What would it take to remove checks from D&D?

I don’t think I really mean that. But let’s think about it. Over on enworld, I unwisely said this.

I mean it, I just didn’t think it through all of the way.

There’s not all that many specific skills in the game.

Strength (Athletics) is my bugaboo. It’s basically a strength saving throw. The lack of a negative should have given it away; the fact that you keep trying until you succeed implies you should only have this check when there’s a penalty for failure, and avoiding bad stuff is what saving throws are there for.

Dexterity (Acrobatics) and Dexterity (Stealth) ditto; you basically don’t make those rolls actively, but instead in response to “doing something dangerous and then something goes wrong”. Even sleight of hand implies you’re good at tricks (so, yay, you can juggle)… but you’re probably going to roll it to see if you get away with pickpocketing, ie, if you avoid the “penalty” of getting spotted.

Intelligence has Investigation, and then a bunch of knowledges. Investigation is a sort of int-based-active-search skill; the description limits it for  finding structural secrets (hidden objects and tunnel weak points), though throws out a quick “oh, research too” concept which obviously would be intelligence based, but almost feels like a tool proficiency (reference catalog). The knowledges are the purest skill checks, since you make them to see what you know: pure data dumps. Interestingly, there’s no directly reactive component here at all: a DM might make an Int check to know if a mushroom is poisonous before you bite into it, but per the rules you’re really rolling something else.

Wisdom has two clear “saving throw” skills (insight and perception; you roll them reactively to avoid being misled and spot hidden things, and actively when you think you’ve previously failed a passive check of this sort), another usually-a-saving-throw skill (survival, rolled when traveling overland to avoid getting lost and avoid getting hungry; identify hazards, etc), a very special purpose saving throw skill (animal handling: control a balking horse is a save versus stunned, more or less, and pacifying a hungry bear a save versus having to fight a bear). So its only skill-qua-skill is medicine, which should be intelligence  based anyway.

Charisma’s skills have always been weird to me — you make charisma checks in order to get a social situation to fall out your way, but the individual skills represent types of social approaches, and if you have less than the whole set, you’re really quite encouraged to avoid your shortfalls, i.e. if you’re trained in deception, you’re a pathological liar; if you’re trained in intimidation, you’re a bully; otherwise you don’t get your bonus. No fun; it’s like the combat system fixing your tactics at chargen (which okay it does but a good liar should be intimidating; a persuasive person doesn’t stop being persuasive because they worked in a fib, etc).

Say that that laborious breakdown convinced you that the only skills I actually want in the game are arcana, arts, criminality, engineering, history, law, medicine, nature, religion, trade, and war. The nature of the skill system is that you will usually be rolling against Intelligence to use these, but not always; Charisma will be a second statistic (putting to use your domain in a conversation), and then other statistics trailing behind. I’m not sure how you select these; maybe they’re mixed among the tool proficiencies and languages, because the interesting skills (athletics, stealth, etc) are now a part of the saving throw system, so obviously are off the table for background and free class selection.

We’d need some way to say that our elves are good at spotting things and hiding, but our halflings good at hiding only. It’s funny because of how these skills work; it’s very likely that if we want to hide, we’ll also want to perceive, and whatever gets us one gets us both. No matter, though, because this is a very doable thing: Say that I’ve convinced us that stealth rolls are really a saving throw against being noticed (against a foe-specific score we’ll talk about how to calculate in a moment); then we have a mechanism perfectly suited for this. As dwarves have advantage on saving throws to avoid being poisoned, as halflings have advantage on saving throws to avoid being frighened, so have halflings advantage on saving throws to avoid being seen. We don’t even need to specify that these are dexterity saving throws to avoid being seen; they are, but we don’t need to say that.

If we did that, the things-previously-called-skills that become types of saves you can choose to improve might be:

1) Grappling (as an attack; this is a weapon proficiency).

1.a) Avoiding and escaping a grapple. This is a saving throw type effect, though it’s strength or dexterity based at the recipient’s choice. Probably also usable for other hindering terrain: pushing through seaweed.
2) Pushing (forced movement, prone; attacks, and therefore a weapon proficiency).

2.a) Avoiding and resisting a push. Another save, sometimes strength and sometimes dexterity based; already used around vortices and whirlwinds and keeping ones footing. 

3) Avoid notice. Pickpocketing, hiding. These get to add lighting modifiers (+0 lightly obscured, +2 low light or obscured, +5 darkness) and concealment (something entirely hidden behind; advantage). Wood elves use mask of the wild to shift obscurity one down.
4) “Investigation saving throws”: Let’s just make passive perception a real thing, encompassing the finding hidden object aspect of investigation, perception and insight. It’s like AC; by default it’s 10 + [the stat we decide this is based on, but one fight at a time, it’s wisdom for now], and if trained we let you add your proficiency; the extra 2 is balanced by cover and concealment. When you actively investigate, it’s like dodging, and attempts to dissimulate against you have disadvantage. Secret doors roll once against the whole party, and then roll again (disadvantage) in the face of an active searcher.

5) Survival saving throws: there’s basically two types, “saves to avoid becoming lost and hungry”, and “saves to avoid a conflict with an animal”. That seems fine to me, so call those 5a and 5b 😉

6) Saving throw to avoid giving offense.

7) Saving throw to avoid being caught in a lie.

8) Saving throw to avoid being dismissed.

Modify the classes a little, so that they hand out some of these proficiencies (fighters are good at grapples and shoves, and probably a good perception score! Rogues get stealth saves and perception score! Wizards get bupkis, but some extra “skill” proficiencies! etc)

Then we need to figure out what to do with all of the rules that differentiate checks versus saves today — poisoned gives disadvantage on checks; if there ARE NO checks, what does that mean?

I think there’s actually a very elegant distinction which makes the rules kind of interesting and different: “saving throws” are made off-turn, and “checks” (in the way the game system refers to it) are made on-turn. So they use the same mechanisms, but for instance the guidance cantrip helps you avoid the consequences of your actions, while the resistance cantrip does the same for OTHER PEOPLE’s actions.
What I like about this is the absolute clarity it provides: since skills are now either “lores” that tell you things or else a saving throw against a very clear outcome, you know exactly when to roll these things: when that outcome is a risk. There’s not athletics skill, because that doesn’t define an outcome; there’s a save versus forced movement to avoid a 5′ outwards push from the cliff with “gravity” written on it, and the subsequent 500 foot fall.


About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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