Thoughts on Skills

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 23 January 2012

Each edition seems to have its own way of dealing with skills. While I haven’t had time to study each edition, I think I’ve had enough experience with each of the systems I discuss here to give general impressions about the system and some observations on how I react to each.

Before I talk about expressions of skills in each of these editions, I'd like to lay out two ways skills are often used in a D&D game.

Skills as Resources

For some, skills constitute a resource that players invest in or not. When used this way, the DM generally presents a more generic challenge to the PCs, such as traveling a long distance through the wilderness. If no one in the party chose skills to help with such a challenge, the hope is that the characters spent other resources, such as silver and gold, to obtain resources to help them through, such as a map, rations, camp equipment, hiring skilled allies, and the like. If they didn’t, then they often suffer the consequences of their choices by getting sick, starving, not resting well, and the like.

Skills as Adventure/World Building

For others, the skill choices serve as a menu, allowing the player to tell the DM what sort of world they expect. In this play style, if no characters took wilderness survival skills, it’s possible that the DM won’t ask the players to play through a survival scenario unless the scenario was very important. Why would a group of people untrained in the arts of the wilderness enter it when they could do x, y, or z instead. Likewise, if a player takes a skill such as blacksmithing, that’s a clear message that the player is interested in having that trade be part of the game. Additionally, this way of handling skill choices can make it easier to game with a smaller group without adding the complication of henchmen and other skilled NPC allies.

Not all games will be one or the other. Some skills lend themselves more one style over the other, for instance, a skill such as balance might be something we want to view as a resource a player either invested in or didn’t whereas sailing would be part of adventure or world building.

Expressions of Skills

In the Fellowship of the Tweet games I was in, we used OD&D (Rules Cyclopedia). In that game, the only defined skills I could remember were set by class, with the thief having the majority of them. For instance, when we wanted to climb, I believe just the player of the thief made the check for the entire group.

• When limiting skills to a particular class or character build decision, they can become more memorable. I didn’t read all of the rules and we only played a few sessions yet I remember this about our game.
• In a game where you combat should be a component but not the focus of the game, having characters that are poor in combat but useful outside of it helps spread the game’s emphasis since the DM must run non-combat scenarios to ensure the spotlight spreads around to all players.
• If the skills are only available to certain classes or character builds, the game may become too limited for many players. Furthermore, it may force a player in the group to play a character class he or she doesn’t want to because the group would be missing a crucial skill otherwise. The most frequently cited example is people feeling they had to play the healer.
• It may be difficult, if not impossible, to use skill choice as a world/adventure building engine in this system since other factors are much more likely to enter into the decision of which class to pick. The presence of particular skills has less bearing on whether or not the player is interested in playing out that skill.
• For new and casual players, the system may be easier for them to use. It’s also might help players who are used to more clearly delineated races and classes.

Another skill system I have experience with is the skill ranks system from 3.x. In this system, the skills are, for the most part, codified in one place instead of being mixed in with the various classes and other character build options. Every character has access to every skill. Classes favor certain skills, giving the player a bonus for taking them. Players start out with a certain number of skill ranks when they start the game and gain additional ones each level. Some skills can only be used while trained.

• This system supports both skills as a resource and skills as part of world/adventure building.
• The combinations are limitless. Players can go deep in a small set of skills or cast a wide net.
• World building skills are mixed in with necessary combat and other play skills, making it harder on both a DM and player since participating in world building might come at the expense of effectiveness within the party.
• Not all players want the depth of choices nor do they want to revisit skill selection at each level. Since the skill system touches so many different levels of the game, it serves as a barrier to entry for some players.
• The system needs to set limits on how much advancement in a particular skill a character can have compared to its level.

The system I’m most familiar with is the 4e system. In 4e, we have a stripped down skill list with many skills from earlier editions combined into one, such as Spot and Listen becoming Perception and many of the Knowledge checks becoming part of History, Arcana, Religion, and the like. During character creation, players decide which skills they want to train in and skill modifiers go up by ½ level throughout the character’s career. Generally, class choice decides which skills are available to a character, although that may be modified through themes and feats among others.

• The system is a simple yet flexible framework to help DMs adjudicate non-combat and even some combat actions.
• The training system and automatic leveling makes the game easier for new and casual players since a player makes the skills decision once instead of each time the character levels. The skill system is also tied into fewer other parts of the character so it’s easier for a new or casual player to make an informed choice.
• The system lacks depth for invested players and training in new skills requires a player to expend resources that might be used to produce a more effective character for combat.
• The skills available are spread across the classes, akin to the OD&D model but a few character build options open up other skills to characters.

My Preferences for D&D Next

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week or so thinking about these. They each seem to be on a continuum of complexity. For new players or those who don’t want to invest a lot of time into skills, do something more akin to the OD&D model. For each class and race, provide some skills that they would be trained in. No decisions need to be made by the players. For other players, do the trained/untrained model with auto-advancement. Finally, for those players who really enjoy the complexity, let them move around the points as they wish, still keeping some limits on the highest some skills can get in relation to level.

I’d also love a discussion of the two ways to use skills and a vocabulary to help the DM and the players communicate the sort of game they want or expect. I suggest that some skills might only be made available on an adventure or setting basis. If an adventure or setting is likely to call for a sailing skill then it will be present, but if the game is in the middle of a desert, then it’s not listed. In addition to class, I'd love skills to be tied to the character's background and culture.

Finally, I’d love to see tools for the DM to use to make skill use more important in the game. In a resource management scenario, such as a survival game, rolls regarding food finding might be pretty important since lack of food might trigger starvation or other effects. On the other hand, I’ve been in plenty of games where no one wanted to play that out, and instead wanted to concentrate on other areas of tension and story.

So that’s where I’m at with skills. How about you?


The 3rd edition skill model was terrible. Linking the number of skill points to Intelligence is crippling for fun, immersion, sense, or design. As an example, a 20 STR barbarian who lived its entire life in the treetops of a jungle nation is somehow worse at climbing than a scrawny wizard who has only ever climbed a library ladder. Also, the barbarian can't swim, jump, or run for long distances.
Skill points work in a point buy system, or if DCs don't scale (or hardly scale). To function properly in D&D you'd need piles of skill points, and need to get them all the time.

I also do not like the idea of requiring class X to train in a skill. Anyone can learn to jump, anyone can read a book on religion. All skills should be available to anyone, but certain classes could definitely receive bonuses when trained in a skill.
The issue with requiring certain classes to access certain skills is that the system then emphasizes character build and the meta-game more than flavor or in-game play.

I have also been thinking a lot about skills, I've written an entire series deconstructing skills in general, along with views of skills in pathfinder/3.x and skills in various other systems.

Your analysis is a helpful perspective for that series.

I have thought a lot about skills over the years, over various versions of different role playing games I have been involved in.

I have always favored a set of skills that are picked at the beginning and get better with use. I have played games where skills were available to everyone; everyone started at level 0 (for all intense purposes) making them suck, at best. They got better as they attempted to use skills; some points were granted from day one that they could make the character better starting off, but everything was learnable. Anything that was class specific (casting spells, etc) was part of the class, not a skill everyone could use.

I appreciate this type of skill set the most; because it gives a lot more freedom to the players to decide what they want to do. Training can be achieved in town (use for downtime), or just perseverance. The party finds out that the GM likes to set them into wilderness survival type settings, they can spend some time learning.

The skills should be based on appropriate stats; The more you have in the prime stat, the quicker and better you are at something.

There are several issues with Skills when it comes to play.

1> The basic problem in skills is that often when they are used it involves a possibility of a 'bad ending' if a failure occurs. For example, if a person is climbing a high cliff and they fail then the character should die ~ bad ending. If the players are looking for clues to where the villain hide out is located and they fail to get the clue then the adventure stops ~ bad ending. The rogue/thief fails to spot the poison gas trap and the trap kills the rogue/thief ~ bad ending. If you can not live with the result of a failure then you should not leave fate to a random die roll. This is most extreme in all or nothing situations where one die roll determines the fate of a character or an adventure story (miss the hidden doorway that leads to the dungeon).

If skills were missed in a movie or novel then the result would be some sort of complication was introduced into the story. A person that fails in climbing has to wait for someone to rescue them or they end up sacrificing some equipment dragging them down or an extra dies instead of the main character. A failure to find the villains base on the main character's terms usually results in them being ambushed or captured and dragged to the hide out (James Bond's favourite way to find a villain hide out).

2> Most skill systems are separate from the combat system. RPGs are often heavily focused on combat systems resulting in poor systems using 'skills' to represent social interactions. The social interactions are very badly represented as a result through skills with often a mid focused character on social interaction (face character) often having large amounts of bonus to modify NPCs including important NPCs. Player's are personally immune to the reverse usage of skills on their own characters (you can not intimidate me or make me do something I don't want to do).

If the King can not order you out of his court then there is no reason that you should be able to schmooze or intimidate the King to do what you want.

3> Cleverness is not rewarded in the rules. Luck is rewarded in the luck system. If one player carefully discusses how they set up climbing ropes to help them move over an obstacle then they are often still required to make a skill roll to see how well they do (often this becomes several dice rolls which increases the chance that bad results will occur). If you have two players with the same skill but one has a single level and the other has several levels but the person with several levels tends to roll low often then the value of the skill is not reflected in play (PC: I'm a trained sniper. DM: But your die roll shows that you chose to wear plenty of reflective items that have you lit up like a Christmas tree on the roof top.).

4> Knowledge skills are often part of the 'bad ending' problem. If you do not give the 'key' information to the players to help them through the story then the story may not happen. I've moved mystery solutions to patron NPCs (like a Nero Wolf) because failures of the PCs to 'solve' the mystery are avoided by having the NPC give the directions on where to get the information and where to find the villain. This avoids they mystery that players get 'stuck' in trying to solve.

5> Absence of a skill does not alleviate the trouble. Rivers need to be swam and ledges need to be walked. Horses often need to be ridden. If one or two players have the 'appropriate' skill and the others do not then what happens when the obstacle is placed in a story. If you have a challenge for the one or two players with skill then the others are likely to fail (plenty of bad endings can occur). If you have a challenge that is a level for the unskilled players to handle then the others are not rewarded for their investment in the skill (I could have put my skill points in something that would be checked).

6> High level skills are rarely represented with anything interesting. The only reward for a great skill is that you are provided by a great challenge that the GM would likely not have put in the story unless the player had a great skill.

7> Skills would be better in DnD if they were replaced with the Stunt and Trapping system as found in Starblazer Adventures RPG. Stealth in this system with the right stunt allows the player to just declare an NPC (non main villain or Lieutenant) in the adventure is their character in disguise (very Lando from Return of the Jedi). Knowledge skills allow a player to declare small things as 'facts' for future stories (player declares that Blue Dragons prefer silver to gold as treasure and suggests the players should look for a silver merchant to find who has been exchanging large amounts of gold for sivler).

Proficiency in a skill indicates you have an improved chance to succeed at overcoming obstacles by utilizing the skill. I think that the problem with most skill systems is that they don't give the GM enough information to set up encounters. Simply saying, "this encounter requires a Diplomacy check, DC 20" is not sufficient.

Educating GMs on listening to players' action descriptions to provide cues for appropriate skill use, or in writing challenges that contain cues to guide players is a good place to start. With combat, it's pretty obvious when you're confronted by a hostile mob that you're going to resolve it with your weapons skills. Likewise, faced with a cliff or a wall, you might need to climb it.

Too often in modern games we seem to do the equivalent of button-mashing. That is, confronted by a guard at a gate we say things like, "I use Diplomacy on him. I got a 23. Does he let me through the gate?"

Any skill test should involve something the player or character wants, an element of risk, and an opportunity for a creative solution. The guard in question may have had a bad day (e.g., his mother died) and any attempts at silver-tongued diplomacy are made at -2. Sitting next to his post however are several empty mead bottles. Offering him a bottle of mead to drown his sorrows might give a +2 on the check. If diplomacy fails, an officer of the guard arrives and the PCs may be forced to pay a toll to pass the gate, otherwise they get through with a nod and a tearful wink from the drunk, mourning guard.

As much as I have a different view of skills compared to DM Dave, he does bring up a lot of good points about how skills tend to be very situational and very all or nothing... and I am not sure which was D&D and WOTC wants to go with this. I like skills as flavoring for the characters where they can differentiate themselves so that no two swashbucklers or no two mages are the same when in comes to how skilled they are at climbing, how much seamanship they know, how quick they are to notice the crack in the main mast or the enemies rowboat approaching in the dark.

I also don't like the "all or nothing" approach to skills.. if you fail your climb, yeah, you might fall, or you might just get tangled in the rigging or vines, or you might drop your weapon... you don't necessarily fall to your death (unless you are trying to jump over a 30 ft wide, 200 ft deep ravine over lava when there is a perfectly good bridge in working order to your left... then if you roll a 1, yeah, I'm letting you fall in)... but if you roll a low knowledge check you might learn a little bit and need to talk to someone else or you might learn the wrong information that comes back to bite you at the end of the adventure.. but the game doesn't stop.

I like the idea of giving different classes a "average skills you could follow" set, kind of like they do for powers in 4e where they help you along and say "yeah, a healing cleric probably takes these powers." They could do the same with skills so you have a base to build off of if you don't feel like putting as much micro-management into the game.

However, I wonder if skills couldn't be vastly expanded to include combat as well as non-combat situations and abilities... I may be going to far off the D&D path here, but as I said before, I like skills that allow players to make characters who (if the players choose) are not cookie cutters of each other... so why not allow combat skills to be the same?

What if when you advanced in level, you got X # of skill points that could be put into melee skills, ranged skills, magic skills, knowledge, athletics, perception, professions, etc? Most players would put their points in similar locations, increasing their melee skill a little, increasing their classes skills a little, increasing their knowledge skills based on what they liked or what they thought their character had learned since last level.

But, some players could choose to focus on weapons, armors, melee, and kind of let perception, stealth, and knowledge slip a little. Other players (mages, clerics, druids for example) might choose to not increase melee or ranged and just focus on magic and herbal lore and arcane studies.

That way each group of players could tailor the game to what they wanted... if they and the DM wanted a combat heavy, skill light game, they would get it... if they wanted a combat light, magic and roleplay and skill heavy game, they would have characters that are actually better at talking themselves out of situations than fighting their way out. And if the party had a mix of the above, wouldn't that actually make for a potentially more dynamic game?

Again, maybe this is too much of a change from thAC0 and attack + 1/2 your level + feat bonuses, but it would be one way to allow players and DM to get whatever kind of game they wanted out of D&D using one rule-set... Josh

I prefer a simple skill system that revolves around trained and untrained checks. I also think that the skills should be determined by class, with race impacting skills in a minor way. This is essentially how 4e deals with skills and it works well for me at my table.

I tend to add restrictions during play to how skills are used. To deal with everyone at the table rolling a skill check, I often only allow those who are trained to make certain skill checks. This helps each person shine with different skills. I will also sometimes give a player information that they would normally get from a skill check based on race, class or trained skills, without any rolls required. This helps each character feel important to the plot and what is happening to the party.

As someone who has played every edition of D&D, I prefer a very loose skill system. The skill rank system was my least favorite way to handle skills. I liked the proficiency system of 2e, it helped me add little bits of information to the story based on the skills that the characters possessed. This keeps things simple and fun.

I believe skills should be split up into separate categories, mental and physical. Physical skills should not be decided by how smart you are, but by your class’s primary physical attribute. So a fighter would use his or her strength and a rogue would use his or her dexterity If you class does not have a primary physical attribute, say a wizard or bard for example, then you would use strength to decided how many physical skill you have.

I would also make passive bonuses to some skills. For instance having points in intimidate will add to your armor class. Having skill points in bluff increases you chance to hit your opponent. If you are a magic user bluff makes your spells harder to counter.

Another modification I would make to skills is letting certain classes use different ability scores for different skills. Again using intimidate as an example a fighter should be able to use his strength score to intimidate with size and actions instead of being penalized for a low charisma score.

Giving a character all the skills allowed to his class is a bad idea. I makes the characters all the same. For instance a rogue based on a cat burglar would have have climb, stealth and disable device. A rogue based on a guttersnipe would have slight of hand, bluff and stealth.

I like how Pathfinder chooses to give a bonus to skills connected to a class or background, but doesn't penalize people who take non-standard skills. If you want to be an athletic wizard you can be.

I like having skills at least partially tied to level. Mechanically, there are two types of skill checks. Those that need one good roll and those that need a roll from everybody. If you're researching an ancient clue, only one person needs to get that information. If the party is on the deck of a ship rolling in a storm, everybody needs to keep their balance. When you get to mid levels in 3.x, you often have a difference of more than 20 points in the base modifier. That means it's impossible to challenge the whole party. Either somebody automatically fails or somebody automatically succeeds. I like the idea that an epic hero would be pretty good at even the weakest of his skills. I could see reducing this bonus. Maybe you add 1/3 of your level to your skills, or you get a +1 to all skills at 5th level instead of your normal advancement.

@GM Dave. there are plenty of ways to make skills more than pass/fail. A good GM will recognize degrees of success and degrees of failure. They'll also take player skill and cleverness as modifiers. I use this a lot. Sometimes the player choice is good enough or bad enough that success/failure is automatic. (i.e. like spending time setting up ropes or intimidating the king in front of his court.) I'll sometimes roll to cover random factors - i.e. does the king banish them or imprison them with plans for execution? Or perhaps you move over the obstacle, but you can't retreive your equipment easily. The sniper issue doesn't mean that they dressed like a christmas tree. It could mean that the bad guy just happened to look in the right direction at the right time. Rolling bad sometimes means you did everything right, but random chance caught up with you. You stepped on a rock. You used a turn of phrase that your mark's ex-lover used to use. The sun got in your eyes.
For mysteries, have several ways to get each clue. A failure might give you a thought on another path to get the needed information. You check the library and fail, but the book was checked out by somebody at the temple of the sun. So you ask around there and fail, you insult the priest, but the janitor is amused by the priest's embarassment and says the priest was meeting with a scholar at the university. and so forth. Often the players are happier because it took them more work to get the information.
I often have the skilled people help the less skilled. This makes it a more balanced field while rewarding those who bought their skill up. See also my comments above about skilled adventurers often having a little of every skill.
As for great skills bringing great challenges - see the original post. If you want to be the best weaver in the world, then working the Loom of Destiny (dramatic music swell) is cool. Likewise giving a God a mug of your best brew and having him smack his lips can be as cool as killing a big bad guy. Of course, to make it a true victory you need to have worked for it. Gathering the wool of the bloodsheep. Or stealing the Storm Giant's skybarley.
For some types of games it wouldn't make sense to do those kinds of stunts. But when it's appropriate I could see it tied into a skill system.

@Anarkeith, That's a good way to combine player cleverness into the skill system.

"In a game where you combat should be a component but not the focus of the game, having characters that are poor in combat but useful outside of it helps spread the game’s emphasis since the DM must run non-combat scenarios to ensure the spotlight spreads around to all players."

Arg! No! Now you have one player who's bored in combat and has fun in social scenes, and three players who are bored in social scenes and have fun in combat! That's terrible! Instead of having players pushing for more breadth, every player is pushing for limited breadth, and they're in disagreement!

A better way to handle this is to give every character something unique to do in combat and something unique to do with skills. That way they all have fun in all "three pillars."

* Fighters are athletic and intimidating; they draw aggro and are hard to kill
* Wizards are knowledgeable and insightful; they debuff and lay down aoe damage
* Clerics are knowledgable and diplomatic; they buff and heal
* Rogues are stealthy and deceitful; they move around and do nova damage

Now you can have a social scene, an exploration scene, and a combat scene and everyone has fun, so everyone wants them. If it's a social scene, the fighter asserts authority, the wizard notices little details, the cleric is persuasive, and the rogue makes the NPC feel confidant they're on his side. Or perhaps the fighter tries to resolve it by bluster and boss the NPC around; the wizard wants to draw the NPC out before revealing much; the cleric wants to be honest and lay everything on the table; and the rogue wants to play it close to the chest -- so they have to work it out as a group who takes the lead when, and why.

Ah, I see that was about Old D&D. Never mind!

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