4e Skills and Class Balance 8

While on a long drive with Kainenchen and Stands-in-Fire recently, we started talking about skills and skill challenges in 4e. At its most macro level, the skill challenge is one of the best ideas that 4e has added to D&D as a whole. I have seen skill challenges be an excellent source of non-combat tension that can be resolved with a combination of clever thinking and multiple dice rolls. (Before I get started here, it has to be noted that Rob Donoghue has done some really clever things here (and in several subsequent posts) and the next time I run 4e, I’ll be playing with his ideas.)

The actual usage of skill challenges in-play is tough, though, and some of the problems specifically remind me of problems I had in previous editions. So let’s talk about class balance between in-combat and out-of-combat situations, because no edition of D&D has gotten that right.

There are games where the focus of the whole game is on the narrative whole rather than the actual action. The games (Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind, as does every edition of World of Darkness-based games) are designed so that combat is when some players shine, and out-of-combat is when other players shine. It is possible to run a 3.x D&D game this way, though I can’t recommend it: I’ll note that a violent conflict can easily take 1-2 hours of session to resolve (and some examples stretch far beyond that; I have heard of campaigns in which a single battle took 8, 16, or even more hours to play through). That is a lot of time for one subset of players to have fun, and another subset of players to be observers. Even complicated non-combat conflicts seldom last much beyond half an hour. My premise: “my character contributed something useful to solving the group’s problems” is where “feeling cool” comes from in tabletop games, particularly D&D (not so much in, say, Amber).

In terms of roleplaying, most GMs would love it if characters treated violence as an option only when all others had been exhausted, and looked at a broad range of ways to resolve various conflicts. That’s great and all, but D&D’s rules for combat are more interesting, and every character as some amount of combat ability. When all you have is a tactically interesting hammer that gives experience points when used… Anyway, I mention all of this to explain why I don’t favor a split between combat and non-combat characters in D&D.

Skills in 4e have applications both in and out of combat, and players and GMs are encouraged to interpret them as loosely as possible. You’ll recognize this technique from such games as Spirit of the Century and World of Darkness; it represents a big change in D&D away from the narrower definitions of skills (and larger skill list) in 3.x.

Some classes legitimately need a variety of skills to accomplish their core concepts. Rogues and bards are the main examples here, such that 3.x D&D gave the two classes wildly more skill points than any other classes. For 3.x, I’m willing to agree that rogues needed lots of skill points to cover the wide variety of skills that 4e rolls into thievery, acrobatics, and athletics. Where 3.x rogues got four times as many skill points as fighters, 4e rogues get only twice as many trained skills as fighters. This frustrates me in 3.x non-combat situations, because I’d like to know who decided that broad, general incompetence was a guiding theme of fighter archetypes. Even increasing my fighter’s Int score wouldn’t help this problem, because an extra skill rank every other level in one of those cross-class skills does not fit my definition of “help.”

As I play a pretty decent number of fighters, this still bugs me. A fighter’s best stat is going to be Strength followed by Dex, Con, or Wis, depending on his build. Fighters have no options for class skills that are Dexterity-based, and two skill options that are Charisma-based. Of the core classes, only the Cleric has as many of its class skills in skills relying on stats that the class doesn’t otherwise use. Ultimately, this means that when it comes to a skill challenge, a fighter is skilled in very few things, and is not as good at the things he is good at doing. This probably has something to do with the otherwise-inexplicable decision to make scale armor the one type of heavy armor that doesn’t impose check penalties.

Judging by the revisions to Skill Challenges introduced in the DMG2 (which do help, don’t get me wrong), I feel comfortable guessing that setting DCs has been a bit of a trick. I’m going to do a little armchair design and guess that it has a lot to do with the ranges of scores that characters are likely to have. A starting rogue is going to have scores of +9, if not better, in his two most important skills (Stealth and Thievery) as well as (probably) Acrobatics; Charisma rogues are also going to be somewhere in the +7 to +9 range with the many Charisma-based rogue skills. As so few skills cater to a fighter’s strengths, fighters are much more limited in their usefulness during skill challenges, and each individual effort is less likely to succeed.

This would be like a fight in which Player R(ogue) has six different attacks he can make, and he expects to do easy or moderately-difficult things 95% of the time, and has only a little trouble (75% success rate) with hard things. Player F(ighter) on the other hand, has three things he can do, one of which succeeds at the same rates as R’s, while his other two things succeed moderate tasks 85% of the time and hard tasks 55% of the time – and those are the things they do well. F isn’t going to have a decent score in Int or Cha, which cover most of the skills.

What I’d like to do about this is to smooth out some of the skill disparities. I think that the +5 bonus for trained skills is sometimes too much, particularly when combined with “this skill uses my good stat.” I can think of a number of different ways to do this, and my ideas here have a couple of common features. The game needs a step between +5 trained and +0 untrained, I think, and for these purposes I’ll call it “familiarity.” I’m also proposing the introduction of weaknesses in some areas to counteract some of the added strength that this gives characters.

The cleanest of the progressions I worked out is as follows:

Three Trained Skills

If the core rules give your character three trained skills (before racial adjustments or feat expenditure), you have three skills at +4, chosen from your class list. After assigning these, assign a +2 to eight more skills (not the same skills for which you’ve already chosen bonuses). You must include the rest of your class skills in this list. After assigning these, pick one remaining skill to receive a -2. Everything else is untrained (+0).

Four Trained Skills

Four skills at +4
Seven skills at +2
Four skills at +0
Two skills at -2

Five Trained Skills

Five skills at +4
Six skills at +2
Three skills at +0
Three skills at -2

Six Trained Skills

Six skills at +4
Five skills at +2
Two skills at +0
Four skills at -2

Adjustments for Race and Feats

Humans and eladrin pick one additional trained skill: humans from their class list, eladrin from the full skill list. As a result, humans effectively receive one more +4 skill and one less +2 skill, while eladrin receive one more +4 skill and one less +0 skill. The Skill Training and Skill Familiarity feats go away, and are merged into one feat that grants +3 to a skill and can be applied to any skill regardless of its existing bonus. Jack of All Trades applies only to your +0 and -2 skills, making them +2 and +0 skills respectively. Racial bonuses to skills apply normally.

Why I Like This

This gives all characters a total of 26 points of bonuses (if you count the penalties), with some characters more specialized than others. In theory, every character should have considerable ability to join in on skill challenges, on more-or-less equal footing. Characters with six trained skills aren’t better at the whole category of things we call “skills,” they’re just more specialized. That being the case, you could let players decide which of these they want for their characters: do you want to be a skill specialist or a skill generalist?

To give another impression of how this would change things, the current spread of “skill bonuses from training” runs from +15 (three trained skills) to +35 (seven trained skills) or even +55 (seven trained skills plus Jack of All Trades granting +2 to your 10 untrained skills). My proposal would change this to +26 on up to +40 (base +26, eladrin turns a +0 to a +4, little Jackie grants 5 skills a +2).

And Another Thing

Arcana is the best skill in the game, in my experience. This skill’s application can best be summed up as “be a wizard at it,” much like invoking your High Concept Aspect for everything you do in Dresden Files. In a quest to include everyone, a majority of skill challenge situations I’ve seen allow at least one application of Arcana. If not that, then History, without doubt. Admittedly, this may have a lot to do with the kinds of adventures and situations that our games have tended to see, but I think 4e is particularly high on “well, there’s some nebulous magic stuff going on here.”

Athletics and Endurance are, in combination, the “be a fighter at it” skills, Stealth and Thievery are the rogue’s unquestionable go-to skills for any task, and clerics have Religion and… I dunno, maybe Heal. I feel like Religion really needs to be the full parallel of Arcana in its breadth of application, but as it is written it feels more like “just” a knowledge skill. This might be a matter of perception, given that divine-sourced characters have been vanishingly rare in games we’ve played. The other thing, though, is that Religion is based on Intelligence, which is a secondary stat for one Invoker build and one Avenger build, and that’s it. Other than paladins, though, every divine class needs Wisdom, and I really have to ask why wizards trained in Religion are better casters of Religion rituals than clerics or invokers. I would like a cleric to feel like she is in every way as much of a divine spellcaster as a wizard is an arcane one.

So I’d like to take everything that Religion does right now, and make it do for clerics what Arcana does for wizards, particularly in detecting magic. I’d call it Piety, and I’d make it Wisdom-based. This would be especially useful in making divine casters the best at casting divine rituals, not just healing and druidic rituals. (Also good for letting druids and shamans handle religious functions.)

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8 thoughts on “4e Skills and Class Balance

  • Kainenchen

    As well you know, I agree completely on making religion (by whatever name) a Wisdom based skill. Also, now that it's laid out in numbers, I really like scaling the training on skills. I prefer to keep DCs low, and still have them be challenging… so often it seems like it's not really a challenge, even at fairly low levels, unless it is a DC of 20 or higher.

    As for the shortness of non-combat situations, I'll point out some in-game mercantilism we've been subject to that took pretty much an entire session…

  • samhaine

    Ultimately, I think most house rule tweaks to the D&D skill system are going to be unsatisfying because the core mechanic is at odds with how D&D works. 3.0 grafted on a traditional skill system of roll vs. base difficulty, but higher is better. Every other system in the game works on a system of roll against a fixed number and it doesn't matter how much you beat it by, because just hitting it qualifies you to avoid the problem/do the next thing.

    (Breaking this into three comments because Blogger continues to hate me.)

  • samhaine

    4e did make some mild improvements by reducing the vast gulf that could easily form in 3.X between a skill specialist and someone that'd never put ranks in it (though you can still get a hell of divide if you try) and by trying to extend the skill system into multiple rolls with fixed DCs. But it's just a patch using the same grafted on skill system, so it's never going to be anywhere near as interesting as combat. If D&D is moving towards a really integrated skill system (instead of just "those things the thief does real quick then we get back to the dungeon crawl") there's going to need to be a fundamental rethinking to make it work way more like combat.

  • samhaine

    That said, I think your points toward the end of the post are more valuable for a quick patch: alter the skill list so you can give everyone the same number of trained skills, classes actually have skills that match their prime requisites, and there aren't any clear skills that will be useful most often. The idea of balancing more trained skills with skill penalties seems like it could backfire and create more situations like in 3.X where the skill specialist is so much better that it's insane for anyone else to roll it, especially the guy who tanked it, which was, AFAIK, why they moved away from discretionary rank spends in the first place.

  • Shieldhaven


    I worked out a whole bunch of different arrangements of bonuses for skills. One that gets rid of skill penalties would look something like:

    3 trained: 3x +4, 9x +2, 5x +0
    4 trained: 4x +4, 7x +2, 6x +0
    5 trained: 5x +4, 5x +2, 7x +0
    6 trained: 6x +4, 3x +2, 8x +0

    This distributes a total of 30 points of bonuses. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from shaving off a +2 from each to take that down to 28 or even 26.

    I have played through skill challenges that were compelling set-pieces rather than just "that thing the thief does." They're harder to write than a compelling combat, because compelling combat pretty much takes care of itself. I think that Rob Donoghue's ideas that I linked are a promising Way Forward for skill challenge design, so long as the associations between skill success and "damage" to the situation are written in a way that makes sense to the players.

    I think that skill challenges should sometimes make characters do things with their weaknesses, but that weakness shouldn't be "playing the skill challenge in the first place."

  • samhaine

    Part of the problem is that there's two ways skills get used.

    One is the situation where it makes sense for more than one party member to do a thing. Everyone needs to sneak into the camp. Everyone needs to jump the pit or climb the mountain. The boat toppled and everyone has to swim.

    The second is the situation where only one member needs to do something. The rogue disarms the trap. The wizard identifies the spell. The bard knows the lore. The ranger spots the ambush.

    The second class of things works way better in the skill challenge format and is less disrupted by a discrepancy between highest score and lowest. The first class is more likely to come up in situations they GM didn't really plan beforehand, and can lead to the biggest show stopper ("You're 20th level and your Swim bonus is only +1!?").

  • Shieldhaven

    Actually, I think that part of the problem comes from the way we think of History and other knowledge checks. The logic is something like this:

    1. You're checking to see what you already know.
    2. Hitting a high DC means that you know information of that high DC, and all non-contradictory information of lower DCs.
    3. Unless you have a new source of information, retries won't help.
    4. Because there's only what's true and what's not at stake, there's no reason for anyone else to roll, unless they can pull down a higher DC than the one you reached.

    I'm not sure how else I'd have those knowledge-based skills work, aside from trying to answer new and different questions. This is another of the things that makes writing skill challenges tough.

    Oh, and – while some skill challenges recommend making the use of some skills an automatic failure (such as intimidating people who are inexplicably immune to intimidation), I can't imagine a situation where spending some time checking your knowledge of history would be an automatic failure.

  • seaofstarsrpg

    You could use combinations of knowledge skills to provide different branches of what a knowledge check can deliver. Say Religion + History 20, gets you a special bit of info on the knight-religious, while Local + History 20 gets you rumors of a secret entrance under the bridge.