Games with No Perception Skills

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“Make a Perception check,” is the GM’s fallback.

I’ve played in games (particularly combat-light modern games where social skills weren’t rolled but were just roleplayed) where perception-based rolls might be the only rolls made for entire sessions. Even in D&D, where there are standards to encourage a wide range of skill checks in a session, most build guides I see encourage players to always be proficient in Perception if possible (which indicates that lots of such checks is common across all tables). The Gumshoe system basically exists to add variety and certainty to investigation genres where little is rolled besides perception skills.

We’re probably overdoing it.

I’d been thinking for years that, at the very least, perception checks needed to be more intentional, as a GM. Was I requiring rolls when I should just be giving the information? Was failing a perception check interesting? Was succeeding? Could skills that didn’t get used enough (like science and academics) be used instead of perception when investigating things? So when I decided to run Scion and realized that the game didn’t come with any attributes or skills that were used for raw perception, I was interested to finally get a chance to try out my theories.

It was very awkward.

The first thing I realized, not having a generic perception roll to call for, was that often gating information behind a skill does have a purpose.

  • In the most basic sense, there are often things in a scene that are obvious and things that are subtle, and calling for a generic perception check is a marker of the divide between the two: it lets you break up a scene description rather than just narrating for an extended period (and, due to players feeling like they earned the extra description by rolling well, they’re more likely to pay attention).
  • In a more extended sense, sometimes it’s clear that there are parts of the scene description that are optional but valuable. You’re not going to break your plot by not revealing them, but giving them out may grant an advantage.
  • And in the most active sense, sometimes there are enemies that are hiding or items that have been actively hidden. Perception is a way to engage in conflict.

Now, most of this, I’m convinced, is GM training. After years of running games, the call for a perception check is a reflex. It’s instinctual. The cognitive dissonance would probably lessen after further years of not having that particular tool, requiring the development of new GMing muscles. Here are some tips for building those muscles (which might be good things to try even if you do have a perception skill to use in your game).

  • Embrace the old school mindset. Describe only the obvious in a scene. Rather than using a roll to break up information, encourage your players to ask for more details. Some information may be rewarded simply for asking (“What kinds of books are on the bookshelves?”) while others may require some kind of directed interaction (“Is one of the books a switch for a hidden door?”). None of these things even need a roll, just the players describing their characters focusing on and/or interacting with part of the environment.
  • Break narration into immediate and delayed impressions. Even without the players deliberately asking for more information, there are parts of a scene that would naturally resolve over time spent in the area. Think of your scene like downloading images on slow modem connections back in the day: first you get blobs of color like an over-stretched thumbnail, then you start getting finer details. Particularly in scenes with tension or combat, you can start with the very broad and mention more after the characters have been there for a bit. For example: “The baron’s office is done in dark woods and reds. There’s a desk, chair, a cabinet, and a couple of bookshelves, with a window onto the lawn.” “You’re starting to notice a weird smell of death in the room as you look over the cluttered top of the desk. The books are haphazardly shoved onto the shelves.” “You’re getting the impression that someone rifled through the room already, and shoved things back quickly to tidy up. The bad smell is worse by the cabinet, and some of the red on the carpet that you initially assumed was a pattern might be dried blood.”
  • Consider which skills you would use to hide the information that’s secret, and let the players roll the same skill to investigate. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Roll stealth to consider where the best places in the scene would be to hide a person/object. Roll deception to figure out the techniques you’d use to distract someone from the secret you’re trying to ferret out.
  • Allow bonus information as a reward for doing well on unrelated rolls that otherwise don’t benefit from it, or flat-out gate it behind player narrative currency. “You slide into the bedroom so silently the guards don’t notice you, and you happen to pick an approach that’s so good you notice…” “You have a sense that something else might be interesting here. Anyone want to spend a fate point to find it?”
  • Make stealth/deception the only active roll in a conflict. It’s already a problem for sneaky characters that multiple guards means an almost guaranteed chance of detection if they all get a separate roll (because the more people rolling, the more likely someone is to get an unusually high result). Set a reasonable difficulty for the check based on the situation (light/cover/number of guards for stealth or believability and stress level for deception), and if you succeed, you’re good until the situation changes. Players already have a hard time not metagaming when they know they failed an unprompted perception check. “I rolled a stealth check for the NPCs at a difficulty based on the information available to you” is just as reasonable as “I rolled your perception checks in secret.”

Pathfinder to 5e: Setting DCs

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I realized that one thing missing from my post on converting Pathfinder modules to 5e was how to convert difficulties for skill checks and saving throws.

The Math

Pathfinder skill checks tend to scale much higher than in 5e. Between feats, magic that improves ability scores and skills, and the base skill ranks, a highly-focused Pathfinder character could conceivably hit DC 60 without too much difficulty by 20th level. A similarly-focused character in 5e will have expertise, an ability score capped at 20, and probably the use of advantage and some kind of bonus die (like bardic inspiration). The 5e character hits only DC 36 with a similar frequency to the Pathfinder character hitting 60.

Using the theoretically most-focused character from level 1-20 in both systems, as well as a hypothetical “good-but-not-amazing” character, I worked out the skill DC curve below in a way that seems to be equivalent throughout play.

Straight up ability checks that don’t involve skills (like Strength checks to force doors) are probably closer to a wash: A character in Pathfinder can get ability scores over 20, but can’t usually apply most of the other bonuses that scale really high. 5e characters have access to advantage, and most miscellaneous bonuses (like bardic inspiration) apply to straight ability checks as easily as to skill checks, even if a high-ability-score character in 5e will be a few points behind a similarly focused character in Pathfinder. And, honestly, these checks are relatively uncommon at mid-to-high level anyway (since you can use utility magic to bypass them), so will tend to come up most frequently when characters have a similar range of ability bonuses anyway.

Meanwhile, saving throws are easier to figure out, since 5e tends to construct them into a very standardized 8 + proficiency + ability bonus. This means that you can assume DCs are almost always going to range from 10-21, and can figure out the most appropriate one by just figuring out the effective level of the threat plus the intended challenge of the threat (really easy threats are just 8 + proficiency + 0, while really hard ones are 8 + proficiency + 5).

The Conversion

Skill DCs

Pathfinder DC 5e DC
10 8
15 12
20 17
25 20
30 22
35 24
40 27
45 29
50 32
55 34
60 36

For DCs under 20, just take off 2-3 points of DC. For DCs of 20+, half + 7 gets you really close to the curve.

Ability Check DCs

If the ability doesn’t take a skill bonus, just use the printed ability check DC.

Saving Throw DCs

Figure out the approximate CR of the threat (when in doubt, just use the average PC level). Set the DC to 8 + that CR’s proficiency bonus + 0-5 (depending on how serious the threat is supposed to be).

For very quick and dirty math, just set the DC to half the CR + 10 and adjust it up or down by a point or two based on how serious the threat is.

Monster Hunter Hack


I finally burned through enough of my TV backlog to start watching Supernatural from the beginning. One of the interesting things about the show setup is that most monsters seem more than a match for even the most elite of humans (at least in season 1; I’ve heard there may be a bit of power creep later). Even the guy with the best combat training in the world is screwed going up against any monster, if he doesn’t have tools to exploit their weaknesses. The monster hunters that scare the things that go bump in the night don’t do so because they’re inherently badass, and able to win a straight fight. Instead, competence is defined by knowledge of monster weaknesses, skill at exploiting them, access to materials and rituals, and ability to track them while remaining off the grid.

This is not typical for RPGs.

Normal character advancement, particularly in level-based games but even in skill-based ones, allows an ongoing ramping of combat capability. Something that is a tough fight when you start out becomes a speedbump later on, just based on sheer defense and offense.

This rules hack looks to move the cheese a bit: combat capability becomes directly tied to knowledge of creature weaknesses and ability to exploit them. Importantly, even a highly trained hunter isn’t able to mow through a squad of cops or soldiers, and is also vulnerable to unexpected or unknown monstrous threats. Your power is highly invested in your ability to cheat against the supernatural, not in becoming superhuman yourself.

The system is phrased generically, for a skill-based game with a fairly linear progression of trait ratings to power level. It probably works directly with something like Storyteller or Unisystem, but needs some additional hacking for other systems with different ways of expressing competence. It’s also deliberately simple, so it’s easy to make threats on the fly. If you prize more simulationist outputs, it makes sense to move the benefits into specific things like damage and damage resistance.

Core System Elements

  • Supernatural creatures generally have combat dice pools beyond the maximum available to even highly-trained mortals. In a stand-up fight, even the weakest creature has an advantage against a mortal with maxed-out combat traits. The most powerful creatures have somewhere around double the trait total available to mortals (e.g., in Storyteller, creatures generally have combat pools from 11-20).
  • Characters can buy Lore skills for different creature types. These are fairly granular by type: knowing how to fight vampires doesn’t help against witches or ghosts, and may not even help against ghouls. The GM should create these skills based on similarities of in-setting combat capabilities and weaknesses. For things that are similar, but not totally similar, you might allow the player to apply the similar lore at a penalty, or just roll things up into hierarchical groups (e.g., having good ratings in Vampire, Ghoul, and Zombie lore also buys up a Corporeal Undead catchall that applies to a newly encountered undead monster).
  • Characters can also buy gear access traits, which represent having reliable, fast, cheap sources for custom weaponry, ritual components, and other monster-hunting tools. These are broken up by rough classification as makes sense to the GM (e.g., Custom Metal Weapons, Herbs and Oils, Unusual Ammunition, Ritual Tools, etc.; basically anything you might be like, “I know somebody that can probably get us…”). Improving these specific gear access traits should also gradually improve a Standard Loadout trait that represents common monster-hunting tools easy to hand; high ratings represent having highly-customized weapons good against a wide range of threats, and other gear that’s been extremely efficiently arranged to be quick and easy to hand. You might make these a shared expenditure for the whole party.
  • Experience pricing should make it cheap enough to have an extensive assortment of Lores and Gear traits by the end of the campaign, along with a moderate improvement in non-hunting traits.

Fighting Monsters

  • If you are blindsided by a monster and you can barely figure out what you’re dealing with, your combat total is your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout if that’s smaller than your normal combat total. For example, if you’re jumped by a vampire, your normal Dex + Melee 7 is superseded by your Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 4. Monsters go through highly trained combatants with no monster lore just as easily as total bystanders, because they’re all basically limited to trait 0s due to their lack of lore and gear.
  • If you’re going on the offensive with a solid idea of what the target is weak to (or at least have time to set up an intentional defensible position) you can instead add your appropriate Lore plus Standard Loadout to your total. In the original example, Dex + Melee + Vampire Lore + Standard Loadout 11 is used to attack vampires on purpose.
  • If you have a lot of time to prepare, you can replace everyone you equip’s Standard Loadout with a higher total based on acquiring customized exploits (the rolls and costs involved left as an exercise for the GM, based on the world simulation and how a monster’s specific weaknesses work; you may need to combine weapons, ammo, herbs, etc. to get the right mix of exploits).
  • Even neophyte hunters/interested bystanders/potential victims with Lore 0 can be included in the second and third point with a briefing by a character with the right Lore. A non-superstitious combat badass might go down as easily to a vampire as anyone else when blindsided, but becomes a big asset when told, “Those were vampires. Here are the things you need in order to kill them…” (Lore remains relevant, as it covers knowing a lot of very specific tricks and maneuvers beyond just a general weakness overview.)

Other Considerations

For the full Supernatural feel, it’s also worth emphasizing investigative traits and things that let you escape from danger and remain hidden from organized foes until you’re ready to strike. Even a totally clued-in master hunter would prefer to attack from surprise rather than being ambushed.

Group Skill Checks as Dice Pool


I tried something at my weekend Beyond the Wall game that may need to have a few more iterations before I’m totally happy with it, but seemed to work well enough to mention here.

I’ve never been a fan of using margin of success in D20. For one thing, it makes skills work differently than the other reasons you roll a d20 in the system. When you attack or save, you care about whether you met the target number or not, and often what number the die displays (for auto-miss or crit), but you don’t typically get any benefit from rolling significantly better than the target number. So having to track how much your result exceeded the DC for increased success immediately makes the skill system feel bolted on, like it came from another game.

And, in general, those other games that use margin of success for skill results have some kind of weighting to the roll, such as a dice pool or adding together multiple dice. In those systems, there is usually one level of success that’s much more likely than the others based on how the dice are weighted (e.g., in Fate, you’re very likely to get a margin of success equal to how much your skill exceeds the target, and much less likely to get four higher or four lower than that). But when you use a d20, there’s a 20-point range of margins of success that are equally likely. Particularly for non-iterated checks (like most Knowledge checks), the results can wind up feeling very swingy (e.g., “Sorry, you missed out on getting really useful clues because you rolled low and only just made the DC; you would have gotten much more information if you’d rolled higher.”).

So I was very interested when I noticed (via Shieldhaven using it in his game) that 5e had added* the concept of the group skill check. In the base rules, it’s something you can do when the whole group is trying to accomplish the same thing that requires a skill (e.g., stealth, climbing, etc.). If at least half the party succeeds, everyone succeeds (the higher-skilled individuals are assumed to cover for the lower-skilled).

As written, this is a useful addition that solves a lot of standard issues (such as always having to leave the armor-wearers behind when trying to sneak around). But the variation I tried goes even further:

  • Virtually anything that the whole group could work together on can be a group skill check (e.g., perception, knowledge, persuasion, etc.).
  • Instead of rolling, a character can Help another character, and share the results of that success or failure (in BtW, helping is a specific action that can only be done if you have the skill or spend a Fortune Point, but I don’t think it would break anything if you allowed your D20 variant of choice’s version of helping). You can’t combine helping in this way (i.e., you can’t pile help on the person with the highest skill check to push her to no chance of failure; at least half the party needs to actually roll).
  • Instead of requiring a simple pass/fail based on party size, before the roll the GM has in mind the general spectrum of what it means if no one is successful up to everyone being successful. Very difficult results may require the whole party, easy ones may only require one success, and more successes might grant a better result over the minimum pass.

This essentially winds up splitting the difference between a dice pool roll and a 4e skill challenge. And it allows the GM to give out better results for more successful rolls without any actual roll caring about anything other than pass/fail (and maybe crits, if you use skill crits). Importantly, it doesn’t incentivize low-skill players to avoid participating the way 4e skill challenges did (because each player only gets one roll, so you can’t sit out to let someone else go multiple times, and because helping is as good as succeeding yourself). My players seemed to dig it, so I’ll probably keep experimenting with it. I welcome thoughts on possible improvements in the comments.

* This is the first place I saw it; apologies if it originated somewhere else.

Ongoing Flashbacks


Most advice for flashbacks in RPGs tries, unsurprisingly, to replicate how flashbacks are used in most media: as the occasional one scene that can appear whenever it’s relevant, or sometimes a whole episode devoted to explaining a crucial issue. However, pioneered by Lost (or at least that’s the first place I saw it) and now used in a slightly different way in Arrow, another option is the ongoing flashback, where up to half the time is set in the past. In Lost, this was a second story giving more background to a character whose choices were central to the episode, but each episode could have a completely different flashback and there was no particular order. Arrow, on the other hand, show something far more gamable: the flashbacks are in a linear order and are effectively a second ongoing plotline that happens to be in the past rather than another location. The past plotline tends to conveniently parallel whatever’s going on in the present thematically and introduces any facts and abilities the main character’s theoretically known all along but weren’t relevant until now.

This could be a huge having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too idea for games where the protagonists are meant to start ultra competent with minimal advancement featuring players that like to spend exp.

How I’d do this kind of thing (using Fate lingo, but could really work with anything skill-based) is:

  • The players start in the present with a full pyramid of skills, but only a bare minimum of aspects, stunts, and powers. Effectively, their options are going to increase over time, but not their power level.
  • The players start in the past with a greatly reduced pyramid of skills, and probably zero aspects, stunts, or powers. They’re going to learn everything in the flashbacks.
  • When a player is ready to spend exp (or just get an increase on a fixed schedule), he or she tells the GM in advance of the session. Part of that session’s flashback involves picking up the new trait (it’s up to the player to justify why it never seemed relevant to use it until now).
  • The characters in the flashback gain skill points at a fairly accelerated rate. If the player raises a skill in the past higher than that of the present version, it’s suggested that the player use the normal rules for flipping skill ranks to make sure they continue to match up.
  • The player is free to use tricks he or she thinks will be on the final list in the present in situations where they don’t matter to the rules (e.g., to show off) to drive home the idea that the present character knows everything the character in the past knows, just hasn’t figured that it’s relevant yet.

The GM, in setting up these sessions, should do a few things:

  • Plan the advancement path to parallel the course of the chronicle. Once the flashback versions of the PCs have the same skill pyramid as the present versions, it’s getting really close to time for the end of the past to become the beginning of the present, and wrap up the arc. This could be a complete finale, or just a timeskip to even more badass versions of the characters later that have new flashback moments.
  • The events of the past storyline should be somewhat flexible in your mind, as they should stay thematically related to whatever is happening in the present. If the present winds up with the players going after someone that is theoretically an old foe, you want leeway to bend the flashbacks to show when they first met him. If something in the present is showcasing a failure of fatherhood, the flashbacks can call out one of the PCs’ own relationships with father figures.
  • In the flashbacks, the PCs are obviously in no danger of dying (unless there’s room for a surprise reveal that one of them is a clone with the original’s memories or something). But you can raise the stakes by having a rousing cast of NPCs that the players would like to keep alive. You can even run whole flashback arcs that largely involve protecting an NPC, and if the NPC survives and the players liked her, she soon after appears in the present timeline showing up to help out and reward the players for helping her in the past. You might also build to threats in the present by having flashbacks focus on how much information they were learning in the past: a flashback failure may result in the players having less information and fewer assets in the fight against the present threat.
  • Ideally, the PCs have been working together for some time (though you may start off the flashbacks with a “you all meet in a tavern” moment) so you don’t have to split the party in the flashbacks. If the story or character concepts absolutely demand that the PCs were mostly or entirely solo in the past, try flipping focal episodes. Each session, another PC’s past is what’s relevant to the present issue (and that’s the PC that gets to buy new stuff), and the other players are handed lightly sketched supporting NPCs to portray in the flashback. Make sure to give each player a roughly equal number of focal episodes.
  • In an actual session, borrowing from TV act structures is a good idea. That is, be on the lookout for a surprise beat to flip between past and present scenes, particularly:
    • Something that might become more potent for being drawn out (“and then a bunch of guys with guns kick in the door… and… flashback”)
    • Something that is directly relevant to flashing back (“the assassin pulls off his hood to reveal… Captain Stone” “Who? Wait, the random captain who was piloting our plane? We don’t really know him.” “Flashback! On the plane to your destination, you hear over the intercom, ‘This is the captain. I’m getting some unexpected contacts on the radar. What did you people get me into!? Oh hell, missile lock, hold on…'”).
  • Make sure your story is sufficiently about secrets revealed and tight-lipped protagonists that the whole mechanic continues to feel relevant. If you’re not sure it works for a whole campaign, consider just doing it for periodic one-off episodes where someone’s past is extremely relevant. This is a lot more like just the way every RPG suggests to do flashbacks, but at least alternating regularly between flashback and present between scenes preserves some of what’s different about this format.


Skill Challenge via Fortune Dice


And I’m back. Service may continue to be slow as I build up a backlog of ideas, but the goal is to get back up to a twice per week schedule.

Skill use in general and skill challenges in specific have always suffered a handful of major problems:

  • When making a single skill roll, there’s often a very narrow margin of interesting failure between “fail and you’re screwed” (failing your Jump check across a deep chasm) and “well can I just try again in a round?” (failing to pick a lock with no trap or nearby threats). GMs are encouraged to only call for rolls when they know that failure will be interesting and won’t derail the session, but players often try to initiate dice rolls when they are taking an action they don’t expect to be automatic.
  • The 4e group skill challenge paradigm of X successes before Y failures does the opposite of what it set out to do: rather than encourage every player to try to get involved, even if they don’t have any good skills that are relevant, it makes much more sense to sit out or aid another so that only the best PCs’ skill results count toward the challenge.
  • In general, it’s very hard to come up with a skill challenge that can justify awarding exp in the same way you might for a combat encounter.

This last point is the most interesting. The 4e introduction of skill challenges carried with it the idea that you’d get exp for success just like a combat encounter, so they had to be complex and have a decent chance of failure. But they never really felt like combat. Harbinger has some ideas on how to make them closer, and I’ve mentioned similar things in the past, but the really crucial issue is that skill challenges tend to have lower stakes, low granularity of results, and be self contained.

In combat, particularly in more recent editions of D&D, there’s very little chance that you’ll have a PC die or even lose in the first combat of the day. Instead, the real question is how many resources you have to expend to achieve victory, whether cleverness can mitigate this loss, and whether those expended resources will eventually add up to problems in later encounters. A well-designed skill challenge might have story ramifications for success vs. failure, and even might have some degree of granularity in its output, but it doesn’t have the same kind of coherent system effect as combat where you’ve potentially lost hit points, charges, and dailies.

In his post, Harbinger mentioned the Doom Pool concept from MHR/Cortex+, and I think that might be the ultimate solution to the issue. The following concept is largely based on that and Push Dice from Technoir.

Fortune Pool

The fortune pool represents a sort of short-term and highly elastic luck or karma. As player characters push their luck and get good results more often than expected, so too do circumstance conspire to make them suffer for these payoffs.

The players have control over the fortune pool, which consists of d6s (and is effectively unlimited). They can pass dice from the pool to the GM in the situations outlined below. They cannot roll the dice for anything themselves, only give them to the GM.

The GM accumulates fortune dice. At any point, the GM may return two fortune dice of the same size to the pool to take a fortune die that is one step larger (e.g., return 4d6 for 2d8 or 1d10). The GM may also return dice to the pool to activate results as outlined below. The GM may add a single fortune die to any roll (skill, attack, save, or damage) made by an enemy NPC (or environmental hazard), after the NPC’s result is known. The result of the fortune die is added to the original result (potentially turning failure to success or dealing more damage). The die is returned to the pool after rolling.

GMs should keep their fortune dice where the players can see them, to see how big their potential misfortune is getting.

Simple Challenges

In a normal, one-off skill roll (rather than a group challenge that requires multiple successes, see below), a player may give the GM a fortune die to replace the result of the die roll with a 10. If the result was already 10 or better, the player can give the GM two fortune dice to replace it with a 20 (3 dice total to turn a result of less than 10 into a 20). Players can also make this decision for NPC allies.

In this paradigm, failure should be pretty bad. For dangerous rolls (jumping a chasm, climbing a cliff, etc.), failure means you take whatever the worst case damage is. Even for rolls where there should be no particular pressure, rolling and then failing should preclude trying again until at least the next day (the player should have declared taking 10 or 20 in advance rather than going for the roll). There should be substantial pressure to give the GM fortune dice to eke out a success.

And eking is exactly what’s happening: failure to success via fortune dice should always include a complication. At the very least, it took longer than expected, and if the GM can think of something interesting to throw at the players, that’s even better (e.g., “With one final exertion you make it up the cliff face, but you hear the sound of falling rocks behind you; everyone else’s DC goes up by +2 for lack of handholds”).

If the player achieves success naturally, and beat the DC by 5 or more, he or she can also turn over a fortune die to have it be an exceptional success. If the GM accepts the die, it must include narration of some benefit above and beyond simple success (the GM is not obligated to take the die if he or she can’t think of a cool reward).

The GM can return a die to the pool to turn basic natural success (by less than 5) into the same kind of success plus complication as if the player had used fortune dice to overcome failure.

On a failure by 5 or more than the player chose to let stand, the GM can return a die to create a situation of It Gets Worse that wasn’t originally part of the conceived adventure (“Alright, you fall into the pit and take 4d6. As your ears stop ringing from the impact, you hear the hiss of several snakes…”).

GMs shouldn’t call for simple challenges if the DC is so high that even a 20 won’t succeed, just narrate that the challenge is beyond the player’s skill. But if the player goes ahead and rolls without the GM specifically requesting it, feel free to take a bunch of fortune dice and then tell the player 20 is not enough…

Complex Challenges

A complex challenge is a more drawn out scene that requires a series of rolls and encourages the whole party to get involved. This could be a negotiation, a chase through the city, or something similar. In these situations, a round becomes more narrative and may represent more than six seconds.

In these challenges, the players must accumulate a certain number of successes to win, and lose if their success total is negative at the end of a round. Some challenges will simply go for a certain number of rounds and have a granular result based on accumulated successes (e.g., “you have three rounds representing your time to research and investigate before the trial”).

If the players are being directly contested (chased by guards, competing in the negotiation against rivals, etc.), the NPC opponents get to roll each round and deduct a success from the PCs’ total for each of their own (and can roll a fortune die normally). If the challenge is more environmental (e.g., getting to safety or disarming a trap), the GM may simply apply a set number of negative successes each round.

Players can use fortune dice just as they would in a simple challenge to achieve success with complication. Spending for a major success turns one success to two for the final tally.

Unlike simple challenges, failures aren’t disastrous, they simply don’t add a success (unless the GM has a bright idea to spend a fortune die and add a complication for the failure). Thus, even members of the party with low skill bonuses might consider risking a roll (and shoring it up with fortune dice) rather than passing to let their more skilled peers handle it.

You may choose to award exp for a successful skill challenge, or simply assume that, since it adjusts how many fortune dice are available to make combats harder, success with minimal fortune use is its own reward.

Why the Standard Social Skills?


  • D&D: Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate; Sense Motive
  • Fate: Deceit, Rapport, Intimidate; Empathy
  • FSuns: Knavery, Charm, Impress; Empathy
  • NWoD: Subterfuge, Persuasion, Intimidation; Empathy

Somewhere along the line, it became accepted fact that RPGs with social skills break them down in very similar ways: you have a skill to lie, a skill to persuade without lying, a skill to be scary, and a skill to tell when you’re being manipulated. The occasional game mixes it up a little, either by combining a couple of the skills or by adding one or two others for specialized uses (e.g., NWoD’s Socialize for being the life of the party). But, by and large, it’s common to arrange skills in a way that you will use a different dice pool for social encounters depending on whether you’re lying, being honest, or being scary.

Social combats are hard to model in general. Even in games like Smallville and Technoir where social combat is functionally identical to physical combat, the cadence of the fight is hard to pick up at the table. We’re used to modeling trying to kill people with whatever pacing mechanism any particular game requires, because it’s never going to get in the way of us standing up and just roleplaying out the fight. But for social conflict, it’s natural for most gamers (particularly those that grew up on systems with at most one die roll being involved in any argument) to just roleplay out the scene in character. Adding a social conflict mechanic with a back and forth similar to combat requires you to break up your roleplay in a way that doesn’t feel natural, only roleplaying out a small portion of your speech before pausing to roll and then giving the other side a chance to rebut when you weren’t even done talking. Or you completely abstract the social combat (as the examples in a lot of indie games seem to suggest) by merely stating your intent in the scene and barely saying a word in character. That latter method is a really hard sell to gamers used to doing everything in character that’s at all practical at the table.

But, getting back to the initial point, I believe that part of the difficulty in making a really workable social conflict system is over-reliance on the standard four-skill model of social skills.

From a purely simulation perspective, these skills are weird. I finished reading The Big Con last week, and one of the things it hit home is that there’s not a bright line between any method of persuasion. There may be poor liars that are good at persuading people with the truth (though politics makes that dubious), but there are probably not many excellent liars that suddenly become unpersuasive if they’re telling the truth. Sure, you can buy multiple social skills in most systems, but the game system doesn’t often reward you for avoiding specialization. So you get situations like my paladin in a previous game: as soon as my attempts to convince NPCs drifted from pure fact to concealing information or being evasive, the GM was suddenly justified in asking me to roll my +5 Bluff skill instead of my +17 Diplomacy skill. Despite the fact that, in my mind, it was all part of the social patter required of being the party’s Face, the system didn’t see it that way. If we’d needed the NPC to buy a lie, I should have deferred to the party rogue (which, itself, would have been suspicious).

The inclusion of a social detection skill (empathy/sense motive) creates further complications to roleplay. The active social character is often at a severe disadvantage against a target with a high rank in this skill, because even the simplest and most believable lies can be detected in a way that borders on the magical. Even experienced police detectives often have to have ideal circumstances (such as an interrogation room and facts to catch the target off guard) to reliably detect lies, but RPG characters specialized in empathy can do it in any scenario (frequently against an opponent in the seat of his power). The converse is also true: a character that doesn’t specialize in this skill doesn’t allow its player to make up his or her own mind about a lie, but can be told that even the most bald-faced lie sounds perfectly correct (not that players regularly actually proceed with that assumption when they know they blew their sense motive check or are up against a character that they expect outclasses them in bluff).

Whether or not you believe that the divide in skill is a realistic simulation, the fact remains that it’s part of the problem in making social conflict similar to physical combat. While games typically silo physical combat ability in a similarly weird way (how many martial arts experts are useless with a weapon?), the typical combat offers the ability to contribute with any relevant skill (except in situations where firearms would be too loud or the PCs were disarmed before entering). The martial artist, the fencer, and the pistoleer are each contributing in their own way. But social conflicts are frequently constructed in a way that makes it way more obvious that certain types of skill can’t contribute. We’re trying to befriend this guy, so the party heavy with intimidate can’t help. We’re not actually lying (or we’d blow everything if we were caught in a lie), so the rogue is cooling his heels. Not only do you have the roleplaying need to just let one guy do the talking for simplicity’s sake, there’s little game benefit in the other players trying to contribute anyway.

So what’s the solution?

The easiest answer is to just have one really broad social skill, but that’s probably not something many game engines want to do (if you thought Diplomancers were bad now…). It is worth noting that the standard methods for adding more skills to what a game is focused on creates a paradox of incentivizing the “wrong” builds. For example, it’s way easier to get good at social conflicts in D&D than in combat and it’s way easier to become great at combat in any flavor of WoD than to become adept at intrigue.

The real answer probably starts with the intrigue tactics available in the Song of Ice and Fire RPG (which itself uses pretty close to the standard four skills, except with intimidate as a subset of persuade, so it isn’t a full solution). Specifically, cutting up social skills not by lie/truth/fear/detect but by whatever the verbs are in your social conflict system. For example, if “convince” is a tactic in your system, perhaps that’s the skill and it doesn’t matter whether you’re using lies, facts, or intimidation to convince the target. The trick would be creating a conflict system where any particular social encounter could map victory conditions to more than one such verb in a natural way. And I haven’t quite gotten to that particular holy grail yet.

So am I missing implementations with the standard four skills where they’re a natural fit to the social conflict mechanic? Can anyone come up with a list of verbs that would be applicable to a broad range of social conflicts?

D&D: Level-Locked Skills

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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).

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 3

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Example Skill Checks

The following challenges give an idea of how the system is supposed to run. A couple of things to keep in mind when designing your own:

  • A¬† player with a decent ability score in the skill will average 5 HP damage on a successful check (3-4 average on the d6 plus +1 or +2). A player that has a +4 or better ability score will be able to do 10 damage on a good roll. Therefore, multiples of 5 HP on a task are a good default.
  • A skill challenge with several distinct elements, each with their own small HP pool is good for general party members: when they eventually get a successful hit, they can see an immediate difference. A skill challenge with a big pool of HP and a big payoff at the end is good for skill specialists, as fewer of their rolls will be wasted by rolling over a small HP pool.


Checks are typically per round.

  • Open Lock (Disable): The DC for the skill check is equal to the Break DC for the door (unless the lock is just horribly mismatched to the door quality). The HP is effectively the complexity of the lock (1 for a simple hidden catch, 3 for a 3-pin lock, and up to 10 for something that uses a really strangely shaped key). The lock provides hardness against skill checks equal to its quality (0-5).
  • Disable Trap (Disable): The DC for the skill check is from 10-30, based on the deviousness of the trap (use trap level + 10 as a rough guideline). The HP is based on how complex the trap is (1-30); in general, simple mechanical traps will have low HP and complex magical traps will have high HP. Traps also have a hardness rating: this isn’t for the skill check, but is the amount subtracted from actual attacks if players just try to destroy the mechanism of the trap, dealing direct damage to the HP (traps where just bashing it with an axes won’t keep it from working have a very high hardness indeed).
  • Use Magic Device (Improvise): The DC for the skill check is equivalent to the listed UMD difficulties in the player’s guide (don’t add any kind of spell or caster level). The HP is equal to the caster level of the item or effect.
  • Sneak (Stealth): The HP for the skill check is equal to the number of feet that must be crossed between areas where guards cannot see, +5 per extra party member moving with the group (but every member of the party can roll a sneak check each round). For example, trying to get 3 party members across a 60 foot open space visible from a guard tower would be 70 HP. The DC is equal to 10 + the highest Perception save among guards that might notice the group. Every round where the challenge retains HPs after all PC stealth checks, the guards can oppose a Hide check (see below). If the characters reduce the challenge to 0 HP, they can ambush the guards (gaining a surprise round) on the following round.
  • Hide (Stealth): Each round a character is hiding, guards that are paying attention can make a Perception save to notice the hiding characters. The DC is equal to 10 + the lowest Stealth among the hiding characters + situational stealth bonuses (+2 for dim light, +4 for full darkness, +2 for 10%-30% concealment, +4 for 40%-60% concealment). If all guards fail their perception save, the hiding characters can ambush them (gaining surprise round) on the following round (or may simply decide to continue sneaking).
  • Shadow (Stealth): As Hide, but the DC increases by +1 for every 5 feet the shadowing character hangs back from the target. The shadowing character gets a bonus for a good disguise check and a penalty for looking distinctive.


Checks are typically per day.

  • Forage (Find Sustenance): The DC for the skill check is equal to the prevalence of food in the region (5 for a well-stocked forest or jungle up to 25 for a desert). The HP is equal to 5 per party member per day. Each day the HP total is not met, the remaining HP are deducted from days of rations (e.g., with 5 HP left, deduct 5 days of rations). If there are no rations to meet the remaining HP, the characters begin starving.


Checks are typically per week unless otherwise noted.

  • First Aid (Heal): This check is per round. The DC for the skill check is 15. The result of the damage roll heals the target up to a maximum of 0 HP. Any successful check stabilizes the target.
  • Long Term Care (Heal): The DC for the skill check is 15. The result of the damage roll heals the target (to a maximum of total HP).
  • Treat Poison/Disease (Heal): This check can be made once per period of the poison/disease. The DC is the save DC of the effect. The damage is a bonus to the target’s next save against the effect.
  • Create Mundane Item (Craft): The character must provide half the value of the item (this is the “cost”) in materials. The DC of the check is 5 if the item’s cost is less than 20 CP, 10 if the cost is 2-19 SP, 15 if the cost is 2-19 GP, and 20 if the cost is 2+ PP. The HP is equal to the cost (in whatever coin the DC was based on) rounded up (e.g., an item that costs 25 GP/2.5 PP would be DC 20 and have 3 HP). When the HP are reduced to 0, the item is completed.
  • Earn a Living (Profession): Choose a DC from the chart below. Once the listed HP are reduced to 0, the character earns the listed GP.
5 15 5
10 20 10
15 26 20
20 33 40
25 41 80
30 50 150
35 60 300

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 2

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So you’re rearranged the skills down to a handful of broad categories as discussed last week. But you’re not done yet: now it’s time to use that to make skills work even more like the combat system. Why? Because the combat system is fun and the standard use of skills aren’t often as much fun.

This system takes inspiration from this Rob Donoghue post and my previous attempt at a skill revision.

When should you make skill checks and skill saves?

When using this method for skills, it’s important to ask yourself some questions before asking for a skill check from your players:

  • Is there a limited amount of time to accomplish the task before something happens?
  • Does something negative happen regularly until the PCs accomplish the task?
  • Does accomplishing the task have some independent benefit to the PCs that would be useful to get sooner (even if there’s no ultimate time limit)?
  • Will degree of success at the task create a difficulty for opponents?

If none of these things are true, you probably don’t need to roll a skill check. Either the thing is possible, and the PCs accomplish it after a reasonable amount of time, or they quickly realize that it’s outside their competency for now. This is the essence of the typical Take 20 rule as well. For this system, pretty much every skill check is effectively a skill challenge, and it might feel cumbersome to assign HP to every task. So don’t: only make skill rolls when it’s actually interesting, and just allow players to succeed after what seems like a relevant amount of time for their skill bonus if there’s no time pressure.

This advice also applies to skill saves, even though they’re comparatively more simple. In particular, what has become Athletics saves were previously skills that were almost always rolled. It may be a reflex action to ask for a Climb check, or a Jump check, or whatever any time the PC tries to do something. Again, resist this urge and only ask for skill saves when the consequences of failure are interesting. You probably don’t need to make a roll to climb up a 5 foot wall with a lot of handholds outside of combat. Even in combat, you could probably just assess that it counts as difficult terrain and make it cost double to climb. The idea of making these things saves implies that they’re only rolled when something has gone wrong: “You’re halfway up the face of the mountain, then suddenly BEES! Make an Athletics Save to hang on and keep going.”

Skill Damage

Each skill has a base damage of 1d6 + Ability Mod. For example, a successful use of Knowledge rolls 1d6 + Int bonus.

Skills can get critical hits in the same way as attack rolls: roll a 20 for a threat and then succeed on a second roll against the same DC. Skill specialties increase the threat range to 19-20 for that particular use (e.g., a character with specialty Religion make general knowledge rolls at threat range 20 but Religion-based Knowledge rolls at threat range 19-20). Skills double their base die and bonus on a crit, but not bonus dice (see below), just like combat criticals.

Skills can make iterative attacks similarly to attack rolls. When the base skill hits 6, 11, and 16, you get another skill roll at the regular penalties whenever you can make a “full skill check.” In combat, this works the same way as attacks: on any given round, the character can either move and make one skill check, or make multiple skill checks with only a 5 foot step. Out of combat, particularly for checks that represent more than one round of activity, it’s a little more nebulous what counts as “having to move.” In general, assume that a character that is distracted and/or doing other non-skill things while working on the task gets only a single roll per check, while a character that’s fully dedicated to the task can make a full skill check and take the iterative rolls.

When iterative rolls are allowed, the character can do multiple things that count as the same skill, but cannot mix skills. For example:

  • A Rogue with base Criminal 6 attempts to remain in Stealth while working to Disable a trap.
  • A Wizard with Knowledge 6 attempts to Research in a library where he needs Linguistics to translate the books.
  • A Bard with Social 11 attempts to Perform and entertain the crowd but also Persuade them and also Sense Motive to see how he’s doing.
  • A Cleric with Mundane 11 uses Heal to manage his infirmary while working two separate other Professions.
  • A Ranger with Wilderness 11 is trying to Track a target cross country while helping his party Orienteer and Find Sustenance.

Magic items or spells that would normally give a skill bonus instead give a damage bonus for that application of the skill:

  • If the bonus is less than +5, add half the bonus to the damage (e.g., a skill bonus +2 translates to +1 damage for that type of skill).
  • If the bonus is +5, add 1d6 to the damage (that isn’t multiplied on a crit). Add an additional +1d6 for every +5 (e.g., a +15 is +3d6).
  • If the bonus is greater than +5 but not evenly divisible by 5, combine the two methods (e.g., +7 becomes +1d6+1).
  • For bonuses that apply to saves, add half the usual bonus to the save (e.g., Jumping +10 translates to a +5 bonus to Athletics saves related to jumping).

Finally, GMs may wish to award permanent increases to the size of a skill’s base die as a reward for various accomplishments. For example, the party gains titles in a small kingdom and the GM gives the spymaster Criminal 1d8, the warden Wilderness 1d8, the royal librarian Knowledge 1d8, and everyone else Social or Mundane 1d8.

(Next week, my intention is to provide example challenges.)

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