Tag Archives: Tom Moldvay

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).

Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

The original Dungeons & Dragons game awarded characters an experience point for each gold piece they claimed from the dungeon. See “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.” This provided a simple method of awarding non-combat experience and motivating players to loot dungeons—the activity that made the game fun. The success of awarding XP for gold rested on three premises of the early D&D game.

  • Adventures always occur within the dungeon or wilderness.
  • Players choose the difficulty of the challenges they dared to face.
  • Characters will find ways to spend their riches.

By the time second edition stopped awarding XP for gold, none of these premises remained true.

Premise: Adventures stick to the dungeon. When D&D adventure expanded beyond the dungeon into civilization, players felt tempted to treat towns and cities as massive gold and experience farms. Why bother facing terrors and traps underground when the local townsfolk offer sources of wealth, and the XP it brings? For more, see “Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

This problem invites an easy solution: By the 1981 Basic Set, characters needed to recover gold from a dungeon or similar adventuring location to gain experience for it.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a recent game with an old-school XP-for-gold system, lists many sources of gold that do not count for XP.

The following may gain the characters wealth, but they do not count for XP purposes:

    • Coins looted from bodies outside of adventure locations
    • Rewards
    • Selling equipment stripped from foes
    • Selling magical items that have been used by a PC or retainer
    • Tax income
    • Theft of wealth from mundane merchants, rulers, and citizens
    • Trade, commerce, and other business activity (including selling of mundane items stripped from foes)

If you want XP, you must earn it.

Premise: Players set the challenge. In most modern D&D campaigns, dungeon masters devise adventures that will challenge their players without proving too difficult. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes pages of budgets and formulas aimed providing just enough challenge.

In the early D&D game, players chose the amount of difficulty they wanted. Every level of the dungeon corresponded to a level of character, so the first level offered challenges suitable for first-level characters. Players could seek greater challenges—and greater rewards—as they went deeper.

This system gives players a choice that they lack now, and it added a element of strategy.

When Gary created this aspect of the game, he needed to find ways to entice players deeper into the dungeon. If a cautious party could gain nearly as much loot on an easy dungeon level as on a deeper one, why go down? Gaining experience could become a safe—and dull—grind.

To lure characters to danger, Gary doubled the number of experience points needed to advance to each level, then matched the increase with similar increases in treasure. To rise in level at a tolerable rate, players needed to delve as far down as they dared.

Doubling both experience requirements and rewards offered a second benefit: First-level characters could join a higher-level party and catch up quickly. This gave new players a boost, and made dead characters easier to replace. Also, the quicker advancement made level draining a bit less punishing.

Premise: Players have meaningful ways to spend their riches.

Before 2E, most of the experience players gained came from gold. For example, in the 1981 D&D Basic Rulebook (p. 45), Tom Moldvay wrote that characters could expect to gain 3/4 or more of their XP from treasure. With experience requirements roughly doubling at each level, players needed tons—as in thousands of pounds—of gold to advance. In an evaluation of the basic-expert rules set, Blackrazor calculates that to advance from 8th to 9th level, a party of characters must claim 40 tons of gold.

In a real world, such a bounty would cause runaway inflation and threaten an economic collapse. Luckily, PCs typically leave these bounties unspent, keeping a tally on the character sheet instead. No DM makes the party round up the 80 Bags of Holding needed to carry 40 tons of loot.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #254Of all the versions of D&D, these basic-expert rules present a worst case, but every edition serves up enough gold to fill Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pools.

In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign and in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, players could spend their riches in an end game. In Blackmoor, player characters served as leaders and champions in series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. PCs explored dungeons to gain wealth that could enable them to raise armies, build fleets, and erect strongholds.

Gary had designed the Chainmail miniature rules that Dave used, so a progression from green adventurer to battlefield champion to baron seemed natural to both men. The original D&D game includes prices for castle structures and ships, along with costs for the men at arms and sailors needed to build a kingdom. The game served up riches, but the wealth led PCs out of the dungeon and onto the miniature battlefield.

This scheme suffered one problem: Almost no one went on to the stronghold-building, army-raising part of the game. That sort of play made sense to miniature players like Dave and Gary, but the game’s new players had no experience with sand tables and lead figures. The price lists for barbicans and medium horsemen puzzled us. Even the miniature grognards kept going back to the dungeon. The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Dave Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit.

So D&D characters gained riches fit for kings, but they kept returning to the dungeons for another score.

Next: D&D stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains.

Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City

I’m back from Gen Con and four days of terrific gaming.

For this year, Wizards of the Coast elected to focus its attention on exposing as many as possible to Dungeons & Dragons Next, and so they dropped all Living Forgotten Realms events from the convention. Pushing D&D Next seemed to work. Players new to D&D Next filled my tables and I met a lot of Pathfinder devotees willing to sample the new D&D system.

The lack of LFR disappointed some players and judges, but I appreciated the chance to run D&D Next for the first time. The absence of LFR at this convention doesn’t signal the end of fourth edition or of Living Forgotten Realms. New LFR adventures are coming. The Winter Fantasy convention will feature a slate of LFR events, including a new, paragon-level battle interactive.

2013 D&D Championship - battling Zargon in the lost city

2013 D&D Championship – battling Zargon in the lost city

Although I dungeon mastered the Crisis in Candlekeep delve twice, my DM highlights came from running the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure three times. Murder in Baldur’s Gate forced me to develop an aspect of my DM skills that I’ve rarely exercised in the past. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

As usual, playing the 2013 Dungeons & Dragons Championship delivered as much fun as I ever have playing D&D. The Championship features a lethal adventure intended to test even the best teams of players. The unforgiving challenge brings a sense of peril that you never see in typical adventures, because in typical adventures the odds always favor the players. The event’s time pressure amps up the urgency and demands fast play.

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

The Lost City (1982) by Tom Moldvay

This year the author of the championship adventure, M. Sean Molley, created a tribute to the 1982 Lost City adventure by Tom Moldvay. The first round dared teams to recover three staffs from locations in the lost city. Earlier fourth edition championships played solely as tactical miniature battles, but this year’s adventure added puzzles to the mix—a welcome nod to the old tournament classics. The final round required characters to use the staffs in a fight to destroy past and present versions of Zargon, the evil demigod of the lost city. I marvel at how skillfully a battle with so many variables was balanced on the narrow line between difficult and impossible.

As a dungeon master, I admire the DMs in the championship, who must play fast, fair, and show total command of the rules. They do enjoy some perks: Where else can a DM coupe de grace a fallen character without straining D&D’s social contract? Even among this elite crew, our DMs Brian and Sean stood out as exceptional. Plus, our DM for the finals happened to be the adventure’s author.

I played on the team that claimed second place—for the third year in a row. We’re like the 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills of the D&D Championship. Still, I’m thrilled to do well.

Will next year’s Championship be the first to feature the next iteration of the D&D rules?

Multiple attacks, ability checks, and keyed illustrations revisited

Murder In Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend

Murder In Baldur’s Gate Launch Weekend

At Gen Con 2013, I’ll be running the Dungeons & Dragons Next adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate most mornings and afternoons. If you attend Gen Con, check my photo in my About section, and then find me and say hello. In real life, I’m less grainy and less out of focus.

I have yet to run D&D Next, so I’m studying the latest rules packet. After the convention, I plan to write some posts discussing aspects of the design. Until then, I want to revisit a few topics.

In “Changing the balance of power,” I told how D&D Next’s flattened to-hit bonuses weakened high-level fighters against low-level enemies. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.” I mentioned that restoring multiple attacks would restore the balance. Perhaps the designers reached the same conclusion, because the latest playtest packet grants multiple attacks to fighters and to some other classes.

The playtest package’s DM Guidlines advise skipping ability checks when a character uses a high ability score: “Take into account the ability score associated with the intended action. It’s easy for someone with a Strength score of 18 to flip over a table, though not easy for someone with a Strength score of 9.” As I explained in “In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic,” the current D&D Next rules practically require this sort of DM intervention because the system fails to give someone with Strength 18 a significant edge over a Strength 9 character. The result of the d20 roll swamps the puny +4 bonus. In practice, the system math makes flipping the table only sightly easier at strength 18.

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur's Gate

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur’s Gate

In “It’s Mathemagical!,” Mike Mearls discusses plans to introduce escalating ability-check bonuses of up to +12. This may finally give exceptional characters a chance to stand out from ordinary characters—at least at higher levels. Still, the game screams for a system where abilities grant bigger bonuses to ability checks. If a +1 bonus per ability point worked for Moldvay in 1981, then it works in Next. Why not adopt the steeper bonuses? I assume that the designers feel wedded to using the same ability bonuses for ability checks as for attacks and saves.

Way back in “Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations,” I praised the face cards Paizo produces to accompany their adventure paths, so I’m delighted to see similar cards packaged with the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure.

Pyramid of Shadows - View of the Bridge

Pyramid of Shadows – View of the Bridge

In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I shared my love of the keyed illustrations included in some early adventures. I lamented how TSR and Wizards seemed to have abandoned this enhancement. Recently, a clearance sale prompted me to buy most of the 9 original adventures shipped for fourth edition. To my surprise, many of these adventures include keyed illustrations. In Pyramid of Shadows, a dungeon with a classic feel, the illustrations seem to hold clues to the adventures or show complicated scenes too difficult to describe, so the pictures compliment the adventure perfectly. In some of the other adventures, the illustrations simply add flavor.