Lots of people have asked me how I handle ability checks in my Dwimmermount campaign, so I figured I'd make a short post about it. In brief, I don't use ability checks in my game. That is, I have no formal system whereby I allow a player to roll dice based on his ability scores to determine if he succeeds at some action not covered explicitly by the rules.
The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, from a historical perspective, I never used ability checks back in the day. I don't recall AD&D, Holmes, or Moldvay Basic -- the three rules sets that had the most influence over me back in the day -- allowing for such a thing, though it's possible there's some reference to them I somehow overlooked all these years. Regardless, I simply never made use of the concept. Secondly, my attitude nowadays is that any action not covered by the rules is one that falls within the bounds of referee adjudication. If one of my players wants his character to try something for which there are no rules, I make a decision, often in consultation with the player, about its likelihood for success. If there's a significant random factor in whether said action succeeds or fails, I'll roll some dice to see what happens. In my Dwimmermount game, I've sometimes used the saving throw mechanic as a way to gauge an individual character's "luck," but most of my rolls are purely ad hoc.
So far, this "system" has worked very well for me and I've seen no need to introduce a formal ability check or universal mechanic to the game. Before I began, I thought I might need one and contemplated several different ways I might introduce one, but, when push came to shove in play, I ignored them all and just used common sense and (maybe) a dice roll. Nothing more has really been necessary. As I noted in my earlier post of today, having a high degree of trust with my players is a huge asset. If my players didn't trust me, I might try to "objectify" the process a bit more in order to give the illusion that such matters were out of my hands as the referee, but that's not my preferred approach and it's certainly not the approach that I feel is most consonant with the philosophy behind OD&D.
I'm curious: does anyone know when ability checks first get introduced into any version of Dungeons & Dragons? My guess is that it happens in Mentzer, but I may well be mistaken.