There are a few traps GMs can fall into when presenting their world to the players. These problems will subtly decrease the players’ trust in your adjudication, and some of them will start to erode the sense of a shared, discoverable world by reminding the players that everything is, ultimately, determined by GM fiat. This article is really a cluster of rules – some simple ways to avoid your GMing manner hurting your game, for reasons you might not have thought of. On top of that, it’s only a Part 1 – the “Advanced” section overspilled, so that’s coming to you soon. Have fun reading, spiderlings, and play well.
Basic: Checks and balance
1: Ask players to say what they’re doing, not what check they want to roll. Players love to lapse into asking to roll a a Stealth check, or roll to Persuade, or (a doozy, this) to “Roll Insight”. This, fundamentally, is fine. All these things are part of the language of the game, and when players lapse into this way of speaking, what they’re doing is attempting to streamline the process of play by engaging more fluently. Nevertheless, if your players ask to roll a specific type of check, you should ask them specifically what their characters are doing. This is for two reasons.
First, it reminds your players that you set the boundaries for what can be done in the world and how. If they learn to accept this, it won’t feel as unfair when things inevitably don’t go their way at some point. Developing this sort of trust is important. One of the reasons players want to dictate their own checks is because they’re worried about accidentally committing themselves to an action that, because of their stats, has a high chance of going wrong. Athletics/Acrobatics vagaries are a common focus for this. If you use the opportunity of dictating checks for them to demonstrate that you are sensible and, to an extent, lenient about it, you gain their trust in your judgement. If they don’t have this evidence then when you eventually do ask for a check that goes against them, they’ll feel like you’re out to get them.
The second reason is simpler: It forces players to engage with the fiction, rather than pressing buttons on their character sheet. This reason is commonly acknowledged, but we can push a little deeper. Players asking for an Insight check, for instance, are asking for a chance at a moment of clairvoyance. The phrase “You get a sense that they’re lying” is an oft-used attempt to cover up the way that the character’s spontaneous truthsense goes unexplained – “get a sense” how, exactly? The point is, it’s actually really difficult to catch someone in a lie just by their expression and body language, even if you know them very well – unless they’re a really bad liar. When looking to expose a lie, you have to prod at it, looking at how it hangs together, and testing for contradictions or seemingly ad hoc details. That’s what an Insight check represents – attention paid to the lie more than attention paid to the liar. Getting players to do this legwork makes it feel more like the mechanics are representing the characters’ actions, rather than that the mechanics are all that there is.
2: Ask for checks in an open-ended way. This is the flip side of the above point. You can further encourage your players to think outside the character sheet by concentrating on your phrasing when asking for a skill check. Rather than “Make me a Perception roll”, go with “Roll Wisdom”, and let the player ask if they can add their proficiency bonus for having the skill. The main reason you’d want to do this is because asking for a specific skill reinforces the idea that the list of tick-boxes on the character sheet circumscribes all the possible actions within the game. This undermines a lot of the freedom to try absolutely anything that playing an RPG, and especially D&D, is supposed to provide. It also leads to players looking to the character sheet first to solve problems, as though D&D were a video game, and the skills on the character sheet were all the possible button combos, rather than thinking like real people.
You should always be open to players asking to use a skill with a particular check anyway, although you don’t always have to say yes – a back-and-forth between the players and GM is, amongst other things, a welcome opportunity to demonstrate your sound judgement. GM-player relationships don’t have to take on an entirely adversarial role in order to sour (although they certainly can do); subtle but important problems can arise when otherwise cooperative players don’t entirely trust the GM to see things their way, and demonstrating that you’re willing to hear why their skill in Acrobatics should apply to this Charisma roll will help to head these off at the pass. Plus, it only usually makes a difference of +2 or +3, so it’s a small price to pay.
3: Know when to ask for checks. This just falls within the purview of “presenting the world”. It’s also linked to the last point, so we won’t take too long over it. Don’t ask for skill checks too often. A skill check represents a fairly sustained effort with either an interesting outcome if the players succeed, or if they fail. We’ll stick with the Deception/Insight pair as a good example. Don’t ask for a Deception check every time the players utter a sentence that is false. Instead, ask for one every time the players make a sustained attempt to sell what could be considered a new lie – “attempt” here meaning proffering multiple details, holding up under questioning, etc. Aside from the points above, asking for too many checks for small things (like each untrue sentence, or each new character that chips in) will drastically increase the characters’ chance of failure. The kind of comedy of errors gameplay this creates can be fun enough for a while, until the players realise they have no ability to plan. Even with good modifiers all round, if you’re asked to roll four checks to execute a given plan, the likelihood is that one of them will fail and scupper the thing. If your players show a noticeable reticence to put together complex plans, it might well be because you’re not letting them get beyond this statistical bottleneck. “Skill challenges” can help here, but the better option is usually to try to condense the plan into the fewest, most pertinent checks possible, or not have them roll at all.
A good game to recommend for practice is Into the Odd by Chris McDowell (linked below). ItO is a super-light ruleset that doesn’t have any skill checks. None whatsoever. It does have saving throws, although only on three attributes, but these are to be used as normal, i.e.: when something happens that puts the characters in jeopardy. The upshot is that if the characters want to do something, they basically do it, unless something happens that puts them in danger. This is a fun GMing challenge, and a real eye-opener. If you resist the temptation to treat the saving throws as you ordinarily would skill checks, it effectively eliminates the “You fail and nothing happens” outcome. And, of course, it means that players can reliably put together plans that, if they’re well thought through, actually work. The players’ inventiveness and forethought are enough to merit a reward; they don’t also need to demonstrate that they’re lucky. These are good lessons to port over to D&D.
4: Use passive checks. Know your party’s passive scores for things like Perception and Investigation. The obvious reason for this is that you don’t give away when there’s something they missed on account of a bad roll – it’s pointless to have the goblins successfully sneak up on the party if they know there’s something sneaking up on them because you made them roll. In terms of presentation, though, the point is to reward players for active engagement in the world. If you hide a secret door behind a DC20 Intelligence(Investigation) check, even the people with good modifiers aren’t going to notice it passively (well, the Rogue-Inquisitive might), but if the players ask to look for it, there’s a chance they’ll roll high and discover it as a reward for engaging with the world. By contrast, if you make your players roll to passively notice things, they won’t take the time to engage in this way, because they have just as good a chance of having it revealed to them as a matter of course; you haven’t presented the world as a real place that needs exploring, but as a guided tour where things will leap out at them as the story requires.
5: Don’t Um and Ah. When you’re in full flow, there’s a tendency GMs have to eyeball skill checks. This is fine in itself – you don’t need to have come up with every Difficulty Class for every roll the characters could possibly make – but it’s important you don’t let on that this is what you’re doing. If a player rolls just under the sort of number you had in mind, adopting a pained expression while you decide whether to give it to them or not reinforces their sense that their success or failure hinges entirely and directly on your caprice. Of course, this is true, irrespective of whether you Um and Ah, but it isn’t how you want to present your game or your world to the players; you want to present the challenges they face as surmountable regardless of whether or not you think the players deserve a win. You wouldn’t vary a monster’s save DC or Armour Class in combat, because that would feel unfair, so don’t let your players think you’re being arbitrary the rest of the time.
The easiest way around this problem is to have set DCs. If you like the flexibility of setting DCs on the fly, start with the numbers recommended in the rules: 10 for an easy check, 15 for normal, and 20 for hard. Your players won’t notice if the boundaries aren’t extremely fine-grained, so all you need to worry about is whether the action is something someone with no special training and no natural ability could get right as often as not (easy), or whether it would require more skill to pull off reliably. If you do want something slightly more fine-grained, and don’t mind introducing a little inflexibility, Runehammer (who you can find linked on the “links” page) has a neat system of setting DCs by room for dungeons, or by scene for more open adventures. This gives a simple way to push certain scenes/rooms as being tougher than others in a way that your players will appreciate but probably won’t notice outright (don’t tell them that this is what you are doing). This lets you modulate the tension of the adventure, planning challenges and rests for the players when needed. It can also be applied more broadly, e.g.: to whole levels in a dungeon, to show the peril increasing with depth. However you set DCs, stick to your guns, and don’t allow the players to think that you’re being arbitrary in the heat of the moment.
That’s all for now. In the next section I’ll talk about presenting the fiction of the world to the players in a way that feels real, and negotiating tricky issues surrounding player trust. I’m not going soft on you; this has to do with the concept of “intersubjectivity”, which I discussed in an article over on the “Tips for Players” thread. Until then, remember Rule #2: Present your checks properly.