There’s been lots of talk about Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore article. That’s a good thing. The more we examine the game, the more likely we are to find it’s flaws and hopefully find solutions to what ails it.
I’m not going to go into specific details on the ensuing discussion surrounding the article, but the concepts it brings to the table vis-a-vis skills is interesting to us from a Redesigning D&D standpoint because it drives at the heart of how to handle some player-initiated actions in a skill-less version of the game.
We’ve already removed skills and feats from our D&D redesign but we never offered an alternative mechanic to the rules.
So we should probably take a moment to explain how to handle and resolve these types of actions since they’re bound to come up…
The Current View
The current, prevailing view of handling non-combat character action is to assign a difficulty to the action that must be tested by the combined skill score + some random roll. The skill score is a representation of some knowledge or training or ability further altered by a characteristic attribute modifier. Testing the skill vs. the challenge is further modified by tools or assistance or magic.
To make things more dynamic, in D&D, there are classes of difficulty based on the general scale of the character attempting to overcome the challenge.
And finally, with the advent of skill challenges, D&D codified a means of turning non-combat skill attempts into a pseudo combat framework with the interesting caveat that even failure should always provide some level of success. To be honest,
That’s a lot of crunch to bring into a game, and admittedly it didn’t get dropped into the system en masse. But the question remains if it was a good idea.
Obviously if you’ve been following this series of posts on what I’d do to remake D&D, you know the answer I’ll come to is, No. But for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend we don’t already know that. OK? – KO
The Original Sin
Let’s examine what I believe is the very simple reason skills were brought to the table in the first place:
Players don’t want the DM to be a jerk; they want the DM to be an impartial referee.
Players want to make generic statements and not worry about having to detail every “stinkin” thing in order to prevent DM gotcha!
That seems reasonable. So why is that an issue so nefarious as to be worthy of rule bloat?
Because the players have a different view in what should be the result of a generic statement than the DM. Unfortunately it’s the DM who determines what the generic action means and how it is applied in the game. That incongruity led to some rather annoying circumstances…
Before the advent of granular and predefined skills, the simple (and original) concept of such a declaration, “I search the room” led to situations where the outcome was any of the possible arbitrary rulings: DM fiat, pixel-hunting and arbitrary language arguments and gates. And probably never the same arbitrary ruling at that.
- Good DM fiat – If the players declare they search the room, they find… (GOOD)
- Bad DM fiat – If the players declare they search the room, I’m not going to let them find… (BAD)
- Pixel Hunting – If the players declare they search the room but don’t declare they also search the bed in the room they miss the monster under the bed… (BAD. BAD and absurd.)
- Language arguments and lexicon gates – “I twist and turn the stone. Does anything happen?” yields ,”No.” Whereas the more specific, “I twist and turn, push and pull on the stone. Does anything happen?” yields, “Yes…” (No No No! BAD BAD BAD!)
Now no player wants to declare more than, “I search the room…” and presume that the DM will also assume this includes the bodies of the defeated goblins, and the bed, and UNDER the bed, and the door, and the rags in the corner, and everything else since all those things comprise the contents of the room. What’s more, most players will rightly assume that, since they’re in a hostile environment, the act of searching will be done in a careful and cautious manner.
Houston we have a problem…
But what if the DM doesn’t see it that way? What if the DM is testing the player and not the character? Then we have a problem.
One of my beliefs is that every rule in D&D has been added at the request of the players. We’re victims of our collective desire to have a well structured game that mimics reality and prevents the DM from doing anything wrong to our characters without our express permission. Nowhere is this more apparent in my eyes than the inclusion of skills.
In fact, I often wonder if part of the design process includes a roundtable where everyone talks about how terrible things were “back in the day” when DMs were encouraged to confuse and obfuscate just to keep the players guessing. Then, with an eye to making sure that can’t happen in any current product, all the places where DM fiat could lead to BAD.
That’s not to say the concept of making predetermined rulings for DMs wasn’t a bad idea; as players it certainly has given us what we requested – additional ways to enforce impartiality on the DM, but I wonder if the concept could have been handled in a far less bloated manner while still presenting itself as a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule.
So how to handle such concepts in our D&D remake if we’re holding true to the concept of no skills or feats?
What’s on the character sheet that would work already?
Just as classes are the generic collection of feats, so too are attributes the generic collection of skills. That’s not a novel concept, it’s actually just a simpler view of what we once had and lost to needless granularity. Attributes are the perfect, already present, statistic to tie to so called “skill checks” without having to include additional statistics to the character sheet.
Using a simple d20 + Attribute Modifier vs. some challenge value as determined by the DM, we have a simple skill-less skill system.
Let’s take Perception as an example:
Perception can be used in two fashions, passively and actively.
- Passive Perception is the ability to notice and discover things despite NOT actively seeking them out.
- Active Perception is the capacity of a character to notice and discover things during the employment of actively seeking them out.
So what attributes would be representative of perception.
- Intelligence – works for active searching via non-tactile senses.
Hmm… that doesn’t quite add up, there should be another 10′ of wall here… something’s not quite right with this layout…
- Wisdom – works for passive perception.
Gunther the Bold suddenly gets the feeling that the floor has been sloped downward for quite some time… it’s become obvious that this portion of the dungeon was far deeper than expected.
Now a few more fuzzy actions, how would we deal with them?
- Bluff – As a DM I’d rule that bluff is probably based on INT since a smarter character will be able to read his audience better though I wouldn’t balk at a DM using WIS to perform the same logic.
- Craft – Depending on the nature of the crafted item, INT, DEX, WIS, and even STR (for blacksmith) could all be viable options.
So what’s the general rule?
d20 + Modifiers > 10 yields success
Note that typically the DM will determine the attribute modifier, but player declarations may influence that as well.
- The specific, “I feel along the edge of the box to see if there’s a crack indicating a hidden compartment.” would indicate a DEX test.
- While the more generic, “I examine the box to see if there’s a hidden compartment.” may indicate a WIS or INT test.
Scope and challenge:
With the realization that the actual range of successful scores range from 9 to 13 (45% to 65%) for most unaided characters. the simple addition of a bonus (for use of tools, or access to a library, or time) can mitigate some failure while the application of a penalty (for a long-forgotten dead language, or a complex lock, or a well conceived barricade) seems wholly appropriate and can add flavor to the challenge.
For most tests, a modifier of 1 to 2 is sufficient to vary the challenge appropriately.
I help him…
The simple solution to challenges that can be performed in concert is to increase the success chances by adding the attribute modifier of each additional character able to provide assistance.
Bill, with a STR modifier of +2 may (60% chance of success) be able to force open the portcullis, but with Andy (STR +1) and Louis (STR +3) assisting, their combined chances improve dramatically (80% chance of success.)
What’s to like:
- Characters will likely succeed more often than not.
That’s key to making challenges interesting by seeing to it that they expand on the world, not limit it. Challenges should be expected to be overcome as a means of offering additional adventure paths.
- Exorcising Escalations.
Just because you’re more skilled doesn’t mean the hidden things necessarily get tougher to find or the traps more difficult to disarm. That’s absurd and gone now. Need a tougher challenge, then apply a modifier and be done with it. Tests don’t necessarily escalate just because you become more proficient in a given subject – novice drivers face the same challenge level on a given day as experts.
If the expert wants to test their skill on a challenge course, that’s an entirely different discussion altogether – apply a modifier and be done with the spiral of needless escalation in some attempt to make the environment interesting.
- Removal of long skill listings.
Seriously, where does the granularity stop? Start down this path and you’ll find some players who want to expand the lists in order to make their concept more defined “on paper” while others will want to combine skills into groups so they gain the maximum benefit for their point allocation.
- This concept still gives DM some arbitrary ruling room to declare that one action that is typically based on one attribute is being tested against a completely different attribute.
For example, swimming may indeed typically be CON based, but swimming against the current could be considered a STR test.
- Thieves are still better at thieving than non-thief classes.
Interestingly enough, searching/disabling/unlocking via Thieving Skill checks will almost always be better (and never worse) than a simple “skill” check since thieves gain the benefit of both the INT and DEX modifier where other checks only apply a single attribute modifier to their chances.
So skills aren’t really gone are they?
The Very Perceptive reader (couldn’t resist the use of that) will discover this to be true. Skills aren’t really gone from our D&D redesign, they’re just encapsulated in the attributes like feats are encapsulated in classes.