Here are the general guidelines regarding ability checks:

The GM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

In some cases, you could want to fail an ability check. If you are climbing a wall an want to drop off, you fail simply because you stop attempting to climb, but in other cases, success and failure are both tied to the actual action and may both have desirable outcomes.

Example 1: Spell scrolls

An evil adversary wants you to cast a spell scroll for him, but you have him figured out and want to destroy his spell scroll instead, seemingly by accident. The rules on spell scrolls read:

If the spell is on your class’s spell list but of a higher level than you can normally cast, you must make an ability check using your spellcasting ability to determine whether you cast it successfully. The DC equals 10 + the spell’s level. On a failed check, the spell disappears from the scroll with no other effect.

A failure means that you successfully destroy the spell scroll.

Example 2: Amulet of the Planes

You are in possesion of the Amulet of the Planes. Your party is being overrun by terrible monsters, and the only way to save your party is to sacrifice yourself by sending yourself and the monsters to another plane of existence.

While wearing this Amulet, you can use an action to name a location that you are familiar with on another plane of existence. Then make a DC 15 Intelligence check. On a successful check, you cast the Plane Shift spell. On a failure, you and each creature and object within 15 feet of you travel to a random destination. Roll a d100. On a 1-60, you travel to a random location on the plane you named. On a 61-100, you travel to a randomly determined plane of existence.

By walking up to the monsters and failing the check, you and the monsters would be sent to another plane of existence.

The question

The rules seem to assume that you always want to succeed when you perform an ability check. Sometimes, however, you could want to fail on purpose. A sensible DM would rule that if you are skilled enough to succeed the check, then you would undoubtly be able to fail it on purpose as well. What does the rules as written say -- if anything -- about this circumstance?

According to RAW, is it possible to attempt an ability check and intentionally fail?


7 Answers 7


Only if you fail a dice roll

A character cannot "fail an ability check", because characters don't make ability checks. Ability checks are nothing but game mechanics, they are basically dice rolls. Characters take actions instead — these actions, not dice rolls, are the subject to be succeed or failed.

PHB page 6 "How to play" describes the basic gaming pattern:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions. Describing the results often leads to another decision point, which brings the flow of the game right back to step 1

The DM might (but don't have to) ask the player for an ability check between steps 2 and 3. They might just say "yes, you did it" without any rolls. That depends on the action the character does (the very action the player announced at step 2).

At step 2 you describe your character's intent — the DC for an ability check will be based on this intent. If you announce "I'm trying to activate a spell scroll" it is one particular intent. If you say "I'm trying to destroy a spell scroll by activating it incorrectly" it is another intent. DM might ask for an ability check in the second case, or just allow it automatically — it isn't specified in the rules, so is completely up to the DM. The same for the improper use of Amulet of the Planes.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 3:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Wyrmwood Well, the OP describes two in-game examples, where characters try to do something on purpose and succeed, and calls these situations "intentionally failed ability checks". But these situations are not failures, they are successes, both for the player and the character. So my point was, there is no such thing as "intentionally failed ability check" at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 21:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think an easier example would be like this: For destroying the spell scroll, the player would announce their intent, and that they want it to look like an accident. Then it stops being an activation check, and becomes a bluff or other technical check. You're always working toward an objective, never away from one. Put more simply, if you're in a room and want to leave, you don't "intentionally fail at staying in the room", you "intentionally succeed at exiting". \$\endgroup\$
    – thanby
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 13:16

You cannot intentionally fail a check...

The essential rules for ability checks are as you listed; they only occur when you try to do something and success is in doubt. The rules for checks themselves are fairly simple and provide no mechanism for intentionally failing.

But you can opt not to try...

Ability checks only trigger if you try to do something - in most cases you can simply not try to do that thing. "Intentionally failing" a Dexterity (stealth) check just means you're not trying to do the thing in the first place, so it has no chance of failure.

That doesn't address your examples, however.

Or try to do something else

The rules you quoted are intentionally vague on what you can attempt. Many are codified in the rules - like your examples - but many are not.

You could, instead of trying to use the scroll, try to destroy the scroll. There is no specific mechanic for this, but there is the general mechanic you quote; "The GM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure."

That, of course, requires the action to be in doubt; unfortunately, that's where the rules themselves refer to DM rulings. Difficulty - as well as advantage/disdvantage, and if a check is even possible (or necessary) - is up to the DM, especially in the case of no specific rules being available (see the rest of the text on Ability checks, PHB p174).

In your examples, then, since you're not attempting to use the scrolls or amulet normally, the GM should not ask for a roll where success ends in the default result or the scroll. What roll, if any, will occur, is up to the DM as per the standard rules.

(Example 1 essentially boils down to two actions - destroying the scroll, and convincing the other party that it was accidental.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvote for the bit at the end -- destroying the scroll is one check, then to convince the Big Bad that you "accidentally" did so is a separate check. \$\endgroup\$
    – Doktor J
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 16:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ The scroll actions are sort of linked. You have to make it look like you were trying to really cast the scroll, so one of the failure modes is probably that you do cast the spell on the scroll. I'd assume this would be much less likely if you weren't trying to do that. (Maybe the only way to be sure you don't cast the spell is to destroy the scroll mechanically: tear it up or burn it, but making intentional large obvious mistakes in reading it earlier than is plausible for your level should still be much more reliable in destroying it.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 20:52

You cannot deliberately fail an ability check, but you can succeed automatically at a different check.

DMG 237 lays out the following criteria for ability checks:

When a player wants to do something, it's often appropriate to let the attempt succeed without a roll or a reference to the character's ability scores....

Is a task so easy and so free of conflict and stress that there should be no chance of failure?

Is a task so inappropriate or impossible- such as hitting the moon with an arrow-that it can't work?

If the answer to both of these questions is no, some kind of roll is appropriate.

Because an ability check is always geared toward wanting to do something, it's a positive, active action, not an negative abdication of an an action. However, some cases of deliberately failing is "free of conflict and stress," and should succeed automatically. For example, climbing something might require an ability check, but letting go and falling shouldn't require one.

Addressing specific examples

Spell Scrolls: Deliberately failing to cast a spell from a spell scroll is a positive action, and thus fulfills one of the criteria for an ability check. However, the rules don't describe how exactly magic from a scroll works, so it's up to you to decide. It might be as easy as deliberately mispronouncing the words on the scroll, in which case it's free from conflict and stress, or one might actually try to draw magic from it, in which case it might require an ability check.

However, trying to convince the bad guy that you didn't deliberately fail would probably require something like deception or performance.

Amulet of the Planes: Again, this circles back to how magic works. Because the rules don't specifically state how spellcasting works, it's up to you to decide how difficult it is to deliberately botch using a magic item.

In both cases, the character is not deliberately failing an ability check, but rather attempting a different, potentially trivially easy ability check. You can use this paradigm to determine whether or not the "deliberate failure" ability check needs a roll or can automatically succeed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mentioning Deception for the example. Maybe with advantage if you are very capable of casting the spell under normal conditions. Maybe with disadvantage if the bad guy knows you are very capable. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nick Brown
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 16:42

As others have said, you're not failing, you're succeeding at something else (e.g. destroying the scroll by doing something other than a proper casting.)

In the case of fooling the evil adversary, I would (as a DM) allow the caster to automatically destroy the scroll -- no roll required. Deliberately mispronouncing a word is child's play. However, I would also have you make an acting (or bluff, etc) roll to see if you did it in such a way that your enemy believes it was accidental.

For the Amulet of the Planes, I would require a check (Intelligence, maybe?) to succeed. Deliberately misfiring the spell in that way would require an understanding of how the thing works, and what doing it "wrong" even means in the first place. (Switch your focus at the right moment? Think of something totally different? Name a place you're NOT familiar with -- or not familiar enough -- and what is "enough" anyway?) It's not the same as it happening accidentally.

So... the short answer is "it depends on the situation".

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm a fan of inverting a check to fail: DC15 to succeed is DC 5-10 to fail: Can you accidentally do it right? Sure, but it's unlikely and that chance goes down as you get smarter (and are more likely to know what to avoid) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 19:41

There are enough answers citing the rule books on this question: I think the game mechanics are clear. However, let me point out a fallacy in your assumptions:

A sensible DM would rule that if you are skilled enough to succeed the check, then you would undoubtly be able to fail it on purpose as well.

When my SO, a riding teacher, needs to know how a newly acquired horse will react to unskilled riders, she cannot try this herself by getting various aids wrong (basically you have posture, leg pressure, bridles, weight and a number of other cues for the horse, and with an experienced rider, those are not masked by involuntary counterproductive movements): this is as hopeless as mangling your speech into toddler grammar: there will be too many things still right, and the wrong things look clearly out of place and thus are put aside. Instead she asks me.

Magic is a natural force. It is not malicious as such or sentient as much as it is hard. Feigning a different skill than you possess while still going through the motions is like throwing a 15 and telling the DM that you threw a 4.

"I am trying to convince the magic in this universe that I don't possess enough skill" sounds more preposterous than trying to convince a horse.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Should a being with 36 (+13) Int be essentially unable to misuse a magic item? I'd suggest they are more likely to be able to misuse it than a commoner or a lower intelligence being. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your SO would certainly be able to fall from the saddle... Or fail to correctly fasten some buckle (just don't put the pin in the hole). Now making the fall look like accident might be more difficult, to a trained eye. Or maybe not, I am pretty sure your SO would know what to do to make the horse throw rider off it's back... I think it's rare to have skills, where failure is not an option, or even not easy. A piano player can intentionally press two keys or wrong key. A grave digger can dig the side of the pit so that it collapses. Etc. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 22:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is answer makes a very good point re: the general question. There are certainly going to be cases where this applies, as it's hard to almost do something right if you do know how to fully do it right. It's easy to get something completely wrong even if you do know how to do it right, but not necessarily to simulate an inexperienced person. It's easy to imagine that a skilled caster could easily destroy the scroll, or easily cast the spell, but not easily destroy the scroll and make it look like an accident (to a skilled observer). If trying, their intentional error might be too small. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 21:04

RAW, it seems unspecified at first glance. But it is actually covered in the rules:

Action Resolution Steps

  • DM describes situation.
  • Player describes action intention.
  • DM determines if a check is needed or not. Action seems really easy? Automatic success. Action seems too hard? Automatic failure.
  • Only when in doubt, DM asks a check and player rolls that check.
  • DM describes result(s).

It is the DM that must "determine" the situation. That means some level of basic judgment is required on his part.

Simple common sense says that yes, you can generally fail on purpose.

Thus, failing on purpose would fall into the "ridiculously easy to do" category in most situations in the first place.

Because failing at doing something is usually really, really easy to do.

Example : "What is 123 times 587?" to succeed one might spend several long seconds of intense mathy thoughts. But to fail, you just answer any stupid value. You know it is definitely around 100 times 500 anyway, so just answer something like "35 Trillions!" and there you go, instant failure! Or just say "I Can Haz Cheesburger!" for your answer, and you also easily failed.

Same with any skill, really.

Attack rolls can also be auto-failed on purpose easily. Just strike a little bit too much to the left or to the right and voilà, easy failed attack.

Even many saving throws can be auto-failed. The save itself represents the character's active effort to "resist" the bad effect. Fireball? Just don't try to "dodge" it, auto-failed Reflex Save. Dominate? Just let yourself go, instead of trying to shield your mind from the invading force of will trying to take you over, for an automatically failed Wisdom save. And so on.

But maybe some saves might not be made to be failed on purpose. For example, it is your "body" which is passively trying to resist a poison, not you that is actively doing "something" to resist that poison. So, in that case, the DM is right in insisting you roll the dice anyway. Again, just use common sense.

Merely failing at doing a task, and trying to fake doing some task in another way, are actually different goals. So, most of all we have to be very careful with what the actual stated intention and goal are.

In the original post example, the true goal here is not to merely fail at casting the scroll in order to waste it. That is the easy part. Just slip your tongue on one of the words of the verbal component, or use the wrong finger for the somatic component, and voilà, instant failure! Any fool level-0 wizard can do that. So that part is thus automatic.

But the actual goal here is different: the prisoner wizard PC actually wants to fail casting the scroll on purpose in order to foil the evil sorcerer. And he wants to make it so his failure looks like he didn't do it on purpose. He isn't "trying to look like he has the skills of an apprentice wizard", either. Just trying to look like he made a scroll casting mistake, is all.

The most appropriate check for the action is thus not a Scroll Activation Check, (that is simply an automatic failure on purpose, no check needed), but instead a Charisma (Deception) check against the Sorcerer's Wisdom (Insight). On success, the scroll fails and the sorcerer believes it was an honest mistake. On failure, the scroll is still ruined, but the sorcerer sees through the wizard's deception. Situational modifiers apply too. Say, the sorcerer knows his stuff really well, and is actively and intensively looking at the casting of the scroll, so maybe the check is made at Disadvantage here. Or the sorcerer has a reputation for being particularly gullible and easily fooled, giving advantage to the check. But the main point is that the hardest part of the overall action, is the fooling of the sorcerer, not the failing-on-purpose of the scroll activation.

Of course, if the sorcerer knows that the wizard is powerful enough to definitely be able to cast that scroll with zero chances of scroll activation check failure, then again, no check is needed. The scroll activation fails without a check. And the sorcerer sees through the deception without a check.

DM judgment is always required for action resolution. The DM should ask for a check only when one is really needed, when the outcome is not obvious.


To all intents and purposes, yes

Failing is what happens if you don't try hard enough, if you're insufficiently skilled, if you're just plain really unlucky. You can almost always not try hard enough by doing nothing, or making deliberate mistakes. Almost any action the result of a failed check, is something you could just do.

But actually, no

I think it's reasonable to describe it as "intentionally failing a check" if a character attempted an activity, and then decided to fail it, or if a check happens automatically, as the case of reading a spell scroll.

But technically, I think it would be a case of "it's almost always reasonable that in a situation where there's an ability check, it's possible for the character to choose to achieve the failure result easily without requiring a roll, so the GM would allow them to take that action instead, with results approximating those of taking the result and failing".

Are there any loopholes?

No. As explained above, you can usually achieve a desired failure result, but that's up to the GM allowing it because it's obviously something that would be possible.

If it's not obviously possible, no rule says that you can do it.

If you have to roll to throw yourself off from a stampeding horse, failing the roll means "falling off and injuring yourself" not "riding perfectly".

Are there any exceptions where trying to emulate a failed check is not easy to achieve?

There are some. If the character is deliberately reading a spell scroll incorrectly, they can easily cause the scroll to fail. But if it fails naturally, it will look like an accident. Making it look like an accident is not automatic, it may be easy, impossible, or require a deception skill roll depending on GM adjudication.


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