Sunday, February 18, 2024

Was rolling d20+Mod for skill checks the worst "innovation" of D&D in the past 25 years?

After a long, long break, today Steven asked to play d20 Modern. We got the book out, and I decided to quickly roll up a new PC. My Strong Hero/Martial Artist is cool, but the sorts of adventures we're running don't really play into the strong suits of my PC. So, I rolled up a new Dedicated Hero to join Steven's Fast Hero/Gunslinger. 

While playing, we talked a bit about the rules, especially the skill system. He's gotten used to my old school D&D game, where either you don't need to roll because you describe what you do, you roll x on d6, or roll d20 equal to your ability score or less for stuff like this. He's only 9, not the best at math, but even he can see that rolling d20 plus a modifier sucks for skill rolls. 

After the game, I remembered that there was a modern version of d20 Modern that came out recently. I went and looked it up. It's called Everyday Heroes, and it blends what was good about d20 Modern with 5E, according to its press and customer reviews. 

And from what I can tell (I'm not shucking out $30 for a PDF just to answer a question), it still uses d20+Mod for skill rolls. And instead of the ridiculous bonuses you could get for a few trained skills in d20 Modern (with everything else sucking), they went with 5E's bounded accuracy to keep modifiers low. Yeesh. 

I'm down for d20 Modern's take on classes. Basic heroic classes modeled on ability scores, with backgrounds, easy multi-classing, and later Advanced classes to customize your PC. Although it looks like Everyday Heroes may have ditched multi-classing. 

At least the Character sheet is a free download, and from that I can see that they have a much more reasonable, shorter skill list. And from customer reviews, they took the 5E feat style, so there aren't  dozens and dozens of feats that basically just give you small skill boosts, and ridiculously unnecessary feat chains to get your combat abilities halfway decent. 

So it may have some things going for it, but that skill mechanic just sucks. 

If I were to remake the game, I'd probably go with a 2d6 skill mechanic, like I did for Chanbara. Bell curve distributions make skills more reliable, at least if the target numbers for success aren't ridiculous. That flat d20 distribution is great for combat. You want combat to be swingy. That makes it exciting. Having swingy rolls when you're just trying to climb a rope or convince the security guard that you're supposed to be there, when you're the expert climber or fast talker, really sucks.


  1. Is the swinginess the primary issue for you with d20+mods or do you dislike the mods as well?

    If you primarily like a 2d6 bell curve for skills and a d20 for combat then you might like Stars Without Number or any of the other Without Number systems. They do exactly that.

    1. Stars Without Number was what inspired me to use a 2d6 skill roll for Chanbara. I do prefer that.

      I think the problem with d20 Modern (and 3E/Pathfinder) is that not only is the d20 too swingy for skill resolution, the modifiers are either very small (ability modifier only) or very large (trained skills, plus various racial/feat/magic/whatever modifiers). Even with the large modifiers, at low levels the d20 makes the skills unreliable, and without the big modifiers, skill checks become pretty hard to handle, since the default DC of most low level 3E/Modern checks is 15, and it's not uncommon to see higher DCs even at low level.

      Once PCs get to mid-levels, their trained skills become more reliable, but untrained skills are less reliable, because DCs shift upwards for many tasks at those levels.

      5E's bounded accuracy does mitigate the rising DCs problem somewhat, but it still suffers the problem of trained skills being somewhat reliable while untrained skills are very unreliable.

      The old school ability check, with a flat d20 versus an ability score, seems a bit fairer to me, as a) the ability scores are based on character ability rather than some arbitrary DC set by the DM, and b) players always know what they are rolling against. It's still not my most preferred method, though.

  2. This makes sense. Lately I've been playing a lot of Call of Cthulu 7th and I really appreciate its roll under percentile dice. It's very intuitive for players, the targets are obvious, and unlike old school checks you can vary the DC by specifying that players need a Hard (ability/2) or Extreme success (ability/5).

  3. I'm a big fan of the dX resolution system in Neoclassical Geek Revival:
    When you're Calm, your "roll" is always a 10. You can consistently succeed at the things you're good at.
    When you go On Edge the roll switches to 3d6. It's getting real now and there's a chance of very good or very bad results, but the bell curve keeps you in the average range most of the time.
    Once you go Reckless the roll becomes a D20. Adrenaline is pumping and you're equally likely to do something inspired or inept.
    Once you've moved from Calm to On Edge or Reckless, you can't get back until the end of the adventure; same for Reckless. You move up by choice, but if you spend Luck points you move to at least On Edge and if you spend Fate points then you're Reckless.

  4. I played BX as a kid. I’m using something like OD&D with my kids, I tried 5e for the first time this week as a player. To me, it’s really boring.

    A) It felt like nothing but combat, even the role play scenes. This was partly due to minis(?) but mostly due to rolling skills for role playing instead of the DM deciding how it went. He might as well have just told us to roll to win the game.

    And combat was at a crawl. It was reasonably dangerous but it took so long to get there the tension never developed.

    Ive not thought about this before, but I’m pretty sure rolls should be exceedingly rare during roll play and combat should be really fast with a chance of death in just a few rounds so it feels scary.

    Might motivate non-combat solutions too?

    As for the skill rolls in general, they don’t feel tense. I think the old “2 in 6” rolls are more intense since it feels easy to calculate/sense the odds so you inherently think you’ll make it but also feel theirs a real chance of failure. (Or vice versa.)

    Tension. That’s what was missing from the 5E game.

    Slow play and too many rolls kills tension.

    At least for me.