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Friday, June 28, 2019

Ability Check: The Missing Side

I’ve been talking about ability checks and why I don’t believe in using them for almost anything.
  1. Part I
  2. Part II
  3. Part III
  4. JB’s rant that inspired it all (he regrets it, I don’t)
  5. Robert Conley’s response (also worth a read)
Last post, I covered physical abilities, but didn’t include Constitution. Why?

Partly because it’s not something you can use for an action. (“I’m going to try very hard to be healthy!”) But there is a passive check associated with it, even in the original three books. Men & Magic mentions that Constitution allows characters to “withstand being paralyzed, turned to stone, etc.” and gives the following guidelines:
  • Constitution 13 or 14: Will withstand adversity
  • Constitution of 9 - 12: 60% to 90% chance of surviving
  • Constitution 8 or 7: 40% to 50% chance of survival
It’s not entirely clear here, but Greyhawk later clarifies this as a system shock roll, and AD&D eventually splits this into System Shock and Resurrection Survival. I prefer to roll 2d6 under Constitution. But still, it’s a Constitution check, right?

Let’s think about something else first: Charisma. For all the talk of using 3e, 4e, or 5e mechanics in old school games, you don’t see much talk about Charisma Checks. Why is that? Perhaps because of the way the old school reaction roll is a much more interesting and useful mechanic than a simple “roll under Charisma” or “roll and add Charisma modifier to beat a DC of 9” could ever be.

You have five possible results (at least!) Charisma gives a mod in the range of -2 to +4, although arguably this should be applied to an NPC’s loyalty, not the reaction roll directly… and yet we all do it, don’t we?

But people have seen me adapt the reaction roll table to all sorts of other things, like the weather, or thief skills, or … well, system shock and resurrection survival, as a death and dismemberment table.

Which brings me to a side point inspired by FrDave’s comment on the original ability check post:
I personally use the knowledge check all the time; however, it isn’t really for the character, but for me as the Referee. I improvise a lot. Thus, I face the issue of a player asking me questions that I don’t necessarily have an immediate answer to.
Using rolls as a GM improv tool is good. I approve. But my first thought was “Why not use the reaction table or a similar table instead of an ability check?” Including the ability score seems superfluous to me in most improv cases. In some cases, it’s useful to treat an ability score as a limit, which is what I would use a 2d6 adversity roll for: if a PC suffers severe physical trauma or is raised from the dead, roll 2d6. Ignore the result unless the roll is higher than Con, in which case the result is used with the reaction table to determine how horrible it is (Very Bad = instant death, Very Good = might survive a few hours.) Optionally, interpret the 2d6 result a different way if the roll is a success (Bad = scar, Very Bad = crippling injury.)

So although these checks are technically ability checks, I’m using them in a much different way.

I’ve got at least one more post on this topic, perhaps two, depending on whether I can both summarize my position and suggest where I’d like to go in the future with the ideas of ability checks in a single post without going on too long.

1 comment:

  1. I like using the d20 for myself because it gives me a nice 5% increment to decide how complete the answer I end up giving is. In other words, going into an answer, I know how much wiggle room I have for revising/adding to the reality of what I am about to make up. Again, that natural '20' means it is going to be canon, but that just means I have to adjust everything around my answer so that it makes sense to me. (Surprise! Strige meat is gourmet!) Having 20 increments rather than 4, 5, 6 or whatever makes more sense in my head.