Beyond Ability Checks, Beyond Traditional Play
It is not uncommon for a rulebook to introduce itself by its universal resolution procedure. It's become a cliche at this point, so let's say it together: "When your character attempts something difficult or dangerous, [perform procedure] to see whether they fail or succeed." The exact nature of the procedure differs from rulebook to rulebook, whether you roll a twenty-sided dice or a bunch of six-sided dice, whether you aim for high or low numbers, whether there are degrees of success (or failure), whether the distribution of results is even or biased towards the center, et cetera. Whatever the exact method, the universal resolution procedure looms over many rulebooks published today no matter the play culture they are a part of—traditional, story game, or OSR.
The universal resolution procedure is often associated with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition (2000), the first edition of the game developed and published by Wizards of the Coast. It was famous for introducing the d20 system, which unified the disparate rules of (A)D&D hitherto into one universal scheme for dice rolls and ability bonuses . However, this vast reimagining of D&D was not without precedent or purpose. Although Third Edition represents a major departure from the so-called 'Gygaxo-Arnesonian line' (OD&D to AD&D) , the shift in play culture from Gygaxian play to traditional play was a much earlier development exemplified by the Dragonlance (1984) adventure setting. As it were, D&D had been a traditional-style game for almost two decades, but the ruleset used to play the game was a remnant of a play style no longer predominant. That is to say that a play style (especially the aim of play) can have little to do with the formal mechanics of a game in practice. Furthermore, Third Edition did not emerge from a vacuum, but it was influenced by rulebooks that were eating D&D's lunch.
In this post, I'm going to investigate the earliest uses of ability checks and other universal resolution procedures to see how they influence play structure. Then, I will look to see if there's an alternative that foregrounds more important and distinct aspects of a game with respect to play activity, rather than to the math of an improvisational tool.
The Origin of the Ability Check
D&D Third Edition likely took inspiration from games whose rulesets were developed to facilitate what had then become the play style de jour: for example, Call of Cthulhu (1981) and Vampire: The Masquerade (1991). Call of Cthulhu was based on the mechanical chassis of the earlier RuneQuest (1978), which was itself not dissimilar to (A)D&D with respect to being a ruleset for simulating the course of a character's life: "A role-playing game is a game of character development, simulaitng the process of personal development commonly called 'life'" (Perrin & Turney 2016: p. 3). Runequest also does not have strict ability checks as we know them, having fairly disparate mechanics for combat, magic, and professional skills (except that they all tend to use percentile dice). The ruleset, overall, is pretty ad hoc, foregrounding contexts of play like exploration or combat over dice mechanics (even if, true to being a sort of heartbreaker, the dice mechanics are the most detailed part of the book; they're still not standardized, anyway). This situates RuneQuest squarely in the early (A)D&D tradition of fantasy life simulation games, to speak broadly.
Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, says that its goal is to traverse a scenario crafted by the game master :
Players ... take the part of intrepid investigators of the unknown, attempting to ferret out, understand, and eventually destroy the horrors, mysteries, and secrets of the Cthulhu cult. A game moderator, known as the Keeper of Arcane Lore ("Keeper"), is necessary for this game, and his role is to attempt (within the rules of the game) to set up situations for the players to confront.Peterson 1983: p. 5.
Then, after creating an investigator character, the rulebook gets to the typical part:
Critical Investigator actions succeed or fail through the result of percentile die rolls. An Investigator can learn from success and improve his or her skill percentiles.
Here the mysteries of the game are explained. Whether your character is heroic or dastardly, you'll want him to act and succeed. In Call of Cthulhu your investigator can succeed in three ways: (1) automatic actions, (2) simple percentile rolls, and (3) the resistance table roll.Peterson 1983: p. 14.
Automatic actions are simply those not requiring any roll because the investigator is competent enough to not fail at them ("walking, running, talking, seeing, hearing, and any other basic function"; ibid.). Simple percentile rolls have players combine their ability scores with static numbers or with each other to arrive at percent chances of success for "Ordinary actions performed under stress or requiring concentration" (ibid.); these are modeled after the various percentile rolls in RuneQuest, except unified under the common header of 'skill percentiles'. Finally, the resistance table is used to determine percent chance of success against an opposing character; in RuneQuest, the same sort of table is used for casting spells, except that the book mentions that it can be used to adjudicate grappling; in Call of Cthulhu, the functionality of opposed action resolution is generalized. Overall, then, Call of Cthulhu unifies the ruleset of its predecessor with respect to form and function, in order to facilitate a specific structure of play. This structure is a conversation punctuated by standard dice rolls for when characters attempt something with an uncertain outcome.
Vampire: The Masquerade
Vampire: The Masquerade seems to give Call of Cthulhu a run for its money, promising horrific storytelling and a bag of chips:
This is a game of make-believe. of pretend, of storytelling. Though a game, it is more about storytelling than it is about winning. If you've never done this kind of thing before, you may be confused by the whole premise of a storytelling game. But once you catch on to the basic concepts, you'll find that it isn't all that strange.
You, along with some of your friends, are going to weave wondrous tales. Stories of monsters and creatures of the night. Tales of peril, horror and sinister, shadowy evil. And at the heart of it all are Vampires. These stories are of a more grim and dark nature than the fairy tales that you might remember (though those too were rather grim if you think back), and they will capture your imagination and involve you far more deeply than any play or movie. This is because you're inside the story and not just watching it. This game is your opportunity to truly experience horror, not just watch it.
This storytelling game provides a way to experience a terror of an all too immediate nature, for it allows you to experience the horror from the other side of the mirror. The horror of Vampire is the curse of what it is like to be half-beast and half-angel, trapped in a world of no absolutes, where morality is chosen, not ordained. The horror of Vampire is the stirrings of the Beast within and the cravings for warm blood. Perhaps the greatest risk of playing Vampire is seeing yourself in the mirror. To play this game, you must bear witness to the madness within you, that which you strive to master and overcome, that which you cannot bear to face.
Unless you are willing to face the reflection of your own imperfections, then this game is not for you.Rein-Hagen, 1991: p. 19.
Whew! The goal of the game is not to win, but to tell a story. Moreover, it's not a story that the whole table tells, but one made by the Storyteller, "the person who creates and leads the stories" (Rein-Hagen, 1991: p. 19). The players, meanwhile, are enlisted as actors in the Storyteller's story. What do they do?
As an actor, you speak for your character and act out whatever you wish your character to do or say.
Often after describing the actions you want to take, you will need to make dice rolls to see if you succeed in doing what you have illustrated with words. Your Character Traits, descriptions of your strengths and weaknesses, dictate how well you can do certain things. Actions are a basic part of Vampire, for they describe how characters change the world.
To be a good player, you must become both an actor and a strategist - balancing the personality and survival instincts of your character. You try to "win" the game by employing your character's strengths and working around your character's weaknesses
To some extent, you are also the Storyteller and may add ideas and elements to the story which the Storyteller may accept or reject as she sees fit. In the end, it is the story, not the character, which is the most important.Rein-Hagen, 1991: p. 21.
Once again, we see the aims of traditional play at the forefront of the rulebook: the goal is for the players to act out a story crafted by the game master and, just maybe, the game master will incorporate feedback from the players on where the story will take them. We also see character attributes and standard dice rolls foregrounded in the text, representing the major crossways of the story where characters will either fail or succeed (and the rulebook recommends that players employ their characters' strengths to avoid failure).
The specific scheme in this ruleset is a 3-by-3 matrix of character scores, where each of the three ability categories (physical, social, and mental) has three subcategories (e.g. strength, dexterity, and stamina). Players roll as many dice as they have points in the ability subcategory, plus extra dice they have for skill points, and count up how many dice turn up greater than or equal to some target number...
Ability Checks in Traditional Games
But none of that matters, really. We can look at any number of different resolution systems with different attributes and different dice and different calculations. The overall structure of the game is the same:
- Some fictional time passes.
- The game master describes surroundings.
- The players respond.
- If the response leads to an outcome which is uncertain, dice are rolled using the proprietary method and character attributes of the ruleset.
- Return to Step 1.
It makes sense that this structure of play, explicit or not, emerges out of traditional or storytelling games, even if it is not at this point a convention exclusive to them. Game procedures prior centered on facilitating or simulating specific activities, like exploration or combat, but let me qualify this. Every game with a referee is going to involve some level of back-and-forth discourse to negotiate stakes or chances of success and failure. Many games involve some degree of chance, especially when determining character success or failure. Some games have more or less standard algorithms or procedures for different activities or contexts. None of that is disagreeable per se, or at least it's outside the scope of my argument.
Rather, traditional games distinguish themselves from their predecessors in formalizing the stream of conversation between player and game master, in order that the the game master can guide players through a sequence of scenes. Standard dice rolls homogenize the flow of play, even while incorporating variable lengths of time, to standardize and center the flow of information. This makes the rules much easier to remember, but more importantly (with respect to traditional play) it keeps the story going without interruption from shifting between different structures of play. There are certain exceptions, like how in late D&D combat remains its own highly structured activity, but these tend to be matters of convention and legacy (especially with late D&D being, as conceived, a storytelling game interspersed with encounters; the overarching conversation and story serves basically as a transitory period between battles). Still, the rulesets tend to be as flexible and memorable as necessary to facilitate the story that is actually at hand.
This is especially evident in the latest edition of D&D.
The DUNGEONS & DRAGONS roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like these games, D&D is driven by imagination. It's about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.
Unlike a game of make-believe, D&D gives structure to the stories, a way of determining the consequences of the adventurers' action. Players roll dice to resolve whether their attacks hit or miss or whether their adventurers can scale a cliff, roll away from the strike of a magical lightning bolt, or pull off some other dangerous task. Anything is possible, but the dice make some outcomes more probably than others.Crawford & Mearls, 2014: p. 5.
Even though OSR books purportedly carry the torch of old D&D, with respect to aims and avenues of play, they often reproduce formal conventions of traditional rulesets, the universal resolution procedure being chief among them. This does not mean that OSR rulebooks categorically fail at the play style they desire to communicate; indeed, this is the inverse of what had happened to the AD&D line which, despite retaining Gygaxian rules of play, incorporated more traditional aims of play revolving around storytelling and game mastery. Besides, one benefit of a universal resolution system is that it makes character actions much easier to adjudicate, giving the table more flexibility in how to handle certain situations or activities without feeling indebted to more complex rules. There are many such benefits to a standard improv device or whatever.
However, I find an issue with how many of these rulebooks foreground the universal resolution procedure. Sometimes this is because many play structures and procedures rely upon a standard mechanism for processing player input and character attributes; so, by explaining the universal procedure first, the rulebook is just explaining how to interface with the major activities of the game (at least, those which share the common structure). Yet these activities are often not foregrounded, or they are only structured implicitly, or they are left out altogether from the rulebook (expecting that readers will know how to fill in the gaps). The focus on an universal resolution procedure obscures these much more important and distinctive aspects of the game.
What's the alternative? Well, there are obviously specific procedures that can be employed for particular contexts, such as one-on-one combat or dungeon exploration. One old-school style rulebook, Gus L.'s HMS Appollyon Player Manual, actually begins by introducing and explaining the turn order for dungeon exploration, and in doing so it emphasizes the importance of this activity to the sort of campaign envisioned by the author. Likewise, OD&D begins (after character creation) by explaining the rules of combat (M&M, pp. 19-20), and the third volume addressed to the referee explains how to facilitate exploration in the Underworld, exploration in the Wilderness, and finally domain management for high-level characters (U&WA, pp. 8-9, 14-15, 20-4). Wargame rulebooks like Chainmail often begin with a straight-forward turn order, as do many board games. I have discussed some different procedures and turn orders at length elsewhere        .
Rather than discuss in depth any procedure for a specific sort of activity here, I want to look at how existing rulebooks have articulated the base structure of play without resorting to the universal resolution procedures which have become typical of these works, which seem to import non-universal concerns for storytelling and scene flow, and which do not communicate well the specific activity or focus of a game.
HârnMaster, Third Edition
HârnMaster is a fantasy role-playing game in the tradition of AD&D and RuneQuest, offering not only in-depth character simulation mechanics, but also mechanics to simulate the ongoing history of the fictional world; so to speak, it is Gygax's totalizing vision of AD&D on steroids, with even a separate book about ruling domains and extracting taxes that feels just like filling out your Form 1040 in real life. Now that's attention to detail!
Just like in AD&D, strict time records are (envisioned as) essential to playing campaigns using the HârnMaster system. To facilitate engaigng procedural play, the Campaign section "provides the GM with time-tested procedures to efficiently deal with campaign events and encounters within an ongoing campaign" (Crossby & Dalgliesh 2003: Campaign 1). Specifically, the book offers a model for how cyclical play should be structured and what factors of the game should change in between turns: "Play consists of cycles, during which the GM determines (in order): (1) Environ, (2) Timetick, (3) Weather, (4) Encounters, (5) Movement, and (6) Mapping" (ibid., Campaign 2).
- "The environ is the kind of place in which the PCs are located" (ibid.). It determines the duration of the turn, the movement rates of the characters, the likelihood of random encounters, and also just offers context for players to make decisions.
- The timetick is "the rate at which gametime passes", most commonly the four-hour watch (ibid., Campaign 3). The book urges discretion about using shorter or longer timeticks, based on whether the characters are "killing time" or if their activity requires close detail, e.g. in combat which has a timetick of 10 seconds.
- The weather of the region is determined at the beginning of each watch if it is relevant to the characters, particularly while traveling.
- The rate of encounter checks depends on the current environ, timetick, and time of day; for example, the check is made every minute in an urban environ, and there is a 25% chance of one in the daytime versus a 10% chance at night.
- The rate of movement depends on the current environ, timetick, and weather, as well as whatever vehicle the characters are driving if any. Rates are given in leagues per watch, which is equal to km/hour (since 1 league is 4 km).
- HârnMaster emphasizes drawing and referring to maps in order to better familiarize oneself with the world and where to travel.
Playing HârnMaster consists of moving (or acting) turn to turn, as the characters enter different environs and zoom in or out of different scales of time. Although some of these factors are more context-specific than others—especially weather, which is determined on a per-watch basis—the base procedure communicates well the rhythm of HârnMaster as a game about procedurally exploring the landscape of a fictional world in depth.
D&D Next (Playtest Packet 6)
Earlier on, D&D Fifth Edition was conceived as a return to form for the brand. The designers took cues from discussions in OSR circles and tried to emulate certain conventions of the early D&D rulebooks, especially with respect to referee fiat and world exploration. This is most apparent in the sixth playtest packet which contains a general procedure for exploration on any time scale, at any location.
This is the sequence of play for an exploration turn.
- You [the dungeon master] determine the length of the turn.
- The players decide what direction their characters will move in, then choose their group's travel pace and exploration tasks. The players should also determine their formation: who is in the front, the middle, and the back of the group.
- You resolve the exploration turn, calling for checks and other actions from the characters as appropriate. Determine the distance and the direction the characters traveled, taking into account their travel pace and whether or not they lost their way.
- You check for wandering monsters and, if any are encountered, resolve any interaction between the monsters and the characters.
If exploration continues, go back to the first step and repeat the sequence for another turn.Crawford & Mearls, 2013: DM Guidelines, p. 16.
The dungeon master handout offers different scales of time (5 minutes, 1 hour, or 1 day), different rates of movement for those scales, and chances of random encounters per population density of the location. Although the packet starts with ability checks, basically as a matter of convention at this point in time (2013), the mere presence of this exploration procedure is significant because it is an attempt to lend more structure to the D&D game outside of combat than has been attempted in decades (a testament to the influence of the OSR on the game's early development!). The player handout is even more interesting, since it places the combat rules after the exploration rules, suggesting that the combat turn order is subordinate to an encompassing structure. Thus the players seem to be expected to spend their time exploring, entering encounters, and then exiting encounters to reenter the exploration activity.
These rules would not really make it into Fifth Edition except for some vestigal bits about movement rates and torch light; owing to them not being published, they would not influence any subsequent rulebooks either (to my knowledge). Yet they can still serve as an excellent model for how to define the main activity and structure of play without relegating them to the whims of a scene or story. Not only do you not need to discuss ability checks to talk about a game's goal or subject matter, but they may even detract from understanding the game on the level of play activity and character development.
It is not without sense that many old-school rulebooks, and other game texts, should begin by introducing their universal procedure for resolving character actions: they facilitate table fiat and can help avoid masses of complex and impenetrable rules which only distract from playing the game. However, the choice is not one uninformed by the history of universal ability checks, which originated to wrestle more storytelling power away from the game to the game master. When applied to contexts outside of storytelling games, they obscure the actual activity of the game unless care is taken to emphasize those specific activities over what is essentially an improvisational tool. This is not just an issue with rulebooks, but also with how we articulate and rationalize play in general. If we can move beyond understanding ability checks as the core of a game, we can better understand what really constitutes a certain game in terms of what its players want to achieve and under what circumstances they try to achieve it.
 Called thusly by James Maliszewski in "The Ages of D&D" on Grognardia (2009-01-11).
 A scenario is less of a 'situation' that can go any which way, than it is a branching story created by the game master to be explored by the players in order to solve a mystery.
 B., Marcia. 2021-08-11. "Time, Movement, and Action Economy in Dungeon Games", Traverse Fantasy.
 B., Marcia. 2021-08-12. "Structural Analysis of Exploration Procedures in OD&D and B/X", Traverse Fantasy.
 B., Marcia. 2022-04-05. "Cyclical Resource Management", Traverse Fantasy.
 B., Marcia. 2022-04-26. "TURN: Post Mortem", Traverse Fantasy.
 B., Marcia. 2022-05-05. "Theoretical & Practical Proceduralism", Traverse Fantasy. Here, I compare formal procedures for combat and exploration.
 B., Marcia. 2022-05-05. "Fast Travel & Watch-Keeping Procedure", Traverse Fantasy.
 B., Marcia. 2022-07-26. "Usage & Hazard Dice: How to Emulate Bookkeeping With Dice", Traverse Fantasy.
 Now I'm just fucking with you.
Arneson, Dave & Gary Gygax. 1974. Dungeons & Dragons (Vol I-III: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures).
Crawford, Jeremy & Mike Mearls. 2013. D&D Next: Playtest Packet 6.
Crawford, Jeremy & Mike Mearls. 2014. Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition: Player's Handbook.
Crossby, N. Robin & Tom Dalgliesh. HârnMaster, Third Edition.
L., Gus. 2014. HMS Apollyon Player Manual.
Perrin, Steve & Ray Turney. 2016. Runequest, Classic Edition.
Peterson, Sandy. 1983. Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition.