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D&D Skills

Skills in D&D 4E are broken, and Wizards knows it.

Here’s the challenge with skills: in 3E and 4E, skills are serving two masters. First, they serve as a customization point for players. Players want to say, “I’m good at this thing,” and write that thing down on their character sheets. They want their choice of skills to say something about their characters: who they are and what kinds of things they do. They also want their choice of customization to be reflected in their overall competence. Skills are great because they allow for differentiation between two characters of the same class, and they help define a character in the mind of the player.

Skills also serve a second master: resolution. In 3E and 4E especially, a skill is how you do something; the skill is the primary way you interface with the game world, and all the rules for doing the task related to the skill live inside that skill.

They are absolutely right that skills as written are “serving two masters,” but as that turn of phrase implies, skills are not serving either master well, and the Wizards team doesn’t seem to be acknowledging that.

Skills suck as resolution for the reasons that the aforelinked article explains: they box in your options, reduce improvisation, and generally make the vast and interesting world of D&D small and dull.

But skills also suck at differentiation, because in 4E skills are based on your ability scores. With the system as written it very rarely makes sense to pick up Nature as a Warlock, because your WIS is low. Fighters aren’t going to be stealthy because Fighters have low DEX. Swordmages aren’t going to be running Athletic marathons because they universally have low STR. So you can’t be a nature-loving witch, a quick-moving fencer, or a freaking Jedi. This hurts the other way around, too: if your class pushes you to have a STR 20, you have exactly one skill that you’re really going to be good at. You can’t play against type in this system; if you try, you are punished by being less effective.

So what’s to be done? The article floats the idea of getting rid of skills altogether. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater: it is an assuming that because the system failed at both its goals no system could succeed. What’s needed is a system that provides synergy between the two goals: we want differentiation and simple, flexible resolution. Where might we find such a system?

I happen to have one laying around. The reason my gaming group build this system was because we were frustrated by this exact problem in the stock system. We wanted to make characters that played against type, that tried to be more than a combination of their race and class and level. We wanted to make characters that were rewarded for trying interesting things and saw that they could actually use those rewards at the table.

The system is explained in detail at that page, but the basic idea is stolen from White Wolf and a dozen other RPGs: you put your attributes and your skills together to get a bonus. The skill determines what you’re interacting with (a person, a forest, a city, a wall), the ability score determines how you do so (cleverly, with brute force, empathically, quickly), and the RP explains to the table how those things work. In practice we find that the RP comes first in this method, with the player improvising a way forward, and the GM pointing out which stats that way forward would necessitate rolling. My group field tested it in one short-lived game, and it spread into our other, longer-running game as soon as we jumped back.

Now I’m not going to say it’s perfect. The list of skills is probably a little too short, for one. But it does a fine job of making the skill system get out of the way while also making the play more dynamic and interesting. I’d urge you to try it out. So bookmark the skill picker and bring up the topic at your next session. I’d love to hear back what you think of it.