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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.