There’s Always a Chance: d20 Ability Score Checks in B/X

The topic of rolling 1d20 and comparing it to an ability score to resolve an action has come up a couple of times on Reddit in the past couple of days, and also it’s one I’ve been meaning to post something about. I’ve seen a lot of talk over the years how this is some sort of newfangled thing or not very oldschool-ish, but “ability checks” have been a common thing in Dungeons & Dragons since the early days.

Though I’m not sure about Dragon magazine or modules, I believe the first time this sort of mechanic was directly spelled out in a rule set was in 1981’s Basic Rulebook, edited by Tom Molday. Though, like many things in 1981 D&D, the rule itself is clear but the presentation is not nearly so obvious; it’s in the DM Instructions section on page B60:

“There’s always a chance.” The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.

It’s presented a little more obviously (but as an optional rule) in the Expert Rulebook edited by David Coke with Steve Marsh on page X51:

SAVING VS. ABILITIES (OPTIONAL): The DM may want to base a character’s chance of doing something on his or her ability ratings (Strength, etc.). The player must roll the ability rating or less on a d20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task, + 4 for a difficult one, etc.). It is suggested that a roll of 1 always succeed and a roll of 20 always fail.

(Personally, I like the “save vs. abilities” verbiage and try to remember to use it despite calling these things “ability checks” for decades.)

I’ve also seen (and sometimes used) ability score checks using d6s, usually something like

  • Roll under relevant ability score based on difficulty:
    • Easy: 2d6
    • Medium: 3d6
    • Hard: 4d6
    • Very Difficult: 5d6

This is nice because you can just assign difficulty levels and the ability score in question for various stuff (swimming across the river is a 3d6 Strength check, for instance) and you’re done. But I like the equal-probability of the 1d20 method and using modifiers as needed to adjust difficulty.

I also seem to remember a “multiply the relevant ability score by X to get the d% chance of success” rule, so a PC with a Strength of 14 on a “5x action” would have a 70% chance of success. But I’m not sure where that might have been from. Or if I maybe made that up myself. Because it TOTALLY sounds like the sort of thing I would have done circa 1987.

I am not actually a big user of saves vs. abilities, usually preferring a simple X-in-6 roll on 1d6. But there are times when rolling against a character’s applicable ability score is appropriate and I don’t hesitate to go that route if I think or feel that it’s appropriate in the situation. It’s entirely possible that the non-weapon proficiency system in late 1e and 2e AD&D (which I never really cared for) soured me on roll-under-ability checks.

One place that I’ve been considering using them is a save vs. Constitution as a character’s saving throw to avoid death when falling below 0 hit points. (Kilgore’s B/X calls exactly 0 hit points “incapacitated until the end of the turn” instead of dead, and characters reduced below 0 get one final roll to pull through.) Currently, our “save vs. death” is rolled on the “Death Ray or Poison” column, but since I permit arranging ability scores as desired, a player has a chance to have some say over his or her PC’s ability to fend off the Angel of Death.

However, I’m trying to de-empahsize the importance of ability scores in my game and using saves vs. abilities is bound to INCREASE the value of good scores when I’d rather that players don’t worry about them so darn much.

Finally, I am more and more coming to the realization that it’s easier and (usually) better to just tell a player that his or her character succeeds if it’s something that isn’t very difficult and exact timing doesn’t particularly matter. Sneaking past a sleeping guard might not require a check at all if the PC is alone, careful, and not wearing metal armor. On the other hand, if I have decided that sneaking past that particular guard is going to be very difficult, the attempt will probably fail unless the PC is a thief using Move Silently. Ruling on actions with a simple “yes you can” or “no, that seems pretty unlikely given the circumstances” is quick and easy if you are fair and consistent about it. Of course, if the player REALLY wants to push it on the pretty unlikely stuff, let them try, consider a save vs. ability to resolve it, and let the dice fall where they may.

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Killed by Goblins

I’ve been working on B/X combat using a grid and testing some things, using the Caves of Chaos in B2: The Keep on the Borderlands. I keep a stack of characters on 3×5 index cards ready at all times, and I grabbed a few randomly to use for the solo play-through.

As most who have ventured into the Caves of Chaos are aware, one rarely gets out of there clean. Though my solo test party has fared surprisingly well so far, they did suffer a loss against some of the goblins, with the party’s fighter falling during a particularly nasty fight.

Adding a sting to the loss is the fact that the character killed was one of the first I rolled up for my stack of cards quite a while ago and the token I used for him was one of the first I created, meant more as a test than for actual use.

If it makes you feel any better, VerHagen (wherever you are), the normally-reserved halfling archer pretty much berserked when you fell, slaughtering the remaining goblins in a fit of rage and despair. The rest of the party had never seen her behave like that before, but she didn’t really want to talk about it afterwards.

3x5 Index Card character sheet and 1" token
VerHagen the Veteran, Taken From Us Too Soon
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Acolytes and Scrolls

Just ran into an issue that I don’t believe has ever come up in one of my Classic D&D games before: a 1st-level cleric came into possession of a clerical scroll with two spells. Can 1st-level clerics cast the spells on scrolls?

There is no question in AD&D, of course, since 1st-level clerics in in AD&D can cast spells. But clerics in Classic D&D (B/X in this case) cannot cast spells until 2nd level. I happen to like this rule immensely, but now I am wondering about this acolyte and his scroll.

I decided that–unless I found a compelling case saying otherwise–the cleric COULD read the holy words and tap into the holy powers that they trigger. It just seems to make sense to me and 1st-level characters are squishy enough already.

Lo and behold, I found this question asked on a Dragonsfoot thread from 2014 and it’s even specifically asking about B/X. Even more surprising, the strong majority opinion was that, yes, 1st-level clerics can use clerical spell scrolls. I feel slightly validated.

I’m definitely inclined to allow it. Especially since I have scaled back turning the undead a bit. Even though I tend to see clerics more as mystic warriors than priestly medics, their ability to access the divine power or the Light (or the Darkness) is a fundamental component of the class.

So let it be written, so let it be done. Unless someone convinces me otherwise.

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B/X Spells and Spell Books

I am trying to clearly codify the way that magic spells and magical research work in my Kilgore’s B/X game. I’ve been tinkering with things for years but am now trying to more-or-less set things in stone. My recent post on the Read Magic spell was part of my effort to work through things.

In order to get it right, I’m trying to make sure that my understanding of the Rules As Written is correct. B/X handles some things differently than most other versions of the game, and many players don’t seem to grasp the implications of those differences or they ignore them entirely. Though I have a few tweaks of my own, I want my base to be the By The Book rules. Here is how I read the rules with page references for each point. I’ve got anything wrong or have missed anything, kindly let me know.

  1. Spells Known and Spell Books
    1. Magic-users and elves have spell books containing the spells that they know (B16)
      1. The number of spells in the book can not exceed the number of spells the caster can use per day (B16)
      2. The DM may choose which spells a character knows, or may allow the player to choose (B16)
      3. If a spell book is lost or destroyed, the character cannot memorize spells until it is replaced (X11)
    2. Clerics know all spells of spell levels that they can cast; they do not have spell books (B15)
  2. Spell Memorization and Spell Casting
    1. Only spells which have been memorized can be cast (B15)
    2. Characters choose which known spells to memorize at the start of the day (B15)
    3. The same spell may be memorized more than once (B15)
    4. A character must be able talk and use hand motions to cast spells (B15) and must have stable support (X25)
    5. Spell ranges are in feet indoors and in yards outdoors but areas affected by spells are always in feet (X19)
    6. A character casting a spell may perform no other action that round (B15) and must be able to see the target of the spell (X11)
    7. In an encounter, characters must identify the spell they are casting before initiative is rolled (X11)
    8. If a caster takes damage or fails a saving throw before completing a spell, the spell fails and is lost (X11)
    9. Magic-users and elves must memorize reversed versions of reversable spells to cast reversed spells (X11)
    10. Clerics may reverse a memorized reversable spell when casting it; they do not need to memorize a reversed version of the spell (X11)
    11. A cleric who has displeased his or her deity may have his or her spell casting abilities restricted (X7, X11)
    12. Re-memorizing Spells
      1. Spells may be regained once per day (B15)
      2. All casters must be well-rested to regain spells (B15)
      3. Magic-users and elves must study their spell books for 1 hour to regain spells; if they do not have access to their spell book, they cannot regain spells (X11)
      4. Clerics must pray for 1 hour to regain spells (B15)
  3. Learning New Spells
    1. Magic-users and elves must be taught new spells when they gain levels (X11)
      1. Learning new spells takes 1 week “out of play” (X11)
      2. The DM may choose which new spells a magic-user or elf learns, or may allow the player to choose (X11)
    2. Clerics learn all the spells of a new spell level when they become able to cast spells of that level (X11)
  4. Additional Notes
    1. Magic-users and elves must use a Read Magic spell to understand a magic scroll or another caster’s spell book (B17, B49)
      1. Once a scroll or spell book has been deciphered using Read Magic, that person may always read that magical writing (B17)
      2. Clerics can always read clerical scrolls; they do not use Read Magic (B49)
      3. It is unclear whether Read Magic can be cast on another person (B17)
    2. There is no provision in the rules for copying spells from scrolls or spell books
    3. New spells can be researched and learned by a character (X51)
      1. It is not stated whether the standard spells in the rule books can be learned through research
      2. It is unclear how successfully-researched spells are added to spell books since books cannot contain more spells than the character can cast per day
    4. It is not clear whether clerics know all the standard spells in the rule books of the appropriate level or all clerical spells from all sources of the appropriate level or how researched spells affect a cleric’s known spells
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Range:0 for Read Magic

At the beginning of the year, I underwent that age-old ritual of letting go of all my houserules and returned to the game As It Was Written, in this case 1981’s B/X Dungeons & Dragons. While I do have a very few small tweaks still in place (such as redefining the way that clerics turn the undead or 4d6 Drop Lowest) and am left to interpret some things that are a little ambiguous (the “room trap” and “treasure trap” debate, among others), I have made a serious effort to remain very close to By The Book and want to make sure that most of the changes I do make give results that are not incompatible with the rules as the Great Ones laid down Back In The Day.

One thing I’m doing that I realize is not quite BTB is the way I interpret the Read Magic spell’s range. Now, this might seem like a trivial thing, but it turns out that if I want to stick to the rather unique take on magic-user spellbooks that B/X takes (and I do) while also making magic-users a little more magical (and I definitely do) then I really, really need read magic to work this way.

Here’s the thing: Page B17 of Moldvay’s Basic Rulebook tells us that read magic has Range: 0. Now, this seems all well and good and no one is going to be shocked. However, there are other spells (such as levitate or mirror image, both also on B16) that have Range: 0 (caster only). It’s that “(caster only)” that I’m interested, and not because I’m worried that an editing mistake left that notation off of the read magic spell…In fact, it’s the LACK of a “(caster only)” notation on read magic that made my day whenever it was that I discovered it. You see, I WANT read magic to be able to be cast upon others. Some of the ways I envision B/X magic working really needs read magic to be shareable.

Now, before you go diving for your books I will be big enough to admit that right there in the description it says things like “the magic-user”, most likely in reference to the caster. Since the Great Ones did NOT use the words “the caster” and there is no “(caster only)” in the range, I’ve managed to convince myself that a magic-user or elf can cast read magic upon another individual, granting THAT reader the ability to decipher scrolls, spellbooks, and other magical writing. I’m interpreting Range: 0 to mean “touch,” in great part because that’s how I want it to work.

I don’t think I’m totally off the farm here. Other spells with Range: 0, such fly on X14, explicitly allow the spell to be cast upon someone else. I will just pretend that I didn’t notice that no spells in the Expert Rulebook have a “(caster only)” notation (and include a mark for feet on spells with Range: 0) even when the description is clear so that I can remain By The Book.

I will also conveniently ignore the fact that Gavin Norman’s B/X Essentials ruled differently than I do. While I consider B/X Essentials (now Old School Essentials) to be the very best of the B/X clones/references/recreations out there, no one gets it right every single time. So what if I think I agree with every single other ruling B/X Essentials makes? No one is perfect, after all.

Anyway, I am fully aware of the fact that not only am I permitted to change the rules as I see fit, it’s actually in the rules. B60 notes that the DM is the Boss and that the final decision is “not this booklet’s!” Of course, I can change the way read magic works. I can change anything I want. But I really want to pretend that I’m not actually changing anything this time, if that’s aright. Or even if it’s not.

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49 Dragons

B/X D&D does not use the age categories that 1e AD&D used, but it does note that the listings in the Monsters section (pages B33-34) are for “average-sized” specimens and that dragons generally range from 3 hit dice smaller to 3 hit dice larger than average.

Over the past ten years, I’ve made a point to put the “dragons” back into “Dungeons & Dragons” and adventurers in Kilgore’s B/X game need to be prepared to run into the scaly beasts at any point.

49 Dragons for Basic/Expert Games (PDF)

Of particular note, a mated pair of black dragons is currently rampaging around the region where two different sets of PCs are adventuring, with both groups party to the situation. And one retainer proudly wields a sword and shield scarred by the acid of a close encounter with that pair’s (late) offspring and a saving throw barely made.

Here are the numbers I use for the full range of basic B/X dragons at each of the seven sizes, taking the stats on B33 and adjusting them up and down three HD. (One thing I am not really sure about is the magic spells…dragons in my game do not usually use magic even if they can speak.) I’ve adjusted damage, breath weapon size, and other factors up or down along with the hit dice.

I should also note that unique dragons also exist in my game. If I need a special dragon for a special reason with special characteristics, I just write it up. I don’t feel the need to make Smaug fit within the numbers of a basic B/X dragon…Smaug gets his own numbers and abilities. The same goes for special cases for all types of monsters, but it goes double for dragons.

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Learning the Hard Way

Was listening to an episode of the Wandering DMs while doing some housework after failing my save vs. Dirty House. It was their episode on Learning D&D and they discussed their own experiences, learning from the books vs. learning from an experienced player, and how kids these days have it all so easy what with the interwebs and all.

It was a great episode, and I was reminding of my own trial by fire.

I actually learned D&D by learning Traveller first. I discovered Traveller on my own in a game store in 1982 and convinced my dad to allow me to give it shot. I grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota, and let me tell you that there were not a lot of nerds out and about in the corn fields back in the early 80s. I knew exaclty ZERO people who had played Traveller, Dungeons & Dragons, or any other game like that. But my birthday brought me Deluxe Traveller, and Book 0: An Introduction to Traveller was exactly what seventh-grade Kilgore needed.

Several months later, a neighbor back from college came to visit and I told him about this amazing game called Traveller I’d been playing with my brother and a couple of friends for a few months. And the neighbor told me about this amazing game called Dungeons & Dragons that he’d been playing up in college.

Of course, I’d heard about Dungeons & Dragons. Everybody had. It was that evil game where people couldn’t tell fantasy from reality, that evil game that had caused that poor college kid to disappear in the tunnels, and that evil game that had REAL MAGIC SPELLS in it that risked summoning a demon if you said the evil words just right.

So, of course, we played. We had the neighbor’s AD&D Players Handbook, his set of dice, and a box of lead miniatures. I played a cleric, my brother played a fighter, and we killed a vampire in the basement of a terrifying Tower of the Undead. My neighbor was correct. It WAS amazing.

A couple of days later, we played again. But the neighbor didn’t want to DM. He wanted to play. So in my second session, with no DMG, no Monster Manual, and no real clue about how to be a Dungeon Master, I was running the show.

It was glorious. A mess. But glorious.

Though we never stopped playing Traveller, and in fact I just introduced my nephew to Science-Fiction Adventure in the Far Future just this past July, D&D definitely became one of our main pastimes.

Looking back, I wonder if the only way it could have been better would have been for our introduction to have been via 1981’s Basic Set. If I’d had that book instead of only one of three AD&D manuals, our game would not have been nearly so messy.

But I suspect that it might not have been quite so glorious, either.

Though I’m 100% convinced that B/X is the best version of the game ever published, I would not give back any of those adventures when I had to make monsters up from my head and just guestimate reasonable to-hit numbers because the combat tables weren’t in the PHB.

Learning from someone might be the best way to LEARN, but teaching yourself might be the best way to EXPERIENCE IT.

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4d6 Drop Lowest

The more I read, play, and think about the B/X rules, the more I find myself undoing the various houserules and “fixes” I’ve implemented over the years. The more I work out what the rules really say and the more I’m able to let go of assumptions brought into B/X from other editions, the better I think the best version of the game keeps getting.

One houserule that I think I’d like to drop but won’t, though, is the ability score generation. Rather than 3d6 in order with a limited 2-for-1 point swap, we go with 4d6 drop lowest and arrange as desired.

Personally, I think 3d6 gives perfectly playable results, and perhaps even BETTER results, in game terms. However, players seem to be universally opposed to in-order rolling and the dejection of players over a few bad rolls really can sour the session.

So 4d6 drop lowest, arrange as desired is it for us. While I may have no issues deciding to go with a fighter instead of a thief because I rolled crappy Dexterity–or I may be perfectly willing to play a thief with crappy Dexterity–many players are not so inclined. I can explain to them all night long that the randomness of the rolls can bring out fun that was not expected, but they’re still going to be pouting because they really wanted to play a thief this time. So arrange as desired and play your thief, gosh darnit.

Same goes for 4d6 drop lowest vs. 3d6. Sure, we all know that 3d6–on average–gives perfectly playable ability scores for a game with power levels like B/X. But telling that to the player who just rolled a 4 and will be suffering a significant mechanical penalty forever just doesn’t work. “But your weak Constitution and reduced hit points will make this a FUN character to roleplay and you can make his fragility a memorable experience!” just isn’t going to cut it with most players most of the time.

So 4d6 drop lowest and arrange as desired might be a sop to the players, but it’s a reasonable one that I’m happy to make. I want my players to want to play B/X.

Of course, this all leads to the “dump stat Charisma” problem. But that’s a post for another day.

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