Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Old School Skills, Feats & Counterspells

One reason why I moved back to Holmes, 0e, AD&D & BX is the simplicity of the system, especially when it concerns character abilities and skills.  Holmes, 0e, and BX never had a skill system that we would recognize as official, but it was AD&D that first led us down the skill path by offering "Secondary Skills", and eventually "Proficiencies". The BECMI sets called them "General Skills" and "Weapon Mastery".

I don't want to get into the mechanics of each system, aside from stating that 0e, Holmes, early AD&D and BX had all the skill system it needed with the Bend Bars/Lift Gates, Listen and Detect Secret Door checks. I also won't touch on the Thief Skills, as these are clearly a class ability, just as casting spells for Magic-Users and Turning Undead for Clerics, but I will say that this leaves the wide choice of weapons and armor and Hit Dice as the Fighter's class ability.

Now the problem lies with enticing "modern" D&D players that a D&D system is just as complete without Skills or Feats. The problem is, according to one old school gamer, is that skills and feats should be clearly defined as to what characters can and cannot do in the game, because players will take advantage of any loophole found in an incomplete system and gain an unfair advantage over the referee and disrupt the scenario, or, as some like to call it: "Game Balance".

Game Balance is a slippery slope topic of its very own, and I won't go into that here either. What I want to call attention to is how a D&D game without skills is still just as complete as a game with every skill and feat system that is clearly defined in the rules, if not more so.

As a player in our old group's semi-weekly AD&D 2e game, I was often stymied by "Captain Shirk" (our DM) when I would declare an action for my PC, only to have him ask me if I had any relevant proficiencies. I would scan my sheet and invariably answer in the negative - and he would usually tell me that I had slim to no chance of successfully performing the declared action. After several sessions of this, I became thoughtful of the skill/feat/proficiency system, and came to two conclusions:
1) If your character doesn't have a particular skill/feat/proficiency, the majority of players and DMs believe that certain actions will nearly always fail when attempted, and the only sure-fire way of being successful, or even having a slim chance at success is to have that particular skill/feat/proficiency.
2) This particular interpretation of the rules was never intended to limit players or their characters, it was intended to enhance their choices when it comes to role-playing.

So far as my experience with D&D goes, I've always felt that my characters that never had one single skill/feat/proficiency written down on the character sheet had a lot more freedom to act according to the situation than a character that was 'limited' by having a short list of the things he was allowed to do.

Anything the character wanted to attempt could be decided solely on referee decision, and a simple die roll, usually on a d6, d20 or d%. In many groups, an Ability Check is considered the standard practice for determining success or failure to performing any undefined action not covered in the rules, and I prefer it that way.

Of course, I have a mental list of what each character can succeed at more readily than others based on race or class. Fighters know how to fight with anything they pick up, even if its a radical design of a known weapon. Thieves know who to contact in town to fence loot. Dwarves never lose direction underground, even after regaining consciousness. Elves talk to trees. Most times, the trees don't have the capability to talk back, but if the party is going through a forest with an elf, a reaction bonus from an Ent is sure handy. Hobbits can cook, and can even take the skimpiest ingredients to make a stew that is somewhat passable. At least the other characters won't get food poisoning or starve. Clerics can Turn Undead, and once they reach 2nd level can cast any Divinely given spells allowable at their level without having to memorize it. Magic-Users can use magic items that other classes aren't allowed to, and can activate the abilities of weapons and items they aren't allowed to use as weapons, and they can counter spells.

Based on Chainmail's Counterspell rules, a magic-user of higher level than his or her opponent can successfully counter a spell on a roll of 6 or better on 2d6. A magic-user of equal level as his or her opponent successfully counters a spell on a roll of 7 or better on 2d6. A magic-user of lower level than his or her opponent casting a spell must roll 8 or better on 2d6. The countering magic-user can add a bonus to the die roll by sacrificing any uncast spells, adding 1 to the roll for every level of spell sacrificed this way.

Magic-users may only counter one spell per combat round if there is combat, or one spell every turn if there is no combat taking place. The countering magic-user may not cast any spells in the round or turn that a counter spell is performed. Spells cast from memory, scrolls, or spell books may be countered. Clerical spells may not be countered by magic-users, or vice versa. Spell-like effects that are activated by a device or weapon may not be countered unless a counterspell effect like the Rod of Cancellation is used.

Clerics may counter clerical spells as defined above.

Countering spells is not a magical effect or spell, rather it is a magic canceling set of gestures, actions, movement, or words used in conjunction with each other. A Dispell Magic spell or activated item with dispelling effects beats, or cancels the effects of a counter spell action.