Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I could use some advice as a GM on how to handle rolls which get repeated by several players one after the other.

Example 1

The PCs stand in front of a locked door and try to force it open. The tough guy: "Stand back, I'll handle this!" Gives it a try, fails his roll, the door stands. Up comes PC number 2. "Okay, I throw myself against the door". Rolls okay, but not sufficient; the door holds. Eventually, the Elf with back pain or the paraplegic Halfling succeeds with a lucky roll.

Example 2

The PCs come upon a strange herb that they found somewhere. First player checks herbology, zip. Second player, "Maybe I know the kraut?", rolls, nothing. Third player...

This happens kind of frequently in our game. I'm not entirely sure it is a bad thing, but somehow it feels wrong. Firstly it greatly changes the balance of skill checks: 'sneaking' rolls, for example, must be succeeded by everyone in the group, 'herbology' only by one out of many. Secondly, I feel it lessens the satisfaction of actually solving problems unless the players explicitly want their characters to work together (and somewhat act it out, maybe). It boils down to "Okay, you try it first, then you, then you, and you with 0.1% chance of succeeding, why don't you give it a shot as well?"

The problem is lessened in some situations:

  • Some skill checks can have bad effects if they go wrong (e.g. Surgery, First Aid).
  • Others will take time/resources that not all PCs are willing to spend.

But in many cases there is no game mechanical or rational way why players should not do it.

  • Do you think this is an issue, i.e., does this bother you as a GM?
  • How do you handle these kinds of situations? (Ignore it? Forbid rerolls by other players? Add penalties to consecutive tries?)

I am totally okay with answers involving just talking to your players, or suggesting they try this or that. I don't necessarily need a game-mechanical way to address this issue.

share|improve this question
This is a problem in many traditional RPGs, not so much of a problem in many new and indie games. For example see this thread about failure in Dungeon World:… – aslum Mar 12 '13 at 18:20
Or, in general, games that tell you when you should roll and when you shouldn't. – okeefe Mar 12 '13 at 23:17
I generally don't see this as an issue. Yes, if you want to move stealthily to avoid an alarm the entire group needs to succeed at being stealthy. (That is why you often see the stealthy member break off to handle something alone and come back...) And for other things if anyone succeeds, then it is good enough, like identifying a herb. Now, some of the good suggestions below help if the numerous roles themselves are bogging down the game, but that is a different topic than the rolls being wrong in terms of theme or actual chance of success. – TimothyAWiseman Mar 18 '13 at 21:34

11 Answers 11

up vote 22 down vote accepted

A few games resolve this situation by dealing with it explicitly in the rules, and building the check system to accomodate how it handles this situation. The most notable one is Burning Wheel and its Let It Ride rule:

The result of one test stands for the duration of the situation.

When in a situation like this, the success or failure of the attempt comes down to one roll. Players may cooperate or not, but once the dice are cast for the first time, the door will/will not be open and there can be no new roll by anyone for that goal until the situation significantly changes (like, they go fetch a battering ram, or they return a month later).

Lots of Burning Wheel's rules are tightly enmeshed in the rest of the rules, but this is one of the few that is easily separated and portable to other games. If your game of choice already has rules for assisting, you don't even need to houserule anything once you let your players know that you'll be following Let It Ride from now on. In the situation you describe, the fiction doesn't even need to change. "We all take turns bashing at the door. Eventually one of us must get through!" After establishing their method and their goal, they decide who's making the roll, everyone else adds bonuses for helping, and then the one roll is made.

This rule was built into Burning Wheel specifically because the author got the same feeling as you, that there's a problem with this common occurrence in games with skill systems. Most games test for the action, which under some circumstances virtually guarantees success (or failure) by just repeating the action. Instead of using task-based resolution like that for skills, Burning Wheel uses an intent-based resolution, where your goal is why you roll (and only once), but what you roll is determined by the method you use. Let It Ride is a key part of its intent-based resolution, in that it reminds everyone that they only get to do this once, so they need to bring all their resources to bear – or not, if someone in the party is opposed to the attempt. Either way, everyone has to commit to either pursuing this goal or not, before the roll happens. There's no hanging back to try after, because there's no second chance.

As an added bonus, it fixes a related problem, because the rule binds the GM too. The GM is forbidden from calling for multiple tests for the same task, so there's none of this sort of thing designed to railroad a failure:

GM: Roll to climb! Hm, success… okay, you get 10 feet up without falling. Roll again! Another success… What's your skill level? Oh, that's pretty good… So you reach a ledge 30' up. You've got 100' to go, so roll again! …Success. You get halfway up. It's a long way down now. Roll climb. Aw, you failed! You plummet to your death. But wait! Giant eagles save you and fly you halfway around the world.

share|improve this answer
I like this. Will give it a shot in our next session and see what my group has to say about it... :) – fgysin Mar 18 '13 at 13:43
It is a great way of handling it. In Dungeon World, they do something similar; whenever you roll a "miss" result (read: bad roll) the GM makes a "move" on the players (read: makes the characters' lives a tad more complicated). It ensures that people only doe something they are committed to, and if it requires a test, it always carries risks. Virtually the same, but it tastes different. – Undreren Mar 20 '13 at 21:04

Do they actually need to roll? No, seriously, why are they rolling dice to do this?...

You can have automatic successes if the character's skill is high enough. This would solve the vast majority of the problems you seem to have. Second, some things will not be possible unless you have a high skill enough. I might know kung fu but that does not help me in a parkour contest. Lastly, maybe a dice roll gets you something quicker. It might be worth rolling if you wanted to get the herb use now while knight Random is bleeding out but if you have a few days to spare, you do not need to roll.

If you insist on rolling, dice roll might not yield a binary result. It could mean you partially succeed. A door might bashed may make you fall loudly on your floor in the room. A herb might suggest that it is a healing one, but not give you the side effects or how to keep it. A fauna roll might tell you that the critter is a big cat but not that it is an juvenile with Mummy probably nearby.

Finally, whatever you decide on, I firmly believe that dice rolls should help enhance the story and not hinder it.

share|improve this answer
+1, understanding the "you don't always have to roll" was a big step forward as a GM. – Cristol.GdM Mar 12 '13 at 20:07
Along with that, sometimes rolling poorly can adversely affect the situation for the subsequent players. With the door bashing situation: a poor roll might alert a guard, splinter the door in a way that makes it harder to break through, trigger a trap, or anything else. – zzzzBov Mar 12 '13 at 20:37
Although your answer is valid, it doesn't help me in my case... Our group actually returned to rolling more often after a period, as we somehow felt our skills and skill development were not getting enough 'appreciation'. – fgysin Mar 18 '13 at 13:37
@fgysin Don't worry about that. You can use this kind of rule in any game. Just be sure to let your players know it beforehand. – Undreren Mar 23 '13 at 13:07
+1 auto-success was on my mind too. Survival in 3.5 lets you automatically discern North at five ranks and it sets a great precedent. Leave the dice for where randomness will add flavor to the story instead of making them a requirement. – LitheOhm Apr 3 '13 at 19:36

One good way to handle this is to assign one person as the "leader" in the action, and the others as "assistants." Even if they're undertaking the tasks independently, you can flavor their actions as the use of whatever aid-another mechanic your system uses. ("I loosened it for you!"; "Your joking comment reminds me of something my grandmother once told me about herbs.") Successful rolls give the leader a bonus to their attempt; failed ones add a penalty or use up precious time.

share|improve this answer

I have no problem with multiple rolls, on the understanding that extra attempts cost time and effort and cause attention. If characters A then B then C try to smash a door then it takes three times as long (and makes three times as much noise) as a single attempt.

Sometimes multiple attempts are allowed, by different or the same characters (it makes sense to allow multiple attempts at a door because each attempt weakens the door a little); sometimes they are not (if no-one in the party can translate the runes then it doesn't matter how many times they try). I decide on a case-by-case basis.

I think knowledge rolls, however, should be treated differently. For example, I'd roll (secretly) for all players who might possibly be able to identify the herb and then distribute results (verbally or by note). It is entirely possible that three characters think "this is kingsfoil" but one thinks "this is parsley" and all are certain they are correct. If nothing else, knowledge rolls are different in that I prefer to make the roll, out of sight of the players.

More generally, I follow the "karma, drama and fate" guideline (from, if I recall correctly, the game Everway). If a character attempts an action, I ask "does it make sense that the character might be able to do this?" (karma) and "does the success or failure affect the story?" (drama). If the answer to the first questions is "no" then the attempt either cannot be made or fails automatically. Otherwise, if the answer to the second question is "no" then the attempt succeeds automatically. Otherwise roll the die (fate).

Or, to put it another way, if the STR 18 warrior has failed and the STR 17 cleric has failed then I'm not even going to roll for the STR 8 mage trying to bash open the door.

share|improve this answer
+1 for the karma-drama-fate rule... – fgysin Mar 19 '13 at 3:59

Only bother with rolls when they matter. If time makes no difference and there’s no consequence for failure, there’s no reason to break out the dice at all. If time does matter, then everyone giving it a try wastes time, and that might be important.

share|improve this answer
Hmm, this doesn't really solve anything imo... For example the locked door scenario: most often the couple of seconds a PC would need to try break it in do not matter at all... What could matter however is the time it would take the whole group to find a blacksmith and purchase a crow bar -- if they failed as a group to get the door open... – fgysin Mar 18 '13 at 13:40
@fgysin as well as if enemies on the other side are aware of the door being bashed repeatedly as opposed to a one-time door kick-down. – LitheOhm Apr 3 '13 at 19:45

It's the only way through...

When you absolutely need to break through a door, and there's nothing chasing you, you can let them make multiple "break door", "pick lock" and "search for hidden level" checks as they like. However, after the third failed attempt, a wandering monster/police/guard shows up.

Depending how much noise the team has made, they may be armed and ready. They can either come through the door, opening it, or something happens during combat that smashes the door open.

This is the price for failure. They still pass the obstacle, but with consequence.

Knowing your stuff

In the case of identifying herbs, allow the team to make one roll, with assist rolls from anyone who's interested. This check represents several minutes of collective analysis.

Select the roll target for the leader, and a lower target for the assistants. For each assistant that rolls over the target, the leader gets a small bonus to his roll. For each assistant that rolls under the target, the leader suffers a small penalty due to misleading input.

This gives the assistants responsibility. If they don't know their herbs, they're best to stay out of the conversation.

share|improve this answer
I sort of like this, although I prefer not to have a "wandering monster hardcoded on Failure #X" style consequence. This again goes back to more story-driven games like BW or Fate, but "failure" needn't mean "you can't do what you wanted". It can mean "you succeeded but with major consequences." Getting the attention of a local monster is but one of many potential major consequences. – NotVonKaiser Jun 18 '13 at 15:52
Certainly, you never hardcode the failure. It should be situation dependant. The door might break badly, spearing the rammer. Alternatively, you could have subtle clues that indicate time is moving without them. "You start to feel peckish." "The night grows colder." Then when they reach the next major encounter, it's just that little bit harder because they've had time to prepare. – Hand-E-Food Jun 18 '13 at 23:51
One rule from Fate that I want to incorporate more into other games is the idea that unless you can think of a good failure and/or "yes, but.." consequence, don't even have the players roll. The thief is in front of a lock and has nothing but time to pick it: meh, go ahead, he'll get it eventually. May as well save the natural 20s for combat! If you can justify his having to do it on a timed basis and allowing an encounter in case of failure, for example, that would be a great reason to compel a roll. – NotVonKaiser Jun 18 '13 at 23:55

When I'm presented with such a situation, I usually ask everyone to roll the die at the same time. Whover got the better result determines whether the roll is a success or not.

Playing D&D 3.x this usually means that the "herbalist" has better chances at knowing herbs but anyone can contribute. I also allow them to roll first and choose later who's helping who, but this is an house rule.

For things that can be repeated even by the same character (smashing down the door) if they are in a hurry it's ok that they choose to help someone or try to bash it themselves, otherwise the stronger guy can just take 20 and do it. It takes time but eventually it's done.

share|improve this answer

When it makes sense to do so, I let people help each other. In the case of the door for example, there might be room for two people at the door to try and force it. One person makes the roll to do it, and the second person makes a (significantly easier) roll to assist. If the second person succeeds, the first person gets a bonus to their roll (it's +2 in D&D 3.5e, you may need to make up something appropriate for your game if no actual rule exists).

Sometimes this makes sense. Everyone for example can search a big room at the same time. They can either do it by splitting the room up into sections for each person (everyone makes a search check, the search goes a lot faster), or everyone can search everywhere (the search leader makes a search check, everyone else makes an assist check, the search takes longer but has better odds). The nice thing about something like that is that people get to feel like they're helping even if they don't have a high score in a skill.

This can go wrong, sometimes. If people are searching but they don't have the ability to find traps, you need to discount their rolls while deciding if a trap was found (you can't assist something you can't do). Delicate work like lock picking can't really be assisted because five pairs of hands are not better than one. Your herbology example is something I'd probably allow to be assisted if they were doing research in a lab (someone can be the lab assistant), but not to just look at something and identify it (you either know that or you don't).

Because of the subjective nature of it, YMMV. It's worked well for me, though.

share|improve this answer

My suggestion and something I've actively tried to do is use all skills as a Passive skill which unless they are trying to do something out of the performance range of their character they can achieve (obviously you would need to create a passive skill check success). Alternatively you can have a target success number (lets say 33 for example) and each attempt contributes to a total successes, thus even when the brawny fighter flubs it, he still contributes to the overall weakening of the door.

share|improve this answer

We've used the passive skill roll solution for a while, for perception. The problem is that if one person is really good at something (say spot) and another is just quite good, his ability adds very little to the party, since he'll never spot something the really good one missed.

share|improve this answer
Hey Jasper, can you read our About page? Your answer has the kernel of a good answer, but needs some amplification. Can you explain how the passive skill roll solution works to solve rerolls and how you've dealt with the problem? – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 17 '13 at 22:26

There is an awesome article you should see (a serious of articles): The tendency surrounding this roleplaying device is to look at your character sheet and try to find the right skill to fit into the slot, then find some way to work it in through roleplay. Since skill challenges are structured roleplay however, what’s important first and foremost are the actions your PCs take. Instead of:

PC:”I’ll intimidate. I rolled an 18.”

GM: “The kobold shakes in fear. One success.”

It is:

” I grab this kobold by the shoulders, nostrils flared. ‘Where is it, you worthless maggot? WHERE IS THE JEWEL?’ Intimidate…got an 18.”

GM: “‘ I-I-I-I can’t tell you, the master, he…he will kill me if I tell you! ‘ The kobold is trembling now, though. He looks ready to crumble. One success.”

Roleplay makes all the difference between an exciting and fun skill challenge and a boring bland dice-roll. Conversely, you get maximum action out of your players by giving them good reaction and feedback to their actions. If PCs aren’t getting it, you can shake them up. Roleplay and withhold some of the feedback to draw them in:

PC: “I’ll intimidate. I rolled an 18.”

GM: “‘Aaaaaaagh! No! Don’t hurt me!’”

PC: “‘…then tell me what I want to know.’”

GM: “I can’t! My master will kill me if I do!”

PC: ” ‘You’re not dealing with your master right now, are you?’”

GM ” Good stuff. One success.”

In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss the special rules for setting scenes in skill challenges, and the art of back-and-forth. Visit: Go ahead and read it!

share|improve this answer
This articles also have a lot with what @KRyan said... Only use skill challenges when there is a a chance of success and a chance of failure (when they are meaningful to the events happening in the game)... And if they need to break a door, make only 1 skill check... If they succeeded on the 1st attempt... Great! If not, you say they try 3 or 4 times and break it in half afterwards! I hope this solves your problem :D! – Eilleen Jun 18 '13 at 13:52

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.