Essentials Skill Survey

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 25 September 2011

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
Mage 3 1* 7 3 0/3/1**
Knight 3 0 5 1 1
Warpriest 3 1 6 2 0
Thief 4 2* 10 3 1/3**
Slayer 3 0 5 1 0
Hunter 4 1 8 2 4
Cavalier 4 0 8 1 2
Sentinel 3 1* 9 4 1
Hexblade 4 0 9 2 2/0**
Scout 4 1 8 2 2

* 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**
Acrobatics 3 3 0 0
Arcana 4 1 0 3
Athletics 7 3 1 3
Bluff 2 1 0 1
Diplomacy 5 0 2 3
Dungeoneering 4 0 3 1
Endurance 6 0 2 4
Heal 7 2 2 3
History 5 1 0 4
Insight 6 2 1 3
Intimidate 5 1 2 2
Nature 4 1 3 0
Perception 4 1 2 1
Religion 4 1 0 3
Stealth 4 3 1 0
Streetwise 3 1 1 1
Thievery 2 1 1 0

* 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.


I like the analysis you've done here, even though I'm personally still dragging my heels on embracing 4e Essentials. I did some similar analysis, and suggested some houserule changes, in this post; in particular, I found that deriving Religion from Int rather than Wis was troublesome in non-Essentials 4e, and there were a great many more Int-based classes.

So I am wondering if the prevailing wisdom during dev was that since they condensed down the skill list from 3.5 to 4th suddenly all of the physical skills were now lumped into Athletics. So any class that would require any of those skills now find them in their class list.

Religion was always Int based as a Knowledge skill. Seeing as how the knowledge checks are now gone and spread out the knowledge checks go to the smart classes.

To be fair, there are two fighter builds (knight and slayer) they will always have the Athletics skill. There are two Ranger builds (Hunter and Scout) so they will always have Athletics. It does skew the data bit, just a bit.

I know you are looking at this from the evergreen/on ramp perspective but this issue was prevalent in the PHB and campaign setting books. You can not point out the new issue without looking at the original source. Since the Class Compendium changes were made in Dragon nothing was done to address that issue.

The Rules Compendium and Forgotten Kingdom and Fallen Lands books did nothing to change this skill overlap. Add in The Heroes of Shadow classes Binder, Blackguard, Vampire, Necro and Nethermancers and then the Neverwinter Bladesinger and they all have added skill overlap.

There has been no update to class design when it comes to skills, just how the class level and power progression is handled.

just my thoughts on it

@Darth Jerod,

It's true that Knowledge: Religion was, well, a Knowledge and therefore Int-based in 3.x. Of course, in 3.x, clerics didn't need to succeed difficult Knowledge: Religion checks to perform class functions. I would argue that rituals of healing are intended to be performed by clerics in 4e, observing that curing disease, raising the dead, and the like have always been cleric abilities rather than wizard abilities, but Religion as an Int skill makes wizards more suited to it.

Sure, but most rituals of healing use the Heal skill, rather than the Religion skill.

In general, if you want your Clerics to be better at the `Knowledge' part of Religion, you should give them a class feature to let them use Wisdom instead of Intelligence (at least one of the designers has said ``yeah, that's a good idea'' publicly).

A fair point, on rituals. Perhaps the more relevant point is that the skill challenges that I've seen tend to treat Arcana as an almost universally applicable skill, but don't treat Religion as "the cleric version" of Arcana; Religion is far less likely to have any available applications. Which is lucky, because the people who are good at Religion (wizards) already have plenty to do with Arcana.

I'm not sure I see why Religion shouldn't be Wisdom-based for everyone and switch to being Int-based for wizards, since I'd want to give the same class feature that you suggest to paladins, invokers, avengers, and druids.

I'm not sure I see why Religion shouldn't be Wisdom-based for everyone...

Believe it or not, realism. For the most part, Religion is intended to be what we would have called `Knowledge: Religion' rather than `be divine'. At least, I believe that's the intent, based on the skill description.

This is one of the weaknesses of the 4e skill list: most of the time when you want a ``religious lore check'' you're going to be reasonably happy with Religion or Arcana. Your int-based characters are very likely to be good at both, while your divine characters are likely to be bad at both.

In my own writing (home games, Ashes of Athas, or LFR) I tend to expand the other side, with things like:

  • Channel magical energy into the circle: Arcana, Religion, or Nature (Primal characters only) ...
  • I don't expect this to be the aspect of `Religion' most characters use or understand; those characters are more concerned with holy days, religious rituals and practices, and undead lore.

    Whenever I think about this from a design standpoint, I always want to divorce the skill list from it's ``associated ability score'', solving 6 problems (4.5 of them minor) with one swoop. All sorts of games have done it over the years; I believe that D&D doesn't because of history and a false sense of simplicity. This solves the incongruency around climbing, lets you have battles of concentration using Endurance, and allows for really smart characters to pick locks. The biggest downside is that the players have a less firm understanding of the world, and the DM has to do more work. Well worth it, IMO.

    Very good analysis! I'd be curious to see more of your thoughts on how the available skills and their effectiveness affect the role-playing of the characters outside of combat.

    So I might be misinterpreting your interpretation, but here's why this chart means something good:

    1) In 4E we (as a community)simply go to a skill roll too often when we should be just going for a "what (does your character) want to try and do?" type interaction, and without an appropriate skill roll you were (as you said) staying back a bit. Because no skill roll, means you wouldn't want to "mess it up" I suspect. This is the insidious poison of skill challenging everything. That's my own assessment as a guy who runs 4e a lot.


    2) the recent Legends and Lore column about skills seem to recognize this, and is proposing a better way to handle skill checks. But what they are really talking about is DMing.

    The truth is: back before we had skill systems, wizards could *try* and climb walls and hold their breath and attempt things like palming the key or whatever.. and thieves had to *try* to read magic scrolls and take a shot at history knowledge, and the fighter would have to *try* be very diplomatic every once in a while. But now we just look at some numbers and say "someone else better do this, I have like a -2 in that skill.."

    And frankly, that's a bad, sucky habit for us as a community, and good DMs - any DM worth his salt-- should be looking for situations that intentionally break this expectation barrier in non-combat interactions. Just... do it without going to the dice so often. Make the fighter do an insight check! Make the thief try to decipher ancient runes, or the wizard handle an endurance check... Because we got so much more variation and detail and interesting possibility from characters that were/are well rounded than these one-hit wonders who either critically succeed a the limited number of things they can even try.. or they don't play. They withdraw.

    I was a little put off by the sentence: "it's possible that most new players will pick what sounds interesting.".. I think the best players should choose what sounds interesting, and be rewarded for it.. because optimization is ultimately an empty pursuit.

    Obviously how you run your game is up to you, but I hope it's something to think about. Cheers!

    Peter S.

    Thanks for the comment. This is just the first article of hopefully many exploring the skill system. However in order for DMs to fix the problem, we need to understand exactly what is going on. Hence the charts.

    You might dislike optimization and find it an empty pursuit but a number of people really enjoy it. A new player, when faced with a game he or she doesn't know, is likely to stack the odds, in my opinion. Especially since it's likely that that player has played video game RPGs before. So if they see that some of their skill choices match up with the primary and secondary abilities, there is a decent chance they'll pick them over the ones that don't. This can lead to skill clumping in the game, where multiple PCs all have the same skill with approximately the same modifier. Unless you figure out which skill they have that's different from others, it's harder to find a way to make them really shine in a consistent way. And assuming multiple characters are trained in a skill when only one might be can be problematic in any case where multiple rolls of that skill is useful.

    I totally get all of that, but here's where (I think) it goes off the rails:
    The only thing optimization teaches is really "Always Win or Don't Try". By defining "shining" as being the one character that can make this roll or that roll.. you end up in the exact predicament you are describing here. I'm just saying, you could avoid this whole situation as a DM by treating skill ratings not as indicators of "how potentially good/efficient is my character" but rather merely as what they were meant to be: just a way to determine if a character succeeds at stuff. And that stuff (at which a character might succeed or fail) represents only points of interest in an adventure which should be equally interesting regardless if a character succeeds or fails. If you are doing your job as a DM, it should probably be even more fun if you fail a roll, because that sets off a new set of complications and twists and turns. And the most interesting thing of a all, is when the PCs figure out a way that doesn't require a roll. The classic example would be the door you set up so that only characters with X athletics or Y thievery can open, and the wizard shrugs and uses the knock ritual.

    Maybe "shining" doesn't have anything at all to do with whether you can crit the heck out of an arcana check or bust open a door based on the athletics score you managed to finagle on your sheet. "Shining", in my experience is about the human element- plans, clever speeches, sudden insights, great characterization.. etc.. and you can't place any number on any of that.

    A 1st level character with a 7 Charisma has an effective Diplomacy of +30 if it's played by someone who is convincing enough. That's the way this game really works, and it's always been that way.

    Peter, I get all of that too. You're assuming that I am arguing for optimization. I'm not, however I know a number of players who like to play that way and there are players who prefer the game part of the game over the role-playing part. Focusing on one doesn't mean I'm dismissing the other. Right now the way skills are set up naturally leads people to make choices based on optimization rather than on what is interesting, especially for new players. I'll provide more support for that in a future post.

    As for what constitutes a shining moment, well, if most of the characters could make the check or perform a task, then it's not about a particular character. That's what I'm getting at. Whether they succeed or not isn't what makes it a shining moment, it's about giving a particular character the chance to do something that makes that character special. Not every check needs to be that way, but every so often, my opinion is we should throw something in that does. The current skills distribution makes that really hard for characters like the slayer or the knight. The shining moment doesn't even necessarily have to require a roll.

    I don't agree that a low-charisma character shouldn't always pass a diplomacy check or get a +30 just because he or she is played by a high charisma player. That means a player who invested in charisma or diplomacy will not see a return on their investment just because the player isn't inherently charismatic.

    Well, good luck with your stuff.. If you get a chance to come to the Baltimore area, you are definitely welcome to come to one of my games! I know my concern (and likely we all have the same concerns in the big picture) is that the more I see scientific solutions and analysis applied to the game, the more important optimization becomes, and I seriously think the drive for optimization is slowly turning D&D into a game that amateurs not only can't enjoy- it's turning it into a game where newcomers aren't even welcome, and the skills of DMs to create engaging and interesting scenarios and play them out are atrophying as they get trumped over and over again by someone figuring out a loophole-to-the-patch-to-the-errata. There has to be a way to rise above it all.

    Peter, I think you're being a little too divisive on Tracy's statement -- I think you're trying to make a (very) good point, but you're coloring the world entirely black and white to do it. There is a big difference between making *a* choice for optimization and making *every* choice for optimization. A character isn't necessarily engaging in `empty optimization' just because they want to be good at *something* - for many people, looking at the short skill list, ``I want to be good at...'' is the first, obvious, natural lead-in to story/back-story development.

    One major aspect of 4e's short, condensed, mostly non-nonsense skill list is that everything on it is intended to impact the progress of the adventure in some way or other, at some point. This prevents people from being confused by the differences between `Knowledge: Nature', `Ride', and `Handle Animal', but it also tells players right away that these things are meant to carry a noticeable consequence for success or failure. Early 4e design (and design guidance ala the DMG) compounded this problem by telling people, in effect ``failure sucks''. I remember multiple stories of tables being decimated by skill challenges at the GenCon LFR launch - I'm sure you do too. Players have been trained, by practice and by the books that are their official guides, to resent and avoid failing at skills. Tracy's comments all stem from that.

    The excellent point that Peter (I believe) and Teos (below) are trying to make is the very cool things that can happen if you break that ``failure == suck'' training. It's something that we constantly work towards in Ashes of Athas. I see similar efforts in LFR, and I try to encourage players and DMs everywhere to try it -- especially if you hate skill challenges, it's possible that you're just doing it A.) by the book and B.) wrong.

    While we can try to get people to change these habits -- and generally have more fun because of it, we shouldn't berate people for playing the game the way they've been taught to play. We should teach them to play a better game instead.

    Actually, at least one of my upcoming posts will talk about having the skill check determine degree of success or to choose among multiple outcomes rather than having the binary success/failure script.

    Part of this is of course the way the core mechanic itself is presented. Roll a d20 and add modifiers. The higher the number the better. This leads people to worry about what are often small differences. :)

    I think the skill analysis you have done here is quite interesting. And I agree that charting it out like this makes it easier to see where one might see skill clumping.

    What throws me is this line from your initial post "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 believe I am in agreement with Peter's thoughts in his comment, but why does skill clumping impact the roleplaying? One can still roleplay whether they have a skill in something or not. Sometimes it might just be the character roleplaying how poor they are at something, but there isn't any reason for the roleplaying to stop because a character lacks a skill point somewhere.

    In our games a person can always try to roleplay out the diplomacy encounter. There is still a decent chance I will be having them make a diplomacy check, but even if they have zero skill points in that skill, if they did a great job playing the encounter out I will provide a situational modifier to give them a very real chance of succeeding.

    No ranks in climb? How about roleplaying out the act of carefully scouring the obstacle to climb for something to make it a little easier or roleplaying out getting some help for the climb. As a DM I would certainly take that into consideration and possibly apply some modifiers to make the climb more doable depending on the obstacle.

    I think the skill system should be treated as basic guidance, not a leash.

    Look forward to reading more of you skill analysis in upcoming posts!

    She wasn't good at anything and the skills she's allowed to pick from aren't that interesting. I'm not saying that she has to be the best, but with the scores she had, even with training she was approximately where a character of a different class would be if that character didn't have the training but had a primary ability to lined up. I didn't have time before the game started to create a backstory for her. Normally, I'd do it on the fly, but in this case, all she was actually good at was athletics. That's pretty boring to me.

    DMs often ratchet up DCs to account for the fact that many characters are pretty good at one thing. And it's hard to tell someone who is good at heal or another skill, get out of my way I'm going to do this even if I'm clumsy at it. It takes a lot more DM skill to make those situations work, something that, imo, the Essentials line shouldn't require. Also, if my character decides to go for it and fails and that failure means something, the player of the character who was good at the task might get upset. I took away his opportunity to do something awesome with the skill he invested in.

    We're not talking about a point or two. Characters where the primary ability match up are looking at +4/+5 and with the secondary ability, +2/+3, without training. After that, the array used for a new Essentials character commonly results in bonuses of +0 or -1 for the other abilities.

    To be honest, while some people may enjoy roleplaying being poor at something, that's the last thing in the world I want to do. I want to be heroic.

    I find a harder time getting into a character if I don't have a backstory to go with them. At the very least, it takes me longer to find my place with that character if I start a game without a backstory. Very rarely though does my backstory necessarily have a tight integration with my skill point distribution.

    And I agree that it isn't fun *always* roleplaying being poor at something - we do play to be heroic! But to sprinkle in roleplaying some of a character's weaknesses in contrast to their strengths? That can be a lot of fun!

    Sometimes the roleplaying isn't in the form of you doing the skill at hand as it is interacting with the character that is taking care of the task. I know our group has had many memorable moments from the roleplaying interactions between the party while someone was taking care of something via skill use.

    I think you are making good strides to show skill clumping. Tying skill clumping to a lack of roleplaying options is where I feel there is a leap being made. I suspect the difference is that I feel less of a tight integration between the skill system and roleplaying options than some.

    There was a D&D Podcast a couple years ago with a segment about skill checks and DCs and I took some advice from it that I use when ever I set a DC. I never say "oh well Bob has +10 Arcana so this DC has to be 25 to challenge him." I look at the challenge and say "who is going to succeed at this 50% of the time." I take 10 and then if it's succeeded roughly 50% of the time by a trained person then I add 4-6. If it's meant to be moderately difficult for an untrained person then I start the difficulty at 10 or 12. Hard and easy start comparatively around 5 and 15. This doesn't count the half-level but that's added in too.

    Attributes and feat bonuses are what will help when the task is hard or near impossible. Attributes and skill bonuses are what make a character exceptional at a skill. Those are for the "this calls for an expert" situations where the specialist can shine.

    Tracy, this is a great analysis. From my own personal perspective, can you tell me where the assassin fits in to this table? I was just curious.

    Also, while your analysis is thorough, do you have any solutions for the issue? Religion seems to be the sticking point, but it's stats have precedent and it could be easily fixed by making it a wisdom check. Is this a valid solution?

    Finally, you link the skill overlap with an inability to allow individual players to shine. Surely there's a table management solution to this. I don't mean to over-simplify, but couldn't players simply "take turns"? Maybe the knight breaks down the first door, the cavalier the second, & the scout the third? I'm spit-balling here, but a little competition among the players might not be a bad thing. "Heh, you totally botched that last door, Knight, how about you let the Scout try it this time".

    Yeah...I'm probably being difficult. Especially since I was having this conversation with my wife over dinner the other night. Skills seem to be a moving target. Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

    Randall, the executioner assassin gets 1 trained skill in its primary ability and gets to pick 4 more out of 11 available class skills. Of those 11, 2 are tied to the primary ability and three are tied to the secondary ability.

    Taking turns doesn't really translate into times for the player to shine. What I mean by these are the opportunities we might put in where one skill would be useful. A trapped treasure chest, a rune that provides fire resistance until the next extended rest, someone who knows the back entrance into the dungeon, things like that. They don't stop progress but instead provide a nice benefit on the quest.

    I recall playing Basic and AD&D without skills. On one hand, it meant that you were free to come up with ideas. You proposed something, the DM adjudicated on the fly, and you kept playing. On the other hand, the lack of a mechanic meant that you probably thought of this sparingly, in part because the DM didn't design it into the game.

    Meanwhile, other RPGs showed up with a number of takes on skills. Shadowrun is an example. Skills were even how you did your combat! D&D experimented with skills through Alternity, which was a nice interim approach and set the stage for 3E.

    Third edition really nailed how to define a PC. So much about that game was a way to really define the fantasy world. Now you could do far more than roll on a table and find you were a bowyer/fletcher. You could master languages and knowledges, sink maximum ranks into becoming a master tracker, dabble in thievery, etc. The matrix of skills (at least for those classes with many skill ranks... poor fighters!) could be woven to really tell the tale of who your PC was.

    The downside of so many skills is that a lot of this work was useless. Master 17 languages, but you just used 4 in the campaign. Max ranks in Survival, but your DM seldom lets you track. Tons of knowledges, but some seldom come up. In addition, away from the home campaign (organized play and published adventures) adventure design had to contend with the reality that even a very high DC would be crushed by a focused PC and completely inaccessible to the untrained. This led to skills often being used more sparingly than you would expect. There were very few skill challenges, outside of the magical door (which the wizard and bard usually did for 15 minutes while everyone else twiddled their thumbs). The other common scene was the diplomacy challenge, where DM and the face PC spoke and then the player of the face PC made a diplomacy check (usually autosucceeding unless the d20 was a 1-2). It was strange how the system could feel so perfect during character creation and so wrong during the adventure.

    With 4E the skills almost shift from the PC to the party. I say this because players no longer spend any real time choosing their skills (no ranks, just a quick pick during initial creation). Most players could not tell you all the skills in which they are trained, let alone good, without looking at their sheet. Instead, skills become a party asset that they employ. On the positive side, the DM now has a much greater reason to employ skills in all sorts of uses, from random checks for info to skill challenges to in-combat uses with terrain, portals, rituals, and more. We often underestimate how good this has been for our game, primarily because we miss skill ranks and/or are hurt by how poorly the guidance for skill challenges was written. Run even half-properly, skill challenges are a fantastic improvement over the on-off switch of 3E skill checks, so long as the DM and player still are RPing and still care about story. (Because of the bad guidance in the DMG, a good number of tables miss that caveat).

    The perfect system, for me, would allow for skills to be chosen, would have a wider range of competence (not just an on-off switch of trained/untrained), perhaps use ranks, and yet would still allow for enough overlap that DMs and authors would be able to integrate skills into the game. The concept of skill challenges needs to be changed drastically to really focus on the general use of skills in the game and ways to evaluate the challenge (and XP). I like how Enlightened Grognard allows for ranks but provides a wider use of passives. This comes pretty close to accomplishing this goal. You can define your PC (I'm a master locksmith!), still face peril (that's a tough lock!), and still be able to function without mastery (the wizard knows a thing or two about mechanics).

    I'm completely unconcerned with the issue of DCs matching the party level. In the same way that my level 20 guys won't usually face off against level 1 kobolds, I don't find it a problem to not encounter level 1 locks at level 20. I don't need a system to bog down the rest of the rules just to deal with this. It takes up valuable adventure space.

    Anyone else remember Living Greyhawk adventures where you needed to be able to make what we'd now call `Hard DC Arcana' checks in order to get past the introduction?

    Let's never do that again. :-)

    Agreed. Most of this post was really just looking at what is and how it's presented, not making a statement on what should be or how we can massage the game for the better. I hope to write that stuff soon but I wanted to make sure I had a good understanding of the problem before I started.

    Lots of interesting discussion flowing back and forth here. My limited experience with 4E skills tells me that the pendulum swung too far back the other way. Without the DM's guiding hand, it can quickly become messy.

    Take Religion, for example. Forgive me, I know some of this got hashed out on Twitter, but I didn't get to see the whole conversation. At my current table, my character (let's call him Joran) and another player's character (let's call him Issachar) are both trained in Religion.

    Now, here's the thing. For Joran, Religion represents his faith in the Raven Queen. For Issachar, it represents his smattering of knowledge on faith and practice of many gods and goddesses. How's that work at the table? A talented DM makes it work with context.

    But that's not in the rules. That's the DM's altering the system to his liking. How do we make that skill - and by extension all skills - work in a rules-as-written (RAW) fashion? Not sure. Maybe we can't; maybe we shouldn't.

    Running D&D Encounters for the last few seasons has opened my eyes to how people outside my various playgroups (a sample of about 25 all told) deal with 4e and RPing. It's my opinion that the structure of 4e tends to get people thinking in game-mechanical mode before they think role-playing (or just creative problem-solving.)

    As has been pointed out here, if players don't have a bonus in line with their primary to-hit bonus, they often say, "My character can't do that." That's a startling revelation to me. I grew up just telling my DM what I was up to, and tossing the d20 (or other appropriate die if my DM requested it), and that's the way I DM. I've reminded my Encounters guests that that's how it goes at my table, and encouraged them to give it a try...

    I know of players that are enamored of game mechanics, and get their RPG joy from manipulating same. I try to indulge them, and encourage them to come up with creative ideas that will give them game-mechanical bonuses to the abilities that they deem sub-optimal.

    In my opinion (again), much of the challenge comes not from the skills and/or bonuses the players have, but in the DM and/or adventure designers outlining ways, or hinting at possibilities for players to be more creative in their problem-solving.

    In general, I've always found 4e to be a bit too stingy with its skills; I assume that this is an (over-)reaction to 3.x's over-use of skill ranks for prerequisites. If you didn't play 3e, let me just say: you generally got at least as many skills as in 4e, but you also got bonus picks from high Int. You had to assign your skill ranks (imagine each +1 of your `Trained +5 bonus' as an independent choice) very carefully, and often using crystal balls, tea leaves, and/or a generous retraining rule if you wanted to qualify for an interesting prestige class (and since most characters took a new class at least every 3 levels, you did). The actual use of skills in 3e mattered very rarely, except for a few key applications. In practice, the 3e skill system was either turned into a class `power' by a particular class feature (with Trapfinding the obvious but not only example), or it was an extra layer of accounting for your class progression.

    In response to this, 4e whacked a large number of skills, and simplified the skill system across the board. Removing the skills-as-prereqs step and adding skill challenges to the game at the same time really shifted the skill landscape: Essentially, one hand said ``Let's make this LESS important'' and the other said ``let's make this MORE important''. I think it made R&D too conservative - too many characters end up with essentially no skill *choices* that can ever matter. Some of this stems from the imbalance in skills for ability scores (compare strength or stamina to wisdom or charisma), and some of it seems to come from the very muddled idea of what it meant to put something on a class's skill list. While it doesn't match the *3e* design ethos, in the *4e* world, if you were to add Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Perception to every class skill list, you would barely change the game - and those changes would be entirely up-side.

    This has stunted 4e design since the earliest days. For example, taking a multi-class feat in early 4e was a no-brainer - you got a skill AND a cookie - and before Expertise feats were added to the game, a character was 90% likely to have taken a MC feat by 2nd level, and 99% likely to have done so by 4th level. If you're running a home game, I heartily recommend giving your characters an extra skill choice, or even 1/tier. In general, giving a character an extra skill choice does nothing to their `power' except give them more options to play with during skill challenges. (true min-maxers will find some extra goodies in increased Skill Utility options, but you can restrict those to the starting skills without too much trouble).

    Good points Chad. It's amazing how many people complain about skill challenges but forget that the 3E equivalent was basically one PC rolling either Knowledge: Arcana or Diplomacy while the rest of the players took a nap. And yeah, I had forgotten how skills were such a big deal for qualifying for prestige classes. My Arcane Trickster... good Lord! I don't want to look that up.

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