Nonweapon Proficiencies, while this is technically an
optional rule (read supplemental), I have never been at a 2e table, or even
heard of one, that doesn’t use this system. Some have even claimed that it is
this system which was the reason for the 2nd Edition of the game
(they are wrong, but it is worth pointing out). If we look under the hood, NWPs
are a large part of the Core engine, and many say that it is flawed.
Nonweapon Proficiencies were TSR’s term for skills, which is
a horrible thing to call it. Was it because they already defined Skills as
Thief’s Skills, or because Dave Cook loved the way that Nonweapon Proficiencies
just seems to roll off of the tongue? It probably has more to do with TSR’s
other hobby of suing competitors, who had actually defined skills before Dungeons
and Dragons did, but whatever it was, we are left with only speculation and a
very ugly nonword.
Prior to this system it was assumed that your
character knew what the player knew, which caused a mess of things. A smart player could actually
defeat the Dungeon Master without picking up his dice, else sideline an entire
gaming session arguing that it was unfair for a DM to not let him build a catapult,
and fill a self-made glass sphere of trained rot grubs. This game is made for
inventive people and we could seriously undermine any situation if we weren’t
reeled in. A few advanced tables had created a list of skills which could be
learned, and charts were invented so that inventive players could only choose a
few of them.
Because there are no measures to keep a DM from failing,
people who didn’t understand the system could easily abuse it. Incompetent DMs
claimed that you needed a NWP to ride a horse, wizards couldn’t read, and lots
of other silly stuff that happens when one doesn’t read the rulebooks very
Back when I first started playing, we included them, but I
don’t really remember using the actual skills all that much, as I got older I
saw the importance of them, and what they did to the game was really pointed out
to me while running the RAVENLOFT: Gothic Earth setting, which depends heavily
upon NWP for the game to function. Gothic Earth is a great example of how a DM
should modify and homebrew his own skills lists to make something really
While the Core Rules say that they are supplemental, they
really aren’t. Advanced players of the game have depended upon this system to
play the game ever since. For something so important, you would think that
there would be more rules to them! Well, dear readers, this is how the game got
so messed up.
Many holdouts consider 3e to be nothing but a money-grab, but
this isn’t really the case. Wizard's of the Coast loved D&D and they wanted
to “Fix” it. The biggest thing that they felt that they had to include was how
DMs attempted to streamline NWPs, what they got for their trouble was a
headache and a completely inflexible system.
DMING 2e IS AN ART
We users had often fallen flat on our faces, and we did it often
because that is how you learn to play! We have learned through trial and error
how to use NWP in a functional way that may or may not be unique to our tables,
I would rather interpret rules on a case by case basis then to be confined to a
hard set of rules where my only job is to stop players from cheating, but many
other gaming tables aren’t that way at all.
It all started with basic questions. The DMG stated that
NPCs also have NWP, but it doesn’t specify which ones, which is cool to me! But
others wanted more definition, they read in the MM that orcs can construct war
machines, so they wanted to officially put that in the rules as NWP, but once
you do that then you have to ask yourself what a monster's abilities are and
suddenly, gone are the days of the elegant and brief statblocks that we use as
cheat sheets in our adventures. This got even worse in 4e, I have no idea how
people even DM that thing! I’d go insane, but I digress . . .
Many say yes. They look at the chances that a thief has to
pick a pocket at first level, and compare it to his chances of jumping at first
level and ask how come,if he is such a loser at picking pockets, why isn’t he
also a loser at jumping? They also ask why, at higher levels, does he never get
any better at jumping? They do have a point! If one compares the Thief/Acrobat
from Unearthed Arcana against its 2e kit counterpart in The Complete
Thief’s Handbook, you go from a system that factored in growth (which got
kind of silly at higher levels), to one that doesn’t.
You also have the fact that a character can pick up a weapon
that he isn’t proficient with and still use it, with core rules giving a
specific modifier to your attack roll; so what happens if a character attempts
to use a NWP he doesn’t have? Well this one isn’t a good argument at all; that
depends on what the DM judges. Players who get mad because they can’t do
something that they WANT to do, don’t last long in 2e rules. Can a character
make his own sword if he has all of the tools and materials? SURE! If he is
semi-successful (roled a 1), he’ll have something that he can call it a sword,
but it is just a club made out of metal which will probably break the first
time he hits somebody with it. What if he has an expert sword maker telling him
what to do? Well, this was why the modifiers were never dictated to the DM;
they are very subjective.
Why are there level limits on NWP, if we go mountain
climbing with an expert, won’t we learn how to go mountain climbing? At least
get a basic understanding of it? Again, you probably will, but not enough to claim
to be proficient in it, besides, the AD&D rules don’t reflect reality; at
the end of the day, they are just game mechanics.
SAY HELLO TO CAPTAIN
I enjoy thinking about
this kind of stuff, and talking it out with my players; to me, this is why I play the game, but for others, they
saw this as a fundamental weakness; one where an incompetent DM
could have too much control over their characters, and they wanted set and
fixed modifiers that encompassed every situation. If you turn this stuff into
crunchy rules, I get frustrated. One can drive themselves insane if they over
focus on the NWP rules! One can say that they can’t even identify monsters
unless they have the Monster Identification NWP, or even worse, when they take
something silly like Persuasion and turn it into a skill. This isn’t a NWP! Not
to me it isn’t, that is called Role-playing. Nonweapon Proficiencies should
NEVER replace role-playing.
The original list in the PHB, which is considered to be Core,
has done a magnificent job of keeping itself relatively Crunch Free. One has to
remember that the book isn’t telling you what setting to use; it is just trying
to give you information, and it is your job to determine setting specific
choices. If you decide that the ability to read is common in your setting,
which it probably is, then players should automatically have it. Or, in
contrast, if your setting is prehistoric, then players won’t have access to
engineering. One can also factor in a
specific character’s homeland for bonus proficiencies that he might have, or be
restricted from having. For instance a fellow who grew up on the docks may have
many skills, but desert survival probably isn’t one of them.
If done right, I think that the NWP rules add a lot to how a
player role-plays the character. Logic is your best friend when it comes to
NWP, as a player I always made sure that I had at least one skill to fall back
on, something that I did before deciding to go adventuring and something that I
can do to keep earning money if the whole treasure hunting thing doesn’t pan
out. Also you want to look at your race, an elf doesn’t min/max, and he’s going
to have artistic skills, while a dwarf will chose a different skill set
entirely. As DM I do try to discourage Min/Maxing as much as I can. I don’t
forbid it, but I do ask questions when somebody submits a new character sheet
But, let me climb down from this soapbox and let’s get back
to reexamining the NWP System. It definitely has limitations, which is exactly
what caused this mechanic to be in the first place. There are only so many
amazingly awesome skills that a player can have! They also help newer players
get into the habit of thinking outside of the box and using their skills in
unusual ways. But how have people decided to fix them?
ENTER 2.5SKILLS & POWERS
Players Options: Skills & Powers. In my opinion,
this book was a bleeding mess. It is credited with harking in the 3rd
edition, and it was a game breaker. As if the inclusion of NWP didn’t extend
the time that it takes to roll up a character before, this thing introduced a
point system which allowed all sorts of different mechanics to break the game
with, so we will be looking at it during this series time and time again, I
have no doubt!
While the Skills and Powers manual is controversial, it did
offer a suggestion to DMs who were unable to come up with modifiers on the fly
by letting your players know about a system that you probably don’t use. It also
introduced a nice and elegant NWP progression chart that made it more difficult
or easy to complete a skill check, however it made up a general number for
everybody and depending upon the STATs that you had, you got a modifier to this
specific number. This actually turned out to be functional if one is really so
bothered that a low level character doesn’t suck at something. One doesn’t need
to use that silly point-buy system to use it either, so it doesn’t disagree
with any other mechanic.
DRAGON MAGAZINE #225
The magazine suggested another system in an article called Back in the Saddle, Again, it is similar
to the Skills & Powers method, but again, it doesn’t make the NWP better,
it just makes it harder to hit at low levels, but instead of using one’s level
so that the check automatically gets easier the longer you have it, this system
says that you’ve got to spend additional NWP slots on it to achieve mastery,
which considering that some NWP already require more than one slot, this can be
If you do the math, you only get a limited amount of slots: when you play the game to 21st level, a rogue will get 8, a fighter 9, and the mage & cleric
classes both get 10. That is it!You don't get any more than that.
OTHER HOUSE RULES
Some folks say that you can use Language Slots and put them
towards NWP, however this limits the game, as a good setting involves
multi-languages, and if the players spend all of these on NWP, then the only language
that he should technically have is his regional, or the DM has to implement Common,
which kind of sucks. Not that most tables are overly concerned about this
happening, but it does happen and a stickler can say that Common gives an
unfair advantage to the players, and not be off base.
Many DMs who were unhappy about the system entirely,
developed 3e; but let’s face it, that isn’t even an option. An NPC has access
to whatever NWP he needs to have; an Orc Farmer is just silly talk, do we
really need rules to keep this from happening? Who cares what a troll’s CHA is,
he is, that is enough. If I really want him to achieve a specific NWP then he
does it or he doesn’t; to waste time on its mechanics is futile.
I am no expert on 5e, but I did notice a new mechanic that
is exciting. The player rolls two twenty-sided dice, and he either has an
advantage or a disadvantage. If he has the advantage, he uses the higher number
rolled, and if he has a disadvantage, he must use the lower number. I’m not
sure how usable this system is, but it is intriguing.
WHAT CAUSES THE
SYSTEM TO FALL APART IN THE FIRST PLACE?
This is an easy question, but folks don’t like the answer.
You don’t need to fiddle with how the proficiency check is done. The balance of
the system is how we generate our Ability Stats. If you throw 3d6 for each
ability, in order or even player assigned, you’ll get fair numbers; typically
in the 8-13 range. If we do this, then the NWP checks work as written. AD&D
is a beautiful game; it doesn’t require you to have super-stats! In fact, that
is part of its charm. I have no problem running a PC with low stats; as long as
at least one number is a nine or better, I am cool with it! You can’t do that
with later editions of the game. If only we could run it this way! Well, you
can, but most players insist on rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest, which is
what causes the NWP system to fail, their numbers are too high. A player just
has to learn for himself how fun it is to play an un-super character, you can’t
You have to correct this bloat, either by using a method
above, or by applying modifiers, because when a PC has high numbers straight
across the board, there is little chance of failing anything, which is
Any idea that the players can come up with must never
conflict with the NWP rules, they are there as a guide to discourage cheating,
during play you will probably discover other NWP that need to be added, in that
case, there is a handy dandy guide in the DMG to help you do just that fairly.
If an idea can’t be defined at the time as a NWP, then you have to figure out
what STAT to roll against is, and how to modify the player's chances of completing
the action. A player can complete an action which is defined as a NWP that he
doesn’t have, however he will do so at a severe penalty.
The Nonweapon Proficiencies system has provided additional
fun and entertainment ever since it was given to us. By encouraging discussion
and healthy debate, it doesn’t try to answer all questions. It is one of those
things which, again, make the DM needed in order for the game to function properly.
In this case, the over correction of the system was an attempt to eliminate his
role as much as possible, and give it to a series of books; to me, that creates
a lot more problems than it fixes, and while a DM is learning his craft, these
rules can appear to be clunky, with a well-seasoned veteran of the game, it is seamless.
Thankfully, the way that it was written allows it to be
modified without effecting the rest of the core rules, so you can do as much
fiddling and tweaking as you want to and still be playing AD&D; in fact,
the system encourages it! That, gentle reader, is a wonderful thing!
Master List of Nonweapon Proficiencies: Contains all published NWP, but it doesn't give exactly what the NWP does, however it does provide the source so you can look that up yourself if you are so inclined.