Content of the article: "Progressive Failures and Rising Tension"
I wrote this up last week and wanted to get thoughts and feedback on it here.
5th edition has a bit of a rough patch with its skill resolution model. Given the variability of a d20, all or nothing skill checks can be a fairly harsh mechanic, and there’s some evidence that they were never intended to be this way. The DMG provides some alternative methods to consider with skill resolution under Resolution and Consequences which all hinge on a single die roll mechanic. In cases, there may be some utility using a progressive success or failure system instead of a single checks. Particularly in non-combat encounters, skill checks are best used in a way that builds rising tension from failure rather than a collapse. DMDavid sparked a thought after a specific example posted on twitter, how to handle falling with failed climbing checks. My reply on progressive fails and rising tension meshes well with the Thrilling Heroics Rules I posted awhile back and compliments it enough that I thought it could be useful to post some examples here.
The core game principle is fairly simple, wherever possible the DM can create more tension in a game by progressing the tension with failed skill rolls. I think in these cases a rule of three model would seem to work. Simply that is:
- 1st Failure: No progress
- 2nd Failure: Unable to advance
- 3rd Failure: Consequences OR Succeed at risk and get unstuck
Let’s pick two examples using the most common high impact pass/fail skills, stealth and climbing. Some models were suggested with climbing that if you roll and fail by more than 5 you fall. This is a bad model because the variability of a d20 is so high that putting everything onto a single roll is a bad idea, particularly if failure means they plummet to their death. Instead, let’s use an example with the rule of three model.
Example with Climb Check: The first athletics fail results in no progress, the second failure means the character is stuck and cannot progress without help or significant risk. At this point something needs to change to allow them to progress, meaning either another character climbs over to help them, or some new spell or equipment comes into play. Alternatively, the character can now choose to try to climb again, but this time the risk is if they fail, they fall!
Similarly, with a Stealth Check: The first stealth failure results in the character not being able to move without revealing themselves, the second means they are stuck in place and unable to sneak in or may even be at risk of discovery and others are alerted enough to begin to investigate. At this point something else needs to happen, perhaps another character creates a distraction or they use a spell of some sort. Alternatively, the character can risk one last stealth check with the risk of raising the alarm.
This idea can be extended many types of checks. Perhaps investigations don’t progress and getting unstuck risks offending, alerting, or misunderstanding something. Disabling traps might risk sealing a passageway, alerting nearby creatures, or triggering it at an auto failed save or critical damage. It can vary by skill but it’s worth thinking about, particularly for scenarios where combat is not the main focus.
Obviously, these are fuzzy situations, as with most rulings in 5th edition, the DM has to choose the right method for determining outcome based on pacing and the situation. Too often though, DMs reach for the pass/fail mechanic. There’s some work to do on the DMs part to determine what a success means, is it a reset back to zero, does it just progress the character back to being stuck? Are the risky third rolls made at disadvantage? There’s no way to tell, and this part of the craft of the DM as they reach for the proper tool to manage tension in the game. In my own case, remembering to do it in the midst of trying to keep the game moving can work against me, but if you have a situation where you want to build tension around non-combat action in game, a DM might consider this method of resolution.
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