Friday, July 24, 2020

The Original D&D Skill Rules

Critics of role-playing games with skill systems sometimes support the idea that the Gamemaster should decide outcomes by fiat or by ad hoc rulings on the odds, be it in negotiation with players or by assessing the quality and likelihood of the player’s description of the character’s action. Though often presented as a return to the sources and a putative original play-style, and away from more complicated “modern” rules, the impulse to go back to the sources is quite modern. It’s also right in line with the most ardently free-form storytelling gamers, only with a strongly empowered GM. Fewer rules, more GM fiat.

Some seem to think that the original D&D rules of 1974 do not include skills. In fact, they do. It’s just that they did not call them skills, just as they did not call it a “role-playing game” in 1974, either.

The original skill rules were disorganized. They have no uniform method of resolution. Some are “have/not have” skills. If you have them, they work, and if you don’t have them, you can’t do that action. Some are resolved by a roll of 1D6, with odds specific to character types.

For example, here are some OD&D 1974 combat skills. Different character classes have these different skills distributed amongst them.

  • Universal weapon proficiency
  • Proficiency with blunt weapons only
  • Proficiency with daggers only
  • Deadly accuracy with missiles
  • Proficiency with +3 Magic Warhammer
  • Universal armor proficiency

The weapon skill levels are not expressed in figures specific to each character, but to each character’s class and level. That’s why they are on a separate chart. But every single OD&D character has a combat skill.

Every OD&D character also has a skill at finding secret doors. These are skills that cannot be improved. You have a chance of 1 in 3, or 2 in 3 for Elves. Likewise, every character has a “hearing through doors” skill at 1 in 6, or 1 in 3 for Elves

Of course, all spell abilities are skills, too. These are more complex.

You get the idea. It is not that OD&D lacks a skill system. It’s just that the skill system is so ad hoc and asymmetrical that it does not look like a system, and it’s a poor one, making provisions mostly only for events in a dungeon full of monsters.

When the earliest players, in the 1970s, cried for more “realism,” one of the things they actually wanted was rules to cover more things that PCs could attempt, to minimize DM fiat and maximize DM impartiality.

My personal tastes are averse to complicated rules and large numbers of stats. In this I’m quite in line with OSR play-styles. But gamers who say they are against skill systems don’t know what they are saying. They certainly use skills in their games, but they restrict them to a minimal and incommensurate set, and simply call them character class abilities or by no name at all.

The first game system to incorporate skills by that name was Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). They were mostly professional abilities, enriching character backgrounds and giving context for Referee rulings all at once.


  1. Heh. I've been making this argument for a while - that combat ability is a "skill" and thus D&D is skill-based, even if those skills are class-and-level tied.

  2. When 3rd edition came out, skills and feats felt like a quantum leap in fantasy gaming. Treating juggling and lockpicking (Dex), or sweet-talking and playing the harp (Cha), as mechanically different skills with a universal mechanic to help the DM decide your success / degree of success, felt like a huge step forward.

    But then we played 3.0 and 3.5 and Pathfinder, and found that (assuming we basically wanted to play a game where we fought monsters and took their treasure, then sold that treasure for upgraded gear) certain skills were just much more mechanically useful than other skills. Bluff and Diplomacy were just better skills to have than Jumping and Climbing. (When you extrapolate the 3X rules, including magic item creation and pricing, you get a magic mart, which makes low level spells a cheap replacement for most mundane skills).

    And then 5th edition did something interesting, which AngryGM noticed. 5th edition, quietly, made all skill checks ability checks.
    You add your proficiency modifier, or not, but that's a much smaller number than your Ranks in a skill in 3X. (Never mind the circumstantial modifiers you could optimize for in 3X).
    So in my homebrew, I've removed Skills at 1st level, and you're just Trained in 2 or 3 abilities. (At 3rd level, you can become an Expert in a skill)

    Link to the Angry GM piece (I'd scroll down to There's No Such Thing As a Skill Check.) AngryGM's schtick is not for everyone, and I'm not sure he ever played anything older than 3rd edition--I don't see any trace of puzzling out whether a Saving Throw should be "Vs Wands" or "Vs Petrification/Polymorph."

    1. Thanks for filling me in. You know by now that I have nearly zero knowledge of 3e-4e mechanics. Imagine my puzzlement in seeing my son's new 5e books last December, making my personal jump from B/X and AD&D1e to 5e. Saving throws seemed to have evolved into... every kind of test of any ability! I have learned that this is due to the d20 wave, which I think is what you are getting at here, and I am still trying to understand the intermediate stage you're describing.

      Your experience of a "quantum leap" at 3e is just so different from mine, and it shows the variety in play experiences over the decades. I had given up D&D early on in the '80s because there were already just so many games that handled things like skills better, in my personal tastes, than D&D (in any version). Skill rules in fantasy games were pretty old by the time of 3e, no? Whether it's the original Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth (1980) or GURPS (1986 onward), or, say, Mercenaries, Spies, & Private Eyes (1983), heck pretty much any role-playing other game from the '80s...

      Now, if you are able to homebrew D&D skills to work in a way that satisfies your group, then that's obviously the best thing you can do.

      I'm interested in the evolution of "to hit" and "saving throws" into the universal roll to do anything in D&D. I saw somebody calling skill rolls "save versus incompetence." I love that take on it because it captures the history of the mechanic while nailing it on what we do in any game with skill rolls.

      Thanks for the link to Angry GM. I've seen his blog, but not that entry, which I shall read. I often like his insights but I wish he would tone it down, because I might share some of it with my son who writes adventures now, but my boy won't respect someone who writes like that (and I wouldn't recommend it to him, either).

      Thanks again, John.

    2. I think part of my personal experience is that, while we had and played non-D&D game, we pretty much played those when we wanted to play other genres. GURPS, Star Wars d6, Shadowrun, White Wolf, Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP), Deadlands all had out-of-combat skill systems more sophisticated than "roll a d6 to spot the secret door", but those skills were much closer to the core gameplay.
      The fact that, to use the 2E language, "Non Weapon Proficiencies", are sort of ancillary to core D&D gameplay is why 5th edition was able to move them to the side without anyone really noticing or protesting.

  3. If skills are defined as any kind of competency that is (or can be) resolved mechanically, then sure. But you could equally argue that a lot of these are just rules in the sense how you move chess pieces on the board. Maybe I only see it that way because there is no overarching system behind it the way there is in RuneQuest or Vampire.

    Nevertheless, whether you have or lack a proper skill system, traditional games are capable of resolving the same situations anyway. The differences lie in the way how odds are determined, how gradually spheres of knowledge and the depths thereof are represented, and how transparent the process is from the player's perspective (i.e. how accurately can I predict my odds based on the fictional situation and my character sheet?).

    1. Ynas, as usual, I agree with your insights. You can indeed reverse the argument and say that there are no skills at all, even in games that say that have skills, but instead only rules about what is possible that are customized to each character. But the effect is the same: to point out that RPGs that either have skills or lack skills (by that name) all depend on a system of odds defined in various ways.

      To continue your chess metaphor, the moves open to different chess pieces are their skills. Jon Peterson's book Playing at the World points to the differences among chess pieces as an antecedent to character class. And I see character class as descriptive of sets of skills.

      Your breakdown of the factors in your second paragraph strikes me as right on. But I'd add one more factor: the degree to which the Referee requires players to rely on those odds calculated by the player from the character sheet or the ambient rules--in other words, how often the Referee requires players to roll to succeed instead of just declaring success or failure.

      I do wonder what you mean by "traditional games." Do you mean as opposed to "Story Games" or do you mean just D&D? Because you know what I'll say, if you say you mean just D&D... :)

    2. Opposed to "story games", yes :P

      Basically, any game where all (or well above the majority) of the characters' powers are diegetic, and the players can only (or mostly only) influence the game world through their own characters (e.g. the GM doesn't ask them to describe what they find in a treasure chest). D&D, RuneQuest, GURPS, Warhammer Fantasy, Rifts, and even Vampire are fairly traditional, to name a few.

      And there is probably no action undertaken by a character nor special ability that cannot be adjudicated by all the above systems. Sure, some would not belong (maybe too anachronistic, not fitting the theme, or just plain too powerful given the game's assumptions), but they are capable of doing roughly the same things.

      Note to self: I need to pick up a copy of Playing at the World.

  4. I found something that may help to convey to you what was good about the OSR, and about the circle around Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

    I was browsing through blogrolls and came across Zak Sabbath's blog, with a link to a collective rewrite Zak S and a couple of dozen did of the early module Palace of the Silver Princess. There was a lot of creativity there, and a community bound by a desire to do things more unusual than the stuff WOTC and Paizo were doing (things that had edges sanded down to survive in a mass marketplace).

    (Note: Zak S was later revealed to be a sexual assaulter, which should not have been a huge shock since he was a porn star and various kinds of pervert, but there it is. His co-editor was Kiel Chenier, who did a terribad edgelord ripoff of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, which he apologized for a month or two ago in very woke terms.)

    1. Your comment is not really addressing the topic at hand (skill rules). All the same, I appreciate the pointers, since it is obvious that there's so much I don't know about what has happened in the last years of TTRPGs.

      I think, however, that I already have acquired an idea about "what was good about the OSR." People have chimed in. They say they like lighter D&D rules, DM fiat, random tables, dungeon procedure, adventures that combine "gonzo" fantasy with genuinely creepy stuff and high lethality, and the Do-It-Yourself ethos. They also *love* D&D (and usually don't seem to know much about the innumerable other games).

      As far as I'm concerned, the moment the "OSR scene" became famous for having adventures featuring rape and materials best known for having been authored by a porn star--never mind my other concerns--it doesn't matter how creative they are. I'm not playing that stuff, my kids aren't playing it, my wife isn't playing it, nobody I know is playing it. It's that simple. I'm not a prude. I just don't need this stuff in my family and in games among family members. And that is where a lot of the next generation of gaming is happening: in families, and between old gamers and young gamers. If aging guys want to tell gory pornographic stories to each other with dice, they certainly should have fun doing that. I'm sincerely glad they're having good times with friends. As they say, "different strokes for different folks." That's not my scene. It's not about "mass marketplace." I'm just not introducing material from that scene to my daughter and her friends, to my son and his friends. There's a lot of creative stuff out there beyond the OSR and WotC alike. We don't have to choose between the saccharine polish of WotC and the cringe-worthy rough edges of the OSR. I don't need either of these to have good games with my players, and I'm not lying to my kids and saying, "this is the real old-school way to play" when it is entirely new.