Variant Skill Checks – Failing on Purpose

So, one of my players asked me a question: can he “take 1” on his skill check. And it was a good question, because while it doesn’t come up very often, but occasionally a PC doesn’t want to succeed at something.

Maybe they’re trying to buy time. Maybe they’re trying to throw a contest. Maybe they’re trying to enrage a crowd. (It turns out, the player was attempting to make use of deflect blame)

But when it boils down to it, there are two things involved in Failing on Purpose.

How Bad Are You?

When you are deliberately throwing a check, you still need to know how ‘well’ you are failing. However, the more you know about the subject you’re failing at, the better you can deliberately do it wrong. You can use the wrong ink, say the wrong thing, or press the wrong button – on purpose. To deliberately fail, you still roll a skill check, but instead of adding your modifier, you subtract it. You still might do an okay job, but even your best work will probably be much worse than you would normally be able to produce. And, if you’re not hurried, you can even take 10, minus your normal modifiers.

You cannot deliberately fail a check you don’t have a positive total modifier in – wearing plate gauntlets and trying to screw up picking a lock isn’t going to help you out.

Can Anyone Tell?

Usually, if you’re making a mistake on purpose, you want to hide the fact that you’re doing it deliberately. Whenever you fail in purpose and want to keep it secret that you’re sabotaging yourself, you have to roll a Bluff check, just like anything else. However, you can take a penalty to your skill check up to the number of ranks you have in that skill (in this case, adding the number to your subtracted modifier) to give yourself an equal bonus to your Bluff check to hide your deliberate errors.


Magical Material Tuesday – Hard Cloud

While natural clouds are water vapor, and clouds held together by magic are cloudstuff, even magical clouds are really quite soft. By adding a touch of frozen time to that cloudstuff, one can create hard cloud – material that looks like cloud, but is as strong as steel.

Hard Cloud: Hard Cloud doesn’t occur naturally, and exists only where it is created by powerful magic. It is less than weightless, and almost as hard as steel, making it an incredible material to forge armor and battlements from. Most hard cloud armors are two categories lighter than normal for purposes of movement and other limitations. Heavy armors are treated as light, and both medium and light armors are treated as light. This decrease does not apply to proficiency in wearing the armor. A character wearing hard cloud full plate must be proficient in wearing heavy armor to avoid adding the armor’s check penalty to all his attack rolls and skill checks that involve moving. Spell failure chances for armors and shields made from hard cloud are decreased by 25%, maximum Dexterity bonuses are increased by 4, and armor check penalties are decreased by 5 (to a minimum of 0).

An item made from hard cloud is effectively weightless, but to avoid an unattended item from floating away hard cloud often include a small weight, bringing their weight just above zero. In the case of weapons, this lighter weight does not change a weapon’s size category or the ease with which it can be wielded (whether it is light, one-handed, or two-handed). Items not primarily of a single substance or having moving pieces are not meaningfully affected by being partially made of hard cloud. (Both a longsword or a quarterstaff could be hard cloud, but a bow could not.)

Weapons or armors fashioned from hard cloud are always masterwork items as well; the masterwork cost is included in the prices given below.

However, while hard cloud is durable and light, it is still water vapor held in place by magic. Once it begins to unravel, it does so rapidly and spectacularly. Items made of hard cloud have 2 hit points per inch of thickness and hardness 20.

Type of hard cloud Item Item Cost Modifier
Light armor +3,000 gp
Medium armor +12,000 gp
Heavy armor +25,000 gp
Shield +3,000 gp
Other items +1,500 gp/lb.

Magical Material Tuesday – Cloudstuff

Strictly speaking, clouds are made out of water vapor, when there is enough water clinging to specks of dust in the air to be visible to the eye. By the time it gets to be much more than wet air, it turns into rain

At least, that’s the way it works before magic gets involved, because there are plenty of wizards who want to build their castles in the clouds, and plenty of air elementals who would like a place to put their more solid possessions.

Material: Cloudstuff

Cloudstuff looks like a cloud, but beyond the layer of vapor coating the surface feels more like thick sponge: more than solid enough to support an object placed upon it. Slicing cloudstuff open (hardness 3, 5 hp per inch of thickness) reveals more of the same – although pieces smaller than one cubic inch dissolve into simple water vapor.

Cloudstuff is lighter than air at sea-level, and if left unattended will float up to roughly 8,000 feet in altitude, where the air is slightly thinner. One cubic foot of cloudstuff effectively weighs -1 pound, and if weighted down with that much weight becomes neutrally buoyant in air, remaining wherever it was put, even mid-air.

While typical cloudstuff is the same white as clouds on planets like Earth, through combinations of water density, dust particles and non-water vapor the clouds can be any color, and even patterned given enough delicate work.

Cloudstuff is worth 10 gp per cubic foot, but rarely is it bought or sold in volumes less than dozens of cubic feet at once.

Fantastic Feat Thursday – All About Me

All About Me

The world just loves you. You always get picked to go up on stage at concerts or to play at sports, and you’re never the one who gets the short straw.

Prerequisites: Cha 16 or Int 8 or lower

Benefit: You manage to get all the good luck. Whenever you or your GM rolls a die that isn’t an initiative check, attack, save, skill check or damage roll, but affects your character or potentially all characters, that die roll is moved one point in a direction that more favors you. For instance, when the GM is rolling for random encounters, randomizing treasure, or determining which character is randomly attacked or affected by a negative effect.

The first time each day where this would result in two equally beneficial (or negative) choices, you get to choose the outcome.

Variant Skill Checks – Collective Skill Checks

The skill check is a simple part of the entire d20 family of gaming systems, and it’s about as simple as it gets. Need to find a letter in a box? Roll a d20 and add the appropriate skill modifier. Need to forge a weapon? Roll a d20. Need to convince a visiting noble to back you at the gala? Roll a d20. Need to disarm a complex trap in the middle of combat or navigate through a forest? roll a d20.

It gets dull when everything other than combat is just resolved by rolling a d20. There’s a single moment of tension and then no matter how complex the task it’s over instantly.

Which is why I like to play around and do something different once in a while.

Collective Skill Check

Not every check is a single character trying a single thing. Two people work together to hold a door closed. Several adventurers cross a narrow rope bridge over a perilous chasm. A party of adventurers attend a noble ball. Sometimes, there is one key character taking an action and others assisting them. Other times, everybody involved with the check needs to be on the ball – or at least contributing. In these cases, the party needs to make a total skill check.

Every character present in the situation that calls for a total skill check must roll a skill check. This will often be the same check (Athletics, or Balance as examples), but may be instead one of several related skill checks (such as any of Diplomacy, Bluff, or Knowledge (nobility)), and compared against a break-even DC: the minimum a character can contribute to a situation.

The highest roll is the leader of the collective skill check, but that value is modified by the amount any characters fail to meet the break-even DC. So if the leader has a 25 on their check, but they have an ally who rolled a 12 and another who rolled a 13 against a break-even DC of 15, the party’s total is then 20.

That total is then the party’s collective score, and compared against the DC for the challenge, which would be a similar difficulty to a standard check. Making collective challenges more or less difficult can then be managed by raising or lowering the break-even DCs.

This way, skill checks becomes about the party acting together. The most skilled or lucky member of the party can still carry the rest of the group, but more forethought is required as to whether or not the gruff and often drunk warrior to the royal ball – or at least, more effort must be taken to clean them up beforehand.

Fantastic Feat Thursday – Stoke the Fire

I’ve recently been accused of lighting too many of my players on fire. But it’s not always me – players and GMs alike are always setting things on fire.

Stoke the Fire

You love watching things burn, and always keep some accelerant on hand in order to stoke the flames.

Prerequisite craft (alchemy) 1 rank

As an immediate action once per day, when a creature or object within 10 feet takes fire damage you add a splash of chemicals to the flames, and either extend their duration or increase their intensity.

By adding a slurry of tar and fuel to the fire, you can choose to increase the duration of an effect that does ongoing fire damage, such as alchemists fire, by one round. This slurry also increases the DC to put the flames out before the end of the duration by 2.

By adding a flash of powdered explosive, you can increase the heat (and change the color) of the flames. This powder burns quickly and very hot, increasing the fire damage by 3 plus the number of ranks you have in craft alchemy.

Special you can take this feat multiple times. Each time you do, the duration you increase ongoing fire effects by increases by 1 round, and the increased fire damage increases by half the ranks you have in craft alchemy.

Variant Skill Checks – Cumulative Checks

The skill check is a simple part of the entire d20 family of gaming systems, and it’s about as simple as it gets. Need to find a letter in a box? Roll a d20 and add the appropriate skill modifier. Need to forge a weapon? Roll a d20. Need to convince a visiting noble to back you at the gala? Roll a d20. Need to disarm a complex trap in the middle of combat or navigate through a forest? roll a d20.

It gets dull when everything other than combat is just resolved by rolling a d20. There’s a single moment of tension and then no matter how complex the task it’s over instantly.

Which is why I like to play around and do something different once in a while.

Cumulative Skill check
A ranger is working their way across the countryside over several days, trying not to get lost in the wilderness.

The wizard is painstakingly deciphering a magical tome.

A blacksmith is slowly assembling the parts of a large and complex weapon.

All of these cases involve a single character making incremental process towards a goal that is almost certain to be reached eventually, assuming the character is reasonably skilled. Rather than representing this with a single skill check, where success or failure is determined all at once, they can instead be represented by a series of cumulative skill checks.

A cumulative skill check is made primarily by one character over a long period of time. Each day, the primary character makes a skill check to represent the progress they have made that day, adding their skill modifier as usual. Then, however, the GM subtracts from that total a modifier based on the difficulty – typically beginning at 10 for simple tasks, and ranging as high as 20 for complex ones. The result is then added to the check’s running total. When that total reaches a particular goal, the party is successful.

Using this system, your party will have good days and bad days – but will rarely suffer a catastrophic failure. You don’t have to worry about wasting huge values of materials in a poor spellcraft roll, or simply failing to navigate the wilderness. It allows players to consider setbacks and gives them a level of adventure beyond the instant success and failure of a single die roll.

Fantastic Feat Thursday: Summoning Shoulders

Summoning Shoulders

The angel and devil on your shoulder always whisper in your ear, but occasionally they also appear to you tangibly.

Prerequisite Angel on Your Shoulder

Benefit Up to once per day, when you are presented with a choice between good or evil, you can call upon the angel and devil on your shoulder to physically appear to you. They appear as Tiny versions of yourself, but with angelic or devilish features, and float over your shoulders to influence you and your allies.

In addition to attempting to sway your decision, the angel will offer to cast aid on you or one of your allies (or potentially greater to evil characters or in exceptional cases), and the devil will always attempt to offer you a greater benefit than the angel, typically offering bless (or greater, if the opportunity merits it). In either case, you gain access to the boon only after or while you are taking that creature’s advice.

Though they appear to be physical, and can manipulate objects weighing up to 5 lbs., striking either cause both to dissipate in a cloud of harmless smoke – leaving only their disembodied voices.

Magical Material Tuesday – Pipe of Smoke

Another regular feature I intend to do: Magical Material Tuesday! I suspect people would think Magical Materials are better to be discussed on a day starting with M, but to that I say balderdash. Magic is something that can be discussed any day of the week.

Pipe of Smoke

Aura moderate conjuration; CL 9th

Slot —; Price 90,000 gp; Weight


This long-handled black pipe always smolders and smokes faintly with sweet-smelling smoke, even when unlit. By smoking the pipe, a creature can cause thick, viscous smoke to billow out, filling an adjacent space with a viscous, swirling fog, as solid fog. This fog disappears instantly if the smoker releases their hold on the pipe.

On following rounds, the creature smoking the pipe can command the cloud to:

  • Expand into an additional, adjacent 5 foot square, up to a total of 10 squares
  • Move, causing it to fill a new cluster of adjacent spaces within 60 feet of at least one space the cloud previously occupied.
  • Pick up or manipulate an object in or adjacent to one of its spaces, so long as the objects weighs no more than 175 lbs.
  • Grab a creature in or adjacent to one of its spaces. The smoke cloud can make a grapple or bull rush, with a CMB of +11 plus one for each additional square the smoke occupies. A creature grappled by the smoke cloud remains grappled until it escapes, or the smoke dissipates.


Requirements Craft Wondrous Item, solid fog, telekinesis; Cost 45,000 gp

Fantastic Feat Thursday: Angel on Your Shoulder

Since I haven’t worked on an infinite number of projects, I can’t talk about my past work forever. Instead, I’m going to begin offering some game content for you lovely folks – beginning today with the introduction of Fantastic Feat Thursday! You might think Fantastic Feats are better on a day beginning with F, but the truth is that they’re good any day of the week.

Angel (and Devil) on Your Shoulder

While nearly everyone has a conscience, yours is more literal than most – you hear the voices of the outer planes in your mind, typically an angel and a devil, who appear to you to encourage your actions.

Benefit Whenever you are presented with an opportunity to take a good or evil action, these voices immediately identify it as such. In addition, whenever presented with a course of action that would inadvertently lead to a good or evil action, you can identify that the action will be good or evil overall with a DC 15 Sense Motive check by interpreting the discourse between the angel and devil.

These voices are purely mental, and inaudible to other creatures attempting to hear them – though they are immediately obvious to someone reading your surface thoughts or speaking to you telepathically.

Finally, whenever you take the advice of the angel or the devil to take a good or evil action, your aura becomes faintly good or evil for a number of minutes equal to your hit dice, suppressing any normal aura you have.