Sidebar: House Skills

When I initially created this site, I intended to share my thoughts about the creation process in the same post with the actual rule. I realized pretty quickly, however, that this plan would prove disruptive to the general flow of each entry. I have therefore decided to create a series of posts, called Sidebars, which I can use to share some of my thoughts about the creation of the rules presented here in this blog. I shall begin this series with a discussion about my first post, House Skills.

Like many gaming groups, my friends and I have discussed some of the problems that we see with the 3.5 skill set. For example, we have long thought it silly that skills like Hide and Move Silently are split into two separate skills. We also find it frustrating that skills like Decipher Script, and Knowledge (architecture and engineering) are used so infrequently in game that one can scarcely justify putting points into them. Granted, a DM can try to find ways to incorporate some of these lesser used skills into their games. However, I find that whenever I try to incorporate a skill like Knowledge (geography) check into my games, my efforts are generally greeted by a bunch of sheepish looks from my players; none of whom have put points into this skill.

Then, of course, there was the advent of 4E. While I’m generally not wild about this edition of the game, one thing that I really appreciate is the new skill set. I feel that it is much more concise, and that the more general applicability of each skill allows players to use them in unique and innovative ways. I also like the introduction of skill challenges, which I find greatly encourage roleplaying. Unfortunately, I have found that 3.5 skills are a little too rigid as written to make skill challenges something one can incorporate into a 3.5 game, without some serious consideration.

For these reasons, I wanted to create a new skill set that is more concise, and which lends itself more readily to the idea of skill challenges.

Pathfinder Skills
Now some might wonder, why not just use the skill set presented in Pathfinder? After all, Pathfinder is 3.5 compatible, and the writers have addressed many of the issues I mention here. While this is a reasonable question, I personally feel that the writers didn’t go far enough in their efforts to consolidate skills. For example, while the Acrobatics skill incorporates skills like Balance, Tumble and Jump from 3.5, it does not incorporate the skill Escape Artist. This seems like a strange oversight, considering the fact that the act of escaping from a grapple suggests one has some acrobatic ability. I would also point out that some skills from 3.5- like Knowledge (geography)- remain largely untouched, despite the fact that they never saw much game time to begin with. Because of these issues, I do not feel that the Pathfinder skill set offers what I want.

Fourth Edition Skills
Another question some might ask is why not just use the skill set and mechanics presented in Fourth Edition? On the surface, this seems like a reasonable solution. However, there are distinct differences between the skill sets in 3.5 and 4E, so distinct that it would be difficult to incorporate the 4E skills into 3.5. For example, monsters and NPCs have skills of their own in 3.5, and while it’s generally pretty easy to match up any of those skills with the skill set I’ve created, it’s not always so easy for skills in 4E. Take, for example, a skill like Craft. A lot of NPCs and monsters have it, yet it’s not a skill that really has a counterpart in 4E. I also feel that some skills, like Knowledge (the planes), still deserve to be unincorporated from skills like Arcana, particularly if you’re planning on running a planar campaign. Finally, I have heard many players complain about the fact that skills are pretty static in 4E- you either train them at 1st level or you don’t- which is why I decided to stick with the original mechanic of skill points. So while I enjoy the 4E skill mechanic quite a bit, I don’t feel like it quite suits my needs, which is why I decided to go with a different skill set.

So now that I’ve expressed why I think a change is necessary, I want to talk a little bit about why I made some of the changes that I did. I can’t profess that this is a comprehensive list, since I don’t remember all of the changes I made in creating these skills. Still, there are a few that stick out in my mind.

This is one of several skills that I decided to turn into a skill encounter. While it’s not the only one, I single it out because it’s a good example of what I like about the idea behind skill challenges in 4E.

In 3.5, I feel like roleplaying is often stymied by skills. For example, when all a player has to do is say, “I try to convince him to help us,” and roll a die, it makes it difficult to get into the moment. I also feel that by limiting the success of an entire encounter to a single die roll, you wind up frustrating players who get the most enjoyment out of roleplaying their character. This is particularly true when the roll fails, because those players feel like their contribution to the game doesn’t matter.

Skill challenges change all that, and it’s one reason why I adapted them to 3.5. I want players to be a little more descriptive about their interaction with the king, and if a particular die roll for a Diplomacy check doesn’t go so well, I want players to have a chance to salvage the situation with successive checks. Finally, I want roleplaying to matter in terms of experience, because if the only way players can gain experience is through combat, it almost entirely negates the possibility that they will try any other option for dealing with a particular situation.

I always thought it was a little ridiculous that skills like Craft and Profession were divided into two separate skills. I also thought it was a little stupid that you needed to spend an entire week some place in order to make any money with a Profession check. Finally, while I liked many of the ideas presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide II for running a business, I thought the rules were a bit cumbersome, and I wanted to try and come up with a more sleek ruleset.

I remember when I first started playing 3E, I was rather dismayed that there wasn’t a mechanic that would allow a character to do research on a historic figure, or the weaknesses of a particular monster. I would also point out that if Knowledge skills are supposed to represent your study of a particular subject or discipline, then it stands to reason that you should know your way around the library.

When d20 Modern came out, I got really excited about the introduction of the Research skill. I loved this skill, and I was sorely disappointed that they didn’t include it in 3.5. That is why, when I created my own skill set, I included it in the list of skills. I also thought it offered an excellent opportunity to incorporate Decipher Script.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to incorporate Knowledge (arcana) and Spellcraft into one skill. However, because that made Arcana a bit more useful than Religion, I decided that it made sense to split Spellcraft between the two skills. That said, I also wanted to avoid duplication, so I decided that it made sense that Arcana should be useful for identifying arcane spells, and that Religion should be useful for identifying divine spells.

I like that 4E split this skill between Dungeoneering and Nature, and it’s something that I decided to incorporate into my own skill set. That said, it didn’t really make sense to use either of these skills to find food on the Astral Plane, or avoid a fire storm on the Plane of Fire. That’s why I split it out even further, adding Survival to the Planar skill as well.

Skill Encounters
My ideas for skill encounters were heavily influenced by the mechanics created for skill challenges in 4E. That said, there are some differences. For example, since I still wanted to use the mechanic of skill points, I needed to make some adjustments regarding how checks in a skill encounter work. Also, I decided to change the mechanic from number of successes before failures to number of successes needed before a certain number of checks are made. (Note: This mechanic is very similar to something I used in a home game, long before I knew anything about skill challenges.) Finally, I didn’t want to make the mechanics governing skill encounters as rigid as skill challenges in 4E. Take for example, chases. In 4E, chases are pretty straightforward: You need to make x number of successes before y number of failures. Having run this skill challenge in 4E, I have to say I felt like it was a little contrived. That’s why I opted for a mechanic that is closer to the one Savage Worlds uses for chases. I feel like this mechanic makes chase scenes a little more dynamic, and a little more realistic, while still preserving many of the mechanics that I like about skill challenges.

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