I’ve got my character classes for my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack nailed down. Assuming I leave out the halflings, that leaves me with: fighters, magic-users, clerics, rogues, elves, dwarves, and gnomes. Maybe someday I’ll throw in some half-orcs or half-ogres, but for now that looks like a solid foundation I can build on.
The next topic I want to tackle is skills.
And I got nothin’.
Ok, that’s not entirely true. I’ve actually got too much.
Through most of Moldvay/Cook, if you want to try something, you roll a d6. A 1 almost always succeeds, and a 6 almost always fails. Sometimes, you can get bonuses. For instance, an elf succeeds at finding a secret door on a 1 or 2, while forcing a stuck door is adjusted by Strength.
It’s not very granular, but this system clearly works and can be adapted to anything. And, with the standard stat bonuses listed in the book, your character’s stats can be used to adjudicate anything from swinging from a chandelier to unscrambling the Dark Lord’s cipher.
It’s got two issues, though. First if we assume a 6 always fails, that means failure is pretty common. Clearly, this system was devised to handle tasks of extreme difficulty, things even heroes are not likely to succeed at.
Second, it ignores a character’s level. You never get better at these things no matter what level you rise to. On the one hand, this is very fitting for Moldvay/Cook/LL, since level has a very minimal effect on your character, especially in comparison with other iterations of D&D. And that does keep your character from becoming insanely good at everything. (I was going to say, “does keep your character from becoming a superhero”, but in Moldvay/Cook, a superhero is an eighth-level fighter. ;) )
In some areas, percentages are used, but these are extremely rare. We see them, most famously, in thief abilities. We also see them in the chance of others to detect a hiding halfling. These are a lot more granular, but where we see them, they don’t reference stats at all, and outside of the thief’s abilities, don’t apply levels either.
Finally, there’s the roll-under-a-stat method on a d20. It’s actually called saving-vs-abilities in the back of the Expert book, and suggests modifiers up of to + or – 4 for situation with 1 always succeeding and 20 always failing.
I’m tempted to modify that one with my favorite probability tool, the bell curve. A simple task would require a roll of a single d10; anyone but those of sub-par ability should expect to succeed. A challenging task would require rolling a 2d10. Success would be common, but not guaranteed. A difficult task would be 3d10 while a daunting task would be 4d10. With such a range of possibilities, maybe I could add your character’s level to their stat to get our roll-under target? Eh, probably not; things would get really crazy as characters approached 10th level and beyond.
That last method is still my favorite, but the d6 method is already such a strong part of the D&D DNA that it’s got a lot of tradition on its side.
And then there’s how skills are acquired. One thing that constantly bugs me about most point-buy systems is how impossible it is to make a reasonably competent character. At 16 I could fire a muzzle loader (though with admittedly questionable accuracy), swim, drive a car, pilot a motorboat, program in BASIC and PASCAL, tie any number of knots, read a map, use a compass, calculate the volume of all sorts of shapes, balance a checkbook, read the stock pages, lead certain liturgical rites of the Episcopal Church, build a working radio from a kit, change the oil in a car, identify edible plants, light a fire with a single match, find a half-dozen constellations in the night sky…
Yeah, ok, you get the point. You probably had a large number of skills you could rely on as well. In our games, however, you had to be at least 3rd level or somesuch to come even close to something like that. It’s unusual to find a 3e D&D character who can swim at any level. This sort of thing is silly.
Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was playing Moldvay/Cook (I think, though it might have started after we added in the 1e AD&D PHB to our Moldvay/Cook games) we added backgrounds to our characters. This started with the title for 1st level fighters: the veteran. That implied that the veteran had been in a war. Which war? What did our veteran learn? Where were his war buddies?
So we added one line (sometimes one word) histories to our characters. Our veteran had fought in the Goblin Wars. Or maybe the Sorcerer Wars. Our thief had been a pick-pocket urchin. Or a pirate. That sort of thing. These dictated what sort of skills your character could draw on. The veteran of the Goblin Wars might be able to speak goblin, or recognize different tribes by their ornaments. The ex-pirate knew how to handle sailing ships, how to navigate by the sun and stars, and how to tie knots.
Now, we didn’t worry about rolling dice back then. Either your character knew how to do something or didn’t, and if you could convince the DM that it made sense for your character to be conversant in elvish wines or ancient theology, you would be successful in whatever you attempted with those skills.
For the most part, I want to add that to my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack. In most situations, having the skill will give you success. Only in unusual or extreme circumstances should you need to roll. And instead of picking skills individually, you instead describe your character’s background and that dictates what sorts of things your character is skillful at.
I want to add a bit more structure to it this time, however. I’m dividing a character’s youth into stages. First is childhood, which in humans covers birth to seven years old. Childhood is when you learn your first language(s) and the culture of your family and surroundings. The next stage, which I’m calling youth, begins at seven and ends around 14 or 16. This is when you begin to enter the adult world. Urban children would be sent to apprenticeships, noble children would be fostered as pages or ladies-in-waiting to other noble families, and peasant children would join their parents in the fields or among the livestock. This would cover basic education. Adolescence refines these skills. Pages become squires, apprentices become journeymen, peasants might become husbands and wives and parents, with their own fields and flocks.
Describing ever so briefly what your character was doing during these three stages towards adulthood, not more than a single sentence for each, dictates what sort of skills your character has outside of their class abilities. So if your knight (fighter class) was squired to a northern noble, he would know the courtly etiquette from that part of the world, as well as the heraldry of the noble families up there. Your bandit from the Eastern Steppes would know all about horses, the spice trade and how to appraise silks. And yes, your former street urchin probably knows how to pick a pocket and fence the goods.
So, here’s where I am: I have a nicely vague system for figuring out what skills the PCs have. But I’m not certain how I want to adjudicate uncertainty in the use of those skills. Or, to put it simply, how should we roll for success or failure?
Also, should spending more or less time in a “profession” have an affect on skill use? Should spending both your youth and adolescence as a street urchin improve your skills as a pick-pocket? What about older characters? Should there be a penalty for starting a PC at 28 or 35 years old, to counter the greater or broader skill mastery? Exactly how important do I want such skills to be in my campaigns?
I’m not certain yet. Right now, I’m leaning towards rolling d10’s and succeeding if you roll under the appropriate stat +1 per life period spent honing that skill. But I’m not in love with that yet, and it’d be just as easy to apply that +1 to the d6 method.
I’m going to roll this around in my head and search the chat boards to see what others have done.