How many times do you have more fun at the table because you don’t do something interesting?
When framed like that question, the answer is obvious – almost never. If there’s something interesting to do, generally you want to do it! But there is an insidious leftover of game design that has infected modern editions of D&D and many other games besides, and that’s what I’d like to discuss today. That leftover – the knowledge check – is baggage you don’t have to carry.
Let me clear in my thesis, however – I don’t argue that every single knowledge check is bad. Many knowledge checks have narratively appropriate consequences, and the tension gained from making the roll is well-used. If the scenario is equally interesting regardless of the roll’s success, then by all means, ask for the knowledge roll – I certainly do. But if one outcome (success or failure) is far more interesting, then why introduce an element of chance? I try to avoid gating the fun of the game behind random rolls – and if players are going to have way more fun by gaining the knowledge, why would I want to deprive them of that?
So let’s stage a scenario. Say that the party wizard finds a weird altar in a ziggurat the party is exploring. The altar is a relic of the mages who built this ziggurat – specifically, they would imbue the sapphire crystals mined below the ziggurat with arcane energy, then split them upon the altar, letting the energy crackle around the round and through their bodies. It was a right of initiation for their magical order, and it is required to open the secret doors hidden along the walls.
Upon finding this altar, its obviously magical nature leads the wizard to investigate it. They’re trained not to ask or rolls directly, but they describe an examination that warrants an Arcana check. There are two outcomes –
1: They fail the check and do not learn about the altar, and
2. They succeed, and do learn.
Now which of these is more fun? I think most people find the second more fun – it lends forward momentum to the story, it empowers the wizard by letting their arcane mastery be effectual, and it teaches the players things about the world, in a show-don’t-tell manner. So why do we have them roll at all? If a GM could accomplish all those effects at-will, why would they choose not to?
Some people feel that this is a balance concern – the concept that, in order for the game to be fair, there has to be a chance of failure. But balance doesn’t have to be applied evenly across the board. Yes, conflict is required for a good story, and yes the uncertainty of the dice is a key part of suspenseful conflict, but there are many instances where we presume success in other scenarios.
For example, players won’t be able to fail to find lodging in a typical town. Letting them fail here would add conflict and uncertainty, but it is a matter of fun before anything else, and unless the story specifically calls for a scarcity of lodging, why introduce it? Why waste table time and mental energy on meaningless setbacks – if the players are just going to sleep successfully in a barn’s loft instead, it is really worth making them roll for lodging in the first place? The answer is obviously no. If the GM wants to establish a tone by having the inns packed and the barn loft the only option, again, why have them roll? This logic holds true for knowledge checks, in my experience.
There is another, related issue, that I already discussed in my breakdown of why skill checks suck. Basically, the d20 is swingy and it feels awful to notice that. Whenever a player notices that their success is usually out of their hands, its a slap in their character’s face. Investing in something for it not to matter feels awkward, but is embarrassingly prevalent. The +5 Arcana of the wizard, the +7 Stealth rogue – they still fail the checks they’re specialized in with some regularity. Similarly, the 8 DEX, 8 INT fighter in heavy armor will occasionally succeed such checks, which is hilarious the first few times then increasingly troubling. The fighter realizes, at some point, that they are caught in the jaws of chance – their character’s flaws aren’t relevant.
Of course, the modifiers do influence the results in many cases as well – calling for some rolls do allow character specialization to be relevant – but if the scene demands a success (or failure) to be narratively satisfying, then calling for a roll only allows the capricious die to spoil your player’s fun.
To return to the altar, here are some possible scenarios, with my explanations for why I would or wouldn’t ask for a roll. You can see the line of my reasoning; if both options are interesting and fun, roll. Otherwise, don’t.
- The altar reveals secret doors that contain only treasure. No roll – not finding the treasure is boring, and asking to examine the altar and being rewarded in return is interesting.
- The party doesn’t contain a wizard, and the secret rooms have skeletons in them and progression forwards. No roll – they can’t puzzle out the altar’s usage no matter what. It is more interesting to fail, and have to either hear the creaking bones or puzzle out the solution some other way.
- The secret rooms contain screaming prisoners who are about to be electrocuted. Roll. Tension and uncertainty have meaning here – both success and failure are interesting.
- The altar has hieroglyphics around the edge that show the process used in its magic. No roll. Describe the glyphs and let players figure it out – succeeding because you used your human brain is more fun than succeeding because the pointy numbered thing said so.
- The altar explodes if the ritual is done incorrectly. Roll. Either option is interesting – success is a huge feather in the wizard’s cap, and failure has serious consequences. This roll will shape the story, and in interesting ways.
- The altar lets out a puff of smoke if the ritual is done incorrectly. No roll. Which players will actually have more fun if you let them do the ritual incorrectly and produce a puff of smoke? If you have those players, make them do it incorrectly – you literally just identified that they’d have more fun that way.
- The ritual can be done in different ways to open different secret rooms. Roll – success means that after doing it once, I’ll clue them in that it could be done differently (and make them describe what they change, not just reroll). This one is a borderline case to me because failure means that they miss out on interesting content, but smart players might still infer the existence of other doors (especially if I do good room layout) and that realization is worth the effort.
Even if you disagree with my maligning of knowledge checks, I hope this has at least made you reconsider how often to call for them. If you want to do something cool – and you’ve created cool content – then why would you gate that opportunity behind randomness. We roll dice to introduce uncertainty – uncertainty of story direction and uncertainty of success. But in many cases, being certain about things can be more interesting – and with knowledge checks, the GM puts that certainty at the whim of the dice.