Building the Story with Dice Rolls

Remnants of the black half-dragon’s acidic breath fade from the air as Qoyish attempts to mount his injured shadow wyvern. If she succeeds, she’ll be able to stab the beast where his wounds are already dire. If she fails, she risks falling directly under the wyvern’s venomous stinger that drips black venom. And if she truly stumbles, the wyvern might immediately lurch at the already hurt ice elf, leading to her demise.

As the debate with the human lord grows more and more heated at the grand feasting table, a minotaur rebukes him with a firm statement. If his words land, the lord will cow to their demands. If they fall flat, he might order his dragonborn guards to carry them to the dungeons below his keep. If they sting the lord’s fragile ego, he could order the party’s death on the spot.

Hearing his water nymph companion’s call for help down the tiny passage, a minotaur forces himself into the hole. If he succeeds, he’ll squeeze through the stone, sahuagin corpse, and sharp spike trap. If he fails, he’ll cut himself on the spikes and reach his companion far more slowly. But if his strength and dexterity completely fail him, he’ll be a big cow caught in a small hole.

Last week, I read an article written over at Improved Initiative that caught my attention. It discussed the concept of failing forward which is incredibly important in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. In a pinch, failing forward means that even if a PC fails a check, especially a skill check, something still happens. Sure, if a half-orc fighter bashes down a wooden door with a successful Athletics check, it’s self explanatory, but what happens if she fails? Do you have an alternative besides letting the door remain intact? Do you have multiple scenarios? If not, this article might help with that.

The goal of this article is to get you in the mindset of setting up multiple reactions to your PCs rolls. They might not always be mechanical; in fact, most of the time they won’t be. Instead, they’ll progress the story, ensuring the engagement doesn’t go down as the half-orc tries to bash the door down again and again with her metal shield or just-as-hard fists. At the same time, you need to be cognizant of the fact that sometimes you need to let the PCs try other plans. Let’s roll.

The General Mindset

Failed rolls don’t need to just fail. Repeat that to yourself. As you think, understand that this is a hard mindset to grasp. The process will take weeks and even months, but it’s worth it in the end. Eventually, when you ask for a roll from a player, you should know a few of its implications. A skill or ability check can succeed and fail at varying degrees. A missed attack might garner some information about an opponent. Rolls need to mean something; you should never ask a player to roll if it’s not necessary. Memorize this and you’ll be golden brown after practicing it for an adventure or two. After that, you’ll steadily improve, think up new ideas, and build your story from the most basic of D&D blocks.

Skill Checks

When you ask one of your players to make a skill check, you should lay out different outcomes in your head. Usually, I ponder up four: major failure, failure, success, and major success. Note that I don’t call these critical successes or failures; this is intentional because I don’t play with the house rule that states natural 20’s/1’s cause skill checks to instantly succeed/fail. Each outcome will cause the scenario to play out differently and ensure the story progresses and doesn’t stall. This is the process of failing forward that was discussed in the article I mentioned earlier, with a little more concrete. Let’s look at an example.

A few sessions ago in my Karlith Straits campaign, a water nymph, Na, was trapped by a portcullis in a small passageway; duergar were en route to her. The party’s minotaur cleric, Alovnek, desperately needed to get to her and break down the portcullis. However, the tunnel was quite small plus a spike trap and a sahuagin corpse was in his way. I gave his player the choice of making an Athletics or Acrobatics check to get to the portcullis. For both, I had the following thought out depending on how he described his action:
  1. Major Failure: He gets stuck in the beginning of the tiny tunnel, becoming restrained. This lets the duergar get to his party member before him.
  2. Failure: He squirms his way through the tunnel slowly, but cuts himself on the sharp spike and gets sahuagin blood on his armor.
  3. Success: He progresses through the tunnel without touching the sahuagin corpse or spike and reaches Na before the duergar do.
  4. Major Success: He reaches the end of the tiny tunnel quickly long before the duergar do and uses his momentum to break down the shabby portcullis with his horns.
Each of these outcomes would have drastically changed the story and forthcoming encounter. What if Na was captured by the duergar? Would his cut be the death of him in the duergar combat? Take note that even in failure, Alovnek succeeded somewhat. And even in major failure, Alovnek may not have progressed, but the story did. That’s the key, especially with skill checks: they should always progress the adventure. After a skill check is made, something new should happen. Even if the half-orc doesn’t bash down the door, maybe a patrol of guards passes by, she hears something on the other side of the door, or it splinters, shooting into her eye and making her blind.

Ability Checks

As opposed to skill checks, ability checks are quite black and white; they’re made when your character reacts to something like the electric breath of an ancient blue dragon, the gaze of a medusa, or a mountain dwarf wizard’s hold person spell. Optionally, you can use them to make combat more interesting and to build on to the story, especially in boss battles. What if you fail an ability check by 10 or more, something terrible happens? The blue dragon’s lightning breath causes you to collapse to the ground, writhing in pain. The medusa’s gaze turn you not to stone, but into a statue fighting for her! The dwarf’s hold person spell causes you to drop your weapon! These examples of extra flair aren’t integrated into the rules. Of course, if you’re going to try this out, especially with abilities players can cast like hold person, ensure the players know about the added effects.

Attack Rolls

Combat rolls can tell a story, too. Oftentimes, this is where players begin to roleplay and imagine again. How do you finish off the beholder? Where do you hit the orc chieftain? How do you evade the red dragon’s fiery breath? It’s easy to imagine characters as action heroes, and it’s easy to describe what they look like in your head. I’ve discussed this in a previous article. Ask players to describe their character’s attacks and misses, their kills and defeats. And Dungeon Masters, you do the same. In fact, apply the major failure, failure, success, and major success to combat if you’re up to it.

For example, my party was fighting an island-sized earth elemental in the Astral Plane in my latest Enoach Desert session. I had lots of fun designing that encounter, and knew the characters could pull off some awesome moves on this enormous elemental. When a character hit, depending on the attack roll/damage, they could do the following:
  1. Major Failure: The earth elemental grabs the attacker’s weapon and thrusts it forty feet off the platform or absorbs a missile/spell and regurgitates it onto people standing on the island.
  2. Failure: The attacker’s weapon is stuck in the earth elemental.
  3. Success: The attacker causes one of the throwing boulders to no longer be of use (breaking it, moving it off, causing the earth elemental to pivot, etc).
  4. Major Success: The attacker cracks one of the earth elemental’s limbs off, causing it to topple into the Astral Plane, useless.
Apply this to everything! What does a major failure when facing the fire giant king look like? What about a major success against a pack of hellhounds? Remember I’m not talking about critical hits here; this advice is not in the rules but it’s inside the confines of D&D. Simply put, it’s an interesting way to add flair to your combat encounters and keep building the story during them.

In Summary

Understanding that your PCs don’t always need to succeed on a roll for something to happen is key to running an exciting, beloved game. However, it’s a learned skill; you won’t be able to do this consistently next session, the session after that, or even in a few months. Keep trying. Keep learning. Keep training. And understand that dice can be used for many things.
  1. Remember all rolls in D&D should have reactions, otherwise why roll?
  2. Skill checks should have multiple outcomes that can significantly help, harm, or hinder the PCs based on their actions.
  3. Ability checks are more black and white rules-as-written, but you can design mechanics with varying die rolls in mind. What if the wizard fails his Intelligence save by more than 5?
  4. Failed and successful attack rolls can have a plethora of outcomes other than simply being a hit. Does the sword barely scratch along the armor’s weak point? Does the maul’s mighty blow shatter the ogre’s knee cap?
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, share it on social media, tell your friends about it, or bring up at your next D&D session.

Next time — I promise — will either be an article about my new favorite unused D&D monster or a remix of a loved and hated artifact found in 3.5’s Races of Eberron.

Until then, farewell!

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