HD&D: Well that won’t work, will it?

In writing and adapting rules for the hybrid game I try not to second guess myself. I’m not convinced on the power level of some of the talents, or whether the magic system will function at all, but I’m putting those concerns to one side until after play testing. But there are occasions when I question the basic assumptions of the game. The matter I am currently mulling over is Skill DCs.

The problem was crystalised for me when I was playing Marc’s game a few couple of weeks ago. My character needed to balance over a roof, which called for an Acrobatics check. Now the character’s not that clumsy (she has a Dex of 13) but Acrobatics isn’t a trained skill for her, so the total skill modifier is +3. Rolling 1d20+3 is no guarantee of succeeding at anything, and inevitably I wound up taking a tumble. I got to thinking: how would that situation work in HD&D?

Well, in HD&D a character who is untrained in a skill wouldn’t have any ranks in at all. In HD&D, Maia’s Acrobatics check would have been made on 1d20+1 not 1d20+3. And to make matters worse, all the DCs in HD&D are about 5 points higher than their fourth edition counterparts. Playing under the hybrid rules, I wouldn’t have had a hope in hell on that roof.

Now, I could console myself by saying that I would have chosen Acrobatics as a skill for my character if the 4e rules had let me do it. HD&D is more flexible in this regard. However, that would be missing the point somewhat. And besides a fifth level character with a Dex of 13 who has maximum possible ranks in Acrobatics, still only has a skill modifier of +3 in the hybrid game.

So the question is: are DCs too high or are skill checks too low? Or is it both? Or neither?

The HD&D Assumption

There are various elements that can improve your skills in HD&D, but there are less than you’ll find in third edition, fourth edition or Pathfinder. There are no skill synergies in HD&D, and no feats that grant +2 to two vaguely related skills. This all seeks to keep the maximum skill modifier low. In fact, pretty much all you have in HD&D to modify your skills is the following:

  • Your ability score modifier
  • Level-based increases to your ability scores
  • Your racial bonus (+2 to two skills)
  • The Skill Focus feat (+1 per five levels to one skill)
  • Your skill ranks (equal to a maximum of half your level rounded up)

I am keen to base max skill ranks at half your level, rather than your full level (as in third edition) because the latter case leads to an unnecessary escalation of DCs. When the difference between what a very skilled character can achieve and what an unskilled character can achieve is greater than any result you can roll on 1d20 then the game begins to break down. HD&D will still break down, but it’ll break down at a much higher level than third edition. Probably not until about level forty – which is well beyond the scope of most games.

The skill DCs don’t take into account racial modifiers or the skill focus feat. I judged these as welcome extras that players can use to make their characters even better in their chosen pursuit. Let’s set those aside. Instead the skill DCs are based on a character who has maximum ranks in a skill, an ability score of 18 at first level, and who continues to increase that ability score at every possible instance. There is an assumption that a first level character has +5 in a skill, and that a twenty-first level character has +18 in a skill.

A used this calculation to extrapolate the DCs I would expect characters of levels 1-30 to be able to achieve. And then categorise the DCs as Easy, Moderate, Hard and Impossible. Remember that a Moderate DC needs maximum ranks, and an 18 starting stat. I’ve been using this table to set DCs for all elements in the HD&D system:

Level

Easy

Moderate

Hard

Impossible

1

10

15

20

25

2

10

15

20

25

3

11

16

21

26

4

11

16

21

26

5

12

17

22

27

6

12

17

22

27

7

13

18

23

28

8

14

19

24

29

9

15

20

25

30

10

15

20

25

30

11

16

21

26

31

12

16

21

26

31

13

17

22

27

32

14

18

23

28

33

15

19

24

29

34

16

19

24

29

34

17

20

25

30

35

18

20

25

30

35

19

21

26

31

36

20

21

26

31

36

21

23

28

33

38

22

23

28

33

38

23

24

29

34

39

24

24

29

34

39

25

25

30

35

40

26

25

30

35

40

27

26

31

36

41

28

27

32

37

42

29

28

33

38

43

30

28

33

38

43

The key point to bear in mind is that a Moderate check is designed to be something that is Moderate for a trained professional. Not something that is Moderate for an unskilled no-hoper. This principle was enshrined way back in the second HD&D post, and it’s stood up till now.

How it works in Fourth Edition

Fourth edition sees things differently. Now you may be thinking that 4e is hardly a source of good mechanics, but there’s a lot of good stuff buried under the dross. And the 4e designers have been fairly open about how the system is put together.

The following is an excerpt from Dungeon #170 on the “Maths Behind the DCs”. It’s written by Mike Mearls, who is the lead designer for 4e so he should know what he’s talking about. He did write Keep on the Shadowfell, however, and I may never forgive him for that. Still this makes interesting reading:

The standard DCs for levels 1-3, after errata, are:

Easy: 5
Moderate: 10
Hard: 15

If you’re like a lot of D&D players, those seem a little low to you. The key is, though, to understand why they sit where they do. The following examples all assume a 1st-level character.

The easy DCs are meant to represent trivial tasks, the sort that rarely go wrong but could. We aimed for an untrained character with no particular aptitude (+0 or a penalty in the appropriate ability score) to fail about 20% of the time. A trained character succeeds automatically.

For moderate DCs, the character with a +0 modifier fails 45% of the time. A character with a +2 bonus and no training fails about a third of the time (35%). A trained character fails 20% of the time, while a trained character with a +2 to +4 stat mod looks at 15% to zero chance of failure.

Finally, for the hard DC, our +0 character stares at a 70% chance of failure. Training brings that down to 45%, and a half-decent stat slashes it down further to a 35% failure, or 60% for the untrained character.

The really interesting case here is the super-competent character. That character has training (+5), a good stat (+3), a +2 bonus from race or background, and maybe another +2 (or so) from a feat or magic item. That PC fails the hardest check 15% of the time. Not bad, is it?

All this math is to illustrate an important principle: The DCs are aimed at the character who might have training and a +2 stat bonus, and at PCs who made no effort to improve a skill. If a PC really wants to maximize a skill, the system lets him show off his mastery by blasting through the DCs with ease. By spending those feats, training in a skill, and picking a combination of race, background, class, and so forth to maximize a skill, the character is a master compared to other PCs.

So fourth edition has higher skill modifiers and lower DCs than HD&D. The entire philosophy behind the DC setting is completely different. I want a trained character to succeed a moderate DC  50% of the time. They want a trained character to succeed at a moderate DC 85% to 100% of time. By the same token an untrained character should succeed at a moderate DC about 50% of the time, while in HD&D untrained characters can easily have a 0% to 5% chance of success – and carry that level of success with them throughou their adventuring career.

Of course, one of the challenges in HD&D that is not in fourth edition, is that we use the same skill system to adjudicate combat. You can’t have a mega skilled  character hitting a difficult Reflex defence 85% of the time. That strikes me as a little broken. However, this article did get me thinking about my skill DC assumptions. As a player, I wouldn’t want to look at my character sheet and see a numbe of +1s and +2s next to all my skills.

How it works in 3rd Ed. and Pathfinder

Both third edition and pathfinder base maximum skill ranks of your character’s level, not half his level. I’ve already said I don’t want to do that, but there are still some things we can take from the way these systems work.

Third Edition: Sets a character’s maximum skill ranks as your level +3. This gets away from the problem of having cripplingly low skills at first level. The maximum ranks of cross-class skills are set at half this. So a 13th level character can only have +8 in a cross-class skill.

Pathfinder: The Pathfinder system does away with having different maximum ranks for class and cross class skills. In Pathfinder you can put a number of ranks into any skill equal to your level. Each class has a list of class skills. If you put ranks into one of your class skills you get +3 to your check. This is the same principle as the +5 modifier to trained skills you get in 4e, but it creates skill modifiers that are exactly the same as third edition (a goal of the Pathfinder design process).

Could we do something similar in HD&D? Bump up the skills of first level characters to make their skills more meaningful at very low levels. It’s worth a thought isn’t it?

The Future of Skills in HD&D

I was thinking of something along the lines of this: The maximum ranks you can have in a skills is half your level +3 (rounded down). This means characters would start with up to three ranks in any one skill, and could put an extra rank in at every even numbered level.

This would be quite helpful from a progression point of view, as not much happens at even numbered levels at present. If your skills could increase, and your defences increased by +1 at even instead of odd levels then it would make the progression more balanced.

In practice, characters under this system would have skill modifiers that are 2-3 points higher than they would have been in the original HD&D system. It’s a small difference, but one I think could be necessary in the long term.

As for DCs…. I say leave them where they are. They’re already quite high. Rather than assuming characters have a stat of 18 and maximum skill ranks; I’ll just assume a stat of 14 and maximum skill ranks. That can easily be justified.

The question is…

What version of the rules do we use for playtesting: my original thoughts with very low DCs, or this new idea with not quite as low DCs? My opinion is still not to second guess myself, to hold this new ides in reserve and use it only if the first obviously fails. We’ll know that when we enter play-testing, but I’d be interested in hearing your opinions in the meantime.

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4 thoughts on “HD&D: Well that won’t work, will it?

  1. Neil,

    It may slow down the INITIAL playtesting – but run your first couple of test adventures using boths set of skill checks (everyone makes one dice role which has 2 results). You’ll soon see if one plays better than the other.

  2. Hi Jon. Yes, we could run both systems simulataneously. We could just use my original idea and take into account of the fact that under the newer system, all skill checks in trained skills would probably be +2 points higher.

    That might be a shorthand way to get around it without two separate lists of skills.

  3. I’d be willing to run through both skill tests in a session but we’d need one authoratative winner. If one system represents a success and the other a fail then we can’t have a series of parralel worlds opening up as we track every eventuality.
    If the DM keeps track of the differences and how significant they would be it would be useful but one system or the other would need to be the base line. It would be lovely to take whichever system gives the better result at the time but highly impractical.

  4. I tend to agree with you, Malcolm. I think the less forgiving system should be the baseline. From there it’s easy to recognise what the result could have been if you had a slightly higher skill. A sort of “here’s what you would have won” moment.

    I find it slightly unsettling that we’re talking about playtesting, when the system is still less than half finished!

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