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Fun with Failed Skill Checks

During the first session of my solo D&D Next campaign, I received a number of comments and e-mails raising questions about how I was using skill checks and expressing their outcomes. The following should clear matters up.

When I'm running any solo or social RPG, the resolution of a skill check is NEVER a binary decision-making proposition for me. As far as I'm concerned, every action a PC attempts is an opportunity for me to add colorful flourishes that enrich that PC's story and his or her player's gaming experience.

To me, each time a player rolls dice, it is my chance - even my responsibility - as GM to sculpt causality into the most entertaining and intriguing shapes that I can by using the scenario's context and a PC's personality, previous actions, and objectives to inspire me. In essence, it is my job to define failure in the most creative ways possible.

It's also a chance for me to lie to players. Gleefully.

The realization of failure isn't always immediate and obvious. For example, when a player fails a roll to appraise an item, rather than just telling the player that the worth of the object is uncertain, he or she could be led to believe that it's a priceless gem! That's definitely a failed appraisal! The player won't know the object is barely worth a copper piece until another character proves it later.

Save the flat responses for when game time is at a premium and, whenever possible, GMs should give the players a "round" response that's more appropriate to their characters and more fun, despite occasionally being less than truthful.

Example time:
A thief checks for traps; the roll fails, and there is, indeed, a trap present.
Flat response: "You didn't find any traps."
Round response: "You found one, but it isn't armed."
Checking for traps doesn't just have to be about finding or not finding a trap; it could also be about reading a trap's mechanisms inaccurately when one is found. A subtle difference, but the second response would be excellent to use especially on a character who has been played as a bit of a braggart.

A fighter tries to talk his way past a guard into a secure location; the roll fails.
Flat response: "The guard won't let you in."
Round response: "The guard will let you in, but insists on escorting you the whole time."
Despite being let in, this is not a success for the fighter while there is still a guard breathing down his neck.

An artisan tries to make jewelry to sell; the roll fails.
Flat response: "You made the jewelry, but it isn't very good and won't sell."
Round response: "You made the jewelry, and it looks beautiful!"
In this case, the artisan doesn't have to be aware of his failure until another PC or NPC looks at the item and declares how ugly it looks. Remember, some people lack the selfawareness to realize how poor their skills really are!

A wizard tries to bluff a sorcerer; the roll fails, and the sorcerer gets wise to the ruse.
Flat response: "He doesn't believe you and won't help."
Round response: "He believes you and goes excessively out of his way to help."
The "excessive" help is an obvious red flag that the sorcerer is almost certainly on to the PCs and is up to something. The bluff failed, but that doesn't mean the target of the bluff has to be honest about it. Now, do the PCs try to work with this, or are they courting even more danger by getting involved with a sneaky sorcerer?

There is a lot of fun to be had when you redefine failure for effect!

So, during "L'amore tra i mostri," whenever I describe a character trying anything, it's almost always a skill check. The successes will be pretty obvious, but the failures will be much more creative and as smoothly integrated into the narrative as I can make them. In real life, we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, so I enjoy highlighting character failures for the growth opportunity. 

Ultimately, what does all of this mean for the solo player? It hopefully illuminates the possibilities that can come from incorporating skill tests into a solo session. Succeeding or failing a skill roll doesn't limit your game to two interpretations of what has just happened to a character. There's a palette of colorful outcomes available for your creative consideration, not just black and white, so embrace a character's failures as opportunities to do things with the adventure that even you didn't expect!

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