23 Ranks of Use Rope

 Posted by on March 19, 2014  Filed as: Editorial  Add comments  Topic(s):
Mar 192014

String trickI’ve not made a secret my disdain for skills in d20-based games. They always feel tacked on, a sop offered to players who need more numbers to truly realize the character they want to play. Rather than just say, “My dude spent a lot of time in the king’s court” and let the GM interpret what this means, most players feel it’s important to have mechanics that represent capabilities beyond the core task resolution system. Today, I want to talk about why I feel this approach is bad for d20 games and probably make you super upset as a result. But I have a solution and it comes at the end.

Where to begin? Every RPG needs a clear and easy way to interpret whether what a player describes happens or doesn’t happen. Every description can be distilled down to a yes or no. While some games explore ideas of “yes, but” and “no, but,” the “but” only slaps on a consequence for not quite getting to the positive outcome or dipping into the negative and provides a bit more nuance and story fodder for folks who want it. It’s still a binary outcome though. Ultimately it happens or it doesn’t.

In old editions of D&D, the game had individual mechanics for tasks and sometimes those mechanics employed completely different systems based on whether or not you were a member of a particular class. Cast a spell? The target might make a saving throw against spells. Swing a sword, roll the die, add your modifier, and tell the DM who then checks the table. Want to pummel a dude, try something else that’s not quite so arcane or involved please. Proficiencies, introduced in 1st and spread to 2nd as an optional rule, provided yet another method for resolving tasks. It was a great, big complicated mess. When 3rd Edition showed up, all slick and sexy with a unified task resolution mechanic, it was a revelation to me and it’s still remarkable how much the game changed when the edition meter rolled over to 3.

As awesome and as powerful as a core mechanic was for the game, it fundamentally altered the role ability scores played in the game and in a manner that reduced abilities to nothing more than descriptors. In the older editions, the six abilities pretty much told you everything you needed to know about your character and the game system told you how those abilities plugged into specific tasks. I know when I ran 2nd Edition, whenever someone described an action that wasn’t an attack or a spell, there were three possible outcomes: yes, no, and roll a d20 to see what happens. If the player rolled under his or her score, the action happened. Otherwise it didn’t. This technique comes straight out of the game’s proficiency system, so I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary. But the main thing is that the abilities were always where the player looked to determine whether a described action happened when the outcome was not certain.

From 3rd Edition on, ability scores primarily served as the method to derive another number, the modifier that plugged into the core task resolution system. Aside from a few weird corner case rules, the scores only functioned as another kind of hit point pool. A special attack could damage or drain a character’s score, and thus reduce the modifier. And 4th Edition didn’t even have that.

So what’s the problem? If the modifiers were the only thing a character added to his or her task resolution roll, I probably wouldn’t have much of a problem aside from the fact that the score itself is just character sheet clutter for much of the game (True20 solves this problem by just jettisoning the score). But the modifier is not the only thing you add to your task resolution roll and skills bloat the numbers until they are the only thing that matters.

Both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition effectively abandoned abilities as the primary method for task resolution by attaching numbers to ability modifiers that were larger than the numbers themselves. If you can have 23 ranks in Use Rope, the +3 bonus from Dexterity seems paltry. The most important component of the calculation to determine if you manage to tie the knot properly is the bonus from the skill. And if the skill ranks are the thing that matters most, why bother having the ability modifier at all? Wouldn’t it be simpler to just use a range of skills and have a character choose a couple of descriptors (Strong, Smart, Alert) that plug into the skills and increase the skill bonus? For example, you might have the Athletics skill and it might start with a modifier of 0 to 4 that can grow as you gain levels. If you have the Strong tag, you might get a +1 bonus to Athletics checks. While similar to what 4E did with skills (granting a big, heavy flat bonus instead of mucking about with ranks), it dispels the illusion that abilities matter.

But, carving up the corpses of abilities into smaller pieces encourages specialization and, when those pieces directly interact with the game’s predominant play-style (combat, intrigue, exploration, whatever), survival impels players to focus develop those pieces. We see this all over the place in 3rd and 4th. Choosing the History skill in 4th Edition over Perception is a stupid decision unless the game is focused on dredging up dusty bits of trivia instead of finding treasure and butchering monsters. Similarly, putting ranks in Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) is foolish if you take those points away from Listen/Search/Tumble. Such focus undermines the whole point in having skills in the first place. To realize that wonderful character you’ve imagined in your head, you have to make bad build decisions about your character. Efforts to mitigate this problem by making flavor-skills more mechanically useful only managed to create weird narrative problems. If having History gives your dude a big fat bonus to attack rolls every now and then, your game is likely to be filled with historian-fighters. That seems weird.

Let’s wrap this up. D&D is chock full of big abstractions and the biggest is in how the big six abilities claim all the character’s descriptive real estate. The game, at various points, tells us that ability scores are a combination of natural talent and formal training. Intelligence isn’t just your character’s IQ, but it’s also your character’s education, wits, and recall.

The non-weapon proficiency system is a long way from perfect, but what it did was plug into the existing system architecture without diluting the importance of ability scores. Simply, you roll a die and if you equaled or got under the score (+ or – the check modifier), you succeed. Boom. Dead simple. And if you want to improve your proficiency, you can just take it again, gaining a +1 bonus to the check for each time you took it after the first.

Adopting a system like this for your d20 game isn’t that hard, but it would mean stripping a fairly big chunk of the task resolution system out of the game. The big thing is to flip the chance for success. You’d need to double the modifier for all checks (not attack rolls or saving throws) and make the baseline DC 10. Drop the DC to 5 for easy tasks and jack it up to 15 for hard tasks.

Rather than have a slew of combat skills like Spot, Athletics, and so on, you just lean on the abilities. If you want to get better at climbing, make darn sure you put your ability score increases in Strength. Skills would become things you have to have special training to pull off: Animal Handling, Picking Locks, and so on. And those skills would modify the DC based on their complexity. Feats would just cover everything else.

Well that took a while to get to, but I think this is pretty cool. What about you?

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Robert J. Schwalb

Robert J. Schwalb is a freelance game designer and developer with a slew of works to his name, and you can find more of his work in the next incarnation of D&D. When not making fun, Rob spends far too much time listening to music and holding up the bar at his favorite watering hole. You can follow Rob on Twitter, become his new best friend on Facebook, or check out his website.

  18 Responses to “23 Ranks of Use Rope”

  1. You make a good argument. I think that skill and training should grant some kind of bonus (someone who is not naturally gifted can still become good at something with time and dedication), but I see where you’re coming from. Perhaps a single selection of the skill/profinciency still gives you a small bonus to your natural attribute?

    I totally clicked on this post hoping to hear you describe what you could do with 23 ranks of Use Rope. (I assume it’s that trick where you climb the free-standing rope and then disappear) Still, it was a good read. 🙂

  2. Thanks! And, like proficiencies offered modest improvements, I think that’s fine.

  3. I’m not sure how much of this is just guesswork, but my initial reaction to 3rd edition (which is by far my favorite edition, and I include 3.5 as a refinement & not a new edition) was, “Hey, this looks like Rolemaster divided by 5.” Skills looked like Rolemaster skills. Classes seemed more like frameworks. Everything worked from what seemed to be a universal mechanic. Sure, 3rd edition didn’t have critical hit charts and so forth, but I’m not one of those people who thought that was the essential nature of Rolemaster. No, Rolemaster was always “take ranks in skills, add modifiers from race, backgrounds, attributes, tools, etc, then roll dice and add the total bonus.” The only real difference was RM using d100 and D&D using d20.

    Maybe that influence was Monte, who cut his designer teeth on Rolemaster, but whatever the case I think that this is the primary difference between AD&D 1/2 and 3rd, in terms of resolving how actions worked: Rolemaster-style fantasy, divided by 5.

  4. You say that 3e *and* 4e took the focus to skills, but what you describe as a solution sounds just like 4e (with the 1/2 level bonus taken away), to me. Skill training adds 5 – that’s about the maximum attribute modifier – but if that’s too much you could just cut it (but that would make Skill Training an even less desirable feat). By Epic levels you could have a higher attribute modifier anyway. And for the 1/2 level bonus, the DCs simply scale with it and you get to feel “Epic” at epic levels because you now handle Epic tasks, not humdrum ones.

    In short, I think your criticism applies to 3.x and maybe a bit to 2e (with the optional rules) – but 4e already works the way you suggest (plus a level escalator).

  5. If skills are just a yes/no switch on ways to use an ability then why not just make them feats and be done with it?

  6. Much of my own dissatisfaction with the 3.x and 4e skill systems is that they lose so much of their potentcy as players continue to gain experience.

    At low levels in 3.x, having 3 ranks in something and a +3 stat bonus where the DC is medium (14-16) meant that you had a good chance of completing the task — but at high levels, the game’s engine didn’t scale the intended DCs up as aggressively as players will scale up. A higher-level “hard” DC skill check may only have a DC of 21, but at that time a player might have 10+ ranks, a +3 or +4 stat bonus, and *easy* access to gear for a number of additional ranks.

    I’ve played with various skills systems in the past, but ultimately I think that I’m very much in the 2e camp: roll a d20 and aim for your stat score or below, with environmental variables giving +/- 2 to the check (though rarely, a modifier greater than 2 might be appropriate). The proficiency system, for example, might open additional benefits.

    D&D isn’t a game that is defined by a PC’s skills. It’s a storytelling game with great interactive elements that is defined by the actions that a player takes at the table. Introducing arbitrary rules to define a PC’s skills removes some of that focus from the player, and lessens the impact of the game that I know I, as a DM, want to run.

  7. I am not entirely convinced, sorry.

    What about an overweight stage magician (like Orson Welles) and a nible and agile ballet dancer with a misshapen hand?

    Do they both use Dex for playing card tricks and dancing?

  8. Some replies to the various points.

    4E does this already!
    Sort of. 4E generally works hard to prevent you from getting better at what you do and overcharges you for actual improvement. Do we care if character X (@ 30th level) can climb the wall? No. Or, at least, we shouldn’t care.

    Bill. Turning skill widgets into “feat” like objects would certainly solve a lot of problems and allow abilities to breathe.

    Alan. I feel as though 3E is structured in such a way as to obviate the need for checks. Focused rank investment (combined with optimized ability modifiers, feats, items) enables a character to reach the highest DC before throwing the die. I actually like this. I don’t want my bad-ass 20th level rogue to ever have to worry about making a Balance check. Ever. I don’t want to have distribute 100 ranks or so to get there.

    Pamar. Let me throw this at you. Let’s say we have two artists. One artist has only clay and his hands and access to a kiln. The other artist has a bad-ass super computer, 3-D printer, and all sorts of complex bits. The objective? Both artists need to make a pot and it’s entirely possible to make a pot using the materials at hand. And, since they are both artists, both results will be art, but art bound by the medium in which they work.

    D&D is a lot like the guy with clay. It’s awesome and neat and fun and useful engine, but it’s limited by the fact that for D&D to be D&D certain things have to be true (AC, 6 abilities, Hit Points, alignment, and so on). So, to model your two characters, sure. They’d both have reasonably good Dexterity scores and the game models this already. If we assume human average lives somewhere in the 9 to 12 range, then both characters might have a 13 Dexterity.

    This said, not everyone can perform ballet or do card tricks. Those are “skills” that require special training. In a proficiency system, the stage magician would just need the on-switch thrown for card tricks. The ballet dancer needs the switch thrown for “dance ballet.”

    • Maybe I am just dense but I still don’t see how this can work.
      So we have an overweight stage magician with Dex 13 and “card tricks switch on”.
      Then we have a dancer with a crippled hand with Dex 13 and “dancing switch on”.

      Can we now introduce “average guy with good genes” with Dex 13 due to lucky chargen roll and no switch on (or a switch on unrelated stuff like “wine connoisseur”, linked to his Int-11, maybe?).

      Ok. Can we posit that he would be better at dancing then the stage magician, and better at handling card than the crippled dancer? Or do we need a switch for those too? like “crippled hand switch, when on character is at -3 to Dex based stuff requiring fine hand coordination”?

    • By making “Card Tricks” a widget that sits outside of what a character can normally do, a stage magician overweight or not would not be able to perform the card trick without the widget. The Card Trick widget might itself require a Dexterity check to perform. In this case, a clumsy magician with a 9 (-1) Dexterity, for example, and a nimble magician with a 16 (+3) Dexterity would make a check to perform the card trick. If the game uses a DC 10 for all non-attack, non-ST tasks, then the clumsy magician would pull off the card trick less often than the nimble one. Go back to the guy with good genes. Unless he has the Card Trick widget, he just can’t perform the trick.

      I think this is misleading b/c I’m not sure this gets at what I want. Let’s try this again with Open Lock. And just use 3/4 modifiers.

      Imagine three characters. Fritz the Fighter, Gomez the Clumsy Rogue (Dex 7), and Slick the Nimble Rogue (Dex 17). The rule is that only characters with the Open Lock widget can attempt to open locks. All three characters come to a locked door. Fritz the fighter can’t pick the lock so he decides to kick it down. Gomez and Slick fill their pants with crap, suspecting there is an evil bad guy on the other side. They tell Fritz to chill out. Gomez, cocky, says “I’ll handle it. After all, I know how to open locks.” Since the game uses DC 10, Gomez needs to roll an 12 (he has a -2 modifier) or better on his Dex check to open the lock. Slick says, “Hey Bub. I got this.” Slick only needs to roll a 7 or better since he has a +3.

      Now the game could do all sorts of wonkiness too. DC 10 could be the point of success. Failures by 5 or less, might mean success with a complication (you make a lot of noise opening the lock), while success by 5 or more might mean some sort of advantage (you open the lock so quietly, the PCs get surprise against the evil-bad guy).

  9. Not sure what the angst is with both ability modifiers and skill ranks. The present system isn’t perfect, but it is reasonably consistent with how the world works.

    I’ve been lifting at the gym for a little while now, say my STR has gone from (in game terms) a 10 to a 14. Given the increase in leg strength, I probably jump higher and farther than I used to, but would I be able to leap as far as a smaller guy who has worked for Cirque du Soleil his entire adult life?

    The current system of skill points gives quicker PCs a bonus at skills that might require some agility, but not enough to swamp a person that has spent their entire life to a single hobby. I think this is intuitive with how the real world works.

  10. Well, I don’t have anything meaningful to add to the conversation, except that this article came at the perfect time. I’m working on a personal project right now, and this has given me some things to think about.

    Thanks Robert!

  11. In case you don’t know it already I suggest you have a look at Warp (http://www.atlas-games.com/warp/) – the system used for Over The Edge RPG – now “open sourced”, the game system is available for free at the link I provided.

    In WARP your character is defined by three traits, one major and two minors. These are extremely broad, let’s say that James Bond would be something like:

    Major Trait “00 agent”
    Minor #1 “Womanizer”
    Minor #2 “Bon Vivant”

    The idea is that whenever you have to decide something you roll against a difficulty. If the GM agrees that one of your traits would be beneficial for the task at hand (ex.: “choosing the right wine to go with the dish you have ordered” – you’d roll using the # of dice you have in “Bon Vivant”) everyone else would roll as unskilled.

    So, to adapt this to a D20 game… what if we say:
    Characteristic Modifier can be used only for situation where your profession/trait/quirk/hobby applies.

    So assuming that 13=+1, in my previous example:

    Stage Magician will use +1 to anything related to sleight of hand, card playing and possibly dealing with simple locks. No bonus for dancing.
    Dancer will use +1 for dancing, jumping, balance… but not for hand-based tasks
    Good genes guy is the son of a horse breeder so he would use is +1 for riding and little else.

    In theory you could also impose negative characteristic modifiers for the overweight or the crippled characters, but maybe this would start making things more complex without adding much to the game.

    What do you think?

  12. I’m curious why no one’s mentioned 13th Age yet, and I’m really curious what you think of it.

    If you aren’t aware, in 13th Age, your background IS your skill. You don’t put 4 ranks in “climbing;” you put 4 ranks in “Catburglar of Waterdeep.” This covers climbing AND anything a “Catburglar of Waterdeep” would resonably know…everything from climbing, to picking locks, to finding connections in Waterdeep’s underworld. The advantage here is it puts all of those various skills under one colorful little banner…and by condensing all of those skills, it keeps the numbers to a manageable scale. Suddenly, a +3 in Dex is a big deal when your skill caps out at, like, +5! (the level cap in 13th Age is 10, btw).

    Anyways, what do you think of that? How does that address your concerns? I’m not trying to stir a pot or anything, I’m just curious because right now, 13th Age seems to be shaping into 4th edition’s Pathfinder, so I’d like to know how you feel about it’s take on this part of the d20 system.

    • Yeah, that’s what I was trying to point at when mentioning WARP… 13th Age was written by the same designer that invented WARP after all 😉

  13. To each his own, of course. I liked the 3e skill system well enough; it seems reasonable to me to consider that an acrobat or lockpick who is well-trained though of average ability is going to be able to out-perform the untrained but amazingly dextrous character. I wasn’t a big fan of the fixed DC system, and there are other problems with the mechanical system, but if I had to choose between ‘abilities fixed at character creation’ versus ‘ability to improve over time’, I’d come down on the improvement (both as GM and player) every time.

  14. In concept I like this, but now you introduce the problem of ability scores being TOO broad. This is what Pamar was getting at: in your example of Gomez the Clumsy Rogue, why did that guy even bother to get the Open Locks widget when he sucks so bad at it? Clearly the player wanted to be able to lock-pick but did not want the REST of the baggage having a high Dex would bring.

    Fortunately there are a couple of easy fixes for this. For example, a supplemental widget that lets you switch ability scores (so Gomez the Clumsy but Clever Rogue can pop open locks using his Int). Or a supplemental widget that bypasses ability scores; maybe Skill Focus lets you roll +Ability+2 or flat +5, whichever is better. Or a supplemental widget that grants lets you roll multiple d20s (this probability curve is relatively more beneficial to the person with the lower score). Etc.

  15. 3rd and 4th don’t focus on skills, they are, just as in 1st and 2nd, just shoehorned into the system, never actually fitting. D&D is an inherently combat focused system, the existence of non-combat/non-Dungeon Crawl skills is a mere surplus. 3rd and 4th merely made the skill system even more complicated and non-fitting than before, trying to attract players who prefer a more granular gaming style.

    That the skill levels would eventually make the attribute bonuses irrelevant to a skill is natural. The Attribute bonus is for those who haven’t learned the skill yet or only just started learning. Attribute bonus is sheer talent, which is good for apprentices but useless for masters. Even in the combat system, once you are Lvl15, the plus you get from your Str for swinging your sword is laughable compared to your base THaC0, but at Lvl2, every single bonus point saves your life.

    As for wasting points on non-adventure/non-survival skills, this is just my personal take, but to me it makes the difference between a power-gamer playing a character sheet and a role player playing a character.

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