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.)

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 1


A few weeks ago, Harbinger posted about skills in D&D and got me thinking about them again. As I’ve noted before, the skill system introduced in D&D 3e feels a bit tacked on. Attacks and Saves in D20 are typically a simple check against a target number (AC or Save DC), with success potentially allowing you to roll damage but margin of success never being important: checks are primarily binary pass/fail (with the exception of criticals). Meanwhile, skill checks very often imply that there is a margin of success component: even with a fixed DC, there is often a difference between failing by more or less than 5. Knowledge challenges are frequently broken directly into MoS, with each staggered success giving more information.

Additionally, the skill system doesn’t progress at all similarly to the attack and save systems (though 4e makes them more similar): it’s possible to completely neglect a skill or twink it to absurd levels in a way you can’t with attacks or saves. This makes it very hard at higher levels to set a reasonable skill DC. Even by 10th level, a silver-tongued Sorcerer or Bard could have a Bluff check well over +20 while a Cha-dumping Fighter or Wizard could still have it at a penalty. It’s next to impossible to plan a challenge where all members of the party will have to roll the same skill, and it’s even hard to accurately gauge a good DC for a skill only a single player needs to roll: the difference between a skill specialist and someone who’s merely good at it is also huge.

So this time through, my first step is to combine down all the skills into eight categories and alter their progressions to work like attack bonus and saves. (Hopefully) next week, I’ll look into ways to use this modified skill system to move even more in line with the other D20 systems to provide a more consistent out of combat experience.


Most non-combat actions are covered by five broad skill categories, each with approximately six skill specialties. A character may attempt any of the actions within the skill category, but a character might have a greater bonus in a particular skill specialty (e.g., A rogue might have +10 to Criminal in general, but +12 to Disable and Stealth). Skills are typically active: the character chooses to attempt them rather than being surprised by the GM. Further, in the full system, skills will often require a series of rolls to accomplish a task (much as it often takes a series of attack rolls to defeat a target).

Criminal (Dex; suffers from the Armor Check Penalty)

  • Disable: Break a device or open a lock (Disable Device and Open Lock)
  • Disguise: Change appearance of self, others, items, or text (Disguise and Forgery)
  • Escape: Get out of bonds or imprisonment (Escape Artist)
  • Improvise: Make use of unknown magic or devices (Use Magic Device)
  • Legerdemain: Hide or filch objects (Sleight of Hand)
  • Stealth: Prevent detection (Hide and Move Silently)

Wilderness (Con)

  • Dungeoneer: Prepare for threats underground (Knowledge: Dungeoneering)
  • Find Sustenance: Hunt or gather food in the wild (Survival)
  • Gather Components: Find useful items in the wild (Survival and Knowledge: Nature)
  • Handle Animal: Train or persuade an animal (Handle Animal)
  • Orienteer: Know directions, predict weather, and find shelter (Survival and Knowledge: Geography (Practical))
  • Track: Follow a trail of a specific target (Survival)

Knowledge (Int)

  • History: Reference historical facts and significant locations (Knowledge: History and Knowledge: Geography (Theoretical))
  • Linguistics: Decipher writing and languages (Decipher Script and Speak Language)
  • Magic: Identify and interpret magical information (Knowledge: Arcana and Spellcraft)
  • Religion: Explain religious and dimensional theory (Knowledge: Religion and Knowledge: The Planes)
  • Research: Find additional knowledge with access to a library or find clues in a room (Search and New)
  • Science: Understand architecture and mechanisms (Knowledge: Engineering)

Mundane (Wis)

  • Appraise: Ascertain the value of an item (Appraise)
  • Craft (Specific): Create a certain category of item (Craft)
  • Heal: Apply medical techniques to injury or disease (Heal)
  • Profession (Specific): Engage in a particular trade (Profession)

Social (Cha)

  • Bluff: Convince others of lies and partial truths (Bluff)
  • Perform: Engage in various kinds of artistic expression (Perform)
  • Persuade: Make others do what you want (Diplomacy and Intimidate)
  • Rumors: Keep abreast of the lower classes and their knowledge (Gather Information (Common) and Knowledge: Local)
  • Sense Motive: Understand the secret intentions of a person or group (Sense Motive (Active))
  • Society: Move among the upper classes and know their ways (Gather Information (Noble) and Knowledge: Nobility)


Some areas that were previously skills are now expressed as three additional saves. Unlike skills, saves will typically be reactive: the GM will request a roll when something unexpected happens. In particular, this changes how athletic challenges are framed: a character doesn’t explicitly need to make an Athletics check to climb a wall or jump a pit if it’s a reasonable size and there is no time pressure, but may need to make a save based on external difficulties (such as wind or unexpected slipperiness) or if there is an impending threat that may break concentration.

  • Athletics (Str): Physical activities that rely on strength and stamina rather than agility (Climb, Jump, Swim)
  • Perception (Int): Avoiding surprise, countering stealth, and other reactive awareness (Listen and Spot)
  • Grace (Cha): Resisting social attacks, making a good first impression, and impressing when dancing or otherwise acting poised (Sense Motive (Reactive) and Perform (Dance))
  • Normal Saves: Balance, Ride, and Tumble checks become Reflex saves; Concentration becomes a Will save

Figuring Saves and Skills


  • Good: Level/2 + 2 (as Rogue Reflex)
  • Bad: Level/3 (as Rogue Fortitude)
Class Athletics Perception Grace
Barbarian Good Good Bad
Bard Bad Bad Good
Cleric Bad Good Good
Druid Good Good Bad
Fighter Good Good Bad
Monk Good Good Good
Paladin Good Bad Good
Ranger Good Good Bad
Rogue Bad Good Bad
Sorcerer Bad Bad Good
Wizard Bad Good Bad


  • Fast: Level x 1.0 (as Fighter BaB)
  • Medium: Level x 0.75 (as Cleric BaB)
  • Slow: Level x 0.5 (as Wizard BaB)
Class Criminal Wilderness Knowledge Mundane Social
Barbarian Medium Fast Slow Medium Slow
Bard Medium Slow Medium Slow Fast
Cleric Slow Slow Medium Fast Medium
Druid Slow Fast Medium Medium Slow
Fighter Slow Medium Slow Fast Medium
Monk Medium Slow Medium Fast Slow
Paladin Slow Medium Slow Medium Fast
Ranger Medium Fast Slow Medium Slow
Rogue Fast Medium Slow Slow Medium
Sorcerer Medium Slow Medium Slow Fast
Wizard Slow Medium Fast Medium Slow

Skill Specialty

A Skill Specialty is a +2 Competence Bonus to a skill that increases to +4 at 10th level. It replaces the Skill Focus feat.

D&D Skill Challenge (w/New System): Survival

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See last week’s post for the new skill system in question. Summary: skill rolls are made against a static DC with no Margin of Success. Skill ranks add to skill “damage” instead of skill “attack roll” and are a bonus to 1d6.

As mentioned, I think this system, using an attack and damage concept, may make it a lot easier to do 4e-style skill challenges by breaking them down into something that feels much  more like a fight. Here is an example skill challenge, with more to follow if I’m inspired.

In all situations, non-standard skills might substitute for standard ones with an appropriate description (though they may take a -2 penalty). Particularly interesting descriptions of using appropriate skills gain a +2 bonus.

Crossing the Wilderness

Use this skill challenge whenever the PCs must travel overland for more than a day without the benefit of roads. It’s used to track how long the journey takes, how much food the PCs consume, and how many random encounters they have. Each round of rolls represents one day of travel.

Goal: Distance

DC: 10 for fairly clear terrain with a map, 15 for obstructed terrain or clear with no map, 20 for obstructed terrain with no map or truly confusing terrain

HP: 1 per mile between starting location and goal (special: the goal cannot take more damage in a single day than the slowest character/mount’s movement rate)

Standard Skills: Survival, Knowledge: Geography

The main goal of this skill challenge is distance traveled. Once this goal is defeated, the PCs arrive at their destination.

Goal: Food Supply

DC: 10 for well stocked forests with plentiful game/berries, 15 for a normal area where foraging is possible, 20 for areas that are desolate (special: +5 for areas where water is hard to come by)

HP: Base HP equals days of rations carried by the PCs (special: success at this goal actually heals it, as it represents the party’s food resources; it has no upper HP limit; double the base HP if you regard rations as enough for the whole meal rather than intended to supplement foraging)

Standard Skills: Survival, Stealth (for hunting)

A secondary goal of this challenge is to keep all travelers fed. The HP of this goal decreases by 2 per traveler per day. If it hits 0, all travelers become Fatigued. If it hits -10, all travelers become exhausted. If it stays below -10, begin applying starvation rules. Uses of food-creation magics do not use the day’s action and heal this goal by +1/day of food per person created.

Goal: Obstacles and Bad Weather

DC: 10 for small streams, rocky footing, or light weather; 15 for long streams, large hills, or heavy weather; 20 for long rivers, impassible mountain ranges, or torrential weather

HP: 6 per “instance” (this may be increased for multiple hexes of bad terrain or days of bad weather)

Standard Skills: Survival; Acrobatics, Climb, or Swim (obstacles); Various professions or knowledges (weather)

These goals appear at set locations or times of the journey, based on the map or a weather table. While in play, they heal the Distance goal by 2d6 per day per obstacle/weather goal, representing having to go around the obstacle or being slowed down by the weather. Defeating this goal indicates getting past the obstacle or coming up with ways to counter this particular set of weather.

Goal: Random Encounter

DC: Highest Stealth score of encountered enemies

HP: 1 HP for each enemy to be encountered

Standard Skills: Survival, Perception, Stealth

Whenever the GM rolls a random encounter for a day, the players should be informed before making their rolls, in order to allocate rolls to dealing with the encounter. If the PCs do not defeat the encounter goal, the random encounter proceeds normally, and receives a surprise round at whatever time and location it normally would have happened. If the PCs do defeat the goal, they can choose to ambush their attackers (getting a surprise round and arranging themselves on the battle map after the enemies are placed) or bypass the encounter entirely (though some encounters may pursue them for multiple days if bypassed).

D&D Skills: Margin of Success vs. Independent Dice

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Last week, I talked about possible changes to the Dragon Age mechanic to counter the perceived issue that great success was more likely for low skill. I left one solution off: going directly to the In Nomine mechanic of rolling an independent d6 as the Dragon Die, rather than using one of the dice rolled. I started to think about why that wasn’t even an option for me, and it came down to the weirdness of In Nomine being that skill was completely independent of success level. As a player, it can be annoying to roll on something you’ve put tons of points into to get really good at, but have your actual results completely out of your control: the third d6 is going to do what it wants whether or not you can fail on the results of the first two.

But then I started thinking about D&D, and realized that weapon damage was basically a similar independent system, and had always been. Your attack bonus (or THAC0) is essentially just a delivery system for your damage dice; after it gets to a certain point, it makes a bigger difference to get better weapons or more damage dice adds than it does to increase the attack bonus further. Conversely, if your attack bonus is terrible, wielding a greatsword isn’t that great of an option when someone else is hitting five times as often with a dagger. There are certain ways (like Power Attack), to convert attack to damage and vice versa, but it’s never via Margin of Success. An attack roll is always a binary proposition: if no, then nothing happens, if yes, then you get to roll your damage. This has the effect of allowing monster AC to be a secret, and also to speed up play: nobody has to subtract AC 16 from a roll of 23 in the middle of battle, which, being two-digit subtraction, can be a little slower than adding a few single digits.*

The weird thing about this is that the skill system introduced in 3e is very directly a MoS system, not an independent one. Many skills have a set, linear chart of results (each +1 to your Jump check is another foot), and almost all modules will include a series of results of increasing success on information-gathering skills (usually in increments of 5). This means that D&D essentially has a schizophrenic core mechanic: for combat, your d20 bonus needs to be exactly good enough to meet the DC, and anything better is wasted. For everything else but combat, you want the highest bonus and roll conceivable, because hitting the DC is the most minimal of success.

I wonder if there might not be a way to simplify skills closer to the old Non-Weapon Proficiency days while still keeping the new-school gamers happy, by drastically reducing skill spread but increasing the mutability of the independent die result. This could have a bigger effect on reducing the unpredictability of high level play (e.g., one player with a +30 Climb and one with a -3; how do you put in a mountain climbing challenge?) without 4e’s homogenization of the skill ranks.

One idea is to keep all existing skills, but drop all ranks from the skill bonus. A skill bonus is Attribute modifier + Racial Bonus + 3 (if a class skill). Doing this makes the potential spread at level 1 something like -1 to +9 for most skills, and the top end should only increase by a few points throughout all the levels without magic or skill focus: DC 15 remains relevant to level 20 as a target that’s easy but missable for the best of the skill monkeys while still possible for those that have no points in it.

Meanwhile, ranks become directly related to the results of the roll on an independent die. I’d suggest a standard d6+Ranks for the effects result of the skill. You’ll probably want to give out half as many skill ranks and cap them to half Level (min 1), as they’re suddenly a lot more meaningful. That way, at level 1, a character that specializes in a skill will be at least 25% more likely to succeed, but will only get an average of 1 point higher on successful rolls. This should allow you to govern information challenges much more easily (a 6th level module can assume a spread of 1-9, with 1-2 being essentially automatic, 3-6 being pretty easy to get, and 7-9 being increasingly unlikely). For skills with an existing MoS chart, figure out how much is basic difficulty and how much is a target number that only high level characters are supposed to hit, and then divide the difference by the potential meaningful results on the die. For example, a running jump might be DC 10, a standing jump is DC 15, and the result of the die x4 is the feet jumped across and x1 is the feet jumped up.

This system uses a base d6, but that opens up the possibility of lowering the die to a d4 or less for specific hindrances, or, more importantly, giving out bigger dice for special training. Players love getting special training and bigger dice.

Ultimately, this system seeks to accomplish two things:

  1. Making the skill system for D&D 3e+ work more like the weapons system in its use of binary DCs and independent results dice.
  2. Compress the degree of meaningful success results so DCs don’t have to skyrocket at high levels to provide a challenge for those focused in the skills, while still giving those that choose to focus a direct bonus on the effects of the skills. At high levels, the independent dice should mean that every PC has a chance of success at every non-specialized skill check, but those with lots of ranks in the skill will have much more significant actual result. For example, everyone in the party can climb the mountain… the guy with 10 ranks in Climb will just do it much faster.

Interestingly, this system might make it easier to do 4e-style skill challenges as well: give each challenge hit points and an AC exactly like a monster, and give especially appropriate skills a circumstance bonus and inappropriate ones a circumstance penalty. If everyone can contribute at least 1d6 to the damage, it becomes a much more reasonable option to try to help directly rather than just using Aid Another.

* And if it’s not a problem for you, I’d suggest you try adding MoS to damage in some way (say, an extra d6 for every 5 points you beat the AC) and let me know how it goes. It might be very neat 🙂 .

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