Thursday, February 19, 2009

Degree of Success

I've been thinking recently about D&D skill systems and why they are sometimes clunky. One reason is confusion between determining Degree of Success and just determing a binary success/failure.

In combat, you use two rolls. The to-hit roll (usually on a d20) determines binary success/failure. The damage roll (usually a D6, D8, etc) determines the degree of success.

However, skills are deemed to be less important so they generally get just one roll, presumably to speed things up. However, some skill checks are binary (go/no go), but others determine degree of success. Here's some examples:

1E Thief Skills: Generally binary. You either roll under, or you don't. Some modules occasionally say, "if the thief beats the % by X, then something happens" but that's the exception, not the rule.
1E Open Door Rolls: This is one check where degree of success enters the picture, at least for characters with Exceptional Strength. They have a chance to break down even a specially sealed door if they roll well.
1E Secondary Skills: No resolution mechanic included.
1E Other Checks: I often times used a saving throw as a "skill" check mechanic for things I wanted to scale with level. This is just a binary yes/no check.
3E/4E Skills such as Diplomacy, Intimidate, etc: These are usually binary. You either hit the target DC and have the desired effects, or you don't.
3E/4E Skills such as Athletics, Jump, Climb, etc: These usually include Degree of Success. The Athletics check determines how far you can jump -- you don't just get a binary success/failure. Failing a climb check by too much means you fall.

This has a few problems.

First, its confusing. Not all skills work the same way. Ever notice how play grinds to a halt when using an Athletics check to jump? A D20 is just not a good die for generating the results desired in this case, and at least in 4E, you end up having to divide and do mental math. Additionally, some skill checks end up being much more important than combat to-hit rolls. For example, a skill check to leap over a lava pit is more important than the numerous to-hit rolls against a monster. But because of the relatively lower fidelity in skill checks, players are often hesitant to gamble it all on just one die roll. Also, rolling skill checks on a D20 makes the variability very high. As has been discussed, players usually dislike variability because it means that they still have a good chance to fail at things they should be good at (example, a swashbuckling rogue with athletics/acrobatics maxed out might still fail to leap from a chandelier and do the classic banister slide move, so he'll probably just walk down the stairs instead -- boring).

I've been toying with using my D6-pool system to generate skill check results. For example, say a character that has a rank of "2" for jumping (however the system does that) rolls 2d6 and takes the highest one. The result is the number of spaces he jumps. Easy, still down to one roll. It reduces variability significantly, making players more likely to try to use skills in combat (breaks up the monotony). The trick would be to figure out how to convert all "skills" to a Degree of Success check instead of the mixed binary/degree of success system we have now. Perhaps a return to something like the 1E Open Door roll would make sense -- a 6 or higher might indicate "great success."

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