We all want our characters to be competent in their assigned roles, but should it be possible to build a character who always succeeds? Should Bard always, in every conceivable circumstance, manage to seduce Barmaid? Such automatic success might look like the absurd bonuses of 3.5 D&D or the literal “you always win contests” resolution system of Amber Diceless. If you’re not familiar with the latter, here’s a taste from the rulebook:

Early on, in one of the play-test sessions, one of the characters, cloaked with a magical invisibility, snuck up on one of the player characters who was a master in Warfare.

“I’m going to plunge my sword into his back,” said the invisible one.

“He turns,” replies the Game Master to the invisible character, “and parries your blade. As your swords clash, it’s obvious he knows you’re there. What are you doing?”

“How? I’m invisible!” protests the player, “How could he possibly parry my blade if he can’t see me?”

“Well, he’s awfully good,” says the Game Master…

It’s a great example of one of the fundamental problems of playing make believe. If we’re kids playing cops and robbers, I might declare that I shot you. You counter with, “You missed!” Which of us is right? TRPG resolution systems strive to answer that question, declaring that shields decrease probability, magic arrows increase probability, or if all else fails that the GM gets the last word. It might not look like it on paper, but I think the shield and the arrows don’t really matter. At the end of the day, GM fiat is the only thing we’ve really got to hold the world together.

I know that last bit is going to be controversial, so let me explain before the torches and pitchforks come out. In certain specific contexts, it doesn’t matter that the book says a DC 43 Spellcraft check ought to reveal the properties of that artifact. If your GM doesn’t want to spill the beans, it’s suddenly a super-special artifact that resists your petty mortal magics. Circumstances have changed, and “always succeeds” becomes “usually always succeeds.” As a point of comparison, let me qualify that whole “you always win contests” thing in Amber Diceless:

When two or more characters come into direct conflict, duking it out, things are usually resolved by comparing the two Attribute ranks. Then, the one with the higher rank usually wins.

Not always, just usually.

When Corwin fought Benedict in Guns of Avalon, Corwin knew that Benedict was the better swordsman. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, Benedict could beat Corwin in any fair fight.

Corwin won.


Well, Corwin fights dirty.

It’s lovely to have points of reference in a game system. It’s DC 5 to climb a knotted rope, DC 25 to climb a brick wall, and DC 100 to climb a perfectly smooth, flat ceiling. But what happens during a hurricane? Or if you’re phobic of heights? What happens if, like Corwin, circumstance is fighting dirty? Only the guy sitting behind the GM screen can know for sure. That’s why, if you happen to be the aforementioned guy behind the screen, it pays to make sure your players know the limits of the possible.

As a matter of personal GMing style, I like to expand the range of “automatic success” for highly specialized players. Like we talked about way back in “Knowledge is Power,” absurd bonuses and crazy-high rolls come along all the time. The default automatic success of “you always walk without tripping over your own feet” expands to “you can always jump at least X distance” when your Acrobatics bonus gets high enough. Depending on the circumstances, seducing Barmaid might be truly automatic. But by the same token, if she happens to be married, or scared and on the run from doppelganger assassins, or if you tried a truly insulting pick up line, then the sphere of the possible has shifted. Automatic success might just become automatic failure, and you might get a face full of beer despite all your skills.

There’s a line in the “Deceive or Lie” section of the Pathfinder rules that’s near and dear to my heart. It reads, “Note that some lies are so improbable that it is impossible to convince anyone that they are true (subject to GM discretion).” I think that sentiment is true of every action in a TRPG, not just social rolls like deception and diplomacy.

Successful players and GMs find a way to soldier on despite the ambiguity. We compare notes often. We communicate. We figure out whether a high roll means “I jump to the moon” is plausible, and whether a low roll means “the kindly old woman flies at you in rage” is the penalty for botched teatime etiquette. It’s only when we fail to communicate that problems arise, and when real-world beers get thrown into real-world faces.

That brings us, at long last, to the question of the day. Have you ever failed a roll that, in you opinion, ought to have been a success? What was your GM’s rationale? Let’s hear your tales of unlikely underachievement down in the comments!


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