Warning! Copious content ahead!
I’ve had a chance now to look over the comments on my post about skill systems in D&D and I realize that I wasn’t quite a clear on some matters as I had hoped to be. I can only blame myself for not stating them better and perhaps losing something by way of the manner in which I had presented my argument. Rather than attempt eloquence, let me sum up my problem with skills in D&D in list form. Hopefully that might make things clearer.
1) Skills & proficiencies look out of place to me in D&D. I’m striving for as much of a bare bones approach as possible and I’m not looking to add anything to the character sheet, no matter how simple or small. I thank everyone who offered their own methods for adding skills to the game but that wasn’t what I was looking to do. Instead, I’m more interested in using the game mechanics already present in the rules (Labyrinth Lord in this case) rather than add something new to the game.
2) Concrete skill systems can lead to metagaming, which can consciously or unconsciously limit game play and thus rob the players of the opportunity of truly memorable gaming sessions. The time Rolf the dwarf snuck past through the temple of evil cultists is much more of a gaming highlight than Knuckles the Thief doing the same exact thing.
3) A concrete skill system can lead to the referee introducing contrived events to justify the addition of certain skills or proficiencies. When the ride skill is added, more characters start falling off horses because more ride checks become necessary in order to reward those who chose to spend points in riding. This can also lead to the mindset that cooking rolls are required for every meal, fire-building checks for every campfire, and other ridiculous circumstances. While I agree that this is more of a indication of poor refereeing than in implicit flaw in skill systems themselves, concrete skill systems open this door to that way of adjudication.
4) The ability of a character to perform an action well is already determined by his attributes and class and thus a concrete skill system is superfluous.
5) Having a skill system based on points or levels requires the need to artificially increase the difficulty of actions in order to keep pace with character advancement.
With that out of the way and my own personal (and I stress personal) qualms with skill systems in D&D defined, here’s my solution:
Use the mechanics already provided in the game.
I have to greatly acknowledge the Original D&D Discussion Forum for my decision on how to approach the resolution of actions normally covered by skills. Anyone looking for similar insights should take the time to peruse the threads on that forum. It will be well worth your time.
Some of what follows will be extremely familiar to some people. As I mentioned in the previous post on this subject, my method is not new or unique; just better outlined for my own personal use. All of these rolls are subject to modifiers of between +4 and -4 based on circumstances in the game. Whenever a page number is referenced, that page is from the Labyrinth Lord rulebook.
General Adventuring Activities
The following is a collection of actions that might conceivably be attempted by characters during their adventuring activities. It is not a comprehensive list but I feel it covers most of the common bases. Any ability score with a ½ before it means that the ability rolled against is half the normal score rounded up.
Acrobatics: Dexterity check for thieves, ½ Dexterity for all other classes.
Animal Handling: Wisdom check for domesticated animals, ½ Wisdom for wild animals.
Climbing: Under optimal conditions (proper tools; taking one’s time; rough surface), all characters can climb without incident. In less than optimal conditions (no tools; slippery surface; under attack), a Strength check is required. Only thieves can scale extremely high ascents or dangerous surfaces with a Climb Walls check.
Detect Secret Doors: 1 in 6 chance for non-elves to find secret doors, 2 in 6 chance for elves.
Detect Traps: 1 in 6 chance for most classes to detect large traps (pits, swinging pendulums, falling blocks, crushing ceilings, etc.) and 2 in 6 chance for dwarves to detect the same (p.45). Thieves may detect smaller, concealed traps with the Find Traps skill.
Haggling/Negotiations: Roll on the Reaction Table to determine NPC’s attitudes if necessary. Charisma modifiers apply as usual.
Healing: There is no healing “skill” per say. All characters heal 1d3 points of damage for each full day spent resting (p. 54).
Hiding/Sneaking: Any lone individual has a base 2 in 6 chance of avoiding detection in optimal conditions (low light and unwary opponents) as per the rules for Surprise (p. 50). This chance is reduced to 1 in 6 if they’re wearing metal armor, heavily encumbered, or they’re attempting to avoid the scrutiny of alert observers. Heavily armored individuals or those carrying light sources have no chance to avoid detection. Thieves get their normal chance to Hide in Shadows or Move Silently and, in the case of failure of either of these skills, get one “Hail Mary” check on a d6 to avoid detection. In less than optimal conditions (bright light and alert guards), they live or die on the success of their skill check alone. They are the only class that can achieve success in near-impossible conditions.
Jumping: Strength check modified by armor or encumbrance.
Listening: 1 in 6 chance for non-thief humans, 2 in 6 for demi-humans, Hear Noise check for thieves (as per Doors p. 45).
Outdoorsman skills: Characters may attempt to forage for food while traveling (1 in 6 chance) and they may hunt or fish (2 in 6 chance) if they spend a full day engaging in that activity (p. 46). Extrapolated from these chance, characters may attempt to track (2 in 6 chance) under optimal conditions (snow, mud, fresh tracks). This is reduced to a 1 in 6 chance under less optimal conditions and impossible under extreme conditions (over rocky terrain, over bare stone floors, etc.). Characters may also attempt to find water in dry conditions (1 in 6 chance), build fires without a tinderbox (2 in 6 chance) or start a fire with tinderbox and wet fuel (1 in 6 chance).
Performance: Roll on Reaction Table to determine the audience’s response to the performance. Check are modified by Charisma, but Dexterity, Wisdom or another applicable attribute may be used in place of Charisma depending on the type of performance. This attribute provides the same bonus or penalties to the Reaction Table as if it were Charisma (a Dexterity of 16 would provide a -1 bonus to the Reaction Table in the case of a dance performance for example).
Readings/Writing: A character’s literacy is base on his or her Intelligence as per the table on p. 7)
Riding: All characters can ride land animals without incident under normal conditions. In combat or unusual situations, a Dexterity or Wisdom check may be required. Characters can ride unusual mounts (flying or swimming) if the animal is willing to bear riders but a ½ Dexterity or Wisdom check is required if complications occur.
Swimming: All characters can swim. An unarmored and unencumbered character can swim without the need to make a roll under normal conditions. In extreme conditions (rapids, strong currents, etc.) they must make a Constitution check. Characters wearing leather armor or lightly encumbered must make a Constitution check each round spent swimming to avoid drowning. Characters in chainmail or moderately encumbered must make a ½ Constitution check each round to avoid drowning. Characters in plate mail or heavily encumbered cannot swim and begin to drown.
I may be in the minority nowadays but I’ve always assumed that the character’s class is his profession. Adventurers are individuals who, by inclination or lack of ability, decided to eschew more traditional professions like farming, herding, or trade skills to pursue a life of adventuring. As such, they don’t have much in the way of training in such occupations.
Despite this assumption, I’m willing to admit that most adventurers have picked up a few minor talents in regards to their particular class and the support professions that accompany it. In most cases, with the proper time and tools, an adventurer can perform minor tasks relative to their professions without the need for an ability check; a fighter can perform minor repairs on his weapons and armor and a magic-user can mix his own ink and make his own quills, for instance.
If the character attempts to perform a trade skill related to his profession of a more complex nature, he must make a successful ability check against ½ his ability related to that trade. A fighter could attempt to forge a sword or make armor, but would have to succeed against a check at ½ his Strength. A magic-user could attempt glassblowing to make his own alembics with a successful check against ½ his Wisdom. Characters can also attempt to perform trade skills or professions that don’t require a lot of prolonged training or tools by making a ½ ability check. Almost anyone could try their hand at farming or herding by making a successful ½ Wisdom check for example.
A trade or profession that is not in any way associated with the character’s profession or requires a great deal of training cannot be performed. A magic-user couldn’t attempt to forge a sword or a cleric try his hand at alchemy.
In the event that I was to ever include Secondary Skills in a game, I’d allow a character to make an ability check at the associated score’s full value in order to determine the success of such an activity.
In theory, I’d like to remain true the old school tradition of allowing players to rely on their own individual knowledge in order to reason out intellectual challenges that are presented in game. I’m also aware though that their characters, from benefit of “living” in the game world, would possess information that their players wouldn’t. In these cases I allow for Intelligence or Wisdom check to determine if the character knows something about the situation.
If the information the character is looking to recall is general knowledge or specific to his class, I allow an ability check against the full value of the character’s Intelligence or Wisdom. Examples of situations where I’d allow checks are trying to remember who the current lord-mayor of a major city is, the major exports of a neighboring country, and the date of the Battle of Seven Rivers. Class-based examples would be a cleric attempting to identify the religious vestments of a band of pilgrims, thieves looking for a good fence in a nearby city, magic-users trying to decipher a rune, or a dwarf or elf attempting to recall facts about their race’s history. Characters may attempt to recall information pertinent to another class (a fighter trying to identify the religious vestments for example) but do so at ½ their normal Wisdom or Intelligence.
Lastly, if a character is trying to recall some information of an extremely obscure or esoteric nature, provided it is relevant to their class, they have a base 5% chance per level of experience of knowing that information. A 4th level cleric attempting to identify an altar dedicated to some distant god from the West would have a 20% chance of being able to determine the deity. Being the type of referee who always likes to give the characters a chance, I also allow a 1% chance per level for characters to identify or remember information not directly related to their class. This represents any campfire stories or taproom tales they might have heard over their lifetimes.
Improving One’s Chance
There is not set rule or method for allowing a character to improve his chances at any of the above attempts. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. For one, I’m running in the very old school mind set of starting the characters off as “potential heroes” meaning they roll 3d6 for abilities. Because of this, I’m more inclined to allow various special dungeon encounters or items that permanently modify the characters’ ability scores. Just a casual look at Stonehell reveals there are more than a few opportunities presented for the characters to gain (and lose) a few points in their attributes. This of course will indirectly modify their chances at certain “skill” attempts.
Secondly, if it’s important enough to a player to increase his chances at a certain talent, I’ll allow for them to undergo specialized training to modify their rolls to determine success. This training always requires a certain amount of both money and game time to be spent before the character learns enough to modify their rolls. Both the expense and time required depends both on the complexity of the training and the overall effect it will have on the character’s chances of success. A character looking to become a better horseman for example might only be required to spend one month in training (and thus, not going on any adventures) and pay a 500 gp tuition cost to his tutor. At the end of that month, a note is made on his character sheet that he receives a +1 or +2 bonus to all ability checks pertaining to riding. A character looking to improve his chances at noticing secret doors, however, might have to spend 6 months and several thousand gold to gain tutelage under an obscure elven sect (provided he can find them in the first place). In the end, he gains a +1 to his chance to find secret doors – a much greater increase in probability of success and overall impact upon the game. In cases where a character normally rolls against 1/2 an ability score to determine success, undergoing training will allow the character to roll against his full ability value instead of half.
The reason that improving one’s chances at “skill” attempts is both costly in time and money is that I’d like to keep the emphasis on adventuring in order to improve the character’s success rather than education. I believe that if an adventurer really wants to improve his chances at finding secret doors, learning esoteric knowledge, or gaining some bonus to ordinary activities, he should be tracking down leads to magic items, mystical locations, and long-forgotten tomes (and thus adventuring) rather than enrolling in training courses.
It’s quite obvious that this post has gone on for much too long. Congratulate yourself for reaching the end. Because of the length of this, I’m going to hold off until Wednesday to present how character background “flash” can affect these game mechanics in play. It’s not a long piece but there are tables involved so it’s best to leave it off for another day. You may now fire away with the comments, critiques, and other verbiage as you see fit.