Skills in Old School Games

Skill use…

Skills.

Mention them in relation to Old School games, and some grognards start to cringe. However, this is not one of those blog posts discussing skills or no skills. This post is about how to handle in game situations in old school games.

Also, I mention just a few systems here. There are many more, using 2d6, 3d6 and so on (just google “OSR skill system”), and they’re more or less complicated. Here, I will talk about the ones that I have used at some point in time and some ideas I’ve been thinking of.

I’m not sure that Old School games is in need of a skill system per se. However, I’m positive that Old School games is in need  of a solid task resolution system. These days, “Bend Bars”, “Open Doors” and “Find Secret Doors” just feels wonky. Not to mention that you can’t do certain things if you belong to the wrong class. Or at least if feels that way. That’s just silly. (Note: I won’t discuss B&T or FH&W in this post, as they already have excellent task resolution systems built into the core system). So, let’s take a look at some of the options here:

Old School Galore I – the d6 system

This is the bona fide old school way. When something is to be resolved, you have a x in 6 chance to succeed. Most of the time, it’s just a 1 in 6 chance, but some classes and races get bonuses to specific tasks. Sadly, the old books failed to give you a broader set of situations so the tasks described are very specific, like  “Find Secret Doors” or “Detect Sloping Passages”. Also, the 1 in 6 chance corresponds to a 16.7% probability of success, which isn’t that hot, especially when you get to keep that lousy probability even when you are level 12. Also, back then, we always got the feeling that “my PC can’t do that” since he’s not a thief/wizard/etc.

Another gripe I have with this is that I think that a 3 in 6 chance should be the default average difficulty (instead of 1 in 6), modified by difficulty and maybe abilities. As the d6 has so few possible outcomes, the raw ability modifiers can’t be used as is.

I would therefore use the following die roll modifiers based on ability scores: Ability Score: 3 to 8= -1; 9 to 12= 0; 13 to 18= +1

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level). Low resolution of results.

Variant: LotFP’s skill system (more and better defined skills and a possibility to get better in those skills).

Old School Galore II – the Ability Check system

When a situation isn’t covered by the rules, old school systems often suggest an ability check. Basically, you try to beat (i.e. roll under) an appropriate ability on a d20. This is improvised on the spot by the GM. Relative difficulty can be achieved by the GM granting positive or negative modifiers to the roll.

Pros: Super easy.

Cons: Static target number. Does not scale with increased experience (or level).

Variant: BtW has a loose skill system, where the player gets to choose 2 skills (from a vaguely defined and open list) that they’re good at. All checks in that field are then +2 or +4 to the roll (or ability).

Akrasia’s Save system 

For S&W players, there’s a fan made simple system out there (Akrasia’s house rules), which is also used in Crypts & Things. The idea is to use the Saving throw number also as a target number for various tasks. The list of tasks is deliberately kept vague, to empower flexibility, but all PCs can do anything. And if you have a specific skill (for example thieves), you get to add +2 to +4 to the roll). Also, the GM can vary the difficulty by using modifiers to the die roll.

Pros: Dynamic target number (depending on PC level). Easy and flexible.

Cons: Vaguely defined skill/task set.

5e’s skill system

I think that the new D&D really have nailed the task resolution system. Everyone can do anything, but some are better than their peers at doing said things. Also, as a GM, I appreciate to have a defined task (or skill) list to choose from when deciding what the player should roll in a given situation. I think that many skill-based games have much too prolific and specific skill lists, which really doesn’t add to the game flow, or conversely that the skill/task list is kept deliberately vague in order to keep flexibility. I think both of those concepts are bad for gaming.

5e has a list of 18 tasks, usable by anyone. Sweet. The GM decides a Difficulty Class (DC) for the roll, which is the target number to beat. The player rolls a d20, adding his ability bonus for the specific task (for example Stealth uses Dex). If you are proficient with a task (defined by class and race) you get to add a special proficiency bonus that scales with level. Easy and fast. I like it a lot. And it’s easily left out if you want to use an older task resolution system instead. Which also means that it’s easily added to any OSR game.

Pros: Quite easy. Dynamic target number. Level and proficiency taken into account.

Cons: The system adds a bit of complexity to the game.

Bolting a task resolution system to your OSR game

Another problem if the system you like haven’t got a built in task resolution system is how to define what skills/tasks your characters are extra good at. Of course you could write down a list of “fighters are good at this” and “dwarves are good at that” and pre-define such things. Another way is to grant the players a couple of things (maybe 2) they are good at. For example, your fighter might be good at “Sneaking” and “Obtaining information”. When such things are happening in the game, our fighter would get some bonuses to his rolls. Also, this makes for some character personalization – why shouldn’t a fighter be able to be sneaky? Or, you define a list of tasks/skills and let the players choose 2 each at start, and maybe they can get more as they level up. Being proficient in a task/skill also means that you get to add your current level as a bonus to your roll (this idea I nicked from FH&W).

My motivation for this blog post is that I want a simple task system to use in adventures and other stuff I post online. It has also got to be flexible enough to be used in several systems and easily translatable to whatever system you guys use.

Dawnrazor’s Old School Universal Task Resolution System mk I

Here’s what I’ve decided to use for my adventures (unless they’re for a system like B&T or FH&W).

1. Task format (in adventure text): Task at hand (DIFFICULTY: ABILITY). Example: Spot the hobgoblin (HARD: WIS) 

This format excludes the actual skill, but since I suspect that not everyone will use skills, or if they use systems with different skill sets and names, it will get confusing. If you are using skills, use the task description (Spot the hobgoblin) to determine which skill would be appropriate in your system, and add those modifiers if applicable.

2. Below, there’s a table you can use as a guide to define task difficulties and modifiers for various task systems. I am well aware that the probabilities aren’t the same, but for me it is good enough at the gaming table. Also, using difficulty to define a target number or conversely, to define a modifier to use against a static target number is very different. And the d6 behave in a whole different way than the d20, probability-wise.

Task/skill difficulty conversion
Difficulty DC Target number d6 chance Roll modifier for static target number
Very easy 5 5 in 6 +4 (or +5)
Easy 10 4 in 6 +2
Average 15 3 in 6 0
Hard 20 2 in 6 -2
Very hard 25 1 in 6 -4 (or -5)

3. I will use the 5e task/skill list as I think it covers a lot in a small and logical package. I don’t know if I’m allowed to write them down here, since there’s no SRD, so feel free to check the free PDF here.

In short:

STRENGTH: All tasks having to do with raw muscle power (like bashing down doors) as well as athletic stuff like swimming, jumping etc.

DEXTERITY: Acrobatic stuff like keeping your balance, climbing etc. Also sneaky stuff like moving stealthily and doing tricksy stuff like picking pocketses.

CONSTITUTION: More used is a passive way, like doing a CON check to see if you can hold your breath or resist the freezing cold in the Silent Valley.

INTELLIGENCE: Basically all knowledge tasks are here, whether it’s about natural things, religious matters or old magical runes. Also used for detective work and investigative tasks.

WISDOM: Tasks about tracking and surviving in a certain environment, medical matters, spotting that hobgoblin or secret door and the ability to determine if someone’s intentions are sincere or if they are setting you up.

CHARISMA:  Covers social interaction like intimidating or persuading someone as well as trying to lure them. Other social and arty skills like dancing, singing and writing a sonnet are also covered here.

4. Classes (and maybe races at times) that can be assumed to be good at something (for example a Ranger at tracking or a Wizard at arcane knowledge) add their current level as a bonus to the task roll. Also, if you use the “good at” system above, or a more defined set of skills, the level bonus could apply. So the 3rd level Ranger above would add +3 to his tracking roll because he’s proficient in that field.

Well, that’s some ideas for thought…

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