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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.


As I’ve been working on this series of columns, it’s been interesting to read your reactions here and on the forums. A number of times I’ve seen people point out that it would be nice to see some actual design.

I have a confession to make: I’m no longer a game designer at Wizards of the Coast. In my new role, I’m a manager. I guide the teams, but I don’t do the actual design work. So what you’re about to see is work done by a guy who’s a little out of practice. I’m going to show you some of our previously discussed concepts on (virtual) paper. They might be terrible, they might be great. Most likely, they’ll be somewhere in the middle. What I hope to get, though, is a sense of any value these ideas might have.

By now, Gen Con has come and gone and you’ve heard that we’re releasing a new D&D skirmish game for next year. Hopefully, you’ve also heard that we’re doing an open play test for the game. This is our chance to make sure that the rules are as clear as possible and that we deliver on a great game. Earlier this year, we launched a set of weekly columns (including this one) to reach out to the D&D player community and to give you all a greater voice. Our approach to the skirmish game mirrors that goal, and it will be an important consideration going forward with new D&D games. When we can manage an open playtest, we will do so. If we can’t do an open test, we owe it to you to conduct closed playtests that are as large as possible.

With that in mind, here’s a piece of actual design (OK, that’s being generous) that sketches out some of my thoughts on skills in D&D.

Goals of a Skill System

When we talk about complexity in D&D, it’s easy to focus on aspects of the game that feature intricate, detailed rules. I think that’s part of the story, but there’s also something to be said for the complexity of having lots of simple rules. At some point, you have to look at the situation not just in terms of how the rules work but how the players manage the rules at the table. A game with lots of rules may require more lookups during play or have conflicts between rules. They might also create the sense that the rules, not the DM, are in charge of the game. That’s an important point, and one that I think varies from table to table.

The skill system is a great example of this. Its core mechanic is the core mechanics of 3rd and 4th Editions: roll a die, add modifiers, and meet or beat a target number. However, embedded within each skill are a number of exceptions and specific rules. Skills describe how to jump, climb, and swim. They interact with determining surprise. They also interact with abilities in odd ways. Some actions fall under skills (lying to a guard), and others are always ability checks (bashing down a door, though in 4E you can extend Athletics to cover that). In both cases, though, you can make an argument that Charisma and Strength carry that weight.

Here’s what I propose as a starting point: A skill gives you something new to do or it makes you better at something you already can do. In other words, if you removed the skill chapter from the rulebook, the game would still be playable. You’d be missing options, but the basic functions of the game remain intact. We don’t hide things like the rules for climbing or jumping in the skills chapter. We just have rules for how to climb, and then perhaps a skill that makes you better at climbing.

For a lot of other stuff, we can shelve the basic rules for how to do things under the ability scores. For example, Charisma describes guidelines for using that ability to lie, gather information, negotiate a treaty, and so forth. It takes a general approach that sets the scope for the ability.

I think a skill system in D&D can either serve as a set of rules for how to do stuff, or it can serve as a way to customize your character. You can do both in the system, but I think that needlessly hides stuff away from the players. It’s clearer to just create a flexible, core mechanic, set out the basics of how to do common actions that you expect anyone to be able to do, give the DM a robust mechanic to improvise or make a ruling, and then focus skills on customization.

Here’s an example that tackles climbing in D&D. Under this system, we have general rules for climbing, probably either in the combat or exploration chapter. The general rules for climbing appear first.

Climb

When you climb, you must be standing up and have both hands free. Your Strength score determines your climb speed. Some creatures, such as spiders, climb faster than normal.

You can climb a vertical surface, but cannot climb across a ceiling or similar surface without a special ability.

When you are climbing, all attacks against you gain combat advantage. If you cannot take standard actions while climbing, you immediately fall. You also fall if any effect forces you to move against your will or if you are knocked prone.

Ability Checks and Climbing: If the surface you want to climb is a covered with handholds or is easy to scale—such as a length of rope, a rocky cliff face, or a wall pockmarked with holes and cracks— you simply climb it at your climb speed.

In some cases, you might need to climb a treacherous surface. If you try to climb a rope covered in grease, a crumbling rock wall, or a statue as a hill giant rocks it back and forth, you risk falling to the ground. When you attempt to climb, the DM may ask you to make an ability check to see if you can complete the climb. If your check fails, you make no progress on your climb. If your die roll is a natural 1 or your result is 10 or more less than the DC, you fall.

If the DM rules that climbing a surface requires a check, you usually make a Strength check to pull yourself up. Your DM might instead ask for a Dexterity check to climb a swaying surface, or a Wisdom check to find the handholds on an invisible wall of force.

Strength Climb Speed
11 or less 10 feet
12 – 13 15 feet
14 – 15 20 feet
16 – 17 25 feet
18 – 19 30 feet
20 35 feet
+5 feet/point above 20

Climb Skills

As you can see, this approach places the rules for climbing outside of the skill system. You could also imagine that these rules could talk about spiders and other creatures that can climb with ease. Those rules could also show up in the DMG or the Monster Manual.

The skill system then steps in to augment your ability to climb. It might look something like this:

Climb Skill

If you are trained in the Climb skill, you gain a +2 bonus on all ability checks made when climbing.

Pretty simple, isn’t it? OK, now let’s make another assumption. Part of the interesting part of skills lies in their ability to customize your character. Rather than focusing on static benefits, the skill system could also offer more active ones.

On one hand, you could imagine that really nifty benefits are simply checks with higher DCs. However, that approach adds more rules to the core. Everyone has to learn those DCs and what happens when you hit them. Instead, we can let the DM set DCs based on what a player wants to do using a robust set of guideline DCs. The abilities that a player opts into are simply new talents that the character can use at will. Here’s the Climb skill with a slight tweak to it:

Climb Skill

If you are trained in the Climb skill, you gain a +2 bonus on all ability checks made when climbing and you gain a Climb talent from those listed below. Each time you take training in this skill after the first, increase the bonus it provides by +1 and select another Climb talent.

Cautious Climber: You never fall when making an ability check to climb. If you fail a climb check, you still move half your climb speed.

Fast Climber: You gain a +5 foot bonus to your climb speed. You can take this talent multiple times, but the total bonus it grants cannot be greater than the base climb speed provided by your Strength score.

Spider Climb: You can climb across a horizontal surface at half your climb speed. Climbing in this manner requires a DC 10 Strength check if the surface does not normally require a check. If the surface does require a check to climb, instead increase that DC by 10.

Team Climb: As a standard action, you can grant all allies within 30 feet of you who can hear you a +2 bonus to their climb checks. This bonus lasts for 1 round.

Layers and Complexity

Going back to my earlier point, you can see how this system can be layered in by a DM. An intro or old school game might either ignore it entirely, relying instead on ability checks. The standard game might assume that characters use skills and skill talents, but the core classes have their skills pre-selected both to hit on the appropriate story elements and to focus on easy but useful options. For example, something like Fast Climber is easy to simply incorporate into an NPC’s climb speed. You could also easily imagine skill talents as an entirely optional rule. I think you’d have to look at the game as a whole and judge whether they are a strong enough concept to live in the core.

Poll Time

This approach to skills is...
Good.
Bad.
Somewhere in the middle.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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