A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons includes three types of d20 rolls: saving throws, attack rolls, and ability checks. Saves and attacks come from the original game, but ability checks first got a name 12 years later. Ability checks began as an obscure rule where players tried to roll low on a d20. In second edition, the rule for ability checks only appears as one paragraph in the glossary. Today’s style of check finally arrived in 2000.

Modern D&D players make ability checks throughout the game, so a D&D game without checks seems stunted. But before ability checks, D&D players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls.

In A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, Matthew J. Finch describes this original style. “The players can describe any action, without needing to look at a character sheet to see if they ‘can’ do it. The referee, in turn, uses common sense to decide what happens.

You don’t have a ‘spot’ check to let you notice hidden traps and levers, you don’t have a ‘bluff’ check to let you automatically fool a suspicious city guardsman, and you don’t have a ‘sense motive’ check to tell you when someone’s lying to your character. You have to tell the referee where you’re looking for traps and what buttons you’re pushing. You have to tell the referee whatever tall tale you’re trying to get the city guardsman to believe. You have to decide for yourself if someone’s lying to your character or telling the truth.

To players who still favor D&D’s early versions, the lack of ability checks counts as a feature. Faced with an challenge, players must observe and interact with the game world. Instead of scanning their character sheet for solutions, players rely on their wits and ingenuity. Without checks, the game tests player skill more than character stats.

The absence of checks encouraged dungeon masters to assume that characters brought enough competence to succeed at ordinary tasks. For example, if characters wanted to bind a prisoner, they tied him up. But in third edition, characters relied on Use Rope skill, which often painted heroes as ridiculously inept at knots. I once played a convention game where a DM stretched Use Rope failures into hours of tiresome gaming. DMs can always skip a check for a simple task, but the presence of a skill tended to encourage checks.

Early characters could tie knots and they found pits by tapping on the floor with a 10-foot pole, but they still attempted actions that defied common-sense resolutions.

In the original game, common tests of an ability each brought a separate rule. To see if characters perceived a secret door, the dungeon master rolled a d6. Typical feats of strength relied on two different mechanics: Bending bars and lifting gates required a percentage roll, but bashing doors required a d6 roll.

If a situation came less frequently, the game offered no rules. So how could a dungeon master decide whether a character crossed a tight rope?

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax describes his approach. “Allow the dice to control the situation. This can be done by assigning reasonable probability to an event and then letting the player dice to see if he or he can make that percentage.” Gygax made up rulings on the spot to suit whatever seemed “correct and logical.”

This approach led to the jumble of the original D&D rules. Faced with a game situation, Gygax tended to invent a roll that settled the outcome. If the situation came up enough, the method become a rule.

Many dungeon masters felt uncomfortable embracing Gary’s improvisation. D&D players frequently try things that test a characters’ ability scores, and DMs wanted a fair and easy way to decide the outcome. Their players wanted consistency too. Rules become the laws of physics in the game world. If a rule exists for an action, players understand how it’s resolved and their chance of success. Players enjoy that transparency.

The first ability check mechanic reached print in 1976, but ability checks would take decades to become a foundation of D&D.

Next: Ability checks—from the worst design in role-playing game history to a foundation of D&D.

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28 Responses to A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons

  1. Built2Fast says:

    Ability checks aren’t a “take away” from the game. So, not being able to embrace it seems a little out there. It’s a dice based game so just like anything you can certainly try it, however, if you don’t succeed at it you might have to become more inventive to accomplish what you are trying to do. If your players roll a 1 on an attack role do you allow them to break their arms or hack off a leg when they swing a battle axe? Probably not because with all things the rules engine is a “guide”. As a DM you own the game so do that: Own the game and make the experience of an adventure be that.

  2. Ilbranteloth says:

    To me what was lacking more was not a resolution, but a measure of how skilled a given character was. That’s really what I find more important about skills. I agree that the resolution systems quickly became problems – mostly because I have a strong dislike for a system that allows somebody with great skill to fail a simple task. Sure, it can happen, but not as much as rolling a d20 + modifier. I also typically haven’t liked the way systems handled retries. From the original AD&D approach (you can’t try again until you gain a level), to the take 10/20 system and everything in between. I feel they were all lacking in some manner.

    I’ve come to the point where I really, really like passive skills. That is, the passive score is a measure of how good somebody is at a particular skill – it sets a floor. The ceiling is 20 + the ability modifier.

    If a task falls within that range, then I do what I’ve done since the late- ’70s – exactly what DM David points out here – let them interact with the game world. But now, if it’s uncertain that success occurs, or the situation is dangerous enough that you need to know how long it takes to succeed, then you make a check, modified by whatever actions the characters have already taken.

    I do like the option to include a die roll when needed, it’s a mechanic that the players know, expect, and adds suspense to the game. Most failures to me are failures of time – that is, if it’s harder than their baseline, but within their ceiling, they’ll almost certainly get it eventually. The die roll provides that measure (DC – roll). Unlike the take 10/20 mechanic, there aren’t restrictions of use, nor is it a fixed amount of time. Because in most cases, that’s the difference between something you can do easily, and something that’s not as easy – it takes you more time to get it right.

    Other complications or outright deadly failures can happen depending on the circumstances. I also really believe in the degrees of failure, and sometimes success. For example, to also use a knot-tying example, a failure by a small amount might result in a poorly knotted rope. Assuming they don’t double-check it (in which case the skill check would indicate whether they noticed or not), there’s a chance of the rope failing, and the chance increases the more it is tested. Like by several characters descending it into a deep pit entrance to a cave. In that case, the difference between the DC and the roll might be how many characters can descend before it gives way. Or how many rounds. It won’t give way all at once, their will probably be a jerk or too as it loosens.

    On the other hand, with a skilled mountaineer (or spelunker) the knot is probably sound. That is, it’s an easy task for them, so I wouldn’t consider that a potential failure point. But the rope might be worn and weak, or the anchor point not as strong as it looks, or a sharp rock that isn’t immediately obvious is weakening the rope, etc. In other words, the failure, if something other than time, needs to fit both the scenario and the skill level of the character.

    • martywalser says:

      I have a problem with passive skills in addition to the way perception and investigation are handled by most DMs.

      I like that passive perception sets a kind of “baseline” so that if there is somebody moving through the bushes making noises, there is no chance one can miss something obvious.

      On the other hand, I’ve played in some Adventurer’s League games where players have cranked up their passive skills through some ridiculous (but legal) rule shenanigans.

      In one recent game, there was a maze-like challenge with traps and other things put there to challenge “smart play” (not quite Tomb of Horrors deadly, but dangerous). Without even describing what he was doing, the Percepty player was “I check for traps as we walk down the hallway… 25… oh and my passive perception is 18 (or something ridiculously high like that).

      The DM basically let him auto-detect anything he was walking near. It was boring as $#it and utterly ruined the fun of the scenario.

      I like skill systems, but there needs to be a whole freaking chapter on how to run perception and investigation as a DM… because most of them do it wrong.

      • doughagler says:

        My recommendation – most of the time, don’t roll perception in any game.

        https://douglasunderhill.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/dont-roll-perception/comment-page-1/

        🙂

      • Ilbranteloth says:

        I agree that some are too high. I’ve changed expertise to a +2 bonus instead of double your proficiency bonus in our campaign, and have toyed with a base of 8+ instead of 10+ for passive scores.

        Really, though, it’s a question of setting appropriate DCs. For example, pretty much any lock in my campaign starts with a DC of 20. Why? because it’s really hard to pick a lock. Also I have also settled (for now) on anything that has a DC of 20 or higher requires proficiency to attempt.

        On the other hand, I detest penalizing the players/characters for having good skills. I don’t design encounters to be challenging for them per se. And the DCs and such are based off of the game world as a whole.

        For example, a normal lock or trap is designed to be a deterrent against the majority of people. That is, the 95% that aren’t 5th level rogues. Unless it’s something much more important that expects to be a target. So breaking into most locations becomes easy for a 3rd level or higher rogue. Just like most homes are easy for a professional thief. My focus is on what makes sense in the world, not what would make something challenging or interesting for the players.

        In addition, I see Perception as something similar to Insight – you notice something is not quite right. It might be the sense that somebody is watching you, or that the arrangements of the rooms of a building leave an empty space in the middle. There’s probably a secret room, but that doesn’t mean you know where the secret door is.

        Overall I think the basic framework is pretty good, just needs a bit of tweaking. And that’s for my personal preference, 5e is designed so that the characters have a significant chance of success for just about everything. It’s an extension of the, “say yes” approach which so many are fans of, despite the fact that I think that they are interpreting the idea incorrectly. To me it’s, “yes, you can ATTEMPT just about anything, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be hard or nearly impossible, or that you’ll actually succeed at it.” In other words, the DM shouldn’t rain on their parade and not allow them to try something, but they still need to set the boundaries, which means that either they’ll need to roll a 20, or maybe a 20 with disadvantage, or maybe they just won’t succeed.

        Saying “no you can’t try that” is taking control away from the players. Saying, “sure, you can try that, but not only is it not likely to work, you think you have a good chance of killing yourself in the process” is a better answer. They can still attempt it if they want, they just need to know whatever risks are evident at the time.

        Anyway, I digress…just trying to say 5e is made to be too easy for my tastes as written.

  3. My experience is that 5th edition D&D classes are becoming too generic with almost any character having a fair chance at making an ability check and ‘specializing’ making little difference. Anybody can use thieves tools to pick a lock or spot cunning trap, tame a wild animal, or any other action that used to be more class specific

    • martywalser says:

      I both like and dislike it simultaneously.

      It allows a certain amount of customization similar to a point-based skill system, which I actually like… I mean, why can’t there be a dude who can pick locks even if he isn’t a thief/rogue?

      On the other hand, I do understand that there is a certain amount of homogenization that comes along with that. Old school classes have very specific skills they are special at, and other classes just don’t get them.

      It’s a conundrum because while I like the flexibility, I do recognize the loss of “flavor” from the traditional D&D classes.

    • mstickler says:

      Amen!

      5 Edition – The “Anyone can do Everything” edition.

      • No, 4th Edition was much more like that – with everyone getting half their level as a bonus to *every* roll they made.

        There is nothing wrong with allowing players to attempt something, though… and there certainly are some siginificant differences between skilled and unskilled characters in 5th ed. A Rogue, for example, with 18 Dex, proficiency, and expertise attempting to pick a lock (+8 total) compared to an average Dex fighter (+0 sans proficiency). That is a 40% difference in success probability, at level 1.

        I also prefer a point based skill system, but understand the reason for the simplicity of the default proficiency system in 5th ed.

        • mstickler says:

          I think even the designers realize they went too simple. The introduction of skill based feats are an example of that. However my concern is it seems like more of an after the fact kludge and in someways making the problem worse as it is addressing the wrong end of the skill spectrum.

          Plus I see issues with player who want to believe they are “Expert” smiths on par with the Dwarf who does the job every day for 300 years.

          I am sorry but no, you are not. This represents a hobby that you have invested in not your profession.

    • This topic seems more or less to just fodder to write news about.

      At the end of the day ability checks are just a standardized rule a DM can and may use to determine the likelihood of an action. At times it is mentally easier for your DM to have you make a check as opposed to having to deduce all the variable that would factor into whether you pass or fail. Conversely if a player wants to do an action the DM has every right to say “yah man you did the thing” and be over and done with it.

      In short find the DM that fits your play style over finding an edition or system that fits it.

      Sidenote: no one really likes the guy who’s obsessed with stuff he thought was “better back in the day”.

    • mstickler says:

      I know we were using ability checks (even if they weren’t called that) as early as 1980. It was easy enough to look at how strength was used and interpolate. If there was a puzzle to figure out and the players were stumped then the DM would do a roll your intelligence or less on a d20. (sometimes with penalties). You would not get the answer but you would get a hint.

      That brings up another thing about the introduction of ability checks and skills (non weapon proficiencies) – Their use dramatically altered the way games are played. Prior to their introduction characters were merely an avatar for the player. All in all it was fairly easy to see the use of “physical” stats being put to use. Every time a player swung an axe, or shot an arrow, or resisted poison there was a separation between the character doing something and the players abilities to do so. I mean no one was going to ask you to knock down a door to prove your 18(00) fighter could do so. There was a simple and easy translation of physical stats to in game actions.

      But If something needed to be done mentally or socially it was up to the player to describe how to do it and if the DM was convinced, it happened. If something needed to be figured out, the player was the one expending brain power. If someone needed to be convinced, the player had to convince the DM. A lot of the games depended upon the intelligence and resourcefulness of the player. This in and of itself tended to lead to RPG’s being seen as a “Nerd’s” game… We were rarely the best at “doing” things, but we were almost always the best at “describing how” things were done.

      Once Non-Weapon Proficiencies, Skills, and Ability Checks were formally introduced, a lot of the game that once involved the player figuring out how to do something, naturally became more about the character figuring out how to do it. It didn’t happen all at once because a lot of DMs were old school and loved their riddles and puzzles and other challenges that required effort by the player and not the character. But gradually as DMs began cutting their teeth on second, third or latter editions, character skills and ability checks were all they knew and they began to take on a life of their own. No longer was the character merely an extension of the player’s mind. It had skills and knowledge separate from the players skills and knowledge and that knowledge could be tapped with the roll of the dice.

      “Tomb of Horrors” is a prime example of a dungeon that could only have been developed under First Edition rules. The premise was the player had to figure out the solutions and if the player got it wrong, the character suffered the consequences. While the most recent rewrite of the module did it justice and was a fair homage to the original, if you simply took the original and walked through it using 5e rules, it would be just that… a walk through. Every obstacle would be be subjected to a barrage of “Investigation,” “perception,” “arcana,” and other “knowledge based” skill checks with success on a roll indicating a successful tidbit of information revealing itself or a resolution to the obstacle itself being found. To be honest I thing Gygax would roll over in his grave at the wholesale replacement of “player ability” with “character ability.”

      Today many young players see “being good at the game” as having the ability to “build” a character with a skill set so broad and capable that the player never has to figure anything out because the “character” is always doing that work for them. I don’t care whether you call it min/maxing or optimizing, either way it represents a fundamental difference between “old school” and “new school” players.

      • Circuitous says:

        I can see what you’re saying here, but at the same time, there’s a reason why characters have social and mental statistics.

        Personally, I’m not a charismatic person. Put me on the spot and ask me to tell a lie or be convincing, I’ll flounder and fail. So if I stat up Falthor Silvertongue and bring him into a game, how am I to represent the character’s charisma with my fumbling words?

        For my games, the answer is a mix. The player gives me what they’re capable of, and a die roll can help bridge the gap. Imagine a scenario in which Falthor wants to convince a guard to let him pass:

        If the player is sheepish or uncertain, simply stating “I ask the guard to let me pass”, we’ll do the ability check as normal. We keep it vague. “Falthor offers a friendly smile and requests passage, normal as can be; unfortunately, the guard is steadfast in keeping his post, and refuses.”

        If the player is open to more direct roleplaying, they can go ahead and speak in Falthor’s place. “Hello there, friend. Could I trouble you to let me pass? I know I’m not supposed to be here at night, but I’m bringing home a tonic for my ailing mother, and the quickest route home is right this way. Surely you wouldn’t ask her to suffer longer?” The DM decides whether their words are convincing or not. If so, they may let Falthor succeed automatically, given his high skill. If not, but close, they may give advantage to the roll. You get the idea.

        Regardless, if you expect only to challenge the player’s skill, there’s little use in having Int, Wis, or Cha at all. If my character can only be as charismatic as me, or only have what little knowledge I possess, I’m pigeonholed into a very small subset of characters. No thanks.

        • Ilbranteloth says:

          I agree with this on concept. But there’s a difference between acting and role playing.

          The problem is that a lot of players don’t role play anymore either. They just make skill checks. Role playing is making decisions as the character. You don’t have to “act” the part, or actually be charismatic. But you do have to explain what you’re doing.

          That’s what’s missing between your two examples. In the case with the guard:

          If you simply say, “I ask the guard to let me pass,” then I don’t even have to make a roll. The answer is no. And no skill check is going to change that. The guard is there to, well, guard. You haven’t provided any reason for him to let you pass.

          But if you tell me that you want to get the guard to let you pass, and that you’re going to tell him that you’re a cleric that has been called to help one of the Lords with a sensitive medical issue, then I’ll let you make a skill check and assign a modifier of some sort.

          If the player is being sheepish, then I’ll ask them how they’ll ask the guard to let them pass? How would they convince them? They don’t have to write dialog, or act out the part, but should provide something more than, “I want to roll a deception check to get the guard to let me pass.”

          In my campaign, the general rule is that a player should never ask to make a skill check. And in most cases, they shouldn’t be invoking the name of a skill. It’s not “I’m going to make a stealth check to see if I can sneak past the guard.” They should be telling me that they want to see if they can sneak around past the guard without him noticing they are there.

          If a skill check is warranted, then I’ll ask for them to make one.

        • mstickler says:

          Circ… I agree players stats should have some impact but what pains me more and more is as a DM I go to great lengths to thoroughly describe a room, desk, work table, book shelves, etc. and instead of taking any of that into account a player will simply say “I make a perception check or I’m rolling investigation.”

          Like wise with charisma, I’m not asking you to convince me your mother is sick and you are take her the tonic I just want to see some effort and possibly creativity on the part of the player.

      • Lordomatic says:

        The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (sp) in the Yawning Portal is another example of a 1st edition module that cannot be ported directly to 5th the way they did for some of the reasons discussed above.

        I played a 5th level Arcane Trickster and I avoided most traps and such by the unlimited use of Mage Hand. Also, my “Find / Remove Traps or Perception or Investigation” skills were significant and I bypassed all but one of the traps.

        What did stop us for some time was trying to find the key to open the door in the first room. It was true investigation of the players (not characters) to find the key hidden in a figure’s hand and then find the lock (hidden behind the door’s keystone – ba du bum tssss). So, you can still offer interesting challenges in 5th edition, as long as you limit the number of skill checks and what they reveal.

        Side Note
        I’m currently running a 5th level campaign and I have a player or two that reach for a d20 to make a skill check whenever they ask a question. It has taken a fair bit of reinforcement to get them to explain what they are doing and I decide whether a roll is necessary or the information is readily available.

    • Ilbranteloth says:

      I don’t have an issue with anybody being able to gain proficiency in thieves’ tools. They still have to spend a proficiency of some sort to get it.

      My issue, and what really makes it more homogenous, is that you don’t need to have proficiency to attempt anything. No matter how hard it is. At the lowest levels you’re only talking about a 10% difference between an untrained and trained individual, and at the highest levels (without ability modifiers), you’re only talking about 30% difference between trained and untrained.

  4. “Spot” checks were called “Find & Remove Traps” which was a thief skill.

  5. Andrea Back says:

    Skill/ability checks allow true roleplaying. The timid player can roleplay a charismatic bard, the dumb kid can play as a smart wizard who identifies all spells cast at him…

    Without skill points, you end up with you playing you in a fantasy dress, with all your own limitations and qualities laid bare.
    The smart player who plays a primitive barbarian with 5 Int and 7 wis will be the one to solve riddles, spot traps and ambushes, trick guards and enemies… etc…

    • That’s right, and that’s how it was played (and still is by some of us). This is a good thing IMO.

      It’s not the barbarian who solves the riddles, but the player, however this can most definitively be done via roleplaying.

      To me this makes much more game sense than the timid bard able to befriend the townsfolk without any player effort in describing how s/he does so: “I roll charisma and succeed, the townsfolk like me now”. I played a bard in a 5e game recently and was continuously frustrated by a bad roll ruining my roleplayed-out performance, and I eventually stopped the roleplaying and just made the roll because the roleplaying didn’t end up mattering. I’d rather spend time playing out the befriending process and having it work out or not based on what was said.

      In early RPGs (as I have understood them) *players* became better with experience: we learned battlefield tactics, learned problem solving, learned to think outside the box, learned to creatively interact with NPCs and each other, learned to play to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, etc. etc. We are now, I hope, better RPG players for it. What didn’t happen was spending more than 10 minutes building the character’s mechanics, then in play just ask “OK, who’s got the best INT… good, you make the check…”

      • Circuitous says:

        I think you approached the use of checks incorrectly.

        Let’s take your timid bard example. I’ll assume you mean a timid person playing a bard, since bards are charismatic by their very nature.

        So, the bard wishes to befriend the townsfolk with a performance. The player, being a timid person, isn’t sure how to do that – but his bard absolutely would be. So, the player asks the DM, “My character seeks to befriend the townsfolk. Knowing what he knows, what could he do to get them on side?”

        The DM explains that the bard is aware of an upcoming harvest festival, though it has fallen by the wayside in recent years due to poor crop yield. The harvest had a theme song of sorts, and a worthy performance of it may just do the trick.

        With an idea in hand, the player rolls for the performance check. Rather than roleplaying before the check is made, in this case – especially considering the player’s relative ineptitude – it makes more sense to determine how things play out first, before narrating it.

        If the check succeeds, the player and the DM (and perhaps even other players) can collaborate on explaining how the performance goes, the reaction of the crowd. If it fails, they can decide what went wrong – or explain how the plan was a mistake to begin with!

        In either case, a roll decides the outcome, but the player is involved in the roleplaying around it, without it being a simple “You succeed. Moving on…” They’re still learning those same skills, but making their character’s statistics relevant. Why even measure a character’s Int, Wis, and Cha, if you’re only going to test the player’s?

  6. Like everything else it is up to a DM as to what kind of a game he wants to run, and frankly if he is good or as a DM.

    I use ability checks, and make on the spot decisions based on situation as to the DC of a check. I allow the player to greatly influence the result based on what they say. For instance if they want to fool a guard that he is guard’s long lost son, that would be almost impossible, but if he approaches the guard and complains about weather, asking him where something is, while rest of the party sneaks in? Sure that be much easier.

    I let players decide the game, but dice help make the game more interesting, and ultimately fun. There is no such thing as rogue being able to certainly succeed his stealth roll, and my players know this. Which means they try to make sure that they make sense and not just use their stats.

    In addition I always let players use their abilities in case they get stuck and can’t figure something out. However they know that doing so means they will gain far less XP out of it. Yet, nobody in real life has 20 INT like the Wizard has that player is playing. So it does make sense to say: “OK I will just see if my character can think of a solution”. Dragging something for hours, is not fun either.

    Guess what I am really saying is that our job as a DMs is to figure out what makes sense in current context, this is what makes being DM so much fun.

  7. Doug says:

    Not including Ability Checks creates an advantage for the more creative and detriment to the less creative.

    For people that naturally are able to think ‘outside the box’, an ability check might be seen as a limitation. For other people, that list of abilities can be a great jumping off point for thinking of ideas.

    DM: You are trapped in the pit and the guards start to point their crossbows at you.

    Player; AH! What can I do?! (Looks through ability list). Stealth, no. My Athletics is okay…maybe climb up? My Persuasion is pretty good…Hey, can I try and convince them not to shoot me?

    DM: Sure, what would you tell them?

    A naturally creative person might need the ability list to come up with non-combat ideas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a valuable tool for everyone else.

  8. doughagler says:

    It was said well above – without ability checks, the character is mostly an avatar for the player. It’s, ironically, more like playing an MMO. The player socializes, solves puzzles, etc., and uses the character to cast spells or swing a sword on their behalf. With ability checks (or something similar) it is possible for the character and the player to be more different from one another, which is another kind of fun. Either one works, but it is definitely a big difference.

    The main argument I have in favor of ability checks is that it seems arbitrary to rely on the character’s abilities for some things and the player’s abilities for other things. It doesn’t matter if the player is good with a sword, but it does matter if the player is good at puzzles. But, like I said, that’s just a certain kind of game.

    To go all the way in the direction of having no ability scores would be LARPing, where the player’s abilities are the character’s abilities, at least in most battle-oriented LARPs.

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  10. Tolrick says:

    I find a lot of modern players are more interested in roll playing rather than role playing.
    It’s a major source of frustration to me, moreso since one of the other long-time GMs I play with seems to encourage it.

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