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Meta-Gaming the Skill Check

One relatively common question from new DMs/GMs goes something like this: “How often should players be rolling a perception check?” or, put another way, How many times do you allow PCs to search for something?” or, put yet another way, If one player rolls low on their perception check, should you allow every other player to roll perception as well? What a DM or GM does in their game is up to them, but here is my answer to these questions…

Case 1: Player rolls low on their perception/search check and wants to try again:

In the case of one PC spending time doing something over and over… Often what I do is ask the player how long they want to look for something… “How long do you want to spend doing that?” is a completely valid question and it makes them think about how much time they are spending. It allows them to specify a time and then make one single roll. If they roll poorly and then say, “That roll sucked, I want to watch/look/be attentive for a while longer” I don’t give them another roll, I simply tell them they learn no new information. Why don’t I let them try again? Because the fact is, if I let the player keep rolling a check they will eventually roll high enough to pass the check. If that is the case, what is the point of even rolling? That’s why they only get one roll. If the circumstances change, then I may give them another roll, but the circumstances have changed, so it is a new roll, not a repeat of the old one.

Case 2: One player rolls low and another player now wants to attempt the same action:

Most of the time I do not allow the second PC to attempt the action. For example, Player 1 rolls a perception check for listening at a door – they roll poorly and I tell them they don’t hear anything – the player of PC2 hears/sees this interaction and says I’ll listen at the door” and I do not allow that. I don’t even call for a roll from the 2nd player. If they wanted to assist with the task, they could have assisted with the task and given the 1st PC advantage on the roll (in D&D 5e; in a different system the bonus would be different). Since they didn’t attempt to help before the low roll, player 1’s roll stands and they don’t hear anything. (Note that, as described in case 1, if I let every player roll to listen, chances are one of them is eventually going to roll very high, so what’s the point in rolling? What if they need the info?)

Case 2 addendum: The party NEEDS the information

If it is a case where the party needs to hear something or get some clue to move along in the adventure, instead of having the first roll be a complete failure, I give them the info but it has consequences attached, usually one of the following:
1) The information is incomplete
2) They don’t understand the information (it’s in the wrong language or too muffled or something), but they know something is in the room
3) Incorrect/misleading information is overheard
4) They make noise and it gets the attention of their enemies, or some such other consequence

That makes it so that the roll was still meaningful, but a failure doesn’t rob them of some important information.

Watch out! I try to never put them into a situation in which they must succeed at a single roll in order to continue the adventure – watch out for this, it is extremely frustrating for the players, but is relatively common amongst new DMs and is written into many published adventures for a multitude of systems – if you are running a published adventure, be sure to look for this sort of thing baked into the text and adjust your game accordingly. In terms of information during an adventure, a general guideline is that the party should always be given the most basic information needed to succeed at the mission – no roll needed. If the party can fail to get information that is necessary to complete an adventure then you may as well end the game and start a different adventure.

On Teamwork and Skill Niches: Also note that a collateral benefit of only allowing a single roll (as in cases 1 & 2 above) causes the players to attempt more teamwork. It also usually causes them to have the guy with the best perception be the lookout, the best investigation search for clues, the best stealth sneak around, etc. In other words, it allows the PCs to occupy niches in which they are incredibly skilled and allows everyone to shine without allowing every PC to roll to attempt a task. It also allows for the occasional failure brought on by the randomness of dice, which is a fun part of the game.

Another Method – Describing Skill Use

I often find it instructive to find out how the player thinks their PC is using the skill. One of the things that I do is ask the players to describe how they are completing the task. In other words, what are they doing that warrants a perception roll? What are they doing that warrants an investigation roll? What are they looking for? How are they looking? Ask them for details – that is part of role-playing their characters… are they simply keeping an eye out? Or are they riffling through the desk drawers looking for something that looks out of place? Are they searching the wardrobe, or are they taking down all the robes and checking every pocket?

If you ask them to describe what they are actually doing in more details than “I’m searching the room” they will get better at telling you what they are doing and it will be easier for you to adjudicate/resolve their actions. Some would say that they would become better role-players by doing so. They will also feel more successful when they do find something because then they will have worked a tiny bit for it rather than just simply rolling a 15 on the d20.

This doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of the players though – as the DM/GM, you should also hone your skills at describing things to the players. You should be giving them clues as to what they should look for or what parts of their environment are different from the others or special in some way. This will let the players know that they should be looking at those areas more carefully. Sometimes they will find things and sometimes they won’t.

Meta-gaming Skill Checks 

Here is an example from my D&D 5e game last week. The party is in a temple and have entered a room with several sarcophagi. At each end of the 4 sarcophagi are skeletons – each holding an ornate (gold and jewel encrusted) mace. The maces are probably ceremonial in nature and probably worth a lot of money. I described the scene to the players and their PCs walked into the room ready for the skeletons to animate. As they did so, the skeletons did, indeed, animate and a previously unseen skeleton arose from the sarcophagus in the middle of the room. This one was obviously the boss and was also holding an ornate mace. As it stood up it pointed to the PCs and the skeletons attacked. The PCs made short work of the skeletons.

At the end of the battle PC1 searched the inside of the sarcophagus in the middle of a room (from which the boss skeleton arose). The player rolled a 3 on his perception check to search. The player of PC2 saw the roll and said, “Can I search the sarcophagus too?” and I said no. This is the same reason I don’t allow two different PCs to listen at the door – now, I should clarify – if they both say they want to listen or search or whatever before anyone rolls then I let them all do it. If they say they want to search after a low roll, then I say no. The difference seems slight but is important to me.

Here is what I said to my players after after the game yesterday. If PC1 had sighed exasperatingly and said, in character, “I can’t believe this! This is the main skeleton’s tomb, but there is nothing here! I can’t believe it… Liam, help me search for secret compartments.” Or something of the sort, then I would have let the player of PC2 (named Liam) roll a perception check if Liam responded to PC1 that he also thought it strange that nothing special was in the tomb. In that way, the roll would be connected to role-playing and the personality/thoughts of the PCs instead of a meta-game decision that someone else should search because the player of PC1 rolled a 3 instead of a 15. But won’t they do that every time now? Maybe, but chances are that they won’t – it will get old way too fast for them to use it as a crutch.

Passive Skill Use

Note that, until now, I have not mentioned passive skill checks in any part of this post. The simple reason for that is I don’t like them very much. My players like to roll dice and I like to roll dice and we roll right out in the open where everyone can see and participate in the drama brought on by the roll. I won’t say I never use passive skill checks, but it is very rare at my table. While I do not address them in this post, I do know that the answer to these questions, at least for some DMs/GMs, is to use passive skills to resolve the issue. That’s awesome if it works for you and I am not suggesting it’s the wrong way to do things. I just don’t do it at my table.

Passive perception is for the DM to use when the PCs are not actively looking for something – their passive score tells the DM whether or not they see/hear/smell/sense something. Walking by a secret door when they did not actively search that wall – does anyone notice? A small hidden compartment at the bottom of the drawer – does the PC emptying the drawer of its jewelry notice the compartment if he didn’t actively search the drawer? This is what passive perception is used for. I would call for a roll from the players, but some DMs would just use the passive scores. Different strokes for different folks and all that…

I hope you have enjoyed this article. Let me know how you use skills in your game. Do you have a situation in which my way of doing it wouldn’t work? Tell me about it in the comments.

Until next time, I wish you good gaming.



DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

8 Responses to “Meta-Gaming the Skill Check”

  • One situation where I really like the Passive perception scores is when monsters(or PCs) hide in combat. They roll stealth, and if it beats a PC’s passive perception, that player starts his turn not knowing where the creature is.

  • Since gaming by internet (g+ hangout and roll20), as DM i decided to completely remove all skill AND saving throws from the player. I’ve set up a macro in roll20 that rolls all skills or all savingthrow for my whole group in ONE CLICK. I glance at the results only i can see and give them my description. The advantages i get from rolling for my players :they absolutely cannot metagame any result and i gain an appreciable amount of gametime NOT waiting after players fishing their bonuses from their sheet. It keeps them in the game. They are not stopping to gaze at their sheet where the inevitable player who just cannot remember ANYTHING takes a bajillion precious seconds of gaming. (sorry for the rant, but it just irks me). So yeah, i did see the benefit with my current players and it keeps the gaming flowing rather than stopping for making someone roll. Oh, a few suggestions comes to mind for face-to-face players. First, always ask who else is doing what before making any skill rolls. That should at least determine who is searching what, so you don’t get the usual “can i search now?” after a fluffed roll. Second, to make things harder for the metagaming, have the players roll 2 to 3 d20s and you decide beforehand which die is the real result. Or just go my route and roll the dice in secret.

  • I agree with your logic on metagaming re-rolls. It’s a matter of motivation. PC 2 exists within the game world, they can’t perceive that the PLAYER of PC 1 rolled low on a skill check – such things are outside of the game world. The realities of Players controlling the PCs, skill checks, and die rolls are literally beyond a PCs awareness, thus PC 2’s Player can not use die roll results as a PC motivation to also perform the skill check. In-game requests from PC to PC are fine as it is roleplaying, creates an in-game motivation, and also creates opportunities for NPCs to notice and react to repeated PC attempts.

    However, I would still guard against real world motivations, but this time from Player 1 as PC 1 is equally unaware of the Players die rolls and thus also requires an in-game reason to ask another PC for help. If PC 1 searches for traps, Player 1 rolls low, and the GM states, “You do not detect any traps”, then neither Players 1 & 2, nor PCs 1 & 2 have any reason to keep searching for a trap. If the PCs otherwise know there should be a trap there, fine, look again, but not because of the real world die rolls.

    A good guiding rule would be, if the roll had been done in secret by the GM and the Player was simply told the result of the PCs action, not the die roll, would there be any justification for any PC or Player to want a re-roll?

    As for passive skill checks, their whole conceptual reason for being in a game is predicated on always functioning in the background. If the GM disagrees with this, then they have to either quantify that objection in concrete terms by creating per skill lists of circumstances when to disallow passive checks, or simply strike that feature from the game system they are using.

  • @Abelfish – that is a good reason to use passive perception. Since I don’t use passive skill rolls at all, I just call for a preception check from everyone and anyone that beats the stealth of the creatures gets a hint that something might be there.

  • @Francois – yes, that is a great way to handle it in online games. I find those to be a different experience to face to face games… In the past (and I haven’t run a game online in over a year) I have used passive checks and secret rolls during my online games. I guess because no one is rolling real dice (just electronic ones) I don’t feel like I am robbing my players of the opportunity to roll when I make passive checks. For me I guess at least part of it is the tactile experience of rolling the dice that I don’t want to take away from the players, so at the table, face to face, I want them rolling as much as possible. But online, I just roll and move on since the tactile experience doesn’t exist in that format anyway.

    Part of that is also distraction factor – the more I stop the online game to have people roll, the more likely everyone else will get distracted by the multitude of things at their desk in their house. Instead of picking up a couple of dice and rolling where everyone can see, everyone is just waiting for the player to find the right macro/button/combination/whatever… it breaks the flow for me more than in a face to face game.

    Still, I get the feeling that I use passive checks (even in my online games) way way less than others.

  • @Spiralbound Agreed. In games where I don’t use passive checks (i.e. all my face to face games) I don’t use any passive checks at all, so, as you put it, I simply struck that feature from the game.

    Interestingly, in this particular group I have given them the opportunity to “take ten” several times – in situations in which they have all the time they want and no pressing matters. No one ever takes the ten – they like rolling dice. That sounds unrelated on first blush, but it is actually connected to passive skills because a passive skill check is basically taking a ten without realizing it and having the DM roll.

    Great discussion everyone – keep it up!

  • Question about case 1: if they can specify a time, why would they specify a long period of time? Or rather, what difference would it make? Would you make it have a higher or lower DC in response?

  • @mAc Chaos – that is a good question. Honestly, it depends on the situation. If they are taking their time in attempting a task, then yes, I usually adjust the DC down. It makes sense to me and that is what I usually do. However, if they say they want to take a ton of time and they are in a dangerous place, I get a chance to tell them there may be consequences to taking a long time and I give them the opportunity to adjust the amount of time they spend.

    Here’s an example with two different outcomes: PC1 is looking for traps and wants to spend a long time doing so.
    Case 1: I lower the DC if the trap is relatively easy to spot because they are taking enough time to spot it. Alternatively, I could just grant them a success without rolling, but as I said in the article, my players like to roll, so I probably wouldn’t do that.
    Case 2: It is supposed to be an especially difficult trap to find and is well camouflaged. Because of that I won’t lower the DC, but the consequences for failing the roll would be different. If they failed the roll I let them find the trap because they spent so much time, but they took so long that they were spotted by a roving ogre who attacks or sounds an alarm. Alternatively, one time the group was so focused on finding something that I had a bandit creep into the hall and steal a few GP from the coin purse of the PC. (The group did get a chance to spot the bandit)