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Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ability Check: Summary

I want to summarize what I’ve been saying about ability checks, discuss some of my principles driving my choices, and maybe draw some conclusions. Here’s what I have so far.
  1. Part I (General)
  2. Part II (Mental)
  3. Part III (Physical)
  4. Part IV (Con Checks and the missing “Charisma Check”)
  5. JB’s rant that inspired it all
  6. Robert Conley’s response
The short version of all that is that I use Con Checks (adversity rolls) in a few extreme situations (system shock and resurrection survival,) don’t use other stat checks, but in a few rare instances, I may allow a flat roll (like 5+ on 1d6) to avoid or get out of a bad situation **if the player comes up with a good reason why they should have a chance… or more often, allow them to skip such a roll if I normally require it. That “good reason” might be “I’m extremely smart/agile”. But just as often, it could be “I’m a 4th level Hero, not some flunky” or “I paid money to train for this kind of thing”.

So, I don’t see myself as using or needing ability checks. But what’s my reason for doing so? I believe in these principles:
  1. Rules are meant for the GM, not the player.
  2. Fictional situations are more interesting than predefined systems.
  3. It’s the GM’s job to enable play, not prevent it.
  4. GMs describe what player characters see and sense. Withholding information about what they can see and sense is cheating.
  5. Bottlenecks are no fun.
It seems to me most ability checks wind up being Knowledge Checks or Spot Checks, which violate principles 3 through 5 at the very least. And yet, these are what people immediately think of when defending ability checks, and the rationale always given is that if GMs don’t allow an INT check to see if a player knows things or can see things, then the only other option is for GMs to list room descriptions in agonizing detail in their notes, and for players to describe every single detail of their character’s background, or every single detail of which objects they are examining and in what way.

Pixel-bitching is not the only other option besides search rolls. Ten pages of backstory is not the only other option besides knowledge rolls. GMs could just be generous with information. Everything the players can see and sense should be described, in whatever manner seems appropriate, and the game should just move on.

And I’ve had the urge to go farther than even that. Here we are, arguing about when and how to use rolls to recognize or deal with dangers, but maybe we could fix it all some other way?

It all started with surprise rolls and opening stuck doors. A surprise roll is really a roll to see how soon characters or monsters can react. Being surprised means you lose an action or two. Rolling to open stuck doors seems different at first, until you notice that U&WA gives some rules for breaking through a door in the naval combat section, and no roll is needed, only time and manpower. The Open Doors roll checks to see if one person can do it quicker.

So what if we stop rolling to see if characters succeed at a task, but instead roll to see if they can complete the task quickly under pressure? And ability scores don’t adjust the chances of completing the task, but adjust the time? Or, in the case of non-time-critical tasks, they limit the quality?


  1. I don't know, that all seems a bit muddy to me John.

    It feels (to me) like you are creating fiddly substitutes for something pretty simple and useful when applied properly.

    "Properly" is I guess the operating word. For example, I don't grok at all the discussion of "knowledge" checks. What the heck is that? More to the point why would someone use Intelligence for a "knowledge check". There is no Knowledge score. The Intelligence score is for situations where a character (not the player themselves) is asked to suss something out - like whether they can read some old handwriting or figure out how to fix a broken machine. Knowledge, on the other hand, is a matter of backstory and not, as you also point out, something a PC should be rolling for most times. If there were some good reason to roll for some specialized knowledge, there is already a mechanism created for that in the Supp II sage rules. So while I do wholeheartedly agree that rolling a "knowledge check" using the INT score is a bad idea, I can't agree that Int checks should be avoided in situations that appropriately challenge the thinking capacity of the character (again, not the player). Same goes with the other scores.
    Maybe it's best to illustrate where I'm coming from by way of examples:

    STR: Lost at sea - Strength check to swim long enough and hard enough to reach nearest land.
    INT: Time travel clock damaged in fall - Intelligence check to repair.
    WIS: Orc hireling leading party into ambush - Wisdom check to detect duplicity.
    CON: Caught in a blizzard - Constitution check to avoid frostbite.
    DEX: Earthquake - Dexterity check to keep from falling.
    CHA: Attempt to borrow a donkey - Charisma check to succeed.

  2. A Knowledge Check is a roll to see if the character, not the player themselves (to use your phrasing,) recognizes or remembers something about a person, place or thing mentioned or seen. On a successful check, the GM would tell a player that an artifact they found was made by elves, that they remember hearing that the local blacksmith is also a fence for stolen goods, or that the strange monk sitting in the corner looks like the king in disguise.

    The problem, of course, is twofold:

    1. It's the player who's playing the game, not the character. The player makes all the decisions, so tell them what they know, or drop hints (in the case of the disguised king) so they can figure it out.
    2. Why waste time rolling for that crap? It's your job as GM to tell them what they see. Just tell them.

  3. Here's how I'd handle the specific situations you mention.

    Lost at sea - U&WA has drowning rules. If characters don't drown, they swim to shore. If they swim a long time (more than 5 turns,) a simple d6 check rather than a STR check would do. Maybe use STR to adjust the number of turns.
    Time travel clock damaged in fall - If the character has that skill and the part are available, just say it's fixed.
    Orc hireling leading party into ambush - Describe the orc as twitchy. AS party approaches ambush site, roll surprise.
    Caught in a blizzard - Only situation where I'd use an ability check. Would use the system shock roll or equivalent.
    Earthquake - Slow Move rate (stumbling,) 5+ on 1d6 situation check to avoid falling off ledges/cliffs. Maybe skip the roll if DEX is 16+, which is the only way I'd use DEX here.
    Attempt to borrow a donkey - Reaction roll at the beginning determines how generous NPC will be. Just role-play. Saying the right things means PCs can borrow the donkey.

    1. This comment, and the previous one, can be considered my "super-summary" of the entire series of posts. It's what I've been saying all along.

    2. What's the functional difference between a d6 check and a d20/3d6 ability check, especially in those cases when you'd modify the d6 check with respect to an ability score?

    3. The differences are:

      1. I wouldn't modify a d6 check with respect to an ability score.
      2. An ability check requires knowing the ability score. If I'm not modifying a d6 check (and I'm not,) I don't need to know the score.

      So, the functional difference is that I'm skipping two things. That's faster and easier.