Wednesday, February 13, 2008

a handy tip for CoC keepers, and others

Once many years ago I did a survey of all my CoC modules. I went through every single effin' module I owned and tallied how many times each a roll for a specific skill was called for. I'm geeky that way sometimes. The top three skills by far were Spot Hidden, Library Use, and Read Latin, with Spot Hidden beating the other two by a good margin. More importantly, a fair number of those Spot Hidden rolls were scenario breakers. That is to say, if you didn't find the door leading to the ghoul catacombs (or whatever) the adventure was effectively over. Here's how that would work out in actual play, at least when I ran CoC:

Player: My Spot Hidden is 45%, I rolled a 63.
Keeper: Well you find the secret door that leads to the rest of the adventure anyway.
Player: Then why did I roll?
Keeper: Uh...


Player: My Spot Hidden is 45%, I rolled a 63.
Keeper: You don't find anything.
Player: I guess that means I don't find the slobbering horror, so I move to South America and become a llama rancher.
Keeper: Your llama ranch is successful right up until the day when the stars are right and Azathoth destroys the material universe.

The easy way to overcome this issue is to think of an alternative to bland, everyday failure, an alternative that is, in fact, much, much worse.

Player: My Spot Hidden is 45%, I rolled a 63.
Keeper: Tough luck, kid. You find the secret door because three smelly ghouls open it from the other side.
Player: Aieee!
Keeper: Roll for san loss, sucker.

Note that this method works in any game that is awesome. The engineer aboard the Free Trader blow his roll to fix the engines? Start a build-up to overload. The superhero fail to track Professor Bloodlust back to his lair? Have him walk into an ambush set by the Professor's Atomo-apes.


  1. The epiphany here is to change the perspective on a game from failure = not success to failure = alternate event. No one wants the game to end abruptly.

    For example, in the original Temple of Elemental Evil, failure means the PCs don't rescue Prince Thrommel of Furyondy; this has significant campaign impact, but doesn't end the adventure. In Night's Dark Terror, failure to figure out how to bring the artifacts together to highlight the tapestry ends the adventure because the PCs lack the map to go to the next step.

  2. Anonymous5:53 PM

    This comment is entirely tangential to the point of your post, but that's okay since I think you already know we're on the same wavelength with success and failure (I'm an old-school disciple of Costikyan who believes that failed rolls should always be as much fun and productive [just not in the way the PC intended], than successful ones).

    But anyway, here's my not-quite-on-topic comment, and it is true: It has honestly never in my life occurred to me to have a player make his own Spot Hidden roll. Even as a teen-tad GM, I always did perception checks behind the screen (of course, even as a teen-tad GM, I never designed an adventure that could hinge on a single pre-planned die-roll, either).

    I don't think that, as a player, I've ever played with a GM that made me roll my own perception checks, either ... even going back to basic stuff like secret-door searches in D&D ... the rule was always: I make the roll to hit stuff, I make the roll to climb the wall, I make the roll pick the lock ... but if I'm checking for traps or secret doors, all I know is the clatter of dice from behind the cardboard Wall of Ignorance and Fear ...

    But again, that's a tangent. We agree, of course, on the importance of reading the dice in a way that works rather than in a way that doesn't.


  3. I've usually played it thusly when the characters miss The Door That Must Be Opened: the characters find the door, but have no idea how it opens. Either the characters must start fiddling with stones, torch sconces, and books on the shelves (in CoC, dangerous enough as it is) or break out the pickaxes...

    If it is just a simple secret door to a minor section of the dungeon (as is common in D&D, where there are plenty of Secret Doors to Nowhere), I don't worry about it.

    Usually in my games I place a sufficiency of different hidden clues, such that even if they miss one or two or even three, they can still piece the important bit of information together. If they still miss it, well, no one ever said being a hero was easy...

    Slightly off topic here, one of the minor clues I like to drop is in currency. Most groups have eventually come around to the idea that when I say "you find 10 Imperial gold crowns in the thief's pouch" there's more to it than just treasure...

  4. Anonymous12:49 AM

    james - I'm a big fan of the currency clue as well. I often refer to coin as the "discarded matchbook of fantasy," in reference to the single most over-used (but still beloved and effective) clue in mystery gaming :)


  5. Anonymous3:12 PM

    This is sort of in the same ein as the Captian Kirk failed attack roll that Robin D. Laws talks about (or was it you?). In any case, if kirk is being held at gunpoint, and the player decides to try and overpower the guard, if kirk fails, then Kirk correctly appraised the situation and didn't try somthing that he knew would get him killed. But if he succeeds, he finds an opening.

    Aaron W

  6. Aaron, that's Jonathan Tweet you're thinking of.