Friday, February 3, 2012

Learned Skills or Natural Abilities?

Reading some of the summaries of initial playtesting and discussion of the next iteration of D&D, I’ve come across some outlines of how skill test resolution may be handled. It appears that some tests will be compared directly to abilities.

A couple of days ago I talked a little bit about how we want the core mechanic of the game to be the interaction between the DM and the player. And one of the great tools for that is the ability score. So what we want is to empower DMs and players so that if you want to attempt to do something "I want to open the door" then the DM doesn't have to even have you roll, he can just look, see you have a 17 strength and says "Yeah, you burst through that door". We want to get past some of the mundane rolls and not tie up a lot of table time with that and move on to the more interesting stuff and the table narrative. 
– Monte Cook, WotC from seminar transcripts at ENWorld

I’m intrigued by this idea. My most recent thinking about test resolution had me considering dropping ability scores altogether, as was done in the CRPG, Skyrim. But this concept, outlined by Mr. Cook, seems to be a cool way to make a system with set difficulty classes work.

SpydersWebbing uses these set DCs in his 4e mod:

Easy: 8
Medium: 12
Moderate: 19
Hard: 23
Master: 30
Heroic: 34
Epic: 41

Anything over Moderate on such a scale would require a skill check with a roll. But many tasks could automatically be accomplished by the strongest, smartest, most-agile, or most-perceptive member of the party.

In a system without automatic leveling of skills — where skill increases were selected by the player as experience rewards for leveling, for example — set DCs make sense, and work well with the ability score-based resolution suggested by Mr. Cook. If a locked, wooden door has a break down DC of 12, a player with a strength of 12 or greater would pretty much always be able to break it down (barring unforeseen circumstances as determined by the DM.)

The balance of an RPG seems to rest on the transition point between narrative-based resolution and game-mechanical resolution. Too much narrative and the game may feel wishy-washy to some players. They may have a sense that it is arbitrary. Too much emphasis on the mechanical — rolls for nearly everything — and the game becomes a console-based CRPG. Just spam the X button until the monster is dead.

So, what happens when a character with an ability score of 18 is confronted with a task with a DC of 19? We transition abruptly from automatic success to a roll-based probability of success. But, what does that mean in narrative terms? I believe this is where the element of risk should come into play. Consequences should be discernable. Perhaps not easily so, but nonetheless, it should be the case. For example, a lock with a DC of 18 is a mechanism that an heroically-agile rogue could pick. But a lock of DC 19 would most likely include a consequence for failure. Perhaps it is a trap, or maybe the noise and/or time required to open the mechanism will attract a wandering monster? Either way, the player should understand that when they are asked to roll the dice, consequences await.

Having an interim element, like the ability-score mechanic that Mr. Cook outlined, seems to be an elegant solution. Success can be determined based on game-mechanical elements, but in a narrative manner. The burly warrior bursts open the door. The agile rogue deftly disarms the trap. The canny wizard deciphers the script and decodes the hidden location of a vast treasure. Each specialist is given an opportunity in the narrative spotlight. An opportunity that can be determined by player choices, and GM recognition of those choices. But, in the spirit of the game, greater challenges may offer greater risks and rewards.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Do you play with a system that handles difficulty classes in a different way? Do you prefer to roll dice to resolve the question of success or failure, or does a narrative hand-wave satisfy you in most cases?


  1. I think Monte and his team are really on to something here. To me, the essence of being skilled at something, whether in real life or at the gaming table, is the classic quip "luck's got nothing to do with it." The more skilled you are, the less influence random chance should have in the outcome. Sure, there is always a chance that even the most skilled hero could fail due to circumstances beyond his control, but it just doesn't feel very epic when you consistently fail at mundane tasks because you can't roll higher than 5 that day.

  2. @Kevin: Thanks for commenting, and I agree with you. I'm planning on adopting something like this for my home game with the caveat that I'll spell out the risk idea for my players when they're required to roll. In my mind a roll should be made when there is something at risk. Whether it's a situation (e.g., the check is being made in combat), or there are some other factors at work (probably that the PCs are unaware of, so the players will be getting a little hint that all may not be as it seems.)

    This means I might have them roll sometimes even though the DC says it should be automatic, but I'm really checking to see if they're affected by the consequences rather than actual failure.