Saturday, January 2, 2021


It is well known that because OD&D did not have an explicitly-named skill system many grognards are opposed to games having skill systems. I get it. I jumped the ship from D&D in 1990 and landed on GURPS. I get skills. I get why they can be sort of... blech.

(I am not a fan of GURPS, though I was super into it for a few years. Love all the books, though.)

D&D had skills embedded in the classes and equipment and there were a few nods to skills, such as AD&D's Secondary Skills. In BX, a fighter was able to use all weapons and armor. Those are some mad skills! A thief, of course, had an explicit list of skills (which which they suuuuuucccckkkeeeeeed.) A magic-user had the skill of casting spells and being able to create new spells and magic items. Etc.

Equipment also granted a skill-like ability to PCs. If you had a 10' pole you had the skill of being able to prod at a trap from a safe distance. A PC with a lantern had the skill of lighting a dark room - a huge benefit.

AD&D, and also BECMI's D&D line, had lots of weapon skills.

The thing that I believe grogs have a problem with is when a player says "I roll Perception. What do I see?" Instead of saying "I look around the base of the statue. Has it been moved recently?" and so forth. The former represents reduction of the fiction to a straight mechanic while the latter represents clever puzzle-solving and more immersion in the fiction.

Of course both can exist together. After examining the statue, the DM might ask me to make that Perception roll. Maybe they already know that I'm gonna see the scrape marks but maybe there's something else to be seen - such as a trap switch - and the dice roll will indicate just how closely my PC looked.

BX D&D gives the advice of using ability saves (we call 'em checks nowadays) for those moments where there isn't an established mechanic. This is a default skill system wherein the ability scores coupled with the class determine what types of skills you are good at. The party magic-user, with their high Intelligence, should to a better job of recognizing weird items and knowing esoteric lore. The cleric's Wisdom should let them know more about obscure cults and shrines. And so forth.

One way that the use of ability checks (and default skills in modern D&D) can frustrate players is when a character who isn't the party's authority on a topic is somehow just better at dealing with that topic. For example, maybe the thief has a particularly good Intelligence and the wizard is only average. If the DM allows the thief to make Int checks for every weird thing they encounter, the player of the magic-user might feel slightly useless. "Oh, Niff the Nimble rolled well under their Int so they know a good deal about this weird order of Purple Wizards. But Jan the Sorcerer failed that Int check and knows nothing. Again."

The solution to that problem is don't let Niff the Nimble make Int checks for things in which they have no expertise. And when you do allow it, follow Moldvay's advice and give them a -4 penalty. Let that middling wizard have a moment to shine and maybe even forgo the Int check now and then. "As it happens, Jan has heard of the Secret Society of Super Wizards."

A bit of ramble here as I basically think out loud about skills. More to say, but I'll do it later.


  1. What's advantage/disadvantage worth on the d20? +/-4? I was thinking that nowadays you might use that mechanic instead of the -4.

    I think heavy use of that adv/dis mechanic is a good way to bring character description or theme into the mechanics of the game. A wizard raised in the northlands? Of course he knows about bear totems and frostwraiths. Orphan from the Southern Capitol? He'll know nothing of cave bears, but rolls with advantage when trying to locate someone in a major city, or discern the kink of a local merchant. He'll have no need to roll if trying to find the local fence, just as the Northern Wizard will never, ever, have to roll when starting a fire, locating dry tinder, etc...

    1. Good point. Adv/Dis is a great stand-in for the +4/-4 modifier suggested by Moldvay. I use it a lot. It's a good soft tool, but not great if you want granularity. So it works nicely for backgrounds in OSR games, as you suggested here. The Black Hack uses it ferociously as a primary mechanic.

    2. Yeah. I like The Black Hack, but not sure how satisfying roll under is...and I'm not sure if players like the ambiguity of the 2 rolls. But with backgrounds, they are fuzzy anyway, so it seems to fit thematically.

      I'm testing a dice system using d6 pool, where you get 1 die if the thing is possible, +1 if you have the equipment, +1 if you have a skill, and +1 if you have a plan. So attacking a goblin (1), with a sword (+1), with sword training (+1), from hiding (+1), nets you all 4 dice. Hits on a 5-6, 4-5-6 if utilizing your class's prime requisite.

      So that's basically an advantage system, extra rolls as the primary mechanic.

    3. Does Black Hack have a difficulty modifyer? I forget.

      Like how a roll is, essentially, the character/player's stuff vs difficulty/defense/armor.

      I know it's a roll under, but is char attribute the only number?

      I think I could mod that pretty easily but adding a floor. So it's roll over and under.

      So, like, whacking a dragon is difficulty 5. So you need a 5+ AND roll under STR. Assuming a strength of 15, you hit on a 5-15.

      That's cool mechanically, but not sure how fun it is gamewise.

    4. I'm pretty sure TBH's only mechanic regarding actions roll is to roll under your attribute and use Adv/Dis as indicated. I don't think it has any +1 or anything like that, as written. The other mechanic is the Usage Die, which is a great one.

    5. Your d6 mechanic sounds pretty good to me. It doesn't have a lot of granularity, which is fine if you want a simpler game. My hangup on granularity is just that I like the idea of a campaign so I want to give players some way to improve abilities over time. That's why using only Adv/Dis isn't ideal for that style of play. Once you have Adv with your sword where else is there to go? Double, Triple, Quad Adv? Sure. But in Black Hack your Strength will get higher over time and you'll basically never fail. Which... maybe OK too. Really this is all dependent on the type of game you want to run, isn't it? There are no wrong answers but there are good arguments, in context.

    6. I've been testing various dicing systems for my WIP, and it really comes down to the identity you want your game to have. A limited dice pool system is VERY simple to learn. The Roll Under style systems, Black Hack and Into the Odd are also simple but I dunno, it just doesn't seem as satisfying as roll over. Into the Odd's combat rolls are very cool.

      For simplicity I really like how Professor Dungeon Master on youtube, and Runehammer, do their DC by scene. Basically, each 'room' or encounter has a single difficulty number, that's what you need to roll, add bonuses as appropriate. So find the secret door, hit the monster, unlock the chest, it's all one number. Pretty simple. Add HP to monsters to make them more difficult if the room difficulty is set low.

    7. Agreed, that method is dope. For my WIP GOZR, each PC makes rolls against their own ACs (Action Classes), and it's roll high. The way difficulty or challenge comes into it is that enemies have "Threat". So the GM can spend a monster's Threat to force rerolls, take extra actions, and do special junk. Otherwise if your Prowess AC is 10 then to hit in combat you just have to roll 11+, regardless of what you're fighting. If it's a badass boss it might have a lot more Threat to bring to bear.

    8. Oh I see, so THREAT is like a rule breaker. Like luck points you can use to reroll, go again, etc...

      I'm playing with the idea of calling it 'effort' like in Deadpool, you can declare MAXIMUM EFFORT and burn a point to gain advantage or whatever. lol.

      I like rule breakers. I'm messing around with giving them to PC's based on level. Like, each level you can gain a hit die, or a new skill, or a stat +1, or an effort point. With caps on everything of course. Effort will refill each game session, or maybe level, or maybe night's sleep in an inn, still working that out.

    9. BTW, I think i've talked on here about my WIP for months, but have very little to show for it.

      Why? I got stuck in planning mode, because I didn't have a solid direction for what I wanted this thing to be. For the kids? OSR compatible? Super Newb friendly? Funky narrative stuff?

      I was trying for all things at once. That's a nope. Don't do that!

    10. I actually screwed up in a comment here. You'd roll 10+ if your Prowess was 10, not 11+. So it's exactly like a saving throw or AC mechanic.

      Also, yeah, focus is hard to achieve. Good luck!

  2. Another note on dicing. A HUGE knock against using only d6's is the fun factor. For me that kinda has to be the #1 thing, fun.

    When I sat down to play D&D with the kids, they didnt' pick up the d6's, they picked up the d20 and 12, and looked at the d4 with a skeptical eye.

    Rolling the big ones, and rolling high, is just fun. Dunno why. I'm sure if I had a d30 that'd be their fav. And if I had a d100, heaven. :-)

    1. The RPG hobby was founded on funky dice!

    2. Lol. I'm about to order some of those DCC dice, the 16 and 24 and what not. And a giant golf ball sized d20.