Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

Ability Scores

I’ve talked a little about this already, and foreshadowed the coming of this post. I’m not going to repeat what I wrote there, so you may need to read that post for context, but here’s my premise. At least at some point beyond character creation, if not immediately, the range of ability scores for player characters tends to be far too great, at least with respect to various editions of D&D. This occurs because of the use of boring magic items and ability score bumps. Needless to say, the Wizard isn’t going to boost his strength, while the Fighter absolutely will. Because they likely started 10 points apart (Wizard 8, Fighter 18), the already great spread gets even worse as they level up. This is a problem because of how it cascades through a game’s design to harm both skill rolls and the design itself.

Skill Checks

All games that I’ve played recently employ some form of “group skill check.” This is a check where all the characters are working together, so each player makes the same skill check representing their character’s contribution to the effort. 4e expanded this into the oft-maligned skill challenge. If, for example, all of the players are scaling a cliff, that check would be something like D&D‘s Athletics check. The problem is that in both 4e and 5e, neither of those characters are the slightest bit concerned as to what they roll. The Wizard is going to fail miserably, and the Fighter is going to succeed easily. That’s boring for both players. You need both skill rolls to matter, which means the target number for success must be attainable to both. That can’t happen if their scores are too far apart.

There’s another way to resolve this issue. During the group skill check, players can assist one another. The games I’ve played have done this, but with issues. Usually, the assist isn’t good enough, and the Wizard fails anyway far more often than makes sense to me. Sometimes the party should fail, but only when failure is based on a skill roll against a reasonable target number. I’ve seen this result avoided far too often via deus ex machina rather than by a fair game design. (By now, you should know how much I hate dei ex machina.) In other cases, this is handled reasonably, but only by adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to the process. The Fighter makes a second roll, and if she succeeds, she reaches down and pulls up the Wizard. Not only is that more time consuming, but it sometimes completely nullifies the Wizard’s roll. Instead, the Fighter should roll once, and that single roll should be measure not just for success, but for how much it succeeded. Did the roll succeed by 1? 3? 5? 10? The answer to each of those questions determines a bonus the Fighter can hand out to other characters that need it. That simulates the Fighter reaching down and pulling up the Wizard without a bulky second roll; it’s simply part of the process. However, keep in mind that the Wizard’s roll also has to matter. The Fighter’s shared bonus has to be small enough that the Wizard will still fail if the Wizard doesn’t come close on his roll.

Having both of these solutions working together is the best option. With the way I’ve mapped out, both skill rolls matter. The Fighter cares because her roll must uber-succeed, and the Wizard cares because his roll has to come within a reasonable distance of success. Other characters just have to worry about themselves. All of this requires an underlying mathematical foundation that supports it, and I often don’t see that.

Each of these problems can be solved with a slight tweak here and there, but one of my points is that they’re all connected. If you don’t have a fundamental design structure that fixes all the problems, you’ll continue to have these problems pop up here and there. The problems is I don’t think game designers actually want to solve this problem. Wizards of the Coast promised to do so with 5e but quickly abandoned that promise.

It probably wouldn’t have been good for business.

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