We’ve written a lot of articles about skills. One thing that we’ve mentioned repeatedly in recent articles is the reluctance of some players to use skills they’re not good at. It’s a common problem and we’re still looking for the best solution. While brainstorming we came up with a proposal that we think will work and today we want to share it with you. We look at what’s worked in the past and used that as our starting point. We’re proposing that we ditch skill training and return to a skill point system.
When 3e hit shelves, one extreme change from previous editions of D&D was the introduction of skills and the ability for all PCs to spend points in those skills. This was a great way to differentiate two nearly identical characters. It allowed anyone to spend points in any skill they wanted their character to excel at. Now Pick Pockets or Moving Silently weren’t just abilities unique to Rogues.
With 4e D&D the list of skills was reduced to a mere 17. You no longer spent points in each skill; rather you selected a few skills based on your class that you were trained in. All other non-trained skills were just an extension of the relevant ability score. This change had its ups and downs.
One of the biggest problems was that each class had a very limited number of skills to choose from and most of the skills were extensions of the ability most closely tied to that class. The result was a tendency for PCs to be really, really good at a few things and horribly bad at all the rest. In circumstances where PCs needed to make skill checks (like during skill challenges, for example) the players would always try to roll on their best skills in order to have a greater likelihood of success.
However, many of those same players would often neglect to roll on any of their other skills because the starting number was so low. The players knew that if they rolled and failed the check that it was a strike against the overall skill challenge. Rather than hurt the party’s chances at victory, they figured it was better to sit back and let those who were good at the task at hand do their thing.
I can understand this kind of reasoning – in some situations. And in those situations that it seems plausible, usually when time isn’t a factor, I’m ok to let this kind of decision prevail. But when there is no in-game reason for the PC not to make the check and the player is just using meta-knowledge to try and avoid failing a roll I have a huge problem.
In order to address this problem we tried to figure out a way to give players more say in which skills they were good at and which ones they were not. We decided to keep the 4e skill list but adjust skill training and go to a system that’s more like the one used in 3e. Your PC would get points based on their class and then you’d assign skill points to the skills you felt were important. This would open up the entire skill list to every character. The poor Fighters could finally spend some points to be good at Perception, Stealth or even Arcana if they wanted to.
Each PC would get skill points every time they hit an even level (which is when they’d usually see their skills improve) and let the player assign the points as needed. The points would remain in a skill point pool until needed. This gives players the choice to spend the points immediately or wait and spend them later. After all, you don’t know if you’re going to need to be good at Endurance, Nature or Thievery over the next couple of levels. With a point pool you could spend a couple of points in the skills you want when you need to use them. This makes more sense to me because it has an in-game rationale for why the skill improved. If you still have points left when you hit the next even level, you’d have to spend any remaining points in your pool before your pool was replenished.
By giving the players the freedom to get better at any skill and to choose how good they wanted to be at it, I truly believe that they would be more likely to participate in skill challenges regardless of the situation. The Fighter can’t complain that he has a low Diplomacy and can’t talk to the Duke. If it’s necessary for him to talk he can always choose to spend his points in Diplomacy and improve his chances of success right there and then. If he chooses not to (for whatever reason) then he’s made his choice and must roll the skill check on the low number.
Of course this kind of mechanic still has potential for abuse. A player might still just load up on a few skills and nothing would have really changed. I think a few guidelines about how to distribute the points could minimize abuse. Something like you can only spend 1 point to improve a specific skill until you get your next point allotment upon hitting an even level.
Introducing this kind of open skill point distribution system will likely make more PCs better at a wider variety of skills. We’d certainly see more generalists and fewer specialists. I think we’d also see less of a gap between a PC’s best skill and his worse skill.
Any change like the one described here would obviously need to be house ruled. Given everyone’s near dependence on Character Builder this would certainly mean more pencil and paper bookkeeping. So the question really becomes is this kind of change going to make a noticeable enough difference (on the plus side) to make the extra work worth it? The Character Builder issue aside, what do you think of this proposal? Do you think it would make a difference? Would you be willing to try it? What kind of specific details do you think are necessary for this to work?