Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ability Checks in Swords and Wizardry

Here’s an interesting system for determining the outcome of ability based checks that I’m thinking about using in Swords and Wizardry. This comes courtesy of Wesley D. Ives and was published in the very first issue of Dragon Magazine way back in June of 1976. Pretty old school, eh? At first, the system seems a little baroque, but I must say that I have become intrigued by it and am interested to hear the opinions of others. Here’s how it works:

Step One: Basically, when a character wants to perform a task, the DM first determines which ability score (character attribute) would be most relevant (moving a boulder = strength, convincing someone to join you = charisma, etc).

Step Two: Next, the DM rolls d100, adds the character’s ability score to the result, and consults the following table to determine which die to roll in step three:

1-20 d4
21-40 d6
41-60 d8
61-80 d10
81-100 d12

Step Three: the DM (or player) rolls the die type indicated in step two and multiplies the result by relevant character ability score. The result of this calculation is the percentage chance that the character can perform the skill.

The DM can of course modify the result as he or she sees fit.

For example, suppose Baldo the Baldheaded wants to perform a task that requires strength. Let’s say his strength is 16. The DM rolls a 29 and adds 16 for strength resulting in a 45. This indicates that we should roll a d8 next. The result of this roll is 6 which we multiply by 16 (Baldo’s strength score) resulting in a 96% chance of success.

I’m not sure what the concrete advantages of this system are exactly, but it appeals to me. It definitely overcomplicates things. Mostly, I think I like it because it comes from the first issue of the Dragon. This is a purely romantic sentiment, I know, one rooted exclusively in nostalgia.

But I also like the fact that it really randomizes a character’s chance of success. Under this system, even a character with a high ability score could wind up with a very low chance of success, though that chance could never be lower than the ability score itself. Over the long haul though, a character with a high ability score would make out alright. Just for fun, I ran Baldo through 15 strength checks using his strength score of 16. Below are the results, the percentage chances that he will be successful.

96, 80, 16, 48, 80, 16, 96, 96, 16, 100,
96, 100, 32, 100, 80

As you can see, the results range from a low of 16% to a high of 100%. The average result would be 70% for Baldo, not bad and what we might expect of a guy with a strength score of 16.
[Note: I’m not a statistician so if I have made an error with these calculations, please let me know]

I suppose the draw back here is that this method involves a lot of dice rolling and math before the ability check is actually made. A calculator might even be necessary. I used one to multiply 16x6. While I could not prove this conclusively (or even inconclusively), I suspect that that back in 1976 part of the appeal of this rule lay in the simple fact that it got almost all of the polyhedral dice involved.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Ives also says something very interesting and potentially relevant to those of us interested in old school gaming. In addition to laying out this system, he offers guidelines for determining which types of skills and tasks should be associated with which attributes. According to him Intelligence checks would be called for in situations in which characters are:

“discovering [the] proper method of operating all mechanical devices, including magical devices, discerning patterns, deducing cause and effect, recognizing types of lairs . . . etc”

This suggestion seems to contradict much conventional belief that old school gaming always favored role-playing over roll-playing and tended to test the player rather the character. Admittedly, Ives is hardly one of the most influential people in the history of our hobby and his ideas can hardly be taken as characteristic of the hobby’s early days. I don’t mean to suggest that they are. I also don’t mean to suggest that I intend to adopt roll-playing over role-playing in my upcoming SW game. I call attention to this historical curiosity only to provide what I hope is a useful reminder that people’s attitudes in the early days of the game were not nearly as unified or as monolithic as they sometimes might seem from our own historical vantage point. Also, we may want to further discuss the implications of this.

Isn’t interesting that the much reviled modern tendency to substitute skill check mechanics for player ability actually existed in a nascent form almost in the very beginning?


post festum said...

Great point - the hobby has had within it from the beginning a tension between letting the core mechanic or the player "do the walking".

And, I guess, this is really what you might expect from a game whose roots lie in war gaming.

Interestingly, Matt Finch's exhortation "role NOT roll playing" today seems like such perfect restatement of the game's fundamental principles precisely because "roll playing" has become nearly the exclusive focus in all recent d&d editions.

post festum said...

I should also add that I am a little partial to including something like an ability check for those very specific tasks that don't seem to lend themselves to productive roleplaying (e.g., opening a simple locked chest after it has been searched for traps on a single blow, forcing a stuck door open with a single shove, etc. etc.)

If used sparingly I don't know why a system such as this can't be really effective and add something to the game. It does seem to really capture what a good ability check should capture after all.

Ironbeard said...

I agree. Abilities checks are probably most useful for those more physical tasks, such as the ones you describe. But I also think they are useful for certain non-physical tasks as well.

Knowledge checks, for instance, are appropriate in circumstances in which a character might know something that his or her player might not. I don't know what magical writing associated with necromancy looks like, but my magic user might.

But once we accept this idea, where do we draw the line?

post festum said...

How about this: Don't draw any lines apriori. Develop a sense of when you think they are appropriate, and make the call on a case by case basis.

Ironbeard said...

That's probably the best bet. Going by intuition and feel makes the most sense. Trying to codify everything with a universal mechanic is where 3.5 went wrong.

ladyhawke said...

This has nothing to do with gaming. I'm Wes's sister, and I am so glad to see he is still remembered in the games he loved so well. He was so thrilled when this book was published, and would probably be amused to be referred to as "old school"!