Tag Archives: playtest

How D&D Next almost made knowledge count (and then backtracked)

Have you ever seen the Antiques Roadshow on television? Folks bring in curios from grandma’s attic, and then an expert explains the history of each piece and assesses the item’s value. If the real world worked by the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, the show could dispense with the experts. The producers could simply round up a panel of yahoos from the Jerry Springer audience in the next studio, show them an 19th century jardinière (a flower pot holder, for those of you who just whiffed your knowledge check), and let some knucklehead roll a 19 or 20. “The distinctive crosshatching shows a genuine example of 1890s, New Orleans Art Pottery by George Ohr,” he would say before asking another panelist to flash her boobs.

In every D&D game, this pattern repeats with each check that allows the whole party to participate.

Edwaert Collier - Vanitas - Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull

I did not write this post to gripe about lack of realism; I’ve praised unrealistic game mechanics before.

I want the game to reward players who invest in knowledge skills. Instead, the moment the dungeon master asks for something like a history check, everyone at the table jumps in to roll. More often that not, the player who invested in history rolls too low to determine the nature of the ancient battle standard, while some bozo with an intelligence-8 dump stat rolls a 19 and starts reciting the history of the old empire’s vanished legion. Once again, the party’s scholar feels like a chump for staying in school.

If everyone in the party can attempt a knowledge check, the five or so rolls ensure that someone in the party will luck into all but the most difficult checks. Why bother investing in knowledge skills? Someone will hit anyway.

You could bar party members without training in an area of knowledge from making checks. Third edition imposed such rules, but I favor the fourth edition approach of allowing everyone to participate, even if they stand little chance of success.

The August 2, 2013 playtest packet included a Lore rule that offered a solution: Characters who knew some field of lore gained a +10 to intelligence checks rather than the +5 advantage typical for similar checks in 4E. The +10 bonus reaches high enough to grant the scholar a significant boost over the rest of the party. The rule yields two advantages:

  • The party’s expert stands a better chance of making a knowledge check than the rest of the party.

  • Knowledge checks can be hard enough to reward knowledgeable players with information that would otherwise be out of the party’s reach.

Despite these advantages, the published version of D&D Next will probably omit Lore for two reasons:

  • The designers favor a simple scale of difficulty classes that applies at every level, throughout the system. When characters gain a +10 for lore rather than the small bonuses for skill proficiency, the difficulty of knowledge checks must be set higher than suggested by the universal DC scale. If I wrote the Dungeon Masters Guide, I would simply coach DMs to favor harder DCs for knowledge checks.

  • The designers seem enchanted with the notion of using as few types of bonuses as possible. I suspect they would see a different lore bonus as clutter, not worth its benefits. The final playtest packet aggressively pushed all skill bonuses into a single proficiency bonus, while eliminating lore from the game. See “Proficiency and bounded accuracy” for more.

Assuming the design goes as I expect, and knowledge skills deliver the same, small bonuses as other skills, I plan to run knowledge checks using the following procedure:

  1. Allow everyone in the party to make the knowledge check.

  2. Give the players some minimal amount on information based on the (probable) success of someone’s roll.

  3. Ask for the check results from anyone with the applicable knowledge skill.

  4. If any experts succeeded on their rolls, give deeper information.

This method rewards players who invest in knowledge skills with an advantage, even though the rules as written rarely offer a benefit.