C Series • #13
The mechanical use of skills in role playing games provides another avenue of activity beyond the traditional combat action. Their presence also lends an aid to the resolution of certain social encounters during gameplay. Some rule systems have a limited package for skills while others make extensive use of them. Being a little less combat-focused than some GMs, I tend to like rules that offer a good range of skills for characters. The birth of the D20 System almost twenty years ago gave me an ideal vehicle for that.
Having started my gaming career with Dungeons & Dragons, like most hobbyists, I was very interested in the arrival of the game’s 3rd Edition and its “D20 mechanic.” Some of the long-accepted weirdness and contrariness of 1st and 2nd Editions were streamlined so the goal always stayed “high numbers are good” while some redundancies were eliminated. Combat and magic, important parts of the RPG process, both benefited from a uniform codification of steps and situational definitions. Character creation was made much more robust with progressive class abilities, cool racial features and special elements called feats. Another part of that creation process, and of particular interest to me, was the expansion of the old non-weapon proficiency system into a truly functional skill system.
At its core, the greater D20 System made skills a growth vehicle for characters. Every class was given a set number of skill points and these were modified by a character’s Intelligence modifier. These points then could be spent to buy ranks in various skills that were inherent to a given class’s training and role. But those points also could be used to buy ranks in cross-class skills, those things outside of the typical scope of a particular class. In-class skills were purchased at a one-for-one rate while cross-class skills cost double. These skill points were earned at each level a character advances which allowed for additional training of the skills.
Each skill was keyed to a certain attribute score with, for example, most physical skills tied to either Strength or Dexterity and most technical skills tied to Intelligence. There also were skills in the social realm, some in the situational awareness sphere and still others a bit more esoteric. The purchased ranks of a skill were added to the modifier of the key attribute along with any bonuses from magic items or more temporary sources for a total modifier. This number was added to the result of a rolled twenty-sided die when a skill was used.
The determination of success or failure was based on that totaled die result as compared to either a set target number or an opposed roll. Some circumstances, like climbing a wall or balancing on a ledge, were measured by that set target number which was called a Difficulty Class. Easy tasks generally were at DC10 while something truly epic, like following old footprints in a rainstorm, were significantly hard at DC25 or even higher. But sometimes an action would be measured by the skill of another character. If someone wanted to sneak by a guard undetected, they would roll a Move Silently check while the guard would make a Listen check and the resolution of that act would be based on which character succeeded and, sometimes, by how much.
The degree of success on the check roll also allowed for varying levels of success with the action. When encountering a monster, most player characters try to identify it or figure out its weaknesses. A character with Knowledge Arcana could roll a check to recall information about a magical beast and do well enough relative to a Difficulty Class to know what the beast was but maybe not well enough to know that it took a particular weapon to harm it. Similarly, in a social encounter, two characters could role play their interactions with the assistance of opposed Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Sense Motive rolls to determine how their negotiations proceeded. The GM also could add conditional modifiers to the rolls and other character could attempt an easy DC roll in order to give an “aid another” bonus to the acting character.
As the D20 System developed for different applications, settings and needs, so too did the skills section develop. D&D3 and D&D3.5 made use of an inherent multiplier to the skill points at a character’s first level. This larger initial pool of points was meant to represent extended training and development primary to beginning an adventuring career. Pathfinder (commonly referred to as “D&D3.75” in its early days) did away with that multiplier but granted an automatic +3 bonus to any trained skill from a class’s unique skill list. Star Wars Saga Edition went a couple of steps further and only offered points at a class’s very first level. For all subsequent levels, every trained skill went up by one rank to represent steady and continuous development.
The utility of the D20 System’s skills section was very appealing to me and remains so to this day. Even more interesting and useful to me, though, is its adaptability. Skill selection has become a key part of character creation and advancement for me. A standard fighter can be made into more of a special forces commando with the application of cross-class skills like Hide, Listen, Move Silently, Search and Spot. A rogue can be shifted from the typical thief role toward the grifter or spy roles when skill points are focused on Charisma-based skills like Bluff, Diplomacy, Gather Information and certain Knowledge sub-skills. And clerics, sorcerers and wizards who make us of magical scrolls can better build their own tools (to say nothing of making some extra coin on the side) by spending skill points on Craft Calligraphy and Profession Scribe.
Whether the D20 System is your game engine or not, take some time to re-evaluate your approach to the skills section. It is a very useful and important part of character creation as well as mechanical gameplay.