Skills. I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into about skills. Either my opponent is clamoring for the flexibility and robustness of 3rd edition’s skill system or s/he is demanding to substitute one skill for another—Acrobatics for Athletics is a popular one. In my perfect world, we’d excise the entire system for something else.
The 4e skill system may seem a big departure from the 3e skills. There are fewer skills. And you don’t have skill points to worry about. You’re either trained or not. The problems with 3e’s skill system, however, are still present in the current edition and the ways we’ve shorthanded the mechanics have only made its shortcomings more visible.
My issue with skills boils down to their function in the game. Rather than encouraging action, they restrict it. Think about the last time you ran through a skill challenge. Johnny says “Oh no, I can’t make an Athletics check. I’m not trained!” Or, for my 3rd edition readers, think about conversations you have around the table that invariably turn to “how many ranks do you have in Knowledge (arcane)?” Rather than contributing to game play, the player would rather sit back and do nothing in the hope of mitigating the risks of failure. Ridiculous.
Oh, some folks (and the books) say that skills create new opportunities to participate in the game. Why, players ought to look for ways to use Acrobatics in interesting ways. I can remember one player trying to use Acrobatics to hop over an enemy’s head without provoking an opportunity attack. My sarcastic answer was something like “Isn’t there a power for that?” If we’re going to let skills create exceptions in play, then why have powers at all?
The 3rd edition alternative was to cover all the ways a skill could be used in the game. OK. Who can tell me offhand how Innuendo worked (replaced by Bluff, yes, yes) without looking? Again, players wouldn’t try things unless they could minimize their risks of failure and the DM who just allowed skill use willy-nilly risked stepping into feat territory.
Finally, there are the DMs who demand skill checks for everything even when the success or failure has no affect on the story’s outcome. Or worse, prevent the narrative’s progress by making a successful skill check the obstacle the players have to overcome. Gosh, I’d love to run the adventure, but you schmucks can’t hit that DC 25 Thievery/Open Locks check, so I guess I’ll have to fudge or we’ll sit here on our thumbs. A good DM would, of course, provide other avenues to advance the story—break down the door, find the key, cast a spell, and so on. But in most cases, slavish reliance on skills either stops the story or forces the DM to abandon skills altogether by just letting the players succeed.
And don’t give me that crap about how skills add definition to your character. Please. Congratulations, you sank 23 ranks into Use Rope. You win D&D. Can we play the game now? You don’t need skills to define to your character. You want to play a blacksmith? Great, you’re a blacksmith. You want to make a sword. Fine. You’ve made a sword. Happy? This is a fantasy roleplaying game. You kill monsters and take their stuff. You stop terrible plots, thwart dastardly villains, and explore awesome and strange places. I remember back when I was working on WFRP someone who complained the game didn’t have robust rules for running a business or for making stuff. Where in “Grim & Perilous Adventure” is running an inn or making shoes? Maybe I’m being a bit harsh about this. Maybe some people do want to sit around the table for 4 hours every other week to roleplay making baskets for a profit. That, however, is not the game I want to play.
Enough ranting. There are three instances in my mind where skill checks should ever come into play.
1. There are consequences for failure
2. A success provides a mechanical advantage.
3. A success provides a narrative advantage.
These should be pretty self explanatory, but just in case they’re not, here we go.
#1: A player who wants his character to hop across a pit should make a skill check. Failure means falling into the pit, taking damage, and experiencing a “sad face” moment. A player asks the DM, “Hey what was the name of the Baron?” There’s no skill check needed since there are no real consequences for failure.
#2: A player wants to climb up to a ledge to have an unrestricted view of the battlefield. Success means the character no longer has to worry about cover. Here, call for a skill check. Now let’s say the door to the next part of the dungeon lies at the bottom of a 20-foot pit. The characters have all the time in the world, climbing kits, and so on. There’s no need for a skill check. They just get to the bottom and the game proceeds.
#3: The characters encounter a guardian in a dungeon. They’re going to have to kill the guardian or talk their way past it. However, the players could gain some useful information about what lies ahead or about some other clue. In this case, the players might make skill checks to coax the information from the creature.
One last thing before I go. Monsters don’t need skills. At all. For starts, skills exist to aid player character exploration. History helps PCs learn about the world, Streetwise helps them learn about their urban surroundings, Athletics helps them learn what’s on the ledge or across the pit, and so on. Monsters don’t explore.
But what about Perception and Stealth? Monsters shouldn’t have to rely on a skill check to hide. If you have a sneaky monster such as a lurker, then it should have a power that lets it gain concealment of some kind and include a DC appropriate to its level to negate that concealment. As for monster Perception, I think it should be a DC. You want to sneak up on the monster, make a Stealth check against an easy DC for a dim-witted foe, a moderate DC for most critters, or a hard DC for an exceptional monster. This shifts the burden from the DM to have to make useless checks and puts it all on the players.
All other skills only reinforce the monster’s flavor. Why, why, why would a monster ever have training in Streetwise? History? Heck, Arcana even? They simply add to the monster’s story. Rather than force skills onto monsters, wouldn’t it be better to advise the DM that the dragon is quite knowledgeable about magic, history, and the gods and help the DM convey this information in roleplaying advice? Wouldn’t doing so help the DM portray the monster more appropriately than by slapping Arcana +17 under skills? I think so.
Well, I’ve said enough I think. What about you? How do you feel about skills?