Don’t Roll, Think

DM: “You see a few white, eyeless fish, and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4′ to 6′ deep and about 10′ long. That’s all. Do you wish to leave the place now?”

Player 1: “Yes, let’s get out of here and go someplace where we can find something interesting.”

Player 2: “Wait! If those fish are just blind cave types, ignore them, but what about the stone formations? Are any of them notable? If so I think we should check them out.”

— Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

Here’s a Generation Gap moment for some of you: old-school D&D did not have a Spot check.

There were no rules to determine if you saw something, or heard something, or smelled something, or whatever. There were rules for surprise, rules for listening at doors (but only doors) and there were rules for finding a secret door (“tie the elf to a stick and wave him around!”), but a generic Spot check did not exist (or Search check, or Listen check, or Notice check or whatever).

Wow, you think, things are so much better now in this modern world! Now I have an accurate way of determining whether a character notices something or not. Now I can give them fair unbiased information about the world around them with a simple die roll!

How did those primitive gamers survive, you ask? Simple: players listened to the GM’s description of the game world. Then they asked questions. Then the GM (ahem, DM) told them the results.

Rolling dice is not supposed to replace your brain. Making Spot checks all the time is just a lame way of saying “well, you haven’t asked anything that would really tell me if you would notice this or not, so we’ll just roll and let the dice decide.”

And if the information you may or may not notice is pertinent to the plot, it is asinine-by-design to decide whether to reveal it with a die roll. Scene from a GM lynching: “well if you had rolled better you would have seen that the tribe had red banners instead of black and that whole game would have probably made more sense to you, but hey, you failed your Spot check…”

One Roll to Rule Them All…

Why am I picking on the poor Spot check? Partially because I’m a big bully, but mostly because it’s a good example of a bad trend.

It’s not surprising that as a game evolves, people expand the rules to cover more and more cases. Do we have rules for car chases? No? Better add some. Even if it’s just a question of applying a core mechanic where it has not been applied before, its logical to want to be able resolve more and more situations with dice.

The trick is that dice are supposed to improve the game, not replace the gamer. What’s the final outgrowth of resolving more and more things with dice instead of brains? The one-roll adventure: if you make the roll you win! Game over. No player decision making needed.

What are dice supposed to do? They’re supposed to resolve things that cannot be resolved in the polite confines of a kitchen table or in the physics of our world. Does my car explode when I crash into that tanker truck? Does my broadsword cut off that dragon’s head? Does my magic spell levitate the castle?

If it’s something you can do at the table, you should do it, not roll for it. Unless it’s boring. Or rude.

Your character is your representative in the game world, not your replacement. Tell your character what to do. Ask the GM questions. Explore the environment. Think, play, etc.

A Spotless Game

Here’s the challenge: if it’s not a combat situation or about to become one (aka checking for surprise or attacks at unawares), don’t use Spot checks. At all. None. Zero. Let players describe what they look for or how they are behaving and just arbitrarily decide what they see or don’t see.

Once your players get the gist of it, see if they become more inquisitive, interactive and basically just play more instead of falling back on the Spot check crutch.

What other rolls should you stop using in favor of play? You tell me…

    Ben Robbins | July 15th, 2007 | , | hide comments
  1. #42 Mike says:

    There is also another extreme: starting with Observation being introduced in 2nd ed. we periodically have players announcing Observe/Spot checks out of the blue in hopes of finding “something valueable” regardless of whether it is logical for something to be here. I still remember the guy who announced Observe at orks barracks in the 1st Giants module – well, he did find some coppers, a crude knife and some inventive graffity! Which is what anybody could say would be all he could find in such a place – and when the same guy DMed later, he had players who periodically checked for “something” in toilets!
    Of course, mechanics was new then, so felt more exciting than it is..

  2. #41 Michael says:

    @#34 Kyle

    Seriously. Where did you get the idea that roleplaying was the same as sock-puppetry?

  3. #40 Adam Meyers says:

    How many times has the GM asked for a Perception roll to give important information the players needed? Before letting them know a detail of the environment that was required to solve a puzzle? How many of those GMs actually withheld that information if the Perception roll was too low? I once saw a GM stumped because we needed information but failed the Perception roll to ‘notice’ it. I kindly informed him that if there was info he wanted us to notice, it was alright to forgo the roll and just tell us what we saw.

  4. #39 Althalus says:

    @Kyle By your logic, the player is not needed at all. You could argue that the DM knows better what that character would do, and could simulate him/her perfectly – which would work even better than having any decisions given to players. The players would sit and listen as the DM rolls dice and describes the exploits of their characters, and the game would be simulated much better, but it would no longer be a real game.

    The job of the players is role-play their character. If a really clever scientist plays a thick-as-mud fighter, and then makes a well-reasoned logical argument as part of role-playing a scene, that’s not really in character. However, it’s the DM’s job to say so, and the player should know better anyway. Dice rolls make the interaction more abstract: I could say to my players “You make an int check, letting you find the dungeon, a Combat check which lets you kill the orcs, a wis check to find your way out, and a str check to determine whether you can carry all the treasure”.

    This way, the players don’t have a disrupting influence on the mechanics – everything is determined by dice rolls. However, I would be less interested in playing that sort of game, and I think many people would agree that the PC interaction, where the character is guided by the player as opposed to what the DM thinks he could/would do, is the core of role-playing. As the term suggests, role-playing means that the player plays the role of their character. This doesn’t mean that the player does what the DM tells him the character would do, or the rules tell him, but what the character tells him.

    If you are a mage with high strength and low charisma, you may decide to play your character as a well-loved but weak man. This is perfectly justifiable (he isn’t aware of how strong he is, and is rather frightened at heart, but believes that everyone likes him), and defines the character beyond ‘simulation’, in a way the rules and DM may not immediately suggest

    If I want to _play_ my _own_ character, I play a game. If I want to _watch_ a _predefined_ character react to situations, I watch a movie. For me, D&D is about me playing a character rather than watching a character play himself. It’s the same difference as playing a video game or watching an AI play the same game. The AI is more realistic, but for it to be a game, I have to be involved.

    Sorry for the long rant. I have _opinions_ sometimes :)

  5. #38 ryan says:

    i’m a bit late to this party, sorry, but @Kyle, you’re still playing the character not just watching him go.

    if you’re playing a meticulous, observant character, you should be making some attempt to play him as such. You can’t just smash through everything at mach 3 and then demand all the information because you neglected the part of the RPer’s agreement that you should be attempting to represent your character in how you play him.

    If you’re not very good at it, then your DM should be attempting to meet you somewhere in the middle or encourage you to do the things your character should be doing.

    It’s a lot like old-style alignment; you can’t write lawful good in the corner of your sheet and expect your paladin to be unhindered when you start stabbing peasants, just like you can’t write spot 20 on your sheet and not have to respect that with how you play your character.

  6. #37 Frost says:


    I don’t think that Ben is proposing that you ignore the character (and their stats) entirely, I think his point is that A) the more the players are interacting with the environment the better and that B) rolling dice can detract from that interaction. For example, if a group’s playstyle is that the GM automatically rolls spot checks in a room to see if any of the PCs see anything, you (might) have room encounters something like:

    GM: OK, now that the combat’s over you look around the room [rolls some dice behind screen] and the ranger spots that one of the stone formations is odd, looking at it more closely the thief notices that its carved and has a secret compartment which he opens and finds 150gps
    Player 1: Hurray! We move on to the next room….

    From a strict simulationist perspective this is fine and if everyone at the table wants to play this way then great, everyone is having fun. But as you say you’ve traded off some amount of the players being involved in the action in order to better stick to the simulation. And to go the other way (as Ben suggests) sacrifices some amount of simulation to increase the involvement of the players.

    I do not think that Ben’s suggestion here necessarily detracts from the roleplaying, that is from the players acting as their characters and not themselves. A small step from my example above would be to require the players to say they were searching instead of just rolling automatically, or if everyone knew that the automatic roll was some low level default check (e.g. taking 10) but if you specifically told the GM you were searching it would be better. This would increase the interaction a bit.
    Even if you get rid of the roll entirely it doesn’t have to mean that the character stats are ignored. Just because a player thought to say that he’s looking behind the party to see if anyone’s following doesn’t mean that he’s going to see the goblins – even without a roll. If the goblins are pretty sneaky and it’s their woods, the priest won’t see them but the ranger would. Now a simulationist probably is not that happy with my on-the-fly decision without dice but the narrativst is perfectly happy. So really it’s up to your group what they consider fun.
    To me the main issue is did the player have to think of looking behind them or did the GM include that in some roll without the player doing something themselves. To me, the player doing something is better than them waiting for the GM to tell them.

    But Ben’s core thesis here is (I think) that there is a danger in just letting the dice roll handle everything for the players, if the dice are deciding almost everything about what the character does, then the player is less directly involved in the game.

    As another example, you mentioned logic puzzles which to me don’t seem to make much sense as a game element if all you are doing is rolling to solve it. If I describe the door as being fastened with some sort of logic puzzle (DC 20) or locked (DC 20) the only difference is (possibly) what skill is used to open it. The players are doing the exact same thing in both cases, which makes me think that after a while they will stop caring which it is (“uhh sure whatever, what’s the skill and DC?” ). On the plus side there’s less work for the GM since they don’t have to come up with an actual puzzle ?

    To me once the player is saying things like “just tell me the skill & DC”, or worse, if the GM is rolling for the character without any initiative on the part of the player (e.g. my example at the top) something has been lost. It may be a better simulation, but not really what I’m interested in.

  7. #36 Kyle says:

    I think you made a good counter argument and it definitely does come down to a matter of taste in the end.

    But to continue the debate regardless:

    It’s a balancing act. You don’t have to describe how he swings the sword (at least other then occasionally when someone describes a flourish or whatever they add to the swing for flavour) but you do have to choose the target. However – even then there is room (at least when my group plays) to let the character do some of the lifting instead of the player. Your fighter can use an appropriate knowledge to see what target is vulnerable in what ways. Some of the DMs I play with would grant you insight based on some creatures based on the fact that you are a fighter (if you’ve been fighting an enemy fighter for X rounds you may ask the DM if you know roughly what level they are).

    In my complaint (above, in my first post) about spot checks and logic puzzles, using descriptions for a spot check or asking the player the riddle is completely ignoring the character. Not balance – but 100% ignoring the character in favour of the player. The rolls aren’t meaningless conveniences they are central and important role playing devices – they inform you what your character can do and know.

    As for my personal tastes:
    For how much you bring from the player – I personally vote aiming at 0%. 0% comes from the player’s personality. The player is supposed to bring as little of their real life abilities, prejudices and tastes to the table as possible. The player is 100% of the time supposed to be role-playing as their interpretation of the personality they constructed. Importantly, you are NOT role-playing as ‘a Halfling illusionist and some short paragraph of fluff but whenever it falls out of those confines I fall back on the players tastes/knowledge/abilities’. You are role-playing as a complete person who is not you in any way (this does not mean it has to be your opposite, of course).

    Is my way ‘the best way’ – no of course not, the way that is the most fun for everyone overall is the best way. Is my way better role-playing….ignoring the fun factor, then honestly yes I think this way is better role playing.

    Your ability to solve logic puzzles or figure out when a DMs description contains something ‘off’ is (IMO) completely irrelevant to what your character would realistically know. To bring in your own ability is bad role-playing unless your ability relates to the character (including a FULL personality!) and if that happens it is likely to coincide with the dice result anyway.

    Just because you are great at logic puzzles does not in any way mean it’s appropriate for your barbarian to ace them too – that is terrible role-play. And if you are dumb as a spade that doesn’t mean your wizard should suffer and not be able to do his typical role of figuring out the riddles, again that is bad role-play.

    Just because you have a degree in X doesn’t mean you’re character is too (unless you’ve spent appropriate points in it) – that is terrible role-play. And also – just because someone who is a real builder or scientist is role-playing as a builder or scientist doesn’t mean they should get to use their character better then a layman who is role playing as the same thing! That is awful role play.

    Just because you’ve been playing D&D for fifteen years and can read your DM’s descriptions of a scene like the back of your hand does not mean your aloof wizard should start spotting every bush that wasn’t described quite right and has a goblin in it while your ranger who has maxed out perception ranks is failing to notice every one because it’s his first campaign. Bad, bad role play. Might be lots of fun and might reward real life effort – but fundamentally bad role-play.

    However, fun > role-playing. I whole heartedly agree with your point that playing it the other way might be more fun. But I also want to (strongly) point out that this IS a sacrifice of role-play to fun. That’s fine – but just be aware that that’s what’s happening.

    I know I’ve already gone on a little long but I feel like adding that my group has played with roughly this attitude and we do so very easily, smoothly and comfortably. It doesn’t (despite how it sounds) require large back stories and it isn’t demanding. We are lazy gamers and I think I might be making this sound hard and demanding but it really isn’t.

    Thanks for the reply – looking forward to another if you decide to post one. If I argue strong (or even come across rude) it was not my intention and it was written with no malice. You write some damn cool articles!

  8. #35 ben robbins says:

    @ Kyle: That’s all true, but by that logic, when are the players ever better experts than the characters? Why have players at all? The fighter character is a real warrior: they should know which opponent to attack or which feat to use more than a player who has never been in a real sword fight. The wizard character should know better which spells to use than the player, etc.

    But where’s the fun in that? To be a game, it’s first priority should be play. I’d argue that realism or accurate simulation is far less important than whether putting decisions in the hands of the player (or taking them away) makes it a better game to play. The opposite extreme, having the players do everything, is just as bad: I wouldn’t want to play a game where you had to calculate exactly how to move each individual muscle in your character’s legs to make them walk. That’s not fun for the player, so that’s better delegated to the character.

    The question of game design is really: what decisions are fun to put in the hands of the players and which aren’t. My argument is that the game is more fun and engaging when players use their brains and interact with the environment rather than sitting back and letting the dice tell them what they see.

  9. #34 Kyle says:

    I disagree.

    We are NOT playing as ourselves. We are playing as characters (with given stats and such that roughly describe there abilities.

    I may (or may not) be able to solve a riddle – but that has no bearing on if my character can. This is why an int check is a better representation of my character trying his hand at a logic puzzle then just giving it to me in real life.

    I may not (or may) be good at spoting when subtle differences in the enviroment are pointing at danger – but that has no bearing on if my character can. This is why a perception check is better then describing the scene to me and seeing if I notice that there are slightly less bird songs in the description then usual.

  10. #33 Jamie Fristrom says:

    Yeah, you have a point. When playing our last Pathfinder campaign the GM would often race through the blocks of “say this part aloud” text as if embarrassed, as if to say, “This is just color so I’m going to zip through it and get to the good stuff.” Maybe we have been adversely conditioned by the spot check.

    We see this in videogames, too. Players get lost or confused, so the designers add HUD widgets (here’s the monster!) and automaps (you are here) and even GPS systems (GTA IV) and the players stop seeing all that art you spent 10 million dollars to make.

    Which brings me to my fundamental problem with 3e, 4e, Pathfinder, and big-budget videogames: they are designed for lowest-common-denominator players. They make this assumption: “Our players are idiotic douches. We have to engineer systems and rules that will provide a passable experience even with lame players.” In that light, the spot check is good (our players don’t pay attention, we need a spot check to give them a second chance to notice the shit we’ve prepped), making it practically a board game is good, the excruciating detail on what you can or cannot do is good, GM rules like “Monsters don’t attack unconscious players” are good. But now, players and GMs who *aren’t* lame are better off playing a niche game that respects them.

    That said, with what I’ve been running lately ( I still do spot checks, but the players often get narrative control on success (a bit like Donjon) and failures usually escalate (“you didn’t see the ambush.”)

  11. #32 Widukind says:

    You’re dead on. I think it’s nothing about “yea old school!” or the current state of rules-happy games. It’s probably about what constitutes “game.” If you’ve been raised by computer games, you want a roll of the dice, or random number generator, to determine your fate. Well, as a DM I’m not a computer, so I don’t have the inclination to do that. I’d much rather tune into the player’s personality and work with that to see what he or she sees.

    I think the idea of giving a brief but tantalizing description of a room or scene, and then letting the players “bite” on the description, is the way to go. When I DM, I expect activity, not passivity, on the players’ part. Once their attention and interest latch onto something in a description, they get into the game. Rolling dice, for the most part, cannot do that; that’s about as personal as a game of craps in your local casino.

    It is a social game. If the player isn’t a genius but his PC is, then there’s game mechanics or your judgement as a DM to make him spot something that only a genius would.

  12. #31 ben robbins says:

    @ GiacomoArt — It’s not about “yea old school!”, or about good or bad GMs. Just like Initiative: the Silent Killer, it’s about seemingly logical and sensible rules changes that unintentionally take away the magic of the game.

  13. #30 GiacomoArt says:

    I totally agree that if you had to choose between excising decision-making and dice-rolling in an RPG, it’s the dice that would have to go, but you’re setting up a straw man argument here. A bad GM is a bad GM whether he’s hiding behind dice or not, and randomization holds as legitimate a role in gathering clues as it does in swinging a sword.

    I also hope that we (as a community) can give the whole “old school” role-playing halcyon nostalgia a rest before I snap and start telling my stories about how we used to LARP walking ten miles up hill through the snow just to get to the dungeon. I was into D&D before there was such a thing as a Player’s Handbook, so I’ve certainly got the right.

  14. #29 Koori says:

    @ frost. That’s pretty much what I wanted to say really. I do not think that playing RPG should be a series of “If I roll 15 we win”. What I wanted to point out is that GM should take the individual skills of characters into consideration when planning next session and figure out some things that characters could come up with. During session hint them about that posibility. If we don’t want the high intelligence or other exceptional skills bo to just numbers that we use during combat GM must help players play their characters.

  15. #28 frost says:

    @ Koori

    I don’t think that Ben is suggesting getting rid of rolls entirely, just that there are many cases when rolling does not help. If something is important for the plot or sounds like a cool idea then it should probably just happen. But for things like swinging a sword in combat or leaping a chasm you should still roll.

    The decision as to if the player succeeds, does not need to be just based on what the players can do. For example, the person that spots the important plot point should usually be the one with the highest spot check – even if you aren’t rolling. If the genius scientist is examining something then they should get more info then the brawny fighter.

    The problem with the “My character is smarter than me, so they should know what to do even if I don’t” line of reasoning is that it can easily take away from the players being involved in the game. I think most folks would think that saying “My character is an expert tactician, so if I make my roll, move me to the best spot on the board” is obviously losing something. The key point is that the characters should be encouraged to be active in deciding what they do and then their success is determined by the skills of the character (with or without a roll) and what is best for the game. Having the players describe what/how they are searching “I think they might have hidden it in this room, and as a thief I’m pretty familiar with how to conceal things, so I’m really paying attention to places where it would be hidden by someone who knew how to hide stuff” is more involved than saying “I rolled a 23 on my spot/search check, what did I find?”.

    When it comes to the player saying “I’m a genius scientist so I’ll whip up a device to invert the tachyon particles….” then the DM should either say “yeah in your lab with your skills that should be pretty easy for you” or have it be a roll. Depending on where the DM feels the task falls in the spectrum from Plot-related-spot-check thru swinging-a-sword-in-combat determines if you need to roll for it. If the cool device is a great way to defeat the monster and this is a good point in the story for it, then why not just say “yes you can do that”. If you think it’s a good thing for the story & game and he wants to do it (that is, if everyone in the game wants it to happen) why risk having him fail the roll and then feel like his scientist is an idiot?

    Also look at the “virtual roll” post: rolling-for-roleplaying-the-virtual-roll as a good “it sounds cool, but I still think it needs a roll” compromise.

  16. #27 Koori says:

    Generally I agree with your article but there is one problem with your thinking. It disables players from playing incredibly/unnaturaly inteligent, observant or wise characters. That way they are only able to play characters as inteligent as the player is and I think that it’s not the point. Everyone wants to play character that is exceptional in some way. I think that in the bigger picture you are good without most of dice rolls but you need to consider skills of your players characters.
    What if they play genious strategist or engineer. In 95% of cases the player is not able to come up with ideas that the character would be able to dish out on daily base. Dice rolls are enabling that. You are GM writing this story. You know that there is a way to stop the next horde of monsters or how to stop the oncomming disaster. Introduce the players to the story but when it comes to genious you need to help them. They are just humans playing characters that are something more than a guy with a bunch of books and dice.

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  18. #25 Blanks says:

    In my next campaign im trying out a new idea:

    Every spot check is a series of difficulties. I will give an example of the party going through a forest and meeting a bear:

    Spot DC -10: You are in a forest (okay joking on this one)
    Spot DC 10: The bear have bloody paws
    Spot DC 15: Thats probably from the dead animal lying behind it, hidden in the underbrush
    Spot DC 30: It looks like it just ate a lot, so it probably isn’t hungry

    The point being that the better the roll, the more information, but the party isn’t excluded from clues with a low roll, the clues just get better.

  19. #24 Greg says:

    Just discovered the site. Awesome!

    I agree that rolling should not replace thinking, and just wanted to point out that GMs got lynched back in the old days, too, when they forgot to think (Well you didn’t SAY that you looked at the floor, and that’s why you didn’t notice the pool of lava….).

    Along with the spot check, I think the game has evolved from “don’t tell them unless they ask” to more of a “tell them everything upfront EXCEPT for this (Spot DC).” In the end, I think the latter premise probably keeps the game moving better.

  20. #23 ben robbins says:

    Justin if you haven’t read it yet take a look at Rolling for Roleplaying: the Virtual Roll. I think that might be the kind of approach you’re talking about.

  21. #22 Justin Alexander says:

    I’m going to suggest a different solution to the same problem that isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario.

    But first, I’m going to draw an analogy with social skills: For a long time I disliked the idea of social skills. “If you can do it (i.e. roleplay it), why are you rolling dice?” But I’ve since come to realize that the correct application of social skills is actually advantageous because it removes arbitrary decision points.

    One of the things I love about playing RPGs is when unexpected surprises spontaneously emerge out of gameplay.

    So if the PCs lie to an NPC I have a decision to make: Does he believe it? Without a social skill, I have to either say “yes” or “no”. But if I add a Bluff skill to the game, I can suddenly say “maybe” and see what happens. Even more importantly I can vary the likelihood of the lie being believed depending on how believable the lie was.

    Rather than closing down social interactions, it opens them up: Players become engaged with the game as they try to figure out how to use their skills to their best advantage.

    Now, let me bring this back to Spot and Search checks: I vary the difficulty of the check by what the player tells me they’re doing. Is there a bit of writing carved into the lower lip of a desk? That’s difficult to notice if you’re searching the entire room, but far more likely to be noticed if you’re focusing your search on the desk itself and will almost certainly be noticed if you tell me that you’re specifically looking at the underside of the desk.

    Perhaps the most common example of this is the infamous “I look up” instruction that happens whenever they get ambushed by something dropping down on top of them. But just because they’re looking up doesn’t necessarily mean the pirates should spot the ninja lurking in the shadows there — maybe the ninja is just that good at hiding. So, when you give me that instruction, you get a bonus for spotting things on the ceiling… but suffer a penalty to noticing things anywhere else.

    This type of mechanical differentiation encourages the same type of proactive play that you’re advocating; but it doesn’t discard the advantages of using mechanics, either.

    As for the example of a scenario falling apart because the PCs don’t notice one particular clue… well, that’s just as likely to happen without Spot checks. One solution is to make sure you always give them all the clues, but I find a better solution is the Three Clue Rule.

  22. #21 cr0m says:

    @Don re: Gather Information. How about giving the players the info, but a failed roll means their opponents find out they’ve been asking questions?

  23. #20 higgins says:

    Well, I for one use perception rolls to determine the amount or degree of information immidately gained. Failed perception roll still can mean one sees the banner and if the player asks questions, I will provide the answers for her. Rolling 3 successes on a perception roll for example, means that the character will not only notice the banner but some other detail as well, like the army not having a camp of followers, which is rather odd.

  24. #19 Mike says:

    I’ve found myself doing this, noticing it and remembering the old days before such rolls… and now I come here and it’s all laid out for me. Cool stuff!

  25. #18 Syrsuro (Carl) says:

    I am going to take an opposing view. Sort of.

    I like the spot check. But I also think that I use it differently than was described above.

    And for the record – my old school creds are as good as anyones. :)

    I see spot as immensely useful. When used properly (imho, oc).

    First of all – the purpse of spot is to see things that are HIDDEN. “The spot skill is used primarily to detect characters or creatures who are hiding” – PHB p. 83.

    It is not to determine the color of a tribes banners. Unless those banners are disguised or hidden.

    It is not to determine whether or not there is anything interesting in a dungeon pool. Unless something is hidden in that pool (and not all that is interesting is hidden, nor is all that is hidden interesting). In the above example, neither the fish, nor the stone formations were hidden. Although perhaps a knowledge check might have revealed something about one or the other. In which case – the DC is set by whether the DM wants the PCs to have the information (low), or feels that it would give them an advantage but is not essential (higher).

    Thus – if it is information that the players are SUPPOSED to know – you tell them (although using old school techniques like providing leading descriptions and reserving details and significance for those who investigate them is strongly encouraged).

    Spot checks, on the other hand, reveal things that you “DON’T want them to know”. Or rather, information that would be beneficial for them to know, but which is not going to break the game if they don’t, Knowing that there is a snake curled up on the path ahead of the party, or that two orcs lie in ambush ahead of them might give them an advantage compared to what would occur if they failed the spot check. But failing that spot check merely changes the condition of the encounter. Being able to read someone’s lips or notice something unusual about your opponent might give you an advantage. But if the information is information that you WANT the players to have, you shouldn’t be designing a skill check as they only way to get it.

    Any more than you should be placing climb checks, lock pick checks, or ANY other check between the players and the only way for the party to succeed.

    Spot checks are not the problem. Mis-using them as a replacement for DM description and PC roleplaying is the problem.


  26. #17 Troy says:

    I think an obvious choice would be to drop rolls for uncontested skill checks or non-combat situations. That get rid of the cops-and-robbers arguement of who shot who, and keeps teh CalvinBall to a minimum. This is not to say that the GM should just give out all the info just because the characters enter the room. But if they ask reasonable questions or look in the right places, give them the reward.

  27. #16 Camilla says:

    What a lot of sense!!!

  28. #15 docred says:

    Wow….never been called a primitive gamer….lol….I guess I would be one of those people who played by the 1st edition rules way back in the eighties. We did move partially to second edition system when it came out, but before long the annoyances of real life mostly put an end to our regular gaming, so I’m not particularly familiar with the newer edition and what has been happening in the past few years.
    I would agree with some of the comments here. There were many ‘holes’ and oddities we found in the original rules, and most of the time, our response was to make up our own rules regarding these situations, as I think Gygax and company intended for people to do. We tried not to ‘mechanize’ our solutions too much, attempting to bring the roleplaying aspect to the forefront in our solutions if possible. I think that it often depends on a players character and how attuned the DM is/was to those characters. If you play your character headstrong and impatient, perhaps they will not notice as much as they could, or should. A character that you normally play in a more deductive fashion, who takes note of details, etc, may be granted more leeway by the DM, and perhaps given a nudge or an extra emphasis on some descriptions to try and stimulate their ‘normal’ attention to details. I guess the methods are as varied as the people who play the games.

    On another note, there was a perception attribute introduced in the 1st edition rules – I believe it originally appeared in Dragon Magazine (not sure of the issue, might have it somewhere still), and I’m pretty sure it was then included in Unearthed Arcana when it was released. The perception attribute sounds like the precursor to the spot roll you are mentioning above. When we incorporated it into our games, we ran into the same issue…one DM would rely heavily on it, to the point you didn’t have to think, just roll. The other DM followed a more balanced approach, using the perception roll occasionally, working with it dependent on circumstances.

  29. #14 Essecks says:

    I can understand where you’re coming from, but I have to disagree at least a little… or at least to add a qualifier. The problem with just asking for more details and dictating your character’s actions based on the ensuing descriptions is that what your character sees and does is based off your own personal insight as a player. If your character’s stats dictate that he is MORE perceptive than you as a player, you’re not doing your character justice by limiting his success/failure to your own. The same holds true when taken in reverse, although then you’re getting into questions of poor roleplaying and metagaming.

  30. #13 Sean says:

    Roll the dice anyway – make them wonder if they missed anything :-)

  31. #12 Paul says:

    I don’t believe that the mechanic is there to dumb down the game play. I think it is there to speed up play. If you play at conventions you have a time limit to the game you are playing and taking an hour trying to figure out something in a room is not an option when you only have 4 hours to finish. If you are playing a home game then don’t use it because you should have plenty of time. If your time is limited then roll once and move on to the next room.

  32. #11 Don says:

    I like how you compare D&D today with “old school” and I agree that the new rules do leave out a lot of role-playing opportunities. Case in point, 10 years ago or so I ran my players through the Slave Lords module using 1st Edition rules. Now I’m running an almost entirely new group (my wife ran through the original) through the same module that has been converted to 3.5. We’re just about ready to go into Highport to gather information. I haven’t decided yet where to draw the line between role-playing to get the information or allowing “Information Gathering” rolls.

  33. #10 JD says:

    @Nanja Kang: Secret doors and traps come under Search skill, which covers things you’re actively looking around for, as opposed to things you notice. Without a Spot skill, how do you objectively determine a player or creature’s ability to notice someone sneaking up on him? How do you model a character who has especially good senses and will automatically notice an ambush, or similarly, a monster who is more or less likely to spot a hiding PC?

  34. #9 Nanja Kang says:

    I like the article, and I agree. I think the spot check should have been ONLY for secret doors and traps, or something like that. For example, if I want an assassin to sneak up on the group I am DM’ing the players can always call me out and say they should have been entitled a spot check. The entry in the PHB 3.5 says that it is used to counter the hide check. Maybe it is just the evolution of the rules, maybe the skill system is too complex or even better, vague. Conditional modifiers aside pg. 83 in the Spot entry under subheading “Action” rightly screws every rogue character ever… unless the DM is rolling all of the dice. (Meta-gaming)
    The game should be getting simpler but it can’t. Players are just getting crazier in these games, myself included.

  35. #8 Marty Lund says:

    This was a very thoughtful article.

    The opportunity to use player ideas, observations, and intuition to allow themselves greater interaction with the game world is something that shouldn’t be squandered.

    My only caveat is that sometimes Role Playing can take a back seat to pure Gaming if you don’t pay the necessary heed to the ~ characters ~. Spot, Listen, and Search modifiers come up in reflecting an aspect of a character – eagle eyes and sharp ears. The Investigator or Scout should pick up a higher percentage of the more subtle observations the party makes upon entering a particular scene.

    Now, that shouldn’t always come down to rolls either. Simple modifiers and a passive “Take 10” could be applied to get an idea of just which character should be the one that is first to notice that, say, one volume of the encyclopedia is missing from the bookshelf in the drawing room they have just entered – leaving an obvious gap. Sometimes just deciding who picks up the first clue or hint in a situation is enough to let a character shine, even if it isn’t a true “challenge” event.

    – Marty Lund

  36. […] Don’t Roll, Think: In this ars ludi post, Ben Robbins proposes ditching spot checks in non-combat situations, and […]

  37. #6 JD says:

    A lot of the dice in D&D are there to base the game on fair, uncaring chance instead of DM fiat. You have a 50% chance to notice something / spin a convincing lie / intimidate someone, unless you’re skilled at it, in which case your chances improve. Certainly, the idea here in the third edition rules is not “can it be done at the table”, but “can it be done fairly using dice”?

    Some DMs think that a good flavour (specifying where to look, coming up with an amusing lie) should only grant a bonus to your dice roll, sometimes as low as +2. This works fine — if you’re running for eleven year olds who can’t trust the arbitrariness of a DM judging everything.

    My own method is to allow both skill checks and specific requests. Suppose there’s treasure hidden in the fireplace. You can find it with a DC17 Search check, but if you specifically say “I search the fireplace” there’s no reason why you wouldn’t find it immediately. Similarly, a sufficiently good argument will negate the need for a Diplomacy roll.

  38. #5 BluJai says:

    Beautiful post! Please keep up the inspiring posts, I enjoy them throughly!

  39. #4 David says:

    I am leaning toward instituting a Take – 0 mechanic and lowering a lot of challenges or contests. I agree that dice rolling can get carried away, and I find that cross class skills are virtually worthless. Lower DCs might mitigate min/maxing and make cross class skills useful some of the time, promoting cross training. I like to save dice rolling for combat and surprises… most other skills I prefer to Take (0, 10, 20) as appropriate and subject to limitations of the circumstance. A player can insist on rolling, but with lower DCs, success is not so time consuming… if a player really wants to succeed at a critical point in the adventure, Take 20 can cut to the chase so to speak.

    Here are the telltale phrases I use to determine which Take to use:
    Casual effort – Take 0 (noticing things on the fly, jumping short distances, hearing things while sleeping, etc…)
    Normal Effort – Take 10 (not able to use in combat unless hero has skill mastery and time to use skill)
    Careful effort – Take 20 (the best a hero can do, but constrained by time, the hazards of failure and the ability to concentration)

    For example – A gated paddock chained close with a simple lock can be opened casually by a high level rogue, or through normal effort by a high level Ranger with open locks ranks.

  40. #3 JADettman says:

    That’s a slippery slope that your advocating here. If gamers start ignoring Spot rolls, soon they ignore other parts of the system, and eventually they are all playing diceless games!

    Crazy! ;)

    Seriously, though, I totally agree with what you’re saying here. Too often a GM can fall back on the rationalization that “if the PCs had only made their X check then the adventure would have gone much better for them.”

    The crux of a gaming session should never boil down to chance.

  41. #2 Dylan Zimmerman says:

    Stuff like this is why I keep coming back to your site. You have a keen eye for what’s either lacking or unnecessary, and thankfully you don’t pull any punches.

    I will testify to the spot roll being an annoyance. It has happened before, to me, that when a player entered the room with an important piece of information (Spot DC 15!), the player rolled a natural one and the character stared at his shoes.

    So I arbitrarily decided to give them the information anyway. It felt oddly liberating. The only problem, I find, with doing away with the roll entirely is that players like to roll dice. They like it a lot.

  42. #1 Chris says:

    I believe I’ve heard a quote somewhere that goes like this:
    “Say yes or roll the dice.”

    If a player requests information, give it to them (Say Yes), unless there’s a genuine conflict involved, or failure makes things more interesting (Roll the Dice).

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