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…”
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.
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…