One of the biggest changes between the first and second playtests is the skill system. Originally, the skill system was very barebones. You use your Abilities for everything, and you might get a +1 or +2 bonus for specfic tasks based on your Background or Theme. This resembles 1st edition or BECMI. The second playtest is more like 3rd edition or 4th edition with a defined skill list. Five months ago, when people complained about a lack of a list of skills, and others were defending it, I proposed that the Skill system was ideal for a set of modular options. In this article, I would like to expand upon this.
However, I do not want to overstate the second playtest's resemblence to 3rd and 4th edition. Let me quote Jeremy Crawford, who oversees development and editing for Dungeons & Dragons. In a Q&A session at the GenCon 2012 seminar called "D&D Next: Creating the Core", he said the following:
"We want the Ability check and have made the Ability check the core of our resolution mechanics. If you want to, the Skills are another piece of the game that you could drop out and the game's integrity is intact. And that is one of the reasons we have not put resolution mechanics into the Skils themselves, because the skills themselves are really just an area of knowledge or of proficiency in the world where you get a bonus if you make an Ability check having to do with that thing."
You can see the video here. This statement begins at Part II, at 37:56.
Like the Next design team, I want these modular options to key off a resolution mechanic pertaining to Abilities. So I am calling these modules an Option System, not a Skill System.
August 28, 2012: In response to a question posed by Darius, below, I have edited the system to make it cimpoatible with the Background and SKill System presented in the current playtest packet. However, the current packet has 22 skills, while I present 18 skills and 36 proficiencies. Personally, I think the skill list in the packet should be condensed. I think this will be the topic of a future article.
The Option System
Essentially, the way I would see it is that people would be given six options:
No Skills: A DM may opt to keep it simply and declare that there will be no Skills, Backgrounds, or Options.
Backgrounds (default): The player may choose one of the Backgrounds created by the designers (or homebrew one with the consent of the DM). The Backgrounds come with three Skills and a trait or two. The player may add a +1 to one Skill the character posesses at each even-numbered level.
Ability (1st edition/BECMI): 6 options. Initially, D&D relied entirely on the Abilities. It had no mechanics for affecting skills.
Subability (2nd edition): 12 options. While the non-weapon proficiency system allowed for nearly infinite ways to gain bonuses to Ability checks (and I will discuss NWPs later), but what I am concentrating on are the "subabilities" from the Player's Option: Skills and Powers book. In that book, each Ability was divided into two subabilities that allowed you to concentrate on one aspect of your Ability. This allowed for a measure of customization.
Skills (4th edition): 18 options. 4e gave us a short list of 17 skills. For reasons I will discuss below, I am expanding this by 1 to a total of 18 skills.
Proficiencies (3rd edition): 36 options. 3e had the most expansive list of skills. Including all the Knowledges, Performs, and listed Craft skills, and treating Profession as a single skill, there are 57 skills. That is, essentially, much like 2e's nonweapon proficiency system. However, I think Crafts, Professions, and Performance will more appropriately be made part of a Theme/Specialty, rather than Skills. I think the 3e list can be stripped down to 36 options.
The system is simple. Either the DM chooses a system for his campaign, or the group decides that each player can choose his own options system. So one player may choose the Ability Option while another uses the Skill Option. If the group chooses the No Skills Option, then skip this whole article. If the chracter chooses a Background, then follow the rules for Backgrounds. But if you want a bit more custimization, go for one of the other Options.
At first level, each player then gets 6 option points which you can spend as follows:
Ability: 6 points
Subability: 3 points
Skill: 2 points
Proficiency: 1 point
At second level, each player gets 2 option points and an additional option point each subsequent level. This makes progression in the Options commensurate with the progression one would get using Backgrounds. At first level, your bonus from option points (to any option) cannot exceed +2. This max increases by one at each even numbered level and you may "bank" your option points. (If you use anything but the Proficiency Option you must bank those points for some levels anyway!
Now let's examine each Option other than the Background Option -- which is detailed in the playtest packet -- and the No Skills Option, which is pretty much self-explanatory.
We all already know the Abilities: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The Ability system is quick and dirty system for players who don't want to have to think about it. Just pick one Ability and give yourself a +1 bonus whenever making an Ability check for that Ability. Every five levels (6th, 11th, 16th) you can boost another Ability, as long as it stays with in the maximum option bonus.
For those who choose the Subability option, each Ability is divided into two "subabilities", which divide neatly in half each ability:
Strength: Gross Motor Skills and Muscle Training
Constitution: Health and Fitness
Dexterity: Fine Motor Skills and Acrobatics
Intelligence: Memory and Reason
Wisdom: Intuition and Willpower
Charisma: Reserves and Personality
At first level, the character can boost two subabilities. Since every Ability check should implicate one of the two subabilities, these bonuses are constant, and there are no other benefits. The player can increase a subability at third level, and every three leves thereafter (6th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 18th) as long as it stays with in the maximum option bonus.
With the Skill option, the player may choose form the following 18 Abilities:
You will notice that these 18 skills resemble the 4e Skill list, with some substantive changes. I've separated out the knowledge of monsters into "natural lore" for wilderness creatures, "local lore" for humanoids (as well as the skills once called streetwise), and "monster lore" for exotic creatures. I've also brought back Appraisal, Survival and Animal Handling from 3e (now called Husbandry).
I am not tying any Skill to an Ability. Some Skills may require different Abilities at different times. Sometimes Husbandry requires Charisma, sometimes Wisdom, and sometimes Dexterity. It is up to the DM. Also, this means that sometimes an Ability check will have no appropriate Skill. A player only gets a bonus when the DM determines that Skill should apply. Since this means that Skills are slightly less useful than Abilities or Subabilities, I am adding another rule: once a day, a player using Skills and who dislikes the roll on a check in a Skill in which he is trained, may reroll that check... but the reroll will not include the bonus from the Skill training.
A player using the Skill Option gets to train in 3 skills at first level and one skill every even-numbered level, as long as it stays with in the maximum option bonus.
The most involved system will be the Proficiency System. The 36 Proficiencies are:
Sleight Of Hand
You'll notice this is a variation on the 3e Skill list, with Perform, Profession, and Craft removed and some of the skills consolidated. Again, no Ability is assigned, although given how specific a proficiency is, it generally will not have much variation. Still, not all Ability checks will involve a Proficiency so, like those on the Skill Option, the Proficiency Option allows one reroll of an Ability check that used a trained Proficiency, but without the bonus of that Proficiency.
A character who uses the Proficency Option trains in 6 Proficiencies at 1st level, two at second level, and 1 proficiency every level thereafter, as long as it stays with in the maximum option bonus.
I hope the designers give some real thought as to a modular set of options for skills. I think this system can be used as the basis for a thorough system that can make nearly all players satisfied, and is completely consistent with the system they outlined in the current playtest packet.