Tag Archives: Skills

One Rule to Increase Roleplaying Engagment At Your Table

In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, the idea for this post is not completely my own. It was mentioned in passing on the Dice of Doom podcast many episodes ago, and got my wheels turning. Since then, I have been testing the idea, both with my own group and with all of the tables I judged at Gencon. It works beautifully.

Getting players to go beyond naming off powers and actions in a generic way and move into being more descriptive can oftentimes be a bit like pulling teeth.  Sure, it’s easier to say “I use XYZ” power, or “I’m going to make an athletics check to jump,” but there is something lacking in the story when players don’t participate in the narrative to the same extent as the DM.  That is to say, the story and game are richer when players are as descriptive as possible with their actions. While I don’t think that there is one single rule that can help DMs to increase the level of description that players engage in, I do think that the following rule goes a long way. Continue reading

Could 4d6-3 Be The New d20?

I’ll start by answering my own question.

No, it will never replace the d20, if only because “roll a d20″ is far quicker to say than “roll 4d6 minus 3.” Of course, there are also some good math reasons, as well as player satisfaction reasons that the d20 is here to stay. That’s not to say that 4d6-3 doesn’t have a place in your game, however. I believe there are instances where it can be a viable alternative to a d20 – more on that in a moment. But first, let’s look at the math involved.

After doing some quick math in your head, you should conclude that 4d6-3 will yield a range of numbers from 1 to 21. And obviously, a d20 yields a range of numbers from 1 to 20. However, the mathematical difficulties of 4d6-3 do not stem from that extra number, but rather the probabilities involved with rolling multiple dice versus rolling one die. Below you will see two bar graphs. The one on the top shows the probability of rolling any given number on a d20. As you may already know, the probability of rolling any number is the same – 5%. The graph on the bottom shows the probabilities for 4d6-3. You can see that it is a curve, with its peak at 11. This is a classic bell curve.

Probability for a d20

Probabilities for 4d6-3

(Special thanks to anydice.com for the graphs)

The fact that the d6’s create a curve (as opposed to the d20’s flat line) is both its selling point and weakness. The d6’s produce less “swingy” results, instead generally giving more “average” results – most of the time you’d roll something between 9 and 13, and VERY rarely a 1 or 21. The weakness shows itself when you add a bonus to the roll. A +1 bonus to a d20 roll increases the chance of success by a flat 5%, every time. With 4d6-3, because you’re moving up (or down) a curve instead of along a line, you’re not getting the same flat increase in probability that you would with a d20. The increase in probability of success would depend upon the target number you’re shooting for, as well as your base bonus to the roll. I’m not going to throw a bunch of math at you, just trust me when I say it’s a headache, and not intuitive, and you’d need a spreadsheet to figure it out. And if THAC0 taught us anything, it’s that no one likes to use a chart when they play D&D. The bottom line is that, with 4d6, a flat +1 can have a different impact on different players. That might be ok in a system that is designed for multiple d6 rolls, but D&D was designed with the d20 mechanic.

On top of the mathematical problems of introducing a bell curve mechanic to a game that was designed for a linear mechanic, we have the issue of player satisfaction. Yes, when we use 4d6-3, rolling tends to be more even. That’s good at first blush, but when we look at the facts, it’s more bad than good. Consider this: with a d20, you’re going to crit (over the long term) 5% of the time. With 4d6-3, you’re going to crit .8% of the time. Even if you open up “crits on a 20 or 21,” your crit percentage is still far below 5%, at only .39% – less than 1% of the time! And let’s face it, critting is FUN. So, yes, you’re not going to miss as often, but you’re also giving up the rush you get when you roll a natural 20. That’s a tradeoff I don’t think a lot of people are willing to make.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I feel that there can be a place for the 4d6-3 mechanic at your table. I absolutely do not believe that it should be used in combat. The bonuses and penalties thrown around like candy in your average combat situation would wreak havoc. Plus, you’d almost never crit. So, when should you use it? For skill checks, of course! Here are four ways you could try using 4d6-3 in place of your d20.

To replace the “Take 10″ mechanic

You could have your players roll 4d6-3 when they would normally take 10 on a skill check. This would yield roughly the same result as taking 10 (most of the time you’d roll pretty close to a 10), but sometimes there would be a great success, or terrible failure. Think of it as a way to add an element of chance to taking 10, but not the same wild chance that you get from rolling a d20.

For trained skill checks only

Think about it: two characters could have the exact same skill bonus, but one’s bonus could be from training in that particular skill, while another’s could be from innate ability (ability score + racial bonus). From a purely “simulationist” standpoint, it doesn’t stand to reason that someone who is trained in something has the same chance of success as someone who just kind of has a “knack.” You would think that a character trained in a skill would perform around the average most of the time due to their training, with the occasional spectacular success or failure. On the other hand, one might expect an even amount of success and failure from a character who was performing a skill out of innate ability – there’s been no training in the finer points of the skill, or pitfalls to watch out for. Let those who have training in a skill roll 4d6-3, and have untrained checks be rolled with a d20 to reflect the difference between someone who is trained at something and someone who is not.

As a DM reward

Instead of handing out +2 to a skill check, why not occasionally give players the option of rolling 4d6-3 instead? This gives the players a decision point (+2 or 4d6-3?), and also gives you something else to hand out besides a +2. While this is like comparing apples to oranges (“+2 to a d20″ is nothing like “+0 bonus to 4d6-3″), it does give the DM another way to spice up what may be “just another skill check.”

For any skill check

You could give players the choice of rolling 4d6-3 for any skill check. Be careful with this one though; as stated before, the game (including skill checks) was built with the d20 in mind. Most players, especially those with decent skill bonuses, would always choose to average 9-13 on every skill check. If you do go this route, it would be wise make the choice more meaningful – the easy solution is to incentivize using the d20. For example, you could add a “crit” mechanic to skill checks for natural 20’s – a character’s “amazingly inspiring, perfect execution” of a skill could give another character +2 or even +4 to their similar skill check, but only if that second character also rolls a d20.

I hope that I have gotten you to consider using this mechanic in your game. It presents a lot to think about, and could really add some spice to the normal d20 roll. It won’t, after all, ever replace the d20, but it’s nice to know there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

Would you ever consider introducing this mechanic to skill checks? Which option would you choose?

The lost art of skill synergy

Those of us who played D&D 3.5, especially the “high skill” classes like rogue and bard,  may remember “skill synergy.”  Skill synergy was a +2 bonus to one skill because you were trained in another skill.  For example, being trained in bluff gave you a +2 skill synergy bonus to diplomacy.  In this specific case, it was assumed that being able to lie made you better in diplomatic situations (“MY but you look lovely tonight!”).  There were a few of these, and if you had enough skill points, it was generally considered a good idea to load up on them whenever possible.

So, now we have 4.0, and no more skill synergy.  It’s an understandable change, since the point system behind skills is different now, and the skill list has been shortened considerably.  To give a blanket +2 to a skill is actually more significant now because there are less skills overall.  That’s fine.  However, I feel that the idea behind the mechanic is sound.  After all, it is easily argued that, for example, being athletic makes you better at certain acrobatic tasks, and being insightful makes you better at lying in certain situations.

It seems to me that all the articles I’ve read about skill challenges (and skill challenges themselves) seem to address the idea of synergy, even if they don’t call it “synergy.”  Giving a bonus to a “primary” skill check because there was a success at a “secondary” skill check is a nod towards the fact that skills do, in fact, interact and help one another towards an ultimate goal.    It’s not quite 3.5 synergy, but it’s close.

I think it’s high time to bring synergy back.  No, not as a house rule, and not as a blanket +2 to a specific skill either.  How would it work?


Next time you’re sent as an ambassador to a king who you have every reason to hate, perhaps you should request the DM to give you a +2 to your diplomacy checks because you’re also trained in bluff.  After all, (you could argue) we hate this guy, but we have to act nice towards him in order for our diplomatic overtures to come off as genuine! (Feel free to quote that word for word – “diplomatic overtures” is the real clincher)

What’s going on there?  Well, you’ve basically requested that the DM use his “best friend” (a +2 to a roll) in a specific situation.  You’ve also shown that you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on, and have defined a relationship between your PC and an NPC.  In other words, you’re thinking about the game, putting yourself into the situation, and being a good role player!  A well thought out, plausible argument as to why there should be a +2 for skill synergy would get that +2 at most tables every time.



To get your players thinking in this direction, they may need a little push.  After all, skill synergy was taken away from them in 4.0.  There is no doubt that they will latch back onto the idea if you show them that, with a little strategic thought about the specifics of a situation, they could have +2 to a skill check.  So, next time you pose a situation wherein a skill check is necessary, keep in mind (or find out) what skills the PCs have.  Then do a little synergistic thinking for them.  “Ok,” you tell one of them, “since you’re trained in endurance, and you’ll be doing this acrobatic performance for the queen for three hours, I’ll give you a +2 to your acrobatics check.”

I believe that this mechanic works best in non-skill challenge situations, since most skill challenges have primary and secondary skill checks already.  As noted above, these secondary skill checks are a type of built in synergy.  For example, if the “acrobatic performance” example above was a skill challenge, the endurance check would probably be a secondary skill that granted a +2 to the primary skill of acrobatics.  There’s also the hybrid “no sudden death” skill challenges where you keep going until you succeed, and cumulative penalties for successive failures.  In that scenario, you’d probably roll endurance alongside acrobatics, and gain acrobatics penalties for endurance failures; it’s the same idea, but moving in the opposite direction.

Using synergy, then, would work best in situations where you’re making a one-shot skill check.  Here are some more ideas, to get the creative juices flowing:

  • You’re looking for information around town regarding the activities of a religious cult (Trained in Religion; +2 Streetwise)
  • You’re observing the interactions amongst one of the oldest and most well known families in the area (Trained in History; +2 Insight)
  • You’re in the middle of the wilderness trying to tend to a poisoned or diseased comrade (Trained in Nature; +2 Heal)
  • You’re trying to scare off a gang of meathead street thugs (Trained in Athletics; +2 Intimidate)
  • You’re talking to a member of the local thieves’ guild (Trained in Bluff or Thievery; +2 Perception or Insight)

So what do you think?  Do we need to bring synergy back?   Can you think of any other “synergistic” scenarios?