Calmer GM: 5 Guidelines For Skill Checks

These are relatively easy to write, so let’s try another Calmer GM. This time we’re calming down and cutting down Five Simple Rules For Dating My Teenaged Skill System.

Skills are often poorly handled in tabletop RPGs, which can lead to boring results and skills being viewed as an uninteresting and tedious means of conflict resolution. Follow these five guidelines, though, and your skill resolution will be much more interesting.

#1: Every Player Action Must Ask A Question Or Declare An Action

If a player asks if they can roll a skill at a situation without declaring a specific action or asking a specific question, ask them to elaborate on what they’re actually doing. If someone wants to roll Diplomacy at a guard, that’s probably fine, but ask them what they’re actually saying. A summary in lieu of a word-for-word statement will work, just as long as they are describing an action (or asking a question, like “what do I know about mind flayers?” which might call for an Arcana check or you might just tell them the information).

#2: Only Roll When There Is A Chance Of Success, A Chance Of Failure, And A Risk Or Cost To Failure

Almost anything is possible with a high enough skill roll, but many things are not possible with the skill bonuses that characters actually have. The Persuasion skill is not Dominate Person, and the Athletics skill is not a climb speed, so there are some people who cannot be persuaded to do certain things and some surfaces that cannot be climbed with a skill check that’s possible for playable characters. Do not bother rolling dice for situations where success is impossible even on a 20.

Likewise, do not call for rolls for simple tasks. A 5e character with expertise can have a bonus as high as +17 and will be unable to fail skill checks of DC 15, so there is no need to roll. A character attempting to tie their own shoes can’t really plausibly fail, so there is no need to roll. Less intuitively, a character who is trying to pick a lock and is under no time constraints cannot plausibly fail. If nothing stops them from trying over and over again until they roll high enough to succeed, then don’t bother rolling at all. A character who needs to pick a lock fast or quietly or without breaking their fragile improvised lockpicks needs to roll dice. A character who does not care about speed or noise and who is using proper thieves’ tools does not.

Side note: The “penalty for failure until you fail forever” is not a good solution. There is no reason a character should receive a -2 (or whatever) penalty to picking the same lock every time they try. If you don’t want a character to succeed automatically at lockpicking, put something on the other side of locked doors that will be other taken off guard by a quietly picked lock or have a readied attack waiting for the first person through if the lockpicking was noisy.

#3: One Roll Is Usually Enough

It is very rarely a good idea to require two rolls as part of the same task. If someone is trying to sneak by guards, one roll is enough, even if they need to sneak past two separate guard posts. If someone is trying to climb a tree to a bird’s nest before the bird returns, even if the nest is particularly high and the tree particularly tall, one roll is enough.

The guideline is usually for a reason, and exactly when it’s right to call for another roll is as much art as science. One fairly straightforward example is when the players can see the ticking clock. If they know the guards are getting closer and by how much with every failed lockpicking attempt, or they know the dark ritual is to happen at midnight, that it’s 11:37 PM now, and that each additional attempt costs one precious minute, then repeat die rolls remain interesting.

#4: Ask For Knowledge Checks At The End Of Description When Appropriate

If the party has broken into a sinister cult’s lair and found a mysterious symbol on the floor, you do not need to wait for one of them to ask if they recognize it. You can just go ahead and ask them to roll Arcana or Religion or whatever skill is appropriate. Consider also using passive knowledge scores the same way 5e uses passive perception scores. It’s more to keep track of, but it means you can weave which character knows what directly into description and players are not tipped off to the presence of unknown information by their failure to know it.

#5: Differentiate Approaches By Their Consequences

Consider a guard the party needs to get past. They have decided not to attack him, so we’re using skill checks. The obvious skills to use are Deception, Persuasion, Intimidate, or Stealth. You could just decide this guard is a DC 15 sort of fellow and let the party roll whatever they’re best at and hope for the best, but it’s more interesting to give different options different consequences. If you fail at Intimidation or Deception, the guard may become hostile. If you fail at Stealth, the guard will almost definitely become hostile. Trying to talk a guard you’ve never met into letting you through (Persuasion) is going to be much harder. You could add a bribe to bring the difficulty down, but now there’s the possibility that he’ll be angry if you fail, and if you succeed you have to actually pay a bribe. Even a relatively simple encounter like this can be much more interesting than just picking whichever relevant skill has the highest bonus.

Double-Radiant Mode

Darkest Dungeon has three game modes: Radiant Mode, in which recovering from a loss takes up like 30-60 minutes as you rebuild your reaplacement heroes from (hopefully) level 4 to the level cap of level 6, Darkest Mode, in which recovering from a loss takes up several hours in the endgame as you have to rebuild your lost heroes from level 2, and Stygian Mode, in which enemies are stronger and if you take too long or lose too many heroes you will instantly lose.

The problem here is that Radiant Mode should definitely be the standard mode for new players because most of its features are time-saving features. Your heroes still start out at level 0 (because Darkest Dungeon has a level 0 for some reason), but once your base upgrades are maxed out, new heroes to replace the fallen can be as high as level 4 instead of Darkest Mode’s level 2. Your heroes recover stress faster while resting in town, so your stress recovery facilities aren’t as overtaxed and you won’t have to burn a dungeon raid on your B-team while waiting for your A-team to de-stress very often. There’s a deck-based hero generation mode so that you’re guaranteed to get heroes from every class once every so often instead of a totally random bag of recruits that could theoretically leave you without a healer indefinitely. The only change to actual difficulty is that you get a higher dodge bonus if your torch light is maxed out in the dungeon and there’s a couple of ways in which money is more abundant/base upgrades are cheaper, although even that is more of a time-saving feature because it means you’re less likely to have boss fights available but put off fighting them so you can loot a few more random dungeons to buy upgrades.

All this to say that you definitely want first time players to choose Radiant Mode, but that most people ignore the “first time players should start here” suggestion because in most games it means “people totally unfamiliar with this entire genre of video games should start here,” so anyone who’s played an RPG before is going to say “I know what I’m doing, I don’t need an easy mode,” and I don’t think any amount of “no, really, this isn’t an easy mode, it’s a non-grinding mode” is going to fix that. People gravitate to the middle option on difficulty selections.

That’s why I propose the all-new Double-Radiant Mode: You click on it, and the game instantly declares your victory, then gives you a pop-up window explaining that you can see the real ending by playing Radiant Mode, but we had to include this joke of a difficulty setting to convince people to actually use Radiant Mode instead of running headlong into Darkest Mode like a bunch of lemmings.

Calmer GM: How To Make Better Traps

The Angry GM has a tendency to write 500 words of good GM advice buried under 5000 words of schtick and digressions. Calmer GM (props to Captain Person for the name) is an Angry GM article with the schtick written out. Occasionally this results in interesting but irrelevant anecdotes on like the history of video game emulation or whatever being left out. Usually it just means cutting entire paragraphs of effusive self-praise that’s supposed to come across as comedic hyperbole but which make you start to wonder if maybe this guy is an actual narcissist after the third straight paragraph.

Today’s Calmer GM is Traps Suck (original). I don’t know if there will be more.

The Problem With Traps

The standard way for adding traps to D&D is to have lots of dice rolls, at the end of which someone is either hurt or not. You compare the trap’s detection DC to the party’s passive perception, then you have them roll a DEX save or whatever to avoid the falling blocks, then you roll 3d6 bludgeoning damage against everyone who failed. Player interaction is basically nil, which is why rather a lot of groups have stopped bothering with traps altogether.

The easiest solution is to just not have traps.

Telegraphing and Reaction

If you think traps are super cool and are willing to put the work in to have traps that are actually fun, there’s two important things you can do to make them interesting: First, telegraphing. Make placement of traps predictable by limiting the resources of the trap makers in some believable way. This allows your players to figure out where the traps are located via pattern recognition and work out a countermeasure. Second, reaction. Have traps which require players to make some kind of horrible decision when they’re triggered.

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Chamomile Anime Aesthetic

I recently found out about a game where you write “your name + anime + aesthetic.” Instructions were unclear, but I wound up Googling “Chamomile anime aesthetic.” The third result included a character who likes kinda like me. Like, it’s definitely a “tilt your head and squint” sort of resemblance, but given that most of the results were just pictures or drawings of actual chamomile plants, I still thought it was kinda neat.

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EDIT: This was supposed to be scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, but I guess this works, too.

Dark Lord Kickstarting

Dark Lord, a tabletop RPG where you are the Big Bad Evil Guy, is now on Kickstarter. Given the half-comatose state of this blog and the fact that it’s most popular when talking about books, not games, I doubt I’ll pick up a ton of backers from here, but hey, it’s worth a shot. Plus, it got funded in the first six hours, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about (knock on wood).

We Happy Few Is (Now) Good At Being What It Is

In 2018, We Happy Few officially left early access and became a fully developed game. Allegedly. Footage from reporters at the scene verify that it was a Bethesda-grade cavalcade of bugs that interfered with the gameplay to the point where the game could only be enjoyed as a glitch safari. The heaping of shame the developers received for the state of that release was well-deserved, although I note that Bethesda got away with it for like four games until people finally noticed in Fallout 76.

Still, the whole point of having early access is so you can sell a cheaper version of the game in a playable but incomplete state with the promise that people who buy into the half-finished version will be upgraded feature by feature to the full release version for no additional charge, receiving each build as it’s finalized. It helps the developers bring in funds while they’re making the game, gives them a profit-positive QA process, and the game’s most enthusiastic fans can get their hands on it early, at a lower price in recognition of the risk that the game will never be completed, and have some influence on the game’s direction during production, while people who are more casually interested can just buy the full version when/if it gets released. It’s a good idea in theory, and even sometimes in execution. We Happy Few scammed the people who bought it only after it left early access, though: Those people took the deal that they’d pay full price (and I do mean full price – the initial release price was $60!) for a copy of the game that was finished the moment they installed it, and what they got was a feature-complete but glitched to Hell mid-beta release. Boo.

That said, people who bought in early, or who did what I do and waited two or three years for the dust to settle, got a perfectly good deal, because the game did eventually become good, though even in its 2020 state (when the developers seem to be largely finished with it) it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its premise.

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The TTRPG Factory Is Pretty Cool

Full disclosure, I know the guy who runs the TTRPG Factory personally, so I’m not exactly unbiased. It’s a good blog, though, full of weird ideas from a campaign premise like Hydropunk Cthulhu to ideas for a single shop like fantasy spas.

I can never tell how many of my followers are following my blog because of things like my chapter-by-chapter book reviews and writing articles and how many are following me because of my TTRPG work. I post about the former way more often but most of my actual success has come from the latter. If you’re in the latter bucket, the TTRPG Factory is about two months dense with good ideas to mine, and it’s still updating a couple of times a week, which, y’know, is more than I can say right now.

Paizo Art Fails

Broadly, Paizo’s art is pretty good, and it was pretty much best-in-class back in 2009 when it was first distinguishing itself from Wizards of the Coast. The strength of Pathfinder was, before anything else, it’s amazing art direction.

No one’s immune to the odd dud, though, and they seem to have gotten worse over time. Here’s a series of three Paizo art fails, two of which came from near the end of PF1. I haven’t looked at PF2 yet, so I can’t tell you whether this is because they had shifted their best artists over to the new edition or if it’s just because the company’s talent pool was collapsing for some reason. What I can tell you is that PF1’s art slid from “epic adventure” to “hilarious spit-take” towards the end.

We’ll start with a relatively mild fail from early on in the edition, though, my favorite Paizo monster, the Dork Wyvern:

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A Spectrum of Magical Hardness

It finally seems to have died down a bit, but for a while there, absolutely everyone was obsessed with Brandon Sanderson style magic systems. I don’t just mean that they liked Brandon Sanderson’s work, but also that naturally there were tons of amateur imitators who were all really, really bad. And magic systems got framed in Sanderson-grade hard magic or Tolkien-style where it was basically just a mood, and no one seemed to be able to conceive of anything in between.

As usual, I’m like three years late to this party, but the different levels of hardness you can have in a magic system has been on my mind lately. People have accepted for a long time now that you can have harder or softer magic systems, but the idea that it’s a spectrum rather than a binary switch between Tolkien and Sanderson still doesn’t seem to have especially taken hold.

For the sake of thoroughness, let’s go ahead and define Sanderson hard magic as a system where magic users have specific powers that interact with the laws of physics in some kind of well-defined way, like being able to alter the direction their gravity is pulled or being able to repulse and/or attract themselves from a certain kind of metal or whatever.

Going one step further down, though, we have Avatar bending, a magic system where there are one or a small handful of magic disciplines each with a flexible but strongly themed powerset. A waterbender can learn to bend ice or plants or blood, but there’s only four kinds of bending and they’re each pretty narrowly focused. It was the lack of any attention paid to this kind of magic system that got me thinking about the spectrum in general. So far as ease of creation versus satisfaction in execution goes, this is the sweet spot for me. It’s not especially hard to come up with a small list of strong themes for your magic system, and then you can extrapolate creative uses from there.

Further down from there is D&D spells, in which magic is an arbitrary list of spells that you can learn how to cast. There is no greater framework the spells have to fit into, and it’s perfectly typical for a wizard to have a totally unrelated Frankenstein of a spellbook. Knowing what one spell does gives you absolutely no information on what any other spell could do, nor on what other spells the wizard who cast it might know or be capable of.

Harry Potter uses this system, too. This system tends towards the dull. Harry Potter made it work by having an incessant stream of new spells and magic items that were all really cool and then asking the audience to quietly ignore the fact that there were a handful of boring-but-practical spells like stupefy and the granddaddy of all boring put practical Harry Potter spells, avada kadavra, which rendered other combat spells obsolete. The audience was generally willing to do this, because watching Dumbledore and Voldemort have a sweet wizard fight with animated statues and stuff was cooler than just watching them shoot the dodge-or-lose spells at each other like they were two dudes with particularly slow handguns. It’s much harder for your characters to use this system creatively, because it has a finite list of specific spells (even if the spell list is theoretically infinite, in practice it is limited to whatever amount of spells you can actually introduce in your setup, otherwise it’s deus ex machina), all of which do exactly one thing. They unlock a door, or let you fly, or blow up a 20′ radius within 120′ of your location. Instead, the creativity has to come purely from the spells that are in the world. This worked out great for Harry Potter, but the star of that series wasn’t the eponymous wizard, but rather the world of magic he inhabited.

Nearing the soft end, we have X-Men powers. Whereas D&D spells represent a library of powers that everyone has more-or-less equal access to, meaning that every spell added to your heroes’ book is potentially available to your villains and vice-versa, X-Men doesn’t even have that limitation. Not only are the powers arbitrary and unbounded by any kind of greater framework, they’re also unique or nearly-unique to their specific users. Not only does Wolverine’s healing factor tell us nothing about what other powers he might have, it also gives us no reason to believe that Mystique or Cyclops might also have a healing factor.

Then at the soft end we have Tolkienian magic, where everything is vague and magic could do almost anything but in practice will do almost nothing. Although Tolkien does have a handful of D&D-style magic items that have specific, arbitrary uses not tied to any greater theme, for the most part magic is a mood, a force of nature. In Tolkienian magic, magic is so poorly understood that knowing about Gandalf’s ability to blow smoke into the shape of a boat not only tells us nothing about what other abilities he might have from that moment, but even by the end of the book we don’t have any reason to believe we’ve seen him exhaust his magical powers. Wolverine’s healing factor, adamantium skeleton, and snikt claws are all totally unrelated powers, but by the end of an X-Men story we know that he has those powers specifically and no more. By the end of Lord of the Rings we still have no idea whether or not Gandalf could’ve hurled a fireball if he really wanted to (he definitely has broadly fire-themed powers in general!), nor whether or not he had steady access to the powers he did demonstrate or if magic had to be in the right mood, or what.