Skill the Messenger

Monte CookMonte Cook is back on Team D&D! As an RPG designer with untouchable design credentials (Planescape, Ptolus, Iron Heroes, Arcana Unearthed, co-designing D&D 3rd Edition, and launching the career of Mike Mearls), he has been brought onboard to experiment with new approaches to D&D topics. His first target is skills, but there has been a mixed reaction. Who knew 4th Edition’s skill system had such loyal defenders? I certainly didn’t. You can debate the merits of his specific proposals, but I’m overall baffled by the gamers who say Monte Cook shouldn’t try to fix the skills system because there’s nothing to fix. I’m waiting to see what comes of Cook’s tinkering, but I was hoping for a little more substance right out of the gate. Regardless I’m definitely itching for something better than 4th Edition’s core skills system.

Skill Focus: Complaining


This isn’t the first time I’ve suggested gently tinkering with overhauling the skills system. I think of it as sweetly-intentioned but ultimately too inflexible to be satisfying. With houseruling, you can bridge its gaps and use it, but it could be so much better. As it stands, it’s a dumb system. That sounds harsher than it should. I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with the designers who wrote it or that you can’t use the system. I just mean that the rules aren’t themselves smart. They don’t take into account circumstance (monster lore for treants comes from Arcana, not Nature?), they don’t cover all situations (I want to sail a ship; what skill do I use?), and they don’t provide much narrative information (We’re lost! Roll a Nature check until we get home”).

AngryDM raises some of these same issues. He points out how vague and inelegant skill usage can be. In his article, he proposes a houserule: the Rule Of Key Ability Scores Can Suck It. Basically, if you don’t like the ability score that modifies a particular skill, you can change it on a situational basis. Swimming the English Channel uses Athletics (Constitution). Menacing some no-goodnik by upending tables calls for Intimidate (Strength). Giving someone camouflage lessons means Stealth (Intelligence).

Try telling him his half-orc racial stat bonuses don't help his Intimidate skill.

The really interesting thing about this is that this is essentially the skills system from the World of Darkness games by White Wolf publishing (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage). In those games, your ability with a skill is equal parts Ability dots and Skill dots. Searching a crime scene for clues calls for Wits + Investigation. Piecing those clues into a breakthrough on the case requires Intelligence + Investigation.

Some Sobering Contemplation

Of course, Wizards could have done the same thing but chose to have only 17 skills, and to lock those skills to specific key ability scores. This was all part of a concerted effort to streamline things. So we have to consider this choice, think about why they made it, and decide if the game would really be better if they had done something different? Do we actually want to go back to the days of Spot, Search, and Listen instead of Perception? Or deal with the ugly duckling skills like Appraise, Profession, Disable Device, Escape Artist, Knowledge (geography), and others I could name?

Going back even further into D&D’s history, the only other model for skills is AD&D’s non-weapon proficiencies. Maybe you liked Chariot Riding and Mountaineering, but I’m happy enough letting most of those stay in the past. The non-weapon proficiency section of AD&D character sheets often read like the course catalog at clown college: Smelting, Weather Sense, Ventriloquism, Falconry, Display Weapon Prowess, Tightrope Walking, and Fungi Recognition. The NWPs get worse, but I won’t trouble your minds with such nightmares.

Okay, just one more. Giant Kite Flying. That’s the last one.

Whither from Here?

I see that the two houserules—my own Skills on the Fly and AngryDM’s Key Ability Scores Can Suck It—in combination are little more than an abolition of skills altogether. What happens if you invent new skills whenever you want and rewrite the published skills to suit new purposes? As houserules, these two rules can smooth out some of the bumps when corner cases pop up in your game. But ignoring all the structure of the game really just ends up melting D&D down into a mess. If the end result of our tinkering is that you just make up skills as you go, you’re not any better off. The DM makes inconsistent rules adjudications and the players don’t know what their characters are good at doing.

But that’s not too far off from what Mike Mearls was talking about when he described one possible option for his modular D&D in his Legends & Lore article “Skills in D&D” in August. No skills as you would recognize them, just ability score checks applied to different situations. This was a departure from the Grand Unified Rule Of Roll A D20, but it really got me thinking when I read it. Since then, Legends & Lore has gotten bogged down in Passive Perception arguments and 5th Edition speculation, but I think it’d be a shame if this first skills experiment didn’t get more attention. I like where it was going.

So, maybe I haven’t managed to hand down any fabulous wisdom to revolutionize the game, or even the debate, or even the core problem. But at least I’ve joined the conversation about what the problem is. The “it ain’t broke” crowd that has come forth in response to Monte Cook’s first Legends & Lore should take note. Skills in D&D could definitely benefit from a new approach, and having an RPG giant like Monte Cook acting as a mad scientist sounds like a ton of fun to me.