Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Five)

I’m sorry that I keep bouncing all around PHB1 like this. I will get to chapter four and the character classes soon, I promise. However, it seems more pressing for me to talk about skills. Having played five sessions of fourth edition at this point, I’ve come to the conclusion that the skills system really doesn’t work – or at least it doesn’t work in the way that I want it to. They have neither the versatility or the verisimilitude that I require. I’m not alone in thinking this, or in thinking that something needs to be.

Which is a bit of a shame, really. I had hoped that I could begin a fourth edition campaign without tweaking the skills system. I knew that it would probably be something I looked at in due course, but I thought that maybe I could start an ongoing campaign with the skills as they were written and not meddle with things. I really can’t do that.

Character generation for the new campaign is still scheduled for 12 August (even though I don’t seem to be able to get the background written and posted to the PCs with any degree of speed). I don’t want to generate PCs with the skills system as it is written – I want to use my own. I want to use a system that is very much like the system used in third edition.

But, before I get into the domain of house rules let’s do the review thing, and look at chapter five in all its gruesome glory.

Skills Overview

In third edition there were thirty-six skills. That is not counting the Knowledge, Craft, Profession and Perform where you had to choose a specialism. In fourth edition, there are seventeen skills and no chance of specialisation. Each skill is intentionally broad and can be used for a variety of different tasks.

Unlike third edition, or other games such as Runequest or Call of Cthulhu, fourth edition doesn’t try to create a skill list that encompasses every possible skill that exists in real life. The fourth edition skill list is a tight list, and only contains those skills that PCs would find useful in their adventures. PCs don’t weave baskets for a living so there’s no basketweaving skill.

There seems to be a move among players of both editions toward a smaller skill list. Even the people behind the Pathfinder roleplaying game are into reducing the number of skill choices for players. Why are they doing this? It’s all a question of game balance. The designers want all skills to be equal. In third edition, you could spend your skill points on Craft (basketweaving), but in doing so you were unable to spend your points on Spot, or Spellcraft or Climb. The craft skills were not worth as much as skills that received continual use during the game.

Part of me can see why this decision was made. Part of me can see if you all you do is run dungeons or adventures like Keep on the Shadowfell, then you wouldn’t need or want ‘superfluous’ skills. Part of me can see that, but it’s not the part of me that runs roleplaying games. For goodness sake, step back a moment and look at the big picture.

The skills system is there to give the players options. You could say (and it has been said) that you don’t need rules to know how good a farrier the local blacksmith is, the GM just decides. Well, yes that is true – but what happens when the PC wants to be a blacksmith? Why limit what players? Table top roleplaying games have an unassailable advantage over the so-called roleplaying games you can buy for consoles and computers: you can do absolutely anything. If you want a paladin whose more skilled at being a florist than an athlete then you should be able to have one. The player deserves that choice.

Another problem with reducing the skills list is that many skills get combined together. Sometimes this makes some sense: Listen and Spot are combined into Perception, Hide and Sneak are combined into Stealth. I can still see an argument for them being different skills, but I can also see a strong case for Perception and Stealth in the game. If I’m being generous, I can get behind that change. However, there are far more examples of the reduced list creating absurd synergies.

An example: in fourth edition there is a new skill called Athletics. Climb, Jump and Swim don’t exist as individual skills – only athletics. So everyone who can swim is also a good climber? Nonsense. There’s no Ride skill either, and no explanation of which skill it would fall under. Athletics is as good a fit as any. So you make an Athletics check to ride a horse. Again, nonsense. How would this work in any sane games system? A character leaps on a horse and wants to gallop after the bad guy. He doesn’t have the Ride skill, but the GM says: “That’s okay. Make a Swim check instead.” What planet are these people living on?

The 4e Skill List

You can tell I’m against this change can’t you? Anyway, I’m not going to dwell on all the skills in any great depth. Those that have mechanics are functionally similar to how they were in third edition. There are some notable changes that I will get onto in a minute. In the meantime, the best way to present the changes are in table form. I’ve included a column for the current house rules so those players of the Iourn game can see how I diverged from the official third edition skill list.

The skill list is in order of the third edition skill, so look up that skill in the leftmost column. And I’m sorry, but I still can’t get WordPress to left-align each cell.

Third Edition 3e Houserule Fourth Edition
Appraise Appraise History
Autohypnosis Autohypnosis No equivalent
Balance Balance Acrobatics
Bluff Bluff Bluff
Climb Climb Athletics
Concentration Concentration No equivalent
Control Shape Control Shape No equivalent
Craft (choose) Craft (choose) No equivalent
Decipher Script Decipher Script No equivalent
Diplomacy Diplomacy Diplomacy
Disable Device Disable Device Thievery
Disguise Disguise Bluff
No equivalent No equivalent Endurance
Escape Artist Escape Artist Acrobatics or Athletics
Forgery Forgery Bluff
Gather Information Gather Information Streetwise
Handle Animal Handle Animal Nature
Heal Heal Heal
Hide Hide Stealth
Iaijutsu Focus Iaijutsu Focus No equivalent
Intimidate Intimidate Intimidate
Jump Jump Athletics
Knowledge (Arcana) Knowledge (Arcana) Arcana
Knowledge (Arcana) Knowledge (Dragons) Nature
Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering) History
Knowledge (Dungeoneering) Knowledge (Underdark) Dungeoneering
Knowledge (Geography) Knowledge (Geography) Nature, History
Knowledge (History) Knowledge (History) History
Knowledge (Local) Knowledge (Local) Streetwise
Knowledge (Nature) Knowledge (Nature) Nature
Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty) History
Knowledge (Psionics) Knowledge (Psionics) Arcana
Knowledge (Religion) Knowledge (Religion) Religion
Knowledge (Religion) Knowledge (Undead) Religion
Knowledge (The Planes) Knowledge (The Planes) Folded into other ‘knowledge’ skills
Knowledge (any other) Knowledge (any other) No equivalent
Listen Listen Perception
Lucid Dreaming Lucid Dreaming No equivalent
Move Silently Move Silently Stealth
Open Lock Open Lock Thievery
Perform (choose) Perform (choose) No equivalent
Profession (choose) Profession (choose) No equivalent
Psicraft Spellcraft Arcana
Ride Ride Nature or Athletics
Search Search Perception
Sense Motive Sense Motive Insight
Sleight of Hand Sleight of Hand Thievery
Speak Language Read/Write Script See feats
Speak Language Speak Language See feats
Spellcraft Spellcraft Arcana
Spot Spot Perception
Survival Survival Dungeoneering, Nature
Swim Swim Athletics
Tumble Tumble Acrobatics
Use Magic Device Use Magic Device No equivalent
Use Psionic Device Use Magic Device No equivalent
Use Rope Use Rope Athletics, Acrobatics

The Changes

There are a few skills that merit explanation regardless of whether the 4e skill system was adopted or not. These are the ones that I think you, as players, will need to make a note of.

Concentration (3e): I’ve spoken about this before, but Concentration is not a skill in fourth edition. Spellcasters don’t need to make concentration checks to get spells off in stressful conditions. In fact there aren’t really any ways that you can disrupt a spell caster or prevent them from casting a spell. I’m going to look at this again when I get onto talking about the powers themselves.

Endurance (4e): This is a new skill entirely. You use endurance if you want to hold your breath, go without food or water, or resist climatic effects. It’s actually more useful than you would credit. Particularly if you don’t want to drown.

Knowledge – The Planes (3e): This has been folded into the various ‘knowledge’ type skills. So Religion tells you about the Shadowfell, Arcana about the Astral Sea, Dungeoneering about the Far Realm, Nature about the Feywild and so on. These skills also absorb the monster lore aspects of knowledge skills in third edition.

Lucid Dreaming (3e): Not surprising that this wasn’t supported in PHB1. However, it is important to the ongoing League of Light campaign. I will look at Lucid Dreaming in more depth, but I suspect that fourth edition will demand that it is changed into a suite of powers, a paragon path or that Lucid Dreamer becomes a character class in its own right.

The Mechanics of Skills

The skills system has also changed in fourth edition. There are no longer any skill ranks, instead your skills are based on your class and your level. Every character has a base chance of using any of the seventeen skills at half his level (rounded down) + the relevant attribute modifier. So a 20th level wizard with a strength of 12 still has a Climb skill of +11 without putting any time or training into it.

At character generation you can select a limited number of skills for your character from a prescribed list. This list is dependent upon your class. The skills you choose become trained skills. You have a +5 bonus to all trained skills.

Obviously there are other things that further modify your skill check – like equipment, magic items, other characters or powers – but by and large this is as complicated as the system gets. There are no complicated synergy bonuses in fourth edition. There are too few skills to make it worthwhile.

Why have they done this? Well, partially it is to make the game quicker and easier. Ability checks are essentially the same as untrained skill checks, so its very easy for the GM to throw together the skills for an adversary. Character generation is also much quicker without the fiddlesome nature of skill ranks. There is also the matter of how the game actually works.

In third edition you could spend your many skill ranks as you chose – a few points here, a few points there. You could have a very broad range of skills. However, the game did not support this choice very well. If you spent your skill ranks on being competent at many skills, you quickly found (as your character rose in level) that you went from being competent to mediocre to generally crap at everything. Despite appearances, the third edition system demanded that you concentrate on a few skills and max them out (your level +3 in skill ranks) every level. If you didn’t, you would find the DCs associated with those skills would soon outstrip your ability to roll them.

Of course, that assumes that the player and the GM wanted to play the game that way. Fourth edition, doesn’t give you a choice. So, let’s be clear what the fourth edition mechanics do to the skills system:

  • You cannot dabble in a number of skills. You are equally good at all the skills you are not exceptional in.
  • You can’t actually be bad at anything. Having a character that simply can’t swim, or can’t bluff is just not an option in the game any more.
  • Because of the small base of skills, a normal party of six PC is likely to be skilled in everything.

In Conclusion

The fourth edition skills system is not fit for purpose. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s true. I understand why the changes have been made, and I appreciate that the official rules will be sufficient for some campaigns, but they’re not good enough for me. I want a much broader skills base, I want the PCs to be able to dabble in a number of skills (even if it isn’t an optimal choice) and I want them to be able to be bad at something. I want there to be things that they can’t do.

House rules on the way…


4 thoughts on “Player’s Handbook 1 (Chapter Five)

  1. Another interesting read! :)

    I have to admit that I am one of those players / DMs happy with the skill changes. And, your quote here sums it up: “Why limit what players?”

    Dungeons and Dragons is a game about players being the heroes, not the “nobodies”. Who cares about farmers, basket weaving, and the like, when you are running heroes? If a player wished to take basket weaving, I would let them – one feat, and they are trained in the skill, most likely based around Dexterity or Intelligence. What are the rules? Well, we can work them out together. But does it need to be in the core system, does it need to balance with everything in there (which, let’s face it, is about combat)?

    Basically, I am all for houseruling this stuff, and both love that it is not core, and that the core system is flexible enough to allow us to do it. But my houserules will be adding new skills (and only as needed), probably not quite what you are planning to do :p

    Having a new player start 3.5, the skill list (and the mechanics behind the choosing) is pretty much always the most daunting task. 4E simplifies this, and I love it :D

    As to being bad at things – it is possible. A low score, with appropriate penalties (armour?) can drop skills down. Now, you might be saying that the 1/2 level bonus quickly negates all negatives. Well, sure, but a low positive can still be bad. +3 isn’t great if others have +13. Remember that 4E is a game of little negatives – non-proficiency doesn’t give a penalty, but rather, proficiency gives a bonus. All races have bonuses to stats, and no negatives. This is accenting the “hero” feel, but its just a shift in the scale of numbers. AC’s, defences and DCs have all risen accordingly, so people are still going to fail stuff, they are just going to fail it with higher results :p

    Hrmm, anyway, I think I might be being a little confusing. Maybe my painkillers are wearing off… Still, interested in seeing your house rules and changes!


  2. The strength of the 4e skill system is that it is so easy to generate a character. Literally four minutes choosing skills if you have never played the game before. Fantastic. My house rules are going to try and keep a degree of that. I don’t really want to return to skill ranks.

    I’ve had discussions on and off email on exactly the points you raise. Skills like Craft and Profession are always going to be sub-optimal choices, and every skill list is a compromise between a faithful representation of the breadth of human endeavour, and a something that is playable. I think that third edition got the balance about right in terms of number of skills. 4e’s list is just too short.

    And, all those homogenised skills… acrobatics, athletics, thievery. I can see how some skills fold together – pick lock and disable device are effectively the same thing – but some of it is just indefensible.

    I guess it’s not so much being bad at a skill, as it is the assumption that everyone can do everything. That’s not heroic. A hero is someone who overcomes his disadvantages, not someone who just doesn’t have any disadvantages. Still, you’re right that it is in keeping with the 4e ethos.

    This is going to be a tricky balancing act.

  3. Neil,

    From the blog :-
    “At character generation you can select a limited number of skills for your character from a prescribed list. This list is dependent upon your class. The skills you choose become trained skills. You have a +5 bonus to all trained skills.”

    Why not have at character gen. that each class must take a number of “untrained” skills from a prescribed list – these skills become completely independant of level.
    You could then have feats to allow our hero’s to overcome their lack of training in these fields during the course of play.

  4. Hi Jon,

    Sorry, didn’t get to read this until after I had posted my house rules. Have a look at my options, one of them isn’t dissimilar to this.

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