Revisiting the Past: Knowledge Checks in OSR

As I get more familiar with Mazes & Perils, I have been doing a lot of thinking about how to get “New School” players thinking of things in the “Old School” way. Last time we talked about how the idea of a “Perception check” in OSR systems doesn’t really exist, making players be much more paranoid about the world around them. After all, they aren’t superheroes – they’re adventurers. And adventurers are squishy most of the time. 🙂

So I’m exploring ways to map some of these “newer” ideas into the Old School system. This time we’re going to talk about “Knowledge checks”.

Knowledge Checks

First of all, what am I talking about when I say “Knowledge check”? Let’s say your PC is exploring a ruin and comes across an item with a special rune. There’s a chance they may have come across that in earlier adventures. In some editions, you could gain specialized Knowledge skills in particular fields (such as Arcana, History, or Nature). In other editions (4e), these became first class skills in which players could invest skill points.

But in the OSR, there really isn’t this concept of a single roll for such things. At least, nothing that’s to be called out.

To mimic this concept, I think we’d use something along the lines of an Intelligence or Wisdom attribute check. Attribute check rolls are made with 4d6. If you roll below the statistic, you succeeded. If you roll the stat number or above, the check failed.

I think at my own game table, I will be adding to that a bit. Some characters will be scholarly in nature. Your traditional Magic-User and Cleric, for example, would need to memorize various bits of information to make sure that their spells go off without a hitch and their prayers are said with the proper phrasing and emphasis. These characters (along with the Enchanter) will gain a level bonus to their attribute checks.

These will be made based on the Prime Requisite for the class. For instance, a Magic-User and Enchanter will use an Intelligence bonus. A Cleric will use their Wisdom bonus. These bonuses will use a similar structure to the “To Hit” bonus granted to characters with high or low Strength in combat.

This would definitely be an Optional Rule for the game, but I think it grants some of the more intelligent classes a bit more of an edge in certain places.

Intelligence or Wisdom score bonus to “Knowledge checks”

  • 3-4, -2 bonus to Knowledge checks
  • 5-6, -1 bonus to Knowledge checks
  • 7-12, no bonus to Knowledge checks
  • 13-16, +1 bonus to Knowledge checks
  • 17-18, +2 bonus to Knowledge checks

Example of This in Play

Let’s say our party of adventurers comes across a weapon with a unique rune on the business end. To determine if one of the party members recognizes it, one of the more brainy characters decides to do a “Knowledge check” to see if they have ever seen it before. That Magic-User has an 15 Intelligence, granting them a +1 bonus for Knowledge Checks. The player rolls 4d6 and gets a 15, which would normally be a failure on an attribute check. But in this case with the bonus, it becomes a success and the PC realizes that the rune indicates that it was a “Firebrand” weapon with special properties…

(Talking with Vince, there was some question about how this actually works…)

To simplify this, a Magic-User with a 17 or 18 Intelligence would have to roll under a 19 or 20 instead of a 17 or 18 on 4d6. A Magic-User with an intelligence of 13-16 gets a +1 to their check, so they’d roll under a 14-17 instead of a 13-16. It’s not much of a change, but every point helps.

A Cleric would do the same with their Wisdom score. A Cleric with a Wisdom of 17 or 18 would get to roll under a 19 or 20 for a Knowledge Check on 4d6.

But it works the other way too… a Cleric with a lower Wisdom score (not unheard of) wouldn’t get a boost and might in fact get a penalty. A Cleric with a Wisdom of 6 already has a tough time getting under that on 4d6 but it gets worse by 1. So they’d actually have to roll under a 5 – essentially getting 4 1’s.

So we may not need the low end here at all. WDYT?

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