So, Let’s Talk About Skills…

March 13, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons has shaped the way that roleplaying has developed. We can’t ignore that. It’s part of the reason that games are inherently simulationist in some fashion; we simulate a character’s abilities in a real-like world (skills, damage, ability scores, etc) rather than their effect on a story or their role in a party. That is, itself, left over from earlier war games that shaped D&D, but it’s something we can’t ignore. While this version of the game is much more about storytelling and engendering a roleplaying environment, it is still a Dungeons and Dragons game and will have a lot more to do with combat than most other things.

Which brings us to skills; how do we make a system that is both more complete than “NonWeapon Proficiencies with Difficulty Number” but isn’t needlessly complex or require tons of bookkeeping?

First, what should the skills be?

Given this is Dungeons and Dragons, Skills should be first and foremost adventuring related. They don’t need to cover NPCs, they don’t need to cover things that aren’t related to adventuring (like keeping a business, the intricacies of craft, or minor issues like the ability to count or exactly how well a character can speak their native language), and they have to have some sort of separation between those in the party who are untrained, novices, and masters of the related skill. There also shouldn’t be too many skills, just enough for people to have options for building a holistic understanding of their character without feeling overwhelmed.

Well, sure, that’s an answer to the question, but what skills should there be?

Well, lets explore this narrativistically…

Starting off the top of my head, mercantile skills are important. Appraisal, haggling, general business operations for trade. Merchants are classic adventure characters, and frequently provide covers for one of the other great adventure character archetypes – spies.

Knowledges are important, but which ones? Nature, theology, history, and the arcane are extremely important, generally. Earlier editions included “local” but I feel like that fits better somewhere else, a more general skullduggery skill. To borrow from World of Darkness, I’ll call it Streetwise. That’s not just about the lay of the land, but also how to navigate the underworld, how to strike secret deals, where to go in any city or town to find out the right information, and how to ask the right questions. Still a form of knowledge, but more complete and more applicable than “local knowledge”. It also helps abstract part of what a good spy has as part of their knowledge-base; a way of quickly acquiring that knowledge. Streetwise, in this sense, is also learning how to read an area and get a feel for it fast. Dungeoneering is also its own kind of knowledge, as is engineering generally and smithing. We’ll call engineering Mechanical knowledge, though, so as not to get bogged down in what exactly can be engineered. Smithing is also greatly abstracted – silversmiths, blacksmiths, swordsmiths, goldsmiths, whitesmiths, doesn’t matter. They’re all Smiths. Surviving in the wild is mostly about Natural knowledge. Ah, doctors. They need their own skill, since Medicine is definitely an important part of every culture in every time period. Cultural knowledges are part of History and Streetwise, in most instances. One thing I can see we’re missing is Legal…so that’s the last one. Legal. Oh, and I guess Animal Handling or Animal Knowledge? I wish there was a more elegant term for it.

So, on to things that characters can do. Acrobatics and Athletics are frequent additions, and I feel that they are different enough to need their own slots. There’s a whole mess of skills relating to social interaction in earlier editions; Bluff, Deception, Intimidation, Persuasion, Diplomacy, Insight…I think this can be summed up in just 3 though; Subterfuge, Persuasion, and Presence. Subterfuge is the art of lying as well as detecting a lie. Persuasion is exactly what it says on the tin – it doesn’t really matter how your character does the persuading as far as the rules are concerned, they’re just good at being persuasive. Presence is overpowering someone with your sheer sense of being. This can be intimidation, it can be beauty, it can be horror and unease, it can be righteousness…it’s all about the presence of the person. Stealth is obviously important, and deserves its own skill. Earlier editions wrap it up with other thief skills but I don’t think they’re that common; one can definitely have a trap master that can’t hide very well with no relation between the skillsets. Slight of Hand has been a skill recently but I feel like this is better as a feat; once it’s strong enough to be a “skill” it doesn’t need to be rolled. The character can just use their dexterity as the difficulty for being seen based on other’s perceptions. Perception! That’s important. As is Investigation, and sometimes Search. Well, we can move all of those together, and the information processing parts of investigation can go into the Legal knowledge ability, among others. Toss in Perform, for the Bards out there, and Disable Device for traps and locks.

I feel like this is a good, well fleshed out list of skills. It covers almost every instance of player interaction with the setting without being bogged down in minutiae. So, how do skills work?

Both of D&D’s historical systems aren’t fine tuned enough; Skill Ranks which create huge roll/score/DN inflations or the flat-bonus system (NWPs, 4th Edition’s level-based bonuses, and 5th’s Ability Score/Trained bonuses). One creates no-roll total victories (historically Diplomacy is broken in 3rd) and the other creates situations where an expert and a novice have wildly different relative abilities that break the fantasy they’re intending to maintain – a novice should never, regularly, outperform a master of a craft.

I’m proposing something that is more like AD&D’s weapon proficiencies with a dash of Exalted’s Charm system. Skills have set ratings – Trained, Novice, Journeyman, Master, and Grandmaster. Instead of being bonuses, these confer abilities. Trained’s ability is removes penalties – every skill has an Untrained penalty that’ll be listed in the skill description. On many, such as Smithing or Disable Device, it’ll be an automatic failure. Others might be an incomplete set of information (“Ask the DM up to 3 questions, the DM may answer any one of them wrong” type things) and others might be a simple penalty (as each -1 on a die roll is a 5% increase in failure chance). Each rank above that is a new ability, also listed with the skills. These abilities could be to reroll failures, always get some kind of success, or even “take ten” as a Standard Action and ignore the outcome if it’s a failure (so you can retry with an actual roll the next turn having determined that it’s not something you can just do quickly).

This gives each of the skills weight and texture, not just a manipulation of a single die roll. I think that’ll make roleplaying much more complex, much richer, and more available for play.

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