Skills in D&D 4e part 2: Player skill versus character skill

In part 1 of my skills series, I talked about passive skill use and rewarding players who choose to train skills. Now it’s time to share my views on player skill versus character skill.

It’s useful to note my D&D background here. I had a hint of exposure to D&D 2e when I was about 13 or 14 years old, but never even played a single session. I got the books and learned Third Edition in the early 2000s but only played a few one-on-one sessions with my wife and then one session with a couple of friends before things petered out. So, most of my real D&D experience has come with Fourth Edition since early 2010.

The old school approach

As I understand things, earlier editions of D&D (especially prior to 3e) tended to focus more on the skill of the player sitting at the table than the skill of the character in the game for things like social interaction, searching and puzzle solving.

If a player wanted her character to convince the town guard to let her through the gate after hours, the player would try her hand at making a moving speech, or telling a convincing lie, or scaring the guard into backing down, or whatever. The DM would then judge whether she had made a good enough play to get through the gate.

If a rogue was searching a room looking for hidden doors and secret treasure, the rogue’s player would describe going to each corner of the room, tapping on the floorboards, feeling around the window frame for catches, moving the rug out of the way to look for trap doors, and so on. If he searched in the right place and in the right way, he’d find the secret. If not, then not.

If the party were confronted with a puzzle, the players around the table would put their heads together and try to figure it out. They might beg the DM for hints, and he might or might not give them out.

The new school approach

In 4th Edition, things work a little differently. The player whose PC was trying to get by the town guard would likely be asked by the DM to make a Diplomacy, Bluff or Intimidate check, perhaps with a +2 bonus for good role-playing. A good roll of the die can overcome a lousy speech, a transparent lie or a meek threat.

The player whose rogue was  searching a room would be asked to make a Perception check. If he wanted to really take his time and search extra carefully, the player might tell the DM that he wanted to take 20 (more for 3.X than 4th Edition) and be sure to find every possible secret.

The party confronted with a puzzle might be told to make an Intelligence or Insight check to get a hint – or to possibly solve the puzzle outright.

My approach

Like most DMs, I tend to do things my own way, but I’m definitely more new school than old school when it comes to skill use at the table. I default to challenging the character rather than the player in most instances.

The logic of this approach is consistency. I don’t require the player to demonstrate the ability to pick a real-world lock in order to use Thievery or to lift a heavy object in order to use Athletics; why would I require the player to make a real-world speech in order to use Diplomacy? Why should they have to demonstrate that they (the player) know where things are likely to be hidden in order to use Perception?

That said, I certainly want immersion in my games, and I absolutely reward players with bonuses for being creative and entertaining in whatever they’re trying. If they actually do a good job of speaking in-character for their Diplomacy check, I’ll given them a +2 bonus to the check as well as a bonus point. If it’s a really fantastic speech or lie or whatever, I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they look at the map of the room and say, “You know, that bookcase looks a little out of place; can I check to see if pulling on any of the books triggers a secret door?” then I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they’re working on a puzzle, I’ll probably set things up so that they can solve it as players, perhaps using character skills to get a hint, but I’ll also give them an option to handle the whole thing with skills in case my particular group of players isn’t into doing puzzles. A good example of this is the Room of Runes puzzle in my Descent Into Darkness adventure (page 7-9 of the PDF). The players can solve it as a puzzle, but if that’s not their style, they can just use skill checks to get through the room without actually dealing with the puzzle’s solution.

Reward skilled players, but don’t penalize unskilled players

You might be complaining at this point: “Hey OnlineDM, you say that you focus on character skill more than player skill, but you just gave examples where skilled players can achieve automatic success without rolling the dice. What gives?”

Well, I admitted that my own approach was a mixture of old and new school, with a leaning toward new. What I don’t like about the pure “player skill” approach is that you can end up penalizing unskilled players, even if they’re running skilled characters.

A high-Charisma bard who’s trained in Diplomacy is going to be able to charm a barmaid into sharing some details about the last party to pass through the tavern, even if the bard’s player can barely string a coherent sentence together in real life. If that player says he wants his bard to charm the barmaid, he should be allowed to roll a Diplomacy check and succeed if the character’s skill is high enough.

In this situation, I’ll still ask the player, “What’s old silver-tongue saying to the barmaid?” in an effort to encourage some role-playing, of course. But if Tommy Tongue-Tied gets a great roll but can’t come up with something reasonable to say in-character, I don’t tell him, “Well, your bard stammers and then insults the barmaid’s mother. She tosses a mug of ale in your face and storms off.” I encourage the role-play, but if the player can’t manage it, we move on based on character skill.

Yes, this means that I’ll occasionally let a character with low Charisma and no social skill training succeed on a task that’s probably beyond their character’s abilities by role-playing the heck out of the situation, or I’ll let the low-Wisdom unperceptive character find the secret door because the player suggested looking in just the right spot. I won’t let this be abused at my table, though.

If a great role-player wants to be the face of the party but chooses to put all of her skill training in the non-social skills in a power-gamey way (“It will be just like having training in all of the social skills without having to waste my skill training slots!”) then I’m going to clamp down. A great role-player should also be able to role-play having low Charisma, for instance. If she comes up with a genius lie every now and then, despite a terrible Bluff score, I’ll go with it. But if it becomes an abuse of my approach, I’ll say, “That’s very creative, but let’s see what your character comes up with. Roll me a Bluff check.” I’d probably still hand her the bonus point for creativity, though.

This is mainly going to come up with skills tied to Charisma and Wisdom, and perhaps Intelligence to a lesser degree (recalling some piece of history from the setting’s background materials could test player skill, I suppose, instead of asking for a History check). But creative description and good role-playing can make any skill check easier at my table. If your fighter’s struggle to brace himself against the stone block that’s trying to close off the exit to the room is described in especially vivid, exciting terms, I’m going to give you a bonus to the Athletics check plus a bonus point, but a terrible roll can still result in failure.  On the flip side, if the player is absolutely convinced that the shaman is lying to him, regardless of the result of his Insight check, he still could proceed as if the shaman were lying (which, of course, the shaman might not have been after all, but the character wasn’t Insightful enough to tell).

Player skill matters, and if the players have got it, it will certainly help them at my table. But if they’re lacking in social skills or wisdom skills as actual individuals, that doesn’t mean that their characters must also be lacking when they play with me. Best of both worlds, that’s my goal!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

1 thought on “Skills in D&D 4e part 2: Player skill versus character skill

  1. Part of this historical look back that Monte is doing is due to how gamers approach the game (gamers look at the rules, then use them), but part of it is how the mechanics skew the game one way or another. From the OD&D white box to most of 2nd Edition, you really didn’t have any skills. You might have a single occupation-related skill (tanner) in AD&D. You might have a few non-weapon proficiencies in 2E. But, largely, any given situation was up to you to solve (and even if your tanner knowledge came into play, there were usually no rules to guide play). The result is that everyone played with a very blank slate. You are in the wilderness and trying to live off the wild over the days it takes to reach a village. You ask your DM whether you can use your tanner skill to work an animal hide into a shelter. Your DM considers it, makes a decision. The lack or rules by themselves create a very open game where everyone learns to improvise. Even when there were rules, they could be so confusing that DMs needed to adjudicate, again encouraging open thinking and situational calls.

    Starting with 3E you have true skills – a defined list of areas you can master and each has specific rules for what you can accomplish. Those rules help guide us to do more (a way to prevent spell casting from being interrupted, guidance on what kind of knowledge you would know in character) but also cut off other possibilities (because the rules don’t cover them). In 3E you get skill ranks, which by virtue of being allocated every level caused players to think carefully about the areas their PC should master. The result was a really solid understanding of your PC’s skills and skills helping to define them (I’m a master tracker, I am a linguist, my diplomatic skills are unrivaled, etc.). In 4E, the decision is up front and then usually never touched again, but you advance for free as you level and advance in all skills so you can attempt various things untrained. The result in 4E is that you are more likely to try a skill, but you have a definition of what might be possible and you probably can’t recall what skills you have trained… nor do you think of your skills as telling your PC’s story. Also, as the rules are now written more clearly, there are fewer cases where individual DMs make different calls – gamers come to expect the same decision by any DM at any table, which is good for reliability but can stifle creativity.

    In the current game players are likely to come in with a very narrow focus as to what they can do in an encounter. Athletics does x, y, and z, and so they see anything at all related to athleticism as confined by those rules. There is no use in asking wacky questions, because they are outside the rules and unlikely to be worthy of discussion. Authors write that way, knowing that to present wacky stuff will likely be seen as unfair (“hey, that’s not covered by the rules, how were we supposed to guess that we could do that!”). DMs do the same thing. It ends up creating a game that is highly codified but limited and even unimaginative. It works excellently with a great DM and players, especially experienced ones that know how to bring open imaginative play into any system, but has the danger of bringing up new players to believe everything that is possible exists in the rule book.

    What you describe is great, and part of the necessary social contract between players and DM in a structured game. “Guys, I’ll reward innovative thinking and it isn’t just about the dice… these are guidelines, not shackles!” That’s a key to good gaming, regardless of edition.

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