1d20 Shades of Gray

by Mike Shea on 22 April 2013

One of the things that makes Dungeon World unique among D&D off-shoots is the inclusion of a core mechanic with partial successes. Instead of a mechanic with only either success or failure, such as rolling 1d20 + skill modifier and matching it against a difficulty check number, Dungeon World gives a wide middle range of partial successes.

There's no reason we can't steal this idea and add it into our normal d20 games like D&D 4th Edition, the D&D Next Playtest, or Pathfinder.

Romancing the Drug Dealer

Climbing the DC Ladder

All recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons included a difficulty check ladder. Next and Pathfinder have relatively static DCs from easy to hard that start at about 10 for easy stuff and go up to about 25 for really hard stuff. 4th Edition's ladder is a bit more complicated. You can find a full copy of the ladder on the DM Cheat Sheet.

As characters attempt things with easier or harder difficulty, the DM chooses a different DC. Typically, PCs either succeed when they meet or exceed the DC and fail when they roll below it.

It doesn't have to be this way. Instead of picking a single DC, we might pick a range of DCs to represent shades of gray. For example, Say a PC is drawing negative energy out of a powerful magical pillar tied to the Shadowfell (a level 15 challenge for our 4th edition game). The low DC is 15, the medium is 22 and the high DC is 30. Instead of succeeding or failing, we can describe different results depending on which DC they make. Rolling below a 15 for example, causes tremendous negative energy feedback resulting in 3d6+18 necrotic and lightning damage to the PC attempting the check. A roll between 15 and 21 has no negative effect but didn't succeed in drawing out the energy. The wizard cut off the connection before getting hit for the feedback. A roll of 22 to 29 successfully draws the energy out of the pillar. A roll of 30 or above represents the PC not only drawing energy out of the pillar but infusing herself with that energy. She now has advantage on all arcane casting until the end of the encounter!

Winging It

Many DMs already do something like this. They don't have a fancy chart giving them a range of successes or failures, but when they hear about a particularly high or low roll, they describe a greater success or terrible failure. Sometimes, when a player sees how low he or she rolled, he or she might describe the critical failure without the DM's help.

This turns DCs into an analog gauge rather than a binary "success" or "failure". There's not a lot of preparation required for this sort of change. You just hear what the number was and change your description of the results depending on how much higher or lower the result was. You might keep some mechanical tools at your disposal to reward particularly low or high rewards such as a +2 bonus to the PCs next attack roll, a D&D Next style "advantage" or "disadvantage", or some other potential mechanical effect.

Fail Forward

A lot of game masters and newer RPG systems have discussed the concept of "failing forward". Instead of a failed skill check resulting in a monologue of disaster from the GM, a failure can put PCs in a tough spot instead — rocking them back on their heels, stealing some valuable resources, or forcing them into a more desperate situation. Dungeon World describes these ideas throughout and many other systems often give them a nod.

Failing forward means putting PCs on a new track, a more difficult track, that still propels the story forward. It's not easy to do. Saying "no, you fail" is a lot easier than changing the course of a scene. This is why a lot of us haven't done this for most of our DM lives.

Adding levels of success puts a lot of pressure on us. Instead of two tracks we could have twenty. This is where a truly skilled DM can come up with a dozen variants of what happens. You can't plan for this, you have to be ready to improvise. Improvisation is they skill of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Partial Successes

Describing partial successes is likewise hard. With a partial success, you give something and you take something away. PCs may get what they want, but not through the obvious method or in the way they want it. Complications occur. Maybe they got attention when trying to pick that lock. Maybe they absorbed the magic of the rune and have to pour it out before it devours them. Something good happens and something bad happens. You have to decide what they are. Like many storytelling areas of D&D, this could potentially be a bit of negotiation between you and the player. Stretch your improv muscles with a bit of "yes and" back-and-forth.


What if the PC blows way past the DC? Reward them for it. Show them how much better they are than this. For story-based skill checks its easy to describe how much better they did.

Consider the scene in Romancing the Stone when our heros approach the local drug kingpin in his lair and he looks out the little slot and says "You're Joan Wilder? The novelist??" and lets them right in. That's a critical diplomacy check right there. Maybe that cynical guard is actually a huge fan of the PC asking the question. Maybe the PC had saved the villain's cousin six years back like Jake Hoyt had in Training Day and it ends up saving the lives of the PCs. Overachieving should never get a PC in trouble. It should offer something even greater than what they had set out to do in the first place.

A Conversion to Analog

Audiophiles often discuss the better sound of analog tube amps. Instead of turning sound into ones and zeros, analog audio systems preserve music in the way our human ears absorb it. Likewise, the stories we tell during our D&D games don't have to be simple ones and zeros. We have entire ranges of actions and reactions that can occur from the random rolls of the dice. Hopefully this article gives you a few ideas for adding your own shades of gray to your D&D games.

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