Playing with Passive Expertise 2

In the first entry of this short series, I wrote about the philosophy of passive skill or trait use in roleplaying games. That piece focused on information exchange and the use of passive skill to determine the baseline of what a character knows in a game. There, I claimed you could use passive skill, or almost any trait you might normally roll for, in active situations in a game.

What that claim means, in practical terms, is allowing player characters to have a bottom performance level in physical activities, such as athletics and stealth. This passive us fits alongside the mental acuity I advocated for in the first essay. For the sake of narration and speed of play, it’s fair for this floor of expertise to apply to NPCs, too. They can sometimes perform fancy maneuvers based on their capabilities just like the player characters.

The philosophy behind this idea is the same as the idea about conveying information in part 1. Simply put, experts don’t fail as often as rolling in the game might indicate, even under stress. And when experts might fail in the real world, that failure isn’t interesting enough to be simulated in the game’s emergent fiction. We regularly see examples of this philosophy in media. Protagonists leap off walls, climb rapidly, perform fancy and risky maneuvers, and so on. You need only watch the stunt-blooper reel of a Jackie Chan flick to see what happens in the real world for some of these attempts. (Without the sound is better in my opinion.)

There’s a reason these failed maneuvers don’t occur in the actual films. Again, that’s because it isn’t interesting in the context of the fiction the movie is trying to present. Further, the real-world can seem like a string of skill tests that even experts eventually fail. However, similar in-game circumstances aren’t reason enough to make repeated tests of skill fun in play. (1)

Quite the opposite.

The solution is that every physical feat or skill a character possesses can have an associated passive score. This is an assumed level of performance; a character can accomplish tasks at this level even when stressed. This assumption allows players to have their characters attempt cool stunts without a roll slowing play and without the fear of being punished for trying such fun-increasing tricks.

On that note, let’s be frank. When you, as referee, force the player of a highly skilled character to roll a check or test in many such situations, your punishing this creative play. Failure often has results that can be too unfavorable in these situations—the acrobat falls, the mighty warrior can’t break the door but alerts the monsters, and so on. And you’re imposing that peril on a play attempt that often makes the game more fun for everyone, because creative play makes the emergent fiction better. The result of punishing such attempts is that your players attempt fewer interesting maneuvers. They’ll play it safe. Your game will be duller, and your adjudication will be the source of this chilling effect.

Part of running a game is being entertaining, encouraging drama rather than suppressing it. Many failures and consequences common in real life are neither dramatic nor entertaining. They’re merely frustrating and, in moreover, they belie the fiction the games we play are most often trying to create.

Gambling with death
Gambling with death

The thing is, many games come out and tell you to avoid rolling for every action players try with their characters. Few, however, give you meaningful techniques for deciding which rolls are important enough to be made. I’ll give you four questions you, as a referee, can ask to determine whether a roll is called for.

Does the situation include stress that could lead a character to fail? Pressure can cause mishaps. Combat is one such tense situation in many games. Other circumstances can be stressful, too. But stress alone is not a good enough reason to resort to rolling, especially when the consequences for failure can be dire. That statement might seem counter-intuitive, but it refers back to trying to avoid punishing players for creating good drama in the game.

Is the character skillful enough that the stress shouldn’t matter? Experts remain competent in tense conditions because they know what to do. They can visualize the results. That includes expertise with physical activities and the ability to use that expertise to perform reliably. When you, the referee, ask this question, compare the character’s passive skill to the difficulty. If the passive skill beats the difficulty, the character probably succeeds at the task in most circumstances.

Are there meaningful consequences for the failure? Meaningful could mean real-world possibilities, such as falling during a climb. The problem with such effects is that they’re not only often boring in the emergent narrative of the game, they’re also unlikely to befall a trained person in typical circumstances. That means they’re exceedingly unlikely to happen to a protagonist in an adventure story—pointless death or missing information needed to progress the plot don’t happen.

Take a leap
Take a leap and roll less.

So, that leads to another question

Would failure create a dramatic situation? Failure should be entertaining whenever possible. If the consequences lead to a dull, annoying, or implausible outcome, forcing a roll is a poor refereeing choice. Asking for a roll isn’t a great player choice, either. This claim is true in almost any skill check in a roleplaying game, but it’s especially valid when applied to an adroit character. A player makes their character an expert in skills to express desires about how that character performs in the imaginary world. In the emerging narrative of the game, the character should be expected to perform well with such skills and traits. Let them do so in reasonable circumstances.

Reasonable circumstances here means that you, as referee, answer enough of the previous questions in a way that suggests you should require a roll. I favor meaningfulness and drama in games  referee. You can choose what to favor in yours. Whatever our choice, I’m willing to bet that if you call for fewer rolls while running the game, fun will increase.

That’s because things become most interesting when the expert faces another expert or a truly tough situation. An acrobat tries to tumble past someone with the combat skill to stop her. The climber must hang on while also fighting for his life against a flying monster. These are situations where a protagonist in other sorts of fiction might not make it. That’s when a roll might be meaningful and dramatic.

However, when the character is a master of the skill in question, even extreme conditions might not be enough to merit a roll. Take Legolas killing an oliphant in The Return of the King movie. Legolas is consistently if subtly portrayed as a master of agility in these movies. He can balance on the surface of snow. It’d be boring to have his player rolling to see if he had to make every maneuver in the following scene. Some of it should happen merely as part of his preternatural expertise.

If that scene were in a game, Legolas’s player had to roll maybe one to three times. He’s too adept and smooth for failure to have been an option in most circumstances. He made the worst of any imaginary rolls in the middle, when trying to swing from the back of the oliphaunt to the front. Important, however, is that he never appeared to be in real danger of catastrophic failure.

Note, also, some of the poor folks who try to confront him. They can’t balance the way he does. None was an individual of such legendary skill.

Yes, that suggests that characters of lower skill, who are more likely to fail, might need to roll more often. Lack of expertise makes stress more of a factor. I write might because I don’t advocate rolling to see if non-experts fail when they can and do take their time, and when that carefulness should be enough. A prime example is a heavily armored character sneaking in D&D, a play event that not only often suggests a roll but also doing so with disadvantage, further reducing chances of success. Give the armored character and their sneakier friends a break. Use passive skill to set the lowest possible level of performance. Use it in situations where failure isn’t meaningful and dramatic, and sometimes when failure might be meaningful but still isn’t fun or dramatic.

diceA lot of players and referees like to roll, and I understand that. Rolling can be fun. I doubt it’s fun enough to mitigate the harmful effects of rolling too much, though. However, a middle-ground exists between rolling all checks and allowing passive skill to be the floor of most character task performance in the game. In addition, degrees of success can help in games that lack them, as D&D mostly does.

I’ll get into these points and more in part 3 of this series. But if I’ve got you thinking seriously about how to call for or ask for rolling for character actions in your game, I’ve already had a positive influence. Still, I hope you’ll consider the last part of this three-part essay.

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1) A simulationist streak might mean such tests are desirable in your game. I’m not telling you how to play if that’s your thing. That sort of simulation isn’t great for fun at the table, though, since it relies on repeated rolling. Given the randomness in many games, especially D&D, repeated rolls also mean inevitable eventual failure. Failure that’s far more likely than it should be, for the sake of a level of simulation other parts of the game simply don’t echo.

Part of this problem is an issue of poor encounter design through an insistence on such simulation. A prime example is an icy battlefield that requires turn-by-turn checks to see if someone slips. Boring! But this essay isn’t about that. Maybe another piece about encounter design on another day.

4 thoughts on “Playing with Passive Expertise 2

  1. When I think of not rolling for skills, I think of the Gumshoe system. I really dig that system, in part because the whole of the RPG takes this into account. You are an awesome Mission Impossible type expert. When you walk onto a crime scene, you find the clues. The game, and the adventures, are then not about that check (because there is none), but instead about what you do with the information and how you handle it. Scenes in adventures focus on that. They have clues you always get and then interesting scenarios and choices.

    D&D is not built that way. A typical adventure has a trap, and it’s set up to probably get you. If it doesn’t, then probably the next one will. That’s the fun of it. It’s baked into the adventure, and indeed into the system. Passive skill use ends up very contrary to the game. The DCs to find most traps are low enough that at a large percentage of tables some character would notice all of the traps. Not some of them. All of them. That’s clearly not what the adventure had in mind. It could, but then it needs to be rewritten – the way an Indiana Jones movie isn’t just about spotting the trap, but the wacky fun that comes from deciding which way to pull the lever, or whether to spring the trap on the bad guys and exactly when to do that. The whole system really needs to support the approach.

    That’s my hesitation point with passive skill use in D&D. I don’t see it supported by adventure design, or even by the rest of the rule set. It’s a neat idea, but then we need the rest of the system to get on board.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I talk about the Gumshoe system and passing information on in part 1 (that’s why this is part 2). And without getting into philosophy or adventure/system design, play at the table can support passive skill use (especially to pass on information) whether the system supports it or not. That’s what this series is about–playing the game rather than designing for it.

      To get into philosophy, I don’t know that the “fun” of traps is getting caught by them. Most of the fun I’ve seen is finding the trap and disarming it somehow. Since that’s one angle of fun, in any case, making the finding part easier (or assured) does little if any harm to play. Especially true if the trap can go off on a botched attempt to disarm it.

      Also, D&D “doesn’t support” passive skill use in the same way it “doesn’t support” roleplaying. Lack of explicit guidelines doesn’t mean a thing can’t be done and done well in a given system. At least D&D calls for passive skill use and roleplaying despite its lack of good guidelines on how to do either.


  2. […] 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. […]


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