Image by James Bowe
You can order The Demonplague, my level 1 – 20 fifth edition adventure, right now!
Determining the success or failure (or degree of either) of a character’s action in roleplaying games with dice, block towers, cards, or some other randomizer is a BIG part of the fun in roleplaying games, but there are times when allowing automatic success actually results in EVEN MORE fun. Game masters new and old can fall into the trap of calling for a check for every little action the player characters perform, leading to a slow game full of monotonous disappointments. How can a superhero character be expected to take on the aliens invading New York if they failed the roll to lace up their shoes?
This post covers many of the situations in which GMs should skip the check and just let player characters succeed.
When Failure Means Nothing
Avoid asking the player characters to make checks when failure has no consequence. Think beyond the immediate consequence of the check when you’re determining this. For instance failing to climb a wall might seem like it has no consequences since the character just stays at the bottom of the wall until they succeed, but if a swarm of flesh-eating beetles closes in on the area at the bottom of the wall, failure should be an option. The consequences of failure are not always readily observable to the player characters. They may not know why the GM asked for a roll in a situation where it seems failure has no consequence, but the GM knows about the hidden enemies and hazards the player characters don’t notice. That wall could be crumbling and failing to climb it could make the whole thing collapse on top of the player character!
Not Pressed For Time
If the player characters are not pressed for time and the task they try to perform can be attempted over and over again without consequence for failure, allow them to succeed without a check. Take the earlier example of climbing up a wall while beetles approach. No beetles means no time pressure so the player characters climb that wall without making a check (unless you have some other cool consequence for failure, like the crumbling wall).
When the Task is Super Easy
If the player characters are attempting a task that is very easy, allow the check to succeed, even if it is a task where failure could have consequences. For instance most D&D games don’t have the GM calling for a player character to make a check to pick up a sword off the ground or open an unlocked door during combat. Why? The task is super easy. Even with the threat of death it can be accomplished without any chance of failure. Nothing makes heroic characters feel lame like failing at a task most 5-year-old children can accomplish with a 100 percent success rate.
When It Moves the Story Forward
Grant the characters automatic successes when failure would bring the story to a dead stop. Think of a murder mystery where the characters are the detectives. If you have a clue at a crime scene that puts them on the trail of the killer and failure to find the clue would leave them without a single lead, allow them to find the evidence without making a check. Keep the story moving!
The GUMSHOE system from Pelgrane Press does a wonderful job moving stories forward. Each character has a set of Investigative Abilities that do not fail when used, though a character’s General Abilities, which revolve around combat and action sequences, CAN fail.
When the Description is Awesome
I think about this Acquisitions Incorporated moment from PAX 2012 all the time. The moment begins as 1:50:48 in the video below.
Wil Wheaton gives a pretty epic description of what he wants his character to do, and Chris Perkins allows it to happen because as the GM he knows it is fun. You can do the same thing in your games. This technique encourages your player characters to get descriptive with their actions because they know they could earn an automatic success with a killer description.
Note this is a technique that may not be right for all games or groups. It is also something others may want to use sparingly to avoid every character’s turn taking 20 minutes as your players give a monologue seeking automatic success (though that approach actually sounds rather fun to me).
If you like what you’re reading please consider supporting me on Ko-fi, follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!