Monday, June 24, 2019

For the Love of God...

...please, PLEASE stop using "ability checks."

Ability checks are nothing but sheer f'ing laziness, whether we're talking "roll under" or "roll versus target with ability bonuses." Just stop it. StoooooOOOOP IT, please!

Stop mistaking characters for something other than the player who's playing the character. Just stop. Stop now. If I am playing a character with a high Intelligence score that doesn't make him a frigging genius...and if he has a low Intelligence score it doesn't make him an imbecile. Nor does a specific Charisma or Wisdom score represent aspects of my personality (i.e. the player's personality) that I am obligated to play. It doesn't! It is unfortunate that the name carries connotations that expand the mechanic beyond the scope of what it's intended for but...well let's just talk sense for a moment.

Let's start with "Intelligence." Forget the name for the moment. Just forget it. Call it something else...anything! Call it "Wizard's Prime Requisite" (which it is...originally anyway). Call it "ability X" for all I care. Just divorce the mechanic from the connotation that comes with naming it "intelligence." Let's just call it "X" for now...or, better yet, call it "INT."

INT is a random attribute that determines how skilled a magic-user character is at learning his or her craft. That was the thing's original definition. Later, this wasn't simply designated mechanically with the acquisition of experience points (bonuses and penalties to XP) , but also included how well the magic-user learned spells (chances to learn, minimum/maximum numbers per level). Parenthetically it also provided a number of extra languages the character might know, presumably because it represented some sort of scholarly pursuits, even if the character was not trained specifically in the skills of a magic-user.

That's it. It doesn't mean a character is more perceptive: lots of well-read or knowledgable individuals are hopelessly obtuse about all sorts of things. A high intelligence doesn't equate with the ability to solve riddles or craft wooden furniture. Having an INT of 18 doesn't make someone "MacGuyver." It doesn't even mean the character is a particularly good student...except insofar as we're talking about being a student of magic. But you can be a stupid, stupid person and still great at your job. Happens all the time. D&D is not about "renaissance men (and women)" skilled in a variety of tasks and careers.

Wisdom isn't a stat that measures how "wise" or "intuitive" or "insightful" is your character. It's a measure of your character's ability to advance as a cleric. Again, forget the the word "wisdom;" it's a short-hand term, and a confusing one. Just call it WIS. Later editions provided that it made clerics even better (by giving them additional spells). For the non-clerics it acted as an adjustment to saving throws versus magic (though why exactly was never really made clear...certainly this was a late development in a game that mechanically went nearly unchanged between the mid-70's and 1999). You can be an extremely devoted zealot, well-versed in the tenets of your religion...or a doubter and closet agnostic who nevertheless has a firm grip on the ways of "universal (divine) law." Despite the name given to the ability, an 18 WIS doesn't make you wise; there's nothing "wise" about being an adventurer. There's nothing "wise" about joining a band of cutthroats and delving into ancient mines and tombs full of horrible ways to die. It is a MECHANIC with an unfortunate name, nothing more.

Charisma? It's not a measure of your personality. It's a measure of your abstract "it" factor, how much people naturally trust you and your immediate likability. It gives a bonus or penalty to reaction, something only checked in an initial encounter...your ability to make a first impression, probably based as much on your carriage, manner of speech, and straightness of teeth as much as anything else. Why do some people attract sycophants and fantastical followers while others have a tougher time making friends? Why do some people get elected president despite being eminently unqualified for the position? Why are some people blessed with popularity even when their words and actions are sheer nonsense? Eventually, all but the unfortunate few will see through the facade to a person's true worth based on his or her actual actions...and the length of time that takes to become disillusioned can be slowed or speeded depending on the depth to which that initial first impression got made. But it happens eventually...and probably sooner if the person shows herself to be a monster right from the get-go.

The same holds true of all the ability scores. Strength is a measure of fighting ability, not athletic ability. Originally, dexterity measure only marksmanship; later it was used to measure thieving ability (both as a thief's prime requisite and in bonuses/penalties to thief skills). Constitution adjusts a character's ability to withstand damage, not her ability to resist disease or hold her breath or sustain a sprint over distance.

I'm sorry, but I'm irritated. Hell, I'm angry. I'm mad at 5th edition and 4th edition and 3rd edition and 2nd edition (with its non-weapon proficiencies) and BECMI's "General Skills" (from the Gazetteers and, later, the Rules Cyclopedia). Hell, I'm mad at Tom Moldvay's admonition on page B60 of the B/X (Basic) Rules that:

"The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20."

Bullshit. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!

Characters are trained in the skills of their class. They're not "renaissance men (and women)." They are not taking night courses at community college. They're not hitting the gym or practicing aerial aerobics. They're not shelling out money at the hot yoga studio to increase their flexibility and focus. They're not researching the internet for the best diets to and exercises to maintain health and fitness, nor to see how to build a rowboat from scratch or live off the land or fletch their own arrows. WE can do that...even in the days before the internet we had libraries and city colleges and trade schools and a military industrial complex capable of churning out trained soldiers from hopelessly soft civilians in a matter of months based on carefully crafted science of physical and mental conditioning. But that's us...21st century people.

Stop using ability scores to define the character holistically. It's a terrible simplification. Gygax would have done well to have NEVER suggested the inclusion of "secondary skills" in AD&D, but even he provided a near-20% chance of a character having NO SKILL OF MEASURABLE WORTH. A fighter is trained to kill people, not forge and repair armor, not execute standing broad jumps or pole vault or climb like a spider. Thieves are trained to steal (in various ways); they are not tumblers and acrobats, no matter what their DEX score is. Acrobats are trained to do these kinds of things, and I encourage anyone to add such a class to their game if they find those skills desirable (I even wrote up an "acrobat" for The Complete B/X Adventurer). But don't look at a 16 dexterity as an 80% chance to perform such feats. Knowing one set of skills doesn't translate to another set (see professional soccer players versus professional baseball players versus professional ballet dancers).

Stop with the ability checks. Your wizard's 18 intelligence means she's an impressively knowledgable wizard for her level of experience. It doesn't make her an impressively intelligent person. It doesn't make her better at finding secret doors or sussing out ambush's or identifying things she's had no experience with. Your cleric's 18 wisdom makes her an impressively accomplished cleric for her level of doesn't mean she's wise. She's only as wise as YOU, the player, make her. If you decide to open the chest without searching for traps or decide it's a good idea to make a deal with a greater demon, there's ZERO RESPONSIBILITY on the DM to have you reconsider these un-wise actions. The stat is called "wisdom" but that's just a word; stop thinking of it as more than a term.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry to irritate people. I'm sorry to once again yell about things that are indelibly ingrained into some (most) D&D players' psyches, wasting everyone's blessed time, especially my own. But I was once again reading some blog on which someone was (once again) complaining about some aspect of 5E ability checks they didn't if some checks were "good" and others were bad...and just, no. No. Stop the madness. There are no "good" ability checks. There are no good "skill systems" for D&D. Your character class tells you what you can do. Your ability scores might adjust some aspects of effectiveness. But YOU, player: YOU are the one responsible for working with what you've got. I don't care what your character's Intelligence or Charisma is. Your Strength and Dexterity scores mean jack-all to me outside the adjustments the game rules explicitly provide. If you can't figure stuff out, tough shit.

You need a boat? Buy one or pay someone to build it for you. You're not boatbuilder. This isn't MacGuyver; it's D&D. Boatbuilder isn't an available character class.

Stop with the ability checks already.
[vented at 2am]


  1. So you failed your charisma check and had a 2a.m. meltdown? It happens... particularly to pcs who dont invest in charisma (which is not just your appeal to others, its your capacity to express your self worth- which is odd for charisma because everything else is a linear scale while charisma is a hill between door-mat and egomaniac).

  2. Roll a Wisdom save vs a DC 15 to calm the fuck down.

  3. Of course I could be wrong but I'd always thought that the ability checks were a way to judge any skill not covered by the class (since these skills are not based on class they don't go up the way class abilities do). This helps the DM make decisions in edge cases not covered by the rules.

  4. Working in academia, I know many INT 18 people who can be pretty dumb.

  5. This is a very D&D problem I guess. I am not sure I even understand why it bothers you. Or maybe...I don't...OK let me put this another way.

    I am not, contrary to popular belief, an actual green furred, humanoid canine from the Sirius Star System. Barkley is a character. He's not me. Nor am I am Andorian Starfleet Officer or a Dwarf from the World's Edge Mountains. We got that right? Cool.

    So, while the decisions on the actions those characters make come from me, the player, why would their stats represent something other than THEIR knowledge and physical attributes?

    Do they know about Chinese cooking? Do they understand how dogs think? No. Likewise, I do not in reality understand life under mountains or how to polarize the hull plating using an electrostatic phase inducer.

    The stats are the stats of the character. The avatar you are using in a game. They are not me, I am not them. I, the player, can come up with a great idea for breaking into the Troll's Keep. My Dwarf Character may know things about Trolls that I don't. Roll an Intelligence Check to see if he knows anything helpful.

    Honestly, I've been doing this as a player and GM since 1977. Nothing is more old school homebrew.

    1. > My Dwarf Character may know things about Trolls that I don't. Roll an Intelligence Check to see if he knows anything helpful.

      Or, you know, the GM could just TELL you "because you are a dwarf, you know these things about trolls." Because it's the GM's job to tell you what your character senses, so that you can make an informed guess about what to do.

    2. That time I was playing 3.5 and decided to throw a literal wrench in the works of a giant machine. In the real world that would result in bad things for both the wrench and the machine. In 3.5, however, nothing happened because the DC was 25 and I didn't make the roll. I have never been more frustrated at a gaming table.

      While I do use the occasional ability check when what a player describes is implausible but not impossible, if it would work in the real world why make the player roll to see if reality and common sense suddenly cease to exist?

    3. Answering both your comments quite simply - Yes, the GM could say my Dwarf knows about Trolls. Do all Dwarves automatically know about Trolls? Do they now that the GM made this call? A Knowledge or Intelligence check would tell us whether or not MY Dwarf knows about Trolls.

      As FRDave notes, it is best used exactly as he describes it: When something is implausible but not impossible.

      If it's been established that my Dwarf is from the region where the Troll's Keep is located, sure just give him the info. If he's not but he might have heard something, have him roll. Why not? It's up to the player to make use of the info or not, or make the best of not knowing.

  6. Don't tell me what to do! You're not my REAL dad!

  7. lol.. I love reading your rants, but going off about a mechanic that's been part of D&D for every edition after B/X rises to a new level of grognardia. Strength has always given a bonus to 'open doors' so it's NEVER been only about fighting ability. I prefer 5E's method of using your stat bonus as a modifier to testing against the stat. I'd be curious how you handle something like a player wanting to swing on a rope across a chasm as there is no class ability for that.

    Also, saying a fighter is trained to fight and not repair armor, etc. is ridiculous. I'm a network engineer, but I also have a second job as a freelance illustrator, play bass guitar, and am an accredited chef. No one is limited to one set of skills. These things add interest to a character beyond the dungeon. If your game only focuses on that environment, then yeah, it's useless to worry about the fact that a PC Cleric is a skilled architect/cobbler/champion marble player.

    Anyway, carry on - your posts are entertaining as always.

  8. Very well. Allow me to ask a hypothetical question.

    I have two characters, both with a 15 constitution, both dressed alike, walking through an arctic wilderness, steadily losing body heat. Do they collapse at the same time? Do they collapse in order of their body weight? Clearly, they don't collapse in order of their mental resolve, that only exists to determine if they're a mage or a cleric. We have a remarkable moment of real heroism presented here. One will drop, the other will pick up their dropped companion and stagger on. Would you propose the two players argue about who gets to be which part?

    Or would you propose they roll off d20s to determine which drops first? I can't imagine you would, because how does that differ from the ability check?

    Equally likely, you're not saying that this situation couldn't possibly occur in your world, or that you'd simply resolve it by DM fiat, right? You're not just going to say, okay, B carries A.

    And what about survival? If B carries A, does that mean A is sure to die first? Or that they both die? Or that B will die because A gets a "rest"? I'm really confused here.

    You know what isn't confusing? Setting a clear, pre-made set of rules that say, both roll against their constitutions, whatever those happen to be. A better constitution promises a better chance, but not a GUARANTEED chance. The lucky then get to survive. The unlucky die. The way, you know, that life actually works in these situations.

    Oh, wait. We could stage the PLAYERS to go out into brutal cold weather ~ we may have to wait a few months ~ and then have them march through deep snow and the first to complain, their character dies ...

  9. [cont...]

    I get what you're saying, JB. This bathwater is really, really dirty. It has been used for several days running and now there are little bits of feces floating in it and yes, very much, this bathwater really needs to be thrown out and the baby properly cleaned.

    But let's keep the baby, hm? Let's establish careful, rational moments for the cleanliness of the bathwater, to ensure we're not dropping a lot of bad chemicals and other substances in it that could seriously hurt the baby. Let's make the bathwater sweet-smelling and purposeful for the baby's health and well-being. Let's make sure we understand the purpose of bathwater and why we employ it properly and with common sense.

    Dirty bathwater is not the baby's fault.

  10. So I mostly agree. I dislike ability checks as a catch-all sub-system for anything, and I'm not a fan of true skill systems. INT, WIS, CHA... those have no place be used when role-playing and player skill are to be applied.

    On the other hand, I don't think ability checks were originally -just- meant to be those narrow definitions; they've definitely been interpreted as more than that, both by TSR and the player-base on the whole, for a lot longer. And there's two main reasons for that:

    1) Distinction. There's nothing to physically distinguish two characters without physical stats. Is this guy stronger than that guy? You could do something like OD&D hit dice, and tie physique directly to Hit Dice. But in most systems, it's generally simpler to do STR.

    2) Mechanical Resolution. The things you brought up for Constitution - disease, etc. - are all factors that really can come up in play. If not a direct ability check, having them be at least influenced by scores - in the same manner as resurrection survival, opening doors, etc. - also seems fair.

    As a general principle in favor of putting class in the forefront of character competency, and player skill as the driving factor of the mind, I agree fully.

  11. D&D is not a game of explicit rules to be followed to the letter without improvising or interpretation.

  12. Meh?

    I get the dislike of skill systems and don't disagree with the historical derivation of stats you describe, but at the same time I like a mechanical backstop for non-combat task resolution - I want a way besides guessing or the convoluted thieves skill system to know if a PC can do some bit of acrobatics or how well a wizard can recognize an obscure magical symbol.

    My personal D&D stat shibboleth is with stat bonuses and penalties over +1/-1 - which create stat inflation and render stat checks effectively meaningless because to be decent at a class a character needs a high stat or two.

    Personally I use both skills and stat checks, but try to use them minimally - generally only for tasks that are inherently dangerous and outside of player knowledge. Can you climb from your ship's rigging to that of another - while holding onto your crossbow? I'd make someone roll 4D6 under Dex for that unless they were a thief or otherwise had an acrobatics skill.

    For your example - PCs can't just whip up a ship with some wood, tools and a stat check (or skill check) but PCs might want to build a raft with rope and a few logs to escape an island or cross a river and I think some mechanical resolution system would be useful there should the jerry-rigged raft get caught in a storm or attacked by a giant goldfish.

    Stat checks are somewhat like preemptive saving throws that allow the GM to provide a coherent metric for the amount of risk involved in a player scheme beyond offering simple failure or success. You can tell a player some scheme requires a 3D6 or 6D6 under dexterity (the character is competent and knows both their limits and roughly how hard it might be to do something like pole-vault over a chasm) and let them weigh the risk. That's a useful addition to the GM's tool kit for arbitrating player actions and offers a clear way of describing danger.

  13. Here is a crazy idea: maybe it is a matter of taste?

    In my own B/X clone, class is more important than abilities, but in 5e it is 50-50 split, which many people seem to like.

    Some people want "strength" to mean "strength"... I don't really blame them. If ability scores mean so little, I can play something like SotU which ignores them.

  14. Make an ability check when the situation is dramatic, otherwise don't.

  15. Sorry i take the exact opposite take on this. Players are not their characters. Characters are meant to do things players cannot. I use str rolls for lifting and breaking and Int for puzzles and dex for complex manipulation tasks. I Use stats for saves of a wide variety and rolling them with difficulty is my core mechanic. I dont want to play a confused crippled old man thats why i dont larp.

  16. Great rant! I never use ability checks. I instead go by intuitive seat-of-the-pants guesswork: "Um, if you can roll at least an 8 on a 12-sider, you can do it." Or, if you want something more "objective", then roll a saving throw vs death ray to see if you succeed.

  17. I agree with JB wholeheartedly here. I think ability checks undermine the dynamic of the game that we most want to encourage: players finding satisfying answers to the challenges we set against them. Ability checks are the "I just do it" button. Why have that river in the jungle at all if it is really just a roll 18 on a "string together a raft" check?

    The comments seem to suggest that ability checks are not a firm mechanic, but a band-aid people use at their table when their muse or the players' has failed. They arbitrarily inject false drama into the game. Which character collapses first crossing the frozen tundra? Well, if they are properly outfitted, neither. If they lack protection, who cares? Both die within minutes. Serves them right for doing that. They didn't take the Eskimo class, what kind of player just assumes their fighter can tough out -30 below in plate mail?

    One whose GM let's them solve their character's problems with ability checks.

  18. Ability scores are a good tool for adjucation and sadly no matter how much you will try to convince your players, the Fighter is gonna make fun of the Wizard with 5 STR and call him a wimp. It's impossible to devorce it and part of the fun of rolling ability scores IS imagining what kind of person your character looks like with these scores. I

    they are just nebulus 'you good at x class score' then it's pretty boring and pointless in my opinion to even keep them around. Just cut out the rolls and let me choose a class straight up then. Or just roll a d4 if you don't want Dave to play a Fighter every fucking time.

    D20 roll under is a very bad mechanic though and I agree that making it DAH MECHANIC like the seeds 2e planted eventually grew into is shit. Just glance at the Wizards STR and decide if that's good enough to lift that stone table or if he's gonna have trouble. If you need a mechanic as the outcome is unsure: Roll Reaction but use some other Ability Modifier then use the result to guide you. It's not always gonna be your preferred method but it's a method you may do a couple of times.

  19. Interesting post that has made for a lot of discussion around the blogosphere; I don't agree with it exactly, but I see your point and enjoy reading other perspectives. Linking folks here again this week on my blog/podcast.

  20. It seems (and please forgive me if I'm wrong) that the main issue in this post is that Attribute Scores have come to represent something different in later editions of D&D and that these changes have been carried back into those earlier editions by those who have returned to them or enjoy the many and various retro-clones. Beyond that I don't really see what the issue is TBH, Int might once have just meant what modifiers you got as a Wizard and Cha might just have affected how many hirelings you can have but the meaning changed with time, and I'm fine with that.

    1. @ Red Dice:

      No, RDD, that's NOT the main issue. The MAIN issue is the lazy and ham-fisted way in which attributes have been put to mechanical use, modeling aspects of in-game effectiveness that rightly should require their own systems. It's the thoughtlessness of this and the way it leads to other problems - a cascade failure of game design - based on assumption and a desire to shortcut rule issues that arise in play, rather than apply actual time and effort to the matter. THAT's the issue.

      But, FWIW, I *do* forgive you for being wrong. I probably wasn't as clear in this post as I could have (or should have) been.

    2. Ah, I see, thanks very much for the response :)

  21. I've been treading and re-treading this topic over and again in my head the last few days, and here's the conclusion I've reached: so long as ability scores purport to define a character's fundamental attributes like strength and agility and smarts and charm, people are going to want to check against them with dice rolls. This is an unfortunate function of (1) naming the scores for things like Strength and Charisma, and (2) making the scores impact characters in -other ways- than mere prime requisite XP adjustments, through things like to-hit roll modifiers and so forth.

    I think the only way to drive D&D away from ability checks is to replace the names of scores with even more abstract qualities that dis-invite the DM to call upon them, and discourage players from using them to define the sum total of their characters. The prosaic method would just be to call them Fighteryness, Thiefyness, etc., but even that invites the occasional d20 check.

    Since I use the stats chiefly as prime reqs for six basic classes (e.g. fighter, thief, monk, mage, cleric, bard), I'd go about shocking a crop of players out of the "ability scores are everything" mentality by naming them, say: Valor, Subtlety, Discipline, Mana, Piety, and Creativity. That way, you can see how each one ties to a character class, but you'd be hard pressed to "check" the stat (or even imagine how it's impacting your situation) while slogging through a dungeon.

    1. @ John:

      One thing I was thinking of a while back (though I never got around to posting about it) was how sexist and MALE-oriented the actual names of the ability scores are.

      [yes, this reply may seem a bit out o left field...bear with me a moment]

      Thing is, while terms like "strength" and "intelligence" seem fairly neutral (in fact ARE fairly neutral), the way we apply them in normal American English are generally not applied to female persons, nor are female persons generally measured in those terms (as opposed to applying and measuring male folks by those descriptives). As such, they might be construed as somewhat off-putting to some players, and I considered a few alternative terms to replace the original six (see? this IS relevant to your comment).

      For example, in some circles there is a stigma attached to describing women as "strong" in terms of PHYSICAL strength. Sure it's fine to say a woman is strong of mind or character, but that's not what the ability score purports to measure is it?

      How about calling the ability FIERCENESS instead of Strength? Not "ferocity;" it's not about being bestial, but a fierce fighter is certainly desirable to the fighter class. And, oh look, that models an attack and damage bonus as well without applying that it somehow is tied to bulk and manly muscles. And there's no stigma with calling a woman "fierce," especially in the defense (physical or otherwise) of her family, friends, or country.

      Anyway, that's just one example: it *could* be've given your own examples which are certainly different from the ones I came up with. However, I've kind of moved on from the my own games I've simply resolved to NOT use ability checks. Others may choose to do differently.

  22. Hey thanks for this. Coincidentally I've been expirementing with removing ability scores from my game all together and letting players throw against their current HP as the only save Vs danger. In place of ability scores to differentiate characters there's special ability tables at creation for each class, stuff like being able to ignore poison you've survived before or converse with the recently dead or reflect one critical hit per day.

  23. I don't agree. If ability scores have such marginal uses, they could dissappear and the class level would take their role.

    I agree that the roll under attribute is not well suited with the game as it is played normally.
    If we are to disregard ability scores, we can as well take them off
    If we are to use them, we should specify at which degrees they allow which feats, and when they are automatic and when they must be rolled.

    1. @ Jack:

      I'm not an advocate for getting rid of ability scores altogether. They serve a purpose: they serve mechanical purposes in addition to helping distinguish characters.

      But I am entirely against using them as a universal resolution mechanic. It may be convenient, but it's lazy design and is fraught with multiple issues.

      That being said: to each his or her own. I was feeling especially rant-a-rific when I wrote this 18 months back. I'm not feeling as much ire today.
      ; )