Let's break the ice with some wild hyperbole. Skills in 4e are broken. Skills are the most broken part of the edition. When they're selling 5e in 1-3 years they will be mocking skills like they mocked grappling and THAC0. Skills were only given a half-assed update between editions and not subjected to the same rigorous balancing or "hard math" they subjected on the combat system.
Before I start (attempting) to justify that statement, this isn't my first blog on skills. I've mostly focused on Skill Challenges in prior blogs, so those have received the bulk of my attention.
I wrote about Secondary Skills, Non-Combat Skill Systems, new rules for Skill Challenges, Failure in Skill Challenges, and most importantly for this discussion my Problems with Skill Challenges. I'll reiterate points, so don't feel pressured to read everything. And I’m casting a much broader net today, so Skill Challenges will only receive a passing mention.
Jumping right to the evisceration of the skill system, we’ll start with the numbers. Training in a skill provides a +5 bonus to using that skill, on top of the ability modifier. Why a +5? Well, because in 3e you started with 4x the number of skill points at first level, to help give an initial boost to skill checks and mesh with the math DCs they established. 4e limits itself to +2 and +5 bonuses, so skills received a +5 bonus to reflect being trained.
This is incredibly arbitrary, and really seems to exist solely to function similarly to an earlier edition of the game. And while classes and powers changed dramatically between 3.5 and Star Wars Saga and 4e there was very little evolution in the skill system, suggesting the focus was entirely on the combat, class, and spell/power aspects of the game. The Saga skill system worked enough, so they kept it with minor tweaks.
In practice the +5 means being trained in the skill is better than natural talent, as the expected 16-18 in your primary ability score only provides a +3 to +4 bonus. From a verisimilitude perspective this bugs the heck out of me because no amount of practice and training makes up for natural talent; you can try to learn how to draw or do gymnastics or sing and practice every single day, but you still will not be as good as someone with a modicum of natural talent. (I speak from personal experience. I’m a semi-passable artist because I worked really hard and drew every single day to teach myself to draw and still couldn’t compete with the art students with natural talent).
The skill system also means that someone who is trained and has talent has an unmatchable bonus with that ability. It’s possible to get a 20 in your primary ability score and train for a +10 bonus compared to another character’s +0 or even a -1. Plus backgrounds and racial can easily knock that up to a +14. That’s a possible difference of 15 which is a huge disparity and it does not get any better, but instead gets worse. Stat boosts can knock up a skill for a total of +17 at epic, and then there are feats and magic items which can knock that number up to +26 with a similar difference to someone untrained with the relevant stat as a dump stat.
This even hurts the combat aspect of the game: monsters don’t use the same math as PCs, so their ability scores and skills are capped by their level (with a dash of cosmetic wiggle room). As size, type, and origin have no bearing on skills, it’s quite possible for a level 13 fighter to be as strong as a hill giant but with a much higher Athletics check boosted by feats and race and background and items. This doesn’t just mean that a grabbing fighter can beat a hill giant in arm wrestling 85% of the time but that the poor giant only has a 15% chance of escaping that fighter’s grab. And that’s against a strong character and not a weak controller or artillery. Grab-lock is problem almost as bad as stunlock with the right combination of powers and feats. Any time PCs can oppose a monster will skills the odds are dramatically stacked in their favour: a rogue that emphasises Stealth will almost never be spotted, a warlock that stacks Bluff bonuses is fearsome, and few lurkers can evade the eagle eyes of a cleric or druid trained in Perception.
The math just does not work, as there are just too many ways of gaining bonuses to skills. 4e reined in the number of ways to boost your attack, but left a myriad of skill bonuses in the game.
Then there’s the openness of skills. Everyone advances and progresses in their skills at the same rate, and can attempt to use any skill. This falsely gives the impression everyone can try to use of a skill, which I’ve shown is not true given the disparity of numbers. As there are usually no penalties for attempting skills, this does lead to the entire party making a roll when a single player makes a roll. One person decides to make a Perception check and everyone starts rolling.
What This Means
Firstly, the design of skills makes it easy for a character to min/max a skill or two. Many classes have baked-in optimization such as wizards, rogues, and druids who are automatically trained in a skill that uses their attack stat. With one skill so much higher than their others, the game encourages them to find ways of using that skill, especially in Skill Challenges. A good druid will try to apply Nature to every Skill Challenge. There’s no benefit not to try, no reward for using a non-optimal skill, no increased risk and no chance of failure.
So we get the absurdity of adventurers flexing in the royal court to impress the king with their muscles, a feat no less silly than a kitty cat killing a level 1 wizard.
Meanwhile, because everyone has every skill, the rest of the party might attempt to aid or also attempt to roll, no matter how futile. There’s a false sense of participation that eventually gives way to a feeling of wasting one’s time.
It quickly becomes impossible to challenge one member of the party, or impossible to appropriately challenge the rest of the party. Either someone automatically succeeds, which negates the purpose of both rolling and playing the game, or other members of the party are sidelined by an impassable barrier. Either way someone is sitting out and does not get to play.
If this were something related to combat, if someone couldn’t miss with a “1” while another party member couldn’t hit with a “20” it couldn’t get updated fast enough. The skill system runs contrary to the rest of the design of 4e, which is intensely focused on team-based play. Skills are not cooperative, but are solo pursuits, where a single character humbles the rest of the party.
And there’s no good design reason to have every PC advance in every skill – trained or untrained – if their ability to use said skill is always insignificant. It has some minor flavour benefits, such as an epic wizard being able to climb a sheer cliff as well as an optimized level 1 fighter, but that’s a fringe case as the wizard would likely do something wizardly to instead bypass the obstacle. While it’s fun to occasionally have epic characters blow past an insignificant speed bump that would have stalled them at earlier levels, the game should be designed around the assumption they’re spending the majority of their time facing level appropriate challenges.
Now let’s talk about salvaging the skill system.
Clearly, the largest problem is the wealth of bonuses and options. I’d start by slashing those and making bonuses to skills rarer. Feats might only provide a +1 or + 2 bonus at most. Races and backgrounds would instead provide a tangential option, perhaps making it so you can always train in that skill (i.e. elves can always choose to train in Nature).
I’d also dump the +5 bonus for training. It’s simply too much of a bonus. Instead, I’d divide the uses of the skills into trained and untrained uses, so being trained allows you to do more with a skill. It also cuts down on the entire party rolling for a skill check and throwing numbers at the DM.
Some feats and options might instead offer rerolls instead of static bonuses. This might be another option as a bonus for training: being trained increases your odds of using a skill well.
If this wasn’t completely against the GSL a revised skill system would be something I’d pitch as a 3rd Party Product or work on as a blog series. However, you can only add rules according to the GSL, not change or revise.
Next Time on D&D
Now, the problem with the above system is that without a training bonus or skill ranks there’s very little that differentiates using a skill from making an ability check. As it is, most physical skills tend to tie into a single physical stat. Acrobatics is essentially the everything-dexterous skill, there’s no reason a DM should ever ask a player to make a Dexterity check. Ever. So that mechanic becomes entirely superfluous.
Once you start picking away at D&D’s skill system it becomes very apparent how much it’s a tacked-on addition to the game.
It’s probably a good idea to think about more radical changes to the skill system for the next generation of D&D products.
One such idea would be divorcing skills from abilities, so the DM or player can decide what ability to apply to skill. Someone might hide using Intelligence, finding the best place to remain unseen, using that bonus along with the bonus for the Stealth skill. Someone might Jump using flexibility or stamina, or diplomacise using logic or common sense instead of straight charm.
It would make a much more interesting and robust skill system, with more flexibility for adaptation and creativity. But it would need some serious checks and balances to prevent people just using their highest stat all the time…
Specializations might be another way to add some flexibility and diversity to a skill system. This takes skills back to what they were in 3e, with multiple different skills, but possibly without individual ranks. For example, a character trains in Athletics and can take a speciality such as climbing or swimming with a bonus on that sub-set of the skill. The interesting thing is this allows personalization, such as adding new specializations, which could bring back Perform or some aspects of professions. It’s a skeleton of an idea, and needs some fleshing out to be a full skill system.
Regardless, I hope when they start working on the next iteration of D&D they decide to take a looong hard look at skills, and apply as much attention to that system as combat. Skills should be a vital and integral part of the game, both inside and outside of combat.