Thursday, June 22, 2017

The lost perception skills of older D&D

Older D&D was weird. Though I don't think I ever used the rules in the 90s, dwarves and gnomes (and some other races) have these strange detection abilities. And they're subtly different between the races. I'm going to focus on dwarves, elves, and gnomes here because the others just cherry pick some of these detection powers.

In AD&D 2nd Ed, dwarves can spend one round to detect things if they're within 10 feet of that thing (except depth underground, since you're always within 10 feet of your depth I guess): sliding and shifting walls or rooms (4 in 6), grade or slope (5 in 6), stone traps/pits/deadfalls (3 in 6), new construction (3 in 6) as well as depth underground (3 in 6). Gnomes can detect depth better than dwarves (4 in 6), grade/slope (5 in 6), but also detect direction underground (3 in 6) as well as unsafe walls and ceilings (7 in 10).

That's right, while 2nd Ed raised a few of these detections so they were all using a d6 (dwarves went from grade/slope and new construction of 3 in 4—75%—to 5 in 6—83.3%) except the gnome's 70% chance to detect unsafe walls and ceilings couldn't be lowered to 4 in 6 or raised to 5 in 6 to make it standard. Stout halflings and half orcs likewise ended up using a d4 for their detect grade/slope abilities (3 in 4 and 1 in 4 respectively), and later races in Skills & Powers just get percentile scores assigned. So while the system mostly uses a d6, it doesn't use it consistently.

In the basic Rules Cyclopedia D&D (which only has dwarves), dwarves get all of these stone skills at a 2 in 6 chance, whereas Swords and Wizardry (my ersatz oldest-school D&D) says dwarves get this but the rolls are up to the DM.

This is fascinating in part because these skills were/are probably almost wholly ignored by most D&D players, but also how specific they were to dungeon crawling. Knowing how deep you were (approximate dungeon level) would be hugely helpful in figuring out how tough monsters might be, as well as if the 5% grade in the 100-foot corridor (nigh imperceptible) was taking you further down or not. New construction seems like an ersatz measure of things being walled off, but it also gives you a sense of history within the dungeon, while shifting walls, traps/pits, and unsafe walls/ceilings are obvious hazards (of apparently differing difficulty). Also interesting to note is that dwarves and gnomes got slightly different sets, meaning it was useful to have both types of characters in your party. It also conjures some strange image of dwarves keeping their eyes down and watching for pits and new construction at the base of walls while gnomes are eyes-in-the-sky noticing the ceilings of the dungeon plus a different sense of direction.

Elves get a different ability, which is passive secret/concealed door detection. They get this at a 1 in 6 chance, so just by walking through the dungeon elves will find one secret door in 6. Not great, but totally nice if the DM remembers it (I also just roll this for random noticing facts in my AD&D Al-Qadim Church game). Elves who are actively searching find 1 in 3 secret doors, and 1 in 2 concealed doors.

It's also interesting to note that there are no rules for how these interact with thief abilities (does a dwarf searching for a trap get his roll plus the thief roll? does it take extra time to get both rolls?) nor do these detection abilities ever increase with level: you have them or you don't, and they never improve.

In 5e, we get a little of these as ersatz fixes. Dwarves get their stonecunning and elves get free proficiency in perception, but I can't help but wonder if the sheet blinders work in reverse here. Often with skills, new players are wondering which one they can roll for a certain thing to get more info or move the story along, but there's nothing specific enough about those skills in 5e to warrant the utterly specific uses (or expectations?) that the old AD&D options provide.

I've been thinking about this more and more because, in my 2nd edition game, many of the rules are buried in paragraph form, when bullet points would bring them to light easier. The oft-maligned Skills & Powers book does a nice job of presenting each as a clear option since you needed to spend points to purchase each one, but it can also be used to nicely gather each option together so you can really see what powers you have. So in my vague dream to do some cut-and-paste work to compile and solidify some 2nd ed material and make it more accessible at the table, I'm wondering if these strange powers shouldn't be made broader (i.e. dwarves and gnomes might passively notice sloping corridors rather than needing to actively do it) or otherwise wrapped into a coherent system which includes general thief/rogue skills.

There's also a strange element of DM determinism in these skills, which is the information these detection powers provide or the paths these open up need to be a bonus in the adventure. For traps, their detection is generally simple since the failure result is merely that the trap is set. For sliding walls/rooms though, a passageway could be blocked if not detected. Similarly, if a secret door is the only exit and it isn't found, the party is just stuck. Just because this stuff is on a character sheet, doesn't mean it will work when you need it. Also, while there's been a lot made about dungeons havning interesting design (loops, multiple entrances, etc.) there seems to be little attention paid to some of these other issues here: sliding doors or cave-ins which trap a party and force them to continue onwards, subtle changes in elevation leading to distinct levels (or over and underpasses), the history of a dungeon's construction and determining which areas are original and which are recent editions, natural construction problems and hazards vs consciously-made traps. It's a small laundry list of good elements to put into a dungeon that I hope to keep in mind for the future.

It's easy to see how these old skills got consolidated in third edition into a version of notice and search (along with the rogue skills), what you're noticing or searching for has perhaps been lost a little. Also what's lost is the race-specific nature of these skills. Dwarves and gnomes have an uncanny ability to detect a grade or slope in a corridor, others could attempt it with weights or marbles or water, but these races just are that attuned to their world that they get these automatically and no one else will ever be as good as them. And I think that's one thing that's been a little lost in modern D&D: some races were just better at some things than others, which actually made the race/class choice matter a bit more.

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