A Closer Look

Quick side tangent: has anyone tried taking a page from Gamma World, giving D&D characters 2-3 set ability scores and rolling the rest? For example, for a heavy blade fighter might have a Strength of 18 and Dexterity of 16--before bonuses--and rolling the others. This could create some odd results, with a fighter or paladin having a really high Intelligence (and thereby making them better suited for some multiclassing), but also have more than one below average ability score. Anyway, just some food for thought.

In the comments section of this post, Gerald asks that I go back and post something in regards to how I might "develop and improve" the system which currently exists. While I cannot say for certainty that I can improve it (probably not), I will try to explain in better detail why I do not like Cook's concept, and what I might do differently to make it better in my opinion. First, let us compare how Passive Perception works now, and how Cook's concept changes it.

Currently if a player wants to try and notice something, she makes a Perception check, and if the result meets or beats the DC, she notices it. Characters automatically notice stuff that their Passive Perception meets or beats.

Cook's pitch as, I understand it, works as follows:

The DM assigns a rank to something like, say, a hidden passage, and the rank to find it is 3. If a player's rank is higher than 3, they notice it automatically. If it is 3, then they have to roll to see if they can find it. If it is less than 3 then they cannot normally find it unless they interact with the object. Where I am a little fuzzy on the details is whether a player with a Perception rank of 2 can get away with specifying that they want to check the statue for hidden passages, thereby lowering the rank to a 2 (and allowing the a roll), or if they need to describe how they are interacting with it; pushing, checking for scratches or seams, wiggling the teeth, etc.

As I said before, the main difference is that Cook essentially gives the characters a bonus for describing how they interact or search something, though his theory is that it will encourage players to interact with stuff rather than just say, "I'm looking for hidden passages," and making a roll.

However it is really just another form of system mastery, which given his track record is not surprising to me. Players are going to very logically compile a routine that they will go through whenever they encounter a statue, door, look for a hidden passage, etc. From a narrative point it makes perfect sense: a party of professional grave robbers is going to have a routine that they will go through, so it becomes less interacting with the environment so much as taking time to go through a list of procedures. And when the players start a new campaign, what then? Do you allow the players to just toss the list at you again, or do you make them pretend to not know what to do, like how some DMs try and force players to not act on knowledge for classic monsters like trolls, mind flayers, beholders, and the like?

Talk of fleeting system master aside, Cook's idea of "Zorking" the terrain can work in the current system by simply adding guidelines for giving characters a bonus on their skill checks for describing their actions and hitting the right notes; there is no need to restructure the rules to change from a numerical bonus--which has the added benefit of granularity--to ranks. Basically the only meaningful thing his concept adds is the possibility that players might go into more detail when making a skill check.

So getting around to what Gerald asked me to do in the first place, what would I do were I in charge of it (or at least trying to pitch ideas at WotC)? Currently I do not feel that the system needs changing or improvement. It does what it is supposed to do, does it well, and follows the basic concept from other games I have seen.

I guess if I had to think of something I would give characters a bonus for having certain backgrounds or training in relevant skills? For example, characters trained in Dungeoneering might get a bonus on noticing secret doors in structures, while characters with Nature might get a bonus on Heal checks in the wilderness. Makes sense and might help avoid skill-spamming, where all the characters just try using Aid Another without care for what the bonus or penalty is--though to avoid this I always tell my players that if they try Aid Another and it fails, that they instead impose a -2 penalty.


  1. I thought that aid another had already been changed to include a negative. DC 10+half level of the person you are aiding, -2 penalty if you fail.

  2. The penalty is -1, but you are right. I think I was thinking of the Aid Another rule from 3rd Edition and just never picked up on the error before. Oh well, just one less thing I have to concern myself with. :-)

  3. Thanks for putting for the effort to look for an improvement to the system. My apologies for not getting back here earlier - computer problems FTW.

    I think the main difference with what Monte was suggesting and the current system is that specific classes, or races, would have set ranks before spending any points. His reference to the elf is how I got this impression.

    So, a Rogue might each have a perception rank of 3 while a Cleric may only have a rank of 2. The benefit gained here (and the difference between the current system and this ranking system as I understand it) is that in the current system the difference between the cleric and the rogue could reasonably be 1 point (based on wisdom scores) despite it being a trained skill for rogues and untrained for clerics. Which will commonly be negligible for checks. However, with a rank system the bonuses only apply if a roll is called for which would make it far more common for the rogue to perceive something than the cleric even if the different in skill points is only 1.

    Another blog looked at it from the perspective of a rank equaling 20 points, so a 5 point rank system would give the equivalent range of 100 points (e.g. if we use the ranks from Mike Mearls column the week before, Novice, Journeyman, Expert, Master and Grandmaster they would grant the equivalent rank of 0, 20, 40, 60 and 80 plus the skill points assigned). So, while it wouldn't be impossible for a novice to attempt a Journeyman check it would certainly be very difficult, but it would be virtually impossible to attempt an Expert check.

    What are your thoughts on the system as explained this way? Is it significantly different? Is it better, worse or does it make no real difference?

  4. I feel, based on your re-explanation, that a system like this would be significantly the same with the exception that now I have to re-teach the game to my group.

    Clerics are good a perceiving things. Maybe they hear the whispers of their gods. Just because some Rogue feels slighted isn't a good reason to replace the system with the same thing.

    The only benefit I could see to this system has a negative as well; setting up a module this way could make for quick reference as to see if a class in the party would be able to notice something right away or complete a task without rolling. In the game I run for Coliseum of Comics, this is what we use passive history, passive athletics, passive streetwise, and passive (insert skill here) for. A minor expansion of the passive perception rule is much better than this overhaul of the skill system.

  5. Well, I guess that depends on if you believe that classes or races should be inherently better at a given skill or not. In your case (Maxwell) it seems that you are happy with high wisdom being as important as training in perception.

    Are you equally happy that any wizard can easily know more about religion than a cleric? That clerics are particularly good at dungeoneering?

    It is my guess that this proposed system was triggered by a desire to see a greater distinction between the classes and races. To give a stronger sense of place or specialization to the individual classes. To ensure that different classes shine on different occasions - clearly and without peer.

    However, if that isn't the type of system you are interested in then clearly this isn't an improvement or beneficial.

  6. I used to find it odd that if you went strictly by the rules-as-written, that wizards trained in Religion would be more likely to know stuff about a god than a cleric who worships him/her (though I have met a surprising number of religious folk who do not know many things, or seem to cherry-pick various biblical texts).

    I get what you are saying; with the rank system the cleric would not have to roll as much as someone else when it comes to Religion, making it more consistent that they know stuff about their god, holidays, and ceremonies than a wizard.

    However I think it can be easily "fixed" by taking factors of the character into account when it comes to setting a DC. There are numerous examples in published adventures where characters of a certain race, with a certain power source, and even with certain feats (Dragonmarks or a spellscar) gain a bonus to some skill checks.

    I do not see why a cleric who worships Pelor has to stick to the same DC to know about a holy day as a wizard, or even that said cleric has to even roll. When planning adventures, I tend to also dole out situational bonuses for characters trained in skills or that have certain themes. I also have scaling results for skill checks, so it is not always a binary win-lose situation.


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