Failed Skill Checks, an open letter

Dear Gaming,

We need to talk about failed Skill Checks How we use them needs to change and it needs to change fast.

We misuse them and adventures grind to a halt because of a missed roll. We misuse them and cool backstory and details go missed. We misuse them and players stop looking for details because when they look in a smart way they are denied the most basic of information because of a bad die roll.

We could blame this on bad adventure design or too much backstory or players not dealing with failure well but I’d rather look more carefully at the easiest fix – the way we frame these rolls.


Thiefy McRogue, our example player character, has skulked through the shadows into the villainous Joe BBEG’s office with a combination of smart planning and a solid die roll. Guards are outside and about but none are in the office right now. He has no idea when Joe BBEG might return.

Player: I check the desk.

DM: Roll Investigation.




<< Rewind

Possibility 1

DM: What does that look like? What is Thiefy McRogue doing?

Player: Thiefy knows Joe BBEG likes to put traps into his desks. He hired those trap-makers back in Cool-ass Dragon City. I’m being careful to avoid those traps.

DM: Roll Investigation. If you succeed, I’ll tell you where the traps are and you can tell me what you do about them. If you fail, a trap is going to go off and shit is going to get real, there will be saves and we’ll see what happens from there. * rolls failure and failure again to avoid the dart and failure again to avoid the poison *

Player: Oh shit. Am I dead?

DM: Not yet. You know you have five minutes before the poison takes hold and you start to hallucinate your worst nightmares come to life. What do you do?

Player: Shit, I rampage through the desk to find those plans. Do I roll again?

DM: You rampage, you find them. The noise has alerted the guards and you can hear the alarm going up. You are starting to see things out of the corner of your vision, things your father summoned from the Far Realms when you were a child in his wizard’s tower.

Player: Shit, I’m heading out the window onto the roof (detail established earlier).

DM: You make your way to the roof and the guards are right behind you. Other things are following you and you can’t tell what is real and what is from the drug. Roll to see how fast you make your way across the slate rooves as the guards give chase.

Cool rooftop chase ensues…

Possibility 2

DM: What does that look like? What is Thiefy McRogue doing?

Player: We know Joe BBEG isn’t the type to trap his desk. I don’t care if he knows I was here. I’m quietly but studiously tearing this thing apart. I’m going to find those plans. I know they’re here.

DM: So you don’t care if he knows you were here and found the plans?

Player: I don’t have time to care.

DM: Cool, you find the plans.

Player: But I spent all these points on Investigation? Can I roll?

DM: Totally! Here’s the deal, if you succeed, you are going to find a detail that will give you an advantage die later to use on Joe BBEG. If you fail, maybe Joe will learn something about you and your methods based on how you toss the desk…

Player: Cool. * rolls success *

DM: Do you want to make up the detail that will give you an advantage in combat?

Player: That kinda fucks up my immersion.

DM: No problem, you find notes from a fencing class he’s taking. He’s studying the Devil Blade Style, learning from a Tiefling master who fought in the Devil-Dragon War back when the Tieflings made war on the Dragonborn, pawns between Tiamat warring on Asmodeus.

Player: And I’ll be able to gain an advantage die because I’ll be able to know what he’s going to do based on what I know about that fencing style.

DM: It was the same style your brother used as a Judicial Duellist in Cool-ass Dragon City.

Player: Shit, I know from previously established detail that the guards were going to change in a bit. I’ve waited too long and my safe route back is gone, yeah?

DM: Yeah, that is the cost of taking your time. How are you getting out of here?

Player: I’m going to walk out like I work here and try to bluff it.

DM: Roll.

Possibility 3

DM: What does that look like? What is Thiefy McRogue doing?

Player: I’m going to go through slowly and carefully. I don’t want Joe BBEG to know I was here. We know Joe BBEG doesn’t like traps so I’m not worried about that (detail established earlier, different than above so we can show a different example of failure).

DM: Roll Investigate.

Player: I’ve been putting all my points into that, training hard for this moment. * rolls failure * Shit, I guess I don’t find anything.

DM: You find the plans but haven’t opened the scroll yet when Joe BBEG walks through the office door. He smiles and says, “Thiefy, I thought I had lost you in Cool-ass Dragon City. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to leave with that,” and he’s clearly looking around, just a touch frantic to make sure your friends aren’t here.

Player: Oh shit, that’s right. Wizardly Mageman hit him and his crew with that Fireball in that fight on the docks. I act like Wizardly is invisible nearby, nod to him and yell, “Fireball now!” and use that to get out the window.

DM: You’ll have to jump through the window while it closed. No time…

Player: That is fine. I’ll take some damage?

DM: Yeah, a d6 or so. Roll your Perform Lies skill.

Player: * rolls a wild-ass success *

DM: Bahamut’s sack! That is a wildass success. You jump out the window and take * rolls * 4 damage as Joe BBEG dives for cover. He realizes the ruse fast, though and jumps out the window after you.

Cool rooftop chase ensues…

Get context and description of actions from the player before the dice hit the table, that way you can give consequences that make sense. What is at stake here? Is it a time crunch, getting this done before Joe BBEG comes back? Is it avoiding clever traps? Is it making it look like you were never here? That all depends on the previously established details giving this all context.

As the DM, I’m not looking for the rooftop chase or where this all is going. I don’t need to know the next steps. I don’t need rooftop chase to happen. I think it is cool but I’m not pushing for it.

I’m pushing for sharing details that give the NPC context and personality, give the players the information they need to move forward and offering consequences for the players’ choices. I’m not offering less details and cool shit because of failed rolls. I want to share cool shit. I’m offering consequences and danger.

In Possibility 1, Thiefy might get captured. That is cool. Saving a captured player character is a fun-ass adventure. Joe BBEG might not know how much they know and might have to change his plans at that point. We’ll see. If captured, Thiefy’s player can sit a game out (eh, not my fav) or play a helpful hireling or NPC.

Context, Cool Shit and Consequences at all times.

If the failure results of a roll are boring or not meaningful or stop you from making up cool shit or sharing cool shit, either technique is not being used correctly at the table or the game mechanics aren’t helping you, possibly a combination of both.

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The Wheel Turns and Burns

Every once in a while I get all misty-eyed and I-love-you-man about the folks I game with.  This is such a time.

Look posted this up on the BW forum:

Five years ago today we released Burning Wheel Revised.
In five years we’ve sold over 7000 copies of BWR alone.
We’ve traveled the US and Europe promoting the game.
We’ve introduced thousands of gamers to the Burning games.
We’ve played incredibly games (that just keep getting better).
We’ve made amazing friends who will be with us for many years to come.

Thanks all for making this dream come true.
We hope to see you all at 10/10/10 so we can celebrate!

-Luke and BWHQ

And it got me thinking back on the past five years or so of gaming, looking back on AP threads.

Here is my first BW thread, I believe, 3 BW Games in 5 Days, in which I struggle with the rules, fuck up pre-game preparation, still manage to have a decent time here and there but I’m banging my head against the system. Some of my friends liked what they saw in the system and some hated the damned thing.

So, why and how did I continue playing the game and wrestling with it?

It is because, in Ithaca, I am blessed. I don’t have one group in this town. I am lucky to have a network of players and people interested in gaming, up for something new, game to try something. There are a few dozen games in this town whom I consider friends, people I’d be eager and happy to share a beverage with.

If I was gaming group monogamous, I’d never be able to play the game again as soon as one or two people hated it. I get to play games that I dig with people who are willing and eager to try them because when it comes to gaming groups, I lean polyamorous.

I don’t play PTA with Jim or Aaron because they tend to like more mechanics to sink their teeth into. I play Shock: with Pete and Janaki because we love making up worlds together and see how they turn out when we bang on them with anthropological hammers. The BW character sheets make Janaki dizzy but make Aaron sing with glee. And I full realize that I can do this because I have spent the last 10+ years gaming in this medium-smallish college town and rather than sinking one night a week into creating the perfect group of uber-gamers, I have flitted around, weaving webs and making networks of buddies.

Some I don’t game with at all, because their games don’t interest me and mine don’t interest them but we have fun IMing or having the occasional lunch to talk shop and geek out. Some are up for long campaigns, some aren’t. Some are down with the occasional one-shot once the kids are asleep, some want to game on Friday night have rocking a porch party. Some were strangers who PMed me on a forum (and some of those became great friends and others faded), some got dragged into a game I was playing with through a stagnant university gaming club and others have been friends we met under the mantle of Kryos over a decade ago.

My gaming privilege makes me wince when people post on forums how “their group would never play X game that they lust after.”

So, thank you, my friends who despite their busy lives, careers and families spend time playing games with me.

Thank you to my friends who played

the pirates,


revolutionary fast food workers rebelling against The Man,

the R&D exec and the Rogue Scientist,

the interstellar corporate agents,

the Patrol-men and Patrol-women,

the barber’s son from the Sangre,

the knight and the bastard,

the uncommon orcs,

the princess and the bodyguard,

the freebooter turned mercenary captain turned champion of humanity, the Herald of the Dawn, the Spider of the Book and the Chosen of Hell’s Honorable Brother,

the Horselord Prince, the Sheriff of Baal, the God-killers

the Elven Sword-singer and his loyal princeling apprentice,

the nobles and the jihadim,

the teen  samurai hostages to the sleeping emperor who dressed as ninja and went dancing at night,

the kids with magic out on the corner,

the Dragonborn Cleric, the Human Fighter, the Drow Ranger and the Elven Paladin,

the wolf pack traversing the World Tree in search of a new alpha,

the Barons whose lands surrounded the Hub of all Revenge,

the doomed samurai ascending a cold mountain for bloody reasons,

the cast and crew of Hare and Hound,

the Man in the Mountain,

the concubine and the dead god’s bride,

the Centurions,

Sharn’s Finest,

the cast and crew of Episode LV,

the Grey Legionnaires,

and many more.

Thank you, my friends for joining me in trying odd games, playtesting others and all in all making up cool shit.

Diaspora: Looking back on a cluster.

The Glorious Dawn

Our Friday night Diaspora game has fallen to the wayside and there are a few things I would have done differently if I could go back and lots of things I would not have changed at all.

The premise of our game was rock-solid.  East India Trading Company but in space worked really well.

The cluster creation might have been more fun than the rest of the game combined.  In some ways, I am seeing Spirit of the Century parallels here, when I feel more horsepower  in setting the game up than in playing the game through.  I believe our first three games skated right through on the strength of the amazing setting that we created.

The Intro

There are 3 sub-games in the game, a squad based combat, social combat and spaceship combat.  We got through several social combats and one stilted spaceship combat but never did any squad based, which is a shame.

If I could go back, I’d have started every game (well, every game in a new system) with one of those sub-games with the players taking up the parts of NPC’s in the system the game was to be set in.  The results of that combat, debate, battle, etc. would have informed the situation that the players were flying into and it would have allowed us all to gain system mastery in a way that isn’t risky to our beloved player characters.

Aspects =/= Beliefs

I treat aspects in FATE games like Beliefs from Burning Wheel.  I do.  I rarely compel actively, instead arranging situations where the players are confronted with their aspects but not actively compelling them to make matters worse.  I think this led to the players having too many FATE points.

Statted up NPC’s

I would not have fully statted up every NPC but I believe that through creating NPC’s for the intro’s, I would have had a scaffolding from which to build other NPC’s the players might come into conflict with.  I felt like that, the game as we ran it, didn’t challenge the players.  I didn’t invoke many consequences or really chip at their damage tracks and this led to some limp sessions where it felt like danger didn’t touch them as much as it should have.

What is happening at your table?

Kevin, from Walking Eye podcast has asked me to be on his show.  We thought we’d talk about cool games and game hacks being written about in AP threads and such.  I figured I’d update the games going on at my table and ask you all what was happening at your own.

13 Cities: This game continues, now with Pete added to the mix.  We are taking the next campaign to the neighboring land of Occulum; the whole thing should have quite a different flavor than the past arcs set in and around the 13 Cities themselves and I think we are all hungry for combat and blood, so Fight! and Range & Cover should be in heavy rotation.

MoBu City: Pete and I are hitting this game about once a month or more as our schedules allow.  When we sit down to play, it is as if we never left.  In the coming games, we will get on our first legit heist and finish up the last heist by constructing a lie that will have to be sold to a demi-goddess.  I love this shit.  It is New Crobuzon meets the Gentlemen Bastards in a Burning Wheel pastiche.

Friday Night: We are going to play some Danger Patrol with Pete at the helm, while we sort out what to play next.  Storn is really hot and heavy for some swords & sorcery that is less humancentric than our 13 Cities game, so we are looking at Jaws of the Six Serpents.  At some point I will have to write up a debrief post-game post on Diaspora.

For Danger Patrol, I get to play, Jack Geist, the spy who haunts the solar system:

Special Agent Jack Geist traveled the solar system in service to the most noble governments of Old Earth.  He was investigating a Stygian conspiracy when the atomics were dropped back home.  When he heard the news, he lost all hope and in the reckless, grief-driven days that followed, the Stygian Overlord he had been tracking down got the better of him and he was killed.

His remains were spready all over the ten planets and when he gathers them all together, he will rest and join his family and friends who died in the last Earth war.  Until then, he haunts the solar system, smoking Lucky Ghost cigarettes and serving the Danger Patrol.

Sorcerer 2289: Me, Bret and Christine are getting together and playing Sorcerer, taking my science fiction solar system out for a spin.  The game is set on Mars with Bret’s outlaw medical researcher and Christine’s R&D exec wrestling with xeno-techological demons.  The kickers look really promising.

And you, what is going on at your table?

@ the Table

Friday Night Science Fiction: This is our Friday night game of Diaspora and it is going well.

I want to get in some spaceship combat and some platoon combat and then I will give more detailed play review of the game as it worked for us at the table.  The cluster creation has made a setting that is dense with adventure-stuffs.  That said, another few sessions and we will have to talk about flipping it to Chapter 2 or think about moving on to a different game, declaring this mini-campaign complete.

I have been meaning to write up the going’s on from our last game, in which we used the social combat rules to hire a crew for our newly salvaged New Ovidian battleship.

13 Cities: This was a solo game with just me and Storn but when the Friday night game went kaput and it was just me, Storn and Pete at the table, Storn suggested we head back to our shared setting.  Pete is a wonderful addition to this game.  He get’s where we’re going with it and contributes wonderful and surprising tidbits.

At the end of this current chapter, the 13 Cities will end up being changed irrevocably.  Once we find out what happens to the setting, we will start a chapter from the point of view of the often mentioned but never met God-Killers, most likely an assassination team sent to the 13 Cities to kill them a deity.

MoBu City: This is the game that has suffered at the hands of me and Pete being busy and tired come evening time.  The game was just getting good, with Rifkin, Pete’s former convict gathering his posse of thieves to do a big heist, something that could rock the city and incite gods, sorcerers and demons.

We need to get back to this fucking game, man.  Dag.

That is about it.  Dominion, Formula De and Ticket to Ride are all waiting for some play.  I ran a session of Mouse Guard with some housemates but I’m not sure it had momentum necessary to pick up further play.

What is happening at your table?