What if D&D had Gumshoe skills?

Recently I listened to a podcast where the hosts discussed investigation and mystery adventures in Dungeons & Dragons. My recent introduction to the Gumshoe system with Night’s Black Agents has me wondering: what if you treated skill training in D&D like investigative abilities in GumshoeBy that I mean, training in a skill gives you automatic success at base line tasks. This has to extend a bit past investigation, as D&D is not primarily an investigative game. The idea is to give players each their own areas of expertise or near-infallibility.

Characters proficient in a skill always succeed at simple checks. They do not need to roll the dice. If the check has tiers of success, the character achieves the minimum tier of success.

Additionally, proficiency in a skill or with a tool grants the character a number of skill points equal to the attribute modifier of the associated attribute (minimum of 1) [i.e., a character proficient in Athletics gets Athletics points equal to their Strength modifier]. Skill points refresh at the beginning of each adventure.

Players may spend skill points to automatically succeed at more difficult skill checks, achieve a greater level of success, or to give another character a simple success in a group check.

Multiple points may be spent on a given check, each point increasing the effectiveness by one step. Spending two points of Stealth, for example, would allow a character to automatically succeed at a hard check, achieve a great success, or give simple successes to two other characters.

A couple of points:

  1. I’m assuming a simple/moderate/hard/very hard level of difficulty with skill checks.
  2. Tiers of success aren’t always a thing in D&D and may not always be applicable.
  3. Having attribute modifier points is an alpha idea; it’s something to create a limited pool while still rewarding the characters who are optimized for certain skills (i.e., the rogue with 20 dexterity will have more Stealth points than a fighter with a 10 dexterity).

Baseline Awesome

This hack turns the skill system of D&D into a resource management game, which actually aligns with the way the combat system works. It also smooths out some of the most pernicious edges in d20 games for me – unimportant rolls impeding the progress of the game and the chance that your hero fail things they should be awesome at.

Now, the first issue (unimportant rolls) can be adjusted with GM technique. Adopt the Fate or Apocalypse World mentality of only rolling the dice when it’s important. But that sort of story first, meta-contextual justification doesn’t really gel well with D&D. There’s an attitude in D&D that obstacles (in the form of skill checks or monsters) are there to be overcome. It takes a lot of skill from the GM to massage this ethos into D&D.

The second issue (failure to be awesome) is trickier. A dungeon filled with traps is a series of obstacles for the heroes to overcome. Obstacles are an opportunity for characters to shine; to shine you need adversity. My complaint lies with the bullshit nature of a lot of simple checks. A 10′ wide pit blocks a hero’s progress unless they can find a way across – and, inevitably in your D&D career, you’ll roll a 1 on that Athletics check to jump across and find yourself at the bottom of a 30′ pit for no reason other than the fickleness of the dice. This is what I mean by failing where your hero ought to be awesome.

By saying that anyone trained in a skill automatically succeeds at simple tasks smooths out those bottom spikes in the graph – players have a higher base line of awesomeness. Part of my problem with rolling for everything in D&D is that it’s rarely the coolest story and it’s based in the simulation mentality. If the entire party has decided that sneaking past the enthralled guards to the mindflayers dominating them is a better story, they should be able to do that. I’ve seen this tactic thwarted time and again by the dice. Letting the rogue spend points to make other characters succeed encourages the players to tell the story they want to see.

Applying this resource to D&D 4e’s skill challenges intrigues me. It turns that framework into a strategic management of resources and gambling.

Not Just Skills

One of the neat things about 5e D&D is tool proficiency. This resource pool could be applied to those, as well. Proficient in dice? You automatically win simple, low-stakes games and can spend points to win higher stakes games. No one ever takes proficiency in gambling tools to gamble – they want to be awesome at gambling. The major one here is thieves’ tools – which take the place of a host of skills from earlier D&D editions. The rogue can now get by simple locks without a check. Harder locks require a roll or spending a resource. I could see this working for pretty much any sort of tool.

Resource Management is about pacing

One thing that you’ll need to be aware of with this hack is that it dramatically affects the pacing and tension of the game. Yes, heroes automatically succeed at simple checks but by controlling how often simple checks appear, you control how fast the players spend their resources or take a risk. In essence, giving players simple checks says to them, “this is flavor, I want you to be aware of what happened leading up to the big moments”. Layering in harder checks says, “this is an important moment, something that’s challenging”.

The ideas here excite me more than baseline D&D. Being punished by bad dice rolls a GM fishing for failure are two of the most unpleasant things in games for me. This idea directly addresses both of them.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

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2 Responses to What if D&D had Gumshoe skills?

  1. Don Bisdorf says:

    You may have already seen this, but Lorefinder (http://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/lorefinder/) presents a path for GUMSHOE-style investigation in Pathfinder games. Your approach, of course, covers far more than just investigation.

    • PK says:

      A few people have pointed me toward Lorefinder. That’s more of a hack to drift Pathfinder into Gumshoe mysteries. This is more about using the principle of Gumshoe to change the ebb and flow of competency in games.

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