WoED20 – Skills

One of the reasons I loved playing rogues in my early days of D&D was the fact that the rogue and ONLY the rogue actually had enough skill points to be good at things that weren’t stabbing or magic. (bards didn’t get an increase until later).

In 3rd Edition D&D, skills were determined by a number of points you got to spend each level based on your class, intelligence or whether you were a human or not. For reference, there were something like 30 skills to choose from and most classes got four—FOUR–points per level and some classes had to spend double points to get so-called ‘cross-class skills (a rant on them later).

Rogues got 8 points, and even then that wasn’t enough because Spot, Listen, Hide and Move Silent were all separate skills you had to buy. So just to be a half-way competent scout, you were already down four skills and you could not skim, because an enemy could spot you but not hear you, meaning you had to ace two skill rolls.

Add to that the fact that by the rules, you needed points in perform, craft or profession to be able to not suck and fail at things like cooking, singing or having a job outside of stabbing or magic, and the big problems boiled down to: 1) too many skills were really subsets of larger skills you had to buy piecemeal, and 2) No one had enough skill points unless they were a human rogue genius.

So naturally when hey made most things better in 4th Edition, the first thing they did was reduce the total number of skills AND the number of skills each character got. One could argue either way on whether point-based granularity (where you could be good at something without being awesome) vs automatic leveling (where if you’re trained, you are the best at your level and remain being the best forever), but that’s beside the point.

I like skills. In fact, 3e’s skill system is the thing I like most about 3e. Not the implementation in classes, but the point-buy aspect. If you’ve been following my discussions in game design, you’ll know that I find perk and/or point-based systems to be far superior to class-based ones. Class-based is just a lot easier to make.

And so for World of Ere D20, I’ll be picking up and repairing the 3e skill system, first by re-working what actual skills are available… and then putting 6 as the minimum number of skill points any class can get as well as ditching class skills (rant still incoming).

But first, one needs to address the elephant in the room:

Non-Adventuring Skills

I say non-adventuring as opposed to non-combat because there are many skills that are used primarily out of combat that can still constitute means of overcoming obstacles The remainder: Craft, Perform and Profession, are something that are generally used as flavor text, as a means of earning extra money outside of adventuring, or as part of a specific class’s mechanics.

The problem with the latter is that they force players to use limited resources that could help them survive while adventuring for those other things. So some players will choose them and be weaker for it, and others will eschew them and be more boring for it. That’s not good game design: you should never have to choose between being effective and being interesting when the cost is highly restricted resources.

My solution (and it will have to be put on the forum in its entirety) is to break these skills out into a separate system, which I calll the expertise system. In a nutshell, you get points at 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th levels to buy ranks (novice to grandmaster) in the skills you use on the side of adventuring. These allow you to create mundane items with a craft bonus (and the crafting times will NOT be based on cost. What the hell?) as well as provide an ad hoc bonus to other skills that fall within your realm of expertise. For example, if you’re trying to find out the king’s favorite dish, you dd your cooking Expertise bonus to your Knowledge: Nobility.

It’s a pretty simple system I designed for 4e that can be easily refit here. But, of course, more thorny problems lurk ahead…

The Skill List

Deciding what is and isn’t a skill and what should and should not be lumped together is a Herculean task for any game designer.

If Spot and Listen become Perception, shouldn’t Scent? But then wouldn’t tracking by scent be Survival? Or should Track be its own thing? Shoudl there be synergy bonuses What synergies with what? How many things grant a bonus?

My first reaction was to combine Bluff, Diplomacy, Sense Motive and Intimidate into Social Interaction. But Bluff is used for feints, and Intimidate really should be able to switch off to STR instead of CHA, and then I considered having an Intelligence Conversation skill.

Same went for the classic rogue-y suite of Slight of Hand and Disable Device. I considered turning that into Legerdemain, but then given this is Ere, Mechanics ought to be a skill and isn’t that what Disable Device really is?

Well to start with, I took what 4e and Pathfinder already did and collapsed Swim and Climb to create Athletics and Jump and Tumble to create Acrobatics. Athletics also gained a usage I call ‘Lift’, which represents power-lifting objects you would normally only be able to drag. Acrobatics also gained the existing skill Escape Artist, which I’ll be renaming Contortion, which also lets you move through spaces you wouldn’t normally be able to move through.

Going back to Mechanics, I created the Mechanics skill, which gains Open Lock, and Disable Device alongside new usages Repair and Sabotage.

Meanwhile, I did kee Legerdemain (because it was my and Pele’s original comic for those of you who have been following my work for 12 years). Legerdemain gains Slight of Hand and Pick Pockets and gains Smuggle, which was previously a Slight of Hand usage that never sat well with me.

Bluff becomes Misdirection and gains usages centered on the psychology of distraction and conning. These are Feint and Distract. Distract is all about either keeping attention on you so someone else can get something done, or draw attention away from yourself.

Disguise surprisingly gains new uses: Blend in and Impersonate. Blend in is about looking like you belong without looking like a specific person while impersonate has the usual ‘pretend to be a person’ thing, but also pretending to NOT be yourself.

Survival gets clearly distinct usages: Forage (so the Elf racial feat will need to be changed to giving a bonus for Foraging now), Track and Endure. The latter of which deals with finding appropriate shelter and other methods of surviving the elements such as heat, cold and storms. My reasoning for defining usages like this is to make it simpler to reference specific usages of skills. This way, a magic dowsing rod could grant a bonus on Foraging (for water) without somehow granting bonuses to tracking or making a lean-to.

We then have Insight, which combines Sense Motive and Search. I was torn between calling this Insight or Investigation because it is the clue-gathering skill. People don’t usually combine these two because Sense Motive is usually a Wisdon-based skill, but I’m reading it more as understanding psychological tells than ‘noticing’ or ‘feeling’ things. So they’re both INT-based.

Linguistics is special. On point lets you speak a language, two points lets you write it, three makes you fluent. I didn’t break this one out because language can and does become an obstacle in adventuring and therefore, bypassing it is an equally weighed use of resources.

One skill some might be surprised that I expanded is Appraise. Appraise as applied most of the time was damn useless but our houserules always ended up giving it more power. Appraise is now Mercantile and has the usages Identify (I can’t remember if it was 3.5 or Pathfinder that did this), Appraise and Haggle. Haggle is usually used Passively (you are considered to be taking 10 at all times and only roll when drama/tension demands) to determine how much a given merchant will try to screw you and it sets the DCs for Haggling skill challenges. More on those later.

Something that might bear discussion here is Use Rope. It’s been discussed here in the comments and on the forum about whether or not it was useful. Pathfinder actually makes typing people up a combat action that uses CMB to see the DC for the Escape Artist check and all climbing-related rope usages being handled by Climb.

I come down on the side of Pathfinder for the mostpart and Use Rope won’t be in WoE D20. What I will be doing is adding some useages to the actual Rope item, usually easy-to-middling DC Dex rolls to create snares, lassos and slip-knots, all modified by things like the Expertise bonus from the above non-adventuring skills or by having awesome rope (silk, spider silk, lasconti silk). If there are other usages you’d like to see, let me know!

Finally, I did the two no-brainer combinations of turning all five senses into Perception and Hide/Move Silent into Stealth.

The full skill list (sans usages) is as follows: Acrobatics, Athletics, Beast Mastery, Concentration, Diplomacy, Disguise, Fly, Heal, Insight, Intimidate, Knowledge (Arcana, Dungeoneering, Engineering, Geography, History, Local, Nature, Politics, Planes, Religion, Sciences), Legerdemain, Linguistics, Mechanics, Mercantile, Misdirection, Perception, Pilot/Ride, Spellcraft, Stealth, Survival, Use Magic Device

So now what do I do with them?


In 3.5 and Pathfinder, having enough ranks in one skill gave you a +2 in another. Sometimes this was weird, like how being really good at Bluff let you be really good at telling the complete truth while using Diplomacy. Others, it felt pretty cheap that you got a flat bonus forever for having 5 ranks. And while I liked benefiting from it, I considered cutting it as just another bit of cruft.

However, sometimes it really does help in doing one thing to know another. My solution came when I was listening to one of the Gamer’s Haven podcasts where they were making a lot of use of Aid Another. Why couldn’t you aid yourself?

So here’s how it works: You may only attempt a Synergy check if you are rolling a skill check, never when taking 10 or 20. Doing so either expands the skill check to a full round action or adds another round to the check if the check will already take more than one round. In order to use a Synergy check, the DM must agree that the skill you want to make the check with is relevant to what you’re doing.

You then roll the skill you think will help against DC 15. Natural 1 automatically fails. On a success, you gain a +2 bonus to your skill check.

For example, a character searching a room with Insight might stop and consider how they would conceal something with Legerdemain.

This allows for synergistic skills (in any combination) to be of use while still making it a choice they have to make between expediency or a bonus. It also keeps weird corner cases from happening under a good DM who would disallow things like trying to apply Use Magic Device to Perception checks on watch.

Ad they might need their bonuses for…

Complex Skill Checks

Someone somewhere has noticed that Forgery is not in the skill lists or mentioned in the various usage methods. Well here’s where it went. The inspiration for this came from watching my curent favorite show ever, Leverage. In several episodes, the characters need to forge an item. Not just documents, but objects too. That’s when I realized that Forgery was a multi-layered skill that you didn’t just have in a vacuum.

For example, let’s say you want to forge a note from the King. You need to know his seal, what paper he uses, his handwriting, how his letters usually go. In game terms, there are a number of ways to find all this, each represented by a separate skill and task that can be done by multiple PCs. Typically, this would work in the same spirit as 4e’s skill challenges: you decide what you’re going to do to make the forgery, then rolls skill checks, hoping to get X out of Y successes.

In my version of complex skill checks, each success you make adds +2 – +5 (depending on the DC of the checks passed) to the DC of the Insight check the person checking the object over makes. So if you use Ledgermain to swipe a letter from the King to study, Knowledge (Politics) to write in his style and mention things he would mention, a Craft Expertise to craft a seal that looks like his, and Mercantile to purchase the same type of paper, you might be setting up the guard you’re trying to bamboozle up for a DC 20 Insight check he’ll likely fail.

Constructing a DC that allows you to overcome an obstacle counts as defeating that obstacle for the purposes of XP.

This is obviously one of the things that would need to be playtestested, especially in the light that this is one of the things that realy relies on the PCs to take initiative and the DM to set fair time constraints, but I think it presents a great way to run this sort of thing and makes the creation of a forgery something worthy of being the center of an ‘encounter’.

Complex Skill Checks to build DCs enemies must attempt to pass can also be used in situations such as elaborate distractions, important negotiations, or building defensive positions with obstacles and traps of your own.

On the flip side…

Skill Challenges

I feel like 4e’s Skill Challenges were a good idea that was poorly supported and never got fleshed out and was missing an important element: failing forward.

Failing forward means that an encounter is designed in such a way that failing a check does not stop the encounter cold. Instead, the failure of the check has a consequence that still moves the story along. To take the classic example that even Spoony mentioned:

The party is trying to track a group to… well… the plot and then everyone fails. In the case of failing forward, this could mean that you end up taking a much longer time finding a trail, follow the wrong trail to en encounter that will put the party back on the trail, or even that they end up hanging around long enough that a straggler of someone returning to the scene of the crime arrives that they can defeat and capture.

For me, a Skill Challenge would outline the various DCs of a situation from the easy way to the hard way and then the consequences of the fail forward. For example, infiltrating a castle to steal something during a ball would have DCs for scaling the wall, disguising oneself as a servant or impersonating a guest, diplomacizing your way into an invitation, bluffing the guards, then picking locks to enter, rooms, blending in with the guests, sneaking away from the other servants, etc.

It would then outline what happens if one fails (a new challenge) and the DC to get out of it, and finally the consequences for failing there. In these scenarios, everyone is still moving around and interacting instead of just saying what they’re doing.

And to make sure everyone is able to participate in these, there’s one final change I’ve made…

No More Class Skills

Class skills was a means by which the designed of D&D and Pathfinder maintained some level of skill superiority with given skills for given classes. How they did this varied: in 3e, if you didn’t have a skill on your skill list, you had to spend two points for it and couldn’t have more than half the regular ranks someone who did have it on their list got. In Pathfinder, not having it on your list made you lose out on a bonus, as did 4e.

This meant rogues got maximum bonuses for Open Lock, Wizards for Spellcraft, and Fighters got punched directly in the throat and left gasping in the dirt as they didn’t even get freaking Spot for a class skill because the 3e designers hated fighters with a passion most people reserve for people who murder their parents.

Supposedly, this curates class flavor and protects the ‘niches’ of given classes.

Screw that.

Look, if the rogue doesn’t have rogue powers that let them be good at using their skills, just letting them have a few higher numbers isn’t going to add any flavor or protect any niche. This is the same sort of crap as ‘Trapfinding’, which was a rogue ability that more or less said others can’t find traps with any competency to make it so you needed a rogue. It didn’t add anything to the rogue it took things away from everyone else.

So in WoE D20, there are no class skills. You take ranks in whatever skill you want to make your character however you want. Is your Combatant a witch hunter and it makes sense that they know Spellcraft to identify spells being cast? Go for it. All in if you’d like. Does your spellcaster want to notice things? Sure! No more limits for the sake of faking flavor. Skill points are about customization, so it makes no sense to limit said customization. People should be allowed to play the characters they want.

And that’s about it for skills and this week’s post. Remember as always, I’m open to suggestions as to what to blog about next!

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. Unless we’re talking about a skill for making rude hand gestures it’s sleight of hand, not slight.

    I’m slightly bothered by the Mechanics-skill because I’ve never liked the idea that being an adventurer makes you good at everything, and bundling all of Mechanics into one skill means that basic lock picking skills make you a competent at repairing combine harvesters and being able to disable high DC traps means you could be teaching robotics in a university. If you want to have an NPC who is a genius inventor you’ll need to set them at a much higher level than the party or the party’s trap stomper will be better at their job than they are.

    I kind of wish WotC would finally look at their products and admit the truth: Rogues and rangers don’t exist. Both of them and fighters are all just fighters with different styles of fighting. Being allowed to be trained in thiefy stuff or nature stuff doesn’t remove the fact you’re someone who is defined by their ability to kill stuff.

    I kind of want to make a speech about RoleMaster here, but nobody wants to hear it so I won’t.

    Failing forward is a good point. It ties in with a couple of other GM lessons, that of making puzzles into doors rather than cages (so that not figuring it out doesn’t stop the game cold) and that of not setting a DC to noticing plot (because nobody enjoys it when at the end of an adventure none of the players have any idea what was going on because they didn’t roll high enough).

  2. “Sometimes this was weird, like how being really good at Bluff let you be really good at telling the complete truth while using Diplomacy.”
    Which… actually makes perfect sense? If you’re really good at sounding sincere and making people trust you, there’s really no reason you should start stumbling all over your own words when you’re ACTUALLY sincere. A situation where it would be advantageous for you to ask the wizard to modify your memories so you THINK you’re lying to whoever you’re talking to because that somehow makes you better at talking is a poor situation.

    Of course, there’s no way to model social interactions in a RPG that won’t be flawed in some way. Still, while I can see the reverse, I find it very hard to conceive of someone who is awesome at Bluff but incompetent at Diplomacy. If those are going to be separate skills, then at least the synergy bonus makes me grind my teeth less.

  3. Have you considered merging legerdemain aka sleight of hand into a usage of misdirection? The former is a skill which sounds like it should be useful but never quite is, and mostly the same sort of characters would want the two skills.

    Acrobatics/fly is a pair that don’t really make sense as distinct skills to me.

    Skill challenges had a number of problems, especially the x successes before y failures format. This tends to cut out people with lower/less specialized skills, and has a more predetermined overall success chance than you’d think. If you’re not using that format never mind; plotting out consequences and a debugging section (thank you, Shadowrun) have worked for me.

  4. I posted a comment 10 minutes ago, but it’s not showing, and trying to repost it directly gets a duplicate comment error. I’m trying again with this preface to see if it gets around the problem.

    Have you considered merging legerdemain aka sleight of hand into a usage of misdirection? The former is a skill which sounds like it should be useful but never quite is, and mostly the same sort of characters would want the two skills.

    Acrobatics/fly is a pair that don’t really make sense as distinct skills to me.

    Skill challenges had a number of problems, especially the x successes before y failures format. This tends to cut out people with lower/less specialized skills, and has a more predetermined overall success chance than you’d think. If you’re not using that format never mind; plotting out consequences and a debugging section (thank you, Shadowrun) have worked for me.

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