Before diving in, I would like to discuses what exactly constitutes a skill in old school D&D. The thief, a la Supplement 1: Greyhawk, of course possess and array of skills, but what else? Is the Dwarf ability to "note slanting passages, traps, shifting walls and new construction in underground settings" (Men & Magic pg7) a skill? I would argue yes. To me, a skill, in terms of a role playing game, is any aptitude or mastery possessed by the character, rather than the player, that affects the outcome of success. In other words, for the purpose of this discussion, the dwarf ability to note new underground construction, the chance to discover a secret doors, and even to-hit rolls, are all skills. No doubt some will argue with me about this definition, but I believe it is necessary to clarify the terminology I will be using in this blog entry to establish a baseline before I begin.
Since the introduction of the thief into D&D, there has been a continual dialogue as to whether or not the thief's special skills are enough to justify the inclusion of the class. After all, most of the thief's skills can be substituted by roleplaying (finding/removing traps) or surprise rolls (stealth and slight of hand). Even hiding can be roleplayed out by having the player describe exactly where and how his or her character is doing so. But this is not a blog entry about the evils of thieves. No, this is an entry about skills and roleplay can coincide and even compliment each other I actual play.
I would like to begin with a skill possessed by all character: the ability to search for secret doors. I've always been a fan of a playing out how exactly my character is searching for traps. A couple of players in my current game, however, don't see fun in it, and I can see why; describing how you would search for a secret door takes a lot longer and is more tedious than merely saying, "I search the room for secret doors," and rolling a die. So, I decided to combine the two approaches. Here is what I came up with (and it's been working quite well): Every character in the front of the marching order (remember three characters can fit side-by-side in a 10 ft. hallway) gains a roll to automatically spot any indication of a secret door, such as an indentation in the wall and a wind current blowing from somewhere it shouldn’t. Most characters have a 1 in 6 chance of success. Elves and thieves have a 2 in 6 chance. I also gave dwarves a 2 in 6 chance if the secret door was made of and concealed by stone. Of course, I, the referee, make this roll in secret. I know this goes a little against the normal rule that state that "secret passages will be located on the roll of a 1 or a 2 (on a six-sided die) by men, dwarves or hobbits, Elves will be able to locate them on a roll of 1-4" (Underworld and Wilderness Adventures pg9), but I figure that the chance of success can be halved because the party no longer has to take a turn to search a 10ft area of wall. Also note that this roll does not allow the character to determine how exactly to open a secret door, just the presence and location of the entrance. Opening the door, once the presence of the door has been established, could be as easy as giving a bookcase a shove or as difficult as having to pull down a dozen or so levers spread throughout the dungeon level and do so in the correct order, but the party doesn’t know which. The adventurers could also take matters into their own hands, in the case of a failed roll, and just begin prodding, pocking, and smashing to the hopes of finding a secret door that may or may not exist. I would also like to note that I roll dice every time the characters enter a hallway or room despite whether or not there is actually a secret door in the area or not.
The same concept can be applied to traps as well, allowing characters in the first row of the marching to have a 1 in 6 or 2 in 6 chance to discover the trap. Thieves, should the referee be so inclined to allow thieves the ability, may use their percent chance to find traps. In the game I am running, I even allow thieves the same percent chance to discover secret doors.
Instead of having a player make a roll to hide or move silently, I allow the character a surprise roll whenever he or she comes in contact with a group of monsters. If the character succeeds his or her surprise check, the character has been quite and sneaky enough to buy himself enough time to find a good, suitable hiding spot, turn back and run away, or charge into combat and gain a free attack on the unwary opponents. The chance of the surprise check is based on the character’s armor type or, if the character is a thief, level (AKA his chance to hide in shadows or move silently—whichever applies better to the situation at hand). Once a character has found a suitable hiding place, the monsters will continue along their normal routine. Should this routine allow a monster to move into a position where he or she (or it) could possibly spot the character, another surprise roll must be made and the process repeats itself until the threat is removed (one party moves out of the area, violence, a well places sleep spell, what have you). If the character is ever found, play progress in the same manor as a thief that failed his or her hide or move silently role. I’ve found this method of stealth to be a little more time consuming than merely rolling a die, but I have also found it to be more fun and involved.
These same principles can be applied to many other types of situations, such as picking pockets and disabling traps (although in this case, I allow only thieves a roll to automatically deal with the trap). The idea is to first allow a die roll to succeed and if that fails, allow for recovery through roleplay (while at the same time keeping that old school edge of course). I find that this approach has tended to speed up play as well as keep play skill as the key to the game; it's a good balance between allowing thieves into the game, but not allowing their skills to take over.