Skills: Existing Mechanics

And another thing:  Non-combat skills.  What's up with those?

Throughout the editions of D&D skills have been handled in a lot of different ways, but something about them has always left me a little cold.  The way skills are handled varies by edition and, within some editions, by class.  Here's a breakdown of the main ways skills have been handled in the first through third editions:

Thieves (etc.) - In most editions prior to 3rd, thieves and those who used thief-like skills got a straight percentile chance of success.  This chance of success increased automatically as a function of character level.  Personally I'm not the hugest fan of percentile type skills, but it makes sense that an adventurer using relevant skills would gradually improve over time, much like attack bonuses increase.

Also, any system where the character's advancement can "max out" doesn't quite sit perfectly with me.  Not that I expect characters to routinely be advancing to superhuman levels of ability in everything.  But in a game where titans and literal forces of nature are valid opponents, and where PCs might one day become demi-gods, I like the idea that a character could obtain mythic levels in some ability.

Challenges of Strength and Surprise - At least in AD&D 1ed. this involved rolling a d6, possibly modified by various factors.  Just another piece of the old school smorgasbord of different ways that tests were resolved.  Not specifically a bad means to do it.  I just prefer having fewer different resolution mechanics to keep track of.

Non-weapon proficiencies - As far as I can recall non-weapons proficiencies were pretty much just an AD&D 2ed thing.  These covered a variety of talents not necessarily innately related to tomb raiding and murder-hoboing.  The mechanic involved rolling under your ability score.  Non-weapon proficiencies were doled out pretty sparingly and didn't normally increase, although you could gain a +1 bonus to one non-weapons proficiency by passing up the chance to learn another.

Another interesting tidbit:  AD&D 2ed psionics were basically a hybrid of non-weapons proficiencies and spell points.

Roll under mechanics aren't a huge favorite of mine and the fact that these were so tough to acquire or improve didn't sit well either.  Basically what you got early on is what you were stuck with pretty much.

Secondary Skills - Secondary skills were, again, an AD&D 2nd Edition thing.  They were more like full professions or lifestyles than individual skills.  Secondary skills were broader categories than non-weapon proficiencies AD&D 2ed allowed DMs the option of using either system at thir preference.

The big difference was that secondary skills had no mechanical backing.  There were sort of a "work out with your DM what advantages the skill gives you" thing.  Which is fine, but still doesn't inherently indicate any means to gauge the effectiveness of the skill, or provide a mechanism for improvement over time.

Skills (3ed.+) - All skills from third edition on (so far) cover categories somewhat akin to those of non-weapon proficiencies.  However, the skills provide a bonus on a d20 roll against an opponent's skill check or against a fixed target number.  At each character level a number of skill ranks are doled out to buy up skill bonuses.  Typically the highest any skill bonus in 3rd Ed. can be is determined by:

Attribute modifier + 7 + character level (assuming about +4 worth of feat bonuses)

In theory this seems like not a bad deal since the skills have both a bonus from innate ability, and a learned improvement component.  The main drawback is that all characters pretty much start out as neophytes in everything.  So at first level you'll never have a grizzled and wise old lore keeper who actually figured out how to work arcane magic one day and decided to start advanturing.  You'll always have an inexperienced sorcerer's apprentice who at most read a few extra pages from one of his master's books.

Also, as Courtney Campbell has discussed at length, there are other drawbacks and benefits to handling skills in various ways.  Useful reading.  See references:  [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

After thinking about all this a bit, and reading over Benjamin David's Skills: the Middle Road.  I came up with a little system, roughly cross-compatible with the difficulty ratings imposed by 3rd edition and Pathfinder.

My requirements for the system include:
  • Character competency and awareness of risks is assumed.  Player competency is respected: Player skill trumps character skill if the player has a good idea.  Character skill trumps player insight if the character should be able to come up with a better solution.
  • Each skill has two modes:  A narrative guideline and a numerical bonus, either can apply as appropriate.
  • Dice rolling is applied for "saving throw" type situations and other instances where the choice between two outcomes would be interestingly dramatic.
  • Skill bonuses come in sizable chunks, which can progress more or less rapidly than character level.
  • Skills are broad and based on profession, position in society, or place in the world.
  • Skills assist with saving throws.
  • Rough cross compatibility with the 3rd Edition and Pathfinder difficulty levels. 
With a bit of luck the means of accomplishing this will be laid out in the next post.