Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #6: Smash that Bottleneck

In the last article, I discussed how a Dungeon Master should ensure that all encounters played a role in the overall story. I argued that all types of players should find elements they appreciated in each scene. In passing, I mentioned it was paramount to avoid bottlenecks in your adventure and I promised to visit the subject later.

Here we are.

An adventure bottleneck occurs when a precise course of action or success in a given task is required for the story to move further. Any DM with an iota of experience has had  uncomfortable moments linked to such bottlenecks. I recall times where my players floundered to find crucial clues or found themselves blocked by a door PCs were unable to unlock.

Ironically enough, during the 3.x era, my players became goddamn mining engineers when it came to negotiating doors.

Bottlenecks bring games to a halt and often cause frustration around the table. In this post and the next ones, I’ll tackle categories of such bottlenecks and offer advice to deal with them. 

Skill Checks

D20 games and their successors feature binary skill checks system. PCs either beat a target or don’t. This usually translates into success or failure of the task at hand. A bottleneck skill check must absolutely succeed or the adventure grinds to a stop. For example, a room where players must ask to search in order to get a chance to spot a lost magical key. Said key opens an unbreakable vault  that is the only access to the MacGuffin of Sorrows (TM), the PC’s main quest item. If players fail to ask or flub their skill checks, the key remains hidden and the adventure grinds to a stop.

In such situations the DM has two choices. She may allow re-rolls until the key is found, thus making the actual rolls meaningless from a story point of view.  Alternatively, she’ll have to fudge things and tell the player who rolled highest “You’ve found a key”. In either case, the challenge loses all its significance and becomes an unexciting dice roll in.

Some checks aren’t true bottlenecks, but may function as such because of lack of information on the part of players. For example, when dealing with a  locked and trapped door to get deeper in the dungeon, failure  may stop them cold and drag the scene until they find a secret door they had absolutely no clue about that would lead them to the same area.

Such examples is what made my 3.5 era players become champion hinge breakers and wall miners.

The Basic Approach

My easy fix to these issues is to review what was planned before the game and tweak all types of bottlenecks. Make sure they don’t occur. Get rid of “must win” skill checks by assuming the PCs will make it. Put the damn magical key to the unbreakable vault on the Hobgoblin boss instead of hiding it. You find search, climb and diplomacy checks that block the way? Blow them to smithereens!

Now I’m not saying “make the adventure a cakewalk”, hell no! I’m saying “remove obstacles that stop the adventure dead”. Skill checks can be relevant, especially to “unlock”  bonus content.

For example, what if a climb check allowed a character to find a Runed Stone of Unsummoning (TM) on the ledge? That stone could be used to banish the demon minion the BadGuy (TM) uses to guard his sanctum. Thus, acing that climb check makes dealing with the adventure easier, but failing to do so still permits players to deal with things the old fashion way.

The Chatty Treatment (AKA Mouseburning-lite)

Why not embrace bottlenecks instead of nuking them? What if we took binary obstacles and made them into “trouble milestones” instead! Lets make success awesome, and failure even more so. How? First, when a bottlenecky checks springs up, ask a player to take the lead on the roll and inform him/her that partial success will be assumed. Tell the group that you aren’t really interested if they succeed at this task or not but very much interested about HOW  much trouble they could get in if they flub it.

This may need a little bit more work backstage but is worth it. First, decide what kind of trouble a failed roll; would spell out for the character(s)<. Be careful not to fall back to the binary model.

For example, lets say an adventuring party must cross a 10′ wide pit trap filled with venomous snakes. I’d ask for a PC volunteer to jump over with a rope to allow the rest of the party to cross safely after.  I’d award skill bonuses for any ingenious ideas the party implements to make the jump easier. Once all modifiers are figured out, I usually go like this:

Chatty: Okay, so you need to roll XX or more. If you succeed, you get to describe how you made that jump. If you FAIL, you’ll clear the pit but something really bad will happen to you.

Player: Like I’ll sprain my ankle on landing?

Chatty: Something like that. Do you want to go for it or do you want to find another solution?

(Chatty’s evil failure plan: The PC barely misses the  jump but catches himself on the opposite edge at the last second, legs hanging over some very annoyed vipers. They get one “surprise” rounds with the  hero’s legs before he gets a chance to climb out.)

Bam! The bottleneck becomes a significant challenge rather than a pass/fail obstacle.

If you are intrigued by this approach and are ready to go further, I wrote a post last year that tackles skill checks and failure (I called it Mouseburning). Try it!

How do you deal with unplanned or published bottlenecks in your games?


  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    When I first saw skill challenges, my first thought was to eliminate their binary nature and make multiple outcome conditions. I usually look at the lowest outcomes of the worst character and the best outcome of the best character. This gives me the range I have to work with. Many times there will be a partial success, or one with a cost. At the other end I’ll usually have something that gives the skillmonkey a benefit that makes their skill worthwhile.

  2. Pretty much all my skill check calls are like this and the exception to the rule is only when I specify otherwise. Great players make this style of failed checks dramatic and interesting, selfish players describe minimal negative effects and the DM has to then step in and elaborate if its not sufficient. Example: the failed pit check. The player describes landing on the other side but loses his “favorite” dagger (knowing he has 6 more in his bag and doesn’t really care). DM can step it up – say… the dagger lands on a pressure plate, releasing dire rats into the hallway! As long as the expectations are fair.

  3. Venerable dm says:

    Now this is a piece of advice for any current or aspiring dm! We all want pc’s to earn their stuff, but bottlenecks can screw momentum to a fare thee well. I appreciate you going solutions in these posts that are easy to understand. Lord what this blog would have done for me lo these many years ago. Thanks chatty.

  4. Placing the rest of the adventure behind a die roll is definitely one of the worst offenders that can exist in modern narrative/linear design. In fact, I just got done making a full two pages of revisions to a module that clocks in at a mere dozen pages (4 of which are cover/maps/OGL) to combat such a thing that appeared in gross excess! My revisions mostly involved turning the bottleneck from a dice roll (locating a secret door via a skill check) to a player skill issue (there’s a clue as to the location of the door, and if they say they look there for it they’ll simply find it). That way, if the players fail to continue, it’s their own fault (or, at a stretch, my fault for making it too hard to figure out), and not the fault of arbitrary fate via bad dice rolling.

  5. Another awesome article! Many of us have fallen into this trap and last week I admit I did something similar (hide face in shame). I am experimenting with Mike Shea’s “lazy DM” style and I think it may have been that I need a little more experience with it. Thanks for sharing your methods in overcoming bottlenecks.


  1. […] Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #6: Smash that Bottleneck, Part 1, Skill Checks […]

  2. […] Hits covered how to deal with potential bottlenecks in your game, especially tied to skill checks. Your players need to succeed, and they don’t? This article […]

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