Skill Checks: Success by Degree

When I started running a FantasyAGE campaign last year, I spent a lot of time reflecting on how I handle Skill Checks or Tests or whatever the system wants to call them. I know that when I first started DMing, I used a very simple metric:  Pass/Fail.  If the player’s roll met the requirements for passing, they succeeded. If not, they failed. Simple, straightforward, easy.  However, as I’ve spent a few decades playing and running campaigns, I’ve realized that this binary only works well with a few skills:  combat, lock picking, trap disarming are three that come to mind.  Either you hit or not.  Either you pick the lock or not.  Either you disarm the trap or not.  But for most other skills – and, in some cases, even these skills – I’ve come to prefer a more nuanced approach.  Something I’ve taken to calling “Success by Degree”.  This allows players to gain something from a skill test, but not necessarily “succeed” or “fail” completely.  I’ll explain.

How it Works: Success by Degree begins with setting a “Target” number for a skill. If using FantasyAGE, we’ll say the Target Number would be 11.  In a simple binary, anything below 11 would give the player total failure while anything 11 or higher would give the player total success.  However, in Success by Degree, the player gains a “success” based upon his or her roll in relation to the target.  Let me provide an example.  Say the player is examining a strange sigil and chooses to make an Intelligence Test with an Arcane Lore focus (if he or she has that focus), Target Number 11, the results would be as follows:

  • 3-5:  If you learned about this during your studies, you were absent that day, and so you doubt it’s of any significance.
  • 6-8:  You don’t recall learning about this sigil. It may be important or it may be a red herring.
  • 9-10:  You’ve seen the sigil before, but you can’t quite put your finger on where you saw it.
  • 11-12:  You know that this is a spell sigil. From the looks of it, you suspect it is of dark magic.
  • 13-14:  You know that this dark magic sigil hasn’t been used in over 100 years.
  • 15-16:  You know that the sigil was an identity marker for membership in the cult of Parvil Kartberovik.
  • 17+:  Kartberovik was a powerful sorcerer who was driven mad and started a cult of dark wizards whose reign of terror led to the creation of the Holy Inquisition and the near total ban on magic in the Lor’Dran Empire.

Yes, this system proves to be a lot of work for the GM/DM in terms of dividing the information, but it also allows for a greater nuance in narration and involvement.  Instead of simply stating that “You know nothing of this sigil” should a character fail the Intelligence Test, I choose success (and failure) by degree to subtly suggest that, even though the intended result was not accomplished, there may be something there that was missed and that, with more thought and research – when the materials and facilities are available – could be uncovered.

When the player succeeds, I choose to divulge information based on how great a success happened.  If you just barely succeed, you get a basic amount of information. The higher the degree of success, the more information gained.  Yes, the results are cumulative.  Should the player have a critical success (or Stunt, as in the AGE system), I treat it as +1 degree/per 2 Stunt Points.

Dividing success and failure by degree is a great way I’ve found to add nuance to gameplay.  Players start to realize that skills matter.  And yes, I let players know at the start of a campaign that I do this. Most realize that it means they should consider how they spend skill points – or that they might want to focus on things beyond combat skills.  However, there are a few players, usually one in each group, who think that I’m bluffing when I say this.

But more importantly, I really like to use this to add nuance to the narrative.  As I said, when I first started, success meant gaining all the information or accomplishing all the needed task with 100% perfection. Logical, I mean, you succeeded, right?  Well, as I’ve matured as a gamer, as a writer, and as a person, I’ve learned that sometimes, you can’t get everything you set out to get.  Sometimes, you persuade someone, but they’re not as committed to your goal as you hope they are.  Sometimes, you remember something, but you don’t remember all you’ve learned about it.

I’ll admit, this is something I use for social and knowledge skills more than anything.  For social skills, it helps me keep in mind that NPCs have motivations and personalities. Also, when the players are asking questions of tavern patrons or local citizens, it helps add depth to a population – just because you “investigated properly” (succeeded) does not mean that the person you spoke to actually knows anything useful.  They may tell you what they know, sure, but what they know may be incorrect or rumor.  And failure doesn’t mean the person knew nothing.  They may not talk to foreigners, or Dwarves, or Elves, or Orcs, or wizards, or Priests of [Insert Deity Here].  The important thing to remember is that when there is more information to learn about something or more that could be accomplished in a social interaction that you word your response in a way that suggests that more exists.  I cannot stress that point enough – if something is meant to lead to some other discovery in the session, to foreshadow something that will play a part in the campaign, or to be suggestive that another skill roll may be needed in the (immediate, near, or distant) future, be sure that the players are given a sense of it through dialogue.

I’ll be honest, I probably didn’t invent this idea. I probably got it from some published adventure, campaign, or magazine article somewhere. Sadly, I rolled a critical failure on my attempt to remember the source.  However, it’s not something that I see in places like the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and it’s something I wish were included as a way to help new DMs or GMs see how to use skill checks more effectively for storytelling.  And after all, that’s what the game is all about – storytelling.

Role on!