Degree of Fate: Giving Skill Checks More Substance

With all the debate about Skill Checks swarming the Internet, here is a way for GMs to keep the basic mechanics and intent of a skill check but to give them more meaning and flavor.  By assigning degrees of fate, a GM can determine by just how much a character succeeds, especially if some crucial information hinges on just a few checks. 


GM:  You defeated the spy, and now his unconscious body lay at your feet.
Player:  I loot the body, going through every pocket and feeling the seams of his coat for hidden pockets!
GM:   Give me an investigation check.
Player: <rolls 1>
GM:  You don’t find anything.

Hold up.  The map to the lost treasure is in the spy’s vest pocket, a key piece of information for the entire campaign, and the PC who searched the pockets doing their utmost to be successful… didn’t find it?  Really??? 

Using skill checks in this manner incorrectly determines whether the PC finds the map, but using degree of fate instead determines, for example, the condition of the map when they find it. 


Player: <rolls 1>
GM:  In the spy’s breast pocket, you find a torn and bloody piece of parchment.  Unfolding it, you discover a map, though parts of it are bloodstained, burnt, and slashed from the intense fighting in order to bring him down.  You will need to mend and clean the map before you are able read it.


Player: <rolls nat 20>
GM:  In a secret pouch sewn into the back of the spy’s waistcoat, you find a thin cigar case.  Folded neatly inside and protected from the fight is a map of an unknown valley.  Scribbled in the margin is the word, “Forgotten Palace” with an arrow pointing toward a keep in the northwest section of the map.  You’ve heard of the Forgotten Palace and know it is in a nearby county.

Both the results essentially have the same outcome (the PCs find the map like the campaign requires), but one gives a greater reward depending on the dice roll.  The degree of fate could lie somewhere in between these two extremes, obviously, depending on the dice roll, but ultimately fate grants a different fortune for each degree, as determined by the GM.  Perhaps an 18 still gives them the secret pouch and the cigar case, but the arrow is left off the map.  Perhaps a 5 means the map was in the spy’s boot instead of waistcoat, so there are no holes to mend, though it is still bloody (or vice versa).

As GMs, we should strive to move away from the pass/fail concept of skills and incorporate some sort of degree of success in certain skill checks.

Another example:

GM: <rolls random encounter>  The road winds and come across a small stream that feeds into the main river.  A narrow stone bridge spans the stream.  Near the road, you find a cart which has been ripped apart and overturned, and bodies are scattered around it.  The cart and corpses are soaked with rain and appear to have been there for a while.  They lie just off the road with the bridge just beyond.

Player:  I search the cart for valuables.  <rolls a nat 20>.  Yes!  What do I find???

GM: <checks random encounter table: no treasure specified>  You are confident you find nothing.

Player:  Waste of a nat 20!

Why?  Why waste a natural 20 like that?  Why not reward the player whose degree of fate was exceptionally high. 

GM:  You find a small box inside which is a jeweled pendant on a thin gold chain.  It isn’t ornate, but is a functional piece of jewelry, probably an heirloom among this poor family.  The necklace has three small garnets each worth 10 gp.

So, the player walks away with jewelry worth 30 gp.  Depending on the character’s level, that might be a paltry amount or a small fortune, but it is at least something to give a player who rolled the natural 20.  Had the player rolled, say, a 5, then the GM might be justified in not granting a reward (and get less resistance from the players).

Another great example can be found in the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Indy’s companion gets the idol, drops the whip, and runs through a slowly collapsing door.  Indy leaps across the pit. <rolls low>  Barely makes it across.  Is there something to hold on to?  <rolls high>  Yes!  A vine!  Grab it and pulls himself up.  <rolls low>  The vine gives way and he slips into the pit.  Reaction to catch himself!  <rolls average>  Stops sliding (whew!) then tries again to pull himself out of the pit.  <rolls average>  Is able to get out of the pit.  Runs to the almost closed door.  <rolls high>  Makes it out before it closes.  Wait!  My whip!  Grab it.  <rolls high>  Gets the whip before the door closes.

In this example, Indy doesn’t roll low once only to fall to his death in a seemingly bottomless pit (roll credits).  It isn’t a pass or fail situation, nor does it have to be.  Instead of getting away clear, the low rolls mean he has to spend precious seconds trying new things to get out.  Granted, roll low enough times and the boulder squishes Indy, but the life or death of a character should rarely come down to a single check.

Unless that’s the campaign you are running, of course, then kill all the PCs you can.  Ideally, the save-or-die concept would have been established in Session 0. 

Probably the best result of using the “Degree of Fate” concept is eliminating, “Oh, Bob failed his check?  I’m gonna do the same check.”  That is sooooooo annoying!  Just because Bob didn’t find anything in the ruined wagon doesn’t mean that there is anything to find!!!  Help players understand if there was something important to find—such as the map to the hidden treasure they are looking for—they would find it, but the roll determines how much they have to work for it.  Maybe the roll determines just how much gold is in the ruined wagon.  Maybe the roll helps build the tension in an encounter by providing additional obstacles or means of overcoming obstacles.

Make “Degree of Fate” part of your Session 0 discussion.  Players should understand from the get-go just how much one die roll will play in their character’s success, and that good rolls will be rewarded accordingly.

Try it.  Have some fun with it.