372 Extended Random Encounter - DnD has Success with Setback

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@Fafhrd The rule is on page 174 of the PHB, left column, last paragraph of the Ability Check section:

“To make an ability check, roll a d20 and add the relevant ability modifier. As with other d20 rolls, apply bonuses and penalties, and compare the total to the DC. If the total equals or exceeds the DC, the ability check is a success-the creature overcomes the challenge at hand. Otherwise, it’s a failure, which means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.

Unfortunately, I see no examples of setbacks.

To @sean’s point though, I also can’t recall a DM ever running it this way (in an actual play or in my personal experience). Heck, I’ve written professionally for D&D 5E and I never realized the rule was there myself, nor have my editors/publishers ever mentioned it to me.

The rule is a good one, but the location provided above might be the only reference to it. It is obviously often overlooked by a lot, but not all, DMs. I’m digging through other books to look for more references. I’ll post again if I find any.


Really? That amazes me as I’ve seen it done by almost all the DMs I have ever had, and I know I’ve seen fail-forward clauses (miss by 5) in several 5e products though only for a few specific checks.

This might just be a case of those DMs I’ve had thinking they were doing something special in a specific circumstance, but never realizing it was there in the 5e rules?

Mercer does it. I’ve not watched a streamer that hasn’t (though that’s not many people). Not for most checks, but when the context requires it.

Perhaps folks just see that as “good DMing” assuming it’s not part of the regular rules?

Perhaps biases from earlier editions filter our perceptions?

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I mean, I’ve done things like that myself but I am like that with the rules. My players know I will follow, bend, morph, or break any rule in the interest of having fun and moving the narrative forward. I do that with all games. My players call it my Rule of Cool (which I know came from somewhere else, just not sure where). So I know I’ve done this with D&D 5E. I’m always playing around with ability checks to keep them interesting. I just didn’t realize the setback rule existed RAW.

And yeah, I see a lot of DMs run it hard and fast, pass or fail. The argument some folks make is D&D 5E is a pass/fail game because that has been their perception (or they’re just parroting something someone else said, a discussion for another time). That perception came from somewhere. I’ve seen it myself in organized play, a good number of APs, and games I have played in.

In my group, there are two of us who run games on a regular basis, myself and one of my buddies. My buddy runs 5E as pass/fail, he always has. And I wouldn’t say he is a bad DM. In fact, he is a very good one. We’ve just always done things a little bit differently through the years and everyone always has fun at the table. We’ve always thought he was running the game RAW and I’m the one who was doing my own thing, hehe.

In fact, I posted a quick blurb about this in our private Facebook group and he responded. He had no idea setbacks were a rule and mentioned he would keep that in mind in the future. :slight_smile:


The word “OR” is a big impact here in that using that says, basically, “you can do one of these two options and both are totally right bye the rules.”

After the conversation with @Sean last night I still hold that if WotC wants to enforce that style of play they should implement some examples in the rules and then in their published adventures provide examples for if/when a failed skill check comes up.

I’m going to have to start putting such examples and such into my Avalon writing as well - need to help enforce the “second option” to provide DMs and players with ideas on how it can be used in an encounter. Doing that will, I think, help folks develop the skills to do it as part of regular play.


Here’s a few WoTC examples of non-binary check results - it is certainly non-exhaustive, but possibly representative. UPDATE: Scanning “Tales from the Yawning Portal” for "by 5 " returns about three dozen checks using a non-binary result (some positive, some negative.) And around10 more in Candlekeep…

Group Checks are amended in Appendix A of Saltmarsh, adding Total Success and Total Failure conditions and tables that detail several Hazards requiring checks:

Once all the checks related to the group check have been rolled, the ship’s success or failure is determined. Hazards offer four levels of success or failure determined by the results of the ship’s group check. A total success or a total failure occurs when every roll in the group check is a success or a failure, respectively.

From Tomb of Annihilation - chapter 2 (reformatting mine):

Ledges. In a few places, the floor of the shrine rises 7 feet, forming a ledge. No check is needed to climb a ledge solo, but the ledge’s height makes it difficult to see what lies ahead. A rider/carrier team probably is tall enough to see over a ledge, but to climb it, the carrier must make a successful DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check; the rider can aid this check.

  • If the check fails by 5 or more, both of them sprawl to the lower floor and, for 1 round at least, they’re just two individuals, not a rider and a carrier.
  • If the check fails by less than 5, they tumble forward onto the upper terrace, sprawl apart, and probably set off whatever trap is on that level.

Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, Chapter 7:

Meditation Benches. By sitting on these crystal benches and meditating, citizens of Ythryn could join their minds with the Telepathic Pentacle, gaining insights about their past and future. A creature that sits on the bench can, after 1 minute of meditation, gain one clue from the Ythryn Lore table by making a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Insight) check.

  • If the check fails by 5 or more, the creature’s wayward thoughts awaken the thing in the well…

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything uses the check result on table of magic item availability in Downtime Activities:

A character seeking to buy a magic item makes a Charisma (Persuasion) check to determine the quality of the seller found. The character gains a +1 bonus on the check for every workweek beyond the first that is spent seeking a seller and a +1 bonus for every additional 100 gp spent on the search…

As shown on the Buying Magic Items table, the total of the check dictates which table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to roll on to determine which items are on the market.

[Table of check-result based scarcity/value omitted]

Wild Beyond the Witchlight flips the script by adding a critical success in Chapter 5:

To determine whether Envy is satisfied, each character who contributed to the necklace’s creation can make a DC 15 Intelligence (Nature) check. On a successful check, the lei is deemed acceptable, and Envy relinquishes the crown.

  • If any character’s check total is 25 or higher, the lei is deemed extraordinary, and from that point on, Envy relinquishes the crown whenever the characters ask for it.

Waterdeep Dragon Heist, chapter 7 -

With the pen door open, a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Animal Handling) check then coaxes a caged creature into the back of a wagon. This check is made with advantage if food is given to the creature.

  • If this check fails by 5 or more, the creature escapes, panics, and begins attacking indiscriminately as it tries to win its freedom.

OK. I’ve spent enough hours on this research - you get it by now.

UPDATED: There are at least 50 and probably closer to 100 examples are in there in the official books.

And, of course, in Chapter 8 of the DMG in the section entitled “Using Ability Scores”, specific options are presented in some detail and including seven more examples:

Resolution and Consequences

You determine the consequences of attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. In most cases, doing so is straightforward. When an attack hits, it deals damage. When a creature fails a saving throw, the creature suffers a harmful effect. When an ability check equals or exceeds the DC, the check succeeds.

As a DM, you have a variety of flourishes and approaches you can take when adjudicating success and failure to make things a little less black-and-white.

Success at a Cost

Failure can be tough, but the agony is compounded when a character fails by the barest margin. When a character fails a roll by only 1 or 2, you can allow the character to succeed at the cost of a complication or hindrance. Such complications can run along any of the following lines:

  • A character manages to get her sword past a hobgoblin’s defenses and turn a near miss into a hit, but the hobgoblin twists its shield and disarms her.
  • A character narrowly escapes the full brunt of a fireball but ends up prone.
  • A character fails to intimidate a kobold prisoner, but the kobold reveals its secrets anyway while shrieking at the top of its lungs, alerting other nearby monsters.
  • A character manages to finish an arduous climb to the top of a cliff despite slipping, only to realize that the rope on which his companions dangle below him is close to breaking.

When you introduce costs such as these, try to make them obstacles and setbacks that change the nature of the adventuring situation. In exchange for success, players must consider new ways of facing the challenge.

You can also use this technique when a character succeeds on a roll by hitting the DC exactly, complicating marginal success in interesting ways.

Degrees of Failure

Sometimes a failed ability check has different consequences depending on the degree of failure. For example, a character who fails to disarm a trapped chest might accidentally spring the trap if the check fails by 5 or more, whereas a lesser failure means that the trap wasn’t triggered during the botched disarm attempt. Consider adding similar distinctions to other checks. Perhaps a failed Charisma (Persuasion) check means a queen won’t help, whereas a failure of 5 or more means she throws you in the dungeon for your impudence.

Critical Success or Failure

Rolling a 20 or a 1 on an ability check or a saving throw doesn’t normally have any special effect. However, you can choose to take such an exceptional roll into account when adjudicating the outcome. It’s up to you to determine how this manifests in the game. An easy approach is to increase the impact of the success or failure. For example, rolling a 1 on a failed attempt to pick a lock might break the thieves’ tools being used, and rolling a 20 on a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check might reveal an extra clue.

5e RAW


Enjoy your less strenuous schedule.

While I, and so many others, enjoy this pod every week, I can absolutely understand wanting to take the foot off the throttle. You gents rock, and I’m happy for you your comfortable taking a bit more free time.



Finished the episode.

In spite of some people’s insistence that success with a setback is a part of 5e, I would speculate that most people using that likely took it from a different game, be it Fantasy Flight Star Wars, or some PBtA game, or what not. I think most of your hardcore, 5e ONLY GMs do NOT use this feature. The ones that do, as Brett alluded to, are the ones bolting this THING onto the side saying hey, check out what I learned from [game X].

Maybe not, just my take on things.

Any happy new year, you brilliant BSers.


Wut? :stuck_out_tongue:

Is there still some question?


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@LaramieWall If interested, take a look at the references and page numbers above. It 100% is part of 5E, references provided by a couple of us. Granted, it is obviously often overlooked, but like Brett said. the “OR” option of a setback exists within the system, RAW. No one has been doing it wrong, just not exercising the options as they exist within the system.


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I didn’t say anyone was doing anything wrong.

I said, in my opinion, MOST GMs using success with set back likely thought they took it from other games, and didn’t see it in D&D. As discussed frequently, a lot of gamers bolt things on, and I’m guessing most people doing this thought they were adding on, not using an overlooked RAW.

Good luck finding the answer on your character sheet in my BX /OSE game, @sean . It’s a whole index card. Sometimes you even use the back for treasure tracking.


First off, I think this episode is my fave of all time. Or of the most recent episodes, at least.

The “or” aspect of the setback and how the D&D community may or may not be playing it reveals one key component - none of us are reading the same game! Sure, it’s the same words presented in the same order, but we’re not processing them the same way. The result is a wider interpretation of the game under an umbrella of core mechanics. Universally, we all know how to determine success or failure, but for some reason we don’t all agree with what to do with it.

It’s incredibly common. Take two people and give them the same instructions to build a table. Those two will not have the same problems, nor will they approach them in even the same order. Hence why key variables commonly associated with personal interpretations or a lack of experience need to be clearly defined. If you need to insert the dowels before you use nails, it better say so. My dad taught me three things: always do a good job, don’t talk back to your mother, and no you can’t borrow the car. Nothing about dowels first. I had to learn that the hard way. Add on the madness that is English grammar and you’ve got a drinking problem on your hands.

Setbacks also feels like it’s written with system mastery in mind because there’s no mechanical definition of a setback (or any similar term). Or a complication or hindrance. The closest thing we have are conditions, but that doesn’t mean all setbacks are conditions nor should all conditions be used as setbacks. Because I’ll be damned if I choose to become petrified just because I roll 2 below the DC. It’s very interpretive… and you know what? So is PbtA. I think I became about as annoyed hearing personal interpretations of what makes a hard move versus a soft move in PbtA as I did with individual breakdowns of why the ranger doesn’t work… again. Does that make for a good ruleset? Depends on whether you want RPGs to be like art (interpretations of a ruleset for an emotional response) or sports (concrete rulings on the field to create fair play in every game).

As far as how well success with setbacks has been explained, I’d say it’s there but weak. It requires a GM to use it wisely to create a fun experience, but can be easily abused because of how vague it can be. If the goal is to create this style of play as a key component rather than as a mod to suit your personal approach, the reader needs to learn it clearly when introduced in the rules with definitions and examples to back it up. What can a setback do? Should it do one of X things? And can I look it up in the index or glossary?

After spending a lot of time working on board games, I’ve begun to see something we seem to be lacking in RPGs. Automation. Board games have clear mechanics that apply in a particular order throughout. No subsystems. Roll this dice, draw a card, flip a token, ask a question. Repeat. RPGs are far more prone to interpretations and that can lead to drastic differences in play. So when that happens with the world’s most popular game and prop up the entire medium of RPGs on its pedestal, are we really putting our best foot forward to new fans of the hobby?

Orrrrr… are these new players trying to tell the hobby something? Are we seeing a shift to a pass/fail mode of play over narrative options because that can be explained in one sentence?

The hobby is evolving. How these games are devoured is changing too. Perhaps this is the time to ask our hobby what we want from it. I personally want to start by asking if we can automate our games better to help overcome the steep learning curve without requiring system mastery to allow for more narrative influence.

No wonder a good game requires a good GM.


Funny you mention that. I’ve gotten in the habit of tracking treasure on an index card for games with a regular (i.e., full 8.5x11) sheet. Those things tend to be so fluid, I feel like I burn through the paper, so I use that nice robust stock of an index card instead.

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As discussed so oft before, both in this forum, this podcast, this hobby, ad infinitum, this goes back to “what do you want in your game?” I say this because my knee jerk was “why the hell do I want automation in my RPG. Automation is a limiter, I LIKE unlimited, non-automated choice.”

Then, 5 seconds later: “Ohhhh, yeah. Why should what I want stop anyone. Adding automation isn’t bad. Todd makes a great point, that WOULD help alleviate the learning curve.” That said, there might even be game out there that do that to some extent, or, as Todd mentioned, board games that might act as a bridge. I know my RPG upbringing was launched with the help of HeroQuest. I’ve taught friends that I used Descent to help with some of those ideas. But why NOT integrate some of those ideas into RPG? Wonderous choices, all for the better.

Oh… and can I borrow the car?


Just wanted to second my good wishes and support for the every-other week format.

I will definitely be hitting the back catalog on the off weeks so I can get my fix in, but I have to say kudos to you both for scaling back.

Every week or so I take a moment to marvel that you guys take time EVERY week to devote to the postcast & forums & discord, in addition to family, work and other games.
Mind boggling!

So I’m very glad you decided to adjust the schedule rather than burning out & quitting.




Thanks @Rweston . Appreciate the support.

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