Dming Tips: Skill Checks

Hi Everyone! Sorry for the gap between articles! That annoying thing called life and laziness got in the way :).

Today I bring a topic requested by Sean. Sean asks, “I wanted to see if you could write about perception and spots. It seems that once a scout says I want to spot, and fails everyone jumps on the check as well. Same with knowledge checks.”

Thanks for the question! This is a really great topic, and one I think every DM, and most players, can sympathize with. I have used three different ways to deal with this.


Method 1: MetaGaming

While a player may have certain knowledge, the character would not. A character would not necessarily know that someone rolled low on Perception, Insight, Investigation, ect. Gently reminding a player of this can solve the issue of characters jumping on skill checks.

This problem with this method is that often, rather then accepting this, a player then makes an argument of why their character actually would check, which derails the game. Even in the best circumstances, if you have to state “that is knowledge your character doesn’t know,” then you have taken players out of the moment. This really is my least favorite method, and I generally avoid it.

It is important to note that there are circumstances I think it makes sense to allow multiple characters to do skill checks. If the party is advancing through known hostile territory, even though the Scout may be the main eyes and ears, everyone else would certainly be alert as well. Gauging each individual situation is important.

Spot Checks

Method 2: Limited/Multiple Checks

Basically what it says, allow only a certain amount of checks in each situation. Perhaps some situations only one is allowed, in others 2-3.

This does have issues though. Often certain characters are plain better at doing stuff, so the party trusts them with it, until they roll low. Allowing other players to take part in the check could solve the issue, but then the original character, who may be a trap expert, is suddenly no longer trusted with their main roll, which seems silly. To solve this you could allow a character multiple checks before saying the skill failed.

For example, the Wizard attempts a Knowledge check rolls a 4; however, you judge that due to extra time, background knowledge, or what ever, the Wizard can make up to 2 more checks.

Method 3: Hidden Skill Checks

This is my favorite method, and the one I am currently using. Basically, my party has given me the skills they are proficient in, and also have given me their stats. When they do a check, I roll behind my DM screen, add the results mentally, and then just describe the results.

I have really loved this method, as it puts some real tension when players check traps, scout ahead, or on watch for enemies. It is also great because it forces the players to emphasize their roleplaying and actions, rather then focusing on the raw numbers and dice rolling. Finally, it speeds up play. I have a few party members still getting used to the rules. With this method it’s not an issue, because they just tell me the actions, I worry about the mechanics. You can also use description of the character’s actions as a way of hinting the results to the players, while still allowing them to stay immersed in the roleplaying.

For example, Aldo the Halfling Bard keeps hearing references to the Death’s Head Cult, he has Knowledge History, and wants to see if there is any chance the cult was active in the area. I roll (without the players seeing) a pitiful 4 for a total of 7. I then state, “Scrambling your memory you remember vague mentions here and there, but nothing particularly specific or useful.” The players will be able to tell that there may be something, but Aldo won’t know it, at least not at the moment. If another character has an appropriate skill they may jump in.

In other situations, you could be vaguer, or describe a failure. I also like to write notes to party members, so that they can decide how to describe certain things. This also heightens the tension!

Well Sean, I hope that helps you with your game! I would love to hear if any of these sounds worth trying to you, and if they helped.



2 thoughts on “Dming Tips: Skill Checks

  1. This topic really hits home. It’s something I struggle with as a DM. Usually…. I try not to worry about it too much. If it’s a “not a big deal” situation I let them hop on. If it really matters, I stop them with a quick “you wouldn’t know to do that” and move on. Usually they are receptive to the fact that they were meta-gaming and it wasn’t really appropriate anyway.

    The thing about option 3 is that it takes the rolling away from the players. I think that generally they enjoy rolling, so I would stay away from that. HOWEVER, for the right group…. perhaps video gamers… they may be more comfortable with this and it could have nice results.

    I always have to think a moment about what rolling a 4 means. Does it mean you don’t know something? Or does it mean you didn’t interpret it correctly. It’s the difference between looking at that “thing” and being like “nope, nothing magical here, it’s just a thing” versus “holy smokes that thing is cursed but has the power to destroy worlds!” (when it is just mundane, or has a completely different power).

    I forwarded this post on to my players so they can give it a read. I think it might help them understand when its appropriate to hop on and when it’s not (from a players perspective).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For my group, which heavily emphasizes roleplaying, not rolling the checks has let them focus on describing their desired action, which has been nice. In a past group though, I ran into the exact problem you mentioned, they liked rolling dice and didn’t like having that taken away.

    I think you can strike a balance doing only certain checks secretly, but secret checks certainly is not for everyone.

    I completely agree, describing failed checks, especially low but not natural 1s, is very difficult. I like to think most things, except for extremely low rolls, a lot depends on the situation. I think with checks you know will be important, coming up with a few keywords, or descriptions in advance can help.


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