Agragorn Goldman’s Advice to the Noob GM: What To Do When the Party Fails Your Crucial Perception Check
He rolls a one.
He spends another five minutes searching; he rolls another one.
This puts a damper on weeks of planning! You never thought that this highly perceptive elf could miss a piece of paper sticking out from underneath the desk. You even gave him a bonus for the good lighting in the room. Now the game is at a stalemate, the story can’t progress until the party passes a skill check, and luck is not on their side. Where did you go wrong?
Perception checks are a common skill in roleplaying games. Whether it’s known as Perception, Spot, Search, Notice, or RADAR, this skill is a numerical summary of how likely the character is to find something. This is an important stat because it helps to define a physical ability in abstract gameplay.
In the above scenario, the problem is that no alternative outcome is presented for the challenge. This could quickly be solved in two ways. First, you could just tell the players that they found it. Second, you could have the players take twenty, a rule that assumes the characters have an infinite amount of time to roll the die until they succeed. Either of these solutions will speed along the game, but it also turns the adventure into a platform for your storytelling, not the player’s. You should give them a choice whenever possible, even if it is just an illusion of free will. It’s a roleplaying game, not a bedtime story.
Another solution to the problem is to plan ahead for the failed roll. As often as possible, you should view a failed roll as another storytelling opportunity, and not as the player’s failure. Here is a more detailed scene of the above example:
The party sneaks past the patrols at the bottom of the tower, and find the wizard is gone. While they are searching for the room, the players hear a patrol coming up the stairs. If they cannot find the clue in time and use it to escape, then they’ll have to deal with the guards. The enemies storm the room when the perception check fails, and the party is forced to fight. After the scuffle, they notice the desk has been upturned and the spellbook page is out in the open.
Your story still continues as you planned it, but you’ve given the players extra problems to deal with for failing the skill challenge. Most players will even welcome more combat challenges.
My last suggestion is the toughest to execute, but it can be rewarding in a group that thinks and acts quickly while roleplaying. Set the scene with detail and prod the players in the right direction, but always let them come up with the solution on their own. Describe the wizard’s disappearance and the disarray in the room as they enter. Go so far as to suggest they search for clues, but then describe what they find as they look around. If the fighter says he looks at the bookshelf, mention that a book appears to be missing. When the ranger says he is looking for the book, tell him that he finds one on the desk and it appears to be missing a page. A breeze comes in through the window and blows the page out from under the desk, and the heroes deduct that this is the spell the wizard must have used to escape. This example can be expanded or streamlined depending on your group’s abilities.
The key to tackling these situations is to keep the game flowing, and this is key to any great roleplaying session. Once you restrict yourself to the rules and mechanics, you run the risk of halting the game. You don’t need to throw the Perception skills out the tower window, but you can find ways to better intergrate it into different encounters. Use it as a guideline for how much the character will learn from you, but allow them to discover the rest on their own. Help them out, but don’t reward them for neglecting an important skill so they could min-max either.
Every group is different, but they all deserve a chance to catch that bastard wizard.