Since 2nd Edition, the principle methods of character customization lived in the smaller chunks that existed outside race and class. Nonweapon proficiencies and, later, skills and feats, not only helped individuate characters who shared a common class and race, they helped tell a story about where the character came from, what the character does, and what sorts of things the character will be able to do—granting access to more powerful feats, more powerful spell effects, prestige classes/paragon paths, and so on. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re retaining these customization options but we’re delivering them to you in larger packages (which you can ignore or not as you decide). Today, I’m going to delve into the mechanics behind skills to show you our current thinking.
In both 3rd and 4th Editions, skills became the principle ways by which characters interacted with the world. Want to climb a wall? Make a Climb/Athletics check. Want to see if you can tie a knot? Make a Use Rope check. Need to know something about Glasya? How about a Knowledge (the planes)/Religion check? Although many see skills as empowering, offering customization options and character definition, in my experience, skills actually constricted game play so players tended to operate only within the bounds of the skills their characters possessed. If you tried to do something that wasn’t a skill, the DM might fall back on an ability check, which in both 3rd and 4th Edition wasn’t great since you didn’t get to add your skill/training bonus to your check result. Rather than improvise and come up with something unexpected, I found, in my own gaming experiences, players combed the skill lists on the character sheet to determine what they could and couldn’t do when presented with a challenge. And if the character didn’t have mastery with the given skill, the player, more often than not, chose not to do anything since failure could and did (with skill challenges) adversely affect the group.
Another consequence of embedding task resolution in skills was that once we defined the set of skills, we could no longer expand that set. It necessarily became closed since all design for the game in expansion has to refer back to the set of defined tasks.
I can safely say that skills have been one of the most contentious and difficult parts of design. I have my own bugaboos about skills. In addition to issues I laid out above, I’ve also never been satisfied with the divide between active and passive skill use. An active skill, say Climb, is something the player chooses to use. I tell the DM I want to scramble up the wall and explore the ledge the elf spotted. The DM instructs me to make a Climb check. The skill facilitates an action I want and choose to do. Other skills like this include Open Locks, Jump, Pick Pockets, and so on. And then there are the passive skills, or, as I call them, DM Permission skills. These skills usually come into play when the DM decides. A good example of this is Knowledge (history). Even if you ask the DM if your knowledge of history reveals additional information, ultimately the DM decides whether this skill is useful or not since the DM has to have historical information on hand so you can use the skill, has to make up something that might later be invalidated, or just says no.
These are quibbles, I realize, but I find that one gets more mileage out of investing in skills that come into play when the player decides rather than investing in skills that come into play when the DM decides. (And I should add that I recognize there has to be some sort of vertical surface for climbing and some locked doors for Open Locks to work, but these occur at a far greater frequency than historical tidbits attached to some bit of scenery.)
As much as Knowledge (history) differs from Ride in how they’re used, we decided long ago that they occupy the same mechanical space called skills. And as much as I would love to break them apart and place them in their own categories and resolution systems, I think, in the end, the resulting complexity would obfuscate any gains such a system would make. So rather than completely overhauling what skills mean in D&D land, we can just change how we use them.
The fundamental design shift rests squarely on moving task resolution from skills (make a Climb/Athletics check to climb) to the abilities (make a Strength check to climb). At this time, the next iteration regards abilities as a combination of both raw talent and training, and it differs from the 3rd Edition model, which made, at least in practice, abilities raw talent only. This means if your character is smart (high Intelligence), you probably know a lot about lots of stuff. This means if your character is strong, you’re probably good at climbing walls, jumping across pits, and swimming through rough water. By placing firm boundaries around what abilities do, we let a character’s abilities decide what he or she can do, what he or she can’t do, and what he or she has a chance at doing.
The six abilities cover the basics of what a character can do in the world, so skills speak to specific tasks normally associated with an ability. Some skills offer a modest bonus on checks related to the task, while other skills improve some aspect of your character—in relation to task resolution. As it currently stands, your background grants you four things—either skills or traits. A skill always refers to a specific task: climbing, charm, deception, and so on. If you have training, you get a +2 bonus to any check made that involves that task. The bonus typically increases based on your class (rogues are good with skills) or, if you gain training in the skill again, increasing the bonus by 1 for each instance. Here’s an example skill:
Trained in Charm (Charisma): This skill applies whenever you would befriend, seduce, or otherwise charm another person.
Where skills can improve your chances for success in specific situations, traits are minor benefits that usually interact with specific tasks. A trait doesn’t grant you a bonus. It just lets you do something or speaks to your character’s place in the world. Here are two example traits:
Extra Language: You are fluent in a language of your choice.
Workshop: You own a workshop somewhere in the world. Work with your DM to determine the best possible location for this shop. You have everything you need to produce the items you have learned to craft.
While this approach might not seem shocking or revolutionary, it gives us some benefits while making skills recognizable to the audience. We can control bonus inflation and DC inflation by keeping the bonuses from skill training modest. We can put things into skills we normally wouldn’t in 4th Edition, such as drive cart, workshop, and carousing. Also, since the skill system is no longer the task resolution system as it was in 3rd/4th (to climb, you make a Strength check and not a Climb/Athletics check), there’s no need to place firm boundaries around the skill system and we can expand the skill assortment as needed without invalidating adventures, settings, and so on. Finally, since we’re delivering skills by way of backgrounds, the skills we introduce to the game point back to a larger concept such as Sage, Thief, or Mariner.
And so that’s it more or less. This is still in the rough stages, but what do you think so far?