Skill Checks: Ability Checks
Sometimes a character tries to do something to which no specific skill really applies. In these cases, you make an ability check. An ability check is a roll of 1d20 plus the appropriate ability modifier. Essentially, you’re making an untrained skill check. (SRD Ability Checks)
I don’t like the justification they use for making a player roll 1d20 + modifier for an ability check, because by equating the ability check with an untrained skill they are penalizing a player for not having training in an area where there are no skills to rely on. It’s a foul move in my book, but we can do better.
Instead of having the player roll 1d20 + modifiers for ability check rolls have them roll 1d20 and results at, or lower than, their ability score succeed. For example, Ted wants manipulate a pin in such a manner as to where he can use it to pick a lock. A Dexterity Check is called for and he rolls a 14. His Dexterity is a 17, so he succeeds.
One of my favorite methods to speed up play is to use Ability Checks as an alternative to skills. Now this isn’t for every group as some players find dropping skills limiting rather than liberating; but for Dungeon Masters looking to speed up play it has advantages. First, it makes character creation a faster process. Now even the Rogue and his billion skills is done in under fifteen minutes – and that’s with him making four unfunny Monty Python references.
The other reason that I prefer using Ability Checks to skills is that once you and your players are used to using them, play speeds up dramatically. Unlike the skill check with its ever inflating numbers and ever increasing Difficulty Class the Ability Check allows for a static difficulty level, and yet the challenge is always there. It also creates a situation where players are more willing to try something if they think there is a reasonable chance for success. Instead of the Fighter sitting around wondering when he’s going to get the chance to use his ride skill while they’re walking around in the dungeon for the tenth session in a row, he’s trying to figure out the value of the gems he’s found off that Grell three rooms back. Now he’s listening for the ambush around the corner, and trying to forge that Hobgoblin’s signature so the kobolds in the next room will let him through.
That willingness to try is missing with the skills and it’s one of the things that bothers me most about using them.
In some cases, an action is a straight test of one’s ability with no luck involved. Just as you wouldn’t make a height check to see who is taller, you don’t make a Strength check to see who is stronger (SRD Ability Checks)
One of the things that this statement is trying to hold off is the inevitable pissing contests that will happen at least once per campaign where the gnome thinks that he's strong enough to mess up the half-orc barbarian. And it's fine if, as the Dungeon Master, you want to avoid that contest - but some of my favorite memories from my first campaign are when four of my ten players (at that time) decided to have an arm wrestling contest and the gnome wizard beat the half-orc barbarian, the earth genosi fighter, and the dwarven paladin back, to back, to back.
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