Hipsters & Dragons

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Group Stealth & Other Ability Checks

Something came up during my last D&D session that got me thinking. We were sneaking around on top of a mountain range, trying to avoid the watchful eye of various baddies and beasties in the vicinity. The DM ruled that my Rogue Assassin (with +14 stealth!) could make one check for the whole party to see if we succeeded, as he reasoned that I’d be able to signal to my companions when to crawl, when to duck down etc. etc.. That was nice him and I certainly didn’t argue, however I did think he was probably being a bit too generous.

A little Googling and revisiting the Player’s Handbook (p.175) reveals that the official rules for Group Checks are that “everyone in the group makes the ability check. If at least half the group succeeds, the whole group succeeds. Otherwise the group fails.” The handbook explains “in such a situation, the characters who are skilled at a particular task help cover those who aren’t.”

I like it I have to say. It’s quick and easy solution, and if fast gameplay is what you’re all about then I think it’s hard to improve on…

However, before I looked up the rules I already started to consider another option, and I think it’s worth sharing.

Group Ability Checks – Hipsters Variant ‘Take The Lead’ Rule

Considering the game scenario I already alluded to above, the way I think I would DM it would be that I would let the party elect the PC who is most skilled in stealth (or whatever) to take the lead and to roll first. If they are successful in their ability check – provided they are able to communicate with the rest of the party, via hand signs etc. – then they can confer advantage to the other PCs on their own roll. However if one fails the game is up.

In my imagination I can see a sneaky Rogue leading his group through the castle at night. Having already told them to keep their unblackened weapons sheathed and used a bit of cloth to muffle a particularly clanky piece of platemail, he leads them through the quiet courtyard, motioning them to stop and then duck, and cling to the darkest of the shadows. This explains why they get advantage on their check. What he can’t do however is prevent them from kicking a barrel of fish over the cobblestones, or tripping over their own cloak, which is why he can’t make one check on the whole party’s behalf.

I quite like this mechanic because it feels a bit more realistic, and with more individual player agency than with the official rules that lump everyone together and don’t punish failed rolls. There’s a clear benefit from having at least one expert in the party, but overall it’s harder for the party to mask the weaknesses of their companions. It also means that the larger group, the harder it is to move stealthily, whereas in the official rules sneaking around with three people of mixed ability is just as hard or easy as sneaking around in a party of 103.

Does this ‘Take The Lead’ mechanic work for other group skills checks? Maybe. A good climber can lead the way up a steep rocky incline showing those that follow the best hand and footholds, giving them advice / encouragement and generally making their lives easier. It would make sense therefore, if this ‘activity leader’ (for want of a better phrase) could confer advantage to others less skilled. In this case, assuming the climbers aren’t roped together, if one fails it wouldn’t mean they all fail.

It might need some more playtesting but hey, I just put it out there… it’s up to you if you decide if you want to use it in your game! But if you do, let me know in what situation and whether it worked. That’s the comment section right there ↓ 🙂

If you liked this idea maybe you will like my rule on what I call Dungeons and Dragons ‘technical proficiencies‘.

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8 Comments

  1. Doudoutop

    I like the option a lot. Will test tonight at my table. Thanks!
    The basic rule might be preferable for, say, Survival tests, but yours seems perfect for Stealth, Athletics and every skill that individually puts the characters to the test.

  2. I like where you’re going with this. How about the following caveat: you can’t “Take the Lead” in combat. In you’re climbing example, if a climbing creature attacked the party while scaling a cliff wall it may make sense that the PC taking the lead would be too focused on staying alive to help the rest of the party. I’d also rule to limit this action to skills that involve movement: Athletics, Acrobatics, Stealth, and maybe Survival.

    • duncan

      Hi Bruce, these caveats make good sense to me. To be honest I haven’t been able to playtest this much as I haven’t DM’ed much recently, and I’m still waiting to see in what situations it makes sense to give a party a ‘take the lead’ option… generally, I guess, when everyone has to make a skills check it’s because the party are on the move. Still, I’m not sure having an expert with you to take the lead would help much whilst walking across a slippery log over a raging river (acrobatics), or swimming across a lake (athletics), so I think it will mostly prove a mechanic for stealth checks (with time to prepare) and climbing checks (as per the examples in this post), although I could imagine situations where a party have to ride across a swamp (animal handling) or disguise themselves (deception) where having an expert for a colleague could confer advantage.

      Nice to meet a fellow blogger btw, I have subscribed!

  3. Pierre

    that’s pretty good. I was looking for something to work with for surprise attacks that require stealth. I would do something like, if you want to be part of the “surprise squad” guided by the leader, whenever you move within ~60ft of the target, you need to make a stealth check. you can also stay behind and begin the encounter from there without risking to fail the check for the party, which could be a good option for noisy characters in heavy armor. and i don’t think it breaks anything explicitly RAW. The advantage gained from the leader is distributed as part of a circumstance juged by the DM(PHB p.173), which is entirely valid as per RAW.

  4. Zak

    This is a great variant rule and I think I will try incorporating it into my game tomorrow night. The reason why I think this is great is that it makes thematic sense, still gives everyone a roll, and more realistically deals with failure. The idea of 3 folks whiffing on a group stealth check while other 4 pass and the whole group succeeds? Meh.

    This is better. 🙂

  5. Michael

    You could make an argument here that being exceptionally stealthy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good at coaching others to be stealthy. I can vouch for the truth of this remembering my university lectures – you can be one of the world’s top mathematicians and still be hopeless at lecturing it.

    An alternative would be that the leader makes a coaching check alongside his own stealth check, a Charisma (Stealth) check likely most appropriate. That confers advantage if passed – possibly disadvantage if fumbled.

    That’s an extra roll that some would find unnecessary or overcomplicated, but I quite like it. It could also apply when the leader doesn’t have to make any check for himself. It’s easy to imagine an experienced climber guiding somebody else up a cliff that he doesn’t have to climb himself. A Charisma (Athletics) check would work to confer advantage there.

    I also quite like the idea of grading the help instead of providing advantage. I.e. If you roll a 15 for your Charisma (Athletics) check you grant your companions a +1 to their roll, but if you roll 17 they get +2, 19 they get +3, etc. Also if the roll is 12 everyone gets -1, 10 they get -2 etc. Too complicated for some, no doubt, but I like the idea that the leader can screw up.

    • duncan

      Fair point, and I could cope with a second roll. Although if you talk about coaching I think the quality of the advice (Int modifier) would be more appropriate than encouragement (Charisma modifier)… esp. in a sneaking scenario, when the advice is given silently.

      Your second point is similar in principle to something the Alexandrian posted here:

      https://twitter.com/hexcrawl/status/1437186856848924672

      I would probably want to make it simpler if I implemented it… based around easy to remember check points like 1 (disadvantage), 2-4 (-2), 5-9 (no effect), DC 10 (+2), DC 15 (advantage), DC 20 (advantage +2). That’s a bit generous, but probably not as generous as the official group check rules…

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