Gaining the Advantage

An alternative for skill checks

By MARK WILSON

One of the other RPGs I love besides D&D is Mouse Guard. In it, you play mice in a roughly medieval setting, where the whole of the known world encompasses little more than a large section of forest and surrounding areas. If you ever have the chance to try it – or to read the excellent comic that it’s based on – I’d highly recommend it. It’s a delightful world to play in, and the setting is fully realized through the mechanics.

There’s one mechanic in particular that I’m interested in discussing today, and that’s the concept of “Wises.” In Mouse Guard, Wises can (roughly) be said to correlate to skill proficiencies in D&D. Except in Mouse Guard, Wises can encompass a wide variety of abilities or areas. You might be “weather wise” and can help on matters related to weather prediction or navigation. Or it could be very, very specific, such as being “leaf-wise” or “hidey-hole wise.” Many are suggested in the book that are absolutely this specific, and you can create others that fit thematically, and it will work just as well in the world.

The true magic then happens when players have to utilize that knowledge. “I help them dig the hidey-hole” might not be an option, since you don’t know the proper places to dig to maximize one’s cover, or how to properly insulate the hole against the elements. But if you do happen to be Hidey-Hole Wise, it’s your time to shine. And if there’s a roll that doesn’t seem to involve any of your skills/Wises, it rewards players for being creative about the knowledge that they do have, and applying that knowledge in unexpected ways. So they become good roleplayers of their characters simply by trying to play well.

“…it rewards players for being creative about the knowledge that they do have, and applying that knowledge in unexpected ways. So they become good roleplayers of their characters simply by trying to play well.”

I love it when players work together in D&D, but I’ve always been a little underwhelmed by how easy and unthematic it is to gain advantage on certain skill checks.

  • Player 1: “I want to Investigate for hidden doors.”
  • Player 2: “I help them.”
  • DM: “Ok, you have advantage on the roll.”

Meh.

While I tend to shy away from suggesting outright rules changes, I love the concept of Wises enough that I think they can be homebrewed into D&D in place of simply “helping” on checks. Maybe one character can’t help much with investigation, but imagine if they were “Construction Wise” and knew how to spot anomalies in buildings. Then I’d feel a TON better about awarding advantage, or perhaps advantage only to discover secret doors, false walls, etc., but not other investigative elements.

I don’t want to add a new mechanic to D&D, though. So how do you handle this? Here’s what I’d do: the next time I start a campaign, I might ask players to list 8-10 things that their character knows a lot about. It could relate to areas of play (sword crafting, interrogations, etc.) or geographical or historical knowledge. “History” is a broad area to make into one skill, but if a player knows a lot about the history of Thay, thats’s suddenly much more thematic.

Then you take those skills and the ability to help another player with a check can often be dependent on them. Obviously, sometimes this breaks down, usually with physical checks. You don’t have to be proficient at “moving heavy stuff” to tag-team a heavy door or something. But on areas that are more knowledge-based, or require specialized skills, I don’t think I’d shy away from denying a generic Help action (out of combat) in order to push players toward thinking about their character’s knowledge and expertise a bit more. Similarly, maybe a PC isn’t proficient in Arcana, but a particular rune relates to something from their homeland. I think that’s a valid reason to allow a skill check to figure out what it is, and it again leans into thematic character elements more so than whatever they happen to have checked off on their character sheet for skill proficiencies.

This is a newer idea for me, so it undoubtedly needs refinement. But I think it has the potential to make gameplay a bit more rewarding from a roleplaying perspective, both because it rewards player creativity and because it links actions to characters more fully.

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