As I grow more weary of 4E and more nostalgic for my days playing 2E, I'm spending more and more time reading the old rules and the retroclones. I'm having a great time.

One of the things that I liked so much in 2E (as a change from 1E) was the non-weapon proficiency system. It provided a very nice, simple system for dealing with all kinds of non-combat situations (and was useful in combat, too). Unfortunately, I've found the 2E retroclones unsatisfactory, and the 1E (or earlier) retroclones much better. That leaves me wondering how things like "lie convincingly" and "set a trap" and "repair a broken wagon" were handled. (I'm sure I had my own rules for it before 2E came out... when I was 11.)

The AD&D 1E DMG has some talk about secondary skills on page 12, but it's really just "role for your previous occupation," and says:

When secondary skills are used, it is up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character…

So, I understand that there are no hard rules, and that this is probably a good thing. I'm just wondering what real DMs did or do during real play. I can imagine backporting a simple d20 check against a DC with bonuses for your secondary skills and ability modifier. Given the percent-to-succeed used in may other places, maybe that would make sense, too.

If I'm going to run an old school game, I'm sure at some point I'll want to have consistent rulings on how these kinds of odd jobs work. How have the other DMs out there done it?


4 Answers 4


Well... let's see what Mr. Moldvay said to do... as, when I started, that's where we started from...

Moldvay Method

Lots of references like this:
Find concealed doors: search 1 turn, 1 on 1d6 chance

For other stuff, Moldvay gives several options, but the first is figure out the percentage chance.

Then he goes on to suggest basing it off of an ability score; roll 1d20 for attribute or less. The example is Rope Climbing by non-thieves.

He also suggests a difficulty mod of from +4 to stat through -4 to stat.

And the resultant play mode

If there was an explicit rule, we'd look for it. Fortunately, Moldvay was short.

If there was a specific example in the rules, that became a second tier of rules for us.

So, we had two "tiers" of climbing... 1d20 for rope climbs, and 1d100 for free climbs... both on dex for non-thieves, and on Climb Sheer Surfaces for thieves.

We occasionally based that 1d20 check on level instead. Other items we used 1d10 vs level, or even 1d6, and usually, a ±4 difficulty, and the stat modifier from a relevant stat if we could justify it to the DM.

Of course, we also used lots of saving throws... The hot princess just blew you a kiss, save vs paralysis.

The general rule was, if it was in doubt, we rolled for it. Movement seldom was in doubt.

Looking at the earlier editions I started a bit later than these, but several friends who started when I did started with Holmes Basic or even with later printings of Gygax & Arneson.

Lots of specific "25% chance" type rules, and many more "on 1 roll of 1" (presumed to be on 1d6) references, but no general advice to make attribute checks. Attribute checks, however, seem to have been normative. Saving throws work just like later editions.

Holmes (p. 40) adds a precursor to Moldvay's generic advice:

Improvise. Agree on a probability that an event will occur and convert it into a die roll — roll the number and see what happens! The game is intended to be fun and the rules modified if the players desire. Do not hesitate to invent, create and experiment with new ideas. Imagination is the key to a good game. Enjoy!

It seems that Gygax and Arneson D&D left out some elements that (I've been assured) were so common sense that they didn't realize others wouldn't.

Other Early Games

Tunnels and Trolls: The mechanics of the 1975 T&T are, in fact, almost exactly the same as the mechanics of the 1979 edition 5.0... and the 2005 edition 5.5 simply adds an options section in the back, and is the standard ruleset still sold by Flying Buffalo, new in box. 7.5 is an alternative ruleset, closer to what Ken runs now; the core mechanics aside from character generation and advancement are pretty much the same as 5.0. A few small changes.

Best bet for the feel? Head over to DriveThroughRPG.com, and download the "Tunnels & Trolls Free Rulebook"... it's the T&T equivalent of Moldvay... the stable 1979 rules (T&T 5th ed) abridged into an introductory ruleset. It's more than "just enough"... it explicitly allows playing warriors and wizards.

T&T was, in fact, Ken St. Andre's reaction to the lack of unified mechanics in D&D. He saw the promise in the method of play, and rather quickly made the leap to story-mode-only, but used a "Saving Roll on Luck" mechanic, with difficulty levels. By 4th ed, it was used for saves on all the other stats, too.

Every stat except Charisma has a clear mechanical use in T&T.
Strength limits what weapons you can wield and armor you can wear. Also powers magic in 1.0-5.0. Part of the adds calculation. Also used for fatigue.
Dexterity limits what weapons you can use. Also part of the adds calculation. Limits what level of spells can be cast.
Constitution is used as hit points.
IQ is used to limit which levels of spells can be learned. Dump stat for Warriors. Charisma is used in resisting certain spells, and has vague implications for awe.
Luck is used for saving rolls versus a lot of stuff, and is part of the adds calculation.

The saving roll mechanic is 2d6 + stat for a target number or higher, with doubles open ending. It was used for just about everything except combat.

Later editions (edition 5.0 and later) add Speed as an option, and (editions 5.5, 7.0, 7.5 ) add Pow/Magic/Kremm for powering spells in place of ST.

The Fantasy Trip: (1981) everything is some number of d6's vs attribute, roll low, or is a flat chance (usually on 1d6, or rarely 2d6) defined by rules. Even combat. Only 3.5 attributes... ST, DX, IQ... and Movement Allowance. Some GM's treated MA as an attribute, others as merely a racial ability.

Classic Traveller: (1977) Attributes take damage, provide modifiers to some skill uses (including weapons), and most rolls are 2d6 roll high, but some skill subsystems are 2d6 roll low, and a few use 3d6. Some rolls are for stat or less on 2 or 3 d6.

It was equally as incoherent as D&D, especially since most skills have their own resolution rules. Combat was a cohesive 2d6 + Skill ±1 for Dex of certain values (by weapon).

Note I started with Moldvay, then migrated to Traveller... then to TFT, and then to a wide variety; by 1987, I'd been introduced to T&T, using it almost exclusively for solo play. Only later did I get the little brown D&D books.

Rolling for stat or less is so intuitive that, even if not in a game, many gamers will want to do so when a coherent rules mechanic isn't already dominant. But it's always been at odds with the "More is Better, so higher is better" mentality, leading to a variety of roll high approaches (including several in Classic Traveller alone, and in T&T).

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 For "propose a number and roll". So much can be sorted out on-the-fly like this, and so quickly. \$\endgroup\$ May 26, 2011 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I used to always allow the PC's to use Luck Save at +2 the level of the current attrib save if they wanted. It is better to be lucky than good... \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    May 28, 2011 at 12:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ And in my o/AD&D games, I generally used more roll under stat Saves, as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    May 28, 2011 at 12:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Dude, your experience mirrors mine.... \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    Aug 13, 2012 at 20:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Notice that in the 1e AD&D books, Gygax most often gives the chance of success and then may parenthetically give a matching die roll. Also, probability tables for rolling n d6 were given in Traveller Book Zero. I think these hint that both Gygax & Miller—when running games—just decided on an ad hoc % based on the situation & character and then picked a compatible die roll. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 4, 2013 at 13:31

Usually (in all the 1e and surrounding games I ever played in starting in 1984 sometime) it was done via:

  1. DM fiat. "I go fishing!" "You catch a fish," or alternately, "Morkoth attack!"

    1a. Fiat guided by character background. "I go fishing!" "You are a wizard's apprentice that has never been outside the tower. You don't catch anything," or alternately "You come from a river town, you catch a fish."

  2. Ability checks. "I jump the chasm!" "Roll under your DEX." Sometimes with modifiers up to +4/-4 for significant factors in play.

    2a. The 50-50 rule when a check doesn't seem right. "I go fishing!" "1-10 you catch a fish, 11-19 you don't, 20 Morkoth attack!"

Rolling against a stat may not have been 'in the rules' in 1e or original Basic but life was more common sense back then - you had a stat from 3-18 and you had a d20, so no duh you rolled against it.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Why don't 4e skill checks do this? [Especially: epic-fail, fail, barely succeed, success, epic success kinda interpretations...] \$\endgroup\$ May 26, 2011 at 5:27
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ d20's dirty secret is that its core mechanic is just AD&D's ability check "core mechanic", dressed up. Ability checks were used all the time when I played AD&D, and they've always been very flexible/fast because they weren't loaded down with detailed modifiers and skill subsystems. \$\endgroup\$ May 26, 2011 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, actually there is an important difference betwwen 3e/4e skill checks and old style vs-stat checks. From a theoretical point of view I like the roll+skill vs scaled DC. But in AD&D ability checks weren't rolling vs DC; like GURPS they were roll against your own stat. Sure, you can apply bonuses and penalties, but it's more inherently normalizing - which is less realistic but actually works against a lot of the extreme min-maxing and swinginess of the 3e mechanic, in retrospect. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 26, 2011 at 12:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, this is about what I remember doing, and it's good (and not too surprising) to learn I was not alone. I had looked for "ability check" in the 1E rules, but found nothing and assumed it was only formally introduced in 2E, but now I see that it's in the Cyclopedia (Ch 13) and that the Cyclopedia even has a skills system in Chapter 5! Who knew? (Probably a lot of people.) Thanks again! \$\endgroup\$
    – rjbs
    May 26, 2011 at 14:44

In our group, the DM will take a look at how difficult the task is and match it to a general skill and your background. If it is something that takes some skill, you'll have to roll. Otherwise it's automatic. The quality is dependent upon the skill or the roll.


Old Geezer on RPG.net was playing D&D with Gygax before it was published, and he said that one of the saving throws was used, as it differed according to class and changed according to level. I have no idea how they decided whether you'd use Rod/Staff/Wand or Breath Weapon or something else to see if you can make it across a broken rope bridge, but that's what they did.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ You don't happen to have a handy link to the citation, do you? \$\endgroup\$
    – rjbs
    May 26, 2011 at 19:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ RPG.net disabled searching over a year ago, it would take ages for me to find. If I know the thread title I can do a site search on bing to pull stuff up, but if I'm doing a search for a username it's pointless as it doesn't seem to be indexed on any of the search engines. \$\endgroup\$
    – migo
    May 26, 2011 at 19:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ you can use google to find it Just add site:rpg.net on the search parameters. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    May 27, 2011 at 6:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ nope, google's no better \$\endgroup\$
    – migo
    May 27, 2011 at 7:41
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This was definitely the way it was done. I remember seeing it done this way as well, and remember once specifically having to save vs petrification or fall in a river. \$\endgroup\$
    – LordVreeg
    Aug 13, 2012 at 20:58

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