Ability Checks & Skills

Characters of different classes have different unique abilities, for example magic-users can cast spells and thieves can pick pockets.

However, there are some things—such as trying to walk along a thin ledge or trying to remember which type of dragon breathes fire and which type breathes frost before venturing into a lair—that any character can attempt.

These situations are handled by ability checks and skills.

Ability Checks

In general, adventurers are assumed to be competent individuals who can do things like riding horses, starting camp fires, and swimming in calm water.

If you particularly want to play a character whose competency is deficient in some area, for example if you decide that you specifically want to play a character who can’t swim, then you can do that. However, these rules assume that your character can do all these things in calm situations unless you decide otherwise.

However, sometimes there are situations where your character might fail. Perhaps they are trying to stay on a horse that is bolting in fright. Or perhaps they are trying to light a fire in torrential rain. Or perhaps they are trying to swim in turbulent water without getting washed downstream.

In these cases, the Game Master will call for an Ability Check in order for your character to succeed. To make an ability check, roll 1d20 and compare the score to the relevant ability score on your character sheet. If the roll is equal to or less than your character’s ability score then your character has succeeded. If the roll is higher than your character’s ability score then your character has failed.

The exact consequences of success and failure will depend on the exact situation your character faces, although it should be very rare (but not unheard of) for a failed ability check to result in death, unless the character is attempting something spectacularly risky.

Example: Black Leaf is faced with a problem. She has been granted an audience with Queen Eloise and wishes to use the opportunity to ask for some royal sponsorship to aid her expedition to find the fabled Eye of Harmaz. Unfortunately she is panicking because she cannot remember the proper etiquette and is afraid that she will cause offence.

Marcie, her player, asks the Game Master if she can make an ability check against Black Leaf’s intelligence in order for Black Leaf to “remember” the correct etiquette. The Game Master agrees and Marcie rolls 1d20, getting a 14. This is higher than

Black Leaf’s intelligence score of 8, so the roll fails and Black Leaf fails to remember the correct etiquette for addressing the queen.

Some time later, Black Leaf can be found getting drunk in an inn, her expedition without royal patronage due in part to the queen’s offense at her frightful manners.

Modifiers to Ability Checks

In some circumstances the Game Master may decide that an ability check is particularly easy or hard. Maybe the ledge that the character is balancing on is slippery, or maybe the person that the character is trying to scrutinise in order to see if they are lying is wearing a mask, or maybe the piece of information they are trying to remember is reasonably common knowledge.

In these cases, the Game Master may assign a modifier to the character’s effective ability score when rolling the check. Unless there are exceptional circumstances that would be unknown to the character, the Game Master should always tell the player what modifiers are going to apply before the player rolls.

Example: Elfstar has come across an underground temple where cultists are performing some kind of ritual in front of a statue of a man who she assumes to be an Immortal.

Elfstar’s player, Debbie, wishes to roll an intelligence check in order to recognise the Immortal. The Game Master knows that although this Immortal is not one who has regular dealings with Elfstar’s home country (if he was, then the Game Master would simply tell

Debbie who he is and not require a roll at all) he is commonly worshipped in the local area and so it is likely that Elfstar will have heard of him. He gives her a +4 bonus to her effective intelli- gence for the roll, modifying it from a 13 to a 17. Debbie rolls a 17, which is equal to her effec- tive intelligence for the roll—so the Game Master tells her that Elfstar recognises the Immortal and tells her who he is.

Table 5-1: Ability Checks By Ability

Ability Situations where this ability might be checked Skills useful in these situations
StrengthWhere raw physical strength is required; such as lifting, pushing, or pulling.Intimidation, Jumping, Swimming
IntelligenceWhere calculation, memory or reasoning ability is required.Arcane Lore, Engineering, Geography, History, Laws, Magical Engineering, Nature Lore, Religious Lore
WisdomWhere intuition or “common sense” are required. Also where acuity of the senses is required.
Note: Wisdom checks should not be used to replace or duplicate the use of class abilities such as Find Traps.
Cooking, First Aid, Lip Reading, Navigating, Tracking, Sense Motive
DexterityWhere either agility or fine manipulative skills are required. Note: Dexterity checks should not be used to replace or duplicate the use of class abilities such as Climb Walls or Move Silently.Balance Craft Escape Artist Performance Riding
ConstitutionWhere stamina or raw endurance is required.-
CharismaWhere personality and smooth talking are required.Bluff, Diplomacy, Disguise, Etiquette, Gambling, Intimidation, Performance

Using Skills

Every character starts with 4 skill points, plus an extra skill point per point of intelligence bonus. If a charac- ter has an intelligence penalty, then this does not reduce the number of skill points the character has. Characters also gain extra skill points as they increase in level. See Chapter 4: Creating a Character for details of skill points per level. These skill points are spent immedi- ately on skills listed in this chapter. In most cases, each point spent on a particular skill will give your character a +1 bonus to their effective ability score when rolling for ability checks that correspond to the skill.

So a character with a strength of 12 would normally need to roll a 12 to make an ability check to use his strength to swim upstream in a river but if the character’s player has spent two points in the Swimming skill then that character’s strength is effectively 14 when making the check and their player will only need to roll a 14 or less.

Such skill modifiers stack with modifi- ers applied by the Game Master due to circumstances.

Example: Black Leaf is hot on the trail of the Eye of Harmaz, and comes across a narrow rope bridge spanning a chasm.

Unfortunately the guide rope for the rope bridge is missing, so Black Leaf will have to try to balance without its aid if she wishes to cross. The Game Mas- ter tells Marcie that she will need to make a Balance check (an ability check against dex- terity, using the Balance skill) in order to cross the bridge—but that the strong winds blowing through the chasm will give her a –1 penalty to her effective dexterity. Black Leaf has a dexterity of 16, and

Marcie has spent two points on the Balance skill, so she can add these points to her effective dexter- ity for the roll. The two skill points and the wind penalty stack, so overall Marcie is going to have to roll against an effective dexterity of (16+2-1=17).

Marcie reckons that this is well worth trying, but tells the Game Master that Black Leaf is looping a rope around the bridge and around her waist so that if she falls off she won’t plummet to her almost certain death at the bottom of the chasm.

She also trails a rope behind her so that after she’s crossed she and the other companions can tie it off so that the less dextrous party members will have a guide rope and not need to cross the bridge the hard way.

Social Skills

Special care needs to be used when using skills designed for social situations (Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidation and Sense Motive).

Players and Game Masters should discuss the use of these skills before the game starts, since they have the potential to unbalance games.

Firstly, it is recommended that these skills are not used against players. If a player wishes to influence another player then this should be role played rather than rolled for using skills.

Many players don’t like the loss of “free will” and the loss of control that they feel when their character is forced into particular behaviour by dice rolls rather than because they wanted their character to behave in that way, especially if the forced behaviour is the result of another player’s use of social skills against them. This can be very disruptive to your gaming group.

Secondly, the players and Game Master should agree what proportion of social interaction with NPCs should be governed by skill usage and what proportion should be governed by role play. Some people prefer more skill usage since it means that people can play silver-tongued characters even if they are not good talkers themselves. Others feel that simply rolling a Diplomacy Check in order to find out whether the character can talk the king into pardoning their wrongly-imprisoned associates is something of a dramatic let-down and prefer to role play the issue to its conclusion. There is no single “correct” way to play using these skills, only the way that your group enjoys.

Special Skills

While most skills simply add bonuses to ability checks, some—notably language skills—work in other ways.

If a skill works in an unusual way, this will be detailed in the skill’s individual description.

Adding New Skills

The list of skills in this chapter is not meant to cover all possible situations. Game Masters may require (or players may ask for) ability checks for a variety of situations other than those given here. If a particular situation crops up repeatedly, a player may—with the Game Master’s permission—spend a skill point in order to buy it as a named skill in order to get a bonus to their effective ability score in that situation.

However, Game Masters and players should be careful that this does not overlap with class abilities, particularly not those of the thief and mystic classes. For example, sneaking up on someone without being heard is a specific thief ability called Move Silently. While in some specific circumstances it may be acceptable for a non-thief player to make a dexterity check in order to have their character sneak up on someone, this should not become standard practice (and players certainly shouldn’t start spending points on a “Stealth” skill to help with it) since that will overlap with—and undermine— the Move Silently ability.

Alphabetical Skill List