask that you keep this in mind

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Peter Simpson

  10 Responses to “Skill Checks that Slow the Game Down…”

  1. I agree. 4e D&D has Passive Check and Mutants and Mastermind’s 3e has Routine checks. These are a big help especially if you plan for them ahead of time. It also helps make the odds for stealth a bit better as that poor guy sneaking past a party has a next to nil chance when you have five people all rolling dice against him.

  2. Couldn’t agree more! As a GM I’ve been really making an effort the past year or so to reduce the number of skill checks I ask for. I think as GM’s we tend to ask for checks whenever we need a momentary pause to decide what’s next; it’s a bad habit for me that I’m working to eliminate.

    Taking advice from the Strands of FATE rulebook, I’m trying to ask for a check only if I can picture the outcome for success AND failure, and either result is an interesting one! As far as Perception goes, I only ask for it if the check is actively being opposed and it is about to kick off some action (hidden ambush etc.). Otherwise I just tell people what they see, hear, smell, etc.

    I’d also like to try the same thing with knowledges. Knowing what skills my PC’s have and a little about their interests and backgrounds, I can usually just tell a player what they know about this or that. I don’t see why this needs to be “randomized”.

    For the most part my current philosophy is that I only call for a skill check when the character is actively performing some task where both success and failure have interesting/exciting/funny results.

  3. Seems a bit selfish to not bother having a Perception skill because you figure the rest of the party has it covered. With that logic no one should take the skill…or any skill for that matter.

    Personally I like the 4E method of skill challenge results (though I detest 4E skill challenges). With the results the adventure continues whether you succeed or fail. Success means you have an easier time than if you fail (which creates a complication but not a stop).

    I will agree with you that it sounds like the GM was at fault.
    Rolling skills where the result is irrelevant is a waste of time. I remember once a GM made us roll multiple swimming rolls to reach the next location of the adventure. Some made it, a lot failed but in the end none of it mattered as nothing bad happened to us and we all reached the next location together. Overall a series of wasted time.
    Also hanging progress in an adventure on a single die roll is silly. Having an adventure end because of a single failed die roll is again a waste of time, but this time for the players. The players want to play but a failed die roll wont let them; talk about frustrating.

  4. I describe things to players based on their own Perception, and unless it is obvious that the high Perception character can, and will share the info I tend to use notes or simply make the low Perception characters decide on a course of action before revealing additional info to those who are more aware.

  5. Supporting John Lewis’ comments, one of the best insights that came out of indie games was that failure could be as (or more) interesting than success. So, unless the roll will lead to interesting results either way, why make it?

  6. I agree that rolls should really only be made when something interesting will result from success or failure. I also agree with the point from the blog post that if the PCs completely fail based on a poor check then that is the GMs fault — but not because of the failed roll. I see that as being the fault of a GM who only had one plan, with one outcome and wasn’t willing (or able) to see the adventure as anything other than a linear progression.

    Characters can fail… and should fail from time to time — but that should never end the adventure.

    I recently joined a game where the GM is relying heavily on rolls for everything and I think it might drive me crazy.

  7. Great topic! I was just discussing this with another GM a day or two before this article was posted. Perception / Observation is definitely the most overused skill as a GM. I constantly find myself asking too much for these rolls and I’m trying to lower the amount of them in-game. In fact, I’m trying to lower the amount of overall rolls.

    They slow down the game. Sometimes, too many rolls can even kill good roleplaying momentum. Very often, they are not needed. Climb or strength-based rolls are another good example. If you have a strong and agile character actually trained in climb, why ask him to roll on an average check. If he’s not in a hurry, just let him succeed.

    As John said, unless you can envision success AND failure affecting the outcome of the adventure, don’t roll it. This is a really great topic that could use further exploration!

  8. I have all my players perception checks written down and I roll the checks myself behind the screen. Not only does this avoid the slow down you mention, but it also allows the party to hear the ominous sound of the DM rolling dice with no explanation.

    I do have to comment on the clue thing you mention. If the party fails to find clues that is not the DMs fault. Now it is important that the DM make sure their are multiple clues leading towards the resolution, but the part of the game is finding and interpreting those clues. If the DM jsut gives them to the players then where is the fun. You might as well just skip the game and tell them the answer.

    Now if the game jsut grinds to a halt because of the party missed the clues then the DM failed, but if the party fails to ask the right question or doesn’t find the right clue telling them how to deactivate the doomsday machine or stop the dark god and they die as a result then that’s just how the game goes. The party doesn’t always have to win. If you don’t have a chance of losing again what is the point.

  9. OK, I agree with you. But, to prevent this from being a “me too” post, let me present a different side of the issue.

    Calling for skill checks can be a good way to break up what would otherwise be a tedious GM monologue. You can start a description of the room, then pause to ask for a Perception check, then give a description of some obscure clue.

    You can also use skill checks to hand the narration stick to a player. Ask for climb checks, then ask the street samurai who failed to describe how he failed. It could add a touch of comedy, and will likely add a touch of characterization. Depending on the player/character, it could also end up with additional awesome. “The edge of the windowsill gives way. I fall a good ten feet, before I’m able to drive my cybernetic claws into the brick. Oh, well, I guess they’re going to know we were here now.”

  10. @Lugh; I agree with you on “tedious GM monologues”. I like to use a more interactive approach with the players by giving brief descriptions and then answering player questions about the area/location. If they ask about something that isn’t obvious I may call for a check. That way I’m not boring the players with information they may not need, and the players tend to remember a lot more detail when they recieve it in response to their own question.

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