Streamlining The AD&D Skill System

The cool thing about having a Blog is that it allows you to go back in time and see how your thoughts and opinions about things have changed. G+ User, Stan has gone back into my archives and corrected a mistake that I had made in regards to The Non-Weapon Proficiency Mechanics.

Since writing that article, I have unknowingly adopted a set of house-rules that allows more freedom for everybody based on principles I've learned from researching Original Dungeons & Dragons and have a deeper understanding of how players interacted with the world before those systems were in place. 

It goes back to Open & Closed systems. The NWP system is designed to be closed, but it is also designed to be opened up by the players and the DM when it needs to be. What defines this need is the level of detail.


The proficiencies are guidelines, they help players get a clear idea of who their character is. They are tools which a player can use to tell the DM that they can do something very well. 

Having a proficiency is a pass. The player is not limited to these skills, but having these skills defined and written down allows that player to use them, and get extra-XP for using them well. 

Owning a Proficiency is proof that your character can definitely do this, and may even go beyond what is defined in the handbook.


This system is primarily the total domain of the player, DMs don't use this system, only players do. It is up to the players to remember these things and use them wisely. Since having a skill is a pass, when the DM asks how the character knows something, and they refer to the specific skill, the conversation is either over, or the DM can have them roll a skill check if that needs to happen. 

It is also up to the player if they want to risk rolling the dice to perform a task or to start a dialog and get specifics. 

Example: The player has an investigative skill which allows a methodic search of an area via the dice. The player can automatically use this when searching a room, but a failure is a failure. Alternatively any player, even those that do not have this skill, can ask for details. They can interact with the setting and the DM will tell them the results. Once this is done and the player believes that they have exhausted the place, they can say that they would like to do a skill check, and see what happens.


The idea that a character only knows what is on the character sheet is preposterous and self-limiting for no real benefit to the player or to the game. The DM is going to have to invent fast throw-away mechanics at the table on a case-by-case basis. Specifics dictate what can and cannot be done. Doing something that you aren't proficient at on a regular basis may equal gaining a proficiency.

For instance, if the game is played in the mountains for several months, the players are going to have a really good chance of understanding what they are doing. How can we translate this though? 

  • The DM can just have them roll a STAT check to see if they picked it up, and just give it to them if they are successful.
  • The Player can write it in once a new Prof. slot becomes available if they chose to.
  • All slots beyond those chosen at the creation of the character are left blank until a skill is learned through specifics.
That last one doesn't work so well, all of your players will end up having the same skills which defeat the purpose. 

There is a myth about open Skill systems, that goes along the lines of the Player taking advantage of the DM. Players going out of their way to change the tone of the game. The player CAN try anything, however, every hair-brained scheme takes the time to execute, time that the player probably doesn't have. I've been playing this way for a while now and so far my players have all embraced the tone of the game and do their best to preserve it. 

As DM, I reserve the right to ask the player how they learned this new skill, if they can't tell me, they don't get it. My players so far have written down things that would have been handy in the past. Things that they had picked up along the way but I didn't give it to them for free, and I do give out skills for free if they had been earned.

The question, "How did you learn this?", is a good governor for the skill system. Slots don't have to be filled up right away, and the question goes back to the player; "How can I learn this skill?"



Stan said...

Hey, thanks for the shout out!

I've been considering this same question, and I keep coming back to a little subsystem I've been using for spontaneous magical items.

Without getting too deep into the setting-specific why of it, items involved in historically significant deeds gain powers associated with said deed. So the crown of Solomon confers a wisdom bonus for example, not because Solomon had a magic crown, but because proximity to Solomon infused the crown with traits of its owner. By that same thinking, a PC doing an epic thing (a critical hit that slays the dragon; an improbable saving throw against an otherwise killing blow; etc) has a 5% chance of becoming magical with a power related to the event.

I'm considering a mechanically similar idea for gaining free nonweapon proficiencies. Something along the lines of rolling a 1 on an attribute check to do an unfamiliar task. It's not enough on its own, I think, but it's the germ of a subsystem I'm going to work on honing.

Unknown said...

When I DM, I always encourage my players to tell me "why" they have the NWP they've picked - weave it into their background story, because it helps my players get in to character and understand their character better. I've yet to run a campaign where my players gained access to new NWP-slots, so I've yet to encounter the dilemma, but I've theory-crafted the same idea you have, but not to the same degree. I had an idea that my players picked, and then set time off to go practice, but have it weave naturally into whatever the campaign makes them do, is a great call.

The NWP-system is always a very case-by-case subject I feel. Take "swimming" for example. This is not something you naturally learn through upbringing, so that skill can really be a game-changer in some situations. Compared to "riding", where it's a more natural thing to learn through upbringing, the skill simply makes you better than average - you can make jumps and maneuveres other's can't.
I'm still trying to work out what makes sense and how I can make the right calls. Sometimes I make bad ones, when it comes to NWP.

RipperX said...

Stan, that is an interesting line of thinking. Merging lore into the system is always cool in my book!

You said something that gets me thinking, rolling a natural 1 during a skill check. What if that improved a player's mastery by 1?

I'm kind of on the fence about it, naturally there would have to be some kind of limit on how high it can go. Maybe it could be balanced by a natural 20 causing the opposite effect?

I don't know, it could be too complicated at game-time. It would also imply that I use the Skill system consistently. I can also see that spiraling out of control at higher levels of play. As the game progresses, slight errors tend to get magnified as the game continues.

RipperX said...

Martin, you are spot on with your thinking. It is so easy to get hung up on NWP, or skills, or whatever. Modern D&D is a skill-based system, and I never really wanted to go there.

If the player gives you a solid plan to do something and it sounds excellent, but you have them roll a skill check anyway, and it comes up negative; that sucks. Why even bother coming up with a plan or thinking about it? Just roll the dice and move on. That isn't the game that I want to play.

Effort goes a long way with me. How much thought that you put into something should mean something, right? That is my problem with NWP. If I error, and I do, I try to error in the players favor. I don't always make the right call. We do this thing, a player can challenge a call, I don't want it to take over the game, but I listen to the player for a bit and see if their complaint is warrented. I may not reverse the call! I may stick with it. But if what they say makes sense, I'll give them a poker chip. This poker chip allows the player to ignore a failed roll and automatically succeed. It is only good for that game.

It rarely comes up, but when it does this placates the player, doesn't break the game, and I always get my chip back. So far so good! It helped build trust between us. We've had games where everything stops while one person is screaming over something that really doesn't matter in the long run, this solves the problem quickly.

All that rolling the dice stuff. I try to identify moments where I would typically fudge the dice, and just not roll them; but it is a hard habit to break.

Stan said...

It could be "confirmed" by another check for success, a LA 3e critical hits...

I've been thinking absently about merging proficiencies and thief skills, but I doubt I'll do it. If I did, raising a skill by 1 point on a roll of 01 seems reasonable.

Stan said...

On the other hand, we have to resist the urge to fill the play space with rules clutter.

Unknown said...

Some players DO like the agency of the dice though. Like, the dice rules, and they rolled it themselves, so they are accountable for the outcome rather than an omnipotent judge (DM) who makes all the calls.
Some feel that a DM can't screw with you if the dice succeeds. I think it requires a healthy balance, because all dice slows the game down immensily and is quiet boring to some. All DM-ruling can lead to the players feeling like they don't have any choice whatsoever/railroading.

RipperX said...

I've been thinking absently about merging proficiencies and thief skills, but I doubt I'll do it.

I must be getting too predictable. This is exactly what I'm writing up for next week :)

Martin, as DM making calls, I'm not dictating player decisions, I'm listening and judging what they are telling me. The last time I out-right vetoed something was a player who wanted to design a crossbow that shot wooden stakes like a steam-powered machine gun. A fantastic idea but not something that belongs in my world. That's been at least 5 years ago.

I encourage player agency, but that would had changed my setting into Steam-punk and I didn't want that.

Stan said...

Nice. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Are you leaning toward skills as proficiencies or proficiencies as skills?

Unknown said...

I've played D&D (Basic) and AD&D and AD&D 2e. I've DM'd all three as well. I recently picked up a set of 3e books that I picked up, and dropped them almost immediately in favor of 5e.

Upon reading your comparison of NWP with 3d6 rolling methods and thinking that 4d6 breaks NWP, it doesn't. All you have to do is scale the requirement for success.

But to be honest, the whole skills system was too complicated. They ripped it out and streamlined it. 3e implemented the d20 system where all checks and attacks are made with d20, using similar methods. Roll + modifiers compared to DC (Or AC with attacks). One side is under the DM's control, the other under the player's. 5e continued this, but streamlined the skill list. When you create your character, you get a skill or two from each of your race and your background, and you get to choose a number based on your class. But you basically have 5 or 6 proficient skills. The key point here is that you can use any of the skills. The proficient ones allow you to add your proficiency bonus. This starts at +2 and goes up every 5 levels. It applies to weapons, spells, armor and skills.

But characters are free to use any skill, but they are either good at it or not based on the ability it uses, and they may have specialized knowledge from their race, class or background that gives them a bonus. Roleplayers who pick background for storytelling reasons get a set of skill bonuses that match the story. Minmaxers can pick background for the bonuses they give. Everyone's happy.

Especially the DM. You want to look around for traps? Perception check. You want to gauge the veracity of an NPC? Insight check. But guess what, no matter what the check is supposed to be, you can adjust the DC on the fly. And if a player wants their character to do something unlikely, or that the circumstances make difficult, impose disadvantage. This makes them work harder to get a win out of the dice. Or at least feel like they did.

Outside combat, adjudicating success or failure is usually more about "does it make for a good story?" or "does it further the plot?" I will absolutely fudge results to reward innovative gameplay.

5e rules give you the tools to keep things random with d20 checks against fair DCs, while adding difficulty when needed (disadvantage) or giving advantage when it makes sense.

Bottom Line, 5e removes NWP while allowing sensible skill checks, and a system that players can use to increase their success likelihood. All the while, the DM has the tools to shape the story while allowing PC freedom.

RipperX said...

Oh man, the internet ate my response.

Greetings Xalorous Gamer! Thank you for posting and adding your voice.

It is more difficult for me to describe NWP systems than it is to just do it. I have gone over 5e, and find it to be superior to 3rd and 4th Editions of the game, but still not as easily modified and too defined for my needs as a Dungeon Master.

I really want to avoid having a defined skill system which can be figured out and exploited. I don't want the characters to rely on just what is on their PC sheets, or see things as mechanical. I finally got the players to avoid rolling the dice as much as possible, I see that as a good thing!

The players don't know if they are emulating skills or not, I don't stop the game to look up rules unless I have to. I personally don't use them, but if the players want to, they can evoke that right. It is up to them.

I still do prefer the NWP system, not just because I can ignore it, but because it is easier to add new ones that are discovered during play. I like that it can be managed differently every time, including diceless.

I guess that the biggest factor is that our D&D club prefers a slower and more thoughtful game. We prize immersion and don't want some D20 dictating if we can skip things that can actually be more stimulating when thought about. How do you do that, is a fun game too!

Unknown said...

How do you handle a player-character who really wants to know a lot about- say, art - but the player himself doesn't know anything the slightest about it, and really sure how to actually apply it. Do you then help him alone to get his creative juices flowing, so he can elaborate a use for it and work it out without any dice-rolls?

Is it a matter of then finding what the purpose of the plan then is, and figuring out a way to make it work WITH the player, even if what he proposes is ridicules, but only because the player doesn't know anything about the given subject?

I really like the approach of minimizing dice-rolls, but at some point there is a limit to the power-fantasy of being super art-dealer and what you actually know and is possible to pull off duo the players limited knowlegde. Do you fudge it along to play into the players ideas and fantasy, or is there a point where nobody around the table knows the subject and a role simply settles it?

RipperX said...

I think that much of it is dictated by the player. An artist might be able to get clues from a piece that normally wouldn't be available. Date it, by style or maybe even have an idea who made it. You can use the dice, or just decide that a player knows that it is Greek and the drawing in the jug is of a Medusa.

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