Imagine you have an attack score of +15. Your opponent, a savage brute, has an AC of 20 and his companions all have ACs between 10-15. Does this fight even interest you? You’d hit with almost every attack. It might be ok if this was a rare, one-off situation, but imagine that this was how combat shaped up every single time. Personally, I’d lose interest.
Yet this is exactly what’s happening during skill challenges at gaming tables everywhere. We’re so concerned with being really, really good at a couple of skills that when it comes time to use them we are almost guaranteed automatic success. Using Stealth to move undetected or using Athletics to climb any wall under any circumstance can be very cool and a lot of fun, but training the skills we’re already good at just makes using those skills a bore.
During character creation you get to train 3-5 skills. In most cases we train the skills we think we’re going to use the most often or the ones that we already have a pretty good score in. But the more I’ve been thinking about this approach the more I see it as making the wrong choice.
By selecting training in the skills that we’re already good at we’re just punishing ourselves. The thing that we need to be most mindful of when we’re choosing which skills to train is which skills are tied to our best ability scores. If you’re class focuses on Dexterity then your starting Dex is likely to be pretty decent. And every time you can increase an ability score you’re likely to add points to Dex since it’s the one you use most often. By increasing your Dex you’re also increasing all skills that use Dex. So why taking training in Dex-based skills?
Let’s assume that at level 1 your highest ability score is (at least) an 18. That means that any skill tied to that ability starts off at 4. Assuming that you don’t have any other modifiers from your race, feats, equipment or magical items that 4 still gives you a 50% chance at succeeding at a hard DC (since a hard DC for level 1-3 is 15).
By the time you’ve reached level 8 you’ve most likely improved your best ability score by two points (+1 at level 4 and +1 at level 8). So in addition to the +1 for half your level you’ve just received another +1. So a skill that was only 4 at level 1 is now at 9 at level 8. Now you’ve got a 55% chance of making a hard DC (since the hard DC for level 7-9 is 19).
Don’t forget that in both of the above examples the moderate DC is 5 less than the hard DC so you’ve got a 75% chance of success at level 1 and an 80% chance of success at level 8. These are really good odds, all things considered.
If you’ve likely to achieve success 50% of the time do you really need to take training in this skill? Adding the +5 means that you’ll automatically make a skill check of moderate or easy difficulty. It also means that you’re unlikely to fail a hard check.
What we need to do is close the gap between our best skills and our worst skills. We need to look at the skills that rely on our worst ability scores and shore them up. Skills that rely on ability scores of 8 or 10 need all the help they can get. By taking skill training you’re improving your chance of success by 25%. These low ability scores are not likely to get improved as you level up so if you don’t taking training in them they’re never going to get any better. The odds will never be in your favour during a skill challenge if you need to rely on these skills. And the gap between your best skills and your worst skills will continue to widen as your best attributes continue to improve.
So the next time you’re creating a character don’t automatically take skill training in the skills that already have the highest numbers, try training the skills that need the most help. It may not mean automatic success in your best skill, but it will mean that you’re more likely to succeed when rolling on many of the others.