Ranked Ability Score Checks, for Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder

It’s pretty common in Pathfinder 1st edition and Starfinder for GMs to occasionally ask for a raw ability score check (1d20+ability modifier), such as making a Strength check to muscle open a door, or making an Intelligence check to see if a character remembers some tidbit of information not related to a specific Knowledge skill. The games explicitly support this idea, but of course your ability score modifiers do not increase at anything like the speed of your skill bonuses, and since skills include ability score modifiers most GMs automatically scale the DCs of ability checks as a game increases in level to keep pace with skill DCs. This *isn’t* supported by the game rules, but it is perhaps inevitable.

Interestingly both 5e and Pathfinder 2e have a different DC/bonus progression that keeps raw ability checks competitive throughout a character’s career, on-par with attack and skill/proficiency checks. Some GMs and players have even called this out as one of the great advantages of those systems over older d20 game engines, and PF1 and Starfinder specifically.

However, if a GM and players want to have raw ability checks scale increase at roughly the same pace as skill bonuses, that’s easily arranged as a house rule. You just need to distinguish between a character’s ability score modifier (which adds to things like attack rolls, damage, skill checks, AC bonuses, and so on), and the characters ability CHECK, which is what you add to your d20 roll when making a “Strength Check” or “Intelligence Check.”

Note that this will allow characters to manage superhuman levels of ability score checks by mid-level, with heroes bursting stone doors off their hinges, holding their breath for minutes at a time, running marathons, and other events that are often ascribed to heroes in real-world ancient mythology.

Ranked Ability Score Checks

In addition to the actual modifier for your six ability scores, you need to track your ranks in each ability. Your ranks add to your modifier when making a raw ability check for that ability. Your ranks do not affect anything else you normally add your ability modifier (having +1 rank to Dexterity Modifier Checks does not increase your ranged attack, armor class, Reflex saves, or Dexterity-based skill checks, for example). You cannot have more ranks in an ability score check than your character level.

Select one ability score as your focus ability at 1st level. (In Starfinder, this must be your key ability score). You gain ranks equal to your level for that score’s ability checks, and an additional +2 focus bonus to ability checks for that ability. You gain three additional ranks at each level you may assign to any other ability scores.

If you gain a feat that grants you a bonus to all uses of one or more skill checks, it also grants you a +1 to one ability score used for one of the skills increased by the feat. For example, if you take Skill Focus: Swimming, you also gain a +1 to Strength checks. If you take Animal Affinity, you gain +1 to either Charisma ability checks (as Handle Animal is a Charisma-based skill), or Dexterity ability checks (as Ride si a Dexterity-based skill).

Feats that only grant a bonus to some uses of a skill check (such as endurance, which applies to some, but not all, Swim checks), you gain no special bonus.

Putting It All Together

So, let’s do an example.

Sashette the Seer is a 1st level human oracle. Her ability scores are Str 8, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12 Wis 17, Cha 10. She decides to make Wisdom her focus ability, so she automatically gains one rank in it. For her remaining 3 ability check ranks, she puts one each in Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. So, her abilities, modifiers, check ranks and check bonuses look like this:

Sashette the Seer, 1st level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +1 check rank, +3 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +1 check rans, +2 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 focus, +6 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +1 check ranks, +1 total ability check)

At 2nd level, she automatically gains 1 rank in Wisdom (her ability focus), and continues to put 1 rank each in Dex, Con, and Cha.

Sashette the Seer, 2nd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +2 check rank, +4 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +0 check ranks, +1 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 focus, +7 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +2 check ranks, +2 total ability check)

At 3rd level, she decides she’s not as concerned about Constitution ability checks, but really wants to be better at Intelligence ability checks. Also, she takes the Skill Focus (Perception) feat, which gives her a +1 bonus to her Wisdom ability check total.

Sashette the Seer, 3rd level
Str 8 (-1 modifier; +0 check ranks, -1 total ability check)
Dex 14 (+2 modifier; +3 check rank, +5 total ability check)
Con 13 (+1 modifier; +2 check rans, +3 total ability check)
Int 12 (+1 modifier; +1 check ranks, +2 total ability check)
Wis 17 (+3 modifier; +3 check ranks, +2 focus, +1 feat bonus, +9 total ability check)
Cha 10 (+0 modifier; +3 check ranks, +3 total ability check)

For many groups, the additional bookkeeping won’t be worth the utility of a GM being able to use one set of scaling DCs for ability and skill checks. For others, a set of rules that mean a 10th level raging barbarian actually has a decent chance to smash in doors and lift portcullises will be a welcome addition. And some groups may even choose to replace the skill system entirely, allowing characters to be trained in any skill that is a class skill or they have a feat to grant a bonus to, and then using ranked ability checks in place of all skill checks.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on August 12, 2022, in Game Design, Pathfinder Development, Starfinder Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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