If there’s anything that the people I’ve spoken with are really excited about in Next, it’s the skill system. Seeing as how the campaign setting/mega-module I was working on for 4e will now never be published, I’m a little more interested in looking into house rules for 4e, even if I never use them in my game. So, without further ado, let’s get on with this!
Rather than just give you a bounded-difficulty skill system using 4e’s numbers, I thought I would walk you through my design process so that you can tweak it to suit your table.
I’m sorry if the artwork is a little scattered and unrelated. I didn’t want to include 63 different pictures of dice.
- You can go with a hard and fast rule or make the decision about what sort of action is required on the fly. If you choose the latter option, I suggest that you keep notes so your decisions remain consistent.
- An acceptable fixed system: If what you’re doing affects the mechanics of the encounter, other than movement, it’s a standard action or part of a standard action. This would include things like opening a lock or knocking a person to the ground. If it’ modifies positioning or movement, it’s part of a – wait for it – move action. If it’s actively remembering or looking for something or modifies a minor action, then it’s a minor action. This also applies to skill checks that are intended to apply a bonus or penalty. Why not allow free/no actions? You’re welcome to do so if you like, but you might want to limit the amount of skill use to prevent turns from bogging down.
- Attribute modifiers go from -1 to +10.
- -1 is only achieved through a dump stat prior to level 21 (two across-the-board increases make that 8 become a 10).
- +10 is achieved by starting at 20. +9 is a much more likely theoretical maximum.
- A very common starting array is 16/14/14/12/11/8, with two +2 bonuses for race. Thus usually leads to 18 (+4) / 16 (+3) / 14 (+2) / 12 (+1) / 11 (+0) /8 (-1).
- The stat increases are:
- All six stats increase by one at 11th and 21st level.
- Two different stats are increased by one each at 4th, 8th, 14th, 18th, 24th and 28th level.
- Many epic destinies grant a +2 to two stats.
- In the late epic tier this array often becomes 28 (+9) / 26 (+8) / 16 (+3) / 14 (+2) / 13 (+1) / 10 (+0)
- This means that “push stats” provide mods that average seven higher than for the other stats!
The upshot of this is that a Next-style skill system has to account for the fact that the mods start out relatively close, but diverge as the characters advance.
- If we keep the Skill Training = +5, training starts out as universally better than attribute mod, but ends up having approximately average weight.
- If we assume a +11 on the die roll, we get values that start at 20/19/18/17/16/15 for trained, 15/14/13/12/11/10 for untrained.
- At high level, this becomes 25/24/19/18/17/16 for trained, 20/19/14/13/12/11 for untrained.
This shows us the range of divergence, as well as the “take 10” results.
With this as a basis for understanding likely outcomes, we can determine DC ranges.Trivial (9 or less) Routine (10-12) Moderate (13-15) Advanced (16-19) Extreme (20-24) Master (25-29) Immortal (30+)
I created an Excel spreadsheet (4e Alternate Skill System) so that you can visualize the numbers. There are some things we can see from it.
- Unless you use the +3 value for Skill Focus (see below for discussion on this), “Immortal” results will only ever happen for trained characters using one of their two highest stats on a low probability starting in the Paragon tier. That’s a very high standard for that classification and it may feel a little confining, as players like to have at least some chance.
- Untrained characters that “take 10” will mostly be restricted to “Routine” results. This is to be expected.
- Trained characters that “take 10” will normally hit the “Advanced” result. It would be preferable if they only moved up one grade, but setting the value of training to 5 is a deliberate choice. Your stats are more important in areas where you are strong, but training is more valuable where you are weak (notice how the 11-line trained is roughly equal to the 18-line untrained). This is as it should be .
- Trained + Focused characters using their attack stat in the Epic tier will have a large chance to hit “Immortal.” Admittedly this requires a feat, but it’s an argument against using the “+3 for Skill Focus” option.
- I’m going to leave it to you to determine what those grades of success mean. Obviously I used almost all of the words from Next, but that shouldn’t mean that you’re bound by them. Use them in a way that makes sense to you.
- I happen to think that modifiers are generally a bad thing. You want the players to be rolling straight off the character sheet as often as possible. If circumstances would make a task easier, just lower the DC of the check. Obviously the inverse is also true. Ideally, what you want is a very simple resolution: they describe their action, you confirm the attribute and the skill, then tell them the DC, followed by a die roll. Easy-peasy.
- One of the the things that commonly happens with skill systems is that a player will roll very well and then either the GM or the player will think that this obligates them to turn it into a critical success. This actually damages the system, as it turns what should be rare and special into something mundane. An amazing roll on a Diplomacy check shouldn’t cause the Duke to dismiss all the charges and let you go scot-free – unless that was what you were aiming to do with the check. It’s far better to say that a result that’s two or three grades higher than the target improves the result by one grade (i.e. if you were doing something with a “Moderate” degree of difficulty and scored a 20+ or 25+, then you would get the benefit of an “Advanced” result). This establishes a much better relationship between risk and reward.
- On the other end of the spectrum, people often like to grant partial successes for not failing by too much. This can be both a good and a bad thing. It can be helpful in mitigating the frustration associated with failure, especially if it’s the result of a string of bad die rolls. It can also add flavor to the story. The downside is that, if used too often or if the partial success is too much like the real thing, it can devalue actually having the skill or making the roll. I try to save partial successes for situations in which the desired action is especially creative or entertaining.
- Skill Focus has traditionally been a +2 bonus. I liked a +3 mathematically, so that’s what I put in the spreadsheet. You can change it and the value of skill training. It will change the numbers, but the colors won’t change. Sadly, my Excel-fu is not quite that mighty.
- Actually, I don’t really care for the mechanic of further increasing skill through Skill Focus, as this only drives a further wedge between the average and below-average characters and the hyperfocused ones. I like Next’s concept of “a die roll of less than 10 is treated as a 10.” This allows the most skilled characters – which is what Skill Focus is intended to represent – to effectively be always taking 10 in combat. This doesn’t make them more powerful; it makes them more reliable.
- “Less than 10 is treated as 10” can sometimes be difficult to remember. At least that’s one of the things we noticed during our Next playtest. If you’re going with this version of Skill Focus, I suggest that you encourage your players to note focused skills with an “F” (i.e. Streetwise: +5F).
Bonuses, Penalties, Damage and Status
- It is possible to make a skill check as part of an attack with the intent of modifying or improving the attack. The concern is that doing so too often increases the number of die rolls and the amount of calculation required to resolve the attack, but forbidding it can make combat feel too much like a boardgame. I suggest requiring the expenditure of a healing surge to do this, as healing surges are a natural representation of a character’s reserves of energy. The trick is to make boosting their abilities accessible enough that they bother, but regulated enough that things don’t get out of hand.
- Applying status effects can be a little tricky. Prone, slowed and granting combat advantage are all fairly simple, but stunned, blinded and weakened are not. If you’re not going to use the “healing surge as fuel” concept, you’re going to need to come up with some other way to prevent the players from looking to add an effect to every attack. It is possible that the use of certain tricks will make further attempts more difficult or flatly impossible. For example, if someone falcon punches an enemy in the crotch – causing a daze – he and his friends are probably going to put some effort into defending their groins. If they use this maneuver often enough, they might get a reputation.
- Extra damage and hit bonuses are easy to do, but be warned that players will almost certainly focus on +hit over +damage.
- You can help maintain balance by making sure that skills aren’t a replacement for having the correct feat or power, but rather a toned-down version that they can use when they don’t have the perfect tool for the job.
- Pretty much any skill that you think is reasonable. The 4e list is good and generic, but it doesn’t cover any crafting skills or specializations, among others. It would be interesting to see variants of things that are more descriptive – Bullying and Smooth-Talking in place of Intimidate, for example.
- The real test of viability is how often the skill comes up. It’s okay for a skill to see frequent use, especially things like Perception and Insight. It’s not okay for a skill to gather dust. Either change the skill so that it sees more use or convince them to swap it out.
- Large categories of knowledge, such as “Monster Lore”, could be their own separate skill rather than a specialization. The trick is to give the player the skill that represents their image of the character without requiring them to put too much into it. It’s perfectly okay for things like Monster Lore, Arcana and Nature to overlap.
- A specialization is a sub-skill that concentrates on a specific aspect of that skill. Lockpicking might be a specialization of Thievery, for example.
- Specializations can either stand alone or add to the umbrella skill.
- A stand-alone might be something like “Thaumatological Metallurgy” for a blacksmith who worked with mystical metals, but was never trained in routine arcane lore. Such a stand-alone in this system should probably be a +8.
- I think that add-ons are probably better for the system, as stand-alones can tend to become too esoteric. This might be expressed as:
- You express the specialization in this way so that the player has to do less math. They aren’t having to remember a bonus. This makes things quicker.
- You might notice that my proposed values for both styles of specialization comes out to the same as that for Skill Focus, should you choose the bonus method. I think this value works for the grades of success, but you shouldn’t combine them. A maxed-out character would need a 9 or better to achieve an “Immortal” result; That’s just too easy, even given the investment.
How do I Get Skills?
- I think every character should start with a relatively large number, say five or six, but that they should be derived from a variety of things:
- One or two should come from class.
- You could get a couple based on race or culture.
- Having practiced a religion might get you a skill.
- Some skills should be determined by whatever apprenticeship or training the character might have received.
- Characters could get new skills when they hit one of the stat increasing levels (4,8,14,18,24,28). This would give the character 12 skills over its career. I like this method because it allows the characters to grow naturally over time, as the players should be much more likely to choose skills and specializations that reflect the things they did and learned.
- Alternatively, you could just let the characters gain new skills whenever you think it’s appropriate. This method requires more people management and can get out of hand if your campaign has a lot of downtime, but it can also be the most satisfying.
- There’s a problem with Skill Training as a feat, mostly in that it sucks by contrast to other options, especially at higher tiers.
 – A little more commentary on why high stats should trump training: The opportunity cost for attributes is much higher than that for skill training, especially using this system, which is essentially “pick whatever skills you think are cool.” We want attributes to have the correct meaning. If we set the value of training any higher, say to +10, low attributes will become irrelevant; set it lower and high attributes dominate the math.