Last Updated: March 7, 2022
In this episode of the RPGBOT.podcast, we are joined by Colby “Bea” Monroe of the Crit Fails podcast for a discussion on Failure in tabletop RPGs. We discuss what failure means, how to make it interesting, and how to make sure that failure doesn’t stop your game in its tracks.
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Materials Referenced in this Episode
- Apocalypse World RPG (It’s free!)
- Kobold Fight Club
- Leeroy Jenkins
- Matt Mercer’s Death Rules
- NADDPod – “Not Another D&D Podcast”. It’s pretty good. Not as good as this podcast, but we’re biased.
Welcome to the RPGBOT.podcast. I am Randall James, your on announced announcer. And with me is Random.
and this week we have a special guest Colby.
Hi everybody, longtime listener, first time caller. Big fan of the show.
Well, Colby, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Yeah. My name is Colby. I’m a host of the Crit Fails podcast or Critical Fails podcast. We are a comedy advice podcast. Basically the opposite of this show. We try not to profess any wisdom of any kind. And make… answer people’s questions from the internet and have a good time. And make funny hahas.
Nice. Nice. Alright, so speaking of failures, Tyler, what are we doing this week?
Well, we want to have Colby on today. And we wanted to talk about failure in tabletop RPGs. We want to talk about what role it plays in the game, why it’s important, and how you can make failure more fun and interesting.
Okay, so not failures in like, us getting audio and visual setup this week.
No, not this time.
Meta, for those listening at home. Ho. This was fun, but I feel like we all learned something about each other. So that’s something. next week on…
Isn’t that what failure is all about? It’s an opportunity for growth.
Yeah. And boy, what a great way to segue. Good Lord, I want you around forever. So failure plays a really interesting narrative role. Because in… in any tabletop roleplaying system that I’ve encountered at least, you’re going to have some element of randomness. And leaving 3.x aside, often that element of randomness is an enormously impactful about whether or not you’re going to succeed at what you’re trying. And what that means is, there’s a really critical piece that the DM or GM or storyteller needs to be aware of, of how they’re going to take the story, depending on whether or not your roll succeeds. Now things like combat, there’s really only two ways you know, it’s pretty binary, right? Am I going to succeed and do the thing I’m trying to do? Or am I going to fail and not do the thing I’m trying to do and story in combat is not super dependent on the outcome. It’s a fight. For something like a social encounter, where I’m trying to bluff a guard to say, Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be here. If you succeeded, that that’s going to be a radically different storyline than if you fail at that. And so, exploring the narrative consequences of failure is something that is a real big, personal passion for me.
Well, I think… before we go any further, Tyler, like, let’s nail it down. In… in D&D, fifth edition, what is a success? What is a failure?
Dungeons and Dragons has historically used binary success and failure, which means you either pass or fail when you do something. With very rare exception, you’re rolling a d20, adding a number and trying to meet or beat a target number. Generally, if you meet or beat the target number, you’re fine, or there might be some mitigated consequence. If you… if you roll below the target number, you suffer the full consequence. There are some rare cases in fifth edition where if you fail by five or more, or sometimes by ten, or more, something worse will happen.
Of course, I looked up examples before we recorded and forgot all of them. Perfect.
That seems right.
There’s a few poisons. If I recall, the medusa’s gaze is one of them.
I think Drow sleep poison is one of them as well.
Off the top of my head. Those are two examples.
Perfect, Colby with the save! Thank you.
Nice, nice. And also there’s of course cases where like even on failure, something’s still going to take half damage something like this as well. I guess one thing I wanted to call out because this is something that I actually have to look up every time this comes up, rolling 20. Like, a natural 20. Critical success if you want to call it this, that only actually counts for combat rolls. And everywhere else… you know, 20 is not a guaranteed success. One is not a guaranteed failure. Right?
By… by RAW that is true. Yeah.
I think a lot of people want want to honor and that 20 and I know this isn’t the episode about successes, but… but the inverse is true as well, right? Like you want to honor a nat’ one even if… even if someone’s bonus is really high, and they should maybe pass that threshold, sometimes it’s good to make the rogue fall on their face.
And… and there’s really interesting ways of incorporating, you know, what a natural one failure mean. If you want to take a combat roll as an example, you know, if you roll a two, you’re gonna miss. That’s practically guaranteed. But if you roll a one, there’s a lot of ways that people have house ruled. There’s a whole real-world items that people have made. Critical fail decks and all this sort of thing. Honoring the fail in ways that are interesting is something that there’s a lot of ways to do. And it’s really about what strikes your fancy as a GM and what you think is fun for the play.
Perfect. So let’s let’s get into this. So I think maybe the most exciting thing to talk about is, you know, failure during storytelling.
So, failure isn’t always as simple as just something mechanical. Like you… you fail to pick a lock, you fail to pick a pocket, you fail to stab some guy with a pointy stick. One of the reasons tabletop RPGs are interesting and fun to play is because there is a risk of failure. If you are playing an RPG where you always succeed. There’s no challenge in the game, and the game stops being fun pretty quickly. There’s that old… I want to say it was a Twilight Zone episode about the gambler who could never lose. First, he thought he was in heaven eventually realized he was in hell, because there’s no fun in gambling, if you can never lose. The same principle carries over into tabletop RPGs, the risk of failure makes success more meaningful. But that’s not to say that failure itself isn’t interesting. Failure isn’t and always necessarily a punishment. Sometimes it’s just a complication. There’s a there’s a concept that kind of got big right when Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games right when they came onto the scene. The concept is frequently referred to as “fail forward.” So the basic idea is, the players attempt to do something that has a chance of failure, but the story requires them to succeed for whatever reason. So instead of the DM saying, “okay, you have failed, the story is halted until you come up with something else” the DM can allow the players to fail forward, which means they they functionally succeed on that check, but there’s some complication. So to go back to my example of picking a lock, let’s say you’re in a dungeon, you met… and you have encountered a locked door. The rogue attempts to pick the lock the rogue’s pretty confident they’ll pass because picking locks, what else is rogue gonna do? So rogue picks the lock, rolls of failure, but the the big, bad evil guy’s on the other side of that door, you must get through that door to continue the adventure. The DM decides to let the party fail forward. And instead of simply saying, “come up with something else or find another way through this door”, the DM says, “okay, you pick the lock. As the door swings open, the guards turned to meet you with weapons in hand.” So maybe there weren’t guards there originally. Maybe the guards were there, but were unaware of the party and they heard the rogue picking a lock. So using failure as a story device that way, there’s still consequence for failure. But it doesn’t have to stop your game.
Yeah, let me ask you a question about that. So… there’s, like you said, one way to put it would be like, okay, you, you break your lockpick or you break your toolset, the doors swing open and the guards are waiting, then the player is left wondering… or maybe the player doesn’t even think “Of course, there were gonna be guards there.” Because in the real world, you know, we don’t live in this like quantum world where maybe or maybe not there is a guard there until I observe it. But that isn’t how this works. The guards were always there. But if you say something like, you know, your clumsy attempt to pick the lock reverberates through the castle, and as you open the doors, guards come streaming in through like side doors in the chamber or something, then then they become very aware that, hey, your failure has directly led to consequences.
I think there can be sort of a weird dissonance. Sometimes if you do make a a consequence that is not direct. Like a consequence of the die roll that is not directly related to the thing that they were doing, like guards showing up. But as a storytelling device, it works. It opens up so many avenues for you to think of interesting consequences that don’t stall out the progression of the characters. Because if you’re stuck at that door, there’s no way forward. Then you have to go back and get… I don’t know like a crowbar from town or something? Which could be a fun sub quest in itself. But I think failing forward, even though it requires a different lens to sort of view the relationship between the DM and the players, or that there’s like a static nature of the world, if that makes sense that the DM like has in their mind, you can, like, you can just move the pieces around and say like, “yeah, the guards are there now. They didn’t exist until this moment.” And I think DMs do that all the time anyway. So it’s, it’s just being open to that.
Yeah, I think Colby touched on that really well there. By far one of the biggest skills necessary to run a game without feeling without… sorry, without your players feeling like you are railroading them is improvisational skills. And this will come up in a later episode where we talk about first time DMing. But improvisation is really the heart behind fail forward, because trying to plan for all of the things that could go wrong on your players is insanity. And you will never be able to plan everything well enough. So even if you just do a little something like practice an improv game with people just to get a feel for “Okay, here’s something that I can change on the fly.” Now, if you are someone who does struggle with that skill, you can try and map out a couple things. Be like, “okay, where are things that are common that people might try to do and fail,” you know, like I had talked about earlier, trying to persuade a guard. Like if you know, guards are going to be patrolling somewhere. And you know that you have a player who is trained in Deception, someone who is likely to try and make that roll, you know, maybe try and think of like, alright, here’s one or two ways that this could go if they fail, depending on what the rest of the party is doing. You know, here’s one or two ways that I think I could take this narrative, and particularly people who are, well, I mean, in different ways, I guess both people who are writing their own homebrew content, and people who are playing a published module, it can be very hard to try and figure out what about this module can I change? And it is a different type of hard to figure out, like, I have barely written anything beyond this curtain, how do I just pull it in? On the one hand, that is very freeing, to just say, “yeah, that was absolutely there the whole time.” But on the other hand, it can definitely be a strain on your already very tight resources.
I’ve recently watched a few actual play shows DM by Abria Lyengar, who’s been a guest DM on Dimension 20 and Critical Role. And she does this really interesting technique of on a fail. If she doesn’t have like a specific, interesting idea of how to make that compelling. She’ll instead ask a player, not the player who failed, but another player at the table, “what extra thing happens that makes this bad?” And that can be very fun as a device, I think. I’ve gotten to play with it in a few sessions. Because it makes the other player the bad guy in the situation. And they feel compelled to go maybe harder than you might have gone. Be a little bit more evil to their, to their players.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I was about to ask you. Like, I can imagine it going both ways, like some, some player characters trying to come up with something funny, or something like, I want something amusing, but also something that isn’t going to slow us down or isn’t gonna trip us up. But you’re saying actually, you’re seeing PCs go the other direction of like, yeah, like tarpit. He’s in. It’s great.
It’s, you know, sometimes I think players want to honor it. And it’s not the case for every game. But I think players want to honor when they’re given some measure of power over the narrative. That it should, that that should mean something in the moment.
Yeah. So this is great. And I think I want to maybe keep going on the idea of failure, like this idea that like actually, failure is an option. And I’m thinking about games that I’ve DMed or games that are participated in, where the situations we’re talking about, like you persuade a guard, you’re attempting to track something, you… you attempt to pick a lock, like there’s all these things that we do all the time. And I feel like it’s really easy for DM to roll for me. And like I was looking for 15 you gave me a 12, I think I’m just gonna let this go. Because it is hard to be creative. And so I think, you know, how do we… how do we regularly make failure an option both on the everyday rolls while you’re playing the game, as well as on the high stakes?
So that can be really hard. Like you guys have all touched on the improv aspect can be very difficult, especially for new DMs. And if you don’t have a plan for when the party fails, a lot of times you’re just left scrambling. That’s just how it is. But really, you shouldn’t let that dissuade you as a DM or GM whenever you’re running the game. The… probably the best tip I’ve ever heard is if you need a minute to come up with something, go to the bathroom. Yeah, it sounds very silly. But you know, you need a minute or two, you’re going to step away, you’re going to come up with something clever, and you’re going to come back ready to go.
But to be clear, you only get to use that what, two, three times an hour before people start questioning.
I don’t know, drink enough beer.
You’re gonna go a different direction. Sorry.
Oh, I was just gonna say that they’re gonna go like, “does Tyler have something wrong with them? Is… Do we need to consult a doctor?”
No, no, no. I don’t drink that much beer.
He wasn’t even talking about the beer consumption. He was talking about the bathroom. But you went to the beer.
Oh, yeah, that’s apparently that’s where my mind was. Yeah, I have heard that piece of advice repeated in a few places on other podcasts. So yeah, that is a time-honored tradition. If you need a minute, step away to the bathroom.
That makes sense.
You’ll be fine.
But… one thing that’s interesting. So you talked a moment ago about like high stakes, sillier versus everyday failure. It’s interesting when those can be identical, right. So you know, your everyday roles in combat can very well lead the character death. And so I was recently in a game where due to a fabulously badly-ported, first edition adventure into fifth edition, we got a TPK at level two. Everyone died, there was absolutely zero chance for success. A boss walked through our party and murdered everyone. And, you know, we get about two players down and we say, “Okay, this is clearly an end here.” If you need to break the narrative for a minute, to just talk to your players, that’s fine. Right? People are gonna understand, I did not write for this particular instance of failure. Guys, we have two options. Either we can say, “you know what, we’re gonna succeed here, and I will figure out a consequence for this down the line.” Or we’re gonna say, “No, you failed. And I need to just end the session now to figure out what that failure means.” And while that is definitely not as narratively satisfying, if that is the step you need to take, people will understand. And more importantly, if you can use that to go back and build a good narrative, people will be very appreciative that you’ve managed to continue the story in a way that was not previously expected.
So I mean, in the situation you’re talking about, though. It’s… so you, you were headed towards total party kill?
Functionally, we had a TPK. We were a level one party, and a… like a sixth-level barbarian just walked through and one-shot three people on sequential turns. And so we just said, “Okay, great. What do we do now?” And the short answer was run the rest of the dungeon through Kobold Fight Club,
Kobold Fight Club? You didn’t use the encounter builder on RPGBOT.net.
I was not the DM of this campaign.
That’s fair. That’s fair, cold Fight Club. That is a fine product. And the person who built it did a wonderful job.
I thought that there was something interesting that you you pointed out there, which was you do have the two options, which is just you go for the TPK in that situation, or if you’re the DM you pull the punches. But the note that you there’s one little thing that you said in there, which was find a consequence down the line, because if you don’t do that players won’t like it either. They won’t like having survived if they knew they shouldn’t have. I’ve had two TPK’s that were taken from me. And every time I’m furious about it, and… and there’s no… there’s no consequences that came out of that. And there’s a lot of things that you can do. You can say, “Okay, everyone, it was actually non-lethal damage. We’re just gonna pretend it was non lethal damage, but you wake up in a prison cell.” That’s one escape out of that. And then you can make a very brutal way to get out of imprisonment or, or everyone did die and they wake up in the hell and you’re running a hell game.
Oh, that’s fun.
Right. It’s… It’s really weird that the young Red Dragon put you in prison, but I don’t know if this is…
The dragon has started a new section to their hoard.
So if I can, if I can pull a story from ye olden days… so a story that Luke Gygax has told from his childhood. Luke Gygax, famously the son of Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D.
And Melf, I believe.
Yes, creator of Melf, the male elf. So, Luke Gygax…
Okay. So I’m the only uninitiated on that. And I feel like you can’t just say “Melf, the male elf” and keep going.
Have you ever used this spell mouse acid arrow?
No, I have not.
It’s… it’s a it’s a 5e spell. I’m sure it’s in every edition. It… that’s where that is Luke Gygax’s character’s, like, legacy in the game, basically.
Thank you for that. Yes.
So Luke Gygax is, yes, Luke Gygax is one of Gary’s sons and helped Gary playtest a lot of things when he was a kid. One of his most famous characters, Melf, of the male elf named because he forgot to write a name on the character sheet and had written M for male and elf for the race and class in that time. So one of one of his famous stories is Gary playtested, the Tomb of Horrors, with Luke playing a single character and Tomb of Horrors, notoriously lethal. So Luke walks into the first pit trap. Like literally seconds into the adventure walks into a pit trap, falls 50 feet, manages to not die. Can’t find the secret door at the bottom of the pit which, spoilers for a 40 year old module, can’t find the secret door at the bottom of the pit trap, runs out of food and is basically stuck in the bottom of the hole for several days. And Gary taking pity on his own son said “Ah, yes, my wizard character Mordenkainen shows up wondering where his friend Melf had been. Teleports you, rescues you.” I can’t remember if he was actually playing Melf at that point. But Luke says yeah, after getting rescued that way, after such a disappointing failure, I never went back to the character. Colby’s point about a TPK being taken from the party is really, really good advice. If death doesn’t feel like a possibility, combat stops being interesting. Failure in combat is real because your character can just die.
And one interesting thing I want to bring up about death. So death, particularly in fifth edition, dungeons, dragons, and even earlier editions attended the dragon in Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, at a certain level death stops feeling like a punishment, because at a certain level, you know, you have more money than you know what to do with, you can just throw diamond dust willy nilly, resurrect people, it’s just a spell slot. And sure, there is an in-game consequence of I’m going to spend a certain number of long rests, feeling sucky. But even that isn’t all that punishing, depending on the character. And so what do you do to maintain that high stake for failure when death stops being as interesting? There’s some options. Matt Mercer has a really interesting system where basically, when you die in order to be brought back, the person casting the spell is making a roll. And they’re making a roll that is basically just a straight d20, modified by not any aspects of the character, but like, how do they perform the ritual to bring you back? So I have had a character that was brought back through a ritual similar to this and seeing it’s… it’s a really cool piece of narrative because it lets the players interact in a way that they hardly ever do, showing what do these players think is meaningful to this character. And that I mean, we only had one death that was brought back like this in that game, but seeing how that was adjudicated that way was really interesting, the options that that opened up.
And it also adds the element or the possibility of permadeath, which is a form of failure, which I think helps make death feel meaningful in D&D. There’s another actual play DM Brian Murphy, who does NADDpod, which is wonderful. If you haven’t checked it out, you should check it out.
Big fan of NADDpod.
and the way… The way that he runs it is, he makes you roll, he makes the players roll, the death saves just flat. And if they’re able to get those three successes, then the character comes back. And if they don’t, then they’re dead. And and, you know, death saves are generally balanced in the favor of of the character. So there’s a better-than-not chance that they’re going to come back. But boy, does that feel just extremely stressful rolling those death saves to see if if your character can be resurrected or not.
Sure does. And for anybody keeping score at home, if you look at the math on 5e’s death saves, there’s a 55% chance that you’ll succeed on death save, so the odds really are slightly in your favor. As long as no one is kicking you while you’re down.
Yeah, I suppose it technically is. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any of us roll, but that’s a whole ‘nother…
See, that’s why you got to keep a paladin around.
Good. Yeah, just save us. Colby, I liked… I liked what you talked about having a consequence down the line such as like waking up in prison, that sort of thing. I’l ask the question: Do you want… do you want the consequence to be something faced by the characters? Or is it acceptable to allow the TPK and then add that consequence back to the players coming back? Presumably, maybe it doesn’t burn the whole world down, especially if it’s a TPK early in a campaign. It’s like, you know, hey, you’re four new adventurers. You’ve heard a rumor that for adventurers went, you know, missing in the hills last week, and we’re… we have a reward up to go find them. You know, something like this? How do you think about that? Is it something that you think is better for the characters to face or better for the players to face?
I think if you’re going to not kill your… like, if you’re in a TPK situation, and you’re not going to kill them or or you’re faced with a big failure of any way, and you’re not going to honor that necessarily, then you need to make the players have to deal with a consequence of some kind to justify the decision not to honor that failure. But as far as the TPK goes, I think it’s extremely fun to run a… a game set in the same setting, you know, you already have your module or your homebrew world and see how that TPK effects what… whatever scenario is going on. If you have the red dragon, and the red dragon wasn’t defeated, then the Red Dragon has burned the kingdom to the ground and and you play characters in the wake of that, which is a totally different style of campaign but also quite interesting. I think Matt Mercer said had… Oh, no, I this is like spoilers for… Well, I’ll just say. If the player characters had not defeated the main antagonist at the end of campaign one, that main antagonist would have basically been like a world dictator, demigod in their next campaign. They would have picked up in a very dark version of the setting. And I’ve always thought that was super cool.
And then you get to go on a quest to kill God.
Yeah. Yeah. Still, it’s still finding a way to keep killing that particular god fresh, because I knew him when he just George down the street. Nice.
So I don’t want to beat on this one too much. What can we do if you’re in a TPK situation and for whatever reason, switching to new characters in the aftermath isn’t isn’t a possibility? Like what can we do to keep the failure interesting and fair? So say you’ve been playing the same characters for two years, you’re like level 10 everyone’s super attached, and nobody wants to go down in a TPK. What do you do then?
So one thing that’s interesting to me here: is the TPK about to happen because the players actively screwed up? A terrible, you know, a series of unfortunate events? Or because you as a DM have screwed up and mis-levelrf something. So I think those are three different scenarios and I think it does impact probably how you make this choice, right? If you put them in that scenario, like you talked about the the poor translation from one to five, that’s totally in the DM and you probably want to find a way to save them, you know, to offer a way out. But if you know the wizard’s like “hey, I have a great idea. I’m going in first this time. You know what, let’s mix it up.” Come on.
Leeroy Jenkins, the wizard.
I think the thing about 5e that… I think a lot of DMs know this if they’ve run for a long time, is that it is almost always your fault if there’s a TPK. It is so hard to have… to like the game is not bad… Like if you’re running it the way that it’s like said to be run in the books you’re running, I think is what four or five encounters for… per adventuring day, they’re all medium to hard difficulty. No one’s dying in those, unless you like, throw something very hard at them. I’ve run a tarrasque fight for level 13 players and they came out fine, like just walked away with no scratches on them almost. It was sad.
It sounds like the Tarrasque in 5e.
Most of the time, these TPK’s are your fault unless they do something truly insane. Like they walk into the king’s palace where it’s not meant to be an encounter. You just know that there’s 500 guards there. Then, then it’s on them, then they die and you punish them.
One interesting thing I wanted to talk about as a way to practice this sort of improvisational stuff. And in particular, practice it in a way that you do have a lot of narrative control over. One of the vanishingly small number of good things to come out of fourth edition was the concept of skill challenges. If you know that, for instance… And if players in my Strahd game ever listened to this, they’re gonna know that I’ve just taking so many of these examples straight from that game. If you need to, for instance, take a raft down a section of river. And you know that this is the thing that your players are going to do, because you do the thing that video games do where you pretend to give them four options. And then they all loop back to the same goal, which is here’s the raft on a river. You know that you’re going to do this. You can say, “Okay, great, we’re going to get to a set of rapids.” And I’m going to take these skill challenge rules where I want to have my players succeed at a skill check six times before they hit two failures. And I’m going to set some DC’s. And I’m just going to build out what are the possible options for failures before successes and successes before failures. And this is going to be a good way to both encourage players to figure out how they can use their strengths to contribute to the moment, and it’s going to be a really good way for you to get some narrative practice of Okay, I need to figure out what failure from this is going to look like. And I need to make it interesting in a way that even if they do fail, they’re still gonna feel like it was fun to fail. Because this is one of the things that we haven’t touched on a lot is that failure can be interesting and fun. And in fact, there are times in which failure is more fun. We sort of talked about this with people not enjoying succeeding all the time. But if someone does do something completely wild, they roll a 19 on the die on a thing that you did not expect them to succeed on, that can really detract from the story you were trying to tell, and things that I’ve seen you like, Oh, I got a nat 20 on my skill check. I… I succeeded in seducing this guard that I said it was going to/ No, that’s… you don’t have to make it work like that. Honor the 20, say, okay, you know, maybe they are amused that you are trying to do this rather than creeped out. On the same token on the failure side, like we’re talking about, if you are trying to do something that you are really good at and you do just roll low, maybe you succeed and fail in a way that is interesting. Maybe you’ve… you fail because your armor broke as you were trying to do it and like okay, well now I need to spend some downtime polishing this and gluing it back together, whatever. But don’t be afraid of failing them as long as you find a way to make that failure interesting.
Perfect. And I think yeah, we covered a lot of interesting ideas for this, right? So one, like what are the other player characters have to say? Do they have anything interesting? And then too, this idea of failing forward. Finding a way to advance the story to move them beyond, you know, like the the guard takes pity on you as your armor is falling off before them and says like, just just go through the door. It’s fine.
There is one other thing that I don’t think we’ve touched on which is when to call for a roll as a DM. Like when are rolls important? Because sometimes you know that the… the player characters are going to fail at a thing, right? Or so sometimes you… you want that to be the case. The whatever situation is going on, isn’t going to change that much with a die roll. I recall in my first, in one of my first games that I ever ran, I had to get them out of this like utopia, valley of Eden that they were in. And the main PC, or the main NPC, who was saying, like, “time to leave.” One of my player characters was like, “Can I persuade them to not go? Where… and do the adventure? Can I persuade them to stay here? And that and not play the game?” And I was like, “Sure, roll persuasion check.” And of course, it was a nat 20.
And yeah, of course, in that situation, it would be in that 20. And I reflect back on that a lot going, like I just shouldn’t have asked for a role there, there was nothing that they could say that would have gotten them to not go on the adventure, not get out of there. That that NPC had their mind made up. And deciding when to call for a roll and when not to, I think is important, and I’m not sure exactly what the where to call that in your brand. Do you guys have any thoughts?
So one thing? One thing and then Tyler. the one thing that I have noticed I’ve one particular DM I’m thinking of who will start to tell you the consequence or the answer to the question that you’ve asked, and like eight words into a sentence, stop and say, “Wait, roll.” And you’re like, “but you were already like, we were halfway there.” I thought we had it. I feel like I feel like that is that is a… a wonderful case where it’s like, you know what, it didn’t mean that much to you just let me have this. But Tyler, go ahead.
That’s actually a really awesome example, Randall. So generally, you only want to roll when failure is both possible and meaningful. Third Edition had a concept of taking 20 on skill checks, which we’ve discussed on previous episodes. If you’re not threatened, if you have time, and there’s no consequence for failure, you can just assume that you have rolled 20 by taking 20 times as long because there’s no reason why you wouldn’t just keep doing it over and over again, until you got it exactly right. That concept has kind of gone away in both fourth and fifth edition of D&D and other more modern RPGs, like Pathfinder Second Edition, etc, etc. If there’s no reason why the players would fail, don’t bother making them roll. If there’s no consequences for failure, don’t bother making them roll. Generally, you want to make players roll when there is a disagreement about the outcome, or when there is a consequence for failure. So I keep going back to the picking a lock example. If the room on the other side of the door is empty, and you don’t want to put anything in that room for whatever reason, maybe just part of the story is that the room is empty. You can just say, you pick the lock easily. Done. That’s it. No… dice don’t need to come out. You don’t need to come up with some clever reason to handle a natural one, which the player will inevitably roll when it doesn’t matter. But at the same time, if the player is trying to pick that lock, like in the middle of a fight, you might make them roll because if they failed to pick that lock, it will cost them time because they might try again the next turn because they’ve decided for whatever reason that getting through that door is important to them. Even if that room is empty. And you as the DM know that the fact that they’re in a time sensitive situation creates a cost for failure. And that’s a good time when you should.
I think it comes down to stakes, right? Sometimes you just need their sakes for failure.
And sometimes that, the… if there’s a… the opposite of that, there’s no way that they’re going to fail, if there’s no way that they’re going to succeed. Sometimes you might want to call for a roll anyway, to see what degree of failure they have. I can think of a number of situations where you might want to do that.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, that that’s one thing that Pathfinder second edition, is a good way of looking at this. You know, in Pathfinder, Second Edition, you can succeed in a thing, you can fail at a thing. But if you roll 10, higher or 10, lower, you critically succeed or critically fail. In most cases. There’s a lot of fiddly bits. But because that is an enormously thick rulebook, they have a lot of writing about what critical success and critical fail means for a lot of different actions. But that’s a really easy thing to import into fifth edition if that’s what you’re running. And in fact, there were actually some ways that that was handled in previous editions of dungeons dragons. In 3.5 there was a entry in the pick lock… disable device, there we go. There was an entry in disable device instead. If you’re, you know, trying to pick a lock and you succeed by five or more, you understand the workings of the lock. And so you actually just… like you learn how it works. And you can now just use your tools to basically act like a key and open it and close it at will. Or like, if you succeeded by five or more when trying to disable a trap, you could rather than just turn the trap off, you could slide a shim in and just turn it off for your party to walk past it, and then turn it back on behind you. There’s definitely precedents for that. And again, you know, like I talked about in the Mounted Combat, where fifth edition is really more a framework to provide the GM a context of what they want to put in from themselves. If you want to put in this sort of like, Alright, yeah, you, you rolled a stealth of 40. Great, what is that, you know, preposterous success gets you or, you know, you rolled a insight of super high number, you’re maybe not just going to learn like I yeah, he’s nervous, because he’s lying to you. Maybe you’re going to also learn, and you see his eyes flipped to a painting on the wall on you learn Oh, it’s not just that he’s nervous, it’s that he’s afraid of the Baron. And that’s why he doesn’t want to answer. While I don’t think that it’s reasonable of yourself to or reasonable to expect of yourself to know like all those off the top of your head, that’s really where it gets back to, you know, what, can you improvise in the moment in order to serve the story?
Awedsome. I think so…. so hearing this, right, it sounds like what we’d really like is more than the binary success failure. But we want to introduce degrees, because we think ultimately, that’s probably gonna add more value. I guess there’s kind of one inverse of this that’s interesting to me. Dituations where you have multiple players attempting to do the same thing or attempting to understand the same thing, where the meta itself is actually giving up the game. So a good example is like any kind of deception roll, or any insight roll. Maybe insight’s actually a better example, where we both roll one, of us rolls spectacularly terribly, the other rolls very well. And it’s kind of obvious that like, whatever I tell you is either going to be… on the poor roll, it’s not going to be useful. Now, go ahead. Or… Yeah, Random did you have… Well, so… Bad podcasting. There was a there was a finger up and I got excited.
An interesting thing about that the actual rule set, like the actual Player’s Handbook calls out what to do about that. If there is a thing where you think that players are going to try and meta like that, make the roll for them. Just roll it behind the screen. Thought checks, knowledge checks, these sorts of things. Is it less satisfying for the player to not roll the die themselves? Sometimes. However, while it may be less satisfying in the moment, if you can turn that into good story, they’re going to enjoy that. And one interesting thing that I’ve seen about this, there’s no reason to say, “Oh, yes, you can’t tell if he’s lying.” A low roll can absolutely indicate like Tyler talked about on the investigation, some Random outside force, like you’re in the middle of trying to discern whether or not he’s lying to you, and a dog comes and jumps on him or something. Completely break the narrative, if that’s something that you’re interested in.
Now, I like this a lot. Like I, I guess it feels like it’d be powerful. So how would we execute this? What we would do is we would say, the player character says something like, “No, no, no, you know, that isn’t my dog that that’s attacking your leg right now.” And instead of saying roll deception check, I would say, what’s your what’s your deception modifier, I roll behind the scene, and then I take it from there. And so now they don’t know what success or failure was. But ultimately, you can add those consequences. Individually, you if it doesn’t become clear as part of the story. You get them, of course, tell them what it’s actually was, you know, after the session, it’s like, by the way, when this happened, we had this branch and you took the road far less traveled. Awesome.
We should do an episode on lying to your players.
How to Gaslight your Playerrs, an episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast. On the subject of insight, there’s something that always challenges me when on an extremely low failure. Because if someone is lying, and they fail, like with a net one or very low, maybe they have a negative modifier to their wisdom, and they roll a minus three or something. Obviously, you just say like, yeah, you believe them. Like even if they’re very clearly lying, like now run with that, which can be a very fun prompt, if what the person is saying is is wild. But if someone is telling the truth, and they choose to roll in insight check to see what that… If that thing is true, what do you say to your players when they roll low? Tell them “No, this person is lying?” It… It feels weird to me what in that specific scenario. I don’t know if any of you guys have ever come up against that?
Yeah, definitely. You do run into the issue where some of your players think they’re lying. Some of your players think they’re telling the truth. A favorite trick that I’ve been meaning to try for a long time and it hasn’t come up, give all of your players the results in secret and roll for all of them individually. And then make them fight it out.
Just make make them do the RP.
Oh, that sounds super fun.
Although, so you’re going to you’re going to roll for them in secret. So they don’t actually know whether they failed or succeeded. And then you’re looking for the conviction from the characters to argue that whatever you told them, now that… that’s interesting.
That might start a insight cascade, where all the sudden they’re inciting each other to see who’s the most confident in their opinion.
That’s also a good time to call on passive skills in fifth edition.
Passive skills do create a floor on certain skill checks. We, we discussed this last episode, actually. So like passive insight, passive perception, passive investigation… was that last episode? I’m getting a lot of shaking heads.
It was Episode One, slash the second episode of this podcast.
It feels like just yesterday. Yes, the passive skills for certain for certain skills, create a floor on your skills, so you can’t roll… You can’t roll below 10 plus your modifier because it’s just assume that you have some base level competence. And while you might get momentarily distracted, you’re not completely blind, because you rolled a one.
Nice. And then to make another call to a different episode of the podcast. I think if you do what you just did you make them Duke out that RP. That would be a great time. diems at home to dole out some inspiration.
Oh, that’s a great idea. Absolutely.
Nice. All right. Did we do it?
Yeah. Hey, so I actually have a question of the week this week.
Do this is our first our first weekly Question of the Week. So this comes from Count Garlic on Twitter, who is a longtime follower, and a wonderful, wonderful person. So after hearing our episode about, well, the first episode where we talked about passive skills, he sent me a message on Twitter and said, Hey, so how to how do passive skills interact with something like the fifth edition rogues? I’m, of course, forgetting the name of the skill with it right in front of me. Thank you, Reliable Yalent. So Reliable Talent, and a couple similar features create a floor on your roll. So if you roll below a 10, or in some cases in eight, you were you’re treated as having rolled that number, and how does that interact with passive skills? Because if passive skills create a skill floor, why is *garbled*? Why is reliable talent important? So passive skills, in my opinion, and this is this isn’t spelled out in the rules, so we’re kind of going beyond the official text here. Passive skills only work for something that you can do passively. So passive perception, passive investigation and passive insight are great examples because if someone’s clearly lying to you, you don’t really need to give it a thought. It’s like, yeah, okay, that person’s pulling the line. If there’s something sitting on a table in plain view, you can just see it, passive perception. You can occasionally pick up context clues just passively. So passive investigation. Things you can’t do passively, like, you can’t pick a pock… you can’t pick a lock, you can’t pick a pocket. You couldn’t research something in a library with passive arcana or something like that. So reliable talents and similar features come into play in situations and for skills where you can’t use the skill passively.
Can you passively use acrobatics? Can you passively do backflips down the street?
I would probably say no as a DM.
One interesting thing that you just talked about. So you talked about the those three skills in particular, obviously, reliable talent is going to allow you to apply this sort of floor to skills other than those three, but there could even be situations where you would want it to apply to those three that passive doesn’t. If you are making a very active search check for something, maybe to go back to our investigation episode. You know, if someone’s running away from you down a crowded street, you could have that passive going like you talked about it then Randall but if you are having like a contested thing, because let’s say, all right, you your passive got you to the right alley, but now they are actively hiding from you somewhere in this alley. And in this case, you very actively performing the “I want to find this person” action, right? And so that’s a place where I think reliable talent could kick in, where maybe a passive wouldn’t.
And I want to I’m going to advocate for Colby for a second. So this idea of using acrobatics or athletics like let’s say, I’m chasing somebody, my passive perception failed me. And so I missed that there was an oil slick that had been thrown down. But perhaps I… you know, as I’m running, I effectively get to, I would have screwed some acrobatics up but actually the check was such that I, I successfully do like, you know, this slide through it and then the rest of the party falls down because they don’t have reliable talent. I could… come on DM.
Yeah, come on.
If you can convince your DM. Yeah, sure.
But one of us is unflappable. Okay. Nice, nice. Well, good. Thanks for the question. And I think, keep forwarding in questions you can find… Well, we’re gonna hit Twitter handles in just a second. But yeah, I think is Twitter a great place to hit for for questions for the podcast?
Anywhere you can find me. Uh, Twitter… if you go to RPGBOT.net slash podcast that will take you to the list of podcast episodes. And if you look at the comments below the podcast episodes, that’s also a great place to leave comments. Er, comments and questions.
Awesome. Awesome. So if you come and leave questions for us at any of those places, your question could be featured next week on the RPG bot podcast. One thing that is literally eating me at this moment I want to point out the that episode was Episode One, the second episode.
I am sorry, I have maligned you. That’s okay.
Random, you’re forgiven. All right, well, I’m Randall James you could find me at amateurjack.com also on Twitter at @JackAmateur
I’m Tyler Kamstra, author of RPGBOT.net. You can find me online at RPGBOT.netl you can find me on twitter and facebook.com/RPGBOTDOTNET. facebook.com/RPGBOTDOTNET, and patreon.com/RPGBOT
I’m Random you win’t generally find me on social media. If you look in places where you will play games you may find me as Hartlequin or Hartlequint. But most likely you will find me contributing to RPGBOT.net And here on this pod.
and Colby take a little more time. Tell us tell us where we can find you. tell us about Crit Fails.
Yeah, so you can find us on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple podcasts wherever you find podcasts were listed under the name Critical Fails. Though we’ve tried to do a rebranding to Crit Fails, because there’s too many critical blanks out there for D&D shows. So on Twitter, my handle is @crit_fails at CRIT underscore fails. And I post a lot of homebrew stuff and yeah, there… there might be new fun things coming down the pipeline like YouTube and various other projects. So if you want to keep up with me that’s that’s the place to do it, Twitter, that you’ll get all the information that you need.
Awesome. Awesome. And, I… I think Crit Fails is gonna have a special guest sometime soon. That’s a thing.
Yes. Yeah. Tyler is coming on the podcast as soon as we can schedule.
I’m extremely excited about it.
I’m happy to be there.
RPGBOT.fans. Yeah, definitely show up. Take a look at that. Take a listen. Awesome. So I think next time we meet, we’re going to talk about skill feats. I think that’s gonna be very exciting. Please, please tell people that you like us if you like us on places where you get your podcasts. If you’re listening to the podcast, I suppose that means you already found us but please continue to find us. And we love ratings and reviews. They’re very exciting. All right, anything else we need to hit? I think that’s the end of the podcast.