Some gamers say that ability checks make D&D less fun. These fans of an older style of Dungeons & Dragons prefer a game where instead of rolling perception to spot a trap door, characters tap the floor with their 10-foot pole. I like that style of play just fine, but I like ability checks too. Making a successful check gives me fleeting satisfaction. Checks give a clearer way of deciding success than the method Gary Gygax used in 1974. (He estimated the odds and improvised a roll.) Plus, rolled checks add a random element that can bring surprises, especially to DMs who call for a check despite being unprepared for failure.
Still, ability checks lack enough entertainment value to carry a D&D game. I know because lately I’ve played too many published and organized play adventures that leaned hard on ability checks for any amusement. I would share examples, but I’ve forgotten them.
Adventure designers hoping to plan fun D&D sessions sometimes string ability checks together into encounters, travel sequences, and even adventures, but those batches of ability checks just turn into forgettable games. I understand the temptation that leads to a reliance on ability checks. Dreaming up obstacles that characters can overcome with checks seems effortless. Traveling through the woods? How about a survival check. Talking to the innkeeper? Give me a diplomacy check. I could do this all day, and my game session only lasts a few hours. Inventing challenges that players need to overcome with their own ingenuity proves much more work. Besides, we DMs would all rather focus on the story behind challenges.
The fun of D&D comes from immersing in the role of a character, and from making decisions and seeing the results in the game world. But ability checks tend to eliminate the players’ decisions from the game. So one of the dungeon’s diabolical challenges just becomes a Wisdom (Perception) check followed by an Dexterity check. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “Roleplaying can diminish if players feel that their die rolls, rather than their decisions and characterizations, always determine success.” Ability checks challenge characters while leaving players idle. “Today we’re playing White Plume Mountain. Everyone roll an ability check and tell me how your success helped the party win one of the three magic weapons.”
Some roleplaying games feature rules that make checks reveal character. Such mechanics allow talented experts to flaunt their skills, but in D&D, the d20 tends to make skilled, talented characters seem inconsistent or inept. A single d20 yields numbers like 1 and 20 as frequently as middle numbers, so D&D tests rolled on a d20 often result in the extreme numbers that cause experts to botch checks and the untrained and untalented to luck into success. In D&D worlds, the mighty barbarian fails to open a pickle jar, and then hands it to the pencil-necked wizard who easily opens the lid. (For help making the most of swingy d20 tests, see
How to Turn D&D’s Swingy d20 Checks Into a Feature That Can Improve Your Game.)
The joy of the d20 comes from how the die delivers extreme swings that can add surprising twists to a game session. This merit also means that game challenges built around bunches of skill checks play like a series of coin flips.
The most engaging adventures challenge players to
- interact with non-player characters to find the keys to winning their help
- figure out mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions
- deduce the best ways to bypass the traps that stand in the way
- choose from options that offer a mix of risks and rewards
Adventure designers don’t deserve the blame for thinking ability checks can sustain a fun adventure. The fault lies with fourth edition and its skill challenges.
Ability checks entered Dungeons & Dragons 6 years after the game’s debut, and then checks took twenty more years to become a core mechanic. See (Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.) Even when third edition settled on a core d20 check mechanic, adventures rarely made batches of checks into a focus until fourth edition and its skill challenges reached gamers.
Skill challenges satisfied three design goals.
- To give the non-combat parts of the game the same mechanical rigor as the fights. This helped refute the notion that all the rules for combat proved D&D was just a game about fighting. Plus the designers felt that if they “made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.” (See How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal.)
- To make the DM’s role undemanding. Casual DMs could simply buy an adventure, read the boxed text, and then run a sequence of skill challenges and combat encounters. In a skill challenge, the DM just had to decide if a skill helped the players—but only when the challenge’s description neglected to list a skill in advance.
- To avoid frustrating players who struggled to overcome an obstacle. Without checks, D&D challenges could sometimes lead to players becoming stuck, especially if a DM focused on one “correct” action required to overcome an obstacle. Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustrations by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills.
None of these goals aimed to add fun for the players, although players who dislike puzzles may approve of the third benefit. Tip: If players dislike brain teasers, skip those challenges or let stuck players make Intelligence rolls for hints. If everyone rolls, someone virtually always succeeds.
Ability checks aren’t much fun. I enjoyed fourth and as the designers say without fourth there would never be a fifth, but its skill challenges created the myth that a series of ability checks offer enough fun to sustain a game, and that myth has led to some dull games.
When the game emphasizes character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. I suppose this improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but picking a skill and rolling is much less fun than D&D can be.
Related: My account of the story of fourth edition starts with The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice.
D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter
The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked