I thought I'd contribute to Martin's Blogging for GMs project.
Last night Jennifer and I were talking about calling for die rolls in adventures. I repeated a bit of truth that I'd read on an advice site: don't roll dice when it doesn't matter. (I can't track it down at the moment; it was delinked long ago.)
For example, if the PCs are coming up on a hallway junction, it's usually not worthwhile to call for listen checks. Why? Well, you'll generate a result per person, usually with the effect that someone will succeed. (Enough die rolls and someone'll usually succeed.) And they'll turn to their companions and say "I heard X". All of the time checking skills, gathering rolls, etc. boil down to a bit of information everyone winds up with anyway, which is a waste of time.
That isn't to say "never make listen checks". If you're going to make the check, the check needs to have meaning. Maybe only the people who beat a specific DC can act the first round... because you're actually hearing their attack and don't have time to react to someone else's warning.
Move Silently is strange too. If you have Sneaky McSneakerson trying to get by, the best defense is hiring more guards, not better guards. And if you have the PC make multiple sneak rolls and use the worst as the target of the listen check, Sneaky's in really in bad shape.
Having 5 people listen (each getting to roll listen) is more reliable than hiring a character with an extra 10 ranks in a skill. (5 people have a 67% chance of having at least one character roll 17 or better. They also have a 97% chance of getting at least one 11 or better.)
Search is similar; having people roll to find a critical element will result in rerolls or accepting the best roll as "just high enough"-- a soft kind of fudging and a waste of time. What do you do when they fail their search but describe taking the proper action to make the thing work? Under what circumstances can you search again?
Solutions? I don't promise anything, but these might help.
- Roll once (for each side) and add the highest check to the result. This rewards highly skilled people (on both sides), but may mean that each character specializes in a skill and others don't bother with it. Plus players aren't rolling the dice, which denies many a source of happiness.
- Jennifer suggests pre-rolling. At the beginning of the session, have everyone roll d20 five times, with the GM marking down the results. Tick off the checks (so you don't alert the players that there's something to pay attention to here) and have them roll more for your list periodically.
- Searches are tricky and can get repetitive quickly. I suggest rolling once per room (with teamwork bonuses), and possibly using the checklist to hide the value (to discourage rerolls because the die came up low).
- Setting clear stakes before you roll can keep everyone on board, and alleviate misperceptions like "roll until you fail".
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