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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Ability Check: The Mental Side

Here’s a follow-up to my post about how ability checks are the devil, which is itself a response to JB’s rant on ability checks. I really only talked about knowledge checks and craft checks, but didn’t go into other ability check, although I’m sure long-time readers of my blog will know at least some of my position on them. You just probably have never seen me summarize my thoughts on the many varieties of checks.

I reject most of them.

Let’s go with the “obviously necessary” check everyone thinks of: Spot checks, or search rolls, or whatever you want to call them. I’ve talked about my approach to search rolls many times, but here’s the most recent, which I will summarize as “Never use search rolls”.

This doesn’t mean you have to include a huge amount of extra information in your dungeon key. In my experience, I put less information, because I never have to mention what kind of check to use (or even worse, the DC of a particular check.) I just write the room description as I normally would, mention what’s in various containers or behind secret doors, and mention how to trigger any secret doors or traps. And my “normal” room descriptions are pretty sparse, because I tend to improvise descriptions off keywords, like “ruined kitchen”, instead of listing every single thing in the room.

Nor does this mean that players are required to describe in extreme detail, or get punished for forgetting to mention something. I really only look for two bits of information:
  1. Where are you searching? It’s either “everywhere” or a list of specific places.
  2. How are you searching? It’s with one or more senses, and possibly using special equipment, like gloves or ten-foot poles.
I use the answer to #1 to determine how long it takes to search, and the answer to #2 to determine if there are bad side effects from any PC actions. Almost none of this requires a roll. Well, maybe I’ll roll 1 or more d6s to determine how many turns a search takes. But I describe everything to the players that they could logically see, hear, or find based on a straight-forward interpretation of what the players say. No “evil genie” tricky interpretations, either. And I stop short of assuming the players open a container or touch an obvious trigger until the players say “we open the container” or “we touch the tripwire/button”.

It’s really not that hard.

Those who checked the “When to Use Search Rolls” linked post are probably thinking “what about those exceptions you mention?” These are Find Secret Door, Hear Noise, Bad Conditions, and … Knowledge Checks? Wait, what? Didn’t I say no to those earlier? I’ll get to that in a bit.

Notice first that the standard Find Secret Door and Hear Noise rolls listed in Underground & Wilderness Adventures are not ability checks. They are flat d6 rolls. (This is true also for some other rolls, which I’m going to have to save for a future post.) And even there, I explicitly call out hearing an ordinary noise as something I wouldn’t roll for. This is not a roll to hear someone talking normally just around the corner. This is a roll to hear some slight sound through a thick door or wall to avoid surprise. For example, an unintentional shuffle of feet from a monster trying to be quiet in preparation for an ambush. There’s no roll for hearing other noises, anymore than there’s a roll for seeing other kinds of doors.

What’s going on in the Bad Conditions exception is similar. Certain conditions are going to prevent normal detection. It’s pitch black and you have no light source? Then you can’t see the pit ahead. The room is full of thick smoke? You can’t see through it. If a player suggests how they are trying to overcome an “auto fail” condition like seeing things in pitch blackness and it sounds even slightly reasonable, I will either allow detection or allow a roll to detect. Tapping the floor with a ten-foot pole in a pitch-black corridor automatically detects open pits. Trying to feel the floor with your foot detects the pit, but possibly not soon enough to keep from falling in, requiring a roll. Again, this is going to be one of those 1d6 situation rolls, the same I’d use for surprise conditions, secret doors, or hearing faint noises through thick walls.

And in some of those cases, I will only allow the roll if the character meets some other condition, including possibly an appropriately high ability. For example, INT 16+ might give a chance of 5+ on 1d6, but exactly which ability is relevant, and when, is highly variable. This might be considered an “ability check”, but only in a very loose sense. The roll itself isn’t adjusted based on ability score, and the bad condition doesn’t determine which ability is relevant. It’s what the player says that matters. If they suggest they should have a chance because of their scholarly studies, INT is relevant. If they suggest it’s because they are unusually bright, I might pick the best score of INT and WIS. If the character’s backstory includes something that sounds like training in the same extreme conditions, I might ignore scores completely and just make the roll. It’s not an ability check, and it’s very, very rare.

And so we get to Knowledge checks, which again in the linked article, I say “no roll is necessary most of the time.” I mention allowing a roll for characters with high INT, but the rationale here is not to represent specific training, but innate intellect. Really smart people might be able to figure something out on the spot, if they are lucky. Again, not an ability check, and not even the norm, in other words, not something I’d even note in a dungeon key most of the time. It’s a guideline for making rulings, not a rule.

The norm for me is always, ALWAYS, skipping rolls and just describing anything the characters ought to know or can easily detect.

Now, that covers a lot of the mental stuff, but what about the physical? I guess I’ll have to keep that for a future post. And judging by some of the comments I’ve already received, there may be a couple such “future posts”.

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