This series has been about allowing characters to be awesome based on what’s on display on the character sheet. In part 1, I talk about using the characters’ passive expertise as an excuse to give players the information they need. The wizard is good at knowing magical and occult facts. Give those facts to the wizard’s player. Part 2 is about allowing a character to pull off amazing stunts based on physical skills they have. Great at acrobatics? Then, as we see in action movies, you can run up a wall and backflip. No problem. In both cases, the point is to do allow a lot of this stuff to happen without rolls.
This part deviates from that theory. Some people like to roll; it’s a game. That’s valid. But you can have your rolls and emphasize expertise, too. I’ll go into a few options.
Levels of Success
Some games have levels of success built in. A character isn’t performing on a pass-fail scale. The world’s most popular roleplaying game, among others, could take a few cues from this method of play. But you can use something that’s already in versions of the D&D game to mitigate binary results and the highly variable d20. Use levels of success.
The third and fourth editions of D&D had several instances of skill checks where the worst outcome happened only if the character failed a check by 5 or more. You can do this with any skill in the game’s fifth edition. Fail by 4 or fewer, the outcome isn’t a total failure. It’s a setback or partial success. The DM needs to determine what this marginal performance looks like in the game world.
Options are many. Maybe the character doesn’t convince the baron, but the baron asks a pointed question, giving another opening. Perhaps the jump clears only enough distance to allow the character to grab the far edge. They don’t fall, but they aren’t in a good position. The information is just on the edge of a character’s conscious thought, allowing them to try again to recall it.
The rule can go the other way, too. Success by 5 or more, or some other number you choose, might grant the character not only success, but also an unexpected benefit. The new Pathfinder second-edition game does just this with critical successes. In games, such as fifth-edition D&D, that don’t provide this nuance, the referee, once again, needs only to decide what a superb performance entails for a given circumstance.
The wizard might not only recall the lore needed but gains an extra clue from a relevant bit of history. An acrobat or sneak has the opportunity to move at full speed in situations that normally require slower movement. The fighter doesn’t just lift the portcullis but has the option of jamming it in place.
These levels of success can be added to any game that has pass-fail mechanics for ability or skill checks or tests. It takes a house rule, consideration of what the levels of success are, and situational awareness on the part of the referee. Add in a little skill at narrating the movie going on in everyone’s head.
Nuanced levels of success mean expert characters are more likely to fail by less and succeed by more. Such results allow a player to feel their character’s expertise even when rolling. That sense is important, making the player feel good for choosing character options.
(Edit May 2, 2020: D&D has Degrees of Failure and Success at a Cost in rules variants explained in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide under the heading Resolution and Consequences. That section is on page 242 of the first printing. The subheads can be found in the index.)
If you use passive expertise, you can still use rolls to create narrative changes. In some ways, this option is like levels of success. The roll, in this case, adds a narrative element to what seems like a sure thing. When passive expertise might allow the character to accomplish the task, the player rolls anyway. The result of the roll can’t cancel the success but can alter it.
If the roll is a failed check, an unexpected event occurs, turning the sure thing into a partial success. Perhaps part of the ledge breaks off under a jumper, causing the jump to come up short, leaving the jumper dangling from the far edge. That’s like a partial failure in levels of success.
In a similar way, if the roll succeeds, especially if it succeeds by a lot, the character gains an extra benefit. The baron doesn’t just agree with the negotiator’s point, but also recalls a fond childhood memory, opening other talking points or creating a deeper bond with the speaker.
It helps to make up or structure these nuances ahead of time. That can be especially helpful for interactions. Know how important NPCs might react to good or poor rolls.
As referee, you can use passive expertise along with this narrative rolling in secret. The players don’t need to know they needn’t roll. Then, you can use the information from the rolls to create richer scenes. To keep this secret, you’ll need to hide DCs behind narrative descriptions of difficulty from each character’s perspective. A jump that looks easy for one character might not be so effortless for another. We regularly see these exchanges among characters in other media, which makes the method good for creating a shared narrative.
This idea is not to say you should keep your methods secret. Being unambiguous about the house rules you’re using might be the way to go. In play, each roll needn’t have an explanation, though. The rolls can all flow together to build the game’s emergent story.
People recognize their limits in some tasks, foreseeing probable failure. For mental tasks, we often overestimate our abilities instead. However, we often realize we can’t accomplish a physical task before us, such as a jump or a climb, or a fight. At least, we realize we’re taking a risk. (Mental tasks often lack the same risk or perception of it.)
Use this in roleplaying games. When you’re the referee, be clear when a character is taking such a risk. Any task that has a difficulty with more than a 20% chance of failure is such a gamble. Use words that describe the probability of failing. If the chance is more than 50%, a character is likely to believe the risk is too great without necessitating or mitigating circumstances.
Foreseen failure also causes people to look for options to lessen difficulty. That works for fictional and game characters, too. When you’re clear, as the referee, about risk, you telegraph to players that they need to think about their alternatives. Encouraging such problem-solving is good for cocreating richer stories in play.
Roleplaying games are about creating shared stories. The methods presented in this series on passive skill and trait use are about making such narratives easier and more fun for everyone. Taken together, the essays are intended to help your game flow. (1)
Players like it when their characters succeed and when the information exchange is good, especially when risks are clear. Good information grants players more agency. It allows them to make informed choices and interact more meaningfully with the imaginary world. If you’re a player, encourage other players, including the referee, to consider the options in this series.
Referees can use these methods to make sure the info exchange is better. They can also employ it to keep the action moving when failure seems unlikely and, perhaps more important, uninteresting. When rolls seem trivial or dull, they bog the game down. Letting that happen is a choice the referee can refuse to make.
Instead, choose options that make your game more fun. If anything in this series does that for you, it has done its job.
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1) If you play D&D, be sure to check out the Automatic Successes section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. (Chapter 5, Using Ability Checks). It provides another method to adjudicate passive checks that not only works, but also serves up some cool alternatives or additions to what I’ve said in this series.