One more unto the house rules. In this post I am going to examine the fourth edition skills system and propose changes to make it generally more believable and coherent. I’ve already explained at length why I think the current system is flawed, so I won’t dwell on that here. This post has the following goals:
- To expand the skill list to a degree that the skills make sense, fit in with my campaign setting and don’t contradict anything that has come before.
- Revise the number of skills that PCs have access to in order to provide a fair spread of class and non-class related abilities, but not to the extent where all characters know everything.
In creating the list, I have attempted to keep the number of skills down to a minimum. This list is a list of skills that I think are the most relevant and useful in the games that I run. It obviously differs from the official rules as I tend to run D&D against type. Many of the skills that that WotC think are core to the game I’ve barely used in the last eight years of third edition. Obviously, an individual player could expand this list with various knowledges, crafts, professions or specialisations to his heart’s content, but that is the choice of the player. Sub-optimal choices should be permitted under the rules, not made impossible.
The New Skill List
The following table compares the new skill list with the comparable skill from fourth edition. I haven’t just ported over skills from third edition, I have made the effort to completely rethink the system to make use the new 4e system. I haven’t recreated the Concentration skill. Where possible I have folded skills together, so Spot, Listen and Search are still Perception; Hide and Sneak are still Stealth. Beneath the table is a brief explanation of each new skill.
|New Skill||4e Equivalent|
|Craft (choose)||No equivalent|
|Knowledge (Architecture and Engineering)||History|
|Knowledge (Dragons)||No equivalent|
|Knowledge (Incarnum)||No equivalent|
|Knowledge (Nobility and Royalty)||History|
|Knowledge (Psionics)||No equivalent|
|Knowledge (Shadow)||Arcana, Religion|
|Knowledge (Sonorism)||No equivalent|
|Perform||Bluff, Intimidate, Diplomacy|
|Profession (choose)||No equivalent|
|Read/Write Script||No equivalent|
|Sleight of Hand||Thievery|
|Speak Language||No equivalent|
Acrobatics (Dex): This is largely unchanged from the 4e rules with the exception that the rules for escaping from a grab, or from restraints, has been spun off into the Escape Artist skill. You still use acrobatics to balance, reduce damage from falling and attempt an acrobatic stunt as stated on p180 of PHB1. An armour check penalty applies to acrobatics.
Bluff (Cha): The general intent of Bluff has not altered from the rules presented on p183 of PHB1. You can use bluff to lie convincingly, to gain combat advantage against a foe (the Feint manoeuvre in third edition) and to create a distraction so you can hide. Some other uses that seemed to default to bluff, such as Forgery and Disguise have been accounted for elsewhere.
Climb (Str): Athletics no longer exists as a skill. The climb element of Athletics (PHB1 p182) is now this separate skill. The mechanics are unchanged. An armour check penalty applies to Climb.
Craft (Int or Wis): This is very similar to the third edition skill of the same name. It represents any number of skills where the character makes something. If you have this skill you must specialise in a particular type of craft such as brewing, basketweaving, carpentry, stonemasonry, weaponsmithing, boat building or so on. There’s more on craft and profession below.
Diplomacy (Cha): The diplomacy skill is unchanged from p183 of PHB1. You use diplomacy to influence others with tact and subtlety.
Disable Device (Dex): This skill has been hived off from thievery. A character skilled in disable device can use the Disable Trap and Open Lock aspects of the Thievery skill as documented on pages 188 and 189 of PHB1 respectively.
Disguise (Cha): This skill allows a character to disguise themselves by use of make-up, clothes, posture, mannerisms and all manner of wigs. I will probably take the rules from the third edition Player’s Handbook but adjust the DCs slightly to reflect the new baseline of the fourth edition skills system. There is no disguise skill in fourth edition, any attempts would probably have defaulted to bluff.
Endurance (Con): This skill is unchanged from p184 of PHB1. It seems like an odd sort of a skill on first reading, but it does seem to be quite important to the new system, so we’d better keep it.
Escape Artist (Dex): This still encompasses the ‘Escape from a Grab’ and ‘Escape from Restraints’ uses of the Acrobatics skill, as documented on p181 of PHB1. A trained escape artist is the Harry Houdini of the group. Athletics can’t be used to escape from a grab or bindings any more. However, I would allow a normal ability check (half your level + Str (or Dex) modifier) to do so, for those untrained in this skill. An armour check penalty applies to Escape Artist attempts.
Heal (Wis): Again, a skill unchanged from the official source. You can still use Heal to apply first aid and to treat disease as described on p185 of PHB1.
Insight (Wis): This is the fourth edition version of Sense Motive, and I have to say that I like the name of the skill much more. Insight is described on PHB1 p185, and I haven’t changed it.
Intimidate (Cha): Diplomacy for the socially-challenged. No change to this skill either. See p186 of Player’s Handbook 1.
Jump (Str): Athletics no longer exists as a skill. The ‘jump’ element of Athletics (PHB1 p182) is now this separate skill. The mechanics are unchanged. An armour check penalty applies to Jump.
Knowledge (Int): Okay… there are lots and lots of knowledge skills listed here. You may think that there are too many. However, let me explain my thinking and I hope you’ll see it isn’t too top heavy. I tend to use knowledge skills more than anything else, so I wanted them to be well represented. Knowledge skills are similar to third edition, in that you must pick a field of knowledge. I have listed all the possible fields I think would be useful to adventures, but they won’t be universally useful to all adventurers. Let’s divide them up:
Knowledge Aberrant, Ancients, Dragons, Elemental, Fey, Nature and Shadow are the Monster Lore skills, and also incorporate everything you could find out from Knowledge (The Planes) in third edition. So you have Aberrant (aberrations, the Far Realm, the Void); Ancients (the ancient immortal races such as angels, devils, demons as well as Heaven, Hell and the Astral); Dragons (draconic races, Maw of Io and related draconic planes); Elemental (elemental creatures as well as the elemental planes/chaos); Fey (fey creatures, the feywild, the Greymere); Nature (natural creatures, animals, plants and environments in the natural world – this include underground environments as long as they are natural); Shadow (undead, shadow creatures, the shadowfell).
Knowledge Arcane, Divine, Incarnum, Primal, Psionics and Sonorism are knowledges about these magical traditions. If I wasn’t setting a game on Iourn, then I’d probably have a knowledge skill for each power source. These skills, give you an understanding of the esoteric mysteries of each tradition, how the tradition and the magic functions. These skills would be used to develop or learn new spells. You would also need to be trained in this skill in order to use any of the Rituals connected with each tradition. You don’t use these skills to detect magic, that’s a separate skill called Weavecraft (see below). I wouldn’t expect a magic using character to know anything other than the knowledge skill connected to his tradition and weavecraft. So a wizard would know Knowledge (arcane) and Weavecraft; a cleric would know Knowledge (Divine) and Weavecraft and so on.
This leaves four remaining knowledge skills. Religion, Architecture and Engineering, Geography, History and Nobility and Royalty. Religion would give you an understanding of the workings of individual churches and religions. Nobility and Royalty would be all about politics, laws, standards and so on. Architecture and Engineering is pretty self-explanatory, as is History. Geography would give you knowledge of the position of countries, but also who lives there, so it would encompass anthropology, social geography, demographics and so on. If you take these skills it is assumed that you know of the History, Geography, Religion, History, Nobility, Architecture of a specific area or time period. This can be as broad or as narrow as you like, but the GM can amend skill check DCs accordingly. See below for specialising in skills.
Perception (Wis): Unchanged from how it is written on p186 of PHB1. This is a combination of sight and vision. It makes sense to combine them from a gaming perspective because often you only make a Perception check to work out if you are surprised or not. I vacilated as to whether to keep Spot and Listen as two skill, but I’ve decided to go with Perception.
Perform (Cha):The relevance of this skill really depends on what happens with the bard class. As it stands, Perform could be largely irrelevent to many characters. I’ll keep it in for the time being. However, I think I’ll return to the version 3.0 definition of the skill, where you could use Perform to play any instrument or sing any song. Yes, entirely unbelievable, but not quite as absurd as having to play the trumpet with your diplomacy skill, which is what we have at the moment in 4e.
Profession (Int or Wis): This is very similar to the third edition skill of the same name. It represents any a job the character does, or a service the character provides that does not result in the character making a physical article. For example: herbalist, politician, prostitute. There’s more on profession and craft below.
Read/Write Script (no check):There are new rules for languages on the Iourn website, and I explain this in more depth below. Basically, you select a script. You can then read and write any language that uses that script, as long as you can speak the language. If you are trained in a script then you can use Bluff to forge documents in that language.
Ride (Dex):The ability to ride a horse, or camel, or elepant, or griffon or giant mouse. Before this would have been the Athletics skill, or perhaps the knowledge nature still. I think there needs to be a skill for Ride, but at the moment it is not supported in the system. I think that anyone would be able to ride a horse, but if you want that horse to do anything fancy, if you want to control it in an extreme situation then you will need to the Ride skill. It doesn’t lessen the need for the Mounted Combat feat. Just like Disguise, I’ll look at the rules in the third edition PHBand migrate the some slightly modified DCs across.
Sleight of Hand (Dex): This skill has been hived off from thievery. A character skilled in Sleight of Hand can use the ‘Sleight of Hand’ and ‘Pick Pocket’ aspects of the Thievery skill as documented on page 189 of PHB1.
Speak Language (no check): Enables you to speak a new language. See below for more about languages.
Stealth (Dex): Unchanged from how it is documented on p188 of PHB1. Stealth is a combination of hide and sneak. It seems to work quite well that way.
Streetwise (Cha): A combination of Gather Information and Knowledge (local) as they were in third edition. I see no reason to change streetwise. Please refer to p188 of PHB1.
Survival (Wis):A new skill to fourth edition, and imported from third edition. Survival allows you to forage for food and to build a shelter against the elements. The forage elements of the Dunegoneering (PHB1 p184) and Nature (PHB1 p186) can be found here. You can use Survival to survive and subsist off the land in any domain that you have a corresponding knowledge skill. The most common combination would be Knowledge (nature) and Survival to fulfill the role of the archetypal third edition ranger. But you could have Knowledge (ancients) and Survival, that would allow you to survive on the Astral Plane. Someone skilled in survival can set snares and catch food. They can also track. Tracking in fourth edition was a combination of Knowledge (nature) and Perception. I don’t think you should be able to track with Perception as it is too specialised. Survival is the skill if you want to be able to track.
Swim (Str): Athletics no longer exists as a skill. The swim element of Athletics (PHB1 p182) is now this separate skill. The mechanics are unchanged. An armour check penalty applies to Swim.
Watercraft (Str): This probably strikes you as a bizarre addition to the skills set, but the number of times I have wanted a skill such as this are legion. Watercraft is the skill for anything involving boats or ships. Anything rowing or sailing related – from a canoe to caravel – comes off this skill. Yes, it’s very broad, but at least it’s now in the rules and I don’t have to keep referring to Profession (Sailor).
Weavecraft (Int):This is an understanding of the magical weave. You know how it works, how it interacts with different magical traditions, and how certain effects (like anti-magic areas) can interact with it. This replaces the Spellcraft skill of third and earlier editions. Weavecraft allows you to tell if something is magical, using the ‘detect magic’ function of the Arcana skill as it is publisehed on p181 of PHB1. You can also use Weavecraft to identify magical effects such as conjurations, zones and the effects of rituals. You can tell what tradition they are from, and also the nature of the magic (the ‘school’ as it was in third edition). You use a mixture of weavecraft and the appropriate knowledge skill to identify magical items.
What I would also like to do is to allow the player to substitue one skill for another if he does not know the skill the GM requires. For example, the player wants to know how far away an island is, and the best route to take to get there. This would be a Knowledge (geography) check. However, the character doesn’t have Knowledge (geography), but he does have Knowledge (history). Maybe the character knows all about the campaigns of an ancient general, who invaded this island two generations ago. Maybe he remember the route that general took.
Obviously, this sort of thing cannot happen all the time, but the GM should encourage creativity on the part of the PCs when using their skills. If a player is trying to use a different skill, the GM is within his rigths to make the DC harder for that player. If the skills are very close then there might not be any change in DC, but for each step away from the original skill then the GM should increase the DC by +5. So using Knowledge (history) for the above example might be +5 to the DC, using Knowledge (nature) to remember the migration patterns of the puffins that rest on that island might be +10. The GM is free to decide what penalty he imposes.
Specialising in Skills
These rules are probably best suited for NPC sages. The skill list is still very broad, but characters can have far more specific skills. Rather than Knowledge (Nature) you might have Knowledge (Cows). You know all there is to know about cows. When you make a roll about cows, the GM would set an easier DC because it is in your specialised area. If you used Knowledge (Cows) to identify a wolf, the GM might not let you roll at all, or might set a much higher DC. Using these rules, highly specialise sages can know things that normally their level and skill check would not allow.
There are about forty different languages on the Iourn website and I’m not going to cut that number down at all. I’m going to use the same rules for languages already posted on the site. You can either select to speak a langauge, or to read and write a script. You can read and write any language you can speak, as long as you also know the script for it.
In order to make life easier for players, I propose increasing the number of languages of all starting characters by two. So every race starts knowing four languages except the half-elf, who knows five. Those language slots can be spent on either Speak Language, or Read/Write Language. So most characters can speak, read and write two languages. However, some players might choose to be illiterate but speak four languages.
If the player wants to know any more than his starting languages, he must either get more languages when he assigns his skills at character generation, or select the requisite feat at a later level. There’s more on feats below.
The Problem of Craft and Profession
To my mind, craft and profession skills have to be represented in the skill system. If they are not then the campaign world loses a degree of its integrity and verisimilitude. However, it has been pointed out to be that these skills are largely useless to PCs. They provide a degree of background colour, but you seldom have to roll on them. If you can’t have a high perception because you have chosen Profession (haberdasher), then you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.
So what do we do about this? Thinking caps on everyone! Do I offer free profession and craft skills based on your character backgrounds? Can everyone select one profession or craft skill for free at first level to represent what they were doing before they became adventurers? Or do we just keep them as perfectly valid skill choices for everyone at any time?
Characters and Skills
Okay, so we have a new skill list. The question now is how to we apply that list to each character class, and how do you assign skills in character generation. I have three options for how we do this, that I will chronicle below. What I will do first is go through the classes and assign new class skills based on the list above. For the purposes of this part of the post, imagine that the skills rules haven’t changed at all, except for the fact that we have an expanded skill list.
Before I get the classes, this is how the skill bonuses from each of the 4e races would be altered:
- Dragonborn: +2 Knowledge (history) or Knowledge (nobility); +2 Intimidate
- Dwarf: +2 Survival; +2 Endurance
- Eldarin:+2 Knowledge (arcane); +2 Knowledge (history)
- Elf: +2 Knowledge (nature); +2 Perception
- Half-Elf: +2 Diplomacy; +2 Insight
- Halfling: +2 Acrobatics; +2 Sleight of Hand
- Tiefling: +2 Bluff; +2 Stealth
- Warforged: +2 Endurance; +2 Intimidate
My rational for the new lists of class skills is relatively simple. Most classes in the new PHB have four trained skills except the fighter (3), the ranger (5) and the rogue (6). Now, everyone starts with eight trained skills except the ranger (9) and the rogue (10). The list includes everything that was in the 4e book, plus any skills I have recreated – so if a class had Athletics, it now has Climb, Jump and Swim. I have inserted any new skills in as I felt was necessary.
I am not sure I have the balance right, so please be sure to check this and take me to task on anything that doesn’t look right!
Choose Knowledge (religion) and any seven skills from the following list:
Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Heal (Wis), Insight (Wis), Knowledge (any) (Int), Profession (Wis), Read/Write Language, Speak Language, Weavecraft (Int)
Choose any eight skills from the following list:
Climb (Str), Craft (Int), Endurance (Con), Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Jump (Str), Knowledge (any one) (Int), Profession (Wis), Ride (Dex), Speak Language, Streetwise (Cha), Survival (Wis), Swim (Str)
Choose Knowledge (religion) and any seven skills from the following list:
Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Endurance (Con), Insight (Wis), Heal (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Knowledge (any two) (Int), Profession (Wis), Read/Write Language, Ride (Dex), Speak Language, Weavecraft (Int)
Choose knowledge (nature) and any eight skills from the following list:
Acrobatics (Dex), Climb (Str), Craft (Int), Endurance (Con), Heal (Wis), Jump (Str), Knowledge (any two) (Int), Perception (Wis), Profession (Wis), Ride (Dex), Speak Language, Stealth (Dex), Survival (Wis), Swim (Str), Watercraft (Str)
Choose Stealth and either Disable Device or Sleight of Hand. Then choose a further eight skills from the following list:
Acrobatics (Dex), Bluff (Cha), Climb (Str), Craft (Int), Disable Device (Dex), Disguise (Cha), Escape Artist (Dex), Insight (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Jump (Str), Knowledge (any one) (Int), Perception (Wis), Perform (Cha), Profession (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), Speak Language, Streetwise (Cha), Swim (Str)
Choose Knowledge (divine) and seven skills from the following list:
Bluff (Cha), Craft (Int), Disable Device (Dex), Insight (Wis), Intimidate (Cha), Knowledge (any three) (Int), Profession (Wis), Sleight of Hand (Dex), Streetwise (Cha), Speak Language, Read/Write Language, Weavecraft (Int)
Choose eight skills from the following list:
Climb (Str), Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Endurance (Con), Heal (Wis), Jump (Str), Knowledge (any two) (Int), Intimidate (Cha), Profession (Wis), Read/Write Language, Ride (Dex), Speak Language, Swim (Str)
Choose Knowledge (arcane) and seven skills from the following list:
Craft (Int), Diplomacy (Cha), Insight (Wis), Knowledge (any) (Int), Profession (Wis), Read/Write Language, Speak Language, Weavecraft (Int)
So we have a new skill list, we have new lists of class skills for each of the eight PHB1 classes – how do we actually generate them? Assigning skills in 4e currently takes about four minutes. Can we capture that degree of ease in a new system that has more skills?
I’m in three minds about how to proceed. I understand the cinematic and heroic nature of fourth edition, so there is is something to be said for the simple elegance of the current trained/untrained system. The size of the skill list was certainly more of a sticking point for me than the mechanics of working out skills.
With that in mind, here are three options for the best way to move forward:
Option 1: Change Nothing
We have a bigger skill list, and longer lists of class skills. Beyond that everything stays the same. The player chooses his trained skills as indicated above. These skills are at half his level + attribute modifier + 5. All the other skills are untrained, and they run off half the character’s level + attribute modifier. Nice and simple. The only exception would be languages which you either know, or you don’t know. This is the easiest option.
Option 2: Introduce Secondary Skills
This is the same a option 1, except the player doesn’t get half his level as a bonus to all untrained skills. After selecting his trained skills, the player selects ten secondary skills. These can be any skills on the skill list. These skills are rolled on half the character’s level + his attribute modifier. All other skills are untrained, and you would only add your attribute modifier to any skill check you made with them. In this system there are two levels of languages. If you select it as a secondary skill you can get by in that language, and you are able to convey simple concepts and hold simple conversations. If you are trained in a language then you speak it like a native.
Option 3: Skill Ranks
There are no trained or untrained skills. There are no class skills. The list of class skills instead becomes list of “suggested skills” for each class. Every character starts with a number of skill points equal to:
[2 + No of trained skills indicated above] × 5
So, most classes would start with 50 skill points, a ranger with 55 and a rogue with 60. Players can apply these skill points to any skill they want to in character generation as long as no skill exceeds half their level (rounded down) + 5.
At every even numbered level, starting at level two, each class would get additional skill points equal to [2 + No of trained skills indicated above]. So most classes would have 10, rangers would have 11 and rogues would have 12. Again, these could be spent on anything the player chose as long as no skill was higher than half his level (rounded down) + 5.
Each additional language would cost five skill points. Once you could speak the language or read the script then you would never have to make any rolls on it.
All skills that the player did not put skill points into would just be rolled on a standard 1d20 + the related attribute modifier.
A Note on Feats
Several feats affect skills and languages. There is nothing above that changes how Skill Focus works. However, Skill Training and Linguist will work differently. How they work will depend on whether we adopt option 1, 2 or 3. I’m therefore not bothering to chronicle any changes just yet.
Okay, over to you. Will the above work? Is it an improvement, or should we just keep the skill system as it is written (please don’t say that). There are four main areas of discussion here:
- The new skill list. Is it complete? Deficient? Too detailed?
- The list of ‘class skills’ for each of the eight character classes. Have I got this balance right? Are there any other skills from the skill list that you would expect to see on it.
- The mechanic for assigning skills. Do we use Option 1, Option 2 or Option 3? Or do we use none of those options? Do you have a better idea?
- Craft and Profession. Bonafide skills that eat up your resources, or just background fluff for PCs? Do you want them free or do you want to pay for them?
This is the biggest change I have suggested to fourth edition, and hopefully it is the biggest change I will ever suggest to fourth edition. Let me know what you think. At the very least can everyone vote for options 1, 2 or 3.
Character Classes. Honest.