In several tabletop roleplaying games, especially D&D and its derivatives, we ask to roll too much as players. As referees, we ask for rolls too often, including confirming the player’s request to roll. Published adventures and rules call for rolling more than they should. It’s as if we think that rolling is essential whenever a question of success arises.
Rolling a check is important only when stress is a factor, failure has consequences, or the feat of brains or brawn is possibly beyond those attempting it. Even in these cases, rolling isn’t vital. In some cases, it’s problematic for play.
How? Well, let’s take a DC of 15 in D&D (fifth edition) with a d20 roll. If the character has an 18 in the relevant ability score and +4 from another source, say being 9th level (high in the expert tier), the rate of failure is 30%. (A similar situation can exist in Pathfinder 2, with someone being relatively low level but an expert in a skill. The expert DC is 15.) Few experts fail 30% of the time. Some games mitigate the problem in various ways, from bell-curve resolution to degrees of success. Those solutions are good, but they aren’t universally applicable and aren’t enough when they are used.
Solution? Avoid the die roll when you can. Let characters be awesome at things they do without requiring die rolls. Not only does doing so move the game along by cutting out unimportant rolls, but it also makes the characters look like masters of their skills at times. And it should. Sometimes, the outcome shouldn’t be in doubt because an expert is right there.
Games often have mechanisms to account for the unstressed expert. D&D and its kin have a few. Passive checks in D&D fifth edition comprise one good and sorely underutilized example. Taking 10 in D&D’s third edition, and its derivatives Pathfinder and Starfinder, is another. You have enough time and lack of stress to assume you rolled a 10 on the d20 for the check. You add your normal modifiers to that 10. Pathfinder second edition has a few different implications of this mechanic if not an overt presentation of it. One is the skill DC (a number that’s the same as D&D 5e’s passive), the second is level of proficiency (trained, expert, master, legendary), and the third is any skill feat that provides rules exceptions. That is, lets you attempt unusual actions with your skill. A referee might use any of these to determine a level of passive competence. D&D fourth edition had take 10 and passive checks. The latter subsystem was more explicit about using passive checks than fifth edition is. Still, few referees used and use passive checks enough. (1)
Don’t be like them. Use passive skill to speed up the game and make players feel like their character-building choices pay. We’ll go over a few ways to do so.
This part of a larger piece on passive ability use focuses on information exchanges between referee and players. Roleplaying games rely primarily on verbal information exchange. Such communication is imprecise. If it’s too long or detailed, we lose the threads, even if we’re paying attention. (2)
That means we must make sure this information exchange results in clear communication. If you, as referee, think the players aren’t getting something their characters should know, be more obvious. Players, if you feel you are missing something, ask for more detail. Be unambiguous about what you think you’re unclear on. If you’re not sure, tell the referee you feel like you don’t understand the situation clearly. Request more information or clarity. Referees, don’t be reserved. Give the players the info they need whenever you can. (3)
One way to do so is to use character expertise as a reason to convey unambiguous information. Perception (Listen, Spot) and Insight (Sense Motive) are often called for in this way in D&D games and their ilk. Use it in other situations.
If you’re a referee Take measure of each character’s expertise and assume passive use in numerous situations. If the wizard is a master of occult lore, give the wizard’s player all information the wizard simply knows based on the passive score and the difficulty of knowing. Apply this passive use as an excuse to let the players know things via the wizard in circumstances where occult lore is relevant, from identifying monsters and their abilities to eldritch forces. Don’t ask for a roll, unless stress is relevant. That’s seldom a meaningful factor in recalling knowledge.
Do so in all similar circumstances. If the inquisitor is a master of investigation, give the inquisitor’s player clues from a crime scene. Reveal a trap if a rogue’s passive investigative or perception abilities are higher than the difficulty to notice a trap. (4) An elf casually searching a room might be quite likely to notice a secret door. Overlooking a clue, secret door, or trap trigger is quite possible while fleeing from goblins is a possibility.
As a player, ask what your character knows or can learn based on expertise first. “Imogen is an expert in nature and nature spirits. Does that have any relevance to this situation?” The referee might reveal more or, at least, be reminded to call for a roll. You might even confirm, “So I’m rolling because I lack the expertise to know without rolling, right?”
The Gumshoe system uses a similar no-roll system for clues and other information. It’s fantastic. A character has only to be in the right place and have the right ability to discover the clue. The player can ask for details, revealing an applicable ability. The referee gives the pertinent information. Also, the referee is encouraged to impart clues, telling the player what ability is appropriate to find the clue. “Due to her Biology training, Danica can tell the slime is organic, like that of a slug.”
In every game, the word clue here can stand in for any relevant information a character might gain from observing a situation with professional insight. If multiple characters might find the same clue, the referee decides which one does. If deciding seems arbitrary, base it on what each character is doing in play before resorting to a dice-off.
In a similar way, if you’re refereeing a game, you need only decide which abilities apply and what threshold of expertise is required to know something. Is it common knowledge that trolls can be killed only with fire? Well, then a person trained in lore that includes trolls certainly knows that fact. They don’t need to observe the troll, they don’t need to use any action to make an ability check, and you, as referee, impart should the troll’s weakness immediately when an encounter with a troll starts.
Conversely, you might require rolls for obscure facts or knowledge of truly rare or unique creatures. However, like in any other situation that might bog down play, err on the side of finding a reason to give needed clues. By give, I mean require no action and rely on passive skill before resorting to a die roll. And unless you have a good reason for a trained character to miss a fact in their field, use the characters’ passive expertise as the bottom level of what they know.
Sometimes you might find you can’t allow passive expertise to do its magic, give as many clues as you can, based on passive expertise. Make these hints plainly leading. Suggest in these clues what skills might solve the mystery. Lead the players to use those skills, especially if they’re necessary for victory. And again, most of the time, employing a skill to size up a situation shouldn’t require an action in a stressful situation. A lot of players aren’t going to forgo attacking a foe to learn information about it. If the player chooses to focus attention by using an action, the roll to gain that knowledge should receive a bonus.
Another angle to come at this is to, as referee, decide circumstances in which needed information just comes out. Then, build in leading hints. The troll always moves away from the torchbearer, and it focuses fury on anyone who burns it. But as it becomes more wounded, it does more to avoid fire. A mutant who can’t lose too much blood clutches at bleeding wounds and becomes more desperate as blood loss mounts. Maybe it mutters about its blood in a life or death context.
On the flip side, reward clever or insightful player choices with information or other desired outcomes. We often rely on skills when we can allow player decisions along with character expertise to dictate those results. If the rogue uses a 10-foot pole to probe the right place for a pit trap, the rogue finds the pit. In old-school D&D games, that was the only way to find the pit trap. It’s good enough for today, too. A player making the right choice, doing the right thing, using the right tool, or roleplaying the right line should still have its value in the game. The poison play is saying, “Perfect line, now roll Charisma.”
If the player wants to roll their Charisma instead of roleplaying, that’s different. It’s a legitimate way to play. But if a shy player is playing a charismatic character, honor the fantasy. The referee should allow that character to just be charming, intimidating, and deceptive at times. No rolls required. How? Interpret what the player’s stated aims are into that perfect line in the emerging fiction. Reward anything the player is willing to roleplay by making it appear in the fiction in the most favorable light.
One point of playing is the emergent story we build together at the table anyway. Another is the fantasy of outstanding competence in the face of odds unimaginable in the real world. Honor these elements by strengthening them intentionally with passive skill use.
This essay focused on information exchanges and aspects of investigation. That’s far from the limit of passive skill use. Action and other exploration stuff can occur in passive mode, too. And where it’s okay for you, as ref, to allow passive skill use, it’s also to make some tasks beyond such use. We’ll get into more in part 2.
1) Many of these games also had a Take 20 rule. That rule allowed you to act as if you rolled a 20 on the d20, assuming you could attempt the same check over and over because failure had no consequences and time usage wasn’t an issue. Take 20 doesn’t make a good stand-in for passive skill use, because passive use assumes success not multiple failures before success.
2) That’s one reason why written handouts or player notes are useful. Give handouts. A patron might give the characters a list of tasks or similar guidance. Take notes. Writing down important names is always helpful.
3) I find it maddening when a referee is coy, especially when it’s obvious the characters should know more. Even more so when a good check results in no increase in understanding. It’s not sly, mysterious, or entertaining to referee this way. It’s merely frustrating. And don’t get me started on when lack of clear communication results in disadvantages for the players. “I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known,” is a clear indication the information exchange has gone off the rails.
4) As an aside, having the players and their characters decide how to deal with a trap is often a lot more interesting than it going off.
Top art Walhall by Emil Doepler (1905). Eavesdropper is a section of Thisbe by John William Waterhouse (1909). Roll Persuasion is Nej, sicken liten puttefnasker! ropade trollet by John Bauer (1912).