D&D: How to Fail at Skill Challenges

Finally, a post about Dungeons & Dragons in a blog called Save Vs Blog. (Also, finally, any post after over a year hiatus, am I right?)

This post isn’t just about D&D, nor is about a single edition of D&D. This is really about how to handle scenes where a single skill check (of whatever variety) can make or break a whole story, adventure, or campaign.

We’ve all been there before – the PCs are racing through a dungeon, on the run from hundreds of orcs, and they come to a dangerous room where they have to make an Athletics or Acrobatics checks… or else fall to their doom. And if you’ve never been there before… maybe you’ve seen The Fellowship of the Ring?

The Bridge of Khazad-Dum
“Swords are no more use here!”

So imagine that the Dungeon Master of the Lord of the Rings campaign puts his players in this situation, and then has Gimli’s player roll an Athletics check to jump across the gap… but Gimli fails the roll. What does the DM do? Does he drop Gimli to his death from falling damage? Instant death seems like a strong consequence of a failed skill check. But if Gimli makes the jump despite failing the roll, why have the roll in the first place? There has to be meaning behind the roll, but not so much meaning that it determines whether a PC lives or dies. How does a Dungeon Master handle this?

Well, first, let’s think about it purely in terms of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons mechanics. What are the average consequences of a failed d20 roll?

  • A failed attack roll is a lost opportunity. While your PC takes no damage and suffers no effects, failed attack rolls add up to a longer and more costly combat. Still, each individual failed attack roll does not carry large, direct consequences.
  • A failed saving throw is generally pretty bad. A failed save against fireball for a 5th-level character costs costs an average of 14 hit points (28 damage average, save for half). 14 hit points is at least 25% and possibly more than 50% of a 5th-level character’s hit points. But on the other hand, the enemy that throws a fireball has expended a powerful resource at that level – a 3rd-level spell slot.
  • A low initiative roll might mean taking damage that could have been prevented, but that’s not necessarily a clear, direct consequence.

If those are our guidelines for the consequences of a failed skill or ability check, then we’re left with a pretty broad range – between indirect opportunity cost and 50% of your hit points! How does that help us?

The answer is to consider the resource cost for the opposition. It costs an enemy nothing to stand there and have an armor class, so the consequences of failing to hit them are low. But it costs an enemy a 3rd-level spell slot to cast fireball, so the consequences of failing are high.

Now if we imagine that the 5th-level PC fails a saving throw against a 1st-level spell slot (burning hands, to keep the fire theme) – they’re only losing about 5 hit points more on a failed save, which is down to less than 25% (possibly as low as 9%) of their hit points for the enemy’s 1st-level spell slot. If they’re attacked by an enemy cantrip, a save completely negates the effect.

And there’s the rub with a skill check. If the source of the skill check costs the opposition nothing, then failing the skill check should be like failing an attack roll or a save against a cantrip – a low, indirect opportunity cost or a small number of hit points. That’s why high-stakes skill checks that involve jumping a chasm or finding a secret door that hides the major treasure feel so cheap – the chasm is just a chasm, not an opponent flinging high-level spells at you.

For instance, let’s get back to Gimli. If the Dungeon Master in Gimli’s game has already established that one-off skill checks aren’t going to decide life-or-death consequences, then Gimli can fail the check without falling to his death. Perhaps instead, Gimli still crosses the gap, but only barely, resulting in the loss of some hit points (which we always need to remember are an abstract concept, not a count of how many pints of blood the character has left).

In the movie, Gimli almost doesn’t make the jump, and he has to be grabbed by the beard by Legolas to be saved from falling. This is a pretty good way for Gimli’s DM to allow him to fail the roll without the consequence being a fall to his death. The drama and action of  the scene remain (when we watch the movie, we know Gimli isn’t going to die on the bridge of Khazad-Dum, but it’s exciting tension nonetheless) without giving the PC a cheap shot of 20d6 falling damage.

This isn’t the only way to handle jumping a chasm – the solutions to the Singular-But-Calamitous skill check problem are many-fold, and I plan to explore them through a series of posts about skill checks, but there are a few principles I think we can take away from this examination of d20 rolls and their outcomes.

  • Never make any failed skill check more costly than a failed saving throw.
  • Most failed skill checks should be as costly as a failed attack roll.
  • Never let a single skill check be the difference between success and failure for the encounter, the adventure, or the campaign. A single skill check might occur at the climax of the story, but it should be a set of choices and strategies that make the difference between success and failure for the characters.

There’s much more to come on this topic, so stay tuned!

Update: The next essay, Why Do We Even Roll Skills?, has been posted.

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