On Skill Deconstruction: A Summary

So, let's review the status of the various skill articles, before we discuss any conclusions. You can check out the original assessment if you wish.

Acrobatics: Other than the combat use of tumbling, the use of this skill encourages 'roll or don't get to act in combat' functions which is un-fun and not necessary.

Appraise: Eliminate this skill entirely. Any use of this skill results in the consumption of time and a non-fun game situation.

Bluff: It is functional for it's basic purpose, but too much focus is put on this skill to be a social combat mechanic when it is not.

Climb: This is an extremely complicated skill that boils down to one of two options, climb at half speed or climb at a quarter of your speed. Like acrobatics this can boil down to 'lose your turn'.

Craft: It's a skill that produces gold or some basic items. As a crafting system, it's woefully inadequate with a lot of problems.

Diplomacy: This turns into a skill tax because of the frequency of it's use and the broad applications. We do need a system for determining monster and NPC reactions. Making it a player skill is a bad idea.

Disable Device & Slight of Hand: These are minor and both functional, however Disable Device is better served using player skill. Both are reasonable.

Disguise: It hardly ever occurs, and when it does the skill roll eliminates game play.

Escape Artist: Of simply utility, better to have it be an option in the subsystem for grapples. As far as bindings go, this is better handled by player skill rather than contested use rope/escape artist checks.

Fly & Ride: Flying basically uses ranks to represent the old style maneuverability classes. I don't see the added roll and option to do slightly better or worse then flying doing much to make combat more exciting. Same with ride, being that there are three thresholds for it, unskilled, skilled and master. Taking the time to roll can really slow down combat without adding anything.

Handle Animal: This skill is fine, though I think it is rarely used in play, though the comment from the person who used it said it caused a lot of arguments. Basically it might cut down on the power level of the animal companion classes if used RAW.

Heal: If you already give up your turn, only to fail to bandage your companion as they die is that improving the game? I say no.

Intimidation: This skill does a poor job of allowing the PC's to be intimidating. It is a good candidate for inclusion in a social conflict resolution system.

Perception and Stealth: Stealth - even contested stealth is fine. Surprise is crucial and necessary. Perception can die in a hot fire.

Knowledge: Useless, even by people who use it.

Perform & Profession: You roll to get gold. The end.

Sense Motive: Two options with this, either you are allowing the players to fail to get necessary information or it's part of social conflict.

Survival and Swim: Swim is another roll to move at half speed skills. Useless. Tracking has been around for a long time and there is some utility in it.

Use Magic Device: Is a classic as good as gold.

Most of these line up with my original comparisons, and I've gotten a bunch of comments from people who echo these sentiments.  What skills do these deconstructions leave us with? I.e which of these skills actually have utility in play?

Tumbling Past an enemy.
Disable Device
Slight of Hand
Handle Animal
Use Magic Device
1st Edition Thief Skills for Comparison.
Picking Pockets
Open Locks
Find/Remove Traps
Move Silently
Hide in Shadows
Hear Noise
Climb Walls
Read Languages/Scrolls
You need a Monster and NPC reaction system, as well as a mechanic for social conflict.

Why are the lists above so similar?

Because they weren't trying to create a unified skill system. They were only using skills for things they couldn't resolve at the table.

For our next and last post, we're going to conclude and tidy everything up in a nice little package.


  1. Great insight at the end there regarding comparison to the traditional thief skills.

    I've been using knowledge skills to allow players to make stuff up about the setting on the fly with a successful roll. Said invention can benefit the PC in the current situation. DC set based on the outlandishness of the idea, referee veto and/or modification always possible of course. No more than one try per specific idea.

    It's worked out quite well in practice, has encouraged player creativity, and has made them care more about the setting.

  2. I think that your judgement is biased by the fact you used to play 1st and/or 2nd edition D&D. I.E. Heal is a nice skill to have to avoid cleric dependence; just increase the healing with better results. I. E. Your post about Knowledge uses a falacy to suggest that a piece of information can be trivial or crucial; but, in fact there are a lot of interesting pieces of information that can be pretty useful to provide alternative ways to solve a encounter. Of course, if you don't use alternative ways, only combat based encounters, knowledge is useless.

    1. I currently play 1st edition AD&D.

      I suggest you read the posts linked, which address each of your comments. In short:

      1. Heal has nothing to do with cleric dependence. It takes the mechanic of 'taking a turn to bandage a wounded comrade' which used to be something anyone could do and creates a situation where a player not only wastes their turn but now has the possibility of nothing happening.

      2. Regarding knowledge, your claim is that by withholding interesting information due to a failed roll, you're somehow improving the game. This is further complicated by the fact that the DM sets the DC's and in doing so, de facto, is deciding what to tell the players.

      If you took the time to read the knowledge post, you'd see that the only advantage to setting a DC so that a player has a chance to know something (either then not letting them know it by setting the DC too high, or setting it low so that they know it automatically) is to reward 'character customization'.

      Since that is the case, I'd remove the whole 'deciding how to build the character' section, and just let the player customize his character, and then automatically reward them for that, instead of there being a chance they won't have their choices rewarded.

    2. Regarding healing, you are saying that granting something for sure is inherently good. i suggest you to discard dices at all. I feel interesting that healing have a risk to do not work. After all, it is how it works in real life.
      The same applies to "withhold interesting information". Of course are improving the game if you don't drop all information! After all, a trap's position is important information, but you don't deprecated search checks. Specially, if the player knows that he failed the Knowledge check, he must be extra imaginative to look a workaround to get the "missing" information. Maybe he could ask another PCs or NPC, or check in the local library, etc.
      I'm sorry for my faulty English, since it is not my native language.

    3. i suggest you to discard dices at all

      Yes, in fact, this is the thrust of this series of articles. I outline here my standards for when to roll for resolution. If an activity doesn't fall under these constraints, then I have yet to run across an argument that indicates how play is quantifiably improved by adding a chance to fail. I have discussed, at length, the benefits of NOT rolling in regards to player engagement, agency, and enjoyment.

      I do, in fact, "deprecated search checks", back to their original OD&D uses. I marginalize them even further allowing both visual clues and obvious triggers for secret doors (the only things that can be missed by a search check). Excepting the occasional chest traps, there are no hidden traps in my games. There is always some clue to the trap. The gameplay is in how the players choose to interact with it, not the rolling of dice.

      I would say that "he must be extra imaginative to look for a workaround" is the goal of play. Allowing the player a roll to bypass that challenge makes play less fun.

      Your English is excellent, and I understand you completely.

    4. I think that having a skill mechanics is a good way to solve some problems to the GM when he wants to quicken the tempo of the game. If the characters are being chased by some orcs, and they reach a dead end, and a PJ wants to search for a secret door, the GM could grant a Search check and retcon the existence of a secret door. If you don't have a mechanics to solve the system quickly, you need to devise a rule, and/or to describe the wall and possible triggers that could activate the door, etc. This is a slowdown that could reduce the situation to a "screw this, just roll initiative"
      In the opposite example, when you have a detailed precraft trap, that require wits to be disabled a la OD&D, you can simply describe the clues normally. If a player says "I want to do a search check en in the entire room", the GM simply says "No. Please tell me where do you check, and how". If the player tries to check in the right place, you allow the check, with a secret DC. If the player tries to the check in the wrong place, just allow the ckeck, but no roll of a d20 will grant success, since there are nothing to see there! So, the player never knows if they are looking in the wrong place, or simply failed the roll. If the player does increasingly interesting tricks to solve the trap, just lower the DC or adjudicate that the check succeeded.
      The problem with some interpretation of the skills system is the abundance of hard rules on the skills description, that allow the players to say "Page 135 of PH says that I could check a entire room as an standard action". I'm writing my own d20 retroclone, and I think the best is to allow a not excessively barroque skill system, without precise and hardwired rules, just with suggestions to the GM to adjudicate a DC.

    5. "retconning the existence of a secret door" is verboten at our table - it would smack of partiality. If they choose to run down a hallway with no escape, they should have prepared better. The DM is an impartial adjudicator of actions. He does not change the environment on a whim.

      I usually run 1st edition, so there is a find trap skill that is often used as a last ditch saving throw. Our general perspective is that a player never asks to roll, though they may be told to by the DM.

      If the player checks in the right place, then they find it. No roll needed.

      It is my opinion that the roll to find it obfuscates agency and isn't fun.
      e.g. Lets say there are five places to search. In my system, what and where you search has risk (It takes time, and it might be dangerous).
      If you make the choice to search the place and there is something there, and they fail the roll, you've eliminated the sense of discovery, adventure, and had a roll with a consequence free uninteresting outcome.
      Furthermore, you've stripped the player of a way forward in this situation. I think all these consequences are negative, and am unable to find how the skill roll is improving the game.

  3. Well, retcon or not recon, the example is indeed valid.
    As far as I understand, your appreciation is that anything that don't works in the way you are used to is not working. I think that a skill check failure improves the game, since it create makes the player's feels that it is not some graphic adventure where you are trying to outsmart the DM; it is a kind of game where player skills is important but also you need luck, and no success is granted just because you know how your DM thinks. If you don't understand that to fail a check is meaningful and improves the game (since it makes more important the moment when you pass the next check), I suggest that you should play a diceless RPG.

    1. There are some misconceptions in this characterization.

      Misconception 1: The adversarial DM. The DM is an impartial adjudicator, responsible for portraying the world realistically. He has no vested interest in beating the players, any more than he has in seeing them win.

      The whole idea of 'trying to outsmart the DM' is where your misunderstanding lies. These things are determined by consensus not fiat. Stakes are declared, and then the players are free to agree to those stakes or not. It is a player driven campaign, and the DM responds to their actions, because the DM has no set outcome.

      I believe you're working under the assumption that the DM has a 'story' to tell. When I DM, I create an environment that the players explore. The activity in the game is totally driven by them - I have no agenda that requires outsmarting. I also frequently defer to group consensus in many things that are outside of my expertise. e.g. "Well, what do you think is reasonable?"

      Misconception 2: We don't play with dice. Of course we dice for resolution. I've described at length when, but I'll summarize here:
      We roll when:
      > We can't simulate it at the table
      > When the activity is under time constraints
      > When the activity is in conflict with another entity
      > When there is a serious consequence for failure
      > and When there can be a partial result.

      If it does not hit at least three of those items, then the idea of using dice adds nothing to the game. When it does hit three, it still might be a bad skill check in that it doesn't add anything significant to the game, and it detracts from the enjoyment of the players.

      Simply put, I can explain why making a healing check is bad.

      "I bandage his wounds" is a simple enough task that it is certainly something we can objectively agree that is being done - therefore it can be simulated at the table.
      There is a time constrain for failure, but in the vast majority of cases it is so long (and allows so many attempts) that there is no actual pressure or significance to the roll.
      There is no one engaged in 'anti-bandaging'. No other entity is involved in the conflict.
      On the single check - there is no consequence for failure, unless the player is on his last hit point.
      There is no chance for a partial result (i.e. there are two states: Bleeding, Not Bleeding).

      Now there is a conceivable situation where it could be suspenseful for rolling a heal check, but that rarely occurs. (When it does, roll away!)

      The worst part is, in order to nullify this check, it takes one, maybe two points put into skills. being able to automatically bandage wounds is a skill that any adventurer should be able to have.

      Misconception 3:Because many skills are useless, all skills are bad. Otherwise known as, go play a diceless RPG. Clearly there are some things (combat) that are very fun for the reasons I state above. What I'm looking for - what I genuinely want - is someone to explain to me why the heal check improves the experience of play!

      I have gotten one answer (character customization), but the cost of doing it within the constraints of the skill system is high, and I allow customization without that, simply by saying what is done.

      Thank you for talking with me. I hope I've made my point clear, and I look forward to your explanation about how those skills are improving your game.

    2. being able to automatically bandage wounds is a skill that any adventurer should be able to have.

      This is really the key assumption here (and one I agree with).

      The desire for a heal skill in the way used in many newer games is really a desire for role protection. This is the same thing that is behind the way some people use thieves: they put place traps so thieves have something to do, and making it possible for other classes to find traps (or bind wounds, or whatever) makes those classes less awesome at their forte (in this argument). Like -C (I think, though I don't want to speak for him), I prefer adventurers to have more fluid roles and more flexibility.

    3. Jumping in late here, I started reading your blog from the beginning and I wanted to thank you for these thought provoking posts. Apologizes if my incoming question gets handled in a later post that I have yet to reach.

      I believe you're working under the assumption that the DM has a 'story' to tell. When I DM, I create an environment that the players explore.

      Are you implying here that you never have any far reaching plots in your game? There is never an NPC, good or evil, trying to take overthrow a city? Never a horde of orcs ravaging the country side? No evil wizards attempting to end the world? Granted the Players could always ignore the plot, but there is never one present?

      Are your games hex-crawls and when they enter a new one it is randomly determined if a dungeon in there and if so you randomly choose one of your 100s of pregenerated dungeons? Enter, solve puzzles, kill baddies, loot, leave, sell, level, repeat? Note: I find absolutely nothing wrong with this I'm just very curious how your games run. My players enjoy when there is a story they could partake in.

      In all honesty, currently I'm railroading my players through a Pathfinder AP because I dislike the system and they wanted me to GM. I work all day, I refuse to put in more of the required work needed to run PF in a more sandbox way.

  4. I think that the way the skills are helping my game are the following:
    1) Quick resolution of almost any situation, but the skills can be adapted by the GM to the needs of the game.
    2) The existence of skills offers the player a interface to handle situations without magic (spells or magic items). That is important to my game, since I enjoy a more gritty environment where magic is dangerous and unpredictable.
    3) Players can fail. Nobody have a success granted by DM fiat. If the players use their wits, they can solve a lot of problems, but their always have to roll a d20, and if a natural 1 happens, things go wild. I like that the carefully layed plans can fail, since it teaches a lot of humility and gives a picaresque feeling in the game that I personally enjoy.
    4) Players can have a impossible success with a natural 20. That animate to the players to try desperate solutions in desperate times.

    Also, I have a caveat: I run a heavily homeruled d20 based game. It is still D&D, but twisted.
    That means, a heal check is not so simple in my game. I use extended rules to perform field surgery, since clerics are rare and healing potions have side effects. Also, there are no retry; if you fail to suture the wound, you can't heal that player again. In a situation between combat, to fail a heal check have a dire consequence; you will enter the next combat wounded. Also, that means that the players are more reluctant to engage on combat, and will rely more on wits, diplomacy and stealth.

    Also, I simply don't agree with your 5 rules to determine if you need to role a dice. I think that a dice can ALWAYS add something: aleatory. If you are a railroad style GM, that is nasty, but as a GM I prefer that things go in surprising ways, both for me and for my players.

    Regarding skills and roles: skills allows to acquire secondary roles outside the class. Alchemy is very powerful in my game, and since we don't uses class skills, a fighter can become the alchemist of the team, and came into the role of the sage that solve mysteries using their truth serum, the healer with healing potions or the acid thrower.

    1. Your English is excellent. (O_o)'

      I agree totally with your points 1 & 2. I agree with point three when failure is interesting and doesn't just involve a retry. I also support point 3 & 4 with the idea that randomizers make the game more interesting - why I use a bell curve wandering monster table.

      I think we are in agreement - you'll note I'm talking about the Pathfinder RAW skill.

      I'll note that the way you work the heal skill addresses many of the problems I note with the default skill.

      I am not a railroad style GM (in fact my style is about as diametrically opposed to it as you can get). I will again point out that we do use dice and skills.

      Those five precepts are the things that insure that there is aleatory when you roll a skill. A serious consequence is required - that is what uncertainty leading to profit or loss is about!

      Indeed, the assessment above does nothing but identify those skills where aleatory is not present!

      Finally, selecting skills is one of the ways that players can customize their roles. It is not the only way. Also, there are several drawbacks to that method. It's value lies in the metric you use to grade it's worth.

      The amount of time required for a new player to pick skills in pathfinder is a serious issue for me, because I often play with very new players.


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