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I love 4th Edition D&D (“4e”). I know that’s unpopular, but hear me out, because the one aspect of it I’m going to talk about in this post was kept for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), so those of you that love 5e owe something to 4e.
When 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”) brought us skill checks (Note: I never played 2nd Edition D&D), players were rolling Listen or Spot checks, and then the DM would say, “Nope, you don’t hear/see anything.” In many instances, this led to some annoying metagaming, as character ignorance didn’t carry the downside it was supposed to carry. Some 3e DMs had players roll a set of d20s before the game, then use them in the order rolled, but they annoyed me. Why would DMs demand I not roll my attacks before my turn, but the demand I roll these checks before the game even started? I know the answer, but it struck me the wrong way. So how do we avoid the metagaming without annoying me?
One of the “innovations” of 4e that I loved was the use of passive perception and passive insight. They avoided players rolling checks for things concealed from their characters because otherwise the players would know something was up. The passive checks, however, gave players a sense of agency. A particularly observant PC would have a better chance of piercing an illusion or spotting a concealed door than one whose Wisdom was below average. That makes a lot of sense, though perhaps more so in a game system that uses point buy or otherwise gives the players more control over their ability scores (which, by the way, is something else I prefer).
A lot of my recent ramblings are about things from 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) that modern game designers abandoned but shouldn’t have. 1e has its own way of resolving this. The players weren’t involved at all. Rather, the monster determines its own chances of success. For example, when characters see a gas spore, there’s a 90% chance that they’ll mistake it for a Beholder. The DM rolls a percentage die, and if it’s below 91%, the DM simply says, “You see a Beholder. Roll surprise and initiative dice please.” There was no room for metagaming around that.
This is less than ideal because, again, the PC is irrelevant, so I still think passive checks are the best way to go. They make both the monsters’ and PCs’ part of the equation. However, I’m happy knowing that 1e helps avoid metagaming, which I think is far more damaging than ignoring the players’ Wisdom scores. I’d prefer that the 1e PC’s Wisdom score had an impact on their roll to give the player a sense of agency, but as someone only recently returning to the game, I’m not sure how to formulate such a rule in 1e.
Ignorance is not always bliss.
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