Mechanic Series: Nonweapon Proficiencies

 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 well.

 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 special.

 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.


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.


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 to me.

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?


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.


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 expensive!

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.


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.

5th Edition

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.


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 make them.

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 pointless.

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.


Brooser Bear said...

There is a difference between the Gygaxian Non Weapon Proficiencies (NWPs) and character skills, as they are used in WOTC D&D, Traveler, and Runequest games. Before we start, we have to realize, where the concept of character skills come from.

It comes into gaming from Trait Psychology. Gygax specifically defines NWP's in his Oriental Adventure (OA) (where they were first introduced) as a way to give further definition to a character, and that is lifted directly from Psychology. Skills are the in-game character traits and function the way Personality Traits work in the real world.

It is likely that Gygax was making AD&D more competitive with other RPGs when he introduced the concept in his OA supplement. There is one game mechanic, that is largely lost on players and DM's and was lost on the subsequent editions of D&D, that makes all the difference in the game.

Every role playing game that I seen that uses skills, including the WOTC editions of D&D use the NOMOTHETIC approach, whereas Gygax used the IDIOSYNCRATIC. Nomothetic method takes a trait that everyone has, say Irritability, and tests everyone to see how much of it each person has, how irritable are you? How good is your Math? How strong a Chess player are you. Idiosyncratic approach, on the other hand, studies only those traits, that influence to a great deal, culminating with the CARDINAL TRAITS, which define individuals. In D&D terms, cleric's ability to turn undead, Thieves' ability to pick pockets, Ranger's Special Enemy are all Cardinal Traits that define each class.

In D&D, you are using a Nomothetic Approach, if you have the player roll against the skill every time that they use it. WOTC Edition Difficulty Check (DC) 10, 15 whatever are examples of the Nomothetic use of skills.

Gygax, on the other hand, had the player do a skil check, when the player was trying to do something difficult, where most people woild ordinarily fail. Trying to swim in armor or survive a tidal wave, jumping into a saddle out of second story window and trying tp catch someone riding away, etc. This cut down on the number of skill checks, but also Gygax carried this approach further, by writing essentially a mini-game for each skill - whether you are trying to make a suit of armor, swim, or write a poem, the game mechanic for each skill's resolution was different, different modifiers, etc. For further readings, you might want to familiarize yourselves with the works of Gordon Allport (founder of trait psychology, idiosyncratic approach) and of Raymond Cattell (father of the nomothetic method).

Brooser Bear said...

For me, I have no problem using character skills, because they express the player charater's culture, and in my campaign, they integrate the player character into the setting. In Midlands, different ethnic groups, which settled the area, brought their own cultures, which had a profound influence on schools of magic and warrior cultures, that their fighters, priests, and magic users practice. The choice of ethnicity, character class, and their character's social class each give a player access to sets of skills, from among which the players can choose a finite number of skills to use in the game. I have over 350 skills in the game so far, but the players get to look at only 30-50 or so, based on their character's background. BTW, I use the Runequest system to run the skills in my campaign.

I have no problem with players trying to outthink me as a DM. Do you have in-game skills, money, or contacts to build a siege engine? No problem! This becomes an adventure in itself. Where you gonna make that Glass Sphere? They are gonna have to role play the search and initiate the process. No die rolls for resolution, no suggestions from the DM. This is much fairer, than the time, when I wanted to build a palisade fort outside the Dungeon to save on the usual 4 hour ride back to town every time we needed rest. DM was unprepared (and unfamiliar with real life). He told me there was no wood in the forest, no workers in town, my gold was useless.

RipperX said...

I could had sworn that I read somewhere that a specific player started irritating DMs, including Gygax, by using logic instead of dice. I tried to find the source, but wasn't able to, which probably means that I'm crazy.

I loved these two posts Brooser! You are one hell of a contributor and I'm glad to have you haunting these pages.

As far as NWP, I can't express how much fun they have added to my games. If they were all well-defined and set in stone, I would probably hate them, but as written in AD&D they bring something to the table that is extremely pleasing to everyone.

I don't always make people roll, that only happens if there is a chance that the idea will fail, and if you can declare your action in a way that eliminates failure, you succeed because we don't need the dice.

Anonymous said...

Ripper's wife here! Just thought I'd throw my two cents into the ring. Non-weapon proficiencies really didn't come alive for me until Rip ran the Gothic Earth setting. I've been playing D&D since I was a kid, and the majority of the DM's I've played with, including myself, had never really given NWP's much thought. I think I was more apt to use them when I played AD&D with my folks and their friends than I had with 2e. Not real sure why that is, but whatever. Then came along the Gothic Earth setting.

I had never rolled a character up using the GE kits before. Looking at the kits as is leaves a little something to be desired. There isn't much to them. One gets pretty much an overview of the character kit, a couple of special things they can do, and that's just about it. But then I discovered the NWP list for GE. Very carefully I picked out some NWP's that I thought my particular character could use. What I ended up with is probably one of my all-time favorite characters to play. Using my new found way of thinking, I helped a couple of our fellow players to create their characters, and what we came up with was a character similar to Indiana Jones, a scrappy old sailor with an attitude, a gunslingin' dandy, and a "wizard" charlatan like Oz the Great and Powerful. NWP's MADE these characters! NWP's made the characters richer and more rounded out, which is what NWP's should be doing for our characters.

I think where the problem lies sometimes with the treatment of NWP's in standard D&D play, is we all already have preconceived notions as to what a fighter, wizard, thief, or cleric is. I didn't have this luxury with the GE setting, so I was forced to use NWP's in a whole new fashion to truly create a character. So imagine what NWP's could do for a fighter. Not just treating them so much as secondary skills, but actually using them to enrich the character and utilizing them during role play.

RipperX said...

Gothic Earth is an amazing setting which can take a group of advanced players and make them even better players. It changes how you think about the game as a whole, and shows a DM that he can really push the AD&D core system in unusual ways and it can handle it.

There are more than one way to play this game. You can do the combat heavy treasure quests, war games, intense choose your own adventure type story games, sandbox find the adventure, diplomacy, war. . . the list goes on and on, but there is something rewarding when you take time to really look at a character, and figure out what this person does. Really get into him and view the world from his perspective. Low fantasy can be just as fun as high fantasy, if not more so, as low fantasy really levels the playing field, making a PCs Hit Dice irrelevant.

We could always write down that our character knows how to speak goblin, and that goblin is our racial enemy, but if we push that further and ask how we learned this language a story developed, and it is a story that is independent of the Dungeon Master or the setting guides and can be unique to this one character. It provides a motivation which eclipses the standard fantasy game limitations by going beyond, "I just wanted to sit at the table and roll dice with my friends".

Some gamers roll their eyes at this level of play, thinking that we are acting or just story telling like a bunch of Nancys, but they fail to understand that it takes more than just endless combat to keep a table going.

Brooser Bear said...

Thanks, Rip!

Interesting example with dice vs logic. I think that in D&D game, as opposed to other forms of fantasy, rpg, and story games, logic, imagination and initiative will only take you so far, before you have to roll the dice. Combat, tactics, situation resolution necessitates die rolls.

I cringe, when I start hearing the DM's "Improvising", or running the adventure off the cuff without die rolling, you know, the typical After Dungeon part of the game, where experience points are given out, the type of magical items get revealed, and powerful NPC's tend to be in generous moods.

Often times, DM's improvising indicates an unprepared DM unfamiliar with that stretch of the gaming material. There are many different game processes which make up the D&D game. There is character generations, there is Dungeon Exploration, Hex crawls, Wilderness adventure, town adventure, role playing, skill, and combat encounters, site based adventuring, and node based adventuring (developed in large part by Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian Blog). Some DM's may not be equally familiar with all of the aspects of running the D&D game and their style will emphasize the parts of the D&D rules that they are familiar with and will gloss over and improvise the game mechanics that they aren't familiar with. That is DM being human.

In that context, the DM should implement those tools in his kit, which are necessary to accommodate the complexity of his or her campaign. You can run dungeon crawls and mega-dungeons and not need to utilize any skills beyond those given in D&D books. You can take the game outside the Tavern, the Equipment Shop, and The Dungeon, where players can engage the DM's world on a wider scale, and all of a sudden, different skills will add richness to the game. Can you imagine a Wilderness expedition without a Herbalist, a Hunter, a tracker, an Elf and/or a Ranger type? What if you decide to run a social adventure, where the players will attend Court festivities with notable nobles, Jousts and other high level meetings, where NPC's will actually be engaging in conversation regarding the topics of interest in your settings? How will you navigate these waters? And if the players decide to engage your world during periods of non-adventure?

A skill system is one of the tools to address the increased demands of the setting. Merle Rasmussen is the author of the rules for the TSR's Top Secret game, overall a bad fit of the D&D style rules to portray the espionage and terrorists in the modern world. Arguably, it was TSR's worst offering, but he did manage to come up with two very useful game mechanics.

He introduced an early skill system, and had an early outline for running non-linear non dungeon based adventures. There was an ENCOUNTER at an exotic locale, and no real dungeon labyrinth.

In his skill system he introduced something truly interesting. The way D&D has INT based extra language slots, he had Areas of Knowledge. Based on their scores, players can choose a few areas of knowledge (Chemistry, Botany, History, Anthropology) etc, with which they were really familiar, and a few more in which they had above average general knowledge. Thereafter in the game, if the player character came across the information touching on the subject that they were familiar with, they would make a generalized roll and either know or not know what was going on or what was being said and or discussed. This was a very elegant mechanic, and was useful when guiding player characters through social interactions with the world.

So, the skill system, or any other set of rules does not have to be overly extensive or complex, it just has to be adequate enough to handle the demands of the campaign.

Brooser Bear said...

Rip, that's a great example of deeper D&D play, when you pushed the player to explain how s/he learned to speak Goblin if Goblin was the PC's racial enemy.

Stan said...

I know I'm late to the party, but I thought I'd share one small correction. Bonus Languages from Intelligence need not be converted into NWP slots. If you check the description of the INT table chart in the 2e PHB, it says the number grants BOTH NWP slots and languages. I never realized that myself until recently, when I started paring down the system to build a more modular version.

Great article.

Stan said...

That may have been unclear. Let me try again. The bonus languages number from the Intelligence chart applies separately to both languages and NWPs. If you get 4 bonus languages, you get 4 extra NWPs as well.

RipperX said...

Howdy Stan!

Thanks for pointing that out. We always had ignored Languages in the past, but after years of playing they really do add an element of fun to the game.

I look back and read this now, and see that my opinions have changed. I don't run these things as strict as I used to.

I still think that they are valuable! If a player has a NWP it can affect different ideas, they are masters of that given skill. The NWP system is totally in their domain of control, it is up to me to determine success. When an idea is attempted, the player has the option of telling me what they are doing, and letting me figure out how this effects things, or roll the dice, and let the die determine results. There are risks with either system, but more often than not they go with talking it out because if the dice say no, they mean no.

We haven't had any crazy inventions, everyone seems to respect the setting and wants to do their part to keep the mood of the game. If I veto a dumb idea I typically just have to remind them how long it would take to attempt the action.

Challenge the players over their characters, that has become a big thing for me right now.

Lang. has been an issue, and I actually did begin giving Languages to them, they have been immersed in a foreign culture for several months now, it makes sense that they are picking up the language.

I think that it makes sense to leave most of the Language slots blank, and add them as the game progresses. I noticed that the players are doing that with their NWP as well. When a slot becomes open to them, they almost always fill it with something that they had tried to emulate in the past. I like that better than them suddenly knowing some weird skill.

Thanks for commenting Stan! This is an interesting topic, how stiff do you run NWP and Lang.?

Stan said...

I don't know if I can answer the question just yet, as I'm in the process of building my 2e-based homebrew and am just preparing to start on those sorts of decisions. (I'm currently in the probably over-ambitious stage of cataloging every published proficiency, kit, and character option before pruning back down to a consistent and manageable rules with different choices possibly available in different regions.)

That said, my intuition is that the broader, less strict interpretation would emphasize the freedom of the older rules, vs the way larger lists of more explicitly defined options (per 3e skills and feats) counter-intuitively stifle player agency by suggesting that the only options are the ones listed, and their only applications are those defined in their descriptions.

With languages, I have ambitions of defining language groups and dialects, but we'll see if that proves too burdensome for play. The basic idea is that characters with languages of the same group but without a specific shared language could communicate via shared root words (like Tarzan-speak: "me you go there"). Part of that would be tying language to region over race, with fewer individual languages in a given area, but with dialect indicating one's being "foreign" without hampering communication.

In other words, i dunno! The balance between breaking immersion to keep things streamlined for fun and the verisimilitude of a language simulator boardgame is one where I hope to err (slightly) on the fun side.

RipperX said...

That is ambitious! We went into the opposite direction, I am playing a hybrid version of D&D, the only thing that matters is what is going on at the table. I stripped the game way back to its basics. I don't always know where things come from. We use a strange NWP called Sharp Shooter, it is probably in some handbook somewhere, I don't know. The only thing that I let it do is allow a player to fire into a melee without shooting allies in the back. That is the only hard rule, the players can redefine it as the game goes on.

I want to say that there was a master index published, but it only collaborated with the "Black Books", and I prefer the original core handbooks.

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