Skilled with Skills

Charles Joseph Natoire, Psyché et ProserpineThere has been a lot of talk about skills lately on Twitter and the WotC site which has led to a few blog posts by members of the community as well. The first starting point is of course the Legends and Lore column with 2 articles by Mike Mearls and this week’s one by Monte Cook all pushing a new idea for skills proposed by Mr. Cook. You can read other community blogs at Initiative or What?, Sarah Dark Magic (3 articles), and the Angry DM.

Its A Level Based Game

In looking at skill systems for DnD we first need to understand the core mechanic of the game and it isn’t roll d20 and pray in this case. The core mechanic is actually the system of improvement that will be used by characters to express the effect their experiences in their adventuring career have had on them.

DnD has always been a level based system; this means your level determines how much improvement you have undergone. Skill at doing things, from hitting your enemies to casting spells to disarming traps is all tied directly to your level.  This has a number of benefits when you look entirely at the game part of RPG, most notably you can make strong predictions of the ability of PCs to defeat obstacles without looking any further. In simple form your level determines your skill at doing things and this makes game balance easier to create.

Skills in DnD

Skills have always been part of the DnD game, of course originally only a few skills existed and they were only available to a small group of characters; namely Thieves and later Assassins and those who dual or multi classed into those classes. In BECMI (Basic, Expert, etc) skills were introduced more formally and broadly and tied to the characters background.

Eventually 2E came along and introduced Non-Weapon Proficiencies which was a long winded way of saying “skills”. Both BECMI and 2E had very simple skill systems which had poor chances of a character having success using them. Then 3E came along and introduced a full skill system, a detailed rule set that could be optimised and tweaked to the player’s content.

The 3E system had basically 3 states; optimised characters that never failed, roll and pray and prohibited rolls. Each of these presents problems. PCs who never failed at a Tumble check eliminated the Opportunity Attack rules and thus had largely free reign to move around the battlefield as they wished, and that says nothing of the craziness that Diplomacy allowed!  Prohibited rolls encouraged class hoping (take a level of Rogue and be able to use all of Disable Device and Search for example) and 1 point skills (a high intelligence character with a lot of knowledge skills) just because of the prohibition on making certain rolls without the skill. The last factor made skills largely irrelevant; anyone can make a climb check so anyone can roll and pray, the difference between being skilled and unskilled was often negligible and so unless you moved towards making climb an auto-success skill there was little benefit in having skill ranks in the skill. It is important to note that the issues with the 3E skill system are tied far more to the core level-based nature of the system than the skill system itself.

4E then made being skilled matter, a lot, while also tightening up the skill list so that it was simpler. 4E took elements of the 3E system and the prior rules and came up with a new system. I’ll get back into this more shortly.

Skills in Other Games

There are many different ways of handling the mechanics of an RPG, and one of the more popular ones is a “Skill Based System”. In games that use a skill based system individual skills measure the character’s proficiency at tasks and are improved on an individual basis. Some of these systems also incorporate levels (such as Legend of the Five Rings) but many do not. In these games skills are used for everything from attacking to seducing your character’s next lover.

In comparison to DnD most skill based systems use small dice  or a number of dice depends on skill, both of which make the size of the skill critical. This is why the 3E skill system didn’t work well, the bonuses were either too small compared to the 1-20 range of the dice or too large for the same range. This created a polarised effect and led to many people using the optional rule for a 1 on a skill check always failing and a 20 always succeeding.

The 4E RAW

The 4E rules give a +5 bonus for being trained in a skill; its functionally a 25% bonus to your chance of success. You can improve that via a number of means, the simplest of which is Skill Focus giving you +3 more (total of 40% bonus to success). Tasks are then broken into three categories; easy, average, and hard. An easy task has a 65% chance of success, a moderate task 40% and a hard task 10%. You will notice that this means a trained character with a +3 bonus will always succeed at easy tasks and likely routinely succeed on moderate tasks and achieve a hard task about half the time.

In addition to the basic structure above the 4E rules adopted the “Take 10″ rule from 3E. In non-stressful situations a character can replace a roll with just having it be a 10. This is then formalised as “Passive Skill Checks”. The system is then rounded off by providing some uses of skills that can only be attempted if trained in the skill (such as detect magic with Arcana) giving characters that are trained in skills another edge over untrained characters.

Using skills then works like this:

  1. Roll d20
  2. Add the character’s skill check modifier (key ability bonus + training + other static bonuses)
  3. Add situational bonuses (this is really important!)
  4. Add up 1-3
  5. Compare to the DC determined by the DM according to the task’s difficulty (easy, moderate, hard).

Using RAW

The first thing to do is read the “Take 10″ rules, they say “When creatures are not in a rush or not involved in an encounter or a skill challenge they can choose to take 10 on a skill check.” So right there is the first and most important step every time as a DM you are thinking about a skill check look at the situation first.

An example (used in multiple places in discussing potential rules changes or problems) is searching a room. The argument runs pretty much like this; in the old days you had to say where you searched and what you did and the DM told you if that worked, now all you do is roll perception and move on. Mr. Cook suggested a tiered system of skill ranking as a means to solve this problem, essentially eliminating rolling as long as the PC is skilled enough. Sara Darkmagic provides a great example of how PC actions might work with that as well. Yet the 4E system works great just the way it is right now for that situation.

So the first thing to do is read the Perception rules, in which it says “the DM usually uses Passive Perception to see if the PC notices something”, and that “carefully searching an area (the creature’s space and squares adjacent to it) requires 1 minute or more”. Now the PCs are in the room, they are not in an encounter or a hurry, so it is time to search. The DC to find the “loose tooth” is say 19 (level 1 hard). First of all to find it the PCs need to be searching in roughly the right area, that lets them find it with a Passive Perception of 19, or they can actively search making a roll if they want and maybe find it. Alternatively someone might say “I check the head of the statue out” at which point the DM might drop the DC to 12 (level 1 moderate) and the PC finds it if their passive perception is 12 or higher. Finally someone might say “I examine the mouth, wobbling the teeth”, at which point the DM drops the DC to 8 (level 1 Easy) and all but the most impaired PCs immediately locate the loose tooth by taking 10.

What About Religion?

One of the oft referenced problems is Religion, and its use as a skill by characters that have it automatically and yet have no other need to have any Intelligence bonus at all. This means that a Cleric at level 1 taking 10 on Religion is more likely to know less about his Religion than the Wizard at level 1 who is trained in Religion. From a purely knowledge perspective the skill is supposed to be broken down into General (Easy), Specialised (Moderate), Esoteric (Hard), so at level 1 the Cleric always knows the General and Specialised knowledge of religions, but probably doesn’t know the esoteric facts.

If you go and read Religion in the Rules Compendium you find that a Cleric can do all the normal things you expect someone to do without having a single point in Intelligence ever. What the Cleric has trouble with is using the skill under difficult circumstances, knowing (ie using intelligence) obscure facts about the Astral Plane or a particular monster, or soothing a wild crowd with a hymn. So the question is why is the Cleric worse at soothing a wild crowd with a hymn than a Wizard? The answer comes back to step 3 of the rules for using a skill. We can safely say that the Cleric is likely to be very practiced at singing a popular hymn, that makes a bonus reasonable and the Wizard on the other hand we can safely say knows the words to a popular hymn but isn’t so familiar with the tune and singining it, so that makes a penalty reasonable as well. Now the rules are silent on how big those bonuses and penalties should be, though there is advice in the DM’s Kit and DMGs on setting those modifiers; the typical modifier size is 2. So if the Cleric is Int 10, trained and has a +2 they total 17, so they need to roll to succeed (it is a stressful situation, that seems fair), and if the Wizard is Int 18, trained and has a -2 they total 17, so they need to roll to succeed (again that seems fair). Importantly they both have the same chance of success!

So what does all of that mean? It means that when you stop and use the rules fully the Religion skill as an Int skill works just fine for even Clerics. In short there is no problem with the rules. (I’m not saying there is no problem at all however.)

What about Rituals?

Rituals are the one area where skills, in particular Religion, loose out when you don’t have their key attribute as a primary. The first thing to note is that most rituals don’t require a roll at all so it doesn’t actually matter how skilled you are, just that you have the skill. That just leaves a few cases where rolling matters. The first thing I’m going to say is; are rituals done in a hurry or in an encounter? The answer is no normally, so a DM could rule that a character can take 10 on performing them; suddenly the Cleric will succeed at most Religion rituals without a problem. Some they will be a few levels behind a Wizard before they can really master them, but given that (typically) you need to be about 5 levels higher than the ritual before you can routinely use it (or have a way of casting it for free) that isn’t a problem either.

What if you don’t want to allow “Take 10″ on rituals? Well then I think it is time to investigate Angry DM’s idea of leaving the Key Attribute part out, and letting Wis based characters that are trained in Religion due to their class use Wis for Rituals. Mind this is a definite house rule.

So what does this mean? Mostly I think it means that the Ritual rules don’t mesh well with the rest of the Rules (which more than anything highlights why they were left out of Essentials). Rituals like Purify Water with Arcana (Int), Nature (Wis) and Religion (Int) significantly disadvantage classes that don’t have the Key Attribute as a primary attribute (eg Bards & Clerics) so forcing those classes to roll checks is a significant issue in rule design. However either allowing trained characters to use “highest of Int,Wis,Cha” for performing rituals or “Take 10″ does remove the problem.

The DC Treadmill – The Final Hurdle

There are 2 types of skill DC according to the Rules Compendium; fixed DCs don’t change as a character levels making it easier to do the task as the character increases in power (eg jumping) and scaling DCs for tasks that have a difficulty based on the character’s level. The later are what creates the table (RC pg 126) some refer to as the Treadmill. The treadmill breaks everything into the 3 categories of easy, moderate and hard, and then sets the DC for achieving each difficulty of task based on the PCs level.

The difficulty with the treadmill is with say a locked door the PCs need to open in a hurry (so they need to roll). The DM decides the lock has a moderate difficulty to open, at level 1 that is DC 12, at level 30 it is DC32, but how hard is it to open the lock? Isn’t a lock an object that should have a static difficulty?

The answer is not well explained in the rule books, however I think the key is the situation. You are using a scaling DC because of the situation, it isn’t because they need to open a lock; the DC of opening a lock is static according to the complexity of the lock (determined by the lock’s level and quality), but the situation changes according to the level.

This presents a big problem in order to stop our challenges feeling static we need to ensure that we present situations where it makes sense that the DCs are set by the situation not by the task. We as DM’s (or authors) need to ensure that it “feels right” to be making that DC32 check at level 32 and not just like it did back at level 1. This means finding descriptions of locks that seem suitably epic to the circumstance, and this is one of the places where 4E has been particularly poor in supporting the DM.

Finessing It In the End

So the summary of all of this is that skills are not fundamental to DnD and yet despite this the 4E skill rules do a surprisingly good and flexible job of allowing character customisation and emphasis when they are used fully. The key to using them fully is to understand all their moving parts, and most importantly to realise that the skill system is built on a 2 axis scale; easy – hard vs 1-30. The DM can finesse the skill system, tweaking difficulty up and down by playing with both the difficulty and the level of the task according to what the PCs are doing (RP) and what the scenario unfolding (situation) demands either coarsely with DC changes or fine tuning with situational modifiers.

Unfortunately despite this power being inherent in the 4E system, the existing material produced by WotC has done a poor job of providing examples and explanations for how to use the system leading to confusion and dissatisfaction with a solid rules system. Consider the Soul Gem trap and its low spot DC. The low DC means it is easy to notice, any suitably experienced PC quickly realises that the gem is a trap. However recognising it as a trap isn’t the same a overcoming the trap, and how the PCs do that is when the role playing starts to happen.

In conclusion; familiarise yourself with the take 10 rules and use them, in addition be sure to provide benefits based on the RP the players do; either simple + or -2 or a wholesale change of difficulty up or down. When you do this your exploration will have more  role play and less rolling, because players will learn that doing things is a better way of solving problems than just rolling the dice. It will also have the effect of keeping skills relevant in the game, and making feats that give skill bonuses matter more.


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  1. froth

    non weapon proficiencies were in 1st edition, check the dungeon and wilderness survival guides

  2. ObsidianCrane

    Ah, true. I’ll settle for them not appearing in the core book until then. Much like Skills and Powers introduced more of a skill system into 2E. 😉

  3. Rob

    A most excellent and well reasoned article. You support one point that Mearls was addressing in some of those articles: the rules can’t do much to help bad DMing. The majority, if not all, of the problems people perceive with the rules stem from inexperienced or unimaginative DMing or unwillingness of the players to make effective use of role playing. Well done!

  4. Kenneth McNay

    I still have an irritation with the advice to provide a bonus to a player that actively RPs. Take one of your examples about the tooth with a DC 19. I wouldn’t allow a PC to take advantage of such a DC unless they were using their opportunity to make a role-play decision to at least serach the appropriate statue. If they wish to search for everything in the room but won’t make the decision to approach anything, they can’t access the DC 19; the DC would be far greater to spot smaller details from a long distance (nigh unto impossible). Therefore the benefit to RP is engaging in the world and gaining access to the level appropriate DCs instead of penalizing oneself by ignoring the RP. This does risk a player or DM overanalyizing and forcing a detailed search–item by item. The advice for DMs needs to remain, don’t place the DCs on too small an element for risk that the players will have to read your mind to discover the tiny element; also don’t place DCs on too large on element that there is no need for a bit of ingenuity.

    One of the points I feel best represented by Sarah Darkmagic’s diceless example of climbing the wall is that it challenges the player only to the point that it expects a player to know their character’s equipment and put it to use. The rest of the scene is a challenge of the characters using their resources to their benefit.

  5. ObsidianCrane

    The key is that a search check is for your square and the squares adjacent to it. To access the DC 19 the player must say they are at least searching an area that includes the statue. My experience is that PCs will “search the statue” so when they do that I would make the statue “their square”.

    As to Sarah’s wall climbing example – that is exactly how the current system works, and as long as the PCs are not in combat then they can take 10 and the currernt rules are diceless as well. Climbing the wall in and of itself isn’t a skill challenge, the situation may make it one however, at which point the same strategies should work just fine to lower the DC for subsequent characters (and most SCs with wall climbs allow just that in my experience).

  6. Kilsek

    One issue that bothers me is that we have 3 different types of DCs at each level, which are essentially situational/circumstance modifiers in and of themselves aren’t they?

    Let me explain. We have two sources of situational modifiers: a gamey one (the 3 DCs, which are mainly discussed in a % success/degree of mathematical bonus or expertise perspective), and other situational modifiers to the roll… which aren’t discussed at all, including zero example such modifiers. What are these situational modifiers? (Look up the Rules Compendium under Using Skills, Difficulty Class, and Checks Without Rolls to see what I mean.)

    Knowing and having DMed and played tons of 3e, I imagine those “situational modifiers” are more environmental, story-related, a creative idea, or even RP-related.

    So what are the different DCs for? Just to challenge different levels of mathematical expertise for the same exact situation? That doesn’t feel right.

    Does anyone else find the three different DCs excessive, possibly even confusing? Are they an attempt to simply fight a huge mechanical advantage over DCs that characters already have?

  7. ObsidianCrane

    The 3 DCs represent difficulty at a given level. Is this an easy, moderate or difficult task to do for a level X character?

    The situational modifiers are the same as in 3E. So your gear gives a +2.

    The trick is that the level is a broad gauge of difficulty. Like a monster’s level is a broad gauge of how tough it is. The rating (easy – hard) is then a measure of how hard it is in that range, like a monster can be a minion, standard, elite or solo. This is why you can dial the difficulty up and down on 2 axis; which is very powerful.

    However the lack of examples is problematic, and while the DMG2 (as Rob mentioned in the Rule of Three today) provides some good discussion on using skills for skill challenges, there is still a shortage of good examples to establish just what a level 1 task looks like compared to a level 20 task. (Maybe there is a DDI article in that for someone?)

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