Monday, November 21, 2011

The Problem with Skill Checks

I don't like skill checks. In fact, I don't really like skills either. To me, skills are part of that glorious part of roleplying that is tertiary to actual play, but essential to character development. That is, it feels that, by having rules based access to skill checks, all you do is prevent characters who otherwise have good reason to have those skills from having those skills.

To me, skills feel like something that's not part of the challenge, but rather part of the narrative. To be part of the challenge, it really has to be something where players make active informed decisions. And when your skills boil down to "I have X% chance of doing this," that element doesn't really apply.

Skills, in my mind, should not be part of the challenge of the game. They are pass fail. That's not to say that your character may or may not play differently based on what skills they have. But rather, it's to say that if you distant skills from gameplay, then it doesn't matter what skills a character has, it's not going to be gamebreaking. It may break the *narrative,* but I think it's unwise to try and shoehorn protections against the destruction of narrative structure into the game-this is the same reason why I feel rituals, rather than being explicitly codified, should be vague and subject to the DM's whims. It's less about challenge and more about narrative.

That being said, I absolutely love skill powers. A DM can completely ignore skill checks altogether, yet skills can still be a useful part of a character's build. I feel like there's something to that. In the same way that you're technically permitted to select as many backgrounds as you want, but only get one background benefit, I feel that the same should apply to skills: you get as many as you want, but when it comes to gameplay, you gain one bonus skill power.

I'm not going into specifics here.

One other issue with skills is that there's an implication that because it's a d20 roll, a high enough roll should be able to pull off any task. So you get skill monkeys with +50 to diplomacy, expecting to talk the main villain out of their plot. It's a problem with narrative. Players feel entitled to their skills, because it's part of their build. The point is, that's where the problem lies: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your gameplay for the sake of your narrative. Your narrative should be able to flow without sacrifice.

But I'm rambling a bit more than usual.


  1. Two Notes:
    1) The cornerstone of Dungeons and Dragons is the d20. Combat, in a sense, boils down to "I have some percent to win this fight." Despite a character's previous encounters of victory, they can be easily beaten simply because a few bad rolls on their part, and good one's on their attackers. The game is about percentages. Its a simply way to numerate the chaotic twists of fate in the real world. You could be a consistent jumper, but one day you might slip on a stone.
    2) Nowhere does it say every skill can work on anything. Even in the DMG under example noncombat encounters (pg.76), it explains that Intimidate simply doesn't work on the NPC. Similar could be that with Diplomacy: Your villain might be so convinced of himself, that he cannot be convinced simply. However, if your player's might come up with some ingenious skill challenge using various skills, not just the one, you shouldn't penalize them by simply telling them they can't.

    And there is no reason that skill checks have to interrupt the narrative. In fact, for certain skills, I require my players to actually give reasoning and examples to a skill check, giving a bonus or a penalty for what they say. This, in turn, helps the narrative. And even when they do fail the challenge, they feel like they tried, without a loss to the story either for you or them.
    So stop dissing the skill checks.

  2. What part of "Needlessly vitriolic 4th edition blog" do you not understand?

    Further, does that really address what I was getting at with this particular post? I think the one point you raised-that the DMG says that "Intimidate doesn't work on everyone"-is precisely the problem. That's a very good thing for the DMG to say. But because skill monkeys exist, they think that there should *not* be any such NPCs. That for every NPC, there must be a theoretical diplomacy check that can win them over.

    Of course, that's just the legacy of 3.5 thinking methinks. Once we can finally do away with that kind of mentality, we'll have truly entered into a gilded age.

  3. You believe the problem is with edition. Its not. Its all a matter of DM's choice. There is no mechanic in the 4th edition that states that ever skill requires you to be able to check against it. Neither did 3rd. The only difference is that things were expected to be different. They're not. You can run the game however you want. As DM, its your right. And as long as your players know that going in, there should be no problem.
    The issue then comes as how should new players no what to expect? You can tell them every little nuance that you expect. Somethings are bound to pop up right before they happen. That's fine, as long as you are consistent. Not consistent with some imaginary rule book of God but by your own.

  4. I have come across the situation where, as a DM, I want the players to find something with Perception or get out of a situation with Bluff or Diplomacy. Why let the story hinge on one die roll? I usually just let the person trained in Perception find the hidden cache, and the users of Bluff and Diplomacy can talk themselves out of small situations with no roll. It speeds up the game and rewards players for choosing diverse skills as a group. If they want to push their characters or gain additional benefits, then they may have to roll.

  5. Incidentally, person with crazy long numbers for an anonymous ID, the problem with skill checks isn't really edition specific. However, releasing a new edition of the game COULD fix it, but it's certainly not a problem that prior editions DIDN'T have. I'll grant that that one's on me-that calling it "Fifth Edition Now" suggests that I blame all the problems of the game on 4th edition (which, believe me, I do not-I think it's a HUGE improvement over 3.5).

  6. Incidentally Josh, I really love that pass/fail mechanism idea you have. Indeed, I think that in place of training being a flat bonus to skill checks, training should allow a character to autopass certain skill checks, whereas untrained characters should have to attempt what amounts to ability checks. That way, charisma still plays a role in bluffing, but it can't outdo training. But likewise, if you're trained in bluff, you don't suck at it just because you have low charisma-a phenomenon that makes class skill pretty much useless if they don't align with your ability scores.

  7. The whole low-ability-score thing is in fact a problem, especially in the epic teir where someone who is trained in a skill may not be as good as someone with a naturally high ability score. There might be ways to fix that (like giving trained skills an additional boost per teir), but that might ruin the game for non-trained characters if as the DM you expect the DC to be higher. And if you keep them the same then yes, it would be like trained characters can auto-bypass the check all together, though this whole scenario is counter productive to what this whole post is about.

  8. And I know why this is a problem for you, sir Tom. Its because your games are incredibly linear. You have a rigid plot. You expect certain things to happen. You run it... like a book, or a video game, abliet an incredibly advanced one with lots of wiggle room, but in the end everything folds into the mold. But that's not how everyone runs the game.
    Skills can actively drive the narrative of a story as much as being able to win a fight. In fact, skill checks often lead to fighting, or can be used within a fight with as much or more of an effect than an attack. Similarly, you can use skill checks to avoid fights, or failing a check might lead to you taking more damage.
    But despite all my blathering, I do agree that many players feel they are entitled to all their skills. And why not? As long as your argument for why they can't is "Because I am the DM and I am God," people are going to resent you. I say if you don't let a player make a check, give them a damn good reason.

  9. Well, you'd never say "why can't I sneeze on the dragon infecting it thus killing it" because there's no rules for sneezing to kill (unless you have a power)!

    You can always be diplomatic-you're just not guaranteed to have the result that you want. But that means that if you roll a natural 20 and you're a skill monkey, you think "well gee, that's not fair, I should have had a chance to get precisely what I wanted" when indeed that's not how it should work.

    You don't talk Tiamat into not eating you with a single d20.

  10. I agree. You might convince him of a single point, but arguments are rarely composed of one disagreement. Hence why I believe skill challenges to be genius in that they are built so that you can't win with only one roll, or with only one skill, or only one player. It requires well placed choices and elegance, much like any other encounter.
    Also, assuming your character was ill, I would say sneezing at a monster would at least make them have to make a saving throw against it. But if I remember correctly, diseases take some time to work.

  11. You're missing the point completely. The point is, where the game has well define rules, people know what the rules are, and they expect those rules to hold. But because skills aren't well defined (well, some skills are-jump checks come to mind), again-there's the thought that a sufficiently high skill check should be able to do anything, because getting the king to cede control over his kingdom is covered by diplomacy.

    But no amount of diplomacy checks-not even 100-is going to convince someone like that. But the fact that diplomacy exists as a skill makes some people think that with enough skill monkeying, you should be able to do anything.

    Somewhere down the line, the DM has to say what is and isn't possible. The problem is when players object to the DM's decisions based on skill entitlements. When you don't have skill monkeying as a build option in the first place, there's less a sense of entitlement. Skills can be more thematic than mechanical, which means that you don't end up feeling hurt when your skills don't do everything you want them to do, because it's less a cost to your build, and more just a descriptive element of your character.

  12. If a king and his council can be swayed by a group of rowdy adventures, I say they weren't fit to rule it in the first place. I also say that leads to a significant amount of narrative: why would the king give up his position? What do the people think when they find out about the change? Are there people who don't like it? Are rebellions bound to happen?
    I think the big difference between you and I is who is allowed to dive the plot. You like to write stories with clearish goals in mind. I like to let the player's drive the story. If they can think to do it, I'll let them try. The point of skill checks is to tell players "No, you can't do that yet." 'Yet' being the important word there. Aspiration. A reason to live in the world before taking control of it.

  13. Again, I don't think you're listening.

    Let's say I'm a high level character with +50 diplomacy somehow. I roll a natural 20. I say to the DM "Why even let me have diplomacy if it's not going to work?"

    There's the suggestion that since this sort of thing is indeed covered by diplomacy, that that is precisely the sort of thing where an insane diplomacy check should allow. But it's not. It's bad game design because the implications directly contradict good narrative.

  14. Also, the skill is "Diplomacy," not "Swindling." Diplomacy lets the PCs make the right moves during high-society moments, an prevents faux pas that could cause a negative reception with whoever they're meeting with. It can be used to cut a deal or bargain, but think of the game realistically instead of a series of die rolls. Asking the king to hand over his kingdom because you've got +50 to Diplomacy is ridiculous. Ask for land, a better reward, or his daughter's hand, but even thinking that you should get anything you want "because I rolled a 20" shows a serious disconnect between the verisimilitude of the game world and your narcissism with your character.

  15. Putting a statistical value on diplomacy is precisely what justifies that narcissism. Part of it is the question of "what does a +50 diplomacy modifier mean?"

    Of course, lately I've been rethinking skills entirely, opting to be closer to an autopass/fail situation, where if something seems reasonable and a character is trained, they can do it, and if not, they can't.

  16. Why couldn't you just use a normal d20 system and only allow diplomacy to be used "if something seems reasonable?"
    Lets move to another skill check, like Athletics or something. Just because I have a +50 bonus and roll a natural 20 doesn't mean I can jump to the moon. What tells you that? The rules. Similarly, Diplomacy states "Make a Diplomacy check to change opinions, to inspire good will, to haggle with a patron... or to negotiate a deal in good faith." (PHB pg183)
    Now the most important part there is the last three words. If you apply them to every single clause, then it greatly lowers the potential abuse of the skill.
    So more than likely, asking a king for his kingdom is likely an Intimidate check. Which people in high power typically don't like to be intimidated. Usually results in nasty things like assassins and what-not.

  17. Again, in that case, I think it really makes more sense as a pass/fail scenario.

    Arbitrary success values reduce the fun of gameplay. Moreover, it still creates an issue where the difference between trained and untrained is less of a difference than between low ability scores and high ability scores.

  18. Which is all fine (I especially agree with your last statement), except in a pass/fail scenario, your characters may feel even more entitled to what their skills can do. If someone trained in Athletics can expect to jump a certain distance, the Diplomat may expect to always be able to sway people of a certain level.

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