When I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons it was with the 3.5 Revision (D&D 3.5). The game is wonderfully simple in some aspects and woefully complicated in others. One of those overly complicated aspects of the game comes from the skill system used (and which has lingered on ever since in various forms).
Let’s discuss how complicated the system could be.
As you can see from the character sheet above there are 43 base skills that your character can choose to use in helping to develop their focus. BUT these 43 are not the end of all possible skills as additional skills were created for the game and brought up in various supplements, home brew games, and third party publications.
Let’s not get distracted by that right now though.
Of those 43 base skills your character class has a number of skills they’re “proficient” in which allows for unfettered progress throughout your character’s advancement in the game. All other skills then become “cross-classed” and cost double to advance. Advancement of skills comes primarily when you level up as your character gains a number of “skill points” that will help them become better at the tasks that fall under the skill’s umbrella of activities.
At each level there is a maximum number of skill points that may be put into any one skill which is dependent on your character’s current level. These skill points are then added to your character’s ability modifiers, any magical or ancestral modifiers they may posses, and any situational modifiers that your character may have gained before attempting the skill check.
It’s a complicated mess that is often difficult when first building your character (I’m looking at you rogues) and then easy to use during actual play; however, it is a flawed system on several fronts. First, it creates a situation during higher level play where it is nearly impossible for your players to fail a proficient skill check as their bonuses mean that all but a critical fail (a result of 1 on a d20 roll) are successful. This creates moments of absurdity during play with powerful warriors, who have ridden horses into battle for years of in game play, being asked to roll a ride check that they cannot possibly fail.
It’s inane, and worse, boring.
The other problem is that this process of skill checks creates a situation where you are training your players to think within the confines of their character sheet. Instead of asking “Could I do X,” they begin to look at their character sheets and say, “I can’t do X because I haven’t trained in it.” I hate that limiting factor and even though Dungeons & Dragons 5e (D&D 5e) has largely truncated the skill list down the problem remains all the same.
What I propose is to do away with the skill system altogether. Instead we’re going to be using Ability Checks to determine our chances of success at a given task.
To do this we need to first adopt an additional change in regard to our ability scores. We need to establish a hard cap for any ability score so that our characters are not going to experience the same sort of near infallibility that came with the D&D 3.5 skill system.
I’m going to limit any ability score with a hard cap of 18 on any ability with the exception of Strength as it will be using the exceptional strength rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2e (AD&D 2e). I’ll discuss exceptional strength a bit more later, but for right now it’s enough to just know it’s there.
So why the hard cap at 18?
The way we’re going to be doing Ability Checks in this alternative method is by rolling under the ability score to determine success. This allows us to keep checks challenging as there is always a chance for failure.
This method also asks a bit more of the Dungeon Master (DM) as now they will not only be assigning bonuses and penalties to the roll based on the character’s history within the game world, but they will additionally be determining which ability score will work best in a given situation. This flexibility allows for a bit more variety at the table as one table might choose to make identifying a potion’s contents an Intelligence check while another makes it a Wisdom check. Both choices are equally valid, however, once your table has chosen an ability to be tested for a certain task it should remain the same ability throughout the campaign.
Additionally, since we’re rolling under the ability score to determine success there will be a couple of changes that we need to keep in mind. Bonuses to the roll will be subtracted from the roll while penalties will be added to the roll.
I’m also electing to make a Critical Success a result of 1 on Ability Checks and a Critical Failure a result of 20. You are welcome to decide how to handle Critical Successes and Failures in your own games but I think this will work nicely in my own.