Supporting degrees of success and failure when rolling

I have only played D&D so far, but I'm not that happy with it, mainly because the results are so binary. Take, for example, picking a lock. You roll a dice, you add your lockpicking modifier and compare that to a static number indicating the difficulty. If you roll equal or higher to the DC, you succeed, if you roll lower, you fail. This just seems so... gamey to me, and too binary to feel authentic.

Is there a way to make the transition between success and failure less all-or-nothing? like "Oh, you rolled a 19-21 for a DC 20 lock? You open the door, but with a negative effect, like a broken lockpick. You rolled 22 or more? you succeed without negative effects. You roll a 10-18: you just fail, but suffer no ill effects. 5-10? you fail AND you break a lockpick. a 2-5? you fail and trigger an alarm. a 1? critical failure: someone opens the door from the other side while you're picking it and you get you lockpick jabbed into your eye."

Now, obviously, I can just use a homebrew rule for this, but I'm looking for something that's somewhat more integrated with D&D, like an optional ruleset or something. If possible, I'd like a D&D 5e solution, but a 4e or 3.Xe solution also is fine.

• GM intrusion in Numenera do something similar. It should be easy to port to any system. Oct 9, 2014 at 9:31
• I think it is fine to just use some of your own rules, you don't have to everything by the book, it adds variety. I think it is a good idea.
– Oreo
Oct 9, 2014 at 9:35
• The game does have different degrees of failure. See my question earlier today: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/49239/8012 Oct 9, 2014 at 10:04
• If you are looking for inspiration to implement degrees of failure as house rule, look at Monster & Magic sarahnewtonwriter.com/2013/04/30/the-monsters-magic-rpg Oct 9, 2014 at 12:34
• You're not the first person in history to object to a feature of the First Roleplaying Game—that's a big reason why so many people have invented new RPGs over the years. There is no reason you must play the first one you've tried. Oct 9, 2014 at 14:01

In many cases, for published adventures and challenges, D&D will use multiple DCs. This is especially common for knowledge or perception checks.

For example, with a DC 10 knowledge check you might know that trolls regenerate damage; with a DC 15 you might know that fire prevents said regeneration.

When designing challenges as a GM, you could extend this to other challenges. Make opening a lock at the cost of breaking your tools DC 18, while opening the lock without negative consequence would be DC 22.

• It's worth noting that this mode is used extensively in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. And not just for knowledge rolls, either. Oct 13, 2014 at 4:06
• For on-the-fly judgements, here's what I use: you get a DC as usual. Then -5 (5 blow the DC) is a "critical" failure: you don't meet your goal and are set back in some way, that may be making a ton of noise, being out of breath (can't try again for 5 min), or something similar. Just a bit below DC is plain nothing. You maybe lost that minute or two trying but try again. less than 5 above: made it! (depending on the situation a minor setback like a bit of noise etc). 5+ above DC: perfect. No noise, maybe a small boon as well (like you can give your mates advantage if they try (like a climb)) Mar 12, 2021 at 9:57

Fail Forward

Actually, there is support baked right into the 5e cake for part of what you're asking. From p. 58 of the Basic Rules (emphasis mine):

If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success—the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

This is doubtless a response to the fail-forward ethos that many games have embraced since 3.0 was released. It does not address everything, because it doesn't really cover the extreme failure you're looking for. Looking at the Basic Rules, I don't see a special-case or "critical failure" for anything besides attack rolls, where a natural 1 just always misses, regardless of bonuses, etc..

But it does move the game into a trinary system of success / success-with-cost / failure, giving you more of the flexibility you are looking for with no house-ruling necessary at all.

See this question for related issues and likely-illuminating answers.

• There are some examples in the rules and published adventures where failing by 5 has an especially bad result, like jamming a lock. Oct 9, 2014 at 10:19
• @BraddSzonye - All I have is the Basic Rules and I hadn't seen that rule yet - is it in the PHB or DMG, or did I miss it in the BR? Do you have a page reference? Oct 9, 2014 at 11:39
• "Actually, there is support baked right into the 5e cake for part of what you're asking" -- well, not so much baked in as sprinkled on top. But hopefully the actual DMG will have more to say! Oct 9, 2014 at 14:56
• @gomad Hoard of the Dragon Queen features a damaged lock which, if you miss the lockpick DC by 5, will seize up and mandate breaking down the door forcibly. I don’t have my PHB to check, but there may also be consequences for missing a climb check by 5. Oct 9, 2014 at 20:38
• @BraddSzonye I checked... no by 5 rule exists in the PHB nor PBR (and the text on ability checks is identical). Nor is there mention of this in Thieves' Tools. I also can't find it in the playtest materials, either. You're correct about its use in HotDQ. Oct 13, 2014 at 4:28

There isn't a solution for this native to 5e. At least not yet. This is the kind of thing that might see publication in the DMG or a latter book in the series, however that's no kind of guarantee.

As you said, you could homebrew this. It's actually fairly easy to handle from a narrative perspective, and in a few instances D&D provides a bit of guidance. There are times where it refers to "Failure by more than 5" and then gives a consequence. One of them is climbing where failure by more than 5 means you start falling.

As far as ideas from previous editions. This is not a concept that D&D has historically done. You won't see these ideas in 4e, and I'm pretty sure you won't see them in 3.5. So you'll either be looking through third party publications which can be hit or miss (sometimes the official sourcebooks are hit or miss), or you'll be scrounging the web for other ideas. Generally as published, D&D works in a state of success or failure, there isn't a system of degrees built in, so you'll have to make one yourself or find someone who has already.

Honestly, this is a situation where you can just wing it though. You may want to look around for ideas, but, ultimately, a lot of what you need to think about is what fits the story you are telling, this is something you can brainstorm, but it's not necessarily something you can research. You know your setting and adventure best, you need to decide on what success and failure means in your adventure.

So, while there may be a resource out there for a previous edition, there really isn't a need to find one unless you're completely out of ideas. Think about how many possibilities you want to have, and then decide how likely you want those to be. After that give your players the heads up that you'll be using a degree of success system, explain your ideas and make sure you have their buy in.