This is the fifth blog of my Unbloodied Heroes series exploring alternatives to 4e’s noncombat mechanics. In this blog, I will describe proposed mechanics for Exploration and other Individual Efforts. The blogs in this series are:
Unbloodied Heroes 1: An Introduction
Unbloodied Heroes 2: Exposition from a Point of View
Unbloodied Heroes 3: Interludes: Backgrounds and Retraining
Unbloodied Heroes 4: Travel and Group Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 5: Exploration and Individual Efforts
Unbloodied Heroes 6: Skills Reimagined
Related to this blog series are my prior series on Combat Investment, Social Challenges, and Protagonocentrism.
Individual efforts constitute any efforts in which characters succeed as individuals, even if as part of a larger group effort. Combat is the quintessential individual effort because even though the party generally succeeds in combat as a team, each individual’s fate is different; some characters may escape unscathed while others have spent daily powers, consumable items, healing surges, or even their lives. However, combat generally does not exclusively use Skills. This blog will discuss the use of Skills in individual efforts outside combat.
The problem in the current system is illustrated through Skill Spread. Skill Spread is the hypothetical difference between the best bonus for a Skill in any given adventuring party and the worst bonus for that same Skill. Even at low levels, the Skill Spread can be daunting. A first-level character can conceivably begin the game with a +17 bonus (+5 [ability] +5 [training] +3 [skill focus] +2 [background] +2 [race]), while his companion might begin with a -1 penalty (-1 [ability]) in the same Skill, for a Skill Spread of 18. As characters gain levels, they gain access to new powers, items, feats, and Ability increases that increase the Skill Spread even further. By 30th level, the potential Skill Spread can exceed 30 (+10 [ability] +6 [item] +5 [training] +3 [skill focus] +2 [background] +2 [race] +2 [power]). Even ignoring Skill optimization, the expected Skill Spread for 15th level characters is around 14. “Combat Spread”, in contrast, rarely exceeds 5, barring corner case optimization.
Skill Spread makes it difficult to estimate DCs for a Skill Check that any member of the party may need to pass. If a trap is going to require an Acrobatics check, you might set the difficulty at 19, so the +15 character almost always passes, but the -1 character requires a natural 20, or at 8 so the unskilled character has a chance to succeed, but the trained character can never fail. This is an untenable dilemma.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide suggests that any given challenge have multiple avenues of success. This is of limited value because most secondary Skills in a Skill-based encounter are modified by the same Ability as the primary Skill. Characters unable to use the primary Skill will usually be equally unable to succeed in the secondary skills, making the characters feel useless.
Some Dungeon Masters craft Skill checks that only the maximized character can succeed, such as placing a trap only the Thievery-trained rogue can overcome. These Spotlight Skill checks tend to marginalize the unskilled party member even further. Moreover, the skillful characters are essentially marginalized too, condemned to working on the problem only they can solve while the rest of the party handles the meat of the encounter.
Some Dungeon Masters rely on the Aid Other action to keep characters involved. Not only does the bonus from Aid Other further increase the Skill Spread, it is simply not very satisfying to serve as somebody else’s sidekick.
Sadly, without a major overhaul to the Skill system, little can be done to remedy these problems. In addition to implementing the Group Efforts and Points of View I have earlier described, and avoiding the mistakes described above, I have one suggestion: Skill Opportunities.
Skill Opportunities enhance an encounter without becoming thresholds or requirements for the encounter. To implement Skill Opportunities, follow these simple steps:
First, write encounters as if no character would be trained in any applicable Skills. The encounter can be a puzzle, or simply a room where the characters are inspecting objects and working with the exposition you give them. Do not continue until you are comfortable that the party can surpass the encounter without ever rolling a Skill check.
Second, imagine ways characters might use Skills to enhance the encounter. One example of Skill Oppurtnities is the “Properties” described in the Dungeon Masters Guide 2, in which players unlock encounter powers when they use an object in the room. A Thievery check, for example, might allow players to reveal a secret compartment that would otherwise require a bludgeon to access. A Heal check can ameliorate the ongoing necrotic aura guarding an idol. Acrobatics may allow a character to swing from a chandelier.
Third, ensure these Skill Opportunities are not overpowered compared to the party’s other options. A Skill Opportunity should be only slightly better than encounter powers a player might invoke with the action required to use the Skill Opportunity. Moreover, the consequences of failing the check should rarely be more severe than loss of the action.
Finally, because Skill Opportunities are unnecessary to finishing the encounter, you can set them to the difficulty of the trained character. Rather than using the charts provided in the game, simply set the DC so that the trained characters will need approximately an 8 on the roll to succeed. Unskilled characters should still have plenty to do without feeling excluded.
Even with these fixes, the Skill System could use an overhaul. Stay tuned for my final blog in this series where I discuss my proposal for reforming the Skill system.