Mouseburning It: Hacking a Skill System, Small Press Style

After a year or so playing various small press games such as Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World and Leverage, I’ve come with a standard approach to task resolution that borrows heavily from them. While I’ve been using it with D&D, I think it applies to most classic RPGs based on “roll and hit target to succeed” mechanics, including all d20 variants.

Here are its core elements and how they are integrated:


A task’s outcome must be uncertain. If it can be achieved by off-camera retries, I leave the dice alone.  All those perception and search checks? Dropped them unless I create a challenge structured around just that, with multiple outcomes and possibilities for conflict.

Where’s that damn tiara?  I swear I saw the thief slip it in his pouch! Come on Halfling, fess up or suffer a flying body search on that wall.

Significant Stakes

If the outcome for a task is uncertain, I ask myself “are the stakes behind it sufficient to build a dramatic scene around it?  Will players care if they fail or miss?” If not, I accede to the player’s request and move on.

For example, a player seeking a friendly contact in a village might automatically find one if the GM has no particular inspiration that translates to a meaningful stake.  But if there’s a possibility that characters make a negative impression with clear consequences that may affect later adventures, then stakes are clear and a roll becomes worthwhile.

Scene Economy

You know how much I value the time I spend around a table with my friends.  This means I’m no longer willing to roll to unlock doors and sneak past/fight every mook of an adventure’s area.  That’s why I’m a proponent of “Scene Economy”, a self-explanatory term I believe was formally coined in the Burning Empires RPG and a concept firmly entrenched in Mouse Guard‘s adventure design.

In MG, each adventure is roughly made of only 2 scenes built around one (or a few) skill check(s).  Each features one core obstacle and likely outcome if failed.

In that sense, whenever a player reacts to an obstacle I’ve placed in their path by explaining what his/her character wants to achieve, I take care of breaking down the players’ intent into a series of tasks to create a scene. Once I have this informal list of tasks, I rapidly discard those that don’t meet my uncertainty and significance principles.

Chatty: Okay, you succeeded up to this point so far, but here is where it gets interesting…

Then, what I look for is the core tasks/skill rolls upon which the scene will pivot.  It often boils down to just one skill check, maybe one or two more.

For example, in my Primal/Within D&D 4e campaign, a player wanted his Rogue to find a shop selling a specific magic item in a hostile city.  Since they had already successfully sneaked around town earlier in the adventure, I discarded any further stealth checks from the series of task making the scene (as per Burning Wheel’s Let it Ride rule) and boiled the whole thing down to its essence: a Streetwise skill check.

One Lead, Many Helpers

Among my pet peeves about skill checks in RPGs, the one standing out the most is forcing/encouraging everyone in a group to perform the same skill check, regardless of actual competence.  The most glaring examples is the Stealth check where everyone ends up being penalized by the weakest link, usually the Plate-mail wearing doofus.  In reverse, the “me too” effect often kicks in when everyone in a group decides to tackle the same obstacle, hoping to “roll a 20”, often eclipsing the player for which the challenge was meant for.

Once again borrowing from Mouse Guard/Burning Wheel, I addressed this by asking for a character to take the lead on resolving the next task the group agreed to perform.  Once selected, I require the player to describe how the character will go at it.

Role Playing Aside: This description is vital, it is where much of the role playing resides in almost every RPG I’ve played.  Just as much as the description of a sword stroke is effective, describing how a PC attempts to overcome a task is a lost or untrained art for many players. This is where the DM absolutely must nudge, inspire and encourage everyone to come up with cool descriptions.  Allow players to inspire each other and piggy back on those descriptions.

Once this is done, other players are invited to offer and describe how they will help.  In my D&D 4e hack , each helper follow the standard helping rules, however, I allow a large range of skill/ability/power, as long as the player makes a good show describing how help is provided in that way.

My best example was in my recent Dungeon Reality Show post:

Between the first 2 combat encounters, the PCs were standing around a broken statue of Maïwenn’s god. She mused that she, like, totally should do something about it. So we discussed it a bit.

We agreed that this would be a hard Religion check to re-channel the divine energy back into the statue.  The others would be helping, Seaendithas would climb on the statue (Thievery), Frank would hand him broken pieces (Athletics) to put back in place and Todd would fuse them back with his Magic Missiles (Arcana).

Cards on the Table

Before dice are picked up by players, I usually adopt one of two approaches, depending on the situation.

In high risk scenes, I share the target number to hit and explain the likely outcomes, both good and bad, of the skill check. I took this from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World where players are told what’s likely to happen if they fail (although not in full details). That gives them an option to go back and rethink their strategy if they find the risks or likely price of failure too high.

Alternatively, in less risky/intense situations, I might wait to see the result and offer a bargain if a failure is rolled.  I give the scene-leader a choice: accept normal failure or succeed in exchange for a minor twist in the scene.

In the above “finding a magic item in a hostile city” example, my player failed, so I gave him a choice, I told him he could either fail to find his object, or buy one that was cursed. I would however not reveal the nature of the curse before he made his choice.

He chose the cursed object… he he he

Awesome Epic Failures

Another big issue I have with skill in classic RPGs is how binary they are.  You either succeed or fail and that’s that.  It often made rolling skill checks pretty unexciting.  I find the problem resides mostly in the finality of the failed check. You fail at your task, now what?

However in the last decade, RPGs were developed that specifically addressed the issue of failure and how to use them to drive stories forward instead of grinding them to a halt.  Burning Wheel, I think, pioneered it with the Let it Ride rule and references to avoiding failure dead ends. D&D 4e tried, unsuccessfully in my opinion, with skill challenges but recovered nicely in the Dungeon Master Guide II.

However I discovered the true potential of “fun failures” in games like Mouse Guard, Leverage and Apocalypse World.

For example, Mouse Guard expects GMs to introduce a plot twist/complication whenever characters fails a skill check.  In one of its sample missions, the guards are required to bring mail to a far off city during the Spring thaw. If characters fail their challenge to get to the last city safely, they seek refuge for the night in a hollow tree… occupied by a Crow that attempts to steal a mailbag, leading to a conflict.

In Leverage, whenever characters play “1” on their dice, the GM gains “complications” that he can develop in one-liner assets that antagonistic NPCs can use, whenever the story calls for them, against players in the current or future tasks.  This is great practice for on-the-spot creation of minor twists and complications.

In Apocalypse World, task resolution rolls, unless very high, always result in complications in the form of “you get what you want but…” that open the way for GMs to send the game in all kinds of interesting directions… much to player groaning and sighing.

So how do you make failure fun in a classic game like D&D or Pathfinder?  It’s simple (and gets easier with time).  Whenever failure comes up, the GM comes up with a complication to the plot, a new unforeseen twist to the story/scene/adventure.  It can be either be pre-planned (part of the adventure notes under “likely twists”) or entirely improvised based on what makes the most sense to the GM at the time.

Failure can lead to allies revealing themselves as traitors, characters getting wounded in an accident, triggering traps, alerting a nearby patrol, nobles taking insult, young maidens falling in love with PCs at the WORSE possible time… etc. Just look at recent TV shows where characters jump from trouble into worse trouble (The Walking Dead shuffles to mind) and you have good examples of the type of failures you can spring on PCs.

This seems… complicated.

It really isn’t once you’ve tried it a few times:

  • Drop an obstacle on players
  • Identify the significant, uncertain task(s) to overcome it
  • Identify Scene-leader
  • Identify helpers
  • Let players narrate what they do
  • Lay your cards down and explain target number and likely consequences
  • Adjust strategy if needed and repeat previous steps if necessary
  • Roll dice
  • Describe success or add twist to situation.

If at this point of the story, the obstacle is still there and the players are in deeper trouble than before, don’t panic, just apply this secret formula that Vincent Baker conjured exactly for this:

Look at them calmly, smile and ask them “What do you do now?”

I call this system “Mouseburning it”‘. Try it and let me know how that works out for you.

Thank you everyone for reading.

Special thanks go to Luke Crane (Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard), Vincent Baker (Apocalypse World), Rob Donaghue/Fred Hicks and Cam Banks (Leverage) and James Wyatt/Robin Laws (Dungeon Master Guide II)

Image Source: Light Sheep Studios LLC


  1. Using the “Aid Another”-type rules works too, if they’re all trying the same thing. Pick one character (either the one whose player suggested the action, or the one with the best skill score) and have that one roll. All the other characters roll too, and for each one of them that also gets a success, add +1 or +2 to the main character’s roll. That way, even if the main character fails, the party may still succeed after all. If a character fails a roll, there’s no penalty. It’s “Me too!” but it’s worth something that everyone is doing it.

  2. @Domino: I do it, with the “ask others to help”. If they succeed, the give the scene’s leader a +2 to the main skill roll (and if they fail, a -1) as per the 4e helping rules. The -1 is really nice because it creates a little bit more tension.

  3. Good stuff Phil!

    I thinkat the core what’s vital is that wheeling and dealing, the negotiation and meta-banter that will in turn create the fiction leading into the event and the fiction leading out of success or failure. I’m using parts of what you have set up already. I’ll be giving out DCs and talking explicitly through the complications that raise it (standard +2 DC per complication, or +4 DC per complication) , but then we’re going to right down any of the complications that go into the roll if the players succeed.

    Those complications then can be brought back by yours truly later as appropriate as plot twists and plot points. After all that beautiful setup work, I figure why let it go to waste? Use it for more story.

    I’ve been watching a lot of Dexter lately. One of the things the show does so well is it reincorporates the complications our protagonist faces back later. He was able to overcome sleep deprivation to take out a victim, but it turns out later that because of that sleep dep he realizes he forgot where he hide the body! The show Dexter shows us a lot of different problems and obstacles, but leaves us guessing as to which one will come back to haunt our hero.

    Anyway, I see what you did here and dig it 🙂 Good stuff!

  4. Great article, I’m going to be talking notes for my next session!

    I want to get my players roleplaying more, and so I’m running our first Mouse Guard game for them, instead of the regularly scheduled Pathfinder. Hopefully it will give them a different perspective, and some transferable skills 😉

  5. @Gamefiend: Awesome. I agree that Dexter is a perfect example for “complications that come spice up your life in later scenes”. That being said, I don’t quite understand your complication +2/+4 system. Did you post about it yet… or could you reformulate it here… after you’ve taken your morning coffee 🙂 (I jest, but I’d like to grok it more).

    @Nevyn: Thanks for the kudos! Best of luck with Mouse Guard. Based on my experiences of teaching the game a few time, some players will take to it like fire to dry dynamite. Others, especially players entrenched in their classic RPG experience, will struggle. In that, you’ll need to act as a coach and bring in your enthusiastic players to help the struggles. This will become evident in the first conflict.

    BTW, based on what Luke originally suggested to me when I started running it, you should pick “delivering the mail” as your first demo of the game.

  6. Thanks for the tips. 🙂 I will now stop de-railing your threads!

  7. Dixon Trimline says:

    Wonderful / marvelous. My favorite part of your system examination articles are the “real life” examples you give, which never fail to get the old brain-gears turning. Find a magic item BUT it’s cursed, hide in the tree and deal with the mailbag-stealing crow, and I loved, loved, LOVED the picture of your three PCs reassembling that statue with their own unique abilities. That’s movie scene stuff right there, just beautiful!

  8. @Nevyn: Enjoy your game! Let me know on Twitter how it turned out.

    @Dixon: Your praise means a lot to me. It’s something I have to watch out for when I write as I have a tendency to keep to my academic roots when I describe my methods and systems… so I’m glad you’re validating the extra effort of putting in examples. 🙂

    And yeah, that Jersey Shore priestess game was legendary, I shall remember it for a long time.

  9. Lurv this article, as I do most of your writings, Chatty.

    I run a regular 4e game, and I have been dropping bits and pieces of Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel into it whenever I can. For my recent Dark Sun campaign, I introduced Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, granting a +2 token to a PC who plays a belief or trait to his benefit, and a +5 token if they play it against their best interests. When my Bard PC (Belief: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”) defiled in the presence of the Veiled Alliance mage (Belief: Death to Defilers!”), I gave a +5 to the mage for picking a fight with a party member, and a +2 to the bard for bluffing his way out of it. It entertained me, the players hammed it up, and then they got a reward. It felt like a great fit.

    Beyond that, Luke Crane has come up with some amazing developments for this hobby of ours, and I recommend to every DM I meet that they pick up Mouse Guard at least, if not Burning Wheel. Let it Ride is one of the best table rules I have ever read, and is a great example of the magic Mr. Crane weaves: So simple you are surprised you didn’t already think of it, yet with implications that can completely alter the RPG experience for the better. Now if I can figure out how to work Freemarket flow into my 4e game…

  10. This looks like a great way to structure any game! For a faster-paced game, I also like having the option of “conflict resolution in a nutshell” used in the Solar System. When the players come up against an obstacle, they each describe what they’re doing and roll a check. The DM rolls any checks for NPCs or obstacles, and compares. The winner wins the entire conflict and can narrate it how they want. If the PCs fail and don’t agree, they can decide to initiate a more detailed, step-by-step process of resolution, with a slight starting disadvantage.

  11. I’ve been feeling more and more at-odds with skill checks in 4e lately (with a host other problems similar to how you and others have felt playing the game for a few years) but my players enjoy the setting we’ve created and so I can’t really drop it for now. So to compromise, I will definitely be using some form of this system in my game. I’d like to add something for thought as well:

    The Warhammer 40K Setting RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch) use a skill system that has degrees of success and failure as well – the idea of just failing vs. epic failing really makes for a good level of variation against a binary result.

    Porting a version of this in, similar to MouseGuard’s conflict resolution final results, could really add fun sets of twists and compromises in the game – An Epic Win gives the player full control of the outcome whereas An Epic Fail gives complete control to the DM, with a wonderful spectrum in-between.

  12. @OnusBone Me too! In the latest iteration of our campaign, each character is supposed to embody a certain virtue, and each action that aligns with that virtue earns them a measure of bonus for said action, even more so if the action is a detriment to their safety/mission.

    Like ChattyDM has often said, RPG Cross-Pollination can only make our games and stories better.

  13. EnsignExpendable says:

    Great article. To follow my tweet earlier I had the players hold off about 10 minutes while I rethought tonights session as this seemed to be custom made to awesomify what I had already planned for tonight.

    It went down great with us. Let’s just say that life for the PCs just got a little more ‘complicated’, but they got the item they came for. Only time will tell whether it was worth it or not.

    Love it.

  14. @EnsignExpendable: This is absolutely great news and instant gratification for me. I’m so glad you were able to use it “out of the box” like this in your game today. So cool! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Chris Sniezak says:

    The idea’s in Mouse guard and Fate, which the Leverage RPG has some of those with Fred Hicks being involved, were the games that changed my view of gaming. Similar to you twisting the scene or even the story because of failures or giving players what they want but at a cost are the ideas I latched onto when dealing with failure in my D&D or Pathfinder games. I just don’t always boil it down to single checks as in your streetwise example. It depends on the scene and situation.

    In the above example I would have done exactly what you did having a single streetwise check but what if the obstacle is different. What if it’s a timed situation where you need to save someone form being slowly changed into a horrible creature and you needed to find the components, understand the ritual, and cast it in a limited amount of time. Three failures indicates you’ve wasted far too much time and the person your trying to save turns into a horrible creature while 8 success means you’ve reversed the ritual. The 8 successes come in the form of finding the ritual book (Perception/search), unlocking the mad wizards safe(Open Lock/Thievery, or Athletics/break checks), understanding the ritual(arcana/religion/Assists from dungeonering – It had to do with aberrants), and casting the ritual.(arcana/religion) plus you leave room open for creative use if it makes sense like steadying their friend in the magic circle or keeping him calm to make the ritual go smoother or other clever ideas.

    I feel scenes like this with some structure, tension built in from the mechanics due to failures, and then encouraging or even demanding a short description or method of how their characters are trying to use the skill in question being rolled is necessary. You said about the same thing in your article.

    I’m also a big action scene guy in my D&D games and use failure to create interesting situations rather than you don’t get what you want. Someone tries to swing themselves onto a horse the bad guys getting away on and they fail the roll. Instead of having them not grab the horse why not have them barely hanging onto the saddle and being dragged along. I’m pretty much repeating what you’ve already said Chatty so I’ll move on.

    Since your hacking games to get the feel you want I’d just like to throw out a couple hacks from games or at least concepts I’ve stolen and implemented into my games to great effect:

    I use Aspects from Fudge/Fate in some of my D&D games instead of alignment and even give out fate points which function about the same as they do in their original game. I do so love compelling characters and watching them ask for compels just because they think it would make for a great story.

    I use the idea of the Core clue from GUMSHOE if I want to run an investigative game using D&D. It’s just a simple concept which can be easily adapted to any game system. Instead of making them look for the clue just give it to them and see what they do with it because that’s where the game gets interesting. It’s not finding the bread crumbs but following them. I came in second in my first ever Iron GM competition last year at GenCon and I whole heartedly believe it was because I used this idea in my game. Robin Laws is a pretty smart dude when it comes to game design.

    Thanks for the article and I’m glad I’m not the only one out there using these idea’s in my games. Keep up the good work Chatty and keep spreading the word.


  16. Phil, I love how you break out different mechanics you like and then distill them into fundamental concepts, thus making them suitable to just about any system. When they’re concepts to start with, your ability to drift them where you want them — altering as necessary to suit — is damn impressive.

  17. I was going to write this exact article, but you beat me to it. Kudos! AFAIC, the indies are where it’s at for fun-enhancing techniques.

    I dunno that I would consider MWP “small press,” though. 🙂

  18. MIND. BLOWN.

    This is seriously ridiculously cool. I’m going to have to bookmark this guide for further reference, simply because it’s chock-full of so much awesome goodness. I’ll have to include some of this in any RPG work that I do, simply because it’s so nifty.

    Also, I want that pumpkin.

  19. @Chris: Glad to see others having done the same. Just so you know, there would be plenty of examples where I’d use more than one skill in a scene. In fact that’s what skill challenges try to address… just not the way I would have liked… (But that’s the subject of my next post on skills: Chains of skills for complext obstacles). Thanks for the kudos.

    @Rafe: Thanks man. I’ve been thinking and mulling on my favorite “cogs” for a long time, and I’m happy that I was able to show they were adaptable to more than one game. Now my challenge is, can I build my own game out of those cogs and some more I actually invent?

    @Buzz: Thanks for the kind words. As for MWP, I don’t know how big they are, but I use small press as a less loaded/jargon-filled label than “Indie”. So in essence, almost all game companies are indie/small press, except the big ones like WotC, WW and a few others.

    @Andy: Hey, thanks man. Send me the cleaning bill. 🙂

  20. >>> Now my challenge is, can I build my own game out of those cogs and some more I actually invent? <<<

    I heard that. I'm facing the same thing with my RPG for kids idea. I've sadly put it off for now until I'm happily away from kludging other people's stuff into something new and instead start to actually envisage something new(ish) that isn't just new for the sake of being novel but new because its necessary and apt.

  21. I love reading blogs like this because I frequently realize there are things I can improve in my own games. I run group of newish DnD players, this has made me realize some of the perception/stealth checks they’ve been getting into the habit of performing are just frivolous. I should just be more forthcoming with information.

    Also, I firmly agree with the sentiment that players must describe their actions. Take away the minis, maps, and even the dice– description is the root of the game.

  22. As always Chatty a very good article.

    I have also incorporated Complications/Twists/Conditions into my games (as you know from my ranting) and I have also incorporated Aspects from FATE.

    My players like the mechanics and the encouragements to try something, even if it could mean failure. Failure is rewarded in an unsuspecting way that can create some wonderfully creative story arcs. I like it because it takes the story, possibly, in a way that even I didn’t see coming.

  23. This is a fantastic post. Thanks as always for your insight. I would make one request that I think a lot of people would get benefit from: a detailed post charting out how to build/create/inspire the plot complications and/or twists you mention frequently. This is a great concept for many of us to bring to our table; however, because it’s such a new idea to many of us, the coming up with complications on the fly might be a bit daunting.

  24. @Jason: I’ve been planning to write such an article for some time. In fact I think it would make a great PDF product as part of a “Chatty’s GMing toolbox”. Thanks!

  25. I would by “Chatty’s GMing Toolbox.” I would, in fact, buy multiple copies and send them to my GM friends as presents. Really… really I would.

  26. This is awesome, Phil. I have spoken. 😉

  27. Excellent ideas here for incorporation. From my experience Burning Empires and Apocalypse World in particular are games that made me a better GM and we started incorporating their ideas before moving fully to these systems.

    In Apocalypse World the creative story that wrathofzombie describes emerges from “Moves Snowballing”, and I have always been pleasantly surprised by where the game ends up and see my players now welcoming failure for the interesting twists.

    I’d echo the thoughts that playing this way seems daunting at first, but I find it easier to GM now than I did before and I get a much better game.

  28. Woops – not sure what happened there, but I don’t have a blog.

  29. Great post. Your site looks amazing, nicely done.

  30. What I kinda like the best in Burning Empire is that the players mostly run it themselves. And there is a perverse sort of fun in seeing how the fiction and the mechanics interact, like a burning weather balloon weighted down by a chunk of Big Ben’s internal clockwork.

  31. After playing a couple of sessions of Paranoia with my group, I found the “margins of failure” mechanic, often resulting in absolutely catastrophic failures if the roll is terrible, to be really quite powerful. I intend to use it in my upcoming Eberron campaign.

  32. I’ve been doing a lot more system hacking than actual playing recently. I am now the “proud” owner of a gigantic stack of D&D power cards.

  33. Oooh! I like the idea of the cursed armour. I will definitely be trying to think of interesting/useful failures for the campaign I’m starting soon!

  34. Aww Chatty! You deleted that poor spambot’s post 🙁


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