I 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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