Chad Perrin: SOB

27 September 2009

Passive Skill Checks, Consistency, and Taking 10

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , , — apotheon @ 09:51

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

The night before last, I had a dream that was, I swear, just an excellent Pathfinder RPG session in which the PCs were being pursued by evil NPCs. The imagery of it was as though I was watching the events actually unfold, but the understanding I had in my (unconscious) mind was of player decisions and dice rolls being made, while I was thinking through how to develop the plot. Apparently, I was the GM.

The way things developed was great. It was entertaining, suspenseful, and pretty darned original. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in literature, film, or RPGs. There’s one weird detail that crept in there — as weird as things ever get in dreams — that I’ll surely leave out, but that didn’t really affect the way the game progressed. It’s good enough that I think I’m going to mine it heavily for use in some later campaign, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about what happened here. I don’t want potential future players reading this then, later, getting ideas about what’s going to happen and ruining the suspense.

Passive Checks

What prompted me to write about this here is something that just kinda came naturally in the course of the “game session”; a way to handle passive skill checks that seems strikingly obvious now, but didn’t really seem that way in the past.

In this dream game session, there was a moment when the PCs were on one side of a small structure of sorts, talking to someone at the front of this structure. The person talking to them seemed helpful and friendly enough, and allayed their concerns fairly readily, at least as pertains to himself. Because of this, there was really no reason to focus any attention on him as a potential source of danger. Their attention was focused more down the road, in the direction whence they had come, and from which they expected pursuers.

Meanwhile, a couple of people who posed a threat exited the other side of the structure and readied themselves to jump the PCs. This structure was small enough that these aggressors’ movements should be subject to an opposed skill check, Stealth vs. Perception. Of course, in cases like this, where the players have no immediate reason to believe they need to make a Perception check, asking them to do so may alert them to impending danger and change the way they have their characters behave. They might start searching things more, ask for Sense Motive checks they wouldn’t otherwise have made, and so on.

Without any sense of having just decided on a “new” way of doing things, I just assumed all the players would Take 10 (assume a roll of 10 and add skill modifiers) on their rolls, since they were not actively using their Perception skills. This essentially turned every PC’s skill into a DC, rather than a roll to oppose the aggressors’ Stealth skills. The aggressors, then, needed Stealth rolls to beat the PCs’ Perception rolls.

The Books Discourage Us

I think the main reason this isn’t something I have been using all along is the fact that, in the D&D 3.0 and 3.5 books, the times you aren’t supposed to use the Take 10 mechanic are much more emphasized than the times you are. The discouragement against using Take 10 at times other than when the suspenseful progression of the story is not at all at stake tends, at least in my case, to influence my natural proclivities so that any time there’s any question, I “disallow” use of the Take 10 rule. I’m gradually coming to realize that this has done me a disservice.

In general, I think the assumption should be to allow it and, beyond that, even to assume it in cases where the players shouldn’t even have a choice in the matter (such as when they might not be aware rolls are even needed). One should really only disallow a Take 10 skill check when one has specific reason to disallow it. This isn’t a question of computer security; it is perfectly acceptable in this case to take a “default allow” approach with exceptions for extraordinary cases, rather than a “default deny” approach with exceptions only when one feels they are quite thoroughly warranted.


I think, in fact, that the Take 10 mechanic is probably woefully underutilized by gamers in general. It should not be used more just for passive checks, where the PCs aren’t actively using a skill, but also for many more instances where an action is “routine”.

For instance, Bards (and other PC performers) almost always end up performing based on a roll, even when they’re just playing for a few coins at the inn — but, in reality, they should almost always be doing things that for them are well within their skill levels’ comfort zones, things that are “routine” for them. If a performer is sufficiently certain of his skill that he believes he can one-up another performer in a contest of skill (think The Pit Fiend Went Down To Ganelonne or something like that), he should just be able to Take 10 on his Perform: Mandolin roll and expect that the other performer with a skill five ranks lower than his own will have to really exert herself and take chances to beat him, thus necessitating a roll that is as likely to result in fumbling the fingering and reducing the overall quality of her results as to have a moment of sublime excellence. Even if she outdoes herself, she may only match his own skill — and how likely is that to happen twice in a row, when it comes time for a rematch?

The Take 10 mechanic is an excellent rule, and I will definitely endeavor to use (and encourage its use) more in the future. It even matches the presumed realities that the rules are meant to capture fairly well, better than just requiring a roll all the time. If you take the “safe” approach, and just Take 10, you know that your performance will be consistently within the range of your general level of skill. That’s really the point of the Take 10 rule, anyway; to actually be competent at something, you have to be able to consistently perform to a given level. Meanwhile, if you take chances you may do exceedingly well, but you may also make mistakes — as in the case of overreaching yourself when playing the mandolin against the kingdom’s Minstrel Laureate in a musical competition, and fumbling the fingering, producing discordant error where you hoped for impressively nimble playing to shame that champion’s legendary excellence.

Keep Things Moving

A nice side-effect is the reduction in rolls to slow down the game. Sometimes, rolling dice heightens the suspense and excitement of the game. At other times, it just slows things down. Don’t be afraid to let it play through without pausing to make a roll for every single thing that happens. Don’t relegate the Take 10 rule to the status of a second-class citizen in your games.


  1. That’s exactly how Perception and Insight are handled in 4e. You can make active checks whenever you want, but you’re assumed to be taking 10 on those two skills constantly.

    As for take 10 with Perform, I totally agree. I almost never make a Perform roll for exactly the reason that it would be embarrassing to fumble while just trying to earn a few coppers at an inn.

    Comment by Swordgleam — 27 September 2009 @ 11:35

  2. It’s good to see someone else thinking a basic level of competence doesn’t mean continuous dice checks just to keep the players on their toes. I think there’s a culture where DMs insist on dice rolls to give an element of risk yet it can interfere with the flow of gameplay.

    In this I think 4E is onto something with skill challenges. Events are not always driven by single situations but often by a collection of events that overall determines success. Even though I like systems like RuneQuest/BRP/Call of Cthulhu I often find the fact you’re as likely as not to miss most the time somewhat jarring.

    @swordgleam – I know your pain. Had similar woes with a halfing with a Perform skill equal to most bards and when the dice weren’t nice, oh dear! Yet the DM, in rare moments of kindness would give a +2 to Gather Information checks after a successful Perform roll – sometimes it’s a matter of incentive.

    Comment by satyre — 27 September 2009 @ 11:42

  3. Swordgleam:

    First of all, thanks for commenting, and welcome to SOB.

    As for take 10 with Perform, I totally agree. I almost never make a Perform roll for exactly the reason that it would be embarrassing to fumble while just trying to earn a few coppers at an inn.

    I’ve been inclined to allow performers to Take 10 with Perform checks ever since the Perform skill entered the game, as long as there wasn’t any compelling reason to do otherwise. It’s just recently that I finally achieved that state of enlightenment such that I no longer feel hesitant about doing so.


    In this I think 4E is onto something with skill challenges. Events are not always driven by single situations but often by a collection of events that overall determines success.

    I don’t get the amazement over “skill challenges” in 4E. Why does everyone seem to think this is a Great And Brilliant Innovation? Who hasn’t been using “a collection of events that overall determines success” when running D&D games for the last 30 years? Seriously, anyone who has been DMing for more than a couple of years and still hasn’t realized that you can require more than one skill to accomplish a single task without needing a 4E book to tell you so isn’t smart enough to be a DM.

    Comment by apotheon — 28 September 2009 @ 10:13

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License