D&D 5E House Rule Idea: Knowledge Checks Never Fail (they just might make things worse)

clearstream

(He, Him)
I've been playing a lot of Ironsworn, and one thing I like about it is that "failed" rolls make the world more interesting. For example, if you fail a Gather Information roll, you do learn information... just information that makes your quest more difficult! Let's say you're asking around the village about this mysterious warlord Ivor the Gray. If you roll well, you will learn something helpful in your quest to defeat him- like maybe he's deathly afraid of horses. But if you roll poorly, you still learn something. It's just something that is bad for you. Maybe Ivor the Gray has a pet giant that he lets smash his enemies? Or maybe he's wielding a legendary sword that kills with one touch.

Now Ironsworn is designed entirely around not planning out the adventures, and just playing to find out more about the world. But I'm thinking of doing something similar in my D&D games.

When a character rolls an Ability Check to find out if they know something, be it Arcana, History, Nature, Religion, whatever, and they roll well, I'm going to try to give them information that's really helpful. Maybe I'll even have the players brainstorm what it could be, and take their best idea.

But if they roll poorly, I'm not going to just say "You don't know anything." I'm going to give them information that makes the world a little more dangerous... even if I have to change the world to make it so!

To do this effectively, I'll probably borrow from the Ironsworn Oracle, which is basically a bunch of random tables. They have two tables for Actions and Themes that give results with wide interpretations, like "Transform Idea" or "Persevere Ally" or "Challenge War." If the characters roll high, I can use the table to figure out something in their favor ("You find out that Ivor is only going to war because he received a vision from his god, challenging him to take on the most difficult battles he can find."), and if they roll low I can use the table to figure out something that makes their quest more difficult ("You find out that not only is Ivor a skilled warlord, but your settlement is only the latest of a dozen felled towns in his bloody path. He seems unstoppable.")

I know this goes somewhat against D&D's style of "the players uncover realities about the world already set by the DM," but I think it could also be a lot of fun!
It seems highly consonant with the rules in DMG237, to me.
 

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Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
So I got to try this out tonight and... It went great!

A character's awesome Arcana Check gave a big clue to a puzzle they were solving, and another character's high Religion Check revealed a secret door hidden behind a frieze.

The players also really appreciated that their characters would never "know nothing" when making the check- they really preferred the idea of complications as a consequence instead.
Awesome! I’d love to hear some details about how this played out at the table.
 

BookTenTiger

He / Him
I've now been using this house rule for a number of sessions and it's working really well!

Some things that are great about it:

1) The players can trust that they will always get some information that's true.

2) There is a risk to the roll, which prevents players from spamming knowledge checks.

3) It leads to interesting adventure hooks.

Some recent examples...

The players came upon statues of dragonborn druids. A History Check (below 10) reveals that they represent the Circle of the Talon, a druid circle that worshipped dragons, and they're all dead now... and haunting the dungeon! I hadn't planned on ghosts, but now I threw some vengeful spirits into the mix. The characters were able to use their social skills to calm the spirits and actually wound up receiving clues to help them complete the dungeon.

Later, the players found a sarcophagus carved with the likeness of a Drow priestess. A History Check (above 15) revealed she was an important leader who lead a group of Drow refugees from the Underdark to a nearby city... And that the central square of the city is named after her, though not obviously ("Aya's Square," and the priestess is Zalaya). So if they use that knowledge later it'll help them find others sympathetic to their cause.

And finally, the players found a magic rock that, when planted, would grow into a new god. A Religion Check (between 10 and 15) revealed that a new god would be influenced by those who worship it and its environment, so if it gets planted on a battlefield it might become a war god, or in a library would become a god of knowledge, etc.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I've now been using this house rule for a number of sessions and it's working really well!

Some things that are great about it:

1) The players can trust that they will always get some information that's true.

2) There is a risk to the roll, which prevents players from spamming knowledge checks.

3) It leads to interesting adventure hooks.
Yep! This is the beauty of "fail-forward" system design. Failure feels less like a nasty punishment and more like a tension-raising issue--do we take the risk, or take some other risk instead, in our ignorance?

And, of course, when things finally do come to a head, all that ratcheted-up tension then gets released, for good or for ill!

Some recent examples...

The players came upon statues of dragonborn druids. A History Check (below 10) reveals that they represent the Circle of the Talon, a druid circle that worshipped dragons, and they're all dead now... and haunting the dungeon! I hadn't planned on ghosts, but now I threw some vengeful spirits into the mix. The characters were able to use their social skills to calm the spirits and actually wound up receiving clues to help them complete the dungeon.

Later, the players found a sarcophagus carved with the likeness of a Drow priestess. A History Check (above 15) revealed she was an important leader who lead a group of Drow refugees from the Underdark to a nearby city... And that the central square of the city is named after her, though not obviously ("Aya's Square," and the priestess is Zalaya). So if they use that knowledge later it'll help them find others sympathetic to their cause.

And finally, the players found a magic rock that, when planted, would grow into a new god. A Religion Check (between 10 and 15) revealed that a new god would be influenced by those who worship it and its environment, so if it gets planted on a battlefield it might become a war god, or in a library would become a god of knowledge, etc.
All of these are awesome, and I might have to steal that last idea, albeit as a spirit rather than a "god" per se. It even fits with the already existing lore of Jewel of the Desert. Great stuff.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Instead of changing the world on the fly or asking the player to pretend not to know the information supplied is false, it might be easier to just have the failed check effectively impart disadvantage to some future roll (ability check, attack roll, saving throw) that the DM can apply when appropriate. It represents perhaps some level of misapprehension or misinformation that comes back to bite the character in the future when it comes to dealing with whatever they failed to recall lore about. All the DM would need do is keep a tally of how many of those disadvantages accumulate.
I go the other way - if the PC does a knowledge check and does really well that get advantage on a future check as a knowledge bonus ie on a normal success you learn "dragons have a softspot under their arms" or a Critical success "You have heard legends that dragons have a soft spot under their left armpit, targeting this would give advantage to hit.". Maybe on a critical fail you could "you have heard that dragons have a soft spot"
 

I've been playing a lot of Ironsworn, and one thing I like about it is that "failed" rolls make the world more interesting. For example, if you fail a Gather Information roll, you do learn information... just information that makes your quest more difficult! Let's say you're asking around the village about this mysterious warlord Ivor the Gray. If you roll well, you will learn something helpful in your quest to defeat him- like maybe he's deathly afraid of horses. But if you roll poorly, you still learn something. It's just something that is bad for you. Maybe Ivor the Gray has a pet giant that he lets smash his enemies? Or maybe he's wielding a legendary sword that kills with one touch.

Now Ironsworn is designed entirely around not planning out the adventures, and just playing to find out more about the world. But I'm thinking of doing something similar in my D&D games.

When a character rolls an Ability Check to find out if they know something, be it Arcana, History, Nature, Religion, whatever, and they roll well, I'm going to try to give them information that's really helpful. Maybe I'll even have the players brainstorm what it could be, and take their best idea.

But if they roll poorly, I'm not going to just say "You don't know anything." I'm going to give them information that makes the world a little more dangerous... even if I have to change the world to make it so!

To do this effectively, I'll probably borrow from the Ironsworn Oracle, which is basically a bunch of random tables. They have two tables for Actions and Themes that give results with wide interpretations, like "Transform Idea" or "Persevere Ally" or "Challenge War." If the characters roll high, I can use the table to figure out something in their favor ("You find out that Ivor is only going to war because he received a vision from his god, challenging him to take on the most difficult battles he can find."), and if they roll low I can use the table to figure out something that makes their quest more difficult ("You find out that not only is Ivor a skilled warlord, but your settlement is only the latest of a dozen felled towns in his bloody path. He seems unstoppable.")

I know this goes somewhat against D&D's style of "the players uncover realities about the world already set by the DM," but I think it could also be a lot of fun!
God I was thinking about these ideas lately and I'm so glad to see this convergent evolution. Wonderful ideas here, I'm def eating.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
God I was thinking about these ideas lately and I'm so glad to see this convergent evolution. Wonderful ideas here, I'm def eating.
Something I'm experimenting in my FG weekly campaign at present (which is a no-myth sandbox, essentially) is a possible unworkable approach (but one I'm very curious to see if I can make work) that goes like this

success = player gets a random prompt relating to their area of enquiry and working from that they say what's true OR they force GM to disclose a mystery
failure = GM creates a "mystery" related to the enquiry, which is the only way hidden information gets created (players accordingly know that the mystery exists, just not its contents or what it relates to)
Established facts are simply disclosed, so there's no check needed. And facts that haven't been established are whatever whoever succeeds with the enquiry makes them. Consequently as GM, I have two jobs. One is to use the newly established facts to compel/constrain what I say. (Players have to do that, too, but their focus is their characters.) The other is to devise mysteries that - without contradicting anything known to be true - sets stuff up, twists things, and so on.

A simple example might be if players were enquiring about how an arcane device works. Success = they say how it works based on a prompt. Prompts are framed as questions, so they might be answering what its effect is, rather than how to activate it. Etc. Failure = I create a mystery related to the device. Options could include a glitch or curse, a keyword needed to activate it, someone hunting for it.

I've concerns around the usual conflicts of interest when deciding something that benefits/harms oneself. So far, it's led to a pyramid found in a desert turning out to contain dreadful high elven arcanists experimenting on draining life force from mortal folk. I was surprised by that one, but it flowed well from the situation and prompts.
 

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