Hackbut – Core Mechanics – Ability Checks

So far in this series on Hackbut core mechanics I’ve described attack rolls and saving throws. That leaves a way to resolve anything else that may come up in the game. Out of these three components, ability checks, general task resolution, or “situation rolls” as Talysman aptly calls them, were the hardest to pin down, and I don’t feel I’ve completely settled on an approach yet. But what follows is what I am going with for the time being. Strap in, this one is a bit longer than usual.

Probably the biggest reason it’s hard to settle on a general way to handle situations is that there wasn’t really any general mechanic as such in the early editions of the game. The closest candidates would be the n-in-6 die roll pattern that frequently occurs (with the 2d6 reaction roll a close second), then we have the bit in Moldvay about using roll under ability checks, and finally there are the various ways thief skills are handled. Let’s tackle each in turn.

We can quickly eliminate roll under ability because, like I mentioned before, I have over 30 sessions of The Black Hack under my belt. This uses roll under for everything (attacks, defense, saves, skills, you name it). The problem I have with this is that it makes abilities too important. I also find it encourages rolling for trivial stuff. Used in moderation I guess it can be fine, but since I have had my fill of this mechanic I decided to not use it at all in my hack.

The thief skills are a different matter. Similar to save categories, I never got on with the granularity of the various skills. In the KéK classes, the separate skills are maintained but rationalized to n-in-6 probabilities. In WBFMAG, the thief has a generic “thievery” skill that is also an n-in-6 chance. I like the latter quite a bit because it affords some flexibility for determining what does and does not fall under the thief’s abilities. However, where these approaches fall short is in being generalizable across all classes for any kind of skill check (or situation roll) that may come up. This also applies in the other direction, so to speak, to those generic n-in-6 rolls you find in classic D&D, such as finding hidden things, forcing doors, etc.

Some searching (using Brendan’s invaluable OSR search engine) turned up an excellent post by Homebrew Homunculus, which outlines a general way of handling any skill check on a d20. The nice thing about this in particular for me is that it allows for applying an attribute modifier if desired, and it also allows for improvement with level if a class applies. The TLDR of it is: if a situation comes up for which a roll is warranted, roll a d20 and try to get a 15 or higher. If an attribute applies, add the modifier, if a class applies, add your level. Done.

Slick, right? I do like it quite a bit and have basically replaced all the typical n-in-6 rolls with this mechanic, as well as replaced the thief skills with this. It’s very easy to grok for players because it’s so similar to Target 20. And similar to roll under ability checks it’s easy to apply on the fly when a new situation comes up. However, abilities make less of a difference with this approach and if desired, improvement with level is baked in. Also, the target number is fixed, so trivial rolls are discouraged.

I wasn’t entirely happy with it, though, and the main reason for it is that I like the chunky feel of the d6, and I worried a bit this made rolling for various things feel too similar. In a way, I wanted to feel like I was refereeing the game more closely to the old ways, as for example described here by Delta:

If a “brand new” thing comes up (say: baking skill, something like that) then I revert back to a d6 roll — like OD&D uses for listening, opening doors, finding secret passages, traps opening, etc. I feel like on an improvisational basis I can estimate a reasonable chance for success out of 6 (but not 20) — as a default I give a 2-in-6 chance to succeed, like: roll d6, add some ability bonus, and a total roll of 5+ is success.

Delta’s D&D Hotspot

However, I wanted to stick to a fixed target number (5 on a d6) and I could not really figure out how to translate HH’s approach to a d6. The main issue being that levels and attribute modifiers quickly overwhelm the d6.

The final piece of the puzzle was the previously linked series of posts by Talysman on situation rolls, as well as a pamphlet on “general abilities”. First of all, John offers some neat guidelines for translating attribute modifiers across the various dice rolls (d6, 2d6, d20). Basically, if you have a +/-2 in an attribute, you get a +/-1 on a d6. (I use Delta’s attribute modifier sequence, so I don’t need to deal with +/-3.)

Second, in response to a comment of mine, John suggests a painfully elegant way of applying character level to a d6 roll: compare to dungeon level or monster HD. If lower, get a -1; if higher, get a +1.

The upshot of all of this is that I can now freely choose between resolving a situation on a d6 or a d20, depending on what I feel like in the moment. I might gravitate to one or the other at some point, it’s too soon to say. And for proper skills (like the thief skills) I expect I will stick to the d20 system. But for anything else, I now feel comfortable using the 2-in-6 roll as well.

Before I close, some of you may be wondering: isn’t a generic task resolution mechanic anathema to old-school D&D? You may be right. I don’t know. But what I do buy into is the insistence on reducing die rolls as much as possible. For this, Talysman also has some excellent guidelines which I’ve chosen to adopt. Because I feel it’s not just important to be able to explain to players when we will roll dice, but also when we won’t.

In closing, I think 15+ on a d20 and 5+ on a d6 are a sufficiently rich palette for adjudicating any situation that does not fall under an attack roll or a saving throw. With the tricks outlined above you can apply ability modifiers and class levels if you so wish, and if you pair this with a doctrine that prioritizes skipping die rolls all together, you are freed up as a referee to run a game at the blistering pace that classic D&D in my view requires.

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