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Dungeon Master's Kit
Ampersand Special: Essentials Previews
by Bill Slavicsek

Welcome to the eighth of our special, free-to-all editions of "&." I've been showing off portions of our Dungeons & Dragons Essentials products since the beginning of July, and the anticipation just keeps building!

This time out, I want to pull the cover away from an especially important piece of text that we're very proud of. This is the section of the DM Kit that explains the fundamental rule of the game—making checks. It describes what a check is and when to call for one; the difference between ability checks, skill checks, and attack rolls; what each ability and skill is for, and how to decide when to use one instead of another.

We think we've presented the clearest, easiest-to-understand explanation of the game's most important rule in any edition. A DM who understands checks is well on the way to grasping just about every rule there is in the Dungeons & Dragons game.

Using Checks

A typical adventure environment is full of dangers, surprises, and puzzles. A dungeon room might hold a complex bank of mysterious levers, a statue positioned over a trap door, a locked chest, or a teleportation circle. Sometimes adventurers need to cut through a rope, break a chain, bash down a door, lift a portcullis, or smash the Orb of the Reaver before the villain can use it.

Characters' interaction with the environment is often simple to resolve in the game. If a player tells you that his or her character is moving the lever on the right, you tell the player what happens, if anything. The lever might be part of a fiendishly clever puzzle that requires the adventurers to pull several levers in the right order before the room completely fills with water, testing their ingenuity to the limit, but no rules govern the character's attempt to pull the lever. The players simply tell you which levers they pull.

If a lever is rusted in position, though, you might ask the player to make an ability check; no particular skill is involved, just a raw test of the character's Strength. Similarly, you might call for a Strength check to see if a character can break through a barred door or lift an adamantine portcullis.

Characters might also use skill checks to use, manipulate, or destroy objects in the dungeon environment. For example, you might call for an Arcana check as a character tries to move an orb suspended in the air that's part of a complex magical puzzle. This section describes how to use skill and ability checks to figure out what happens when characters attempt various tasks within the game world.

Whenever a character attempts an action, answer these three questions to decide how to adjudicate it:

  • What kind of check is it?
  • How hard is it?
  • What's the result?


First of all, make sure that the situation actually calls for a check. If there's no chance of failure, don't bother with a check.

Assuming that there is a chance of failure, determine what kind of check is appropriate: an ability check, a skill check, or an attack.

Use an ability check if the task is fundamentally a measure of one of the character's key attributes (ability scores), and if training of any kind isn't a factor. All that matters with an ability check is the character's level, ability score, and luck (represented by the die roll).

Use a skill check if training of some kind—the knowledge and talents that a character learns, represented by skill training—might be a factor in the outcome of the task. A skill check is really just a specialized kind of ability check that takes skill training into account. The only difference between an Athletics check and a Strength check is that some characters are trained in Athletics—they've studied and practiced to become better at climbing, jumping, swimming, and other athletic pursuits than other characters.

Use an attack for any direct attempt to cause harm to an enemy. Attacks are another specialized form of ability check, one that takes a character's skill with a weapon into account (in the form of a proficiency bonus). Generally, when a character tries to cause harm to an object rather than an enemy, use an ability check instead. The fighter's skill with an axe doesn't necessarily help him break down a dungeon door. On the other hand, a ranger's skill with a bow does help her cut a rope with an arrow, so that's an example of a situation where you might use an attack to resolve an attempt to damage an object.

Plain ability checks are fairly uncommon in the game. Most of the time, you'll find that a skill covers whatever actions the characters in your game attempt.


Use these general descriptions of the abilities and skills in the game to help you decide what kind of check governs a task.

Strength: Strength measures a creature's physical power. Use a Strength check for any attempt to lift, push or pull, or break something.

The Athletics skill is based on Strength. Use an Athletics check when an adventurer tries to climb, jump, swim, or perform a similar feat of physical power.

Constitution: Constitution represents a creature's health, stamina, and vital force. Constitution checks are rare—you'll find more use for Endurance checks.

The Endurance skill is based on Constitution. Use an Endurance check when a character tries to stave off the physical effects of disease or resist extreme environmental effects, or somehow pushes beyond normal physical limits.

Dexterity: Dexterity represents a creature's hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance. Dexterity checks are also rare. Use Acrobatics or Thievery for most tests of balance, agility, and hand-eye coordination.

The Acrobatics, Stealth, and Thievery skills are based on Dexterity.

Use an Acrobatics check when a character attempts some feat of agility, tries to escape from restraints, or needs to maintain balance on a narrow or slippery surface.

Use a Stealth check any time a character is trying to move around while avoiding notice, staying out of sight and moving quietly.

Use a Thievery check when a character tries to pick pockets or open locks, to disable traps, or perform other feats of sleight of hand or fine manipulation.

Intelligence: Intelligence measures how well a creature learns and reasons. Intelligence-based skills reflect specific areas of study, but you can use an Intelligence check as an excuse to give the players a clue—either to see whether the character remembers some important piece of information that the player has forgotten, or to get a bit of insight into a puzzle the characters are trying to solve.

The Arcana, History, and Religion skills are based on Intelligence.

Use an Arcana check when a character tries to interact with a magical effect in the world or to recall some knowledge about elemental, fey, or shadow creatures. The Arcana skill encompasses knowledge about all kinds of magic and how it operates.

Use a History check when a character tries to recall some useful historical information or recognize a clue based on historical knowledge.

Use a Religion check when a character tries to draw on knowledge about gods, religious traditions and ceremonies, divine effects, holy symbols, or theology. The skill also covers knowledge of immortal and undead creatures, as well as the Astral Sea with its dominions.

Wisdom: Wisdom measures a creature's common sense, perception, self-discipline, and empathy. You might use a Wisdom check for a test of a character's intuition, but the Perception and Insight skills cover many such situations.

The Dungeoneering, Heal, Insight, Nature, and Perception skills are based on Wisdom.

Use a Dungeoneering check when a character tries to find a path through winding caverns, determine the cardinal directions underground, recognize a dungeon hazard or aberrant monster, or forage for food in the Underdark. The skill represents both knowledge and concrete survival skills.

Use a Heal check when a character tries to perform first aid, stabilize a dying ally, treat disease, or examine a corpse.

Use an Insight check when a character tries to read another person's itentions or get a feel for a situation.

Use a Nature check when a character tries to navigate the wilderness, recognize hazards of the wild or natural creatures, or live off the land while traveling outdoors. Like Dungeoneering, this skill represents knowledge as well as survival skills.

Use a Perception check any time a character tries to detect something using one of the five senses: when searching for traps or secret doors, following tracks, listening for sounds behind a closed door, locating an invisible creature by sound or smell, and so on.

Charisma: Charisma measures a creature's force of personality, persuasiveness, and leadership. You might use a Charisma check to measure a character's first impression on an NPC, but more prolonged interactions usually rely on a Charisma-based skill check.

The Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Streetwise skills are based on ¬Charisma.

Use a Bluff check when a character tries to deceive other people or monsters, whether the character is trying to feint in combat or tell a convincing lie.

Use a Diplomacy check when a character tries to change opinions, to inspire good will, to haggle with a patron, to demonstrate proper etiquette and decorum, or to negotiate a deal in good faith.

Use an Intimidate check when a character tries to influence others through hostile actions, overt threats, or deadly persuasion.

Use a Streetwise check when a character tries to get by in civilization: to make contacts, gather rumors and information, find supplies, or avoid dangerous neighborhoods.

Next Week

Next week, we’ll have a peek inside the Monster Vault, and that will wrap up these previews ... because then, you can get a copy of your own and see everything Essentials has to offer! Until then …

Keep playing!

In Case You Don't Know Him

Bill Slavicsek's gaming life was forever changed when he discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1976. He became a gaming professional in 1986 when he was hired by West End Games as an editor. He quickly added developer, designer, and creative manager to his resume, and his work helped shape the Paranoia, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Torg roleplaying games. He even found some time during that period to do freelance work for D&D 1st Edition. In 1993, Bill joined the staff of TSR, Inc. as a designer/editor. He worked on a bunch of 2nd Edition material, including products for Core D&D, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Planescape. In 1997, he was part of the TSR crowd that moved to Seattle to join Wizards of the Coast, and in that year he was promoted to R&D Director for D&D. In that position, Bill oversaw the creation of both the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition of the D&D Roleplaying Game. He was one of the driving forces behind the D&D Insider project, and he continues to oversee and lead the creative strategy and effort for Dungeons & Dragons.

Bill's enormous list of credits includes Alternity, d20 Star Wars, The Mark of Nerath Dungeons & Dragon novel, Eberron Campaign Setting, the D&D For Dummies books, and his monthly Ampersand (&) column for Dragon Magazine.