On Skill Deconstruction: Why Roll for Resolution?

So when should we roll for conflict resolution?

I posit this as the theory. We are playing a game where the play is discussion, problem solving and negotiation. (I'll get to the picture in just a second).

Player skill is not something to be avoided. It is not something I am personally interested in bypassing. My thesis is this.

If something can be handled at the table with player skill, then it should be.

A certain talented someone once said something buried in some comments. I dub it the Zak Sabbath Method of Determining When You Should Roll Dice For Something at The Table! (ZSMoDWYSRDfSaTT!, Pronounced smode-wised-sat!)

In his own words:
"Combat is an especially privileged situation in RPGs largely because it _always_ involves: (1) trying to do something quickly, (2) in competition with someone else, (3) with death (or "failing-to get to play with the PC you patiently levelled up") as the consequence, and (4) successful performance isn't remotely model-able at the table (unlike, say, talking, which can totally be modelled right there at the table via acting).'

These are the 4 conditions which suggest that an action (combat or otherwise) could not be performed easily by an imagined character--that is, conditions that suggest that -elements (people, monsters, forces) within the fiction- would want to contest the character's success.

They also suggest that the thing occurring has a great deal of narrative tension--character death means you stop playing the game you enjoy playing and have to start again playing a different way.

I mean, the narrative tension in the game may or may not necessarily "care" whether your character climbs a wall on a sunday morning or not, but if you're in combat, someone inside the story being told wants you to fail--always. Otherwise the fighting part of the fiction wouldn't have happened. (yes, marginal examples exist--test fights, whatever)

Nearly every other skill sometimes is and sometimes isn't performed under these 4 conditions.

When they do they're diced.

The more of these 4 qualities -any- action usually has (fast, competitive, life at stake, not modellable at the table), the earlier in the history of RPG evolution you see subsystems describing them being developed.
P.S. Thank you for writing my post for me Zak.
So, let's just take a second and look at why we are rolling dice.

The first thing we notice is this has less to do with the method of skill resolution or the type of skill system in place and much much more to do with the quality and skill of the players in play. I believe we are universally agreed that the terrible example of hours of a back and forth with the party thief interacting with the dungeon by doing nothing but making endless search checks. You can hear an actual live play example mp3 live play podcast. This is an audio proof example of actual players acting out my white room example of search for hours and endless hours. (Player: I search, DM: Roll, Player:(number), DM: You don't find anything, ad infinitum)

We are rolling dice for the 4 reasons outlined above.
1) Does the event need to be accomplished under time constraints? 

For all resolutions that are opposed this will be the case naturally. For ones that are not opposed it will have to be handled on a case by case basis.

2) Are you in conflict with another entity in the game?

The basic stance I have in running a game is that the players can accomplish the tasks they set out to do. I say "yes" or "yes, but" to practically everything they suggest. As soon as someone is in competition with them my ability to do this is suddenly in conflict, since I can't say yes to both players or to the player and NPC (hence there is a conflict that needs to be resolved which is the whole point of conflict resolution systems, i.e. skills.)

3) Is there a serious consequence for failure?

Trying to open a lock with an hour to spare. Trying to tumble past the coffee table. Trying to recall information resting on the open page in the book in front of you. Using diplomacy on your mother to get her to do your laundry. Using search/perception on an empty corridor.

This is a common problem in play, and there are even rules in the game to allow you to bypass these types of pointless checks (take 20).

If there are no stakes, there is no reason to resolve the conflict.

4) Can I model this at the table?

If the answer is yes, then why eliminate game play by rolling dice? Isn't that infinitely less interesting than actually exerting your creative problem solving ability? Are some people bad at thinking on their feet? Are some people not good at coming up with creative solutions outside of the box? Then those people are bad at Dungeons and Dragons. That is fine! There's nothing wrong with playing a game badly, as long as you are enjoying yourself.

[edit: added this after comments]
5) Does the success model a partial result?

This is one of the key things that make a success exciting. You've either partially achieved the result creating interesting situations and choices, or you've chipped away towards your eventual victory. A partial result is more exciting.

What does this all mean?

Diced resolution of actions is only necessary to resolve dramatic conflict with significant consequence for failure that cannot be reasonably (not realistically) resolved by the play of the game (discussion, problem solving, and negotiation).

Dramatic conflict is defined as exterior resistance to the players accomplishing their goals. Significant is defined as consequences that matter to the players at the table. Modelling realism is not a priority, it is more important that the result of the conflict resolution be reasonable and fun  (i.e. not destroy our suspension of disbelief and be an enjoyable game mechanic) then to statistically model any specific naturalistic probabilities. The more uncertainty, time constraints and chaotic factors involved, the more likely the event cannot be resolved by the play of the game.

We'll be delving into individual skills as this series continues.


  1. >>Using search/perception on an empty corridor.

    This isn't a pointless roll. If you only roll if there is something to find, then players will know something's hidden there even if they fail their check. If you always roll when players search, they'll never know if "You find nothing!" means there was nothing to find, or if they missed it...

  2. I use dice in an additional way: to randomly generate elements of the setting that represent resistance to the player's abilities, ones that would be open to charges of intentional bias either to the easy or the hard side if I just set a level for them.

    As an example, I have always seen door opening rolls as making little sense if the huge barbarian rolls a 6 and misses while the halfling rolls a 1 and succeeds. This is similar to your ogre armwrestling example a couple of these ago. In a contest of simple force with no random elements to speak of, I count up the "man-strengths" in play (1 person = 1, lower than average strength = fractions, strength bonus = +1 per bonus) but then I randomly roll how many "man strengths" it takes to open the door. What is random here is my determination of the environment, not the player's determination of skill. Otherwise I would feel awkward dictating by fiat, and tailored to whether the party has a high strength door opener, whether a certain door is accessible or not.

  3. An additional point: When resolving through play, a good referee can compensate for a player’s weakness.

    e.g. My DM knows that I’m not particularly socially skilled but also knows my character has above-average charisma. So, they take that into account when determining reactions to my character’s statements.

    e.g. My DM knows that I tend to think slower than most people. So, they allow me more time to think things out.

    It’s not perfect, but I haven’t seen mechanics that were perfect either. And, in any case, the fun for me is actually playing these things out even if it means my weaknesses come along for the ride.

  4. I don't always go with a roll. Sometimes a high enough attribute or skill rank is all it takes to instantly succeed.

  5. Zak does a great job explaining the issues, although I think the idea has been around for a long time.

    I think the concern Jim raises is the main reason I thought I needed to make people roll last thime I DMed. Searching for traps hit on 3+4 (deadly + not easily modeled) so I guess I'd do rolls for them sometimes, like when the theif player just wants to get away with "I search the door for traps" rather than "I examine the floor in front of the door and the ceiling above it, and I look along the door jamb and hinges and latch for any springs or wires, and examine the edges, is there anything jammed in there, and ..."

    Secret doors/compartments are less likely to be deadly, at least directly. If someone says they search the area, I would tend to reveal them.

    If the issue is which is more important: Keeping some mystery about did we search thouroughly enough, vs. Avoiding the utter boredom of strings of "I search"/"Roll...you find nothing". You can always ask "where/how do you search" if you want to give the party a chance to waste time searching empty corridors.

    Next time I DM I am going to try defaulting to "No rolls". I think that is more like how we played back before we found ICE, GURPS, etc.

  6. @Jim
    Yes. That's the theory, but the practice of that theory is boring. This is why I am a big proponent of eliminating the perception skill and handling everything via description.

    This way instead of making them roll for every empty corridor, you just describe the corridor. Because we're aware of the 'bad trap' ars ludi describes, we always show signs of the trap. The key is we also have descriptors in safe corridors leading to the same question (is this hallway safe?) but in a more entertaining manner.

    For those who's spines bristle at the thought of the level of detail involved, it's as simple as mentioning there are dark spots on the walls - not on every hallway, just on ones with flame vent traps or ones you want players to be suspicious of flame vent traps. In one hallway it's soot. In another, harmless mold.

    (This is not to say you don't need rules for surprise or the other things a perception skill does - you just don't need it to acquire information about the environment.)

  7. Not that I am sure I disagree here, but I do want to point out, lest anyone strawman me, that the thing I said was not mean to be an answer to "When do we roll dice?" exactly, it was meant to be an answer to "Why does D&D have such involved rules about combat if it's not necessarily all about combat?"

    My explanation was for why the dice system for combat in particular is complex, detailed and procedural, not for why it is a dice system period.

    Though I think what you said seems, at first blush, basically reasonable.

    I just got done DMing 7 people for 3 hours and am real tired though.

  8. I feel like this post is also relevant here:


  9. @Zak - thanks for the comment!

    You're right, I forgot all about that link - and the partial success is one of the main reasons combat is so exciting.

    Will edit the above to reflect the additional information.

  10. Let's hit your list:

    1) Does the event need to be accomplished under time constraints?

    This is vital. However, the way I like my D&D pretty much EVERYTHING should be under time constraints since if the PCs fart around and waste time there'll be that many more wandering monsters chipping away at them.

    2) Are you in conflict with another entity in the game?

    I don't necessarily agree with this one. I like me some Oregon Trail D&D (our wizard has lost his spell book, our cleric is dead, our fighter is sick, our pack mule got eaten with all of our food and we've got a 7 day march to the nearest friendly settlement, GO!) and this kind of play doesn't involve conflict with another entity specifically.

    3) Is there a serious consequence for failure?

    Is wasting time in a time-sensitive environment a serious consequence?

    4) Can I model this at the table?

    A good guideline, however I don't think that ALL social interaction can be modeled at the table, which is why old editions have rules for stuff like henchman loyalty.

  11. I'm not sure how well this meshes with your previous posts on skills.


    In this post, you dismiss a lot of skills that meet some or all of these requirements. I'll use the Disguise skill as an example.

    1) Does the event need to be accomplished under time constraints?

    "For all resolutions that are opposed this will be the case naturally.", so we can skip to:

    2) Are you in conflict with another entity in the game?

    Yes. You are maintaining a deception, someone else is trying to see through it. I assume you'd roll the check at the moment of conflict, when someone may or may not see through your disguise.

    3) Is there a serious consequence for failure?

    Yes. If you're trying to disguise yourself to someone, we can assume it's because something bad would happen if they knew who you were.

    4) Can I model this at the table?

    No. We can model your talking and mannerisms, but not how good you are at sewing or wearing an actual disguise, how well your false toupee is sitting, etc (although getting the players to make costumes would be cool).

    5) Does the success model a partial result?

    It can. We can judge that a partial failure means someone is getting suspicious, and you have to make up a new story - or that you have to take on some new task to maintain the deception ("Ah, the Viscompt! Hurry, the ceremony is just about to begin!"). The 3E skill roll doesn't enforce these things, but it does provide fodder for them, and modelling these kinds of partial successes seems pretty common.

    So, it seems to me that either disguise is a good skill to roll for, or this post does not outline what makes a good skill.

    Also, in the climb check section you say "What's the drama here, you roll a d20 and maybe fall to your death?"

    Well, yes? If you're dismissing the serious consequence for failure in that post, why are you upholding it as a core reason to roll in this post?


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