Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Adventuring Skills

As I'm sure nearly everyone who reads this blog knows, I'm not a big fan of adding skills to D&D, which I think works just fine without them. This is partly due to my understanding of character classes and partly due to the fact that D&D already includes a number of mechanical systems that handle most of the skills needed by adventurers. In my Dwimmermount campaign, I've simply formalized the systems present in OD&D and added one (climbing) that seemed to make sense, though its use actual use in play has been very limited.

Break Locks: Dwarves, elves, and Men can break open a lock on a roll of 1–2 on 1d6, while gnomes and goblins can do so on a roll of 1. This roll can be modified by Strength. Note that locks opened this way are broken, not picked, which makes a loud noise, particularly when applied to locks on doors, and may alert nearby monsters of the character's presence.

Climb: All characters can climb sheer surfaces on a roll equal to or under their Dexterity score on 1d20, if they have rope and a grappling hook to aid them. Only thieves can do so without such aids. Likewise, the referee should apply penalties to particularly difficult climbs or when conditions make the ascent unusually hard.

Find Traps: Elves, goblins, and Men can find non-magical traps by actively searching on a roll of 1 on 1d6, while dwarves and gnomes can find them on a roll of 1–2.

Listen: Men can hear sounds from behind a door on a roll of 1 on 1d6, while nonhuman characters hear them on a roll of 1–2.

Observation: If actively searching, non-elves discover secret doors and other hidden features on a roll of 1–2 on 1d6, while elves discover them on a roll of 1–4. However, if elves pass within 10' of a secret door or hidden feature, there is a 2 in 6 chance they take notice, even when they are not actively searching.


  1. If you don't mind me playing Devil's Advocate here, why the die type switch for Climbing, only - and roll under stat? Why not continue with the existing "theme" with something like:

    "All characters can climb sheer surfaces on a roll of 1-3 on 1d6, if they have... . This roll can be modified by Dexterity [modifier]."

    Your Climb house rule jumps out at me as being more Rules Cyclopedia-ish than B/OD&D.

  2. That's a very good point. Can you tell the skill that is almost never used in the campaign? :)

  3. To me the problem isn't adding skill/abilities/etc to D&D but getting away from the idea that any character can attempt any non-combat action. I.e. The idea that only the thief can open a lock.

    I feel having classes that are better at non-combat, non-magic activities than the average character doesn't violate the spirit of this. It still within the spirit of D&D to have a thief that can open locks better than anybody else. But the fighter or the magic-user can take a crack at it if they want.

  4. A few questions about the last one, Observation: I"m assuming such active searching takes a full 10 minute turn (this would apply to find traps too), is that right? And in the case of looking for secret doors and other hidden features, what area is covered by that roll? A 10'x10' square? ten feet of wall? more?
    Also, do you allow multiple attempts? For instance, if the party is convinced that there must be a secret door at the end of a dead-end passage, can they keep rolling (every turn, risking the attentions of wandering monsters, of course) until they find it (or not)? Or, after a character has tried and failed to find something, say 3 times, is that it for them, they're not gonna find it (if it's there). Just wondering if you have any "rules" along those lines.

  5. To me the problem isn't adding skill/abilities/etc to D&D but getting away from the idea that any character can attempt any non-combat action. I.e. The idea that only the thief can open a lock.

    Though I tend to think that most skills are redundant in a class-based game, your point is a good one. I think a good many gamers see skills as on/off toggles rather than gradations of proficiency.

  6. I"m assuming such active searching takes a full 10 minute turn (this would apply to find traps too), is that right?


    And in the case of looking for secret doors and other hidden features, what area is covered by that roll? A 10'x10' square? ten feet of wall? more?

    I treat this ability very loosely, generally speaking, allowing it to cover an entire "small" or even "medium" sized room. Exactly how big a room needs to be to qualify as "large" and thus take more time or require additional rolls is something I have no definitive answer for and just wing based on what seems logical.

    Also, do you allow multiple attempts?

    Only if the character in question has learned or figured out something that'd give him better insight into how a secret door might be concealed. For example, if he notices that all the rooms in a certain area have a particular set of carvings along the wall but one wall is missing or has a modified version of the carvings, I might give him another roll based on the notion that it's given him regarding where a secret might be hidden. And so on.

    I play very fast and loose with rules, so, in most cases, there's no single answer to questions of implementing them.

  7. One wing, so to speak, of the old school might say that for secret doors and perhaps traps you don't roll at all. You simply have the player character describe what he is doing--knocking the wall to see if it sounds hollow, trying to twist the arm of the statue after noticing that there is a seam or joint below it, etc. The chief constraint here would be time. Every such action would take, say, a ten minute turn, so part of player skill would be knowing when to spend the time and when not to.

    Now it's true that this way of playing would, among other things, negate some thieving and demi-human advantages, but if one was wedded to them (I'm not, but many are) one could solve that problem by giving those classes an extra "free-pass" sort of roll where the character just notices something whatever the player had them do or not do.

    I suppose one might also object that the above sort of approach might take too much time or be boring, etc. (Though I would say that if the players think that actually describing how they are looking for a secret door is boring, then what are they doing playing a fantasy role-playing game? :) )

    Do you have an opinion on this?

  8. James, thanks for the answers! That's more or less how I handle these things in my campaign... The main problem I was having was when the party wanted to search for secret doors in a walls of a long dungeon hallway, if I made it 1 roll per character/per turn/per 10 feet of wall, things tended to get boring, fast... I should just make sure they have an elf along with them to speed things up!

  9. Do you have an opinion on this?

    My personal experience is that using the "narrative" style of finding traps, secret doors, etc. can be very enjoyable -- and time consuming. If that's not an issue for you, enjoy! I've used it in my Dwimmermount campaign and it works just fine. However, it's not always practical to do things this way, especially in a megadungeon-centric campaign where there are lots of hidden features and traps. At least, I found it impractical much of the time, which is why having a dice roll is very helpful.

    That said, my only real opinion is that you should do what works for you and what you and your group enjoy.

  10. I've also tried to apply a bit of common sense to the lock breaking thing. If we're talking about an external pad lock, then a quick barsh with something blunt might do the trick if luck is on your side. But for door locks and other internal devices, you first have to have some kind of tool that would even let you attempt said action. And like you suggest, it's not going to be a quiet activity.

  11. What do you do for Stealth-based actions like moving silently, hiding in shadows, picking pockets, etc.?

    I've played and play versions of D&D with skill systems and as time goes on perception v. stealth has ended up becoming a mechanic that undoes interesting planning by the DM more often than it adds interest. But the occasional sneaking maneuver by the right kind of character class (i.e. the thief or a thief variant) adds flavor. I might conclude that AD&D had the right balance, with a skill system targeted narrowly on the thief class and ONLY on the thief. Maybe that could have been a template for class-based skills for other classes rather than a universal skill system. But it seems better to me than either no skills or skills for everything and everyone that are largely unmoored from character class.

    Since you have repeatedly expressed distaste for both skills and the thief class, how do you handle sneaking and hiding?

  12. ""All characters can climb sheer surfaces on a roll of 1-3 on 1d6, if they have... . This roll can be modified by Dexterity [modifier]."

    There's a reason Mr. Gygax used percentiles for the Thief ability to CW and why it started rather high, somewhere around 85%.

    Because it would be useless, otherwise. Even if the chance of success was, say 1-5 in d6, how many attempts, on average, would the Thief get to make before encountering a climb that would spell his doom? Trying anything over 20' or so, would be suicide at low levels, extremely risky at higher levels and out of the question, for any climb of around 100' or so feet, a climb which would require multiple CW rolls, during the attempt.

  13. This goes to one of the most fascinating elements of OD&D for me. The earliest forms legislated different systems of specialization corresponding to the main class archetypes Thief, M-User and Fighter. Thief had percentile thieving table, Fighter had D20 to hit monsters, and the M-User had an arsenal of spells. I omit the Cleric archetype deliberately although some would argue it had a fourth system characterised by healing. OD&D did not consider "adventuring skills" to be an important enough element of fantasy adventure to warrant a specialisation and a class to match it.

    Many other games that emerged around that time or thereafter did believe that adventuring skills required a raised status. Indeed most role-playing games considered a well developed adventuring skill selection to be essential. Some used it as their main selling point (Rolemaster). In systems that use classes and those that dont it has become the approach and there are very few systems. I suppose it all depends on what individual GMs like dishing up to their players.

  14. I've always thought the chances to hear sound in D&D were always just way too low. I mean, if somebody puts their ear to a wooden door and people are talking normally on the other side, there is pretty much a 100% chance you will hear that there is talking going on (even if it comes across as the gibberish adults use in Charlie Brown cartoons).

    Now, to hear what they are saying is another matter. Low rolls might also be used to hear if there is talking in very low tones in the room, or if rats or spiders or whatever are scuttling about.

  15. Since you have repeatedly expressed distaste for both skills and the thief class, how do you handle sneaking and hiding?

    I use the existing surprise mechanic, providing bonuses or penalties to the basic chance depending on circumstances.

  16. Ah, OK, thanks for the clarification. Having entered the hobby with AD&D and the thief class as standard, I find that a bit odd. But I can see that would work just fine.

  17. I should mention that I do have a thief class in my game, but it's been modified to work with the existing OD&D adventuring skills outlined above, so there's no need for specific stealth type abilities. The thief just gets a bonus to the abilities everyone else has, because they've been trained to use them to great effect.

  18. @Torq Clerics have their own skill system called Turn Undead.

  19. I hope these are in codex. I could use a bit of guidance on the best way to do this.

    Like James I do not think Class/Level games need a skill system. Background (aka Secondary Skills in AD&D) plus Class is more than enough . However (and mind my main old school bugaboo) a good system needs a coherent system to handle adventuring tasks. Anyone should be able to do things like climb walls and open locks thieves are just better at it.

    As a personal aside I tend to think everyone should get a bit better at these tasks over time, thieves the most, fighters less and mages/clerics the least.

    If some things like lore or field craft are included ala LOTFP , sub-classes could get better at it, as an example a "ranger" might get rather good at field craft or a wizard at "lore check" and so on.

  20. The chance that a fighting man with a war hammer can break a lock should approach 100% else you might as well give a % chance that a guy with an axe can chop down a door.

    The thief's skill is especial because it's quiet. No need for a rule governing loud version. Just as it's ridiculous that an average someone with a rope--by your rule, fails to climb a tree 1/2 the time. The only question is how long it takes and how much noise it makes.

  21. @UWS guy: I suspect a tree is not a "sheer surface" and so the aforementioned rule would not apply.

  22. Speaking as a graduate of two mountain warfare courses I must take issue with your Climb skill.

    Ascending any type of sheer or near-vertical wall or cliff is entirely about strength. If you are lucky enough to have a rope, it's all about pulling the full weight of you and your equipment up that rope. Without a rope, it's still a game of getting handholds and footsteps and pulling and pushing yourself up.

    Dexterity might come into play if the surface was icy or slick.

  23. A tree is the definition of a shear surface being perpendicular to the ground, just like a wall.

  24. @UWS guy: I suspect your earlier ridicule of the climbing rule vs. trees has to do with the idea that trees have branches and other similar handholds, correct? If not, why call out trees explicitly? If yes, then I'd assert a tree isn't a sheer surface; the branches and handholds make it not sheer. Or are you thinking something different?

  25. I didn't fail to account for tree branches.

    With the right equipment amateurs can do anything (see: everest, mountain). That's why adventurers buy 10' poles, or wear helmets. With a rope (with knots) and grapling hook, an average person child can climb to the top of a rope in gym class--you don't need to roll dice.

    Thieves roll dice, because nobody else can even try and climb a wet 40' wall without equipment.

  26. Ah, then I misunderstood, sorry. I took your explicit mention of trees to mean the ridiculousness applied only to that particular situation.

  27. No worries guy, Let me be more clear: climbing something with a rope is a mundane task, just like breaking a lock with a hammer, finding a fucking hole with a 10' pole, or choping down a wood door.

    Want to break the door with your shoulder? Well, d&d has a d6 roll for that, want to climb a rainbow--well, master thief, roll you d100.

  28. I've used 'climb' for non-thief characters in past games. I have re-written it below, using James' words as a template:

    Climb: All characters can climb sheer surfaces with the same chance as if they were a 1st-level Thief, provided they have rope and a grappling hook to aid them. Only thieves can do so without such aids. The referee should remember to apply penalties to particularly difficult climbs or when conditions make the ascent unusually hard.

    Just a few notes:
    1. In my experiences, 1st-level thief characters never felt outclassed by his rope-and-grapple colleagues.

    2. It is compatible with editions of D&D that modify Thief percentiles by Race and Dex.

  29. Reading the gygax's personal notes on the original thief, the abilities are highly magical.

    Climb shear surfaces.
    Open locks, including magical ones
    Disarm traps, including magical ones
    Hide in shadows--gygax's own example is of a group being chased by a monster in a 10' wide dungeon and as the round a corner the thief disappears and the monster runs past him.

    The thiefs skills are not some mundane set of adventuring abilities.

  30. One game I played had an interesting mechanic for physical actions by having the characters make a d10 (or d12 or d20 or d8) check against the character's Armour Class to perform an athletic feat such as climbing, leaping a chasm, and swimming. I think characteristics gave a bonus if over 15 or so.

    I believe he felt that the weight of armour and clumsiness of the shield was the prime impediment to performing exotic physical activities. The nice thing about it was that it worked for NPCs just as well as for PCs.


    Personally I tended to just use a d20 against the appropriate characteristic if the character tried to actively do something appropriate to their class (or based in their personal history). Otherwise it was a d100.

    As for climbing, anyone can climb if there are handholds and footholds. If there is only one it might take a Dexterity roll. Thieves are the only ones who can climb where there are no visible means of support. [Socially or physically!]

    Swimming was another thing that was based on the character's background - provided they could keep their heads above water. Only thieves (or pearl divers and the like) could swim underwater (using their Climb Walls percentage) for any distance.

  31. 0d&d already has drowning rules in the LLB's.

  32. Mountain climbing or Rock climbing may be a dangerous activity, but with the help of proper training and good mountain climbing gear your risk can be minimised to a great extent.

    mountain climbing rope