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

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Skills in D&D 4e part 1: Passive skill use and training

Skills in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition seem to have been a big topic of conversation online in recent weeks. I’ve finally gotten to the point that my own views are well-formed enough for me to chime in. I’m going to start with the way I handle passive skills and skill training.

Oftentimes, a published adventure will refer to PCs’ passive Insight or passive Perception skills to tell whether a character can detect a minor illusion, an NPC’s deception, a small detail, a hidden enemy, etc. Lots of virtual ink has been spilled debating the pros and cons of this approach, especially when the DM is crafting adventures for his or her own group. After all, the DM can know all of the PCs’ passive scores in advance. If the highest passive Perception in the group is a 19, then the DM can choose to assign the hidden thing a DC of 20, in which case no one will notice it, or a lower DC, in which case at least one PC will notice it. What’s the point of bothering with the number in that case?

I’ve started handling things a little bit differently. Whenever there’s a situation in which a PC might or might not passively know something, I ask the table, “Who’s trained in Perception / Insight?” Anyone who’s trained gets the bonus info.

  • “Ah, you notice a small humanoid crouching behind a tree over three.”
  • “You get the feeling that the fishwife is holding something back in her statement.”
  • “You notice that the texture of the stone wall here looks slightly unusual.”

Furthermore, I use this with other skills, too (mental skills more than physical skills for the most part):

  • Arcana: “You can tell that this construct is not very strongly tied to its creator.”
  • Diplomacy: “The duchess just committed a minor breach of protocol by continuing to stand until the baron was seated.”
  • Dungeoneering: “The rocks piled up in that corner are not there naturally, and furthermore they look a little unsteady.”
  • Heal: “The stab wound was definitely not self-inflicted.”
  • History: “You remember that the empire never conquered this particular town.”
  • Insight: “The innkeeper is sincere when he tells you that the road east hasn’t seen any bandit attacks lately.”
  • Nature: “You recognize that vine as being out of place in this type of forest.”
  • Perception: “The footsteps of at least three people can be heard in the common room downstairs.”
  • Religion: “This shrine is dedicated to Gruumsh.”
  • Streetwise: “This part of town is known to have the occasional illicit goods shop.”
  • Thievery: “You recognize the workmanship on this trap; it was built by gnomes.”

This is all very much in the spirit of “passive skill use” rather than anything active that a PC might try. I could see a case for Endurance perhaps, but usually Endurance comes up when a PC wants to try something active. Athletics, Acrobatics, Bluff, Intimidate and Stealth are all pretty hard to use passively, so I didn’t list any examples.

My general approach is pretty simple:

  • Find situations where someone who knows a lot about a particular thing might get a little extra information thanks to their expertise
  • Reward characters who are trained in the relevant skill with that bonus information

It’s very much like normal passive skill use, except that I use it for skills other than just Perception and Insight, and I don’t bother with checking the exact value – I just hand out the bonus info if the PC is trained.

I like this in part because it’s easier (no need to figure out what passive DC will be caught or missed by the PCs) and in part because it rewards players for their choice to train a particular skill.

Now, I know that this means that the 8 Int fighter who somehow has trained History might occasionally get to recall a fact that the 20 Int wizard with no history training doesn’t automatically know. I’m fine with that, because this particular skill use is about rewarding the choice to train the skill, not high stats. If the wizard wants to make an active roll to see what she recalls, she might well get a high score even without training, in which case there could be additional information. But the freebie comes from the choice to train the skill.

I’ll mention here that I do still use passive Perception, for instance, if a monster makes a Stealth check to hide. But when it comes to “PCs automatically know this information or not,” I check whether a PC is trained rather than whether their passive score is greater than or equal to a particular number.

I’m always looking for suggestions on how to make skills more interesting, how to reward player choices, etc. I’d love to hear the creative things that other DMs do with skills in their own games!

-Michael the OnlineDM

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