Monday, July 16, 2012

In defense of skills and training

I am a fan of skills in RPGs. More importantly, I’m a fan of being able to increase skill abilities as a part of character progression.

DnDnext is having skills take the backseat somewhat to primarily focus on ability scores. Skills are there, but associated with specific backgrounds, or tagged bonuses using certain equipment. I appreciate the simplicity of that concept. How high you can jump, how quickly you can diffuse a tense situation, or how well you can follow a trail in the woods, all of it primarily depends on the PC ability scores. It’s a very convenient way to express what situations a player can expect they will excel, or do poorly, in.

Yet, I like that added layer of training for particular skills to that concept. Yes, how quickly you can climb might well be determined on your strength, but having training and experience in athletics will give you an edge. I particularly like how 4E added a huge bonus from skill training that would nearly equal a max ability score bonus of the same skill (or exceed it). However having training and a high key ability bonus for particular skills would just about trivialize all but the most difficult skill checks.

One thing I didn't like was the continual level bonus players got with skills in 4E. For my next game, I’m planning on throwing that out and just keep DC values at first level for everything. To me it was sort of silly to keep adding bonuses to skills when the DC values also went up proportionally. However I admit there was a concept there that never quite got much traction.

Given skill challenges and DC values were based on the level of players, I always felt relative level could have been a factor for determining DC values. Epic and paragon tiers had this somewhat for certain skills, where each respective tier would bump up DC values for stuff like knowledge checks. Yet the level bonus was ever really tweaked much. It all fell upon whether it was an easy, moderate, or hard check. However sometimes I think relative level might have added another gradient in resolving skill checks.

I could easily see a 1st level PC having a more difficult time interacting with lower-tier nobility compared to a mid-heroic PC. With both DC values based on the same difficult check, I could pick a single DC value for a level 4 NPC. That mid-heroic PC might likely have as much renown and recognition as the trivial lord, so their level bonus would come into play. Instead it seems that idea just never cemented and 4E fell back on using just the 3 types of DC values that continually shifted as the player leveled up.

Still with some of these shortfalls, I like the idea of skills. I think it gives players a way to further customize their character. I particularly liked how 4E allowed players to learn new skills through feats. Want to gain more training in religion? Just pick up a skill training feat. In the end if I wanted to play a fighter that was very educated and a learned scholar, I could do so getting training in select skills (or picking up feats to do so). While my PC might not be on par with that wizard’s trained knowledge of history, I could certainly pull my mental weight if needed. Having skills instead primarily based on ability scores, without a bonus due to skill training, sort of takes away that flexibility.

So I am a fan of skills. I’m a fan of being able to increase proficiency with them (or at least be able to pick up new skills). 4E wasn’t too bad handling skills. Yet, I sort of liked how 3.5 allowed for continual skill progression (not a fan of the expanded skill lists though and found it almost too specific for skill checks). I’ve been thinking of adding a flat bonus to trained skills every 4 levels as a house rule for my next game (ditching the continual level bonus in the rules). While I appreciate the trimmed down resolution of tasks based on ability scores in DnDnext, I sort miss having that skill list.