Tag Archives: skills

How Dungeons & Dragons Gained Feats

At a Dungeons & Dragons game, I overheard a player explain that feat was short for feature.

That’s not right, but I kept quiet for 2 reasons:

  • I don’t want to be the guy who butts into conversations to say, “Well, actually…”

  • I like the feature explanation much better.

Using “feat,” a word for a stunt, as a game term for a character feature or talent bothers my wish for precise terminology. Back in the third-edition days, this word choice annoyed me to such an embarrassing degree that I griped about the misnomer on the Wizards of the Coast D&D boards. That post probably only exists on a backup tape labeled “GLEEMAX” in magic marker.

How did we end up with feats?

Designer Monte Cook explains that feats came from the development of the third edition’s skill system. Two ingredients from D&D’s history contributed to skills.

The designers aimed to combine the two threads. “What we saw was that there were certain skills that we wanted to put into the game, but they were unlike the others because there wasn’t a check involved,” designer Monte Cook explained in an interview. Some of those proficiencies granted an ability to use things like shields, but others unlocked stunts that a character learned to do.

The design team called those stunts “heroic feats. As the game element developed, the team dropped the heroic bit. “Feats opened up a way for us to give cool character powers and abilities that weren’t skills and that weren’t tied to your class.”

Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons

In 1985, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax wrote a column for Dragon magazine describing his plans for a second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “This task does not preclude later supplements, changes and yet new editions (a Third, perhaps a Fourth someday).” Imagine that.

By the time his plans reached readers in November, Gary had been forced out of TSR. Gary’s part in shaping D&D ended. TSR ignored his outline and would not start work on a second edition until 1987.

This left D&D fans to speculate how Gary’s second edition would have differed from version that actually reached stores in 1989.

Gary never sets goals for the new edition. He later explained, “The soul and spirit of the revised game would have remained the same. The change might have been likened to that from D&D to AD&D.” AD&D started as a collection of all the material published for the original game. Similarly, Gary’s outline for second edition dwells on compiling first-edition monster books and arcana into four core books. “Each is far larger than now, but the needed information is all under the cover of the appropriate tome.” (Gary added Legends & Lore to D&D’s usual three, core books.)

Most of Gary’s plans centered on selecting what parts of D&D merited a place in the new edition. By his reckoning, monks belonged in an oriental-themed campaign book and assassins should become optional. As for psionics, he wrote, “I’d like to remove the concept from a medieval fantasy roleplaying game system and put it into a game where it belongs—something modern or futuristic.”

He planned to remove rules for weapon-speed factors and weapons versus armor. Like virtually every AD&D player, Gary ignored those rules.

His offers few thoughts for new material, and none that threatened to change the game. He planned to tinker with monster hit dice, giving robust creatures more hit points and damage. Powerful individuals gained extra hit dice. “I suppose some will call that monster munchkinism.”

His best plans featured changes that reached D&D without Gary’s help. The original bard class forced players to gain levels in Fighter, Thief, and Druid before becoming a bard. Gary’s updated bard could start as a bard.

He planned a skill system that would have resembled a system he designed in 2006 for for the booklet, Castle Zagyg Class Options & Skills for Yggsburgh. This book supported a game called Castles & Crusades, a rules-light game that mixed some third-edition innovation with the spirit of original D&D. Gary’s skill system let characters trade experience points for skills that granted bonuses to checks. This approach offered advantages over the weak skill system in second edition. Best of all, with Gary’s skills, no one had to say “non-weapon proficiency.”

His plans included wizard specializations beyond illusionist and a sorcerer class that resembled today’s conjurer specialization.

Mainly, he planned to design some class ideas that he had floated three years earlier in Dragon issue 65. Then he had asked readers to rate his concepts. “Let me know which you like best, which least.” Two issues later, he reported a flood of responses.

The most popular notions, the cavalier and the thief-acrobat, reached print in Unearthed Arcana, but neither idea captured players’ imagination. Even these best concepts suggested that Gary had run short of compelling class ideas. Nevertheless, Gary still dreamed of bringing second edition the remaining classes:

  • Mystic: A cleric subclass focused on divination.
  • Savant: A magic user subclass specializing in knowledge and study. The class crossed the old sage class with divination and detection spells.
  • Mountebank: A thief subclass focused on deception, slight-of-hand, and persuasion. Gary’s short story, “The House in the Tree” included a character named Hop who describes himself as a mountebank. Hop comes across a fast-talking snake-oil salesmen, except some of Hop’s concoctions might actually work. The story appears in a collection of short tales about Gord the Rogue titled Knight Errant.
  • Jester: A bard subclass with jokes, tricks, and insults. “The class will be less than popular with fellow adventurers, I suspect, so that jesters will frequently have enemies and travel alone.” Jesters come from the same inclination that produced the sage—from an urge to design classes around every medieval profession without any mind to what might attract players to the class.

Even though none of these ideas seem compelling enough to merit a class name, I’ve seen some characters that fit all these concepts except for the Jester. Between class archetypes, skills, and spell selection, D&D now boasts enough flexibility to realize any of these class concepts. As for the jester, a bard could adopt the wardrobe, but why? Old-school blogger James Maliszewski asked, “What’s the appeal there? Perhaps I’m simply humorless and unimaginative but I have a hard time imagining either an adventuring jester or a need for a NPC class based around juggling, tumbling, and minor spellcasting.”

Next: How much would Gary’s second edition have differed from the version that reached gamers? Plus, would Gary have liked fifth edition?

The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Of the 4 iconic classes in Dungeons & Dragons, only 3 appeared in the game’s original rules.

Just a few months after D&D’s initial release, in the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer. “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary [Switzer] gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See The Thief Addition (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

Thieves brought abilities that could shine in exploration and treasure collection. Too bad low-level thieves suffered from miserable chances of success. The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

Near level 10, a thief’s abilities improved enough to finally work reliably. Too bad wizards and clerics could now cast spells like Detect Traps, Invisibility, Levitate, and Fly. Most anything the thief did, a spell did better.

Thieves could “strike silently from behind” for +4 to hit and extra damage, but the game lacked rules for maneuvering to strike, so the stunt relied on a dungeon master’s favor.

The original thief lacked a dexterity bonus to armor class. Thieves suffered from the same 1d4 hit dice as wizards. Sneaking in for a backstab proved riskier for thieves than for their targets. Gary explained, “This class is different from any of the others. Thieves are generally not meant to fight.”

D&D players like characters handy in combat, so the thief should have proven as popular as the Sage, but players found the class so compelling that Thief took a place with the Magic User, Fighter, and Cleric. Even in the 70s, many players shied from running clerics, but someone always brought a thief.

The thief class offered 4 advantages that let it thrive.

1. An early monopoly on skills

The thief boasted the only abilities resembling skills. When thieves gained the ability to climb walls or find traps, fighting men, clerics, and magic users implicitly—or sometimes by rule—lost the ability to try similar feats.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. Low-level thieves may have sucked, but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusabable abilities.

2. A compelling archetype

Adventure fiction features many heroes that thieves or rogues. Gary Switzer and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from fantasy icons such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber’s The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

We all sometimes feel bound by the restrictions of everyday life. Roguish characters let us escape that feeling and savor some vicarious disdain for society’s rules.

Players loved the Thief class, but many complained that the concept fostered conflict between players because the class title encouraged theft. Players stole from other party members and dragged parties into fights with the town guard. So D&D’s designers backed away from the class’s emphasis on stealing. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins. Second edition made the thief a type of Rogue in name and spirit. The new Player’s Handbook touted the rogue’s heroic archetypes. “Many famous folk heroes have been more than a little larcenous—Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba are but a few.”

3. A reason for a solo spotlight

Even in the 90s, D&D rule books told players to elect a caller to speak for the party. Outside of Lake Geneva, D&D parties rarely assigned callers, but most tables settle on a leader who dominates attention. Until a fight comes, other players get less time in the spotlight. But rogues could often sneak and scout and play solo while other classes waited for a turn. Players like going rogue.

4. Fast leveling with no demi-human caps

Unlike classes in modern D&D, the original classes advanced at different rates. Thieves required less experience than anyone else, so they often rose a couple of levels above their party.

Few players chose a class based on the experience needed to level, but everyone who considered an elf or dwarf weighed the demi-human level limits. The original D&D rules stopped non-human characters from rising beyond certain levels, making the most powerful characters human. However, non-human thieves suffered no level-limits.

Gary introduced these level limits to explain human domination of D&D’s fantasy world. “A demi-human is unlimited in thief level only,” Gary explained, “as this is a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.” Also, the limits created a game that featured as many human characters as the fantasy fiction that D&D emulated.

Transforming the rogue

Third-edition fully renamed the thief class to the rogue. This name change matched a broader concept that embraced sneaky backstabbers and dashing swashbucklers. Rogues gained the ability to choose their skills. They could favor charm or acrobatics over theft. The new skill system finally gave low-level rogues a decent chance of success.

The transformation also made rogues a battlefield threat. When Backstab became Sneak Attack, thieves could easily maneuver for their special attack, and they could repeat it.

The rebirth of the thief as a rogue fits the archetype better than a character not meant to fight. Leiber described the Gray Mouser as one of the best swordsmen in the world. Robin Hood ranks as an expert archer. Gary Gygax said Robin’s climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) influenced on D&D’s combat system.

In fourth edition, every class needed a way to contribute to the game’s two main activities: combat encounters and skill challenges. By design, every character, and so every class, needed to contribute to skill challenges. That ended the old order of rogues who brought useful skills to exploration but nothing to a fight. For challenges, every class needed skills. On the battlefield, rogues needed to kick as much ass as anyone else.

But rogues did more than hold their end. Strikers came to dominate fourth-edition combat. See Which two D&D roles are too effective. When the designers put rogues in the striker category, the characters came to kick more ass than fighters, wizards, and clerics.

Fourth edition completely inverted the thief’s original role. A class that could barely fight now dominated the battlefield. A class that monopolized the closest thing original D&D had to a skill system was now limited to equal turns in skill challenges.

Fifth edition dials back the class’s combat dominance, but the new game leaves the rogue in a good spot. A d8 hit die and a dexterity bonus to armor class makes rogues stouter than the original thief. New class features let rogues excel at skill checks. Sneak attack still deals ample damage. The latest rogue fits the archetype better than Gary’s original ever did. You can even choose a Thief archetype. For my next character, I think I will.

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.