Short Thoughts on: Passive Rolls

Passive rolls are weird. They seem logical in theory but on the other hand often feel clunky  in practice.
Therefore I wanted to talk a bit about passive rolls and ideas for replacements in this post.

What are passive rolls?

Passive rolls happen, if the player does not actively trigger a roll, but his character might realistically do something never the less. The best known example would probably be perception rolls. A character might spot a danger while traveling, even though the player is not actively roleplaying, that his character is on the lookout at each moment.

Why are passive rolls logical?

For the players and the gm, it is hard to share the same fictional world and visualize it in full detail. Additionally, a character might, in various areas, be more skilled  than the player. If she is an experienced ranger and the player an accountant, the ranger might intuitively know, what to be on the lookout for, when walking through a deep forest.
It seems logical to employ a passive roll in these situations.

Why are passive rolls clunky?

Let me demonstrate this with an example.
The group wanders into a forest and unbeknownst to them crosses into the territory of a predatory animal, that lurks in the underbrush or follows them in the treetops.
As seen above, this is a situation, where the GM would call for a perception check (or whatever  the equivalent in the system you are playing).
But in my opinion, the roll feels weird for multiple reasons:

  1. Passive Rolls spoil on the meta-level:
    Whether the roll is successful or not, if the GM calls for a perception check, everyone on the table now knows, that there is something to be on the lookout for. For perfect non-meta-gaming players this would be fine, but most players will at least subconsciously use this information.
  2. It takes the character away from the player:
    A GM calling for a passive roll is the same as the GM taking over the character to let them do something. And taking over the character of players is something the GM should avoid, as it is taking the game away from the players.
  3. It is in no way engaging:
    Most fun in roleplaying games come from engaging with the world and the characters therein and not from throwing some dice. Sure the dice add tension and an element of the unknown, but for me as a player it is way more engaging to interact with the world. A passive roll is only rolling dice, no interaction, no engagement.

Note:

There are some alternatives to avoid some of these bad aspects, that are commonly used.

 
Hidden GM Rolls: Basically do the same as passive rolls, just more ominous and the GM has to have access to perception values for all players.


Fake Rolls (Roll even if there is nothing to spot) to avoid meta knowledge: Don’t do this. Just don’t. What if one of the fake rolls is successful? You spot a squirrel? Never ever roll for literally nothing. These rolls only drag out a game and can feel really unnecessary.

Are passive rolls needed?

This will probably be a controversial standpoint, based on which types of games you prefer, so keep in mind, that this is solely my opinion:

  • A passive roll does nothing for a fluent game and is more or less a failure of the GM or the players.

To understand my point, let’s look at an example:

The “Does my character spot an important or interesting thingy in the room”- Roll: 

  • A fluent game resolves around the descriptions of the GM of the world and the players engaging with it. If a passive roll is needed to spot something in a room, the GM either failed to properly communicate the world by either not describing the interesting thingy, when first describing the room. Or secondly, he did not communicate to the players, that they should be on the lookout for a thing in this room.
  • Additionally if the thingy is really important and the players actually need to find it, why would you as a GM take a chance and let the dice decide upon this.
  • And finally, if the passive roll fails, the players know that there is something to be on the lookout for and might search more thoroughly, even if the roll just said, that they do not find anything.

How to replace passive rolls?

Passive rolls can be useful, as discussed above to distinguish between player and character skill sets, so how do we replace them with something else that is more fitting for a fluent game flow and actually engages the player.

Give the players incentive to take action

I already hinted at my approach. For most occassion, I want to give hints to the players to either remove the roll completely and replace it with roleplaying or to make the players trigger an active roll by engaging with the world.

So let’s go back to the forest scene with a dangerous animal hiding in the shadows.
As a GM, you now wan’t to give the players warnings and hints about this animal. This could be something simple as some obvious paw marks, fur, a rotting carcass of another animal, that was preyed upon, or just a general silence in the forest. If you want to be really obvious and get the point across, let them stumble upon the nest or home of the animal.
They are thus engaging with the world and will probably come to the conclusion, that the beast might be nearby and trigger a perception check.

It leads to an engaging, interesting situation free of any useless rolls or spoilers on a meta-level.

Including Character Knowledge

One addition, that kinda helps the characters feel different from the players in this regard, is the inclusion of hints, that the GM gives specifically to one player, tailored to their characters strengths.
For example, it is more likely, that the ranger character recognizes tracks in the dirt. Give the player of this character this information and therefore the initiative to act on this information.
If the character is a city dwelling merchant, he might not see the tracks, but might later get some other but more vague hints.
With this addition, characters, that are more proficient in something, gain an advantage for the players in the engagement with the world. This advantage consist of the detail level of the hint and the focus, that the GM gives the more proficient character.

Pre-Determined passive rolls

If you have a roll, where you are not sure of the result, because realistically it could go either way, but you heavily tend towards one option, don’t roll. If you have a roll, where the result is negligible, even if it fails, don’t roll. It is a game and not reality. Take the option, that makes the game more interesting and fluent and move on without rolling. Nobody wants to roll for some trivial things.

Conclusion

In summary, we can say, that we found some really strong argument against passive rolls and only a few weak ones for them. There are also some ways to replace passive rolls, that at least for me, work rather well. Of course, this results in a bit more work for the GM, as he can not just lazily use a passive roll to avoid missing descriptions or engagement.
And even though, I find myself using a passive roll rather subconsciously from time to time, I try to replace them in my games resulting in a more fluid and engaging feeling fiction.

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