I’ve been wrestling with this for a couple days — one small thing under an umbrella of a larger thing. The small thing? Rolling under ability scores to determine success. The larger thing? Keeping ability scores relevant.

So, for a long time I’ve had trouble with the problem that ability scores are kind of irrelevant. You roll them, or choose them, point them up, or whatever, but what does anyone care about them after that?

I came into D&D in the era of the “ability modifier,” which takes a number between 3-18 and turns it into a more “sanitary” number between +4 and -4.

And I say sanitary because it ignores the odd 11s and 13s and 7s, and gives you a number you can add to another number to check against a third number to determine success. It’s all very abstract. It’s clean.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with that so much as it makes me wonder why we have ability scores to begin with. That one system, Blue Rose, I think? Does away with ability scores and just uses modifiers. They get it. They understand.

What do ability scores mean to the rest of us?

I remember long conversations with my friend Don, when we would talk about what ability scores meant. When you were really sick sometimes, that felt like you’d lost a point of Constitution (however temporary).

A mechanic I’ve never liked is rolling under ability scores.

I was firmly in the camp of “you should always try to roll high,” because that’s easy to remember. It’s easy to teach. All that. It’s clean. Sanitary.

But you know, I realize now there’s more nuance to the rolls. If you generate a number between 3-18 with your 3d6, and you try to roll under that number on a d20, it matters when you have a 13 instead of a 12.

Now there are lots of problems with this kind of system. I disliked it for a reason. I pointed it out when my group was playing Big Eyes, Small Mouth — epic-tier characters improve to the point they only ever fail on a “critical” failure.

And it’s weird when two characters can have wildly different results trying to do the exact same thing — like walking down a staircase or something. Shouldn’t things like that have a certain, or known difficulty?

Maybe. Sometimes. I guess. Sort of.

I used to have a stronger argument for that kind of thing, but my confidence in a system that’s rigid and samey throughout has flagged a great deal.

Plus, it’s also felt weird to me that (remember, I’m coming from 3e/4e) NPCs were treated the same way as traps and monsters. You rolled all of your skills against them like you were trying to disarm them or save against them.

Oh, and, NPCs basically couldn’t do the same thing to you. PCs were exempt from this kind of interaction because seriously, what kind of player would go along with an NPC changing their mind? They’re just stupid dice, am I right?

Okay, well what if maybe — since NPC and vague social interactions don’t make much sense anyway — what if they used this kind of arbitrary “roll under your ability score” thing. It fulfills so many purposes at the same time.

First of all, it alleviates the GM from trying to decide how easy it is to manipulate an NPC. It also frees everyone up from trying to decide whether they’re using “Bluff” or “Diplomacy” or “Intimidate” on the NPC, because… different strokes.

The difficulty is set by the manipulating player.

They have their ability score, and they try to roll under it. If they have a 10-11, then they have a 50% chance of getting what they want. I guess the tough part comes in deciding which ability score is relevant.

But even that seems like it could be easy. I mean, depending on the Race of the NPC, they care more about particular scores than others — or if it’s a topic like athletics or subterfuge or philosophy, you can get a hint somewhere.

Still, I need to think about this some more.