Conveying rpg lore to your players. You can give them the mongo journal you created, but there may be other ways to deploy lore in your tabletop rpg.

Thanks to Billarnold on the forums for the inspiration on this one.

Random Encounter

DM Matt emails us on Brett using different ability for skill checks


Hey Sean and Brett, I was listening to episode 324 “playing to pretend” and Brett was talking about using different ability scores for skill checks. I knew I had heard something about this before and I think Jeremy Crawford may have even done a segment on Dragon Talk about it but here’s what my google-fu turned up anyway:

Looks like the rule book backs Brett up and the gaming police won’t be dragging him away for his crazy ideas after all.

Thanks for the great content and conversation as always, you guys always give me something to think about how to run my next game better than my last,

DM Matt 

(am I allowed to just refer to myself as that? The other guys leaving their names in messages do… Who is the accrediting body for DMs? 😅)

Tom comments on Spot Hidden

In general, this was a frustrating podcast…I kept yelling “No!” at my phone. Luckily I was by myself.

If something is needed, they don’t need to roll. If they can get additional information, that’s interesting. Not anything that’s really necessary, but something that might open up a new avenue of investigation. If the roll is to spot something vital, I might have everyone roll to see who notices it. Maybe it implicates that PC’s mentor or another party member. Something that can lead to interesting roleplaying. Or, sure. They hear the murmur of voices…but maybe they can’t make out the words. What if the speakers aren’t in the room with the open window, but another room over.

I won’t address your Ranger example, because we never use random roll generation, or wouldn’t make Intelligence a dump stat. If the player does that deliberately, then he can’t complain about having a sucky Ranger.

You mentioned Trail of Cthulhu, and you nailed it. You always get what’s needed to progress, but if you roll you might get more. (I personally dislike ToC because I really don’t like that kind of resource-management. “My detective is great at finding those extra clues…but then he gets tired of finding them and can’t anymore.”)

But basically, yes, as a GM I make extensive use of perception and skill rolls. I don’t mean by requiring a lot of them, but I use them strategically when failure is interesting, or if some players succeeding and some failing could be interesting. It opens up possibilities that aren’t really available by just giving them everything, and lets them know that their characters’ abilities DO matter and can actually impact the story.

I will mention the older game CORPS by BTRC. In that game, any modifiers (for darkness, fog, taking extra time, rushing, or anything that might make something easier or harder to succeed at) are applied to the difficulty. If that final adjusted difficulty is equal to or lower than the character’s relevant skill or ability, then they automatically succeed. Only if it’s higher do they need to roll. It’s a nifty mechanic that I apply in principle to any system. If it’s an average lock, and the thief is of average or better ability, he won’t have to roll to open it, as an example.

Old School DM comments on Spot Hidden

[Talking about D&D]

When talking about game mechanics such as ability checks, I’d really prefer to hear about good examples, instead of constant complaining about bad examples (such as trying checks over and over, or critical clues missed because of bad design…)

Here are some counterpoints to the podcast:

Not all WIS (Perception) checks involve critical information. Let’s not assume they always do.

It’s ok to have someone miss a distant footfall or not be able to make out the details a conversation through the door.

D&D Encounter design supports up to three (3) information states:

  1. P) Pre-check information – default information that you get for free i.e. box text
  2. F) Failed-check information – partial information
  3. S) Successful-check information – the most detail

There is a distinction between P and F in any case where there is an active check. There may be other circumstances that would reveal F, or even S information.

For a passive check, the DM will give out either P + F or P + (F?) + S.

Therefore, if there is critical information that is required to proceed it should be presented in group P or F, anything else is bad encounter design.


Critical information to learn: There are people in the next room, but they are distracted.

P: ”You think you saw a shadow move under the floor crack of the door.” More information requires an active check.

F (listen): “You hear two voices, but you can’t tell who or what they are talking about, but it isn’t sounding friendly. You don’t want to push harder as you might be discovered.”

S (listen): “You recognise the voice of Mistress Mary, and an unidentified male, and they seem to be having an emotional spat of some kind.”

I always think of WIS(Perception) check success as BONUS information – a reward for investing in your character and play at the table with a bit of luck. But you always get something in the attempt (even if that ‘something’ isn’t always good.)

And that’s all before you even start thinking about alternate ideas, such as level-of-success, which just adds more information states (and is included in many existing official adventures.)

Lastly, Rory comments on Spot Hidden

1st off Sean – Great show!

Now – let me get my soap-box.

Climb up here…ugnhh…


I recall at lot of old school modules (1e) and even 3rd edition modules always had a through line where by default you could always find the information you needed about the villain, and/or find your way through the dungeon WITHOUT any searching/listening etc. However if you did search for secret doors or hidden clues you could often find cool extras – perhaps some secret info about the villains & how to stop them, or a shortcut through the dungeon, or some extra magic items that help out.

That’s how I’ve always played that sort of thing and most of the adventures I own have used that formulae – NOTE – I’ve only run 5e adventures that were updates of 1e, so your mileage may vary on the other adventure paths out there.

I also want to note that none of the examples Sean was reading from covered anything that contradicts what I mentioned above. All of the examples from the book are either necessary (Sneak/hiding/spotting an ambush) or “special circumstances”.

Listening through a door, listening outside a window, spotting candlelight under a secret door – all of those are situational – and MAY require a check – they are special circumstances.

If the conversation is loud enough to be heard then no roll required – but if people are talking quietly – then the GM calls for a roll – it seems very straightforward.

The candle under the secrets door – come on – of course that’s a roll!

Secret doors should be a bonus DISCOVERY, not the only way to move the plot forward – they should be a reward for exploration – if the module you are running makes it a requirement – that’s a failture of the design – not the ruleset.

Bad guys sneak up on good guys / good guys sneak up on bad guys – you need a perception mechanic to handle that – 1e had surprise rules, and the hide in shadows/ move silently rules. Certain monsters and classes were more alert (Duegar & rangers spring to mind), certain monsters were sneakier (elves & bugbears) raising or lowering the surprise chance.

Even in Brett’s no-skills AS&D game – he’s still probably using a check to see if monsters are surprised when his players sneak into the villains lair, his rogues are going to “move silently”.

I blame a lot of this on “actual plays” and the number of 5e DM’s who watch them & read advice from people watching them. Arguably the largest AP – Critical Role – is super guilty of this.

it seems like every time the players come upon a room Mercer calls for a perception check before even describing the place – and I’ve seen him struggle when the player rolls a 1 and tries to figure out what to say. Then the dog pile starts as everyone else tries to get a description of the room.

I’ve seen a player ask – what does the guy we see look like – and a “perception check” is required – I mean come on – that’s just bad DMing (I like his story/world & enjoy the players – but man that guy needs to figure this shit out).

“what books are on the shelf” should NOT require a search check UNLESS you are being chased by Vampires and your question is “do a see a copy of the Necronomicon on the bookshelf I can grab as we flee the library”.

I’ve never had an issue with skills and I ran a lot of 3e and pathfinder as well as AD&D 2e with skills over the years. I DO have a problem with pathfinder skills (ok – 1st level rogue, you’re hiding, give me a d20 – 27?? what the F?? and you rolled a 12!!???) but that’s a different issue.

Oh – find out their bonuses and roll perception checks behind the screen – that was how moving silently, listen & hide checks worked back in the day – How could the players possibly know that they searched the room & didn’t find anything because their roll was poor.

Ok – climbing down – that’s easier…

Putting away the soapbox.

As you were…



Die Roll

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  • Isometric maps, from @kylelatino on Twitter
  • New game master month
    • Delta Green
    • Trail of Cthuhlu
    • Monster of the Week
    • Runequest
    • Unknown Armies
    • Numenera

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About the Author
The 'S' of Gaming and BS podcast. Besides producing and hosting the show, Sean enjoys long walks on the beach, running rpg's, and killing player...characters.