Is there a specific ruling or generally-accepted-practice that determines how players should handle failed skill checks? Does it depend on the skill?

Specifically, do PCs know when they failed a skill check?

Example: A rogue is picking a lock, rolls a 3. Did he simply cough and screw up, or is this particular design of lock completely outside his understanding? A ranger listens for an approaching pack of goblins and rolls a 2. Was he just breathing too heavily to hear properly and thus rests before trying again - or does he believe in his tracking skills and that there is nothing on the way?


5 Answers 5


It depends on a lot of things:

The Skill

For some skills, you logically should be able to tell. A few of them (like Disable Device) actually have different outcomes if you fail by a lot vs fail by a little, so you can use that to guess how far off you are. Open Lock lets you tell pretty easily if you succeed or not, since in one case the lock is open.

In the case of open lock and disable device, I've always felt that someone skilled in the art should be able to figure out if a lock is well beyond them or not. If you're used to fixing two stroke lawnmower engines and a Formula 1 car shows up in your driveway, you'll be able to figure out pretty quickly that it's way beyond your skill set. I'll allow a player to ask after the first attempt if they can actually succeed or not. (I do require the first attempt to keep the danger in trap disabling.)

Thematically, these ones can be dealt with by the task being rushed. If you do a roll and fail, maybe the work is just very delicate and you were working too quickly to be reliable. If you can't succeed on a take 10, the task is just plain hard and may take you a coupe of tries to get right. Picking a good lock in real life takes a lot longer than a six second round, after all.

For other skills, there's no way to tell that. Sense Motive vs Bluff is an opposed check, a player shouldn't know who rolled badly or how good the other guys skill is. The only thing they should know is the outcome. The difference between Sense Motive and Disable Device is that I can look at a mechanical system and understand it's complexity. I can't do that while looking at another person who may or may not be lying. This is an extreme one, as you can't really tell if you even succeeded or not (as extreme failure can give you false impressions that you don't know are false).

Listen is another one, as if you don't hear anything, does that mean nothing is there or that their Move Silently is really high?

For these, there's nothing thematically to do. You don't know if you failed at the time it happens. You may not find out until later, or even never. You just take the result you get, and the game carries on from there.

DM/Player Style

For the opposed and secret checks, some DMs are more secretive than others. They'll roll Sense Motive for the player and only tell the player the outcome.

I don't do that in my game. My players roll it, I roll the opposed check in secret (or a fake roll if there's actually nothing to oppose), and tell them the outcome. That does give the player some meta knowledge of how their dice roll was, which some DMs don't like. I find that my players do okay with that, and they greatly prefer not having me roll their checks in secret.

Action Points/Rerolls

If you have an action point system, or an ability that allows rerolls (like the Luck Domain), you need to be able to see the dice to know if you should use it or not. If you roll a 2 you might want to use it, but not on a 19 (since if you fail on a 19, the task is likely impossible for you). That's another reason my players roll their own rolls.

  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ My gaming group has taken up my standard Sense Motive reply as a kind of catchphrase or in-joke: "He/she/it seems trustworthy to you!" And I think if this kind of response makes sense for a skill, then it's the kind of skill where the PC shouldn't recognise success or failure. ("Seems quiet to you": Yes. "Seems unlocked to you": No.) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2014 at 16:14

This depends entirely on the type of check being performed, and your preference in DMing style.

There have been a number of posts asking about different skill checks and results, and how they should be treated. Given the wide variety of skills and the various different things that can be done with them, there's no one hard-set rule for whether or not a PC should know if they failed, or how badly they failed.

However, regardless of whether or not they are aware of their failure, it should be made clear that they should not be aware of the numbers, ever.

So a character might be aware that they failed to unlock a door, or they might be unaware that they're failing to spot an ambush (and they should definitely be unaware of that!), and in certain situations, they always have the optiont to Take 10 or Take 20 (depending) if they want to use the height of certain skills, and they aren't pressed for time. But they are never privy to the fact that this failure/success is based on a numeric value. As a DM, it is your judgement call as to whether they are aware if they could 'do better'.


Have it be a success, but something bad happens. Rerolling is either a waste of time or doesn't make any sense, so have something else happen.

Don't roll very high on your lock picking? The door still opens, but you were too loud and whoever was on the other side heard you coming, and they have the advantage in combat. Ranger doesn't ace his listen check? Sure he hears the goblins, but he was so focussed on them he didn't realize a troll was with them. Fail your tracking check? You still find whoever you were looking for, but they realized they were being followed and set up some traps. Or have a random encounter: it's the proverbial Pokémon in the tall grass. Fail your climb check? You get over the wall, but slip and fall off on the other side.

Just think of something like that, and if the game allows for it don't be afraid to make it too zany, like for example the knots used to tie the bedsheets together in order to escape from the tower slip when you're halfway down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ To use your example on the bedsheet knots, would the character realize that his knots were shabby - possibly reconsidering the climb? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2014 at 16:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Depends on the roll: you can either make it so that it's recognised, you could have the character realize that the knots might give out or they miss it completely, and slapstick ensues. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2014 at 20:31
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Failing forward is disempowering. Further, mechanics that effect unprequantifiable narrative change aren't well supported by the D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. The effects of failure and success are supposed to be clearly defined. (If it's any consolation, I don't think unprequantifiable is a word.) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 29, 2014 at 23:03
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ -1, This suggestion essentially replaces the option of failure with a 'success + "something goes wrong"' - this may be useful occasionally to spice things up, but is problematic when used as the default. If a door to the royal treasury is locked with a DC 30 lock, I don't want any 1st level rouge to be guaranteed to open it in under 6 seconds (with the possibility of causing trolls / guards to materialize if he fails...). This is even more relevant in "cognitive" tasks such as knowledge skills, spellcraft, perception, etc. Failing to hear an ambush party shouldn't spawn more foes. \$\endgroup\$
    – G0BLiN
    Sep 30, 2014 at 11:58

It seems to me that this question has two parts.

1) What does a low roll on a skill check mean?

This has a pretty straightforward answer. From page 63 of the PHB:

A skill check takes into account a character's training (skill rank), natural talent (ability modifier), and luck (the die roll).

So in your first example, the rogue's roll of 3 doesn't tell us much about the lock. It tells us that the rogue got unlucky. Of the two possible outcomes you presented, the cough is more likely. If the rogue rolled a 19 and still couldn't pick the lock, or failed even after taking 20, then luck is eliminated as a factor, and the rogue's skill becomes the deciding issue. That's when you might say that the lock is beyond the rogue's ability.

2) Does a character know when they fail a check?

This is never explicitly answered in the rules, and has lead to all kinds of at-the-table ridiculousness. Still, there's a fairly simple rule of thumb that I use at my table:

If the skill is physical (that is, Dex, Con, or Strength-based) a character will normally know whether or not they failed. Physical skills usually produce some kind of measurable effect on the world - you make it to the top of the wall with a successful Climb check, you start vomiting on a failed Fortitude save, the door opens when you successfully Open Lock.

On the other hand, if the skill is mental (Cha, Wis, or Int based), the character has nothing to go on but their own perception of events. A failed Bluff check isn't necessarily obvious, since it's hard to gauge exactly how well you lied, or how perceptive your target is. Your Ranger's failed Listen check might have been a successful Listen check with nothing to hear, as far as he knows. A failed Knowledge check might turn up no information on a subject, or might turn up patently false data.

Finally, if a check is opposed, and at least one of the skills involved is mental, neither party can be sure whether they succeeded or failed, even if the outcome of their check would normally be obvious to them. For example, a great Move Silently check might produce little or no noise discernible by the character moving, but they have no way of knowing how good their enemies are at Listening.

Obviously, this sort of thing will always be determined on a case-by-case basis by the DM. But hopefully this provides a good basis for on-the-fly decision-making.


Whether you rolled behind a screen or let them do their own rolls, the players will know that checks happened, even if they don't know the results. For obvious outcomes (unlocking a door, say) the result will speak for itself, but for non-obvious outcomes (listening, searching, etc.), the lack of result may very well be a result on its own. Nothing generates more paranoia than hearing "There is nothing there... that you can see."

One adventure I ran involved a device which generated fear. I didn't tell the group what it was doing - rather, I simply asked for sense checks more and more frequently. Hearing "you don't hear anything interesting," and "you creep along quietly, as far as you can tell," enough would make anyone jumpy, and by the time the players actually reached an enemy, they were so freaked out that they turned tail and ran, even though they could easily have beaten it. The players themselves were so paranoid from the lack of results that they generated their own fear.

Metagaming can be an important part of an adventure, but it doesn't have to be. Obvious results should make the failure evident; non-obvious results should hide the fact that the failure occurred at all, in a paranoia-inducing way, or not. In the end, it's up to you to decide what fits your style and your players the best.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .