Tag Archives: ability checks

11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020

The Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall at the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as far larger conventions such as Origins or Gen Con. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

For dungeon masters who aim to improve their game, nothing beats running games for strangers. In close second comes playing at other DMs’ tables and learning their best techniques. (See If You Want to Write Games for Everyone, Game with Everyone).

At the 2020 convention, I came to play, and I found myself noting tips gleaned from every session.

1. When you have to deliver background, have players roll for it so it feels like a reward.

We all see adventures that start with bullet lists of background information for some patron to recite. Often, letting everyone roll, say, a history check makes a better way to reveal such backstory. Once everyone rolls, reward the lower results with the common knowledge, and the higher rolls with the lesser-known details. See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.

2. Try to award every attempt to gather information with something.

I used to reveal every descriptive detail of a door, altar, or dungeon room right away. This made for long descriptions and held nothing for when players explored. You want to reward players’ investigations with some information, even just bits of color and flavor. I used to fear that holding back would deprive players of some necessary description. Now I trust that players will gather whatever details I hold back.

3. Show the written names of key non-player characters. Pictures are even better.

DMs love when players show enough interest to take notes, writing names and other details. This year I resolved to take such notes as I played. But fantasy character names became a problem. I would write what I thought I heard and always get it wrong. Even for non-note takers, seeing a name written helps scribe it in memory. Teachers write on a board for a reason. As a DM, you probably have an erasable grid surface in your kit. Use it to show names as well as maps.

For the most important characters, try to find a picture that suits them. Showing a picture makes the impression even stronger.

4. In interaction scenes, make sure players know their goal and see at least one potential route to success.

The best thing about combat scenes is that players rarely enter one without some idea of what they aim to accomplish. They have a goal and understand what to do. (Typically, kill the monsters.) Too often, adventurers start interaction scenes without seeing a potential route to success. Players flounder as they try to figure out what to do. That never makes for the most fun. See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.

5. You can say, “You have learned all you can here,” or “You’ve done all you can here.”

Sometimes players continue searching a place or questioning someone well after accomplishing everything they can. DMs feel hesitant to say, “You have learned all you can here,” because it reveals something the characters would not know. Just say it. If you like, you can imagine that hours more of unproductive conversation happened off screen.

6. When players attempt something, make sure they understand the odds and the stakes.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know the odds and the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings. As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.” See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.

7. For a convention game, encourage players to put their character’s name on a table tent.

Based on anecdotal evidence collected from a few hundred convention games, I’m convinced that players need about 2 hours to learn the names of their partners in adventure. Table tents bring a simple remedy. Veteran convention players know this and bring their own. I suggest bringing note cards and a Sharpie so every player can make a tent.

8. Add, don’t subtract.

When you track damage to a monster, add the damage until it reaches the monster’s hit points. Some DMs subtract until they reach 0, which seems more cumbersome to us non-savants.

9. In roleplaying interactions, go ahead and split the party.

Never split the party applies to combat and exploration, but in roleplaying challenges, splitting up often proves more fun. Rather than the player with the most forceful personality taking most of the time in the spotlight, more players participate. As a bonus, ability checks work better when just a couple of players participate.

To make the most of a split party, cut between the smaller groups’ scenes. Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the DM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster. See Never Split the Party—Except When It Adds Fun.

10. Every time you ask for a check, you write a check.

Remember paper checks? Once, long ago, folks used to pay money by writing a promise to pay on a special slip of paper. With checks, you needed to back that promise with actual money in the bank. Ability checks sometimes work like paper checks. If you ask for a check, you promise to allow for failure. This year I saw bad rolls test a few DMs who realized a failure had to succeed for the adventure to continue. I watched their damage control as they hunted for a way to drag me to success. If the adventure leaves no room for failure, skip the check.

11. Speak like a storyteller.

When I DM, I tend to rush through my speaking parts. The habit comes from a good motive: I want to spend less time talking so the players do more playing. Seeing more measured DMs proves that sometimes going slower works better. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it works. Fireside storytellers and preachers show it, and we DMs can learn it. Through practice, I hope to capture some of that knack.

My Two Most Controversial Posts Prompt a Trip Into the Comment Section

The last two months included the two most discussed posts in the 7-year history of DM David, which calls for another trip into the comment section.

In Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters? I considered the pros and cons of asking players to share a role that usually falls to the dungeon master.

Ilbranteloth suggested turning potentially dead characters into an invitation to let players imagine a different twist. “On potentially deadly hits against the PCs, they decide if they are killed, or something more dramatic (and often worse) happens.” Perhaps the character loses a leg and a bit of speed. Or perhaps the player trades death for some dramatic complication. Players focused on story understand that character arcs benefit from setbacks and might be eager to revive a dead character in exchange for a complication that makes a richer story.

After I created a Dungeons & Dragons Summoning Spell Reference, Teos “alphasream” Abadia shared some concerns raised by summoning.

I’m not generally a fan of the summoning spells. They can be too strong (they can be like a fireball of damage every round, round after round, for the casting of one spell), they tie up the terrain impeding movement (especially by locking down melee fighters, preventing a dynamic combat), and they make combat a slog (in almost any combat, the monsters lack the damage to kill more than a couple of the summoned monsters).

That last bit is what kills it for me. At the meta level, the monsters should ignore the summoned creatures, because killing them is basically impossible unless they’re a horde of low CR creatures and the monsters have area attacks. So, the easy move is to target the summoner and break their concentration, but that takes away from what the player who did the summoning wants. I haven’t found a happy medium.

Summoning spells typically offer a choice between lots of weaker monsters and fewer, stronger monsters. When the designers set choices that made summoning crowds far more efficient, they made the spells more likely to turn fights into slogs.

When I play foes with an 8 or higher intelligence who see ongoing spell effects, I start making spellcasters preferred targets. After all, characters with an 8 Intelligence practice even more savvy tactics. When players think their DM unreasonably targets them with attacks, players can get salty, but when concentrating spellcasters become targets, their players know it’s coming.

Two readers added to The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods.

Alphastream wrote, “Some readers may not appreciate how, back then, books hung around for a long time. We had decades with the same books on the shelves. Not as old stock in a corner, but as an active part of what gamers would buy and use. As an example, check out this Shannon Appelcline article where he shares White Wolf Magazine’s list of top-selling RPGs for 1992. At number 9 is the 1981 Fiend Folio!

Books like Deities & Demigods were a presence for decades, which helped keep this bit of controversy prominent across many years.

The long sales life of books from this era also led to a 2nd edition that remained broadly compatible with AD&D. The designers wanted to make big improvements, but TSR management wanted books like that old Fiend Folio to continue generating sales.

Zenopus Archives wrote, “There’s a whole earlier chapter to this story. The Mythos write-up in Deities & Demigods is derivative of the original write-up ‘The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons & Dragons’ by J. Eric Holmes and Rob Kuntz that was published in Dragon magazine 12 in 1978. The bulk of this article was written by Holmes, and the Deities & Demigods write-up has the same entries, except for one. To me, Deities & Demigods clearly used the original article as a starting point. Read more at Dr. Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos.

In Bring the Thrill of Finding Treasure Back to the Adventurers League, I wrote about how D&D traditionally motivates both characters and players to seek gold. This tempts players to take the risks that help make D&D fun.

Eric Bohm wrote, “Taking the treasure out of the game seriously undermines an important component of the D&D formula. The heroic component remains mostly intact. If your character is motivated to help people for the sake of helping them, with only an abstract unquantifiable reward, everything works. Other kinds of characters are less well supported, while truly mercenary character concepts become basically unplayable.

What about the lovable scamp who is in it for the gold? Or the many redemptive arcs of those get roped in for the base rewards and are swept up in higher motivations? How can a malefactor tempt a hero away from the path of virtue?

The only character who grabbed any money from the hoard in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist when I ran it was an NPC. The players weren’t tempted; therefore they did not feel like it was worth roleplaying their characters being at all tempted. It just wasn’t interesting for them to play into it. Let me state that again. Players with characters standing in a vault full of gold felt that it was pointless for them to even pick up a single bag of gold. Where is the fun in that?

Obviously, players can still create characters motivated by greed, but without the incentive of gold, taking risks for treasure seems like a sucker’s bet.

At the start of season 8, I wondered with James Introcaso why the Adventurers League would introduce rules that blocked characters from keeping gold in the season that featured Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The adventure hooks characters with a chance to win a fortune in gold. James speculated that perhaps the potential windfall triggered the need for the rules change.

In How Years of Trying to Fix Obnoxious People Shrank D&D’s Appeal, I talked about how relying on a DM’s judgement rather than on extensive rules may have helped fifth edition’s popularity.

Alphastream agreed but saw areas where fourth edition succeeded in making D&D easier to run. For instance, fourth edition’s in-store play program D&D Encounters drew tons of players. “DMs loved being able to run an hour of play with 1-2 pages of very simple (and yet engaging) adventure text. Spells turned into far simpler powers meant DMs could jump in with less experience. True story: Despite playing and DMing D&D for 17 years, when 3E came out, I waited 9 months before DMing my first organized play game because I felt I didn’t know 3E spells well enough to run a game. We’ve taken a step backwards here, in that many DMs again feel they can’t DM (especially at high levels) because of the complexity of spells.

So, I think there is a balance to be struck between these design goals of keeping the game engaging and keeping it easy to learn and simple.

I would also say that while 3E really built up the game and added a lot, 4E in many ways was working to fix problems—the length of an adventuring day, the need for someone to ‘have’ to play the cleric, how many magic items a character had, and even how much experience a DM needed to feel confident. It really took the laundry list of issues, including ‘bad DMs’ and tried to fix them. The legacy of those fixes is excellent. We can see many of those improvements carried on into 5E.

In How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs, I wrote about how D&D struggled to erase the implication that half orcs came from rape. The entry became this blog’s most read and discussed post until another post topped it.

Wil cifer argued that the original implications of half orcs fit history. “Rape was a commonplace occurrence during war in medieval times. Why would a barbaric race even in a fantasy setting be kinder and gentler? Rewriting the tone of a historical time the game is based on is stupid.

But D&D is a game that gleefully tosses aside historical accuracy and realism in favor of fun. The game features magic and dragons. To unravel any D&D world, just pull any of countless threads and check it for historical accuracy or check how it stands in the face of magic.

Other readers argued that making half orcs the product of sexual violence turns orcs into stronger villains. Andrew wrote, “I have been playing D&D since 1981, and I have no problem with half-orcs being the result of an orc raping a human female. Orcs are monsters, created by an evil deity, Gruumsh. Taking the monster out of the monster has very little appeal to me. Can and should there be points of moral ambiguity in a D&D game? Without doubt. There should be. But monsters do monstrous things, including rape.

To players like Andrew, crushing evil and righting wrongs feels more satisfying when the campaign shows evil and the suffering it creates. Purely evil creatures make uncomplicated foes that justify killing.

David Streever wrote, “D&D is a fantasy game that is sold to everyone from small children to adults; you can feature as much rape as you like in your version, but I’m glad it’s not in the core books, and I’ll stay away from your table.

In your D&D game, if all the players welcome a darker tone, you can explore any origin you like for half orcs. But for a broader audience, the game benefits when it avoids saddling every half orc with a vile background.

In response to Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself, simontnm gave a suggestion. “If I have multiple NPCs talking I tend to use minis, and put my finger on the mini of the NPC actually talking.

“‘Don’t have NPCs talk to each other’ is good advice, but it’s occasionally necessary to deliver an NPC to NPC one liner. Keep it short and sweet.

The History of Traps In Dungeons & Dragons prompted Ty to point out the difference between good, real traps and quality traps in D&D. “From a game play standpoint, traps are just a terrible idea all around. Conceptually, in order for a trap to be a ‘good’ trap, it needs to be massively unfair. It needs to kill outright or seriously maim. One minute you’re alive, and then boom, you’re dead. No saving throws, no noticing something off at the last minute, no jumping out of the way.

Ken W replied, “You need to take the edge off your realism. A trap shouldn’t be ‘instantly lethal’ in game terms any more than a strike with a sword or great axe. In real terms, if you get hit by a swinging claymore, you are likely suffering a severe wound. But the abstraction of D&D combat and hit points means that each hit represents a depletion of stamina, not a mortal wound. Only when you reach 0 hit points does it really represent that fountaining arterial spray we would otherwise expect.

Traps operate in the same space as combat weapons in this regard. The only difference between a trap and an enemy combatant that gets a turn while the PC is surprised is…well—nothing. Except the trap essentially ‘dies’ after its turn is over.”

Good traps in the real world make lousy traps in D&D. The best traps in D&D are in places where everyone expects a trap or that show obvious signs of their presence.

Alphastream wrote, “A trap can be a lot of fun when found, if it requires engagement to disarm. As a DM or author, I try to think through the point of the trap—not just for whatever creatures put it there—but for the game experience. The trap can be hard to find and that’s fun, or it can be easy to find and be fun as well. Think of ‘only the penitent man shall pass’ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That’s fun because you know it is there and need to figure out a way past it. Similarly, traps can be found and that can be the beginning of the engagement.

Beoric wrote, “Perfectly good traps can be suspected because the nature of the trap is not entirely concealable. Raiders of the Lost Ark-style traps can be suspected because the tiles on the floor have no grout because they are pressure plates, or there are holes in the wall from which darts shoot.

The trap may also be old, and detectable by signs of wear, like a layer of powdered stone on the floor or vertical gouges on the wall for a falling block trap, or soot on the walls or floor with a fire trap, or spent missiles on the floor with a dart or arrow trap.

Also consider that some traps can be very well concealed if they are not being looked for, but still be detectable if actively searched for. A standard old-school pit trap was pretty much undetectable visually and could only be detected by tapping it.

None of those are actually bad traps. They just have limitations because of their nature.

There is a great discussion of this at the Hack and Slash Trick and Trap Index.”

Alphastream expanded on how traps worked in play across editions.

In fifth edition, it’s still not entirely clear nor standard whether Investigation or Perception is most commonly used for finding a trap. I have my thoughts, which I think are right, but I see it run many different ways. In general, I think that if a trap is one that could be seen with the naked eye, then Perception would work. For example, a pressure plate that has slightly discolored stone, or which is slightly sunken. Otherwise, and in my game this is most of the time, the trap is not obvious and needs Investigation to be found. A well-crafted pressure plate is like any other stone. The only way to find it is to tap at it or otherwise determine what it is, which uses Investigation.

Fourth edition’s concept of ‘trap as monster’ failed due to the underlying math, which assumed a check per round and 4 checks to disable the trap, which was supposed to equate how monsters were envisioned as taking 4 rounds to defeat. The problem is that this cold math doesn’t understand how that 4 round concept wasn’t very accurate—players focused fire on important targets and might take them down in 1 round, while ignoring others.

Players tended to focus fire on traps and break them more quickly than a rogue could disable them. Or players ignored traps in favor of the monsters, and then stepped around the traps.

I like to think 4E’s trap concept is still really cool, but it takes clever authoring to communicate to the players how to engage with it. It is awesome if the cleric immediately realizes that this trap is empowered by a rival deity and they can shut it down and greatly help the party by doing so. That feels really heroic. It’s awesome if the rogue can tell the party that interacting with the trap for two rounds will move the rays of lightning to the area where the enemy archers are standing. These are great cinematic concepts if you set them up right.

I tried my own hand at it with Dungeon of Doom. Nate and I designed a large variety of 5E traps in that adventure, and they provide a diversity of experiences. (You can get the adventure free and also see people play through them, all at https://dwarvenforge.com/descent/.) Thank you for putting up with the shameless plug, but it’s hopefully useful for people given this article.

For Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D, Daniel Boggs contributed fascinating D&D history that I didn’t know.

It is a quirky history, given that a primary reason ability scores were created in the first place was as a means to make ability checks—to put it in contemporary parlance. The D&D ability scores and saving throws arise as a distillation of the concept of personality traits and character skills created by Dave Arneson for Blackmoor. In pre-D&D Blackmoor, players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, or Looks, or Throwing, to see if they were successful at the attempt. When D&D came along, Arneson & co. continued to use ability checks in their games. You can see an example of a Dexterity check in Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign (1977) where a character must save versus Dexterity to remove their armor in time to avoid drowning in Blackmoor Bay. And of course ability checks are also very prominent in Arneson and Richard Sniders’ Adventures in Fantasy game (1978). In writing D&D, Gary Gygax failed to mention this purpose of the ability scores as he apparently preferred to create an arbitrary percent chance and have the players roll percentiles instead. So, you did have some early players who figured it out on their own or who learned it in some way from Arneson, most D&D players didn’t grok the intention behind the scores and thus you got that rather odd system proposed by Ives in Dragon #1. You can see some original Blackmoor characters here.

My post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate sparked such a furor that I posted a follow up. Many commenters took the challenge of changing my mind.

I’ve already recanted my dislike for game worlds that unnecessarily make adventuring a common profession.

Alphastream argues that monsters that bounce from table to table at multi-table events can work, but he sees room for innovation. “I’ve written these, though they aren’t my favorite device for the reasons you mentioned. I think they work best when they are in small pods. The blue dragon in Confrontation at Candlekeep works well because it makes sense (you have 4-6 towers and parties at each tower, the dragon flying in between), it is announced dramatically (so everyone gets the concept from the start), it is central to the action (no one is forgetting about the dragon), and it lets players interact with it once it leaves their table (they can jump on it or fire at it, at the risk of failing at their table). With the second Open I tried to create a different experience, one that still made sense and which provided a combination of combat, skill, and risk-reward. I would tweak it further if given the chance. All of that is to say that I think these can be done well. I think DM David is exactly the kind of person who could come up with a cool version and submit it to an Epic author.

I’ve grown to accept that adventures with carnival games work well as an introduction to the game. Alphastream touts another benefit. “I think carnival games can offer a lot of activity in a short time and offer something to every player. Very few things can do that.”

As for the way that using miniatures for the wrong monster sometimes confuses me, Creeper Jr wrote, “I don’t need minis to match exactly, but I find it incredibly helpful if there is some sort of rhyme and reason to it. My portable mini kit includes: 4 goblins, 4 guards, 4 archers, 2 mages, 2 knights/fighters, 2 rogues, 2 large green slaad, 2 giant spiders. Each mini has a color-coded base accent. This doesn’t take up too much room, is relatively cheap to put together, and allows us to quickly identify enemies with sort-of-thematic minis.

Alphastream supports budding mini collectors eager to put minis on the table. “Sometimes a DM wants to buy a box of minis or two and try to use that purchase for their efforts. I get that. I still think it beats Starburst, but maybe that’s because I don’t super love Starburst. If the monsters are Belgian truffles, or Ferrero Rocher, sign me up! Here again, we can imagine we are witnessing the beautiful creation of a nascent miniature collector. They will go from this table to assemble an army of awesome minis on a bed of Dwarven Forge. It’s like seeing the future unfold before us!

Josh rose to defend the dragon-slayer pose on page 7 of the second-edition Player’s Handbook. “I’m one of the ones who love the picture. The adventurers seem like real people, each different and interesting in his own way. The mage isn’t old. Nobody’s half dressed. The dragon’s of a size that would pose a threat to normal people and level 1’s. It’s a good level 1 accomplishment. And as for the pose, I assume there are a lot of unlisted utility spells, including one that takes the image in a caster’s mind and transfers it to paper. It’s a level 2 spell. Colored prints are level 4.

Commenters replying to How Well Do You Understand Invisibility in Dungeons & Dragons? considered a couple of odd corners of the rules for invisibility.

Dave Barton summarized one aspect. “In essence, two foes who can’t see each other have an equal chance of hitting as if they could see each other. Think about that for a minute.

This rule especially defies common sense because it grants ranged attackers just as good a chance of hitting when they can’t see their target. Sometimes D&D trades plausibility for simplicity.

Aside from the ability to hide anywhere, invisible creatures don’t get advantage to hide or any other increase to their chance of success.

Pewels asks “How would you handle light sources on a PC going invisible?

Saphhire Crook answered, “The issue of invisible light sources crosses into that dangerous territory of ‘invisible eyeballs’, which is where invisible people cannot see because their eyes cannot receive light since it passes through them.

In 3.5, light sources continue to exist, but their origin becomes invisible, implying that the target simply reflects no visible light (or all light hitting or reflecting off them is magically duplicated and filtered).”

Every so often, someone leaves a comment that delights me. My post on Dave Hargrave, Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games, inspired such a comment from Old School, New.

As a former associate of Hargrave, I’ve been around awhile and have seen innumerable articles written on the worlds of Arduin and its foothills. Many are bad, many are way too ‘fannish,’ and a lot of them are simply misinformed and/or myopically aligned with other gaming systems, to the point of zero objectivity.

This article, however, rates as the finest piece on the subject of Arduin/DH, ever. Nothing else comes close. Incredibly well written, fair, meticulous, and factual.

And you actually dug-up a pic from Different Worlds. Haha! Among other things.

Yes, Arduin wasn’t perfect. Not hardly. But it was grand, visionary, insane, stupid, ham-handed, and utterly magnificent. Kinda like its creator, right?

Anyway, massive cheers for a spectacular blog entry. I should think it’s the all-time definitive description of Arduin and its master—warts and all.

Seriously, Mr. Hartlage, you’ve created something beautiful here.

Thanks! I feed proud to garner such kind words.

Reader Reactions to 6 Things In D&D I Fail to Appreciate

For my post 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate, I aimed to air some trivial, possibly-wrong gripes in an amusing and thought-provoking post. Usually I avoid bitching in favor of a positive slant, but my earlier list of 9 Things met a good reception, so I figured a follow up would work. This time, I fumbled. While the old post targeted things in the game and landed a much funnier tone, my new post sometimes aimed at the way people play. Many people felt criticized for their style of Dungeons & Dragons. When I fostered that impression, I missed the mark, and I apologize. Play D&D in the style you love. Use Starburst, or salt shakers, or pure imagination. I love playing D&D—even at tables that feature everything I fail to appreciate. This hobby is too great for quibbles.

I asked readers to help me appreciate the things I griped about, and I meant it. The conversation led me to change my opinions on two things.

My post targeted D&D worlds that unnecessarily cast adventuring as a common profession. I wrote, “If your D&D campaign just includes a few players, why cast them as a common rabble of wandering treasure hunters? I would rather picture the player characters as heroes of legend.” But I overlooked great campaign models where the promise of fame and fortune lures characters to a megadungeon, a frontier, or a point of light that needs help against the darkness. These models start the characters as aspiring treasure hunters and let them rise above the crowd to gain wealth and renown. “I generally don’t like ‘the chosen one’ trope,” writes Andrew Bishkinskyi. “The idea that everyone made themselves is more appealing. I think the game’s tiers also reflect this—by time you’re tier 3 or 4, you are that great, known hero. But it’s a journey.” This rise to glory forms the heart of D&D and I’m humbled because I needed readers to remind me. Plus the adventurer-as-profession trope makes hooking players into adventure easier, especially in a campaign like the Adventurers League. “It’s useful when NPCs have a baseline understanding of adventuring/mercenary work,” writes Brandes Stoddard. “Basically it’s saving me the first 5 minutes of each interaction.”

As for carnival games, several readers explained that the mini games offer a good way to introduce players to the game. Instead of dropping fragile new characters into a dungeon and risking an early death, mini games introduce players to their attributes and to D&D’s core mechanics. The barbarian in the caber toss makes a Strength (Athletics) check. The elf in the archery contest makes attack rolls. And the dwarf in the drinking contest saves versus poison. Players learn the game in a fun and familiar setting. David Gibson writes, “No one wants to die because they didn’t know how to play.” The carnival scenario works particularly well with new players who invest in their characters’ stories and personalities.

Related: 6 Popular Things in D&D That I Fail to Appreciate.

“I Assist” Isn’t an Improved Guidance Cantrip that Anyone Can Cast

In episode 124 of the Down with D&D podcast, hosts Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak discussed a scene that reoccurs at my tables too. “In a lot of games that I’ve run, everyone is always assisting every check they possibly can,” Shawn explains. “Someone tries to do something, and someone will just pipe up, ‘I assist.’”

This pattern brings advantage to every check, trivializing the game’s challenges. Because no one needs to engage with the game world to gain an edge, routine assistance discourages ingenuity.

Chris Sniezak offers a potential remedy: “When someone says that they want to help, the first question that the dungeon master should ask is, ‘How do you help?’”

Ask players to describe how they assist, and then grant—or deny—advantage based on whether the assistance could help. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You decide whether a circumstance influences a roll in one direction or another, and you grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.” Rather than making “I assist” a real-world incantation that grants advantage, judge assistance as a circumstance that might merit advantage.

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

If a character tries to climb from a frozen river onto the ice, a hand up will probably help. Encouragement shouted from the shore probably won’t.

Describing the assistance immerses players in the game world and helps the story come alive.

Specific actions to assist might expose a helper to danger. Offering a hand out of that river would mean crawling onto the cracking ice. Often, assistance means coming in range of a potential trap.

Unlike past Dungeons & Dragons rules, fifth edition lets characters assist without a required check. Nonetheless, the actions made to assist might require a check. Suppose a helper chooses not to risk the thin ice and opts to throw a rope instead. Casting a rope to a sinking character’s flailing hands might require a dexterity check.

In an ideal game, players describe their actions and DMs respond by calling for ability checks. This protocol extends to assisting. The player describes how they help, and then the DM grants advantage. Typically, I don’t insist on this order, so I happily ask players how they help. But during role-playing interaction, I stick to the protocol.

After a player acts in character to persuade a non-player character, I don’t let bystanders volunteer to assist the check. Only characters with speaking parts—the characters who contributed to a scene—get to assist. When two or more characters contribute to an interaction, I typically grant advantage without a player request. Sometimes I accept a reminder.

The D&D rules offer two alternatives to assistance.

Group checks come when everyone might need to make at a check. The rule assumes skilled characters assist the rest, so only half the group needs to succeed.

The second alternative is letting everyone make an attempt. After all, helping someone search a room amounts to two separate searches. Rolling two separate lockpicking attempts makes more sense than letting one character assist by encircling the rogue from behind to guide her hand like a creepy golf instructor.

Unless time, skill, or other circumstances limit an attempt to a couple of party members, separate roles usually offer better odds. But consider this: If everyone in the party enjoys time to make a check in safety, why even bother making the check? Do you just want to give everyone a chance to roll?

Sometimes I do that. Everyone likes to roll. I wonder how many players liked the old assistance rules better just because the helper gets to roll?

Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key.Zork II Box Art

Back when Dungeons & Dragons consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail.

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate such frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. During this era, Dungeon magazine’s submission guidelines warned authors to create challenges for the characters, not the players. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with Thievery, or break the door with Athletics.

No one gets frustrated, but no one feels engaged either. When the game only challenges 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. This improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is less fun than D&D can be.

The fourth-edition designers must have know this, but they emphasized selecting skills and rolling outcomes for a two reasons:

  • To add weight to the choices players make when they build characters. See The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks.
  • To prevent inflexible DMs from hurting the game. Fourth-edition designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland wrote, “In the early days, DMs all too often felt compelled to demonstrate their cleverness and punish players for making ‘wrong’ choices—even a choice as simple and random as which passage to explore.”

Such inflexible, punitive DMs neared extinction decades ago. When Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked players to cite the traits of a good DM, flexible ranked first.

Dungeon masters can challenge players without risking player frustration, because DMs can allow creative solutions.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich Acererak’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

      • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
      • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
      • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
      • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
      • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
      • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
      • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
      • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack.

Once, I thought that this list exposed Gary Gygax as an inflexible DM working to punish players. After all, he devised the tomb to challenge—and frustrate—those “fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

Now, I see the list differently. I suspect Gary created Acererak with no vulnerabilities in mind, but as he ran the adventure, players invented attacks. If Gary judged them reasonable, he allowed them to work. When Gary wrote the adventure for publication, he listed the attacks he had allowed so far.

Gary Gygax had the wisdom to allow a creative solution. In the Foreword to Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Gary wrote, “In one tournament use of the setting, a team managed to triumph by using the crown and scepter found earlier as the ultimate tool against the demilich. As Acererak’s skull levitated, one PC set said crown firmly upon the bony pate; another tapped the regal adornment with the ‘wrong’ end of the scepter. Poof! Scratch one demilich, and give the tournament’s first place to the innovative team of players who thought of this novel solution. Russ Stambaugh, the DM for the group, was stunned. ‘Could that work?’ he asked. I shrugged, admitted I certainly hadn’t thought of it and that it was a stroke of genius that deserved a reward.

When I DM, I love to be surprised. One of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let he characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed should fail.
  • Watch out for clever, repeatable ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of Wall of Force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.

The Pros and Cons of D&D’s Ability Checks

In the early years of Dungeons & Dragons, players searched by telling the dungeon master where they wanted to look, and then the dungeon master told them if something was there. The game resolved most actions using back and forth dialog, plus clear cause and effect. Before skills and core mechanics, resolution relied on the on the logic of the game world. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons.

Old-school gamers swear by this method, and with good reason: It grants players, and not the dice, control over their characters’ fates. It makes player decisions and ingenuity count. The details of the game world matter.

But some tasks demand a character’s talents to succeed, so this sort of resolution cannot cover every action: listening at doors, creeping behind an enemy, balancing atop a rope spanning a moat.

Once skills and ability checks entered the game, they began to spread. Over the years, D&D’s rules encouraged players to rely more on checks. This trend peaked in fourth edition. In skill challenges, players overcame obstacles by explaining how their character’s skills could help, and by rolling checks. As written, players never needed to engage the game world or to show ingenuity. They just found the best applicable skill.

Although fourth edition promoted checks more than many players wanted, the emphasis brought advantages.

Making characters unique

In the original D&D game, characters that shared a class and level all played about the same. Without ability checks, their ability scores rarely affected play. Without skills, they all featured the same capabilities.

The fourth-edition designers created a game optimized for a style of play where players built awesome characters and then showed them off in encounters—either battles or skill challenges. Character building became as much a part of playing D&D as time at the table.

By emphasizing checks, the game highlights each character’s talents and limitations. When a player invests in a persuasive character with a high charisma, they can win allies with a die roll. On the other side, if you play a character with an 8 Intelligence, your own brains cover some of your character’s stupidity, except when you make intelligence checks. You might solve a real puzzle, but an abstract one makes your character face a check.

Commenting on another post, Andrea Back describes it well, “Without skills, you end up with you playing you in a fantasy dress, with all your own limitations and qualities laid bare.”

On the other hand…

In the fourth edition, designers made the mistake of emphasized the parts of D&D that video games do best. If you want character building, electronic games offer more options, and you can play your character at any hour from the comfort of home. Tabletop games thrive when the focus on aspects that computers can’t match, so why focus on choosing skills and playing against random chance? By joining live players and a DM, we gain the ability to speak as our character and attempt any action, even ones not in the rules.

Skipping the dull parts

Sometimes a check can provide a shortcut for tasks that could prove dull. If the players want to search a cluttered room, but want to avoid the tedium of describing how they cut the straw mattresses, sift the dirt in the flowerpots, and so on and on, a check seems like a time saver. Fourth edition’s Streetwise skill seems contrived to skip the urban role-playing that the designers found tiresome.

On the other hand…

As a DM, I steer the game away from activities no one seems to enjoy, but I feel wary of letting someone use a die roll to cheat the other players out of the fun of interacting with the game world and actually playing the game. However, if the entire table agrees, we can just substitute a Wisdom (Survival) check for that trip to Tomb of Horrors.

Shaping the game

Different players favor at different parts of the D&D game. Some lavish attention on crafting characters. For them, the fun at the table comes from showing off their creations. Fourth edition was made for players like this.

Some players use their character to shape the sort of game they want to play. Sometimes this means making a character good in an area where the player feels weak. If you lack charm, but play a charismatic paladin, you can let a persuasion roll do all the talking. Even the most timid player can enjoy the benefits of a magnetic personality.

Sometimes players craft characters able to breeze through challenges that the player finds tiresome. They claim that their character has more brains, and ask to solve a puzzle with a check. I once met a player who optimized characters for combat because he wanted to speed through the battles.

On the other hand…

We gather at the game table to enjoy the tactics, ingenuity, and silly voices. Most of the time, we would rather act as our character rather than just rolling dice on their behalf.

More than once I’ve seen a player make an impassioned speech in character, asking the Baron, for instance, to defend the settlers. The player’s voice trembles with passion as she speaks of courage, loyalty, and the honor of the Baron’s ancestors, calling their spirits by name. The player steps down from atop a chair to applause and tearing eyes. But then, feeling bound by the system, I ask for a Charisma (Persuasion) check with the advantage earned for an outstanding performance. Then the orator rolls, and flubs. Sorry, you fail.

In situations beyond diplomacy, specific actions can also make a check seem pointless. If someone taps the bottom of a chest looking for the secret compartment, skip the search check and just reveal the location. If someone describes an ingenious use of leverage to lift a gate, skip the strength check.

Rolling for surprise

We all savor the split-second drama of waiting to see the outcome of a die roll. Every player remembers a moment when a lucky roll made a crazy, long-shot scheme work, or when bad rolls caused a plan to unravel and forced everyone to plan B and then to C. If these moments came from a DM’s ruling, they would seem like cases of DMs steering the game to fit their story. The magic comes because the dice twisted fate, making a surprise that proved unforgettable.

On the other hand…

Sometimes an extreme roll lets a 98-pound weakling batter open a door or causes the mighty barbarian to fall from a rope. Such outliers diminish the qualities that make characters unique.

On an unlikely success or failure, sometimes I use some outside cause to explain the fluke. If the barbarian falls, did the knot slip loose? If a clumsy oaf picks a lock, did someone just forgot the latch? By narrating a cause outside the character’s control, the effect remains, but the character still feels consistent.

Finding the sweet spot

If an elite acrobat sprints across a swaying rope bridge, do you require a check or just let them show off? If someone specifically examines the bottom of a chest, do they still need a roll to find the hidden panel there? Can someone skip a puzzle if their genius character aces an intelligence check? If someone offers a generous bribe to a corrupt guard, do they still need persuasion?

I don’t know, but when I reach the table, I can judge.

Some players love to roll dice. For them, the game only moves when they make rolls. Others like speaking in funny voices or solving puzzles and boast of sessions where no one rolled a die. Most players favor a style in the middle.

Original D&D and fourth edition mark extreme approaches to ability checks, from no checks to a game that can—if players choose—rely entirely on checks. Each approach brings some advantages. In our games, we can adopt either style—or find a balance that suits us.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

Dungeons & Dragons makes ability checks a key part of play, but these checks took years to enter the game. How did ability checks advance from house rule, to optional rule, to a foundation of fifth-edition D&D?

Before D&D added ability checks, players found a style that mostly avoided a need for such rolls. See A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. Even so, characters tried things that the rules didn’t cover. For many of these actions, success or failure hinged on a character’s ability scores. Gary Gygax told dungeon masters to guess the odds of success and roll for it. But DMs and players wanted more consistency and less guessing.

In 1976, issue 1 of The Dragon printed “How to Use Non-Prime-Requisite Character Attributes” by Wesley D. Ives. The article proposes a sort of ability check before anyone coined a name for it.

This first ability check suffers from a mechanic so baroque that it reads like a gag.

To determine an action’s success, perform these actions:

  1. Roll d100, add the ability score, and then use this result to determine which die to roll in step 2. On a result of 1-20 roll a d4; on 21-40 roll d6; on 41-60 roll d8; 61-80: d10; 81-100: d12. To cope with results higher than 100, create a house rule for this house rule.
  2. Roll the die determined in step 1 and multiply the number by the attribute. This result becomes the chance of success.
  3. Roll a d100. If the result is less than or equal to the probability from step 2, you succeed!

The method requires three rolls, multiplication of double-digit numbers, and a table. But if that seems too simple, the article offers optional rules accounting for character level and class. All this yields an outcome barely more realistic than a coin flip.

To settle on an ability-check mechanic that required so much fuss, the author must have seen checks as a rare undertaking.

Despite the tortured mechanic, the idea of ability check marks a major innovation. None of the few role-playing games available in 1976 featured anything like the concept. In a few years, every RPG would build on the idea.

In the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (1978), Gary invented a playable ability check for the Dig spell. “Any creature at the edge (1’) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.

By the late 70s, the method found in the Dig spell turned into common house rule: To make an ability check, players tried to roll under an attribute on a d20.

The 1980 D&D basic rules by Tom Moldvay made this house rule official. “The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.

Meanwhile, other role playing games advanced the state of the art. Traveller (1977) introduced skills and a single mechanic for skill checks. Runequest (1978) boasted skills and “attribute rolls” that multiplied an ability by 5 to set a percentage chance of success.

In games with skills, the skills cover most tasks a player might attempt, so ability checks blur into skill checks. Fifth edition intentionally makes skills an addition to ability checks.

For AD&D, Gygax showed little interest in ability checks. Improvised rulings worked fine for him. (When the DM is E. Gary Gygax, no player quibbles with a ruling.)

As for skills, Gygax preferred to keep D&D’s class archetypes pure. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but the narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes. Oriental Adventures (1985) extended the concept to create non-weapon proficienciesskills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities.

After Gary left TSR in 1985, his successors on the AD&D team lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. Nonetheless, their additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

Ability checks finally reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide brought key rules innovations to AD&D. Here, the non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success.

The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, but suffered a few drawbacks:

  • Class abilities already covered most of a character’s actions, so non-weapon proficiencies rarely came up in play.
  • The phrase “non-weapon proficiency” proved unwieldy. The term evolved from Gary’s own work on D&D, but it forced a lot of extra syllables on players just to avoid contaminating D&D with anything called skills.
  • Roll-under ability checks confused players and designers.

For D&D’s other d20 rolls, players aimed high, but for ability checks they aimed low. This simple difference fostered confusion. The original ability-check rule said, “The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll depending on the difficulty of the action.” That meant a bonus subtracted from the roll—an ugly break from intuition.

A cleaner method adds the bonus to the attribute, so players roll under a higher number.

By now, some Internet critics might scoff at my notion that adding roll-under checks to D&D confused people. I imagine an argument heaping contempt on idiots who clearly lack the intellectual capacity for RPGs. Go back to Candyland. Who would let roll-under checks trip them up?

The D&D team at TSR.

Sometime during playtesting, the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide apparently switched its method of applying modifiers, but the book reached print with an incomplete change. The “Sage Advice” column in Dragon issue 118 tried to sort out the mess. “OK, OK, OK, already! You’re right—there is something wrong with the DSG non-weapon proficiency system.

We went through the manuscript and thought we had caught all the places where the text needed to be changed. We missed a couple of simple ones, and this caused a tremendous problem in the system.

TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included a corrected version of non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary.

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained leeway to correct old drawbacks. Ability checks flipped so players aimed for high rolls. Skills embraced the actions characters actually did in the game. And no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

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.