Legends and Lore - Skills in D&D

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Legends and Lore
Skills in D&D

by Mike Mearls

With that in mind, here’s a piece of actual design that sketches out some of my thoughts on skills in D&D.

Talk about this column here.

Wow.  Really, wow.  This is the first one of these "core plus" articles that I've agreed with.  It's a much, much better way of handling skills, start to finish.  I was always irked at the feeling that I shouldn't even bother speaking to anyone as an 8-cha non-Diplo/Bluff/Intim/Street-trained character.  This would do away with that, by adding interesting results dealing with both mitigating failures and enhancing successes, but doesn't result in the wild variation between total incompetence and the-best-the-world's-ever-seen within the party.  As it is now, it's just success-or-failure, but that's not interesting or fun.  It's just rote math.  The difference between what exists in 4e now and the way proposed in this article is like the difference between saying "I make an Intelligence attack, because my Intelligence bonus is high and I'm supposed to try to win" and "I use the Sword Burst power, because I am a super-cool Swordmage."  The skill lets the character be cool, rather than the skill letting the character be.

What I like most, though, is the idea of establishing "robust guidelines" for DCs.  That I think would add more to D&D than anything else brought up in these articles, either in 4e or in a future system.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Wow, Mike Mearls is introducing a new direction for D&D that has no precedent in previous editions, and takes what 4E has done with skills and takes it in a direction further down the path 4E has blazed and further away from what has been the case in the past.

I wonder how the angry mob will react to that.
...whatever
I'm kind of distracted at how his RAW would make it so that you'd want to do everything while climbing. :P
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That's only if you plug just the new updated Climb into the current system.  Straight-up bluffing a guard probably doesn't involve an ability check under the new system, and if you're trying to bluff a guard while climbing, I actually don't see a problem with being coordinated at the climbing helping out the bluff.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
Well, first I'll disagree with the "strength-> speed" table. It puts too much emphasis on ability optimizing for my taste.
I would prefer "you have basic climb speed depending on race/class. When climbing, make a strength roll : a success means you move of your climb speed, a failure that you move half your climb speed". I don't like tables

I have not much criticism for the "skills" part. It works like a specific set of "feats". Advantage is possible diversity - disadvantage is a lot of things to write and remember.
The main criticism would be that if a given "skill feat" allows something the "basic skill" don't - like helping team mates, for instance - rather than making it easier, it may be seen by players as something you must have - the legendary "feat tax".

If would rather do something like :
 - everybody has "basic rules" for each specific skill
 - each "point" you buy in a skill can be "spent" to make something unusual with the skill. If you have a climb skill of 1, it means that you can do one exceptional thing with the skill : climb faster, avoid a fall, "run" on a wall', etc one time by "adventure" (or other time division). Choose the effect when you use the skill and spend the point... Some of these special abilities can be "ruled" ("you can spend a point for double speed"), other can be improvised by DM and player ("I spend a point of Climb to run very fast on the wall and bypass the pit" or "I spend a point of Climb to hang my self to the rock with my scabbard so I can use my 2-handed weapon" or "I let myself fall 10 feet so I am in close quarter of the spider, and catch the wall at the last moment to break my fall").

But it is a matter of tastes.
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This is some really good stuff!

Ditching the skills chapter for a core mechanic would be an elegant and intuitive way to handle Skill Challenges that would place more appropriate emphasis on Attributes; making them more meaningful beyond class and combat. -- Which is awesome!

This is the game I want to be playing, for sure.

 

Danny

Another great post, Mike. Please keep it up. This is some good stuff. Watch the wording on those rules though, "If you are trained in the Climb skill, you gain a +2 bonus on all ability checks made when climbing." That's not such a good idea. Should be some version of: "If you are trained in the Climb skill, you gain a +2 bonus to all ability checks related to climbing."

"And why the simple mechanics? Two reasons: First, complex mechanics invariably channel and limit the imagination; second, my neurons have better things to do than calculate numbers and refer to charts all evening." -Over the Edge

I have not much criticism for the "skills" part. It works like a specific set of "feats". Advantage is possible diversity - disadvantage is a lot of things to write and remember.

The main criticism would be that if a given "skill feat" allows something the "basic skill" don't - like helping team mates, for instance - rather than making it easier, it may be seen by players as something you must have - the legendary "feat tax".
.


This is the case in anything that involves choice that is a system that has different effects.  Balance is crucial, and there will always be things at the top.  "Feat tax" situations arise when there are extreme outliers that are forced by the math.  I mean, "you don't fall if you fail" is really incredibly useful from a certain perspective, but even that choice is part of character development, and not merely character optimization.  A character designed to be reckless would probably take the faster-climbing skill instead, getting arguably another powerful benefit but giving up another important option.

I mean, 4e wouldn't need feat taxes at all if they edited the entire Monster Manual/2/3/Vault.  You could get rid of Improved Defenses and Expertise and simply grant them to everybody through proper scaling.  That's a balance issue, but not a reason to say that we shouldn't have a system where we compare attack rolls to defenses. 

The underlying concept presented by Mearls is really very, very good.  Balance would be crucial in making it work, but that's the case for everything 4e-ish.
D&D Next = D&D: Quantum Edition
It's a bit odd that he uses 5 feet instead of 1 square...

I also wince thinking about exactly how massive the standard skill options chapter would be if done this way. The knowledge skills would at least (mostly) work the same. Constantly improving the skill's NUMBERS is also just going to lead to the same issues as in the current system regarding skill DCs.
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The underlying concept presented by Mearls is really very, very good.  Balance would be crucial in making it work, but that's the case for everything 4e-ish.


That's why I didn't say it's "bad" The word "criticism" was not the best one to use - for me it is more a "reminder to be cautious"

Remember Tunnel Seventeen !
I really like the example that Mr. Mearls posted. I want WotC to make this game...even if it doesn't turn out to be 5th edition D&D (WotC owns the rights to Dragonquest, right?).

Skill ranks, ala' 3rd edition are boring. All they do is add another + to your roll and push the game numbers way out of the randomizer range. Skill ranks giving characters nifty little tricks instead...now THAT is interesting and exciting.

I could really see running an exploration based campaign wherein characters just get the basic tactical options, but the full suite of skill options. That would be really cool.
It's a bit odd that he uses 5 feet instead of 1 square...

I also wince thinking about exactly how massive the standard skill options chapter would be if done this way. The knowledge skills would at least (mostly) work the same. Constantly improving the skill's NUMBERS is also just going to lead to the same issues as in the current system regarding skill DCs.

I expect the verbiage of the game to drift more towards distance descriptions as opposed to to square designations as the design moves towards a system that refrains from "dictating how to play your game."

Mike was explicitly clear during GenCon that 4E over-stepped its bounds with the insistence upon the battlemat and other such requirements to play "correctly".

Danny

I want this system to extend to powers and class features and just make the jump to a modular classless game. Doubt that will happen though...
I really like the example that Mr. Mearls posted. I want WotC to make this game...even if it doesn't turn out to be 5th edition D&D (WotC owns the rights to Dragonquest, right?).

Skill ranks, ala' 3rd edition are boring. All they do is add another + to your roll and push the game numbers way out of the randomizer range. Skill ranks giving characters nifty little tricks instead...now THAT is interesting and exciting.

I could really see running an exploration based campaign wherein characters just get the basic tactical options, but the full suite of skill options. That would be really cool.

As long as we, the players, remain open to the idea of the game being a living and evolving system, we can hold course with 4E for as long as we like. -- We just have to accept the overhauls when the wash over us.

I, frankly, invite them.

Danny

As a theoretical example of Core+, I like this in concept.  Obviously, thinkgs would need to be tweaked, tested, and whatnot.  But I really really like the idea of "Everyone has base competence, and will improve over time (if only be level or ability modifiers), and those who take skill training will get a little bit better, but will also have broader abilities, or capable of doing things the untrained cannot do.

Skill training becomes somewhat eqiuvalent to Skill Powers.

Me likey.
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I also wince thinking about exactly how massive the standard skill options chapter would be if done this way. The knowledge skills would at least (mostly) work the same. Constantly improving the skill's NUMBERS is also just going to lead to the same issues as in the current system regarding skill DCs.



Agreed: I don't see how this is any less complicated than the 4e system we have now.  Right now it's "Ability Mod+Training (If any)+Bonuses"  With system its "Ability Mod + (TrainingxLevels) + Bonuses" so... it's more complicated.  Right?  Because you have to add in however many "levels" of training you have?

Like that skill powers/skill boosting feats are rolled up into the "levels" of the skill though.  so I guess there's that.  Still no less complicated, it effectively just gives you a free "feat" with each level, which you have to track and remember you have.
It's a bit odd that he uses 5 feet instead of 1 square...



Not odd, it's glorious.

I also wince thinking about exactly how massive the standard skill options chapter would be if done this way. The knowledge skills would at least (mostly) work the same. Constantly improving the skill's NUMBERS is also just going to lead to the same issues as in the current system regarding skill DCs.



You're making assumptions that there are no evidence for. Skill training, according to this write-up, provides a one-time +2, each additional skill training provides a +1. We have no idea how many, nor how often skill trainings would be earned under this system.

If we assume that the current skill training feat were to be used (sans the "new skill" proviso), the best you could get, by dumping every single feat you'd ever get into a single skill would be 19 feats spent into a single skill (30th level + human bonus feat) which would sit around +20 to that skill.

Currently, you can get +13 at first level (20 score w/ racial for +5, +5 training, +3 skill focus) all the way to +32 (dump all score advances into that stat +1/2 level at 30th level), not to mention magic items.

"And why the simple mechanics? Two reasons: First, complex mechanics invariably channel and limit the imagination; second, my neurons have better things to do than calculate numbers and refer to charts all evening." -Over the Edge

As long as we, the players, remain open to the idea of the game being a living and evolving system, we can hold course with 4E for as long as we like. -- We just have to accept the overhauls when the wash over us.

I, frankly, invite them.




I do get the sense sometimes that 4E, as a game, is still in a sort of beta test phase.

One the one hand, I think that it's interesting that the game is in a constant state of evolution, and that the rules are often being refined and perfected.

On the other hand, there are a few severe flaws that 4E has which can't simply be patched with errata, such as overly long and grindy combats (due to HP inflation and the action economy) and reliance on minitiatures.

Also, the game has a definite problem with option bloat, and the game would be better if WotC jettisoned about 2/3 of the feats and powers from the list. I mean, Tribal and Guild feats? Who even uses those? I like having acouple little widgets to distinguish my character in a game, but c'mon...there is no way that I'm poring through that feats list everytime I level up. Everytime I even think about making a 4E character, I look at the builder and think to myself: "naw screw it...I'll just play Rulescyclopedia".
I can only assume that Mearls is considering this as a variant of 4E. If he's talking about a completely different system then his numbers are meaningless and arbitrary and cannot be meaningfully discussed. While these articles do tend to cause more confusion than actual discussion, I do try to give him the benefit of the doubt of meaning what he writes and it being something related to the game we play.

--

Personally, rather than create even huger gaps between players this way, I'd like to see this system applied to EVERYONE, all at once, but with the different abilities applied to characters based on their skill relative to the difficulty. Anyone can help someone else climb, but only if they themselves have an easy enough time of climbing in that situation. Instead of making skill boosts widen the gap between pass/fail, make skill boosts lower the threshold of when you can use the special skill abilities. If you're THE BEST climber, you can use most of those abilities on just about any slippery, moving surface, but a novice can still do the same thing in a room full of sturdy ladders.
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It's a bit odd that he uses 5 feet.



I agree, he should bring DnD into the modern days and use meters.

Otherwise a good article as always.  Keep up the good ideas!

I also like Kaliban7's take on skills.

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I am at least heartened to see D&D moving into the future as opposed to moving backwards towards its past.
...whatever
..,The underlying concept presented by Mearls is really very, very good.  Balance would be crucial in making it work, but that's the case for everything 4e-ish.



Balance was the mantra in most Dming article in Dragon magazine 25 years ago, it isn't new with 4e.

I agree, I like the new approach because it seems it will play out much easier on the game table and players can focus customization in skill use.  As presented, I do not see how skills will scale through advancment of class  level.  Am I missing something?  Dumping the skill point mechanic of 3e was a good move, IMO, in balancing skill effectivness through class level advancement. 

I also really like the idea that the developers are thinking about "how rules are used on the game table."
I agree, he should bring DnD into the modern days and use meters.



Don't they exchange squares for metres when they localize outside the US?  If they don't they should.  But why use metres for the US versions?
I agree, he should bring DnD into the modern days and use meters.



Don't they exchange squares for metres when they localize outside the US?  If they don't they should.  But why use metres for the US versions?




Meters are a nice measurement to use for width, but medium creatures would need to be 2 squares high. Hard enough to get people to accept Goliaths fitting into a 5' square...
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Actually it works better for most medium sized creatures height wise if your squares are 2 m, not 5'. This is the conversion they used for the Star Wars RPG. Goliaths won't fit all the time into 2 m, but its less disconcerting than 5'.
Certainly. It's just that 4E mostly uses an abstract cube-based system with terrain and wall powers acting as the primary exceptions.
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It's a bit odd that he uses 5 feet instead of 1 square...

Not odd, it's glorious.



Heh, referring to a “square” as a “meter” would be glorious.

Actually, referring to a square as approximately a meter/yard could make everyone happy?
You could just call squares "paces", and make a pace equal to about 2 meters.

Why is the ASE standard system still a thing that exists, by the way?
You could just call squares "paces", and make a pace equal to about 2 meters.

Why is the ASE standard system still a thing that exists, by the way?



The hillarious thing is, we Americans call it the “British system”.
The nice thing about using a meter is that in the US we use yards which are very close to a meter in length, so we can more or less use the same numbers.
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What I really like about this is how it uses new mechanics (moving the game forward) to enable/encourage the freeform play that the early editions of D&D we're so good at and that 4e has been criticised for losing.
Oh! Mike is saying ‛feet’, not ‛squares’, because he is thinking gridless?

But yeah, meter≈yard seems the most useful way to go.
Skills have always felt tacked-onto D&D.  And, skill systems are a perilous aspect of RPG design.  What a skill system does is to create incompetence.  That is, once you introduce a skill, everyone who lacks it has just been made /less/ capable.  For instance, a OD&D character, lacking any skill system, says "I build a raft," and a while later, he's floating down the river.  The AD&D character says it, and the DM asks "what's your secondary skill?  Cooper?  uh, close enough."  The 2e character better have the right proficiency from the Wilderness Survival Guide.  The 3e character had better hope his DM lets 'wilderness lore' slide, and has never seen anyone put ranks in Craft(shipbuidling) or worse Craft(raft).  The more skills in the system, the less your character can do.

Thus, the worst possible skill system is an 'open ended' one, in which the DM and/or players just make skills up, because every character will be getting more incompetent every time someone writes down a new skill.   

After D&D hit the scene, some of it's not-quite-immitators (I'm looking at you, RuneQuest) used a 'skill based' aproach rather than a class/level based aproach - and were praised for it.  For most of the rest of D&D history, it grafted on skills that acted like they were in a skill-based RPG, advancing to some degree independently of level, and only barely connected to class. 

4e hit upon the right idea by finally linking skills to level, and making the skill list finite and final.  The combination of primary stat and training still created too great a gulf between the skill-specialist and the less-than-talented amature, though. 

This idea is similar in basic concept (assuming ability checks scale with level), but, seems like it's tending towards a large and or open-ended skill list - which would be a terrible mistake.   Keep the list of skills small and the skills broad - allow additional actions under a skill to be detailed, but don't add character customization granularity below the level of a skill.  That way lies madness and mass incompetence.


Rather than having 'climb' or, worse, different kinds and styles of climbing, stick with something like Athletics.  Better yet, allow several different skills to be candidates to aid the climbing task - Athletics, or Accrobatics, or Nature or Theivery (so Theives can finally have a good 'climb walls %' again).

 

 

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I love the approach to skills.

Use ability scores. A ‛skill’ then becomes a kind of power or a way to augment a power. The skill type, such as ‛Climb’, links related skill powers together.



I want to see the statistics for skills and combat be identical - use the same system.

Skill ‛Defenses’
For example, the Basic Climb Skill Power, would require an actual defense rather than a DC:
If a Climb check is necessary: Strength ability vs Reflex defense. For a typical challenge, this defense should be in the same ballpark as the defense of a similar level monster.

Skill Bonuses
I love the fact the ‛training’ in a skill would only give a +2 bonus, since this is equivalent to a weapon proficiency bonus, which is a kind of training in skill with a weapon. Acquiring a related skill power, thus specializing, would only gain an additional +1, since this is the same as a weapon expertise bonus.

Skill ‛To Hit’
The success of a skill check would mirror a combat attack:
d20 + ability bonus + half level + skill proficiency bonus(es) + other appropriate bonuses if any vs defense

Skill ’Crit̠’ and Skill ‛Fumble’
Because rolling 5 or 10 over or under a required defense doesnt matter in the combat system, it shouldnt matter in the skill system. For combat what matters is rolling a crit (usually a natural 20). Therefore, a player should be able to ’crit̠’ on a skill check too, to mean an autosuccess regardless of defense and an extraordinarily successful action that demonstrates masterful skill. Oppositely, it could be interesting to bring back the ‛fumble’ (usually a natural 1) to combat to mean an autofailure regardless of defense and a spectacular failure.
Skills have always felt tacked-onto D&D.  And, skill systems are a perilous aspect of RPG design.  What a skill system does is to create incompetence.  That is, once you introduce a skill, everyone who lacks it has just been made /less/ capable.  For instance, a OD&D character, lacking any skill system, says "I build a raft," and a while later, he's floating down the river.  The AD&D character says it, and the DM asks "what's your secondary skill?  Cooper?  uh, close enough."  The 2e character better have the right proficiency from the Wilderness Survival Guide.  The 3e character had better hope his DM lets 'wilderness lore' slide, and has never seen anyone put ranks in Craft(shipbuidling) or worse Craft(raft).  The more skills in the system, the less your character can do.

Thus, the worst possible skill system is an 'open ended' one, in which the DM and/or players just make skills up, because every character will be getting more incompetent every time someone writes down a new skill.   

After D&D hit the scene, some of it's not-quite-immitators (I'm looking at you, RuneQuest) used a 'skill based' aproach rather than a class/level based aproach - and were praised for it.  For most of the rest of D&D history, it grafted on skills that acted like they were in a skill-based RPG, advancing to some degree independently of level, and only barely connected to class. 

4e hit upon the right idea by finally linking skills to level, and making the skill list finite and final.  The combination of primary stat and training still created too great a gulf between the skill-specialist and the less-than-talented amature, though. 

This idea is similar in basic concept (assuming ability checks scale with level), but, seems like it's tending towards a large and or open-ended skill list - which would be a terrible mistake.   Keep the list of skills small and the skills broad - allow additional actions under a skill to be detailed, but don't add character customization granularity below the level of a skill.  That way lies madness and mass incompetence.


Rather than having 'climb' or, worse, different kinds and styles of climbing, stick with something like Athletics.  Better yet, allow several different skills to be candidates to aid the climbing task - Athletics, or Accrobatics, or Nature or Theivery (so Theives can finally have a good 'climb walls %' again).



You bring up a really important critique: defining skills actually means creating incompetence for everyone who lacks that skill.

Im still unclear about what your ideal skill system would look like.

For example, how would you handle a specific “basic skill power” sotospeak, such as Sense Magic (Sense the Presence of Magic, the defacto Arcana skill power)? Ideally.
Im still unclear about what your ideal skill system would look like.

For example, how would you handle a specific “basic skill power” sotospeak, such as Sense Magic (Sense the Presence of Magic, the defacto Arcana skill power)? Ideally.

I'm not clear on it, myself.  I'm just very much aware of the problems I've encountered using a wide range of skill systems. 

For D&D, specifically, the keys would be:

Competence with a 'skill' check is primarily based upon level.  A 10th level fighter should have a better chance of opening a 10th level lock or breaking a 10th level curse than a 5th level thief or cleric - even if he might do both in a very unsophisticated/unorthodox way...

There are a small number of 'skills' that each make you a little better at a broad set of checks.

Each class might have a feature that makes it a little better with some set of checks (not necessarily the same sets as skills).

How you divide up checks into 'sets' could be based upon some in-game idea.  So, you might make an "Arcana" check to find out something about a magic item or cast a difficult ritual or open a wizard-locked door; but a 'Theivery' check to find out about a trap, run a con game, or open a locked safe.  Or, they could be based upon story function.  So, you'd make an "Analyze" check to find out something about a magic item or trap (or religion or person or monster or organization), a "Progress" check to open a mystically sealed door or safe (or cross a treacherous bridge or navigate a bureacracy), and an "Accomplish" check to cast a ritual or run a con game (or build a trap or organize the defense of a town).


That's pretty close to what Mearls is kicking around - if he were to keep it very simple and exercise a lot of restraint.


 

 

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Have to say I really like this article's approach to skills. Go for it wotc!
Why is the ASE standard system still a thing that exists, by the way?



(A) Culture doesn't bend to logic, and (B) there are actually uses for which a system designed for easy division into fractions is more useful to a system designed for easy division into decimals. 

At the end of the day, both systems are based around our own anatomy in some meaningless way.  The very moment a culture switches counting and measuring in binary they can go ahead and lecture the rest of the world on how stupid their systems are, but until then everyone can mind their own business and let the other guys measure things by a dead-king's shoe size or insist on dividing everything by the number of fingers they have.  It's all equally meaningless.
i dont get how this is simpler. it actually seems more complex

It is hard to judge the skill system presented, without knowing how feats, class, race, themes, etc.  may affect it, but my biggest concern is offering to many choices for skills, like sure or fast climber, where one becomes the preferred option. The worse thing about climbing is falling or engadging in combat, so why not choose sure climber over everything else? I do like controlling the amounts and types of bonuses offered to skills, as this is a problem in the current system with the inflation of bonuses. I am also worried about adding to many abilities that affect climbing, like making the character choose between strength, dexterity, or wisdom. Strength still makes the most sense, since holding on or reaching for the next ledge is directly related to your strength when making these transitions and it keeps things simple.

I think there is value in establishing a table for DCs the character may see over his or her lifetime, so climbing certain types of terrain always offers the same basic DC, and then add in modifiers for other conditions like sheerness, speed of climbing, etc.

However, you could add in more skill features that would be available to the character by taking the skill bonus, let say +15, and dividing it by 3 or 5 for example, to determine if the character recieves additional abilities like increased speed, a sure grip, etc. that becomes available to all characters when they reach a certain proficiency. You could add on feats that may add in some additional flavor. So for every 5 levels of skills bonuses you unlock a new set of features. This would be the equivalent of classes leveling to unlock new class features.