The Alexandrian

A Descriptive Skill System

September 28th, 2011

Last month in his “Legends & Lore” column, Mike Mearls discussed a skill system he and Monte Cook had schemed up in which DCs would be replaced with a descriptive tier of difficulties: Novice/Journeyman/Expert/Master/Grandmaster/Impossible. I wasn’t a fan of this system because it mostly obfuscated simpler mechanics and added complexity without actually giving much (if anything) back.

When Monte Cook revisited the topic this week, however, it made me realize they might be onto something — although I don’t think they’ve quite realized it yet. (Cook’s proposal is still over-baking mechanical complexity without actually accomplishing anything more than the current system.)

But if they can completely jettison the concept of skill ranks, I think they might have a winner.

(1) Set the target number for all tasks to 15. (Or whatever number makes sense; I haven’t actually run any math on this.)

(2) Define each task as Skilled/Expert/Master and give it a level. (For example, a Level 10 Expert task.)

(3) If you meet the minimum requirements for the task, you automatically succeed. (If you’re a Level 10 Expert, you succeed at any Skilled or Expert task of Level 10 or lower automatically without making a check.)

(4) If you’re missing one of the requirements, you have to make an ability check. This check is modified by the difference in level between you and the task. You also gain a +5 or -5 modifier for each difference in skill level.

For example, if you’re a 10th-level Skilled Typographer and you’re attempting a Level 8 Expert typography task, you would make a Intelligence check with a -3 modifier (+2 for being two levels higher than the task; -5 for being Skilled instead of an Expert in the skill).

Similarly, if you’re a 6th-level character who doesn’t have the Decipher Script skill and you’re attempting to decrypt a Level 10 Master code, you would make an Intelligence check with a -19 penalty (-4 for being four levels lower than the task; -15 for being three skill levels lower than Master).

What’s the point? The point is that you’ve eliminated a Page 42 table look-up for skill DCs. And you’ve automated the equivalent of the Take 10 mechanic so that it doesn’t require any calculation at all.

You’ve also effectively eliminated skill checks entirely and focused things back onto ability checks as a core mechanic. This is mostly a sleight of hand, but it can provide one meaningful advantage: You can casually re-key a skill to a different ability score without needing to recalculate a skill bonus (since the check is just an ability check). (One thing I’ve always loved about dice pool systems is the ease with which you could do this, but it’s always been too much of a pain in the ass for D20. It’s not really meaningful for most skills, of course, but it can really crank up the versatility of a system.)

One potential problem with this system is that there’s no clear way to do opposed checks in a completely satisfactory fashion. But you can resolve this by setting which skill sets the task and which skill resolves the task. (For example, if Stealth sets the task then a character’s skill level sets the difficulty of the Perception task. A 10th-level character with an Expert ranking in Stealth, for example, requires a Level 10 Expert Perception task.) Or, alternatively, by always using player-faced mechanics. (If a PC is sneaking past an NPC, the NPC’s Perception skill sets the difficulty of the Stealth task. If the PC is trying to spot an NPC, the NPC’s Stealth skill sets the difficulty of the Perception task.)

Another potential problem is that you have done a pretty good job of obfuscating probabilities. If I’m a 10th-level expert, what’s the difference between a Level 12 Skilled task and a Level 7 Master task? You can work out the math, but it’s not as self-evident as pure numbers would be. On the other hand, in terms of actual play, is that significant?

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15 Responses to “A Descriptive Skill System”

  1. Stephen says:

    I’m unclear what the difference in that system is from just setting a difficulty and assuming you can always take 10. It seems like you’re just saying “your bonus is equal to 5 + Level + 5/rank, your DC is equal to 15 + level + rank.” It’s simpler to say, but it requires more actual math at the table if you don’t meet the difficulty. And it still keeps the concept of the “20th level pit” that causes 4e to disassociate on skill checks.

    From Mearls’ original article, it actually seems to me like they’re trying to peg skill use to a fixed scale, rather than forcing all challenges to scale up by level even when it doesn’t make sense. This has a lot of problems conceptually, in that you’re growing into a demigod of magic and combat but staying within a mortal frame of skills… but it at least works toward solving my core problem of skill specialists increasingly tearing away from other party members such that it’s impossible to create a challenge on one end that’s even possible for the other.

  2. skeolan says:

    Did you perhaps intend

    “A 10th-level character with an Expert ranking in Stealth, for example, requires a Level 10 Expert Stealth task.”

    … to read as follows?

    “A 10th-level character with an Expert ranking in Stealth, for example, requires a Level 10 Expert [Perception] task [to detect].”

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    @Skeolan: Yes. That does seem plausible. (Fixed.)

    @Stephen: There’s nothing about saying “this is a Level 10 challenge” which says “all challenges must be Level 10 if you’re 10th level”.

    Beyond that, I’m not certain why you didn’t understand what the advantages of the system would be. Maybe try reading from “What’s the point?” again if you’re not understanding the point?

  4. Wyntonian says:

    I do find this system very intriguing, but I have one question. How would a character advance from skilled to expert, expert to master, etc.? For all its flaws, the 3.5 skill system doesn’t work too poorly in my limited experience, and I’m curious what makes this better.

  5. Tenebrous says:

    Can you give an example of how skills would be distributed in this proposition? Does each player purchases an initial rank in a skill (skilled, expert, or master) and then his or her skill level is equal to his or her character level?
    I can see the advantage of the system as eliminating the need for Skill checks below your rank/level and not having one attribute keyed to each skill. But having potentially 30 or even 60 different DC’s (3 ranks x a total of 10 or 20 levels) is a little daunting to assign.
    What about eliminating levels altogether? Characters begin either untrained or skilled and then, much like proficiencies, slowly move up the ladder (a fourth or fifth rank being the highest attainable, with “Near Impossible” being right above that for a -5 penalty) as they gain levels?
    (I did not read the original article, only the direct link provided)

  6. Otus says:

    Do you really need the three levels of proficiency? If it was just skilled and unskilled (-5? -10?) it would indeed look simpler than currently.

    I also don’t see how I would decide on the skill level of a task. What does Expert Level 10 *mean*? Something a 10th level Expert can do? How is that different from a Master Level 5 or a Skilled Level 15 task?

  7. Stephen says:

    Sure, you’ve eliminated the lookup for situations where you meet or exceed the listed difficulty. But if you don’t, the math is more complicated and requires remembering which numbers peg to which difficulty name.

    Mathematically, there’s no difference between:
    “I’m a 10th level Expert but the challenge is 3rd level Master. So I get a +7 for level but a -5 for skill, so I need to hit 15 with a +2.”
    “I have a +20 and I need to hit a 33.”

    The second example does require more precalculation, but other than the two-digit number comparison, I’d expect it to be way easier in actual play for a lot of players.

    The system Mearls and Cook are talking about implies that there’s no relative math, which simplifies the tradeoff. The impression I get of it (at least from the Legends and Lore post I read) is that it’s intended to be set up so you either meet the difficulty and can do it automatically, you’re one short and have to make a standard chance roll, or you’re two short and can’t attempt it at all. Whatever its other flaws, it does reduce the amount of on-the-fly calculation asked of players.

  8. Andrew says:

    The best use of this idea I have ever seen was in the Chill system, Mayfair Games. It was percentile based. They had “Student, Teacher, Master” with +15%, +30%, and +50% to your base roll. Spare, elegant, cool. D&D just can’t do that.

  9. Joshua Trigg says:

    Andrew- to point out what others have noted, how is that different than D&D’s system? Against a DC of 20, someone who essentially mastered a skill (8 ranks, +2 ability, +3 skill focus, +2 masterwork tools, +2 aid other from apprentice) has a 85% chance of success with gradually smaller and smaller chances of success (no apprentice, no skill focus, fewer ranks, etc).
    D&D can not only do the exact same thing, but has a much better way to describe just how skilled you are at a particular thing.

    To the point of this new skill system – the whole thing just seems unwieldy and unnecessary. D&D’s skill system does essentially the same thing with simpler math and, in most cases, the player can ‘take ten” for the same effect as as ‘autowin’ on a particular skill, unless stressed.
    That is to say, you only need to know your bonus vs. the difficulty. With the system you described, you need to know your rank and the difference between the ‘level/difficuly’ of the challenge and then apply math before even determining if you’re going to need to roll or not.
    It seems like a bit of a pain.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    @Joshua: I think it depends on whether or not you find relative comparisons easier than arithmetic. Most people find relative comparisons easier. Identifying whether 17 is larger than 9 is pretty much automatic for most people. Determining the difference between the two requires subtraction. (Not difficult subtraction; but subtraction nonetheless.)

    D&D always requires the arithmetic. You can never resolve a single action without it. Even if you Take 10, you have to do the arithmetic.

    The descriptive system will avoid arithmetic most of the time. (Assuming you’re using it within the suggested paradigm that appropriate challenges are generally made up of tasks of an equal level or lower.)

    The other simplification of the system is on the OTHER side of the screen. In the current paradigm, the system requires you to consult a chart to determine the DC of a challenge appropriate to a given level. In this system, the table look-up is eliminated — making the game easier to run. (Assuming we’re talking about 4E. In vanilla 3E, of course, we lack those guidelines. But as L&L suggests, I don’t agree that this is a good thing. I disagree with 4E’s “level up the universe with the PCs” methodology; but the idea of having an understanding of what DCs are appropriate for a particular level just makes sense.)

  11. Joshua Trigg says:

    @ Alexander –

    My issue here is that, in many cases, they both result in arithmatic. It won’t come up as often in the descriptive skill system (DSS) if and only if you frequently meet skill-based challenges equal to or lower than your ability in said skill.

    That is to say, if I’m a level 10 Journeyman in a particular skill, then all level 10 and lower skill (journeyman) will not require a roll, but all skills of any level of “expert” or any 11th level skill challenge of any rating will all still require a roll and will require you to figure out the respective penalties and bonuses you get on your abililty check. I believe this may essentially mean that whatever number of rolls you believe that you won’t have to bother with is essentially illusory and whatever fewer rolls you have to make is going to be made up for the process of dealing with the bonus/penalty system in the DSS system that you won’t have to deal with in D&D, where it always amounts to d20 + skill vs. DC.

    I am strictly speaking, of course, of the roll made at the time in which a skill check is necessary. I do believe your system does simplify the process of assigning skill points at each character level. (But I honestly never had issues with that – but that’s just me. I do also like being able to be gradiantly skilled – a few ranks here, half level ranks there, full ranks there… and that sort of thing.

    So… it’s quite different but I can’t see how this is significantly simpler.
    If your goal is to simplify the D&D skill system, I would recommend the following:
    Drop the level portion of the DSS skill system but keep the novice~impossible system.
    Make all difficulty checks a flat number that never improves that’s based off your skill ranking.

    This way, you can either pull it off or you can’t. If you have a journeyman rating, all skill checks that require a skill rating of ‘journeyman’ automatically win regardless of your character level.
    A roll could come into play if, say, you’re attempting to deal with a skill challenge oen rating above yours (journeyman vs. expert) against a flat DC of 15 using the skill’s ability modifier.

  12. Warclam says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Joshua on most points, here. Having a level for a given task as well as a skill ranking feels like doubling up, with no particular value being added. I suppose you’re not making a table look-up, but you do have to assign two different difficulty numbers to the task which are somewhat arbitrary. What does it even mean that a task is, say, level 7? What distinguishes a level 2 Master task from level 7 Expert task? Nothing mechanical under most circumstances, and I can’t think of any in-world difference, yet occasionally it will mean the difference between success and mere possible success. This just seems needlessly complex.

    @ Joshua: did you read Mike Mearls’ original post? I ask because I did just before writing this reply, and your suggestion is close to the original system. I happen to quite like it, actually. The main difference that I can see is that he had the roll for possible success happening when your skill meets the task rank, rather than when it’s one higher. I think that’s the better way to handle it, because it enables a good method for opposed skill checks (which Mearls did not address

  13. Warclam says:

    Blast, accidentally pressed the “submit comment” button. To finish the above post:

    Proposed skill rank opposed skill check system (using Mearls’ original system, not the revised Alexandrian or Triggian systems):

    When the skill ranks do not match, whoever has the higher skill simply wins. A guard with a Master rank in Spot will see through the Expert-Hide rogue every time; and vice versa for an Expert guard and a Master rogue.

    When the skill ranks are equal, the two parties make opposed ability checks using the appropriate ability. This is where you get to put your ability and skill modifiers to good use. Whoever rolls higher wins.

    Obvious problem: who wins a tie? Flipping a coin would be terribly stupid. The best solution I can come up with is that the “attacker” wins the tie, like for attack rolls (the attacker being whoever it was that provoked the opposed check, in this case the rogue attempting to sneak past the guard). Going the PC-focused route doesn’t work too well, since NPCs might be fighting NPCs or PCs vs. PCs.

    It also occurs to me that being a single skill level off resulting in automatic failure/instant success might be too wonky. If so, perhaps you can attempt to challenge if you’re exactly one rank lower than the opposition, but you get a… -10 penalty, say.

    I dunno, thoughts?

  14. Joshua Trigg says:

    @ Wardam

    When I wrote my original post, I didn’t have time to go through Mearl’s original post – I was just going by what Alexander wrote on his modified version so it was based entirely on that.

    To answer your points though, I’m kinda – meh with the entire concept. It does make things considerably easier – which is right in line with Alexander’s modified/simplified D&D system he’s been talking about putting into print but I prefer the skill rank system because it seems to have a nuance that the DSS system lacks – though I say this fully realizing that 3.5e’s skills are formalized and printed and the DSS system is an idea that was never fully implimented or formalized. To that end, it’s not that I don’t like the idea, but the concept seems like it would lack much of the nuance that d20 system possesses.

    However, were I to impliment this system myself and replace the D&D 4e’s skills with them, I would do the following:

    All skills would have the following rankings:
    Untrained/Novice/Apprentice/Trained/Expert/Master/Grand Mastery/Impossible

    All characters have access to “untrained” skills
    skills that would require training for certain functions would have to take the novice ranking
    Classes would get a certain number of points dependant upon which class you take in which to invest in skills – each point would net you a level of training up to a limit depending upon which experience tier you’re currently at.
    Heroic- Expert
    Paragon- Master
    Epic- Grand Mastery

    The higher skill ranking always defeats any tasks of equal or lower rank.
    If rushed or stressed, skill v task ranking would require a straight up d20 +ability roll modified by circumstance or DC10.
    Any attept for a character with a skill of a rank one lower than a set task (a grand mastery skill vs. an impossible task or novice vs apprentice-level task) must make an ability roll equal to d20+ability vs. DC 15. If it’s an opposed roll, then it’s vs. d20 +5 +ability.
    If someone’s skill rank is two lower than the task, then it is impossible for the character to do.

    The only problem I see is if someone’s ability is so high (+14 ability modifier, for example) to essentially never fail one-higher task but that might be fair anyone because it speaks to TREMENDOUS natural talent that still could never go two-higher task.

  15. D&D: Level-Locked Skills | System sans Setting says:

    […] 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 […]

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