... now with 35% more arrogance!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

No Check, Please

abilityI was about to reply to a longish G+ discussion about how Wisdom seems to be underused and possibly useless for ability checks. But then, I realized I’m probably the wrong person to ask for advice about ability checks, since I don’t use them. They are not my way of doing things.

I’m sure several people are chewing their seat cushions right now. “BUT! Ability checks are so simple! How can you not like them?”

One reason – not the main one – would be that a straight roll under Strength, Dex, or Int, or the roll high option of d20 + ability vs. target 20, would produce way too much variation in ability for me. After all, I do not see Strength, for example, as a straight 5 x score = percentage of human norm translation. I interpret it more as 90% + score = percentage of human norm, if you insist on an equation. Other factors, like size, Feeblemind spells, or medical conditions push abilities outside of that narrow range.

Even so, I could diminish the importance of ability scores by using ability modifiers, instead of using the scores directly as target numbers. I could use situation rolls – 5+ on 1d6 equals success on a check – and add +/- 1 for high or low scores. Which isn’t too bad…

… But I don’t call them “Strength checks” or “Wisdom checks”, because it’s never about checking one specific ability.

That’s my main objection. I’d rather not have a one-to-one correspondence between abilities and the tasks they govern, but would rather judge which abilities matter on an ad hoc basis, using not just the kind of challenge, but the player’s specific response. You have a fallen tree bridging a windy canyon. Dex check to cross the tree without falling, right? But what if the PC uses spiked tools and lumberjack boots and crawls across? Wouldn't that be Strength, instead? Or maybe both?

Better yet, from my perspective: don’t mess with modifiers at all, but let abilities determine whether there is even a roll necessary. Crossing that log might be automatic for High Dex characters, or even for Low Dex characters if they move slower; crawling across is automatic for Low Strength or Low Dex characters (use best score.) If the player claims “I’m using my years of druid knowledge to pick the best path across,” you could use the highest of Dex, Int or Wisdom as your guide for whether there should be a check or not. “I make an offering to the wind spirits to let me cross safely” might mean using the highest of Dex or Charisma.

It’s all about rolling with flow of the player’s choices.
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  1. My largest complaint with ability checks is they aren't level based. Surely an 11th level druid gets on with the wind spirits better than a 1st level druid.

    1. In the majority of cases, I dislike level-based checks even more. If it really does seem to be the class's schtick, like the druid dealing with wind spirits, yeah, maybe. Although I'd rather handle it as a reaction roll that might totally eliminate the check for the druid and allies, rather than a direct check of d20 + level or something like that.

    2. Skills/NWPs and saves are meant to reflect anything which experience might improve, as well as tasks which differ by class

  2. The game that this question originated from actually doesn't have any ability modifiers. The only thing* the scores are used for is roll-under checks.**

    So the fact that there are very few wisdom checks sticks out more than in other games, probably, since wis doesn't also modify saving throws, or grant bonus spells, or whatever.

    That said, I think the question about what wisdom checks are used for is relevant to any game that uses ability checks, even if they are not used as heavily as I am using them.

    * Okay, that's a lie, there are a few other minor mechanical effects, like how strength controls encumbrance, but there are only a few of these sort of rules.

    ** And as a personality profile for players to reference, if they like.

  3. For context, here was my original issue:

    Virtually everything I can think of to handle as a wisdom check is better handled with a saving throw. Poor wisdom, all alone, never getting checked.

    Except perception, but I really don't like using wisdom as perception. We have the d6 hear noise and search checks for that in old school games.

    Experience bonus for clerics you say? I don't use that either because bookkeeping.

    Knowledge: Religion? Okay, maybe, but I'm more inclined to just give that info out without requiring a check.

    I think I've complained about this before, but I still don't have a good method.

    1. I'd just have wisdom modify saves; maybe not even all of 'em

  4. I've always used attribute checks, but I'm coming around to this way of thinking more and more. I would love to see some examples of how other DMs come up with final check values, for lack of a better term, so I could see how this is done specifically.

  5. "... a straight 5 x score = percentage of human norm..." Shouldn't that be 10 x score? Or maybe closer to 9.5?

    Your interpretation's interesting, though a little too narrow for my tastes. Would even an 18 be worth a +1 modifier? I like that size is a factor. I've actually been thinking of using weight for strength, making demihumans weaker and getting rid of one complication for encumbrance

    "I’d rather not have a one-to-one correspondence between abilities and the tasks they govern, but would rather judge which abilities matter on an ad hoc basis..."

    I'd always felt this was the intention of 3Es designers, given the advice they offer on doing just what you suggest. Unfortunately, the community and later supplements largely ignored this. 3E works so much better, like real D&D, when you're swapping around abilities and ranks and such; never restricting yourself to the examples listed in the books (which are really just for beginners), but using these simple tools as a springboard for adjudication. Saving throws were a great example of this. There were really at least half-a-dozen saves hidden in that system, but people stuck with the obvious three

    "... let abilities determine whether there is even a roll necessary."

    Sorry if I'm getting annoying with all 3tard talk, but this is actually another one of that system's strengths. Not only was there the option to "take 10" (which should've been left to the DM to reduce die rolls; not be a choice for players), but natural 1s and 20s only applied to attack rolls (and saves, if you used the errata), meaning one could automatically succeed on simple tasks even under stressful circumstances. I love how that was baked right into the system!

    Although I think ability checks still leave plenty of room for ad hoc rulings, there are some issues with how large an impact the ability plays (why should an 18 Strength always give you a 20% or 40% advantage? It doesn't even to be the same between different abilities). Sure, you could mess with their weight, and there's even some precedent for that, but most systems don't offer much support in that area

  6. Regarding checks, in my experience, most GMs actually do offer a lot of automatic successes. If the players wants to cross the log, that'd probably be an automatic success. But if there's monsters chasing them and they need to run across it at top speed? That's check worthy.

    How would you handle a situation like that?