D&D Skills: Old School Revival or Next Generation Nonsense?

D&D Skills: Old School Revival or Next Generation Nonsense?

If you have ever played a game of Monopoly or Risk, there is a good chance you have played some sort of homemade, original house-rule.

 “virtually no-one plays the game with the rules as written”. Computer Gaming World,

Role-playing games are no different than board games, in fact at the core of role-playing games is a long-held philosophy that not every rule needs to be printed into the text; with the confidence that the game master would adjudicate and interpret the rules themselves. 

A Bone of Contention

Dungeons & Dragons and its latest incarnation, the “5th Edition”,  is the end result of 50 years of ‘home-brewing’ rules  and “play-testing” at game tables in kitchens and conventions through-out the world.

These 50 years of game-play, and close to a dozen incarnations of the “rules as written” has resulted in a somewhat disjointed community of fans, with many players and game-masters opting to play with whatever version of the game they grew-up with.

Some players (like the author) may even play a hodgepodge, frankenstein brew of home-rules that mirror their decades of play in the game.

A bone of contention amongst players of varying editions concern the rules that govern character possessed skills, typically non-magical and non-combative abilities. Some veteran-players dismiss skills wholesale as a needless mechanic. While other players would prefer lists of options, with detailed descriptions.

In contrast, there are some rpg systems like GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing Game), whose entire system is based on the skills a character knows.

Are skills a recent and needless edition to the world of rpgs, or are they a time-honored mechanic that should be utilized and incorporated into every game?

TSR’s Oriental Adventures (1985)

It was in 1985 when Oriental Adventures was released. a  supplemental book for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) game, it was here that the new  game mechanic of non-weapon proficiencies was introduced, marking the first appearance of skills in Dungeons & Dragons. 


It is interesting to note that the non-weapon proficiencies of the Oriental Adventures were accompanied by a Difficulty Challenge number in the form of  a “Base chance of success”. In addition, the OA introduced a philosophy that still aids many DMs today; despite varying degrees of success, characters will succeed regardless of their die roll.

In actuality, D&D has a much longer history of flirting with skill mechanics that pre-date the 1985 supplement, with variety of D&D rule-sets that attempted to solve the problem of skills.

TSR’s Greyhawk supplement for the original D&D game

As far back as D&D’s first supplement Greyhawk for the “original” boxed set has there been rules for skills/non-weapon proficiencies, if you consider the Thief (who first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement) and their special abilities which were governed by the d100 percentile dice.  

While the Thief abilities do represent a sort of non-weapon proficiency, these skills were not available to other classes, this disqualifies the Thieves’ abilities as creative predecessors to the non-weapon proficiency of the Oriental Adventures supplement.

“Never tell me the odds.”
Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back

In 1977 Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (Holmes edition) provided some easy to learn rules for skill-like powers regarding common dungeoneering practices such as opening doors, listening, and finding secret doors with most utilizing a 1-in-6 or 2-in-6 mechanic on a six-sided die. 

The d6 mechanic was the definitive mechanic for adjudicating the racial abilities of demi-humans, for lighting torches, and surprise throughout the history of the Basic line of D&D games.

Due to the d6 mechanic being in both Advanced D&D and Basic D&D the mechanic seems to be popular with old school players and has reappeared in games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

For those who are interested in ascending d20 mechanics, a 1-in-6 could be interpreted as a Difficulty Challenge of 17, and DC of 14 for an approximation of 2-in-6.


Rolling a d6 is a popular mechanic used to adjudicate skills in old school role-playing games.


“There’s always a chance.”

While d6 maybe the OSR go-to for skill adjudication, the original D&D rulings provide no mechanics for skills affected or governed by one of the six character abilities (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity etc.).

The 1981 Moldvay’s basic D&D set provides a rule that does just that, allowing for adjudicating a character’s “chance of doing something” based on the character’s ability score.

cover of the 1981 Tom Moldvay edited, basic Dungeons & Dragons

This little gem of a rule is under a section called “There’s always a chance” and is buried on the second to the last page in the Dungeon Mastering as a Fine Art portion of the book. Here the rule is suggested to roll under the character’s ability score. This mechanic works  in favor of the average character with average ability scores, equating to a DC of 9 for the average skill check in a modern game.
Perhaps the best take-away from this portion of the book was the near mantra-level d20 game-philosophy of: “A roll of a 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.”

Cover of 1989’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook

If basic D&D first tied the characters’ abilities to performing a “skill” and the Oriental Adventures brought us non-weapon proficiencies then it would have to be said that it was Advanced D&D, 2nd edition that brought the two together and somewhat legitimized or if you prefer “canonized” the use of skills in D&D. AD&D 2E utilized the “roll under your ability score” mechanic to adjudicate skill use.


But skill mechanics had hardly reached its final form. It was not until 3rd edition, (titled simply as Dungeons & Dragons) where the gamer sees the culmination of D&D skill rolls in the form of the d20 ascending mechanic and the introduction of the Difficulty Challenge. This rule change was welcomed by some who say skill adjudication joining the ranks of to-hit rolls and saving throws to the realm of the ascending d20 mechanic.

Cover of 2000’s Dungeon & Dragons Player’s Handbook (3E)

Skills have been with D&D since the near beginning of the hobby in one form or another, and have been governed by a variety of rules. It is ultimately up to the dungeon master how they wish to adjudicate with their choice of percentiles, or d6’s for old school flavor, or rolling under your ability score as in B/X and retroclones, or rolling high with ascending d20 mechanics vs. a DC. as is done in Pathfinder and D&D 5E.

Do you use skills?
Why or why not?
Did the author neglect any key facts in regards to the history of skills in D&D?

2 thoughts on “D&D Skills: Old School Revival or Next Generation Nonsense?

  1. BECMI D&D introduced skills as an optional system in 1987 with GAZ 1 Grand Duchy of Karameikos. It’s an extension of the Moldvay mechanic, but differentiated by areas of knowledge/ability using ability scores.

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