Competing Subsystems

In my brief solo run-through of “The Olde Island Fortress“, played using the Basic Fantasy game system, I was faced with one of the things about Old-School games that bugs me: competing subsystems to resolve the same question.

While searching for traps with my Fighter and my Thief, the two characters’ ability to detect such with a GM-rolled test:

Roll to Detect Traps, requiring a 1 in 6 for Elias while Goriel can test his Remove Traps thief ability. Rolls 1d6 for Elias, scoring 6; rolls 20% or less for Goriel, scoring 16

Most characters test for traps using a 1d6 roll while the Thief makes a percentile roll against their Remove Traps ability. It’s fiddley and it bugs me – why not just have a single resolution system? Why not just give the Thief a 2-in-3 chance?

Naturally, this leads me to consider also why the Thief gets to apply their training and experience to the roll while the Fighter does not. Even after many levels of advancement, the Fighter finds traps on 1-in-6. Unless they are a Dwarf in a stone building – another exception to the rule. Why do racial genetics trump experience at adventuring?

My preference is for a skill roll based upon the training and experience of the character. Of course, for many, this goes against the Old-School tradition because it’s argued that using skills makes the game about die rolls rather than relying on player skill. Except, the original game made a die roll the resolution for finding the trap too.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a blistering critique of the game system. It’s more a peeve, an annoyance, a matter of taste: I prefer the character’s ability to be tested, not some arbitrary and fixed number on a d6. It makes sense to me that all characters, irrespective of their class, would learn a little bit about how to find dungeon traps over time. Thieves more so.

This is why, in 2000, it wasn’t a problem for me when Third Edition D&D introduced a universal mechanism for resolving just about anything in the game, nor for it to introduce a skill system. Oh, you want to search for traps… well, I’ll roll a Search check for you in secret. Apart from rolling 1d20 and applying the character’s bonus to the total, this is methodologically equivalent to rolling 1d6 to achieve the same result. The difference is in the story we tell ourselves about what is happening.

For me, the important thing is that the player directs the actions of their character in such a way as to activate the abilities of that character. Thus, “I crawl across the floor slowly, running my fingers around the flagstones trying to see if there are any cracks,” can be resolved with a die roll. But I prefer to only have to remember one way to resolve the situation.

That said, the player can also trump character ability by taking a clever and specific action which overrides the need to roll the dice: “I pour some water on the floor and see if it seeps through any cracks.” If such a tactic instantly results in obvious seepage, then there is no need to roll. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m usually rolling against a skill on the character sheet or an arbitrary value from the rulebook, the player’s move trumps the need for either.

What I dislike is the multiplicity of competing subsystems: 1d6 or 1d100, not both. Actually, it could be 1d20 or 3d6 for all I care just as long as the system is consistent and simple to remember. It’s even better if the character’s knowledge and experience can somehow develop and improve through play. I know that I get better with practice, and it seems odd to me that my lowly Level 1 Fighter remains just as inept at spotting a simple trap at Level 10.

This is certainly the reason I generally opt for a skill-based game system like GURPS. But maybe I’m missing something obvious?

Game on!


  1. I think that there’s a third subsystem that is assumed, and which takes priority over the others. In fact, there’s a fourth die rolling subsystem involved as well! The first system, the primary one in fact, is the narrative back and forth between the players and Referee. The Referee describes a scene, the players investigate particular aspects of that scene that interest them by asking questions or indicating specific methods of examination, and the Referee responds by adding more detail as necessary. That’s the water on the ground to look for cracks or whatever—or the way the secret door is found in the example of play in the 1st edition DMG (pp. 99-100). If that fails, then there’s the 1d6 method (which Thieves should also get to use), sometimes with modifiers such as elves looking for secret doors. If that fails, then the Thief (or other class if applicable) can try again using their class special ability. Finally, if everything else fails, there’s the saving throw to avoid the worst of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

      • My way of thinking about the die-rolling systems is all of those accidental elements that the player (or Referee) can’t reasonably be expected to anticipate. The die roll to locate traps is to accidentally stumble on the tripwire or whatever before tripping it. The secret door roll is randomly noticing that something is off without specifically checking it. The Thief ability is for knowledge the character possesses that the player does not. The saving throw is any of a variety of literary contrivances that let a character escape otherwise certain doom. I think that Gygax was much more in favor of giving player-characters the benefit of the doubt than his reputation suggests; or else he just wanted to make sure that they had every opportunity to screw things up by their own choices and not be able to blame him for being particularly unfair.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s how I tend to think about the random element too. I think there’s a lot to be said for blaming the dice too – especially if you roll most things openly so all can see the outcomes. This is especially important in combat.

        Liked by 1 person

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