Essentials Skill Survey
I've been thinking a lot about the 4e skills system, especially between the announcement of Monte Cook rejoining the WotC R&D team and the two Legends & Lore articles: Skills in D&D and Difficulty Class Warfare. With the two articles, there are things I liked in them and things I didn't. I tried for four days to write a post about my thoughts on both of those systems and I found I couldn't write it. Why? Because there were problems in the current system I often felt but couldn't explain.
Both as a player and as a DM, I've felt that 4e classes often step on each other's toes when it comes to skill use. The number of people at the table with approximately the same modifier to a skill makes it hard as a DM to allow a player to shine. It gets especially bad when the skill is something that's seen as iconic to the character, such as the skills that are automatically trained for a particular class.
In addition, I played a slayer in a recent campaign and found the character awesome tactically but I basically withdrew whenever we tried to do roleplaying. I really didn't understand why until I looked into the skill distribution for Essentials characters.
So why look at only at Essentials characters? Well, these are the books that are evergreen, they should always be available at the hobby shop or the bookstore. We are also told that these are the on-ramp to D&D for new players. In addition, they should have gotten it right by this point. I cut earlier books a lot of slack because I realize how much 4e was a shift from previous ways of playing and creating the game. Finally, they are the simplest form of the game. We don't have to worry about the further complications of backgrounds or themes as they don't appear in the books.
|Class||Number of Trained Skills at 1st Level||Automatically Assigned Skills||Class Skills List Size||Overlap with Primary Ability||Overlap with Secondary Ability|
* This automatically assigned skill aligns with the class's primary ability.
** These classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities.
What this table tells me is that some classes are forced to pick suboptimal skills due to the class skills available to the class but this forced choice isn't standardized across classes. This is particularly prominent among the strong melee character classes knight, slayer, and cavalier. They all have the same skill that aligns with their primary ability, Athletics. So if you have two of the three in a party, it will be harder to make them shine through an Athletics skill check. (I am making the assumption that players will tend to pick skills that align with primary or secondary abilities, it's possible that most new players will pick what sounds interesting.)
|Skill||Total Number of Classes with Access||Aligns with Class's Primary Ability||Aligns with Class's Secondary Ability*||Total with Likely Low Ability Modifiers**|
* Three classes have multiple secondary abilities.
** The total classes minus the ones with primary or secondary abilities. Since some classes have multiple suggested secondary abilities, this number might be slightly off.
What this table tells me is that some skills are better as general challenges to the party. For instance, there's likely to be someone trained in Athletics or Heal. It also shows why Endurance is often a dump skill. It's on the class list for 6 of the 10 classes, but only 2 classes suggest Constitution as a secondary ability. On the other end of the spectrum are thievery, bluff, and streetwise. Few classes offer those skills but for the ones that do, it's often a good way to help that character shine.
Now, I'm not suggesting that they should have made a big chart and ensured they filled in all the boxes. What I am suggesting is that this should be more apparent to DMs when they create or modify adventures for their table. I hope to write more about this soon.
EDIT: A chart I should probably make is class roles to skills but that's a task for another day.