Always Train Your Worst Skills

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 7, 2009

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.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew Wade December 7, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Whatever happened to choosing skills that fit your character’s backstory?

2 Ameron December 7, 2009 at 3:08 pm

@Andrew Wade
I’m all for tying your skills into your character’s back-story. But if you’re playing a Fighter with a starting Str of 20, your Athletics will already be 5 at level 1. You automatically make easy checks, have an 80% chance of making moderate checks and 55% of making hard checks. If your background is all about how athletic you are, you’ve already got that covered by your exceptional Strength. Adding +5 to the skill by training it doesn’t really give you any additional in-game benefit. You’re still going to be awesome at Athletics whether you train it or not. So why not train a different skill, like Streetwise which is tied to a lower ability score (because you know that most Fighters have a low starting Charisma).

3 Chase Dagger December 7, 2009 at 3:10 pm

My group [I’m DM] is filled with power players. They are motivated by power, and greed [within the game.] They are “good” in a way, but for the most part it’s all about getting as powerful as possible for them.
And why not? If the rule books allow it, they expect me to allow it.

It’s becoming more and more challenging to build the game; because it’s not always challenging for them.
To me this is a wizards of the coast problem, and should not be my problem.
If I start telling my players what abilities scores to pick, it will feel like less of a game to them.
I understand that this article is directed at the players, but it’s not their fault the game works like this.
The more I play D&D 4th [first D&D I’ve ever played] the more I realize the rules have holes that make the game un-fun. I am a Magic the Gathering player, and I have to say that Wizards is no where near as good at communicating D&D rules as they are with Magic rules [but I guess this is somewhat understandable].
Maybe I’m over reacting and maybe my group [me included] are misunderstanding the rules in some way, but we had a session last Saturday and I was really dissapointed. After I carefully followed the DMG rules to create “Hard” challenging encounters [combat and non] the players still managed to breeze through them with ease. I mean I’m all for the PCs succeeding but when it’s too easy the game sucks.
Sorry but needed to vent a little.
I don’t understand why Wizards ever lowered the skill challenge DCs, I’m following the original scores and still having a hard time coming up with new and interesting challenges.

4 ung December 7, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Sorry to go meta in the comments but I have something for Chase Dagger.

You need to remember whose game this is. It isn’t WotCs game its yours. You are the one putting in the time to run the game and if isn’t fun for you then change it so it is.

There are many ways to amp up the danger. First remember that rests both short and long are a luxury that may not be available. So they are breezing through your pack of goblins. The last little one gets away and brings back Daddy and his buddies. Once the dailies and encounters are gone the tension goes right up. Maybe the first two in the party fall down a chute and trigger a pack of gnolls so they spend a whole encounter running for their lives. Everyone in the party deals big damage and has huge AC then bring the mind flayers or ice demons. Look at their stats, hit the holes, no PC can be protected against everything.

It is your game, the books are just guides. Make sure it is fun for you and the fun will follow for your players.

5 Chase Dagger December 7, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Thank you ung, that is encouraging. It’s true that it’s my game and I should be able to do whatever I need to do to make it fun. As a rookie sometimes I make epic mistakes, I need to take responsibility for that. Here’s an example of how quickly my idea of fun turns into boring.

When I saw the Dark Sun Hazards PDF on Wizard’s site, I thought, sweet this will spice up an encounter. I put all 3 plant obstacles in the same encounter, I had a cave with 3 entrances, I put different plants in front of each entrance [multiple dew frond and spider cactus per entrance.] I reviewed the plant levels and my PCs levels, and I made the encounter suitable based on DMG. Because of all the plants xp I didn’t have very powerful monsters around, and they died quickly. Then the PCs just used ranged attacks to destroy the plants. There was no danger at all really.
I can take partial responsibility; but as DM you are pretty busy most of the time planning what’s next; so I should have thought the battle through a little more. I still feel the makers of the game still set me up for failure: I trusted the guidelines at face value.
So as much as I agree with you and appreciate the comments, I think it sucks that Wizards is making me do more [un-fun] work when really I shouldn’t have to.
I’m ruining this blog and I’m sorry for that. I wish Dungeonsmaster had a blog where readers could ask questions and share information outside of the articles. I realize they provide links to these kinds of sites, but I really like this site.

6 Andrew Wade December 7, 2009 at 7:19 pm

I don’t think you’re ‘ruining’ this blog at all! I know I’m learning from this conversation as a potential future DM.

7 Swordgleam December 7, 2009 at 7:20 pm

I like this idea, except that some powers require training in a certain skill. It might make more sense to change those to “requires a +X bonus in skill” instead of trained in this case.

There’s also Rituals, which I believe require training in the key skill.

8 Chase Dagger December 7, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Thanks Andrew; I’m glad that someone else can also get value out my rantings. BTW – I’m not sure how long you’ve been coming to this site, but I have found it very helpful as a rookie DM.

9 math_geek December 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I think it really depends on the skill challenge DCs. Playing a LFR it feels like I usually see DCs of 15 for skill challenges for first level characters. Sometimes it’s something like a 13 or a 17, but most of the time 15. I actually ran a mega-skill challenge in TYMA 1-1 where I GMed, and the low-tier skill challenge difficulty was mostly 16! The problem is, to pass a Complexity 2 skill challenge (6 successes verses 3 failures) requires a 70% skill success rate, which correlates to succeeding on a 7 or higher on the die. That’s a tall order. So to win a skill challenge more than half the time, you need to have an average of 8 for a character that uses it in a skill challenge. Hence, training the skills where the PC already has an advantage. Now I know the DMG erratad the skill challenges to make them way easier, but that’s often not how the LFR mods read.

I suppose the alternative is to spend the entire round going, assist him, assist him, assist him roll, but that’s just really clunky and unfun. We all tend to bring a large number of the take 10 player rewards cards (“That’ll Do”) to push our way through the skill challenges. My biggest complaint with skill challenges is that a) I often have no idea what my character is supposed to be doing, and b) There’s usually no strategy involved, since no-one knows anything about the mechanics of the specific skill challenge. I get that it’s supposed to be role-playing intensive, but that goes pretty fast if the DM is set on the mechanics in the mods, since if I can’t guess correctly the skills in the mod, and come up with ideas that aren’t in there, I’ll give upon role-play pretty quick.

10 Ameron December 8, 2009 at 2:46 pm

@Chase Dagger
Welcome back, Chase Dagger. It’s been a while since we’ve seen you post a comment. You were missed.

You and I seem to be drawing the same conclusions. The point I’m trying to make in this article is that if you train you best skill the numbers will be so high you’ll never fail. Where’s the fun in that. Conversely when you have to use the other untrained skills, they’re so low that you really need to roll high to make the check. By leveling out your skills a little bit and training the ones that aren’t so great you actually have a chance to fail your best skill (albeit a small chance) and you have a prayer of making the checks based on your poor skills.

Like you, I’ve tried to create encounters that challenge the party, but there always seems to be one PC who can overcome the obstacle of the night because he’s absolutely maxed out one skill or power.

I’ve found that you need to come up with a way to force the PCs to work together and let everyone chip in to overcome a problem. Letting one guy make all the perceptions checks because his score is 15 higher then everyone else is boring. For him and the rest of the group.

@ung
I couldn’t agree more. Use the rules as a guideline, but from time-to-time feel free to break them in order to try something fun.

@Chase Dagger
You are not ruining this blog. In fact you’ve posted a lot of great comments over the months since we began and we appreciate it. The whole reason we started this blog was to generate discussion. The fact that you and others post your thoughts and feedback means we’re doing something right. Keep those comments coming.

@Andrew Wade
I’m happy you’re reading and I’m even happier that you feel that you’ve gained something from the experience.

@Swordgleam
Excellent point. There are going to be times when training in a skill, even if it’s already your best skill, is necessary to take a power, paragon path or feat to build the PC you want to play. I have no issue with that.

@Chase Dagger
We’re here to help.

@math_geek
When I’ve played in LFR games I found the biggest problem with skill challenges is the lack of control from the DM. Everyone is calling out “I assist” and then rolling. I prefer to give each PC an opportunity to decide what they want to do before any rolls are made. If someone wants to assist, I want to know how. If you can’t give me a good explanation of what you’re doing to help, I overrule the assist. And if your assist roll fails, I often add 1 to the DC for the primary check. If you’re going to act there needs to be some consequence for failure.

From the player’s point-of-view I think we need to be imaginative and creative during skill challenges. Then it’s up to the DM to “say yes” and set an appropriate DC. This is of course assuming you have a clear understanding of the objective. If you don’t know what the purpose of the challenge is then you’re kind of left fumbling in the dark.

11 Philo Pharynx December 9, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I make some skill challenges secret. I keep track of how people act and then tell them what to roll afterwards. (I’ve told the players I’m doing this and gotten their ok first). I give bonuses for good roleplaying (but no penatlies). I also often have benefits for players that roll significantly above the DC, thus rewarding players who do specialize.

As for the chart, I base it less on the chart and more on my group. It means some DC’s will be higher, and others will be lower.

12 Franciolli Araújo December 11, 2009 at 5:38 am

When I saw this article I saw myself doing my characters and helping my players doing yours.

We always priorize the biggest ranks and forget the areas that we are really weak. It’s natural. But when the history is the focus the numbers lessen in importance and you can balance your stats creating more interesting scenes possibilities.

For everyone that like to read this article in portuguese, here the link http://trampolimrpg.com.br/?p=2534
.-= Franciolli Araújo´s last blog ..Sempre treine suas piores perícias =-.

13 Philo Pharynx December 11, 2009 at 2:16 pm

This idea makes more sense for some skills than others. Some it makes sense to boost your low score, others it doesn’t. Here’s my take – skill by skill.

Acrobatics – It makes sense to boost for both low and high characters. Low, because sometimes the whole party needs to deal with an earthquake or other hazard. High because sometimes it opens dramatic opportunities. Swing on the chandelier and land on the tightrope? Sure!

Arcana – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good. This is also a default skill for most arcanists, so often somebody will have a good score in this.

Athletics – It makes sense to boost for both low and high characters. Low, because sometimes the whole party needs to climb or jump to get out of something. High because sometimes it opens other opportunities. Jump the chasm to take out the mage? Sure!

Bluff – It always makes sense to boost the high roll. The penalties for lying are usually severe. If you’re going to lie, lie well. In many cases, you can miss this on the low end, but it’s a call based on the specific camapign and DM style.

Diplomacy – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Unless you’re in a game with a lot of social interaction. In that kind of game, everybody should have it.

Dungeoneering – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good.

Endurance – Boost the low rolls, but don’t sweat it if you’re good. The party will often all have to make endurance checks, but they are usually low or moderate difficulty.

Heal – It’s good to have several people with decent rolls in this in order to stabilize someone. Especially when it’s the leader that needs help. It can also be bypassed by carrying a healing potion.

History – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good.

Insight – It makes sense to boost for both low and high characters. You never know who will be exposed to deceit, and the more good rolls the better to figure it out. High rolls can counter the best liars.

Intimidate – Only bother if it’s important to your character. It’s a skill that has risks and is rarely critical to have.

Nature – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good.

Perception – It makes sense to boost for both low and high characters. You never know when you’ll be ambushed, and the more good rolls the better to figure it out. High rolls can counter invisibility, so train high as well.

Religion – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good.

Stealth – Train this low if everybody else is doing it. If everybody has a good stealth roll, it allows the groups to sneak. If somebody is going to clank in plate mail, then save it for the sneaky types.

Streetwise – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Unless you’re in a gritty urban campaign. In some campaigns, this skill is much less valuable and can be skipped entirely.

Thievery – Don’t bother as long as somebody in the party has a good roll. Usually as long as somebody makes it, you’re good.

14 Dan January 30, 2010 at 3:26 am

I didnt read every single comment above, but in reference to maxing skills, I must say that some skills may still require training, even if boosted by a high beginning ability score. Take, for example, any skill that is penilized when wearing heavy armor (i.e. Athletics, Endurance, Stealth, etc..). These skills may begin with a +4 modifier from an 18 on the relevant ability, but if you add hide, chainmail, scale, or plate and throw a light or heavy shield in the mix, you then are including a -1 to -4 modifier that can significantly reduce or even negate any bonuses from a high ability score. So, if your players are concidering rolling a character and they desire to have the ability to succeed on a dificult physical skill check while wearing heavier armor and/or a shield, it might be in their best interest to allocate the skill training to that physical skill.

15 Ameron February 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm

@Philo Pharynx
I often just use the PCs passive skill scores (base +10) with modifiers for good role-playing. This is especially productive during social encounters.

@Franciolli Araújo
I know that most players want to be really, really good at one or two things, but I’ve learned through experience that it’s better to be average at a lot of skills and to shore up your really poor skills.

@Philo Pharynx
Wow. What more can I say. Awesome list. Thank you.

@Dan
If you’re a Fighter with an 18 Strength (+4) and then you wear plate armor and use a heavy shield (total check penalty -4) then your Athletics skill is only +0. It was one of your best skills before you geared up, but now it’s probably among your worst. So in this case I’d agree that you need to train it. But the same Fighter with scale armor (check penalty -1) and a two handed weapon (no shield) has an Athletics skill of +3. In this case I’d say train something else.

This will always be a subjective argument and it’s up to you to create and play the PC you want to play. I’m just trying to help players who may not realize that its often better to have a Fighter with a +3 Athletics and a +4 Streetwise than a +8 Athletics and a -1 Streetwise.

16 Kuster Jr July 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm

I realize I’m more than a bit late to this party, but I thought I would add my two cents. This seems to only really be a problem for power gamers – they’ll be worried about how to get the best skills or combination of skills. If one were to emphasize the story side of things more, then one’s skills should be entirely related to their backgrounds and stories (I do realize it’s almost never this black and white). Yes, the story party may be lacking in skills that could be necessary in some campaigns, but if the shortcomings came up regularly, I would have to ask what the DM is doing – the campaign should really be tailored to the characters. At least, that’s what I feel. (Note, this doesn’t necessarily apply in and LFR or other random event). Great discussion on the topic, though. Keep up the wonderful articles.

Kuster Jr.

17 Brian Engard June 22, 2011 at 12:52 pm

The one big (and I think, somewhat faulty) assumption that this article makes is that players are only going to be using their trained skills. In most actual play scenarios, this is generally not the case, unless the DM designed the skill challenge poorly or is deliberately hitting softballs at the players. If you’ve got your big, tough fighter who’s trained in Athletics, Endurance, and Intimidate, sure, he’ll be pretty good at those three things. But if he can rely solely on those three things to get through all of the DM’s skill challenges, then there’s a deeper problem with the game.

As a DM, if you want to make your skill challenges interesting to players who have trained their skills to high values, then you’re going to want to make sure that they have to use their untrained skills from time to time. It may be that the bard has a Diplomacy modifier somewhere in the stratosphere, but what happens when the duke asks the uncharismatic wizard what he thinks of the situation? What happens when the whole party has to sneak past the guards, and not just the sneaky rogue? If you’re worried about your players succeeding too often, then these are the sorts of situations you should be thinking about.

18 David Argall July 14, 2011 at 9:17 pm

While you do not get full value from training your best skills, it is still your best strategy.
In the typical skill challenge, the PC has several options he can use, and one of them is likely to be one of his trained skills. So he will use his prime skill instead of the weak one. Improving 90 to 100% may not be a huge gain, but improving 50 to 75 is worthless when you will opt for the 90 anyway.
Now there are the fully social skill challenges or the entirely physical where some pretty common builds are at a major disadvantage, and so making sure you have at least one social and physical skill that does not suck may be worth it, but for most skill challenges you will be using your better skills a lot more than your worst.
For a number of group checks, only the best counts. Everybody rolls a perception check and if nobody beats 20, the party does not discover a piece of treasure. Bringing your 10 up to a 15 won’t help much. Making that 15 a 20 is quite profitable.
Now there are also a number of cases where the individual roll is useful. A roll of 15 on perception avoids the surprise round for you. But then we have to consider that the skills are not of equal value and frequency. Perception may well occupy the top spot and be worth improving in any case. But history is a good candidate for rarely being worth training unless you are already good at it.
Overall, you are best off improving your best abilities.

19 Nicholas August 3, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Regarding the first commenter… if there is a skill to match your backstory, great. But in 4E skills are far more utilitarian than flavorful. I’m more of the mind that the Player and DM can use the character’s backstory for RP flavor when it is appropriate, without having to tie up points on a sheet.

In fact, wasn’t that one of the rationales for really chopping down the skill lists? So people wouldn’t feel they had to choose between an RP thing and a Thing that Helps Me Win Die Rolls?

20 Dragon December 11, 2011 at 2:17 am

If you take into account the Essentials products, the Armor Finesse feat in the player books ((I.e. Heroes of the Fallen Lands & Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms)) the armor check penalties no longer apply, ergo you now only take the penalty from your shield, which can be removed by Shield Finesse feat.

21 Zrog September 28, 2012 at 10:54 am

I disagree with your “boost your worst skills early” idea. As a player, I wouldn’t even want to TRY using a skill that didn’t offer me at least a 75%+ chance of success at a hard DC, especially when I’m low level and failure is likely to kill me. Stealth is a good example, here – the consequence of a rogue being detected is often “now I have to fight all the monsters myself for 2 rounds until my friends arrive”. Athletics is another example – do I REALLY want to try jumping that gorge with a 55% chance of success when failure means I fall to my death?

However, as my level increases, I DO agree with your idea that a greater variety of skills suddenly becomes much more valuable – they become a larger “toolbox”, rather than a “this had better work” situation.

As a DM, I would find it frustrating at higher levels when you can’t assign a DC that’s fair to the whole party. So… if one character would pass it with ease, it’s possible that others will be horribly screwed, and the obstacle is suddenly insurmountable for them (this widening skill gap has been discussed in other articles). Thus, at higher levels, boosting your weak skills solves problems for both players AND the DM.

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