Someone once asked me why D&D bothers to include skills at all. After all, the GM generally tells the players anything they really need to know (rather than seeing all his hard work in preparing the game crash and burn); and even if he doesn’t, players can always take a twenty.

After further discussion, this person conceded that Spellcraft can be important, and so can pick lock, and possibly track. But most of the skills, he maintained, were fluff.

I disagree. Openly, completely, and vehemently. But with an important qualification: A character’s skills only matter if the GM makes them important.

That takes effort, and forethought, and preperation; and occasionally, the ability to think on your feet.

The subject of this blog is skills, how they are used, and how to write scenarios that make them something for players to expend considerable thought on. The techniques that are described are used in all my campaigns, regardless of game system, so they are universally applicable, but I will be using D&D as my example throughout.

Skill Definitions

The first ingredient needed before skills really matter in a game is for the GM to have a very clear understanding of what it is that each skill describes. At first glance, this is quite self-evident; but think about it a little bit and all sorts of nasty complications rear their ugly heads, gibbering and hooting and doing their best to confuse you.

Action Skills

Some skills are used to test the success or failure of an action, and nothing more. Skills like Climbing and Swimming are examples; so is Diplomacy. But hold on a minute – which skill should be used to estimate how long it will take to climb something? Okay, so climbing is not just an action skill! Is the Swimming skill the same if you want to race a 200m sprint as if you want to swim the English Channel? So what do these skills actually mean?

Clearly, to resolve these questions, we have to look at the game mechanics. Essentially, these come down to 4 factors: How often, how hard, consequences, and complications.

  • How Hard: The harder it is to succeed, the more quickly a character will fail. The easier it is, the longer a character can go without failing.
  • How Often: The more frequently a character has to make a skill check, the more likely it is that a small chance of failure will manifest. The less frequently a character has to make a skill check, the less likely it is that even a poorly-skilled character will fail on any given occasion (ie, the more likely it is that they can fumble their way to an unlikely success).
  • Consequences: If a single failure spells the end of the attempt – what I call sudden-death situations – both these numbers are critical; ‘How Often’ can treated as providing context to ‘How Hard’. If circumstances are more forgiving, ‘How Hard’ is less important than ‘How Often’ – something that most DMs overlook.
  • Complications: These are saving throws that are needed, or damage that is taken, or anything else that accompanies the skill rolls or that occurs in case of failure of a skill roll that is not automatically fatal to the attempt to perform whatever action is being attempted.

Combining these permits refinement of our interpretation of the skills in question:

  • Any sort of sprint is all about going as fast as possible for the given distance. A character gets a base movement for free; what’s needed is some game mechanism for going faster – at the cost of temporary damage. “DC 5+5 per extra inch of movement, and the character suffers 1d6 for the first extra inch of movement, 2d6 for the second, 3d6 for the third, and so on, lasting until the character rests for as many minutes as he has swum” would be a suitable house rule.
  • An endurance swim, on the other hand, is about going as slow as necessary in order to cover the distance – the goal is to stay afloat at any price. Applying the normal rules for swimming but permitting the character to lose forward speed for the rest of the swim instead of damage from drowning does a reasonable job of simulating the required task.

I didn’t have either of those house rules at hand (I havn’t needed them, thus far) – I pretty much created them on the spot for this blog post, in exactly the same way as I would if I needed them in play.

Expertise Skills

Some skills have, as their primary purpose, knowing how to do something. This might be anything from poetry composition to appraising gems. Surely, there’s nothing as likely to trip us up here? Or is there? A successful skill roll might produce an expertly-crafted painting – with absolutely no genuine creativity behind it; technically flawless, artistically devoid of merit.

Every expertise skill has some artistic or creative element – from discerning that a gem’s value will be enhanced when recut in a certain style to producing a masterpiece with baked beans and oil paints. Once again, we have no rules mechanism to guide us, and there is no characteristic that comes close to expressing or measuring creativity.

Here, the first question isn’t ‘can a house rule be created to reflect the activity’, but is one even necessary? This question had a self-evident answer when it came to action skills, because characters are sure to attempt to perform those actions sooner or later.

Interestingly, in this circumstance, the answer can be either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, depending on how the GM defines the meaning of what the skill actually measures. It might seem like nit-picking, but a small difference in definition can have a tremendous impact in this case. Most GMs assume that Standard valuation techniques only assess the technical workmanship of a piece of craftsmanship and that the artistic creativity involved remains unidentifiable, simply because the rules only really talk about the workmanship aspects. Even the definition of a “masterwork item” refers only to the quality of the workmanship.

It ain’t necessarily so, folks. If we assume that the value of a craftsman’s work is the product of the execution and the inspiration, then standard appraisal values give us all the guidance we need. A work valued at 500gp might be a flawlessly-executed piece of limited creativity, or a sloppily-executed work of brilliant creativity or historical importance or rarity. That means that we only have to assess the overall value, and any random mechanism can be used to determine the ratio of technique to creativity, within reasonable limits. Or better yet, a value for a character’s creativity can be determined by the referee or the player (as appropriate), documented in the character’s personal description, and the overall value of an item used to determine the technical success of the work.

Similarly, when appraising a gemstone, the appraisal value reflects the value if the gem is used in the way that maximises its value – any lesser usage reduces the value.

Knowledge Skills

Some skills are simply about knowing things. Here, the issue is one of demarkation between one skill and another. Does “Knowledge: Religion” contain knowledge of rituals and church hierarchy and politics, or does it contain knowledge of theology – or both? Does “Knowledge: Abberations” give the character knowledge of Abberations sufficient to identify a footprint as probably not belonging to an Abberation?

Knowledge rolls are usually sudden-death rolls – a character either knows something, or he doesn’t – at least according the assumptions of most GMs, that is! Once again, this is a flawed assumption.

I interpret knowledge checks differently: If a character succeeds in a Knowledge Check, they have succeeded in recalling any pertinant information they have on the subject. If they fail, the GM can either determine that they have no such knowledge, or that they have simply failed to recall it – and can try again after an interval of time determined by the GM. Even taking a twenty – if the characters have the leisure to do so – only gives this level of ‘success’.

How does a GM assess what relevant information a character might have?

There’s a heirarchy of information that I always keep in mind, of varying reliability:

  • Common Knowledge: heavily contaminated by superstition, rumour, misinformation, and dogma.
  • Race-specific Knowledge: Dwarves tend to know about mining, humans about farming, elves about forests, and so on. Every race has its own areas of knowledge – to such an extent that in my Shards Of Divinity campaign I have created specific racial skills and skill packages (and gave characters extra starting skill points to spend on them). Although each race has its blind spots and contaminated knowledges, a fair amount of this information will be reliable – and usually couched in terminology that reflects/reinforces that race’s perspectives and prejudices.
  • Profession-specific Knowledge: Fighters know about weapons, Mages about magic, Clerics about theology, and so on. Like races, this information is sometimes biased, inaccurate, or contaminated in some respect, but much of it is reasonably reliable.
  • In-Game Experience: Discoveries made during play are usually accurate but may also be misleading. However, players often make the mistake of assuming that hearsay from NPCs falls into this category, while the GM (who knows the truth) often makes the mistake of having other NPCs ‘know better’.
  • Character Background: If the character’s background mentions an encounter with Rakshasa, the character can be assumed to have picked up some knowledge of Rakshasa. If the character’s family come from a farming community, the character will have some knowledge of agriculture. And so on. This is usually extremely reliable knowledge, because everything that’s suspect has been relocated into other categories.
  • Hearsay, Surmise, Speculation, Rumour, and Deceptions: These are about as reliable as you can get – not! The more general the information, the more likely it is to be at least partially correct. The more specific it is, the less it can be relied on. For hundreds of years, because the Bible stated that Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs, anatomy texts showed women with more ribs than men. Eventually, someone counted.
  • Character Education: This amounts to someone passing on information from one of the other categories as truthful. That makes it equal parts hearsay and racial knowledge &/or profession-specific knowledge.

When a player asks what his character knows about something, I have him make a knowledge roll. If he succeeds, he remembers something – which may or may not be accurate, but will almost always be plausible. If he fails, I feed him disinformation, with a hint that it’s unreliable, or he comes up with a total blank on the subject.

I NEVER reveal what the DC was. I NEVER tell them exactly what the most appropriate knowledge skill is, because that gives hints as well; instead, I let them check on a couple of different Knowledge skills (whatever they think appropriate, but I make sure that the most appropriate one is included) and ignore those that aren’t relevant.

If the character rolls a twenty (as opposed to taking twenty), whatever I tell them explicitly is completely accurate, no matter how limited it is; I’ll also throw in some extra information, but tell the players that they have rather less confidance in that info. If it’s relevant, I may let them read a section from the Monster Manual (or whatever) – without commenting on whether or not that specific entry is relevant, and on whether or not I’ve changed the creature to make it wholly or partially inaccurate. If a player brings a specific referance book to the table, I’ll use it in exactly the same way.

One of my players once asked what his character could determine from the architecture of an archway. Using a book I’d borrowed from the library for the purpose (having anticipated the need), I proceeded to give the character a half-hour lecture on lintel structures (actually, it was only about 5 minutes, but it FELT like half-an-hour!) – then told the player that the lintel on the archway obeyed none of those rules. Result: the character was completely convinced that every scrap of knowledge he posessed said that something funny was going on. The entire question was irrellevant to the question of what really WAS going on with the archway, however!

As a result of these practices, my game has become known as one where the players can trust me to put their character’s knowledge skills – and their ignorance – to good use.

Sensory Skills

The final category of skills are those which describe a character’s awareness of the world around them – Spot, Listen, Search, and so on. You might hope that finally, here is a class of skill in which there is virtually no complication; since these skills are used (in general) in exactly the way they are designed to be used, the official rules should more or less spell out exactly how they should work, right?

If only life was so simple. If a character knows there is something hidden in a specific location, should you permit extra search rolls until the character either finds it or gives up? How much can be discerned with a cursory glance, and what needs a careful and deliberate observation – and which one is the default? How about purloined letter syndrome? How about extra senses, such as Elves and Dwarves have?

Here’s how I handle these skill questions:

  • The last one is easy to solve. Elves and other races with some type of extra sense frequently take a skill (analagous to Spot) to define their ability with this additional sense in my campaigns.
  • When I write my scenarios, I generally write my location descriptions in short, declarative sentances. I preceed each with a number in brackets, which describes the base DC for spotting something, and carefully sequence them in order of ascending difficulty; then I can use the total generated by each character to tell them exactly what they see. I’m careful not to include any form of analysis in these descriptions; they are all straight observation.
  • I consider a cursory glance to be a straight INT check, not a Spot roll, which requires the character to be deliberately looking at whatever is there to be seen for at least a round.
  • And “purloined letter” syndrome describes repeated failures of a Search or Spot roll. Each time someone repeats a search, I add 5 to the DC for the next check, and have it take twice as long. The character can double the time to reduce the penalty by 5, or can halve the time and have it go up by another 5.

Writing Scenarios That Make Skills Important

Okay, so now that you’ve got a handle on walking the skills system around the block a time or two until it says “Uncle” and does the things that you want it to as GM, it’s time to look at just how to write scenarios that make skills something that matter.

Don’t give away the meaning

Actually, I’ve already described this technique in the previous section. When you’re describing a scene, start by asking yourself how much of it the characters will see with a cursory glance; that’s your DC5 result. Isolate the most significant element of the scene from the character’s perspective (“The big hairy thing trying to bean you with a club”); describe one or two more specific elements – physical description, clothing /armour, armament, identifying features – and put each into a single short sentence. Add 3 to the DC for each. Then describe details of the scene in general, starting with the next most important, and working down. Keep upping the DC by 3, but start from about 10 less than the highest value assigned to “the most important thing”. Then go into details of each other object that’s there, starting from about 5 less than the highest “general” item, and incrementing each line’s DC by 3.

This sounds like it’s a lot more work, and for the first two or three times you do it, that might actually be the case; but your descriptions will quickly become fuller and more detailed, and you will soon get into the habit. After a while, it actually saves time, because you get used to considering each item in detail. Once you do, you can start cutting and pasting old descriptions and giving each a minor tweak, saving yourself a LOT of time.

…But Don’t make your players play “20 questions” either

At the same time, there are going to be things that are blatantly obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. You should always make sure that “the big yellow truck,” and anything equally obvious, is included in the minimum information you give to the players. Make them work for the nuances, but spell out the obvious – even if you have to be vague about what the obvious actually is.

A little knowledge attaches significance

The GM should never explain anything without a skill roll. Tell the players what their characters see and hear; remind them of noteworthy things they may have seen in the past; then let the players ask their own questions, and find the significance of the answers themselves – in response to the results of relevant skill rolls.

I normally give players up to two skills rolls for free; thereafter, each represents a 1 round loss of action in battle, a 2-3 second delay in speaking in a conversation, or a 1-minute delay in other circumstances. This forces players who want to extract the last drop of significance to pay the appropriate penalty in roleplaying, so that they don’t go on fishing expeditions (except when they can afford the luxury of doing so), while acknowledging and rewarding players who know the system, and hence don’t waste the GM’s time on frivolities.

Many of my players have learned that making a roll on the obvious skill tends to lead to the obvious answers; if they can make some educated guesses based on what they know of the campaign, they can quickly focus their attention on some telling details that let them infer the obvious stuff for themselves. It takes them fewer skill rolls to get to the important stuff, making it easier for them to play the roles of intelligent characters. Some of them are better at this than others – and to anyone who has yet to master the art, it can sometimes seem like the experts are plucking the truth out of thin air!

The next stage in their development as players is for them to start deploying their conversationalists strategically – instead of the character who is most qualified to speak on a subject taking the lead in a conversation, they can leave the opening gambits to other characters while they spend more of their time honing in on the important clues to what’s going on, something they are more qualified to do for the same reason that they are the best people to speak on a subject: because they have the highest skill levels in that particular subject. To date, no-one in any of my campaigns has really figured out how to do this, though on a couple of occasions they’ve managed to do it more-or-less accidentally.

You can often see characters in TV shows – especially high-level political figures – doing the same thing. Some underling starts the conversation, often making greetings and formal small talk, while the real experts and powerbrokers watch and learn. I’ve also seen the same thing happen in panel-based job interviews, where the person with the biggest influance over a yes/no decision is often the last person to speak.

As a result of these practices, not only do skills matter more in the campaigns, but the players are using them more often not only in terms of game mechanics, but to improve their roleplaying. This is a rare example of a game mechanism operating to bring the players closer to their characters and to the game world.

Prepare Historical skill rolls

All this places additional responsibilities on the GM. First, he’s got to really understand what’s going on in his game, so that he’s ready with the answers. This is most easily achieved in a published game setting that is well cross-referanced and has an excellent index – pity there aren’t many of those kicking around! Next best, and almost as good, is a campaign setting that the GM has created himself from scratch, simply because he’s more likely to know what’s in it. A published background with normal production standards is the next best option, and it’s a fairly remote one. The GM needs to have read and digested it several times – and not just from beginning to end; pick a random passage and see how quickly you can find a related passage, so that you learn where to find what you need at any given moment. This is so much work that I find it a LOT faster to create my own ideas!

Secondly, the GM needs to be alert for opportunities to sneak historical skill rolls into his narrative. This comes in two types of circumstance:

  • Treasures: Whenever there’s an opportunity for a craftsmanship vs creativity distinction, there is an opportunity for the PCs to assess that distinction. Failure to do so might even compromise the value of some of the treasure that they find – gemstones poorly set or used in a setting that minimises the artistic componant of the maximum valuation, gems that are poorly cut, armour that is beautifully decorated but poorly constructed and vice-versa, etc etc etc.
  • NPC Knowledge & Dialogue: NPCs should be subjected to the same rules as the PCs when it comes to analyzing a situation or answering a question – nothing without a skill roll (or at least, the faking of a skill roll by the GM. But that’s a whole different blog topic.)
Be prepared for your players to make mistakes

It might seem to be completely obvious, but when you are designing the week’s scenario, make sure that there is scope for the players to miss the crucial information, to misinterpret, to go off on wild goose chases, and generally to make mistakes. The world will seem all the more real to them when they realise that they can make mistakes and have to live or die by their decisions.

This requires you, as GM, to at least have a vague idea of what they will find in any mistaken direction that they might head. You need to know what clues they might find to suggest that their judgement might be in error (if any), and what the consequences will be of their being in the wrong place when the right time comes.

And there should definitely be consequences. The villains should advance their plans, and it might even become too late for the PCs to derail those plans. At the very least, it should become a far more difficult task to achieve. However, the GM should always build in some form of ‘last resort’ way for the PCs to save the day, no matter how impossible the odds might seem!

Reward Players For Doing The Right Thing

…especially if it means that their characters are penalised in some fashion. Reward original thinking, reward using the game system the way it should be used, and reward them for using the game mechanics to advance their roleplaying. A little positive reinforcement can work wonders.

But bear in mind that if a battle becomes harder as a result of a player mistake, it will be worth more XP, and possibly more treasure – so such rewards are sometimes built-in already.

Punishments should be indirect (usually)

If players don’t do those things that the DM wants to encourage with a reward, they should not be punished directly. Instead, the enemies should gain advantages that do NOT reward the PCs, either now or in the future. Only behaviour that the GM wants to explicitly Discourage should result in direct punishment. The GM should also be wary of collatoral damage to other players who may be innocent of any wrongdoing!

Don’t get angry, get even!

Some Additional Notes:

Additional Uses for existing skills

In Knights Of The Dinner Table issues 119 and 120, there was an article entitled Making The Most Of Your Skills by Jim Davenport, which went through just about every skill in the official D&D 3.5 rules and listed additional uses for them. Some I agreed with, and some I didn’t, but by and large it’s a magnificent resource.

For my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I took the list created by Jim, edited it to reflect my own opinions, and more than doubled the number of additional uses on offer. I’d publish it here in a blog, but don’t want to steal Jim’s work, and don’t really have the time to go through the more than 1000 additional uses for existing skills and work out which are mine and which aren’t. Maybe some other time.

In the meantime, go searching for the original articles. The author continues to write for KODT and is involved in the Serenity RPG; you can read his blog here (opens in a new window). His general d20 articles can be found in the “Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop” category.

Don’t be afraid to add more skills

At first glance, the spread of skills in D&D seems more than adequate. It doesn’t take too much experience with the system, however, before you start thinking of adding more. Some areas aren’t covered; some areas are general and/or generic, and you want to include racially-unique variations; and some house rules work best when expressed as skills.

The next step, as I’ve mentioned for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, is to create “skill packages” that are specific to each race, and express things that the race knows or does that are unique. Then you can do the same thing for each profession, ie Character Class.

I’m a great beleaver in forcing character constructions to be different and diverse. The more choices you force the players to make in terms of what they are good at, the better your game is, and the more individual your players become.

The key to this approach is ensuring that characters who invest in areas that the players don’t, gain an advantage from doing so under the appropriate circumstances.

Let your players run with the ball

If you institute just some of these changes, it might take your players a little while to get used to them, but once they do, they will quickly see an opportunity to take an advantage for themselves – especially if the NPCs are showing the way. It won’t take long before they are running with the ball, suggesting additional skills themselves. My players have reached the point where they will add skills and ask about them later, simply redistributing the skill points expended if their idea is denied. On at least 8 seperate occasions, I’ve found their ideas to be excellent and given complete approval; only once did I find that an idea was redundant (once though, I did change the base characteristic).

Not only does this make your game more unique and more diverse, not only does it make the campaign more plausible and the roleplaying more realistic, not only does it improve your understanding of the game and the campaign, and drive you to be a better GM, but it permits your players to invest themselves in the campaign, and gives them an immediate sense of ownership that is otherwise very difficult to engender.

That’s a lot of reward for a very small downside.

And that’s why I disagree so completely, and so vehemently, with the opinion that I echoed at the start of this blog.

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