There’s an axiom amongst the old school gaming crowd that goes: “Challenge the player, not the character.” While this has been applied to various aspects of the game, it mostly has to do with resolving challenges that the character might encounter during the course of his adventuring career that are not easily covered by D&D’s “class and level” style of character definition.
By this I mean that D&D in its original format provided no system for determining the success or failure of a character’s actions outside of what is laid out in the rules. Combat, spell-casting, hearing noise, climbing walls, assassination, detecting secret doors, etc. all had set rules for resolving the outcome of those actions. But what happens when a fighting-man from a pre-industrial fantasy world wants to say, design and construct a hot air balloon? Or mend his own armor? Or navigate dangerous rapids in a crude kayak?
As the rules originally stood, such decisions where entirely within the realm of the DM’s fiat. The referee could allow, restrict or assign a random chance of success based on what he felt was appropriate. There’s nothing wrong with this method, as it is part-and-parcel with the original spirit of the game. If those rules are established at the start of the game or campaign, then we have no problem. But as the game evolved in various editions and more and more rpgs were published with alternate task resolution rules, this was no longer good enough for many players.
These players were the first of the D&D rules lawyers and represented a shift in attitude away from the rules designed by wargamers for wargamers that OD&D was. As TSR sought to expand its market from a niche into a national phenomenon, it would have to address the “sketchy” nature of its original rule set to make it more friendly to those potential players who were used to having the rules detailed on the inside cover of a box.
If my memory serves me, the first attempt to rectify task resolution was the “roll under your ability” method. The taking of a d20 and hoping you roll low. I’m not sure when or where this rule “suggestion” as it probably first was offered appeared. It may have been in an issue of The Dragon or buried amongst the convoluted organization of the 1st edition DMG. It certainly had to be in effect by the time that Oriental Adventures saw publishing, since OA introduced the concept of using proficiencies for task resolution.
The proficiency-based model would be elaborated on in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and would eventually come to full bloom in the 2nd Edition of AD&D. I know more than my fair share of gamers who were convinced that the proficiency system “killed AD&D,” either for being the final nail in the coffin of the freewheeling earlier style of the game, or for adding yet another kink to character creation and thus prolonging the process, which of course subtracts from how much time you have to feed your latest creation to the slavering jaws of a dungeon beastie.
3rd edition saw the official introduction of skills to characters, although I understand it was available as an optional system under 2nd edition. It also, as far as I’m concerned, reached the apex of the flight from “challenging the player, not the character” way of thinking. Apparently, WotC seemed worried that people were still using Charisma as a dump stat. So to rectify this, they started loading a whole slew of abilities under the oversight of Charisma. From turning undead to sorcerer’s spell casting to gathering friggin’ information, they were determined to make sure that every attribute had a purpose. This, my friends, is challenging the character.
A “Gather Information” skill? Whatever happened to buying a few rounds in the tavern and keeping an ear open, or gods forbid, asking the NPCs intelligent questions? It seems determining the success of such tactics was still too vaguely defined for some people…
So with this in mind, I had to make a decision as to how I might approach such challenge resolutions. I was going to be using AD&D, but was I going to allow the optional proficiency system? (Even in 2nd edition it is optional and labeled as such right in the Player’s Handbook.) I waffled on the matter for a day or two before I made my decision. In the end, I would include the use of proficiencies in the game.
There were two reasons why I decided to. The first was because that I feel that proficiencies actually bring more to the game in regards to character back-story. There’s nothing to prevent a power-gamer from loading up on what he feels would be useful proficiencies like Blind-fighting, Mountaineering or Tracking. I can cope with that. It’s the character who takes proficiencies that may not seem particularly useful, but are very appropriate to the character he or she has in mind, that really add to the game and I reward such choices by making them useful.
The second reason is that I feel that using proficiencies and challenging the player are not in and of themselves opponents. I use proficiencies as gateways to provide the players information, not to solve problems themselves. What the players do with that information is entirely up to them.
While this continues to separate me from a true “grognard” in gaming style and design, it does reflect what I think of when I picture Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and when I hope to convey in my games and design. I’ve slashed the number of proficiencies available at character creations and rolled a few of them under a single heading, but they’re still there. I’ll modify the chance of success by anywhere from -10 to +10 to the roll based on probability of success, but I find that that is easier for me than concerning myself with DC #s and the like.
That’s the plan as it stands, but as we known, plans rarely survive contact with the enemy. I’m leaving myself open to change.