Nov 13, 2017

Posted by in RPG | 1 Comment

Awesome Skillchecks

“GM: You’re standing right in front of the desk as a huge figure stomps into the room. As he sees you, he let’s out a grunt and grabs one of the heavy chairs as if they weigh nothing. He’s right between you and the door and ready to smash your skull in with that chair. What do you do?”
“Player: I grab the vial from the desk and jump through the glass window!”
“GM: Ok, roll an acrobatics check…”
“Player: I got an 11”
“GM: Ehm…”

Skillchecks in Pathfinder and Starfinder are mostly binary. Either you make it, or you fail. And in some situations, this leads to strange situations. In the situtation above, what happens? Does he bounce of the window? While that might work in a comedic game, most of the time it’s pretty anticlimatic. And in this case, it might lead to a (maybe deserved) chracter death.

But remember that the player’s characters are the heroes of the story. When did you see a hero fail in a simple stunt like this? A fail should have repercussions, but it should also move the story forward.

A perfect example for this is the Harry Dresden series of Urban Fantasy books. The titular character often “not quite makes it.” Stuff he tries goes wrong. That includes spells, attacks and a lot of things that would be handled via skill checks in Paizo’s RPGs. It can be an awesome source for ideas on how to handle sometimes dramatic fails in a way that does have serious influence on the story or the difficulty of things to come, yet makes the fail feel a natural part of the story.

Even if there is the rare case of a dead end, there’s always something happening that gives him a new look at things, or a new way to travel along. As a GM that knows what’s happening behind the scenes, it might be up to you to find a subtle way to hint at these possibilities.

Skills are basically the only “game mechanic” outside of combat. While some checks give you some additional rules, like beating or failing by more than five gives you some extra stuff to work off, most of them give you nothing for the fail case. In the rules as written. And if this proves to a problem in your gaming round, you hopefully find some ideas here.

With the binary results comes another problem for GMs. A difficulty (DC) of 10 means, that Joe Average should be able to do it 50% of the time on his first try, and will succeed given some time. A DC of twenty means Joe Average will almost never be able to pull it off the first time, but will be able to do it given a lot of time. That’s a pretty big range. If we assume that an expert has a bonus of +10 in a skill, that means he will always be able to do something that a layman can do in a couple of tries and will be able to routinely do stuff that a untrained person will only be able to do with a lot of work. But still, the range given by randomness is twice what is covered by his bonus.

And even an expert can fail a fairly simple roll and be humbled by an absolute amateur. And that’s a bit anti-climatic. Especially if a fail has dramatic repercussions.

Most GMs have a found one way or another to deal with it. If a player character parkours over city rooftops or through the gangways of the power generator of a space station and doesn’t make that important jump, they might give a reflex safe to grab the ledge, giving him a second chance. And might not tell you the DC of that safe, so they can fudge the result, if needed.

And while that works, it feels a bit tacked on. What I like to propose is to change the view angle a bit. Pull out the imaginary camera, and picture it as a scene in an action flick. And in these cases, you normally get one of two results: Either it basically works, but something bad happens, or it doesn’t work, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Again, the Dresden Files series is full of examples.

How could this work out in the situations given above?

If the player fails an acrobatics check to jump through a window, he could make it, but something bad happens:

  • Losing the vial he just grabbed
  • Twisting his ankle, so his movement speed is reduced for a couple of rounds
  • Hurting himself jumping through the window, resulting in bleed damage
  • Smashing his shoulder, so he’s gets a malus to his attack rolls
  • Anything else that makes sense
  • A combination of the things above

Or it doesn’t work. He jumps against the window and bounces off. As he is on the floor, he finds a weapon or sees a piece of information, that could be really useful. Or the goon reacts by loweering his guard, laughing and giving him the villain talk. The window might have gotten a crack, so he know that he could either smash it with something that’s laying around, so he could smash it next round and then jump through or he might even get the impression that it will work next time.
In these cases, it’s not so much about the immediate result, but making the try count by giving something to him. Making the fail feel meaningful and not just a wasted attempt at something cool.

In the parkour example, if the character misses the jump and could fall and hit a lower ledge or balcony hard. To then find a different way to escape. Or he could smash through a window into the top floor of an apartment, dealing with scared people inside or even find and take something useful. Like a rope, a weapon or something similar useful. Or he could fall into a dumpster, taking way less damage than normally. And stink and not realise he has rotten cabbage on his back while tries to continue his way.

A fail does not need to be a failure. If you can make the fail awesome or dramatic your players might start to actually like the experience.

There are RPG systems, that give experience to characters failing checks, which is a good way to translate the “failing is learning” idea to a roleplaying game. In Starfinder or Pathfinder, you could give a player a free skill point to put in the skill in question on their next level up. If that sounds to powerful to you, than you could do some tracking of failed skill checks, and give them a free skill point every three, five or whatever-you-seem-fit number of fails.

Both skill checks and combat are simply a moment in the story. And both should add to the story. Meaningless combats are often not fun, and players normally remember the “cool stuff” a creature was doing or a cool stunt a player character pulled off. In other words: The story elements.

Use that to your advantage and make skill checks a part of the story.


How do you deal with skill checks in your game?

Any tips and tricks you can share with us? If you’re a player, do you remember any awesome successes or fails of skill checks?

  1. My games always have, even if the players don’t know it (muwhaha), the rule of 5. What is the rule of 5? It’s a simple flow chart of sorts that determines what happens if you fail/succeed your check.

    For example in a game I ran recently I had a large Vesk try and make an acrobatics check to climb through an open window while taking fire. The window was not that high off the ground so no climb check was needed but the DC I gave to get through the window and move into the room as one move action was DC 10. I did give him the option to just pass the check but it would cost him a double move and end his turn. He failed, 1 on the die and a +3 to his acrobatics meant he missed the DC by 6.

    When this happens I give the players a sort of choice to really bring home that it is not me that is putting them in this situation but their own actions.

    I said to this player, “Alright, Starspear, your hulking shoulders are just simply too large to squeeze through this window easily and you become wedged in. You can either fall through the window and be on the side you were trying to get through but you will be prone and on your ass in front of 2 enemies or you can on your next turn make a strength check DC 13 to break and bend the window frame to get yourself unstuck”.

    That is the kind of thing I do in my games to a certain extent, some players love it, some hate it because “that isn’t what the rules say to do” so just feel out your table.

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