On Skill Deconstruction: Escape Artist

Escape Artist is a skill reflecting your ability to free yourself from bindings. It uses the Dexterity stat as a modifier.

What can you do with Escape Artist?

This is a skill that is used to replace other mechanics - it allows your training to replace your combat maneuver defense for grapples and your ability escape from binds and chains. 

Which of these have ground for use? 

If you're doing this, it does what it says on the tin.

Current Analysis 

This is a classic example of both a skill that is not needed and one that is often valued under the auspices of character customization.

The argument was presented that an auto-escape  is the only method of handling this skill without a skill roll. I should point out that this is the way the skill works currently in a non-time critical situation. Either you can take 20 and your results succeeds or you can't - and since the DM is setting the DC and knows the value of the Escape Artist skill of the players he just decides if they can escape or not. This is just as unfun as the DM just deciding you can or can't get free without the skill.

So what's the solution?

Assume that no matter the bonds they can free themselves in 2-4 turns, unless the bonds are the imprisonment spell or a force bubble in which case you should fast forward to the point when the characters can do something.

In a situation where the result is time limited, you again have the problem of skills bypassing play.

"Only if I fail this roll do I actually have to play the game," the player thinks.

Perhaps this is what you want, perhaps you want players playing rogues to be able to just escape quickly without having to detail how they do it. I don't think that there is anything wrong with this approach, but to me it's just another way to bypass an interesting situation.

How is it an interesting situation? From the post of Confanity himself, he says: "I treat it as an opportunity for problem-solving. Do they search for something sharp to rub the rope against? Dip it in their plate of prison slop and offer it to the rats? Simply wait for rescue? Ignore the bonds and mock the prison guard? Why would you want to steal this storytelling opportunity from them?"

Why would I want a roll to bypass all that? 

What is it we gain by having this skill?

Well, it only applies in two situations: One, when you're replacing your normal defense to avoid grapples and pins; Two, when you have a limited amount of time to escape from bonds. Given enough time you'll be able to take 20 to attempt to escape from bonds.

What do we lose?

An opportunity to foster player creativity. When found in one of these situations "player characters are trapped", it seems more enjoyable to allow the players to attempt to think their way out of the situation. The other option: the player says "I take 20."

Conclusions & Suggestions:

Is the idea to allow certain classes (thief/rogue) to be better then it would otherwise seem at dealing with grapples and pins? Then simply allow them to do so. If they are captured, let them come up with a solution to get free.


  1. Escape Artist is one of the few skills that I think should be a feat instead. What I want to use it to model is the professional thief who can slip out of any handcuffs (q.v. Hudson Hawk). And, even then, I don't want it to be a roll. I want to instantly and reliably slip out of any handcuffs. I don't want every character to be able to do this. Most characters should be stuck once tied up or cuffed, barring creativity. I'm not even sure I want every thief to be able to do this. Looking at those criteria, it is a candidate for a feat, not a skill.

    The other ability, slipping out of a grapple, should just be rolled into Acrobatics.

  2. Players who rely on mechanics, and GM's who rely on mechanics, using no descriptive flair, are what make skill systems bad, and those same players and GM's are just as capable of being bad with no skill system:

    Player: "I attempt to escape my bonds."
    GM: (thinks... they are level 7 and have a 15 dex) "Ok, you succeed, what do you do now?"
    GM: "Roll please... You succeed, what do you do now?"

    Ideally, the player would supply how they attempt to escape, prior to the roll, and have modifiers applied to the DC for their methodology, rewarding the descriptive effort of the player. If they still manage to fail even with their descriptive bonus, those results should be described in terms of how their efforts failed, and the dice will reveal how badly... which depending on their method, could provide some real amusement:

    "Well, holding your bound wrists up to the ensconced torch to char the rope sounded reasonable enough, but the bench slid from under you, and you are now hanging from the bindings that are snagged on the sconce."

    Yeah, you could get similar results with or without skills, but skills are tools to assist players determine what their characters are trained or practiced in doing and enhances their efforts when trying those things, but lacking a skill does not preclude them from trying a thing, nor succeeding... it just means they lack the confidence of having trained to do it.

    It seems most of the criticism of the skill system I have seen assumes a lack of imaginative and descriptive play among those who use the system, and too much credit for imaginative and descriptive play among those who do not. I grant skills are a crutch for players and DMs lacking imaginative descriptive acumen, but those same people are no better off in a system without skills. I had the sad experience of playing briefly with such a group. They seemed to like it that way, and my attempts at descriptive flair were met just as flatly as a their "I try to escape"... with "You succeed, what do you do now?"

    1. I have to say, I disagree that requiring players to jump through subjective hoops for bonuses is a good idea. I think it is the worst idea - I'm not playing a game so I can play mind-reading/guessing games trying to guess what exactly I'm supposed to say to jump through the subjective hoop of 'What this dude thinks I need to say to get a Mechanical Bonus'.

      The skill system does that - It is in fact a representation of the character's ability to escape bonds.

      I do agree that if there are concrete fictional positionings that the characters take advantage of, they should affect the roll. (e.g. "This area is elevated here? I stand there and attack." "I keep a sharpened coin in my sleeve and use that to cut the rope" etc.)

      I believe that stakes should be set before the roll - Nothing in the escape artist skill says anything about a drawback, so if there is one it should be presented to me before I make my in-character decisions, otherwise we're back to the DM arbitrarily deciding that the player is punished because they weren't able to tell what he was thinking. After all, The rules say when I roll a 4 it's a failure, not that you can take that opportunity to mechanically punish me in some way. This is a step away from "You didn't say you were lighting a torch, you walk into the wall and take 8 damage."

      My point, elaborated across my many skill posts, is that Skills posit a system that codifies player abilities. If you break this system in the ways you mention (Mind reading, pixel bitching, requiring hoop jumping) it destroys agency. If you run the skill system straight, the lack of consequences for failure turn many of them into skill taxes or makes their use tedious and boring.

      None of those critiques has anything to do with "imagination" or "descriptive play". Sadly, the group you were playing with was using the skill system in it's pure, very dull, form. For that is exactly what the skill means - I try to escape and the die roll determines if I succeed or fail.

      (P.S. On old posts, comments must be approved)

  3. The problem is not a skill system, it's boring people who don't describe their actions.

    Skill systems are just ways to help adjudicate the results of attempted actions. I do not recall ever seeing a skill system that restricts actions to only those with an appropriate skill. Having an applicable skill augments success, it neither guarantees it, nor makes it exclusive.

    Player "I attempt to escape"
    GM (thinks, they are level 7 with a 15 dex) "Ok, you succeed"
    GM 'Roll please... Ok, you succeed"

    I knew a few people who played like that... horrible gaming, and that was without a skill system (1e). They loved it, but all my descriptive flair was wasted on them, all I got was impatient stares followed by "ok, you succeed."


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