Last week, I talked about possible changes to the Dragon Age mechanic to counter the perceived issue that great success was more likely for low skill. I left one solution off: going directly to the In Nomine mechanic of rolling an independent d6 as the Dragon Die, rather than using one of the dice rolled. I started to think about why that wasn’t even an option for me, and it came down to the weirdness of In Nomine being that skill was completely independent of success level. As a player, it can be annoying to roll on something you’ve put tons of points into to get really good at, but have your actual results completely out of your control: the third d6 is going to do what it wants whether or not you can fail on the results of the first two.

But then I started thinking about D&D, and realized that weapon damage was basically a similar independent system, and had always been. Your attack bonus (or THAC0) is essentially just a delivery system for your damage dice; after it gets to a certain point, it makes a bigger difference to get better weapons or more damage dice adds than it does to increase the attack bonus further. Conversely, if your attack bonus is terrible, wielding a greatsword isn’t that great of an option when someone else is hitting five times as often with a dagger. There are certain ways (like Power Attack), to convert attack to damage and vice versa, but it’s never via Margin of Success. An attack roll is always a binary proposition: if no, then nothing happens, if yes, then you get to roll your damage. This has the effect of allowing monster AC to be a secret, and also to speed up play: nobody has to subtract AC 16 from a roll of 23 in the middle of battle, which, being two-digit subtraction, can be a little slower than adding a few single digits.*

The weird thing about this is that the skill system introduced in 3e is very directly a MoS system, not an independent one. Many skills have a set, linear chart of results (each +1 to your Jump check is another foot), and almost all modules will include a series of results of increasing success on information-gathering skills (usually in increments of 5). This means that D&D essentially has a schizophrenic core mechanic: for combat, your d20 bonus needs to be exactly good enough to meet the DC, and anything better is wasted. For everything else but combat, you want the highest bonus and roll conceivable, because hitting the DC is the most minimal of success.

I wonder if there might not be a way to simplify skills closer to the old Non-Weapon Proficiency days while still keeping the new-school gamers happy, by drastically reducing skill spread but increasing the mutability of the independent die result. This could have a bigger effect on reducing the unpredictability of high level play (e.g., one player with a +30 Climb and one with a -3; how do you put in a mountain climbing challenge?) without 4e’s homogenization of the skill ranks.

One idea is to keep all existing skills, but drop all ranks from the skill bonus. A skill bonus is Attribute modifier + Racial Bonus + 3 (if a class skill). Doing this makes the potential spread at level 1 something like -1 to +9 for most skills, and the top end should only increase by a few points throughout all the levels without magic or skill focus: DC 15 remains relevant to level 20 as a target that’s easy but missable for the best of the skill monkeys while still possible for those that have no points in it.

Meanwhile, ranks become directly related to the results of the roll on an independent die. I’d suggest a standard d6+Ranks for the effects result of the skill. You’ll probably want to give out half as many skill ranks and cap them to half Level (min 1), as they’re suddenly a lot more meaningful. That way, at level 1, a character that specializes in a skill will be at least 25% more likely to succeed, but will only get an average of 1 point higher on successful rolls. This should allow you to govern information challenges much more easily (a 6th level module can assume a spread of 1-9, with 1-2 being essentially automatic, 3-6 being pretty easy to get, and 7-9 being increasingly unlikely). For skills with an existing MoS chart, figure out how much is basic difficulty and how much is a target number that only high level characters are supposed to hit, and then divide the difference by the potential meaningful results on the die. For example, a running jump might be DC 10, a standing jump is DC 15, and the result of the die x4 is the feet jumped across and x1 is the feet jumped up.

This system uses a base d6, but that opens up the possibility of lowering the die to a d4 or less for specific hindrances, or, more importantly, giving out bigger dice for special training. Players love getting special training and bigger dice.

Ultimately, this system seeks to accomplish two things:

  1. Making the skill system for D&D 3e+ work more like the weapons system in its use of binary DCs and independent results dice.
  2. Compress the degree of meaningful success results so DCs don’t have to skyrocket at high levels to provide a challenge for those focused in the skills, while still giving those that choose to focus a direct bonus on the effects of the skills. At high levels, the independent dice should mean that every PC has a chance of success at every non-specialized skill check, but those with lots of ranks in the skill will have much more significant actual result. For example, everyone in the party can climb the mountain… the guy with 10 ranks in Climb will just do it much faster.

Interestingly, this system might make it easier to do 4e-style skill challenges as well: give each challenge hit points and an AC exactly like a monster, and give especially appropriate skills a circumstance bonus and inappropriate ones a circumstance penalty. If everyone can contribute at least 1d6 to the damage, it becomes a much more reasonable option to try to help directly rather than just using Aid Another.

* And if it’s not a problem for you, I’d suggest you try adding MoS to damage in some way (say, an extra d6 for every 5 points you beat the AC) and let me know how it goes. It might be very neat 🙂 .