The Alexandrian

Disabling Traps - ScourgewarMike Mearls is talking about skills. His brief thoughts prompted a rather lengthy train of thoughts from me.

There are basically two types of utility that can be gained from a skill system:

At one extreme, you give a unified mechanic for setting difficulty levels and skill checks. This system is extremely simple to use because all a GM has to do is decide how difficult he wants a task to be (or thinks a task should be). It gives complete flexibility, but no support. For some people this is great: The GM is capable of making consistent, on-the-fly decisions that are satisfying for his players and the rules are extremely easy to learn and remember.

By adding more complexity to the system, you can offer more support to the GM in setting difficulty levels. This is what the core rulebooks do: For any given skill, there are specific guidelines for how difficult various tasks are. For some people this is great because it hard codes a consistency into the system: Players are able to anticipate how hard a task is going to be and the difficulty of a task will remain consistent from one session to the next and even from one group to the next.

(What I like about this approach in the core rulebooks is that you ALSO have a unified mechanic for determining DCs: It’s the best of both worlds. If you want or need the support of the specific guidelines, they’re there for you. If you don’t then you can just ignore them.)

By adding complexity to the system, you can also make using skills either more interesting or more precise. Examples of this include the Craft skill (which already includes a mini-mechanical system for more precisely handling the crafting of items), but could also include stunt systems designed to let you use skills in more complicated and inter-related ways.

Thus, when Mearls says: “Adding more rules to the D&D skill system […] doesn’t make it more interesting. It just bloats the system.” I don’t follow the logic. Certainly adding more rules CAN be nothing more than bloat, but they don’t NEED to be nothing more than bloat.

For example, let’s take a non-RPG example in an attempt to weed out people’s biases. We could talk about Monopoly and Candyland and Chutes & Ladders, for example: Sure, you can strip out all the rules about collecting rents and buying properties from Monopoly. Similarly, you can strip out all the rules about Rainbow Trails and Lollipop Woods from Candyland. But, in either case, you’ve simply stripped the game down to a mechanic of: “Use randomizer. Move piece around board.”

Similarly, you could remove all the rules for combining cards into more powerful hands in Poker, and thus boil the game down to “high card wins”.

Now, there are lots of people who don’t play RPGs in order to experience a game which is MECHANICALLY interesting. They don’t want interesting gameplay from the system, they just want a mechanical structure on which to hang their storytelling and roleplaying. That’s why lots of people want nothing more than a simple, unified mechanic with no bells or whistles: Roll a die, add a modifier, compare to a DC.

For people who want a mechanically interesting game, however, that simplicity is boring. You need more rules in order to make the mechanics interesting — in order to make Monopoly a different game from Chutes & Ladders.

Now, certainly, that doesn’t mean that “more rules = more fun”. For example, Monopoly probably wouldn’t benefit from a system in which you had to re-calculate variable interest rates for loans and mortgages, with those variable interest rates also impacting the rental rates for various properties.

But if you’ve got a stunt system in D&D which does nothing except “bloat the system”, then what you’ve got is a very poorly designed stunt system. Which is why it’s fairly shocking to hear Mearls, the designer of very good stunt systems (IMO), repudiating them as bloated design.

Also, Mearls’ math is wrong. In a system in which skill checks are 1d20 + ability score vs. DC, he¬†claims that: “The (DC – the ability score + 1) times 5 is the chance of success.” It’s not. Take a DC 10 task attempted by someone with an ability score of 10, for example. Mearls claims that the chance of success is 5% (10 – 10 + 1 = 1 x 5 = 5%). It’s not, it’s actually 105%.

(The DC is 10. Your check is d20 + 10. Even with a roll of 1, your result is 11 and you succeed at the check.)

Mearls actually meant that the chance is (DC + the ability score + 1) times 5 is the chance of success.

Adding further perplexity is the fact that Mearls talks about this in connection to a house rule which is primarily about how skills are selected at character creation/advancement, rather than about how DCs are calculated.

Which leads to the other problem with Mearls’ system: There’s no mechanic for advancing skills. Since the DM is apparently supposed to just set a difficulty based on the percentage chance of success he wants a character to have, this isn’t a big deal… except when it comes to opposed checks.

So, boiling it down, I feel there are two points trying to be made here:

1. It would be nice if you didn’t have to spend skill points. Particularly from the POV of GM prep, having to spend all those points is time-consuming.

2. If you just want a barebones mechanic for determining success or failure, it would be nice not to have all these other rules and guidelines “bloating” the system for you.

Both strong points, but Mearls’ suggested solution is over-wrought and ill-thought, IMO. Here’s an easier solution:


1. Characters have a skill bonus equal to “class skill max ranks”. Thus, a 3rd level character has a skill bonus of +6.

2. Characters select a number of skills equal to their class’ skill points per level + their Intelligence modifier (minimum 1).

3. Skill checks are d20 + ability modifier + skill bonus.

4. Ignore all of the suggested DCs in the Skills chapter. For an average person the task is:

DC 0: Automatic
DC 5: Simplistic
DC 10: Easy
DC 15: Average
DC 20: Difficult
DC 25: Very Difficult
DC 30: Almost Impossible
DC 40: Impossible

There you go. For prepping characters, all you’ve got to worry about is selecting which skills they have. For resolving an action, the DM just picks the DC he feels is appropriate. Plus, the system is completely compatible with the existing rules.

(Note: This system explicitly does not use the class/cross-class distinction between skills. It also ignores synergy bonuses, although you can toss those back into the mix on a check-by-check basis if you like.)

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One Response to “Skill Systems – Complexity vs. Utility”

  1. Mengmoshu says:

    I was amused when I understood the D&D 5e skill system, and the way it uses the Proficiency Bonus. It replicates basically what I usually did as a player, and encouraged as a GM: Focus on being good at a few skills rather than poor at many.

    And of course, that’s what your proposed system does too.

    I also like the “rationalization” of the skills in 5e. I never felt like the number of skills to choose from fit the number of skillpoints available. And the class/cross-class thing was just messy.

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