D&D: Why Do We Even Roll Skills?

Welcome to the second in my series about Skill Challenges (specifically in Dungeons & Dragons, but probably applicable to other systems as well). You might want to read my first post, How to Fail at Skill Challenges, before this one.

Before I write several more posts about using skills in roleplaying games (and specifically D&D), let’s ask an important philosophical question – why do we even make skill rolls?

We make combat rolls to find out what happens when the fighter tries to put a sword through an orc. A high roll means the orc is hurt. A low roll might miss. These rolls drive the story of the combat, but… really, don’t we know the outcome of most combats? Usually, the PCs win. But no one suggests we do away with the rolling – the rolling is fun!

So when we approach skill rolls and scenes where skill rolls drive the story, could we just do away with the rolls? In a social scene, can’t the players just roleplay with the NPCs and the Dungeon Master can decide how well they talk? If the PCs want to search for secret doors, can’t the DM just insist they say which squares they search and how? If there’s a puzzle to solve, can’t the DM just make the PCs solve the puzzle?

Sure. But is that fun? Doesn’t it cheat classes like Bard and Rogue out of a chance to use their stats to their full effect? And moreover, isn’t it unfair to force an introverted player roleplay their charming or extroverted character when the player just isn’t as good at talking and conniving as their character should be?

We roll because it’s fun. But, as I pointed out in the first post, if the DM lets a single die roll decide a whole scene or story, then it’s no fun. There must be a better way to use skills in the game. Here are a few ideas!

Social Combat

Adventurer’s at a social event? It doesn’t sound like a good idea for people who solve most of their problems with swords and fireballs. How do we turn this into a fun opportunity for roleplay and a chance for characters who took Persuasion and Deception to use those skills in more than a single roll?

If the PCs are carousing, or they have to convince a noble of something, or befriend a king, or surreptitiously find out the secrets of the court, why not run it like a combat? Let the players roll their Persuasion, Deception, Intimidation, Insight, History, and other skills as if they were attacks, and let them accumulate points based on their ability score bonuses, perhaps with die rolls. Instead of “damage,” you can have the NPCs make their own rolls to find out information from the PCs, or perhaps to draw favors from the PCs in exchange during the conversation.

Example: Fargin the Fighter chats up the baron’s aunt, and rolls a Persuasion check of 15. The DM decides that’s a “social hit,” and has Fargin’s player roll 1d6 plus his Charisma modifier. The DM records the total, and decides the players succeed when they accumulate a certain number of points. While socializing, though, some NPCs might find out juicy tidbits about the PCs, or corner them into promising favors to the NPCs.

Not-So-Secret Doors

Ugh. Secret doors. They’re a cool part of the lore of dungeons and the secretive treasure rooms of liches, but… without a full rendering of the dungeon walls for players to inspect, doesn’t finding a secret door come down to a lengthy description of how the PCs procedurally probe every corner of a stone room? Or, worse yet, doesn’t it come down to a single die roll? And wasn’t it me who said things like that shouldn’t come down to a single die roll? Exactly.

First, you could make it so the party finds the secret door no matter what (especially if they need to find it in order to advance the story), but allow the rolls to determine what’s waiting for them on the other side. If it’s a monster, maybe a failed roll means it has a few more hit points, or a bonus to hit. If it’s treasure, maybe a failed roll means there’s less of it.

As a default approach, this is over-simplistic. I say let the players describe how they search the dungeon if they enjoy talking about how they search the dungeon. Let them make multiple rolls if they are investigative types. But ultimately, if they find such things dull and pointless, it might be best to let them roll, describe how they find what they find, and then append consequences if their search rolls were awful.

There are better solutions for finding secret doors and things like that, but I’ll talk more about that in a future post on this topic.

Puzzling Hints

For puzzles, if the players are truly stumped, a DM might want to give hints based on skills like History, Arcana, or Nature, or possibly just a Wisdom or Intelligence check with proficiency for those with the right background. In this way, you can combine die rolls with some out-of-character puzzle-solving skills, giving the players a bonus for their skill proficiencies, but not giving away the whole ball game on a single Intelligence check.

But note that this is only really necessary if the puzzle is stopping the PCs from proceeding. If they puzzle opens the door to the treasure, then give hints. But remember, “puzzles” can also be hints about what monster lies deeper in the dungeon, or a way for them to more easily dispatch the monster or get through a hazardous room. I don’t know why dungeon keepers do this, aside from perhaps to entertain themselves as adventurers run headlong into their traps and monsters. I’m looking at you, Acererak!

Acererak, the lich
“What? What did I do? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Why Do We Roll?

Remember, rolling is fun. It’s the triumph of the 20; it’s the despair of the 1. Players expect those die rolls to have consequences, but they don’t expect those consequences to be career-ending for their character. Make sure all the rolls in your game are fun by making sure they move the story forward and carry both benefits and consequences for the PCs that are meaningful and appropriate.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide encourages you to make the game your own, but you can still feel chained to what’s between its covers. But don’t be afraid to stretch things out – if the “social encounter with rolls like combat” sounds exciting, flesh it out for your game! Adding mechanics to the game can be a lot of fun, but it’s best to use mechanics your players are already familiar with.

So get out there and roll those skill checks! Sure, we could play the game without skill rolls, but we’re playing D&D because we like rolling those d20s! And most importantly, stay tuned for more articles on Save Vs. Blog about how to do skill rolls and skill challenges more better!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *