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The Loyal Opposition
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

Last week I talked about some skill ideas that Monte Cook and I were batting around. Here’s another idea to consider. A skill represents one of two things:
  • Your ability to use your natural talent.
  • A unique, learned ability.

This is something of a strange approach, so bear with me. Imagine if the skills you can use untrained were instead treated as inherent uses of the abilities. In 4th Edition terms, we’d remove some skills from the game and make them generic rules (as described last week; the skill system doesn’t hide how to do basic things such as climbing and swimming).

Each ability then has a training rank attached to it that represents your general aptitude with those tasks that the ability is used to perform. Let’s use Strength as an example.

You have a Strength ability score, an ability modifier, and a training rank. Whenever you make a Strength check, you use the training rank to determine if you need to make a check and, if so, that check’s DC. You then use your modifier to make that check (if necessary).

In 4E terms, Strength training is the equivalent of training your Athletics skill. We just remove the skill as the filter between your Strength score and tasks like climbing, jumping, and swimming. When you increase your Strength rank, you’re learning athletic techniques, practicing, and getting experience in doing stuff with your Strength score.

What I like about this approach is that it distinguishes between the trained athlete and the natural talent. A character with Strength 18 but a novice rank for Strength checks is a big, strong guy who doesn’t know how to use his power. He dogpaddles when he swims. If you’re a sports fan, he’s the guy who runs fast, but when he’s in the game he’s always out of position.

In contrast, the guy with a 10 Strength and grandmaster training is like an elite athlete. He has excellent balance and body control. He knows the best swimming stroke for his style and can translate his raw strength into grace. In sports terms, he’s the savvy veteran who is always in position to score.

Opposed Checks

With that business dealt with, it’s time to talk about how to handle opposed checks. Under this system, we have a fairly easy way to build a defending character’s DC on an opposed check.

Under this system, a skill or an ability contains its own DC. Let’s say I have a 16 Dexterity and expert training in that ability. I need to sneak up on a cleric who has a 14 Wisdom and journeyman training. There’s no opposed check. Instead, the active party, the sneaking guy, makes a journeyman Dexterity check. My expert training wins, meaning that I can sneak up on the cleric.

However, let’s now say that the cleric is suspicious of being followed. He takes a moment to scan the area and make a Wisdom check. That check’s DC is matched against my expert Dexterity. He is one rank below me, so he needs to make a DC 20 Wisdom check to notice me.

Let’s assume that I’m playing a rogue and I’m tracking the cleric in a shadowy ruin. The cleric, suspecting that he’s being followed, casts a light spell down the hallway where I’m lurking before he makes his check. The DM can then drop the DC down one level, to journeyman. The cleric’s target number is now 10. Just as in the system described last week, players (and DMs) are encouraged to engage with the game setting and come up with ways to tilt the odds in their favor.

I have to admit that this is my favorite part of this system. It provides a clear, easy way to shift difficulties as a reward for becoming immersed in the game. It encourages the players to get into character and engage with the setting. With this model of opposed checks, we unify everything into one mechanic, rather than needing two separate procedures.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 08/16/2011

Last week's proposal is a good or bad idea...

  • Good: 65.6%
  • Neither – it has its strengths but it also has drawbacks: 25.8%
  • Bad: 8.6%

Poll Time

Is this week's proposal a good or bad idea?
Neither – it has its strengths but it also has drawbacks.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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