The Shards of Belear
Advice for how to educate other DMs and players about the full spectrum of skill rolls (basically no skill roll needed/all roleplay all the way to roll a skill check for everything)
I would never advise skill checks for everything; many events should just be routine. As a player, nothing annoys me more than being asked to make a Perception check to see something the DM is about to tell me anyway (especially when I “waste” a 20 on it!) Skill checks are most interesting when they’re moderately difficult and there are real consequences for success or failure. Checks without consequences are a waste of time. Checks that are almost certain to succeed (or fail) simply expose the randomness of the d20. Stick to things that matter and things that offer a fair test to the PCs.
This table is for skill checks without half level added to them.
This format for skill checks and difficulty classes does the following:
• Simplifies leveling by not adding 1/2 level to checks, yet the characters still become more powerful as their ability scores increase
• Helps the DM by not having to make up DC’s on the fly
• Simplifies math by using smaller numbers
• Allows for impossible tasks with a high roll and a maxed out skill modifier
• Achieves realistic accuracy a high level wizard can still fail a ladder climb check
• Encourages play as well as play players will build up stats they are already good at to be able to do extraneous things with them
• Ensures that the game is fair and balanced the DM cannot call a DC 50 for something he doesn’t want to happen, a wizard can fail athletic checks that would be easy for a fighter, while the fighter has no chance of recollecting information from a difficult history check
As I further investigate skills, difficulty classes, and their challenges, I’ve come upon a principle I refer to as Rule 0.5. Basically, Rule 0.5 is the idea that if a player takes the time and trouble to engage in the world and the situation by describing exactly what his character does, and that action is exactly appropriate, then that action has a great chance of success. For example, say that the DM knows that a secret door is hidden behind a bookcase. If a PC is searching a room for secret doors and the player says something like, “I want to check the floor around the bookcase, see if there are any scratches or slide marks there,” Rule 0.5 would award the player a lowered DC to spot the secret door. If a character is trying to persuade a vainglorious NPC prince to send his army to Thunder Gap to stop the orcs, and the player speaking in character makes a very persuasive case that battle offers the prince a chance to win fame and renown, a lowered DC reflects the player’s effort; the player found the NPC’s weak spot and said the exact right thing to spur him into motion. If a hero says he’s watching the ceiling for monsters that might drop down on the party, Rule 0.5 says that the character has a high chance of seeing the darkmantles hiding up there (maybe even passively). He was just doing the right thing at the right time.
Now, Rule 0.5 has its weak points. Used poorly, it can slow games down as players waste time trying to guess the exact right part of the room to search or monkey with every possible setting of levers in the gnomish steam engine. In that case, it’s reasonable to ask the players to tell you the one thing they’re especially searching or trying. If the answer is “the whole room,” then a straight-up check is OK — nothing is getting special attention if everything is. But keep in mind that the whole point of Rule 0.5 is to reward players for immersion, creativity, and using their real-life wits when they play.
Finally, there is an excellent discussion on creating and using skill challenges (and, by extension, skill checks in general) in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. If you haven’t checked out that material, it is well worth a read.