ACKS, Lords & Wizards, and the Problem of Proficiencies

ACK CoverMany readers know that I loathe feats as used in WOTC D&D because far too many of them take things that anyone should be able to try to do and limit trying to do it to those characters who have a particular feat written on their character sheet. This generally leads to one of two situations, either the GM still allows characters without the feat to try to perform the action (often upsetting players whose characters who took the feat) or the GM refuses to allow anyone to perform the action unless they have the feat on their character sheet (no matter how unbelievable this restriction is). In a game with hundreds or thousands of feats (like WOTC editions of D&D), such issues can become a real problem. This is especially if you are playing “old school style” where characters need to solve in game problems creatively as many of the things they will want to try will likely be limited to someone who has taken one of those hundreds or thousands of feats.

One solution, of course, is to limit feats to only providing a bonus for actions that anyone should be able to try. Only actions that absolutely require training (or special genes) to even attempt with a measurable chance of success could be turned into a “special snowflake” (i.e. only because you have this feat you can attempt to do X) feat. Unfortunately, game designers tend not to design feat this way because there is a sizable and vocal group of gamers who believe that only “special snowflake” style feats are interesting and worthwhile to take, so many games that use an ever expanding list of feats end up limiting more and more actions that any character should be able to try to do with some chance of success to only those characters who have taken the appropriate feat.

I’m currently working on adapting the ACKS rules to be the underlying system for Lords & Wizards. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that while most of ACKS current Proficiencies do not block out tasks than anyone should be able to do and limit them to those with the proficiency, there are some ACKS Proficiencies which do and those will not work in Lords & Wizards.

Here are three examples of a ACKS Proficiencies that seem to effectively limit character actions to those characters with the Proficiency:

Bribery: The character is exceptionally skilled at bribing officials with gifts of money or merchandise. Offering a bribe permits an additional reaction roll during encounters, with the throw modified by the size of the bribe. As a general rule, a bribe equal to one day’s pay for the target provides a +1 bonus, a week’s pay provides a +2 bonus, and a month’s pay provides a +3 bonus. Only one bribe can be attempted per target in any given situation.

Sensing Power: The character can detect spellcasters within 60’ and estimate their level of power relative to his own. He can tell when arcane magic has been used within the last 24 hours within the same vicinity. Each use takes a turn.

Trapping (G): The character can build simple pits, snares, and deadfalls capable of capturing creatures up to the size of an elephant (such as giants, ogres, wyverns, etc). With a proficiency throw of 11+ the snare is built properly. The character can also detect and disable simple wilderness pits, snares, deadfalls, etc., as a thief of his class level. This proficiency provides no abilities with regard to mechanical traps in a dungeon, or magical traps of any sort.

Bribery is a real problem as anyone should be able to attempt to bribe someone. The proficiency description seems to recognize this at the start by saying it represents a character who is “exceptionally skilled” at bribing. The problem is is suggests bonus to the reaction roll for bribes that are so low that there really isn’t any room for bonuses for characters without the proficiency attempting to bribe. The bonuses given are about what I would normally give for anyone making a bribery attempt. Given the way reaction rolls work, however, any higher bonuses would not make sense and might even break the system. As written bribery tries to allow for the fact that anyone can try to bribe, but actually fails to leave any real room for characters without the proficiency to try to bribe with any realistic effect.

The Sensing Power proficiency isn’t a problem. While it provides actions that only those with the proficiency can perform, they are actions that someone without special abilities and/or special training would simply not be able to do. This ACKS Proficiency is fine as written.

The Trapping proficiency is another real problem. IMHO, anyone can try to build simple pit, snare, and deadfall traps with a reasonable chance of success. With training their attempts might function better and be harder to spot, but trying to limit digging a hole in the ground and covering it to only those with training is not very believable.

Given that I do not want any proficiency in Lords & Wizards to block out actions than any character should be able to try to do, I need to come up with a method to handle ACKS proficiencies like Bribery and Trapping without nerfing the proficiency for characters who have it; without preventing characters who do not have the proficiency from attempting to bribe someone, build a trap or perform some other action covered by an “everyman can try” proficiency; and with requiring much extra effort on the part of players or the GM.

My first thought was to simply treat the proficiencies a character has like his character class or background in my normal background and skills system. Unfortunately, I saw a number of issues with this. For example, it does not really give a character with the Trapping proficiency any bonus if the character has a background (like Woodsman) that includes the abilities of proficiency.

My second thought was to give any character attempting to perform an “everyone can try it” action that is covered by a proficiency but without having the proficiency a -5 modifier to any roll needed to determine success or failure. This would work. However, it would be a pain in the ass to GM. Any time a character wanted to try to perform an unusual action, the GM would have to look through a list of proficiencies to determine whether the action the player wants his character to perform is covered by an “everyone can try” proficiency. At the moment, this would be a short list which the GM could easily memorize, but chances are the number of “everyone can try” proficiencies available will grow with time.

The best way to handle this would be to come up with a method that only comes into play when someone with an “everyman can try” proficiency uses it. A +5 bonus to the die roll for characters with the proficiency could work (the opposite of my first method), but given that the success determination procedure differs somewhat from proficiency to proficiency, the bonus would probably vary with the proficiency. The bonus would need to be added to the proficiency description and the players and GM would need to remember to use it. This would work, but it would be nice to come up with some easy system that worked the same way for every “everyman can try” proficiency as it would avoid the need to rewrite proficiency descriptions and add non-standard modifiers than need to be remembered or looked up.

After some thought I came up with what I think is an easy system. If a player with an “everyman can try” proficiency uses that proficiency to perform an action, he gets two rolls (whatever the proficiency description says) and the most favorable result is the one that counts. This will need playtesting, of course. If it works it would be allow the rolls and modifiers in the proficiency description to be used by both characters with and without the proficiency when attempting to do things covered by the proficiency. For example, a character attempting to bribe a guard with a day’s pay would get a +1 to the reaction roll — but if the character had the Bribery proficiency (and remembers to tell the GM that he does), the GM would roll the reaction roll twice and the better for the character result would be the one that counts.

We’ll be playtesting this “roll twice of you have the proficiency” method of handling “everyman can try” proficiencies over the next couple of sessions and see how it works in actual play.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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Troy_CostisickJoseph Blochporphyre77FlorianRachel Ghoul Recent comment authors
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You could maybe try labeling some of these proficiencies as "Advanced." For example, "Advanced Trapping." Like you said, anyone can set a pit trap or deadfall trap, but something like a Ugandan Spring-knife Trap takes some training and practice. By adding "Advanced" in front of it, you're cueing the players that this is something no novice could do.

Joseph Bloch

With Adventures Dark and Deep's skill system, the general rule is that anyone can do anything, but someone with a skill will usually do it better. Functionally, that means a character with a skill in something gets a -2 bonus to their roll per skill level, while someone without the skill doesn't get the bonus.


I'm no 3E player, but I think that what you call "feats" actually are skills in this edition. Skills were just a flat bonus to the D20 roll, some skills being labelled as "untrained" (anyone can try) other "trained" (you cannot try if you haven't it). Feats were some kind of hodge-podge of proficiencies, special powers, and really "méta-gamey" mechanic-wise stuff (like "if you have feat X, you don't suffer Attacks of opportunity"). Otherwise, why not use the "Advantage" mechanic of the (still ongoing) D&DNext playtest? Roll twice, keep the best roll. With this method, anyone can try, those with… Read more »


The " every man can try" proficiency is named "Adventuring" in ACKS. The target is an 18+ that should work nicely for your pit trap. Bribery is also easily managed: Just charge 4x or 6x the amount for people without the proficiency and/or limit the max bonus to +2.

Just out of curiosity: Will Lords&Wizards have thief skills?

Rachel Ghoul

Looking at the bribery one at least, I'd probably reduce the bonus by 1 for not having the proficiency– so a small bribe, for example, would just be a straight reroll of the reaction.

As to the other examples… I kind of like what Troy's driving at.

Rachel Ghoul

…Porphyre's *might* also do, looking at it, but rolling twice and picking the best is pretty powerful. And Florian has a point about the Adventuring proficiency. I'd have to look through again but I think most of the skill-type proficiencies have lower difficulties than 18 so broadening it might work very well.


@Porphyre: The system I'm planning to try is basically the same as D&D Next's Advantage bit, at least as it was first presented. i haven't followed the playtest closely enough to know if that's still they way they are doing it.

@Rachel: Rolling twice and using the best result is about like adding +4 (or +5) to a D20 success roll as far as effect on the results is concerned — if I correctly remember what I figured when first used the idea many years ago.

Rachel Ghoul

Is it? It *seems* bigger from a psychological perspective.

Jakub Koprowski

Most problematyczne fiat in acks? Mapping:-)

Grandpa Chet

What bothered me in reference Feats is what bothered me about skills. Mind you, I still love RuneQuest 1978, which sucked away many hours of my life over a six year period, and Call of Cthulhu just isn't the same without that skills system. So what's my complaint? Most skills and Feats should never be rolled. They should be, and only feel real when, actually role played. If this gives the advantage to a player who actually can act, then my groups have always been the most unfair of all. They are still, however, the most remembered of all. Players,… Read more »