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Sometimes the DM will want players to perform an ability check and not set a DC. They will instead use the result of the roll to give a sliding scale of success.

Example:

Two players are asked to make an ability check for Perception.

  • Dave the human fighter rolls a 10, he sees webbing in the corners of the room.
  • Alice the dwarf cleric rolls a 17, she also sees this and the giant spider above them.

Is there a specific name for this practice? Because everyone seems to do it (adds flavour to ability checks) but I've not seen a name for it.

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In D&D it has no name, because it's not part of the game’s rules — you made it up, much like many other GMs before you have made it up.

There are other games that include this mechanic though; some games call it a “graduated” roll, others call it an “open” roll, and others yet might call it something else. Some games feature degrees of success as a natural part of their system (and so don't bother to specially-name this normal kind of roll), but you could synthesise the term “degree of success roll” from that precedent. There’s no standard, accepted name for this mechanic. I've heard it called an “open-ended roll” too, though that’s ambiguous and can also refer to an exploding dice mechanic. In some roleplaying groups this is informally called “rolling for how well you did”.

So since it’s a house rule specific to your table, and you can call it anything you want! I like “graduated” or “graded” roll myself, but your taste is what matters.

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If you think about it, there must be a DC set; if Dave had rolled a 1 what would he have seen? The inside of his eyelids probably.

What is generally going on is that the DM is setting multiple DCs:

  • DC10 See webs
  • DC15 See spider
  • DC20 See gems in web
  • etc.

Does it have a specific name? No

Personally, I call it "Jennifer".

You might prefer "check vs multiple DC".

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is how I see it. Like Monster Lore checks in 3.5's Monster Manuals. You are rolling against a DC, there are just more than one! \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Apr 27 '16 at 21:37
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This is a technique you can use as a DM, it appears in the DMG, page 242, under Resolution and Consequences:

Success at a cost

This suggests that by failing a roll with 1 or 2 lower than the set DC that you still succeed but with complications such as succeeding on a fireball DEX save but being knocked prone by the explosion.

Degrees of failure

This suggests a more in-depth approach to failure, where by failing an ability check by more than 5 (or a different amount depending on the difficulty of the roll and your DM discretion) an unwanted situation might occur: ex. given is a rogue failing a disarm check by more than 5 and springing said trap.

Critical Failure

While normally, rolling a 20 or a 1 on an ability check doesn't have any special effect, you can add such an effect considering the exceptional nature of the roll.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this misunderstands the question. The question is about rolls where the degree of success is determined by the quality of the roll. So for example, you notice more on a roll of 10 than on a 5, notice more on a 17 than on a 10, and notice more on a 21 than you would on a 15. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 10 '15 at 21:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie "Degrees of failure" vs "Degrees of success" feels entirely like a phrasing choice. It would be equally valid to describe your scenario as: DC 21 to notice everything important, with degrees of failure as the roll is lower. \$\endgroup\$ – Grubermensch Jun 11 '15 at 4:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Grubermensch True! And that mechanic, however phrased, is not described in this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 11 '15 at 4:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Whilst this doesn't answer the question, it does highlight that WotC are very keen to give the impression that there is always a DC and will only barely admit fuzzy logic. I suspect this is to stop Players reading the DMG and meta-gaming. \$\endgroup\$ – st33d Jun 11 '15 at 23:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it could easily be modified to answer the question by saying there is a similar technique... that could be expanded to degrees of success \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Mar 8 '19 at 21:53

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