One thing that separates a really good tabletop RPG campaign head and shoulders above the rest is an engrossing immersion. This effect, the suspension of disbelief, is created by an amalgam of different techniques. A great story and storyteller, dedicated in-character attention, a vivid setting, props, background music, and so much more. There is unfortunately one thing inherent to most tabletop RPGs which detracts from the immersion, its mechanics. At some point someone is going to have to roll a die. Someone is going to need to make a check, roll a saving throw. It breaks the action, it takes your players’ attention from the narrative the group is weaving and returns it to character sheets and dice before them.
Probably the most jarring transition from immersion to mechanics is the odd skill check peppering the narrative. One of the players wants to make a Sense Motive/Insight check on the Baron to see if anything seems suspect about the adventure he is requesting the party attend. In itself the check is not an immersion breaker. A simple insight the game master can provide, it either feels like the Baron is obfuscating the situation or he is being straight with the adventurers. The problem is meta knowledge. The Baron appears to be telling the party the straight skinny but the player who rolled the check rolled a two on his untrained Sense Motive. Suddenly the whole party feels like making a Sense Motive check. D&D 4e attempted to wrestle with this issue somewhat by including passive perception and insight stats. Unfortunately they are useless if the PC doesn’t already have decent bonuses in the skills.
There are also situations when a game master will want to keep success or failure a secret from the players. Imagine which of the below is a more immersive, fulfilling role play experience.
- The party has discovered a false-floor pit trap moments before stepping onto it. The party’s thief rolls a disable device check on the trap to keep it from activating while the party walks over the trap and presses down the narrow hallway. The thief rolls a 17 and with his associated bonuses easily beats the DC to disable the trap. The party continues forward.
- The party has discovered a false-floor pit trap moments before stepping onto it. The party’s thief rolls a disable device check on the trap to keep it from activating while the party walks over the trap and presses down the narrow hallway. The game master makes a roll behind the GM screen with the thief’s associated bonuses. He rolls a 17 and easily beats the DC to disable the trap. The GM tells the thief’s player something along these lines, “after a few minutes of work Bodwin believes he has locked up the trap’s mechanism.” The party continues forward, no problems crossing.
In the second example the thief and the party does not know the actual result of the check. The unknowing is what creates a sense of danger and tension. Each footstep across the trap is tentative. If you’re a particularly sadistic game master consider rolling a d20 when each character steps onto the false-floor trap. Sure you know the trap has been disabled but the players don’t know for sure. This is a great opportunity to play with the degrees of success and failure I’ve covered previously. A thief trained in Disable Device who rolls well above the false-floor trap’s DC would be pretty confident he jammed the trap. Likewise a slim margin of success or failure may leave the character feeling ambiguous about his efforts. Maybe stepping on the false-floor trap is a 50/50 chance it will activate. Test it out, next time you are running a game and the players are conversing a plan, which way to turn at an innocuous T-intersection or something, pick up a random die or two and roll them. Watch heads snap in your direction at the sound of plastic polygons clattering on the table surface unexpectedly.
There is a particular flaw in the play of example 2 above. It takes action away from the player and gives it to the game master. You want players to be in control of their own destiny as much as possible. The failures and successes should be theirs, otherwise you severely limit the players’ agency in the game. They can make decisions but are alien, detached to their implementation. So how do you allow the players to do the rolling, drive their fate, while still removing them from meta-knowledge of a check result. Try 1d6 Secret Checks.
What you need: a list of each PC’s skills and modifiers. Some game masters keep copies of everyone’s updated character sheets, personally I don’t. For this however you will need their skills and modifiers to apply to the raw die rolls.
At the beginning of each game session grab a scrap of paper and have everyone make a d20 roll. Record a series of unmodified d20 rolls for each PC. You can do as many as you like. I would suggest a minimum of four, but recommend six.
How It Plays
Let’s return to the initial example of the Baron explaining the situation to the adventurers. One of the players wants to call a Sense Motive check. No problem, roll 1d6 and check your scrap of paper with the raw rolls. You rolled a 3, move over to the third column and find the PC’s raw roll result. Let’s say it’s a 5. You add his Sense Motive modifier (4) to the result for a total of 9. The Baron is telling the truth for the most part but he is leaving out how he sent two men from his hold to investigate the incident and hasn’t heard back from them. The DC was set at 12. You can tell the player something along these lines ‘you feel the Baron is being honest but vague. You don’t believe he is withholding any critical information.’
Secret checks work well for any situation where success or failure may not be immediately apparent. So if you have problems with players getting a little too meta mix it into your game sessions and see how it works for you. Let me know how it worked out for you in the comments or suggest a topic for me to cover.