Welcome to the latest installment in my blow-by-blow readthrough of the new Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. Or as those of us “in the know” (read: geeks) call it, the D&D 4e PHB.
Chapters 1-3 started out promising enough, until the classes section in Chapter 4 took a far left turn for World of Warcraft territory. Let’s see how skills work now in 4e.
For those of you who are “utes,” back in the day D&D didn’t have anything like skills. They were introduced in rudimentary fashion in Second Edition and became a full-fledged system in Third Edition.
The first thing to note is that the raw number of skills has gone down. Looking to simplify, the designers took the list of 36 (counting all the Knowledge, Craft, and Profession skills as one each) down to 17, with multiple 3e skills boiled down into more general 4e ones like “Athletics” (climb+jump+swim) and “Thievery” (disable trap, open lock, pick pocket, sleight of hand).
Each class has a list of automatically trained skills and then a list of optional ones to choose from. For example, the ranger is automatically trained in Dungeoneering or Nature (your choice), and then can choose four others at first level from their class skills list – acrobatics, athletics, dungeoneering, endurance, heal, nature, perception, and stealth. Unlike 3e, your intelligence does not affect this. You don’t appear to gain more skills with level, except by spending feats – e.g. the “Skill Training” feat gives you one new trained skill (class skill or not).
This is an OK simplification but I wish it was a little easier to gain skills as you level up – it seems strange to go from a level 1 axe masher to a demigod and not get any more trained skills, though I guess getting better at all of them compensates – in fact, a level 10 untrained person is as good at any skill as a level 5 trained person. This normalizes skills pretty heavily – so much that I wonder why they didn’t get rid of the “trained” concept, maybe just having classes give some skill bonuses.
“Trained” equates to a +5 flat bonus. So skill checks are always d10 + 1/2 your level + relevant ability score modifier + 5 if trained. So as you go up in level, you get good with all skills, and at higher levels the “trained” bonus becomes less significant.
Each skill still has a designated stat linked to it, with no mention of using different stats in different circumstances. I thought I had heard they were doing that in 4e but if they are it’s not in the PHB.
You roll skills versus a set difficulty class (DC) as in 3e. You can still take 10 on your d20 roll when not pressed, and in fact passive uses of skills also take 10 (like wandering through an area with stealthed creatures, you do a take 10 Perception check). This is nice because it makes things simpler, although it’s a little unclear to me which skill should be “passive” in a given circumstance – the Stealth or the Perception? Why not roll Perception versus a take-10 Stealth? As a DM I’d do it in terms of whether I wanted a PC to know there was a roll needed or not. It’s also a little odd in that if you say “I’m looking for hidden creatures!” you have an even chance of doing worse than your passive, which does not stand to reason – active should more often be better than passive use. I’d actually bump the 10 down to a “take 5” in passive circumstances.
A simple example – you have a high Stealth. You are moving around in the city, and you say “I don’t want to stealth to the degree that I have to be moving half speed and all that crap, but I do want to try to avoid notice when possible.” OK, a take 5 Stealth check. The one problem with that is it leads you down the path of “which is passive” – a take 5 stealth versus an active Perception check or an active Stealth check versus a take 5 Perception check is a big difference.
Skill challenges (complex skill checks) are mentioned but “described in the DMG.”
Skills are well described, with sample DCs and often multiple “use cases” – like under Thievery there’s a subsection for Open Lock, Pick Pocket, etc. DCs usually start at 15 for basic use cases and go up from there.
So in the end, this chapter’s pretty good – comboing the skills and simplifying is good. I think the passive use could be better and I think the overall allocation of skills is wonky. Having trained skills give a flat bonus when everyone adds half their level is a mistake – bonuses like this should always scale. I’d prefer to have a “you get to add one skill every X levels” scheme with more of a penalty for being untrained – I don’t think a level 10 character should be as good at every skill as all trained level 5 characters.