Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve done this twice already. This time, rather than solving my issues with margin of success in D&D, I’m instead specifically targeting the high-level divide between specialists and incompetents (i.e., how there’s no way to make a skill DC challenging for one PC without making it impossible for the rest of the group). I’m also trying to do something that’s less invasive so it could be added onto a standard 3.X or Pathfinder game without redoing a bunch of other systems to accommodate. It’s largely based on The Alexandrian’s skill musings, but stripping out the potential 5E system of descriptive qualifiers. It’s also probably similar to 4E’s system in a lot of ways.

Skill Rank

A character’s skill rank is determined by the following factors:

  • Character level or Hit Dice: Always add your level to your skill checks (you can either write this in or just remember it so skills don’t have to be updated as often).
  • Class Skills: All of the character’s class skills (including those gained by multiclassing) gain a permanent +1 to their rank.
  • Feats: Skill bonus feats add their normal value to a skill (+3 or +2/+2). However, only take the highest bonus from feats (i.e., a +2/+2 feat coupled with a skill focus in one of those skills is only +2/+3 not +2/+5). GMs should offer players that initially buy a +2/+2 and want to upgrade it the ability to swap the initial +2/+2 feat out with a second skill focus for the other skill.
  • Magic: Add +1 for every +5 that a magic spell or item would normally grant the character for a skill (e.g., a Ring of Jumping gives a +1 Acrobatics instead of its normal +5).
  • Racial Bonuses: Racial skill bonuses that give a +2 instead give a +1. Racial (or size) bonuses that give a +4 instead give a +2.
  • Other Modifiers: For other skill bonuses not listed, grant +1 per +4 normally gained (e.g., improve jumping ability by +1 for every +10 movement speed and give Rogues a +1 for every +4 they would normally get for Disable Device).
  • Mastery: For every 10 skill ranks earned, you can master a skill. Add +2 to that skill’s rank. You can only master a given skill once.

A character also gains a +2 circumstance bonus to a skill check if his or her relevant ability score (not bonus) is equal to or greater than the DC (e.g., an Acrobatics check gains a +2 against any DC 15 or less if your Dexterity is 15). This provides an early reward for natural talent that eventually gives ways to masteries. It provides a continual bonus if you focus heavily on one ability score without letting escalating ability bonus widely extend the skill rank range.

This rank system effectively means that a character specializing in a skill will have a total of +6 (plus a circumstance bonus) greater than an incompetent party member of the same level before magic and other misc bonuses (which will likely only extend the range by a few points until very high levels). Effectively, a challenge that is very difficult for an incompetent party member should still have some chance of failure for a specialist (but the specialist still has a definite advantage).


The DC of an opposed check is the target’s total skill rank +10. Trying to detect a hiding 5th level rogue with a +3 bonus to Stealth (mastered class skill) is a DC 18 Perception check.

The DC of an unopposed check is based purely on the “level” of the challenge +10. Effectively, assign an unopposed challenge a level based on at what character level a completely untrained character should have even odds just based on years of generic adventuring competence. For example:

  • There’s a pretty decent chance that any adventurer has heard of the basic weaknesses of an appropriately challenging monster, so the DC for knowledge rolls to know about a monster is 10 + CR (with a small increase for monsters that are supposed to be rare and mysterious).
  • Even the party fighter eventually gets savvy to what spells are being cast, so a spellcraft DC to identify a spell is equal to 15 + the spell’s minimum caster level (giving those with no spellcraft a 50/50 shot of identifying spells three levels lower than their own wizard can cast).
  • In general, written skill DCs in the 10-20 range should be appropriate and actually stay challenging to the party for longer. Do consider collapsing DCs that escalate at a rate of +4 or +5 to +1 in order to match the decline in skill bonus spread.

Note: For a tighter range of DCs and a bigger advantage to specializing, you could go 4E style and halve both bonus from level and DC from level (e.g., a level 6 character only gets +3 from level but that’s okay because level 6 challenges are only DC 13).