The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

Modern Dungeons & Dragons includes both skills and character classes, but in the early days of the roleplaying hobby, gamers often saw skills and classes as incompatible. Some gamers touted skills as the innovation that freed roleplaying games from character classes. Three years after D&D reached hobby shops, new games like Traveller and RuneQuest eliminated classes in favor of skill systems. Advertisements for RuneQuest in The Dragon trumpeted, “No Artificial Character Classes!!” Such games eliminated the unrealistic class restrictions that prevented, say, a fighter from learning to climb walls or from mastering a spell. “Mages can wear armor and use blades.” The ad credits RuneQuest to designer “Steve Perrin and friends.” Remember that name, because Perrin returns to this tale later.

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

1978 Chaosium ad featuring RuneQuest

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored classes because they resonated with the fantasy archetypes everyone knew. He warned, “If characters are not kept distinct, they will soon merge into one super-character.” He had a point. Skill-based games gave every character the ability to improve the same common adventuring skills, leading to a certain sameness among adventurers.

Classes let characters make distinct contributions to a group’s success. In a 1984 interview in DRACHE magazine, Gygax said, “The D&D game is based on the theory that there is so much to know and to do that nobody can do everything on his own. The team aspect is important. Each player has to use his strengths at the right place. Otherwise, the group won´t be able to survive.”

As long as Gygax controlled D&D’s development, he kept skills out of the game. His Unearthed Arcana (1985) added weapon proficiencies as a sort of weapon skill, but their narrow scope kept the sharp lines between classes.

Still, TSR designer Dave “Zeb” Cook saw a need for character development beyond class. “One of the things dreadfully lacking from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills.” When Cook wrote Oriental Adventures (1985), he brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies—skills without the name. These new proficiencies never overlapped with class abilities. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”

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 filled the place of ability checks. The new system of featured all the ingredients of a modern skill system, although class features still covered most of the actions characters attempted during an adventure, so thieves still rolled on their private tables to climb walls and move silently.

In a convention appearance, Dave “Zeb” Cook and fellow designer Steve Winter talked about how these first-edition books led to a second edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”

“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”

Even after Gygax left TSR in 1985, designers like Cook and Winter lacked the clout to make sweeping changes to the company’s flagship game. TSR management insisted that second edition AD&D remain broadly compatible with the original. The Player’s Handbook (1989) included non-weapon proficiencies as an optional rule. Ability checks entered the core game, but languished in the glossary. Nonetheless, these additions inched AD&D closer to matching the ability checks and skills in other role-playing games.

But TSR sold two D&D games, an advanced version that got more scrutiny from management, and a basic version that offered more freedom to designers. By 1988, RuneQuest designer and freelancer Steve Perrin was gaining assignments writing D&D supplements. His GAZ5 The Elves of Alfheim (1988) for the D&D campaign setting of the Known World introduced skills by name to the game. “Due to their background, elves have a variety of skills that are neither shown in the rule books, nor related directly to combat, thieving, or magic. These are optional additions to your D&D campaign.” RuneQuest’s designer put more cracks in the wall between skills and D&D’s classes.

A year later, GAZ11 The Republic of Darokin (1989) by Scott Haring expanded this skill system beyond elves.

“Each skill is based on one of the character’s Abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma). When a circumstance arises in which the DM feels the use of a character’s skill is needed, he asks the player to roll a d20 against his current score with the Ability. If the result of the d20 roll is less than or equal to the Ability, the skill use succeeds. A roll of 20 always fails, no matter how high the chance for success.”

The gazetteer listed skills from advocacy and animal training to woodworking, but the options still kept away from the class specialties of combat, thieving, and magic.

In 1991, the Dungeon & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia gathered all the rules from the basic line into a single hardcover that included the skill system. Meanwhile, AD&D would spend another decade forcing players to say “non-weapon proficiency” in place of “skill.”

For D&D’s third edition in 2000, the designers finally gained permission to correct old drawbacks. “We knew we wanted to make a more robust set of skills,” designer Monte Cook said in an interview. “You had thieves‘ skills, which were different and they worked completely differently, because they were percentage based. So we wanted to marry all of that together.” Like RuneQuest and virtually every other contemporary roleplaying game, the new edition would adopt a single, core mechanic to resolve actions. Players made checks by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the result against a difficulty class number. Skills now offered bonuses to these checks.

The older D&D skill system and AD&D proficiency checks had created in impression that the third-edition designers worked to avoid. In both systems, skills seemed like a requirement to attempt many tasks, so characters needed gemcutting skill to even attempt a radiant cut. That adds up. On the other hand, surely anyone could attempt bargaining and gambling, yet D&D’s original skill checks only applied to characters with a skill.

D&D’s new d20 core mechanic meant that skills expanded to include actions characters actually did in the game. For instance, rogues got skills rather than a private table listing their chance of hiding and picking pockets. “D&D was still a class based game, but the idea that you were not a thief, so you can’t climb and you can never climb, didn’t really hold a lot of water.” The system allowed any character to attempt to hide and climb. Unskilled characters just suffered worse odds of success. Good luck with the gemcutting.

By fourth edition the games designers worked hard to reach Gary Gygax’s ideal of teamwork—but only during combat. On the battlefield, each character class served a distinct role like striker and defender. For tasks outside combat, the designers contrived a skill challenge system aimed at ensuring that every character gained an equal chance to contribute.

During fifth edition’s design, the D&D designers planned to sideline skills in favor of simple ability checks. “We’re making skills completely optional,” lead designer Mike Mearls wrote. “They are a rules module that combines the 3E and 4E systems that DMs can integrate into their game if they so desire.”

But playtesters liked the depth that skills gave characters. Also finessing the game’s math so it played equally well with or without skill bonuses doubtless proved troublesome. So skills stayed part of the D&D core. The designers still chose to rename skill checks as ability checks. This further avoids from the implication that characters need a skill to attempt certain tasks. Without formal skill challenges, fifth edition allows characters with particular skills to shine more as individuals who bring special talents to contribute to the team.

And in the end, no one had to say or type “non-weapon proficiency” ever again (unless they tell this story).

7 thoughts on “The Twisting Tale of Skills in D&D

  1. Lich Van Winkle

    Thanks for this sketch of skills in D&D. I especially like that you highlight the place of the non-AD&D line (the “basic” line) in the evolution of skills. I didn’t know that about Perrin writing for D&D.

    I think what you can’t capture in short compass is how far out of sync with the times all varieties of D&D seemed when AD&D2e and the Rules Cyclopedia were coming out. There were so many other games, and skills were just a perfectly normal thing for games to have. The appearance of skills in D&D at any stage seems to me more like a concession to what gamers were already doing in every other system rather than innovation.

    Whether the D&D skill rules are done well or not is another matter, one of personal preferences.

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  2. ThrorII

    The downside of skills in D&D is that whenever confronted with a challenge, all I see are player heads all dip down to look at their character sheet. No one wants to try anything unless their ‘proficient’ in a skill.

    Contrast that with B/X, BECMI (without the optional skills), or OD&D where players respond with “can I….”

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  3. alphastream

    Zeb’s comment (about how they have to design for just the core rules) has been in my mind a lot. A rules subsystem, such as skills, only works if the game is using it often. Skills existed in some versions of Basic, and in some forms of AD&D, but the groups I played with tended to us a mishmash of AD&D, Basic, and later 2E. Without skills really being core, most adventures and most play couldn’t properly reference them. Something like Basic is just too much of a specific design to see wide use. An adventure can’t assume a party member took “Siege Weapon” proficiency, which states that only such a character can use it.

    For me, TSR developed skills when they created Alternity. That was a real skill system that was core to the game and used consistently across the game. It seemed to be the test bed for 3E’s later skill system, which also baked in skills across the edition. When every character sheet has skills, when most encounters reference them, when every adventure uses them… that’s when a rules subsystem truly is core.

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  5. gutsdozier

    The switch from “skill check” to “ability check” hasn’t completely gotten rid of the idea that you need proficiency in order to do something. For example, it’s very common for specific intelligence checks to require proficiency in arcana, history, religion or nature to even let the player make the roll, even in official adventures. (e.g. “Any player with proficiency in Nature can make a DC 15 Intelligence (Nature) check to recognize that the mushrooms in the little girl’s hamper are poisonous.”)

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  6. nerrrval

    Actually, there is a table for Secondary Skills on page 12 of the 1e DMG. It’s in the preview on DM’s Guild if you don’t have a copy to hand: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/17004/Dungeon-Masters-Guide-1e

    Weapon proficiencies are in the Players Handbook. Weapon proficiencies are almost an anti-skill in that they only serve to remove penalties for not having them. UA added weapon specialisation for fighter-types, which is more skill-like in that it confers an actual bonus.

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  7. Ankheg

    In 5th, I mentally glance now at option where _background_ deems proficiency bonus applicable to ability test. When such a test arises in usual case, players each start to roll their skills, and depending on results I have this urge to tell different information based on who they are. I do quick interpretation of their class and background and think what they might know. It’s a task to think of some different input each character might have. Have to remember about it when only one character rolls, still tying information on what character is.

    That option with background proficiency bonus might help in that probably. Have to introduce it.

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