Building a Better D&D
Crafty Little Men
What's a skill system FOR? It exists to allow PC's to do fun, interesting, useful stuff on a regular basis without the DM needing to make a lot of arbitrary rulings. As a note: I will endeavor herein to carefully distinguish between a dictionary-defined skill (being any learned aptitude/ability) and a game-rule-governed ability that simply is being given the designation of "skill". If I use the word skill, I am almost certainly referring to the latter and use synonyms for the more general reference. This seems to be necessary to prevent confusion.
What ARE the things that should be classified as "skills"? I've found it hard to come up with a simple, elegant definition but having one sure seems necessary. Skills should be stuff that normal people in the game world do which require practice, training or inherent ability. These will thus be things that would generally only be applicable to adventuring superficially, but whose benefits and capabilities a DM may nonetheless wish to have quantified and regulated. There won't be too much reason to want to deny these abilities to PC's, but for the sake of believability there should only be so much that a PC could potentially be "best in the world" at either. PC's should therefore only start with a few such skills awarded at a minimum functionality. These would be awarded because of their background but PC's should be required to spend time, effort and money to improve these skills, and if adding new skills to their repertoire should spend even more of those three things.
What should skills NOT do? They should not interfere with or subvert the class system. A farmer can become any class, and any adventurer class can retire to become a farmer. Any class can take a significant enough interest in extending their adventuring profits to learn to be a glassblower. Any class can and should have some inherent ability to climb, hide, and move by stealth - but these abilities are given to the thief class to be NOTABLY good at. The distinction between what thieves can do in those regards compared to others must be profound and untouchable by anyone but thieves or significant magic. Skills should not become self-important; they should not be so deeply entwined in the rules and running of the game that the DM cannot casually ignore them in favor of instituting his own rules or playing them ad hoc. Skill rules should be endeavoring to make the PC's more well-rounded, interesting, and entertaining in play, and NOT simply inserting themselves into play for the sake of propagating more rules, and thus trivializing and over-regulating PC actions. That's tempting to do with skills, and it's how you get ridiculous stuff like... oh, fire-building and rope-use as individual skills. Skills should not improve simply because time has passed or because the PC has leveled up. As noted before, improvement or adding of skills should require time, EFFORT, and money. You don't become a better blacksmith simply because you've leveled up - you have to spend time smithing, making something practical or just "practicing", and that will naturally cost money in obtaining or making a forge, tools, materials, etc. in addition to any written texts or practical, personal advice a PC may obtain. Finally, skills should have nothing to do with combat. Combat skills are by definition class-related in AD&D and therefore any combat "skill" must either be presented directly as a CLASS skill or in the form of general combat rules that apply to everyone equally and always (excepting some nominal modifiers for class).
Defining the purpose of skills, explaining why they have been found to be needed/wanted is something that 2E didn't do with its skill system. It just took the idea of, "Skill System" and hung it on the first obvious mechanic already in the game - weapon proficiencies. IMO it failed because of that. Not because skills weren't useful, but because they immediately began dragging the game rules away from its clearly class-based roots and bastardized it into half-being a skill-based game. When 3E was created it WAS half skill oriented, half class oriented and thus did neither aspect real justice. You don't need a formal skill system for AD&D, but I don't see that as justification that the game should never have one if enough DM's find such a thing useful - and I believe that they do. That's why a skill system was given a big chunk of space in the 2E PH, even if it was still given as an optional rule.
In the case of stuff like Climbing, Move Silently and Hide In Shadows it is apparent that some form of rules are useful which define what can be climbed, how good a typical person is at hiding, etc. Other classes than thieves need to have at least a modest chance of success at these things. My thinking is that their version of these abilities will not increase and that we must make sure that 1st Level thieves are already notably better than that to start, then they either steadily improve their chance of success or their increased ability allows them to do particularly dramatic or spectacular things. The game won't break, for example, if thieves actually start out better than the really crappy chances they presently all have at 1st but then have a slower rate of improvement. Maybe they might even only improve every other level, but 1st level thief skills as presently given ain't worth crap - and even worse, present the character with a increased chance of harm for no reasonable expectation of significant achievement in trade. Take climbing again. I wouldn't be likely to penalize or endanger a PC using a knotted rope and grapple to scale a short wall or cliff, or certainly not enforce a very high chance of harm - but a 1st level thief climbing using his so-called "skill" stands a 10%-30% chance of failure at the midpoint of the climb. Surely his skill at climbing should clearly and instinctively be superior to a dumb-ass fighter in heavy armor with a rope and grapple, shouldn't it, otherwise what's the point? The thief skill of climbing needs to have rules that support the idea that a thief can climb anything with greater safety and rapidity than any other class could hope to do, with or without a rope.
Other skills should not be turning the out-of-combat game experience into a dice-rolling fest at any point. Skills should be facilitating roleplaying - not replacing it, making it seem unnecesary or undesirable. The less that a skill system orients around rolling dice the better it should fit into what AD&D is supposed to be about. This isn't to say that there shouldn't be ANY dice rolling involved anywhere, but again it should be endeavoring to facilitate player creativity, not becoming a crutch for their imaginations. Actually, that applies to the DM too.
Take survival as an example skill. Obviously, druids and rangers should have excellent wilderness survival abilities by default and to me it seems stupid for them to EVER have to be spending "skill points" on something like that in order to continue to do what their class should be able to do without batting an eyelash at every level - surviving in the wilderness. Only if terrain or conditions are exceptionally challenging or harsh should druids and rangers be particularly concerned about ever finding food and water or staying healthy. It's the OTHER classes who should be at risk when they find themselves relying on their "skill" at wilderness survival. Unless THEY are devoting time and effort into acquiring and maintaining that ability (time and effort that they will then not be able to devote to other abilities they might want to have instead) they will face dangers carrying consequences which druids and rangers will not.
Now look at something like Blacksmithing. Seems natural that fighters should be willing and able to at least gravitate to that more readily than a wizard simply because of how we think of the differences in physical strength and stamina between those classes - things that a blacksmith needs by default. But many, even most skills are not determined by one ability but several at once. What does it benefit the game for the smithing skill to require die rolls for a PC to "succeed" at the skill at the most basic level, and for that roll to be modified only by strength, when even a laymans knowledge of smithing indicates that you either know how to do it - and therefore succeed - or you don't know how and fail. Different skills attempting different goals also don't have the same chances or degrees of success or failure. If a smith fails at making a sword it's going to affect its durability more than its immediate utility as a weapon. AD&D (hell, any version of D&D) simply does not make truly fine distinctions on weapon quality. A sword is a sword is a sword. If it's REALLY well-made, maybe it gets called a "masterwork" weapon and gets bonuses for combat, otherwise there's massive room for weapons without bonuses or penalties to be of great or very bad quality and the skill begins to trivialize and over-regulate when it calls for success checks at such things. You are either capable of making masterwork weapons - and then DO so, or you are NOT capable and only then should a chance of "success" be needed - IF you're attempting such a result at all.
What I'm trying to get at (and struggling to do so) is the idea that ONE skill roll does not rule them all. The time when a PC needs to make a skill roll at blacksmithing, what that skill roll allows him to do, or not do, what it means to "fail" that roll and what consequences it entails - these are all very different from even other manufacturing skills. A bowyer who fails at a bowmaking skill roll could be said to have not chosen the best wood or woven an inferior string, but a bow is a bow is a bow. A PC who has bowmaking skill should ALWAYS succeed at making a normal bow unless he does have to do so with inferior materials. A PC who is an artist paints beautiful pictures or carves great statues by default. There really shouldn't be a chance for failure as such - just the change in the chances of producing something exceptional and then what does that exceptional result actually mean in terms of the work produced? Buried in this idea is the understanding of how a skill system supports the game rather than detract from it.
A list of Secondary Skills, Crafts, and Professions:
What's a universal task? Well, I had to call it something to differentiate it from skills. Here's a list...
listen, spot, searching
Unlike skills Universal Tasks are things which any or all characters should be able to do without having to prioritize time/effort/money in the same way that they do with skills. Take the first thing on the list as an example: bluffing. Anyone can bluff - verbally or physically attempt to fake out the opponent in order to gain an advantage or achieve a goal. Nobody really practices bluffing - you're either good at it or not, and it's generally done on the spur of the moment. More extreme examples stray into territory that is better kept reserved for disguise, spying, or dedicated thief/assassin class abilities. So, if you want some kind of bluffing skill it should be something where your chance of success is based on class and level more than an ability score, if it really even improves at all.
Or look at Listen, Spot, and Searching abilities. A thief should always be the one most likely to spot a trap - but a druid or ranger should be the ones most likely to spot a bird in a tree. Hearing and identifying the sound of a nearby battle is fighter territory; distinguishing the sound of conversation from the sound of verbal spellcasting is magic-user territory. And NOBODY trains themselves to physically improve their hearing or vision - they are what they are. Searching is a matter of thoroughness and knowledge of what to look for - things which are gained with experience as much as training, but which is done by everyone. A thief may obtain particular training about common places to look for hidden treasure, or locating traps, but nobody trains at finding secret doors (except elves?) or where to find stashed messages. Those are things that IF there is to be some sort of random chance of success it should be based on level and maybe class, not on "skill points".
And something like riding? Well it's sensible that you need some kind of training to be able to properly ride and handle a mount. But once you know it - you know it. As a fighter you shouldn't have to choose between learning to ride a horse or practicing your lute playing when you level up. At any point you should be able to tell the DM, "My character learns to ride a horse," and then the DM simply tells you how much time and money it will cost to learn the basics of that. Then you've learned it and it is no longer what I defined at the outset as a game SKILL. It is then a class-irrelevant, level-irrelevant, inherent character ability that requires no further time or effort to maintain. It simply is a divide between those who know how to ride animals, and those who don't. Special spectacular tricks that might be performed are better assigned to some other mechanism than weighing down the basic riding ability with a lot of extraneous crap justifying spending points on the ability to improve the chance of success at this or that riding-related stunt. Show jumping and bareback riding tricks are quite separate from just knowing HOW to ride a horse, particularly in close combat. Horse-riding tricks are something that might be made into a matter of a skill - but not riding vs. not riding.
And finally a few words about languages and general knowledge abilities. AD&D starts PC's off with an astonishing number of languages if their intelligence can support it: Dwarves have 6, Elves speak 8, Gnomes 7, Half-elves 8, Halflings 7; only Half-orcs start with just 2, and humans choose freely what languages they can speak rather than have to pick from a more limited list. Most of those starting languages are of the other PC races and the most common humanoid foes. It is impossible and impractical to try to shoehorn that kind of linguistic talent-spread into the same skill system that would require PC's to choose between, say, learning orcish or being a farmer. A point to spend on learning to write common does NOT equate to the value of a point spent to be a stonemason. The point I'm making here? Languages may be a skill, but like MANY such things it should be a SEPARATE skill from other abilities and not competing directly with all other skills for PC competency and improvement.
The same applies to accumulated PC knowledge on various subjects. Simply by adventuring throughout the world a PC can accumulate a great wealth of knowledge of geography without having to spend anything like "skill points" to do so. It is particularly grating if a player simply pays attention and remembers information the DM may have related, whereas another player whose PC has sacrificed points to the appropriate field of knowledge and fails a die check or has forgotten what the other player remembers. There is a dissonance between what a PLAYER is good at and what the player wants their PC to be good at. Skill rules governing knowledge should support the latter - letting PC's be good at something, and not simply perpetrate more of the former - creating artificial and needless divides and conflicts between what the player can do and what the player wants the PC to do.
AD&D had also already created means of handling the obtaining of detailed knowledge in various specialized fields - they're called Sages. If a PC really wishes to have sage-like knowledge of certain subjects than I'd suggest that they multiclass as a Sage. No, Sage is not a class, but it's so close to being one in the DMG description that it may as well be, and can be with minimal effort. To that end I will be providing Sage as one of the first "Prestige Classes" which any PC may multi-class into freely throughout their career. (Just as a note: one of the other prestige classes will likely be Bard.) Anyway, quite unlike what became of the Prestige Class in 3E this will be FAR closer to what the Prestige Class was originally intended to be. What was the original intent? Here's what the 3E DMG said in part:
Prestige classes allow DM's to create campaign-specific, exclusive roles and positions as classes. These special roles offer abilities and powers otherwise inaccessible to PC's and focus them in specific, interesting directions.
In short, they were intended to be not unlike the many new PC and NPC classes that were presented in Dragon over the years. What they became was a bottomless source of ways for players to freely powergame, optimize, and munchkinize their characters (while simultaneously avoiding any and all roleplaying motivations, and in particular disregarding the idea of it being a DM's tool to improve and personalize his campaign setting [whether or not the classes actually granted the PC a power/performance edge in play].
This was really the trap that 2nd Edition had fallen prey to when it introduced its skill system. To borrow a phrase; they were so excited by the fact that they could, they didn't stop to think whether they should. Insufficient consideration, if any, was given to maintaining the boundaries of class divisions of ability and actually adding to the gameplay experience in a disciplined, organized fashion rather than distracting from it by just throwing stuff against the wall to see if it stuck. It wasn't just my own experience but it is repeated over and over that players stopped considering their roleplaying ideas when faced with making decisions on putting their skill points to the most efficient use. The larger and more intrusive into gameplay that the skill system becomes, the more that character creation and the game itself becomes concerned solely with skill optimization. As suggested before, there's nothing inherently wrong with optimization except when it becomes so important and self-justified as to start pushing aside roleplaying as a viable consideration in the game. You allow a skill system to enter the game to allow players to do something cool, but then the system makes it seem like using IT is what the game is supposed to be all about. That was never the original intent - it need not and should not be what we allow it to remain. We can keep a skill system, but we need to put it in its place and keep it there.
One of the things that a skill system can and should deal with is what the PC's can MAKE. This is a notion that was developed by MMO's, but I think it's a general concept that AD&D (the arch-inspiration for MMO's) can in turn take back and make great use of. Now there are those reading this whom I know are already gagging on the idea, but they're assuming a gathering/crafting system simply being unplugged from an MMO and then dropped unaltered into AD&D. That is NOT what I'm talking about. I'm interested, very generally, in an organized system that allows PC's to craft things - all sorts of things. Weapons and armor are the first and most obvious, but PC's should be able to build practical non-combat items as well for fun and profit. Everything from chairs to castles; from jewelry to books; greek fire to the Bayeux tapestry; these are all matters of the PC possessing the skill (as I've defined it) that's needed to manufacture such items.
Obviously, these skills don't all fit into a universal mechanic that can determine failure/degree of success. The ability to bind a book at all is a long way from binding the Codex of the Infinite Planes, or even a Manual of Golems - but is it wrong that a higher level PC with bookbinding skill be able to make something like the latter? Oh, obviously you can't write and bind a book that allows the reader to make a golem if YOU don't know how to make a golem - but couldn't a PC make a book that allows the reader to... build a large house if he has the knowledge and skill to both make the house and bind the book? I think it'd be cool - a PC learns bookbinding, then learns castlebuilding, then creates a magical book that enables him to build a castle in a fraction of the time it normally would, then carries the book around with him until he finds the piece of land he wants to claim as his title-level stronghold. Or maybe he finds a ruined castle and uses the book to rebuild it. That's the fun, interesting sort of stuff I have in mind when instituting a skill system for crafting.
What's the line between what PC's can make themselves, what they can have made for them, and what can only be found or never duplicated?
A PC does not become the best "crafter" in the world unless he sets out to be so from level 1. You don't reach 5th and just by spending abstract skill points achieve greatness at a skill without ever having USED that skill when others are actually occupied in MAKING things with it over that same course of time. Sure, there's a certain amount of conceit to be given to the fact that this is a GAME, but again this is where the skill system can either get in the way or facilitate the improvement of gameplay.
As a rule PC's need their own base of operations to work from, not borrowed or rented facilities if they're going to be great at secondary skills.
Sacrificing sufficient lesser items should enable creation of better items and even enable improvement to existing items, especially if adding power related to what's being sacrificed. E.g. tempering a blade in a barrel of 50-100 potions to add that potions ability to the blade.
This is where my thinking has taken me so far. Why have a skill system, what it should do/not do, how it should be different from what we've seen and used before, etc. I was about to actually start into the nuts & bolts of a revised system until real life interrupted my train of creative thought. So, along with a lot of other project pieces this one will go back to being set aside for a while. As you may have read on the "news" page for the site I've got the DMG scanned in now which is really a pretty major milestone. Just one of many milestones needing to be passed but a noteworthy one.
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