Main menu

"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Speculating on Skills in D&D Next

by Ken Newquist / March 26, 2012

Skills are a hot button subject for my gaming group. Most of the guys in my group loved D&D 3.x's approach to skills, which allowed a high degree of granularity and focus in such mundane concerns as crafting and professions. When the D&D 4th Edition dismissed Craft and Profession as un-fun skills, half our group saw red. They still fume about that given time. Others liked 4th Edition's condensed skill list, and focus on adventuring applications over crafting arrows or performing songs.

Naturally D&D Next is concerned about skills, and based on a recent blog post they are clearly looking to retain the customization options that 3.x offers, while making things more streamlined. First, they're talking about making a lot of your day to day "skill checks" using the ability scores. So instead of making a "Climb check", you'd presumably make a Strength check. Second, they also explicitly state they want to retain true skills so that they have a meaningful impact on the game and allow the sort of customization that we saw in 3E (and to a certain extent, 4E).

Personally, I like the customization of skills, but at the same time they're time consuming to stat out for mid-to-high level NPCs and can be overwhelming for newbies. D&D 3.x are also a great way to break the game at high levels, as we saw in our own games with the nigh-near-unspottable Stealth Mandalorian in our Star Wars d20 campaign and the awesome verbal skills of a certain Dark City Diplomacizer.

Basing checks on ability scores, augmented by skills, would allow the skill bonuses to advance at a more moderate rate. It also has the potential to give you more flexibility at the table, rather than having to take ranks in Rope Use or Climb. ("Wait, you're saying I can't tie a knot because I don't have Rope Use? But I have a Dex of 22 and an Int of 14!")

I can see it working like this -- each ability score has certain tasks associated with it, e.g. Dex gets acrobatics, feints, jumping, etc. while Str gets climbing, swimming, etc. Each of these scores could then be augmented by a skill. For example, the skill "Mountaineering" might grant bonuses to Strength of climbing or Dex for Jumping. Additional ranks in Mountaineering could increase the bonus granted. In this, skills could be a lot like feats, but perhaps you get more of them than feats.

Other systems do this, notably Cortex (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica), in which every check in the game involves rolling two dice: one for an ability, one for a skill. You then add the two together and compare against a target number.

The advantage to this is that it's a lot more flexible than the current system, and potentially simpler too. If you're climbing through the mountains, and need to get across a crevice, players could argue for using a variety of stats.

Strength to jump across. Intelligence to construct a bridge. Dexterity to carefully time moving from handhold to handhold. All could be augmented by the "Mountaineering" skill. And note how Strength and Dex can both be used for Climbing (which, in my experience on the rock wall, is about right -- sometimes you're brute-forcing your way up, sometimes you have to carefully time grabbing another handhold)

All of this is a long way of saying that I think you can simplify the skill system, returning back to something like what we had in the early days, while still retaining some of the customization we had in 3E, all the while adding a lot more flexibility to the system.

I'd like a system where everything isn't strictly codified. I'd rather have a framework that we can riff off of during an adventure than a hard-coded system of what you can and can't do.


I think one of the biggest problems is that we are carring forward this arbitrary concept that "skills have a one-to-one relationship with attributes".

Because of this concept, even future work such as D&D Next now suffers from the same mistakes that 3E did. So to fix the problem, I think we first need to re-visit this and make a decision as to whether it needs to be there.

Lets take for instance something like "Climbing". Because of this arbitrary relationship, climbing is strength-based, which means "the stronger you are, the better you are able to climb". So taking that concept, lets expand upon it to see how it functions.

Lets take 3 people:

The Body Builder: They have a high strength, no neck, bulding muscles and basically look like a tank on legs

The skinny runt: They have a low strength, but they are small, fairly nimble and the body builder could use them as a toothpick

The wirey guy: They have an average strength, and an average dexterity, they are not bulky, but they are not scrawny either.

Out of these 3 people, who is most likely to be able to climb a wall and who is least likely?

I think we could all agree that the body builder would struggle the most, becaues despite his strength, he also has to lift his own bulk around, which would negate his strength, and his lack of flexibility would hamper his ability to climb. Similarly the runt would also struggle (but not as much as the body builder) because he is very weak and not used to carrying anything, let alone his own body weight, but he is nimble so he wouldn't be totally useless.

So the clear winner would be the wirey guy, and it would be obvious to see this (and we can all relate it back to examples from our own past), because he is strong enough, but not too strong to be hampered, and dexterous enough to be able to achieve it.

So what does this say about climbing as a skill? To me it says that climbing clearly isn't strength-based, as taken to extreme, there is a point where more strength does not equal more abilitiy. But it also says climbing isn't purely about your nimbleness either, so to me I think this clearly indicates that climbing is a combination of both strength and dexterity, possibly favouring dexterity as shown by the runt at least being slightly more capable than the body builder.

So why then do we not consider climbing to use something like 60% dexterity and 40% strength? This would clear up the current issues with the skill not appearing to be using the correct attribute in given situations, as well as being more accurate.

If we were to then cross to something like "swimming", we may take the same example but flip it so that it is 60% strength and 40% dexterity (I think the body builder would be better at swiming than the runt who would struggle to get anywhere).

So by altering the fundamental concept of "skills have one attribute" to "skills can relate to multiple attributes in different proportions" I think we resolve a lot of problems.

Its for this reason that I dont really like the choice in D&D Next to turn things around and "attach" skills to attributes, leaving attributes as being the foundation, because I think it is compounding the originally flawed concept. Instead I think all characters should have access to skills in the same way, so that if they say a person can make a check to climb by using their strength attribute untrained,then why not just allow an untrained climb skill available to them, but now instead of forcing it to strength based, the character is able to use both their strength and dexterity appropriately. Some skills don't specifically require learning, but could benefit from having done so (professional climbers are clearly more capable than untrained amateurs).

So I think we should fix the problem... not compound it even further