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Skills in D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.


If you look at RPGs as a whole, skill systems are the foundation of many games. Games like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu rely heavily on skills to give characters their basic abilities. In comparison, D&D came to the skill game relatively late; its relationship with skills over the years has set it apart from other games.

In the Beginning

The 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide included a brief section on player character non-professional skills. Under these rules, the assumption was that characters spend their formative years learning the basic abilities of their class—but might also have a secondary skill, such as forester or gambler, gained while acquiring their class or from earlier years.

Characters gained a secondary skill at random, with about a 20% chance of having no such skill at all. In terms of mechanics, a secondary skill served more as a suggestion than a formal rule. It was up to the DM to determine what a secondary skill actually did in the game.

The release of the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide added non-weapon proficiencies to the core game. First introduced in 1985’s Oriental Adventures, non-weapon proficiencies were an optional rule that allowed for more well-rounded characters. They also added options beyond the spread of class abilities and spells, allowing characters to craft goods and weapons, or master swimming, boating or riding. Given the patchwork quality of AD&D’s rules (either a blessing or a curse, depending on your tastes), the non-weapon proficiencies helped fill in gaps. In that era, rules for guiding a boat down a river were likely to show up in whatever adventure happened to need them. From appearance to appearance, they were likely to change based on the needs of the adventure or the author’s knowledge of the prior rule.

Non-weapon proficiencies helped change that by bringing structure to the game. If your character wanted to guide a boat down a river, you needed the Boating proficiency. The non-weapon proficiency system made the transition to 2nd Edition, serving as that game’s skill system in the Player’s Handbook.

Ranks and Skills

While non-weapon proficiencies branched into areas that other games covered with skills, they had little to do with the mechanics supported by Champions, GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, and other games. D&D maintained a relatively idiosyncratic rule set. That changed with the release of 3rd Edition, which saw the introduction of a system that looked much like those presented in other games.

Non-weapon proficiencies were like little on/off switches. If you didn’t have Animal Noise (an example from the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide), you couldn’t try to mimic an owl to lure an orc away from its guard post. 3rd Edition made skills more accessible with its set list, many of them usable even if a character had no ranks invested in it. A few skills did require training to use, with such design decisions being driven by logic. For instance, a character with no training in magic couldn’t make a Spellcraft check.

4th Edition further refined 3E’s system, trimming the number of skills and simplifying the mechanics for gaining them. 3E’s Jump, Climb, and Swim were all compressed under 4E’s Athletics. Rather than spend ranks, characters were either trained with the skill (for a +5 bonus) or were untrained.

Are Skills Good for the Game?

If you’ve been reading my columns, the answer to this question should seem obvious. I wrote earlier in the series about how the core check mechanic, and the option for any class to take any skill, were big mechanical improvements in D&D’s history. Rather than having to rely on a specific Boating non-weapon proficiency, a DM can now simply ask for a Strength check to navigate a boat against a current, or a Dexterity check to zip around a rock. Even better, skills allow anyone to climb, hide, or pick a pocket. In the early days, only thieves could even attempt such things.

On the other hand, skills also create dependence on the rules. If a sphinx asks the party a riddle, can the wizard make an Arcana or History check to figure out the answer? Does that undermine the game for the player who likes puzzling out riddles? Should an interrogation require roleplay, or does someone simply make an Intimidate check? One group’s easy resolution system might short circuit another’s desire for immersion and roleplay.

On top of that, the real value of the skill system can change depending on your point of view. Some players see skills as a useful way to customize their characters, picking out things like a 3E Craft skill to lend mechanical weight to a character’s background. Others prefer to avoid rules for such details, leaving them free to create whatever they want for a character. Some players like that skills speed up the game, allowing a single check to replace a player’s queries about every object in a room. Others like the immersion of working through a room, and the potential rewards this pays to those with an eye for detail.

I think that skills are an overall positive addition to the game, as they add a fun element of character customization and form the foundation for a unified task resolution system. However, I do wish that the way we used skills was a bit different. I have two things I’d like to see skills do.

First, I’d reward immersive play while allowing players to roll a die rather than narrate an action. I think DMs should respond to a clever idea or a good bit of roleplay with an automatic success in an action. Players who just want to roll could still do that, but smart play would remove luck from the equation. This approach allows for both immersive play and for a more mechanics-oriented approach.

Second, I’d focus skill improvement on special abilities and options rather than a steadily increasing bonus. An increasing bonus puts pressure on the DM to invent ways to make a highly skilled character feel competent. A superior Athletics bonus allows me to scale slippery surfaces, but at the end of the day I’m still just climbing something. That’s the base benefit of the skill. The DM could just as easily make the wall cracked granite rather than smooth glass.

If instead characters could unlock special uses for a skill, that becomes a tool for a player to use. For instance, a character highly skilled in Diplomacy might be able to place the mundane equivalent of a charm spell on an NPC. A character highly skilled in Athletics could try otherwise impossible checks, such as attempting to scuttle across a ceiling like a spider. What I like best about that approach is that it allows martial-type characters to gain abilities that can rival magical spells.

What are your experiences with the skill system, and what are your least and most favorite elements of it?

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 05/31/2011

Beyond the door is a long, narrow corridor. The light of a torch flickers at its distant end. As you make your way down the hall, the lantern you’re holding begins to glow a cool green. The room ahead finally comes into view. This passage ends at a stone landing 10 feet above the floor of this circular chamber. Stairs curve along the edge of the wall—leading both downward to the room’s floor, and upward to another landing and a door. Below you, on the opposite side of the chamber, another door is set at ground level.

An enormous snake, easily 30 feet long, lies coiled on the chamber floor below. The snake’s eyes snap open and it rises up, barring its long fangs. Doubtlessly it heard the clang of your armor as you moved down the passage.

  • Attack the snake with my holy power: 51.7%
  • Run up the stairs and through the door: 40.4%
  • Move back down the passage: 7.9%

Poll Time

Drawing on the power of the gods, you invoke the rune of peace to cripple the serpent's ability to attack. Bands of divine radiance seal its jaws shut for a few critical moments, allow you to batter it with your mace. When the magic of your prayer finally fades, the snake then grasps you in its jaws. You crush its skull with one, final blow, but not before it delivers a full dose of its deadly poison. You feel woozy and sick, but your divine magic quickly purges the venom.

With the snake slain, you see now that it was coiled around an iron cage. A mangy bugbear sits in the cage, its fur streaked with gray. It glares at you.

"Let me free, human, and I can make it worth your while. I have friends in the city above, and enemies we may share in these tunnels."

What do you do?
Bargain with the bugbear.
Kill the bugbear.
Continue up the stairs and through the door above.
Go through the door at ground level of this chamber.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He has worked on the Ravenloft board game along with a number of supplements for the D&D RPG.

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