4e PHB Readthrough – Chapter 5: Skills

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.

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9 responses to “4e PHB Readthrough – Chapter 5: Skills

  1. To be absolutely pedantic about it, I believe non-weapon proficiencies first appeared in the 1e Oriental Adventures book, and were later fleshed out in the Dungeoneers and Wilderness Survival Guides. But most of us did only flirt with them until 2nd ed put them in the PHB.

    Thank for this in-depth review of the game. You’re giving a lot of great information, and I think you’re drilling down deeper than just about anybody else out there right now.

    – Brian

  2. Your math is a little off there… +5 is the same as 10 levels, not 5 levels. So it’s a level 15 (or, if you reflect rounding, 14) untrained character who is the same as a level 5 trained character.

    And since, per the DMG p.42 (I know you haven’t gotten there yet), that untrained character will have lost around 2 points in net over those 10 levels, though that will in large part be made up for by the 3 or 4 stat increase opportunities (one certain, 2 or 3 if the necessary stat is selected) that occur over any 10 level run.

    Couple that with a LOT fewer items giving +5 and +10 skill bonuses (3 and 3.5 was flush with those) and I think the simple +5 trained rule is OK, if not perfect.

  3. @Brian – thanks! Hope it helps.

    @Jack – Oh, I see, quite so. (Not sure what losing 2 points in net means but I guess I’ll get there). I still wish it scaled, just because it gets “worse” with higher level, as many DCs are flat. So once you’re in the 20-odd levels, even a cleric can pick a pretty butch lock, for example. I guess I do like higher level chars not being “complete noobs” at other skills – you don’t get to be level 20 by not knowing your way around stuff a little, but it does seem a little odd for a level 20 to be better at EVERYthing than a level 10.

  4. I just think the idea of an Epic Lock is crazy. (Go back and look at the skill description.) I can see players now. “There’s got be something good in there, they put an EPIC LOCK on the door!”
    But any about the skills. The progression is OK and the DC’s are still about the same as 3.5 but at higher levels characters will have a more manageable skill total. Look at two 20th level characters. In 3.5 you’d 23 skill ranks (HD+3) + Attribute (we’ll say) +5 for a total of 28. In 4th, 10 (1/2 level)+5 (Training)+5 (attribute) for a total of 20.
    I wish they would have done like they did with Star Wars Saga Edition where all the special tricks with skills you could only do if you were trained, the easier stuff you can do untrained.

  5. What I was referencing is that DCs scale, up roughly two points every 3 levels. So, over 9-10 levels, DCs climb by 5, 6, or 7 steps, while skills climb 5 plus attribute changes (probably 5 or 6). Or, rather, “DCs of tasks that matter” scale. Obviously, it isn’t the difficulty of the individual things in the world that’s changing, it’s the fact that the part of the world the PCs focus on is becoming the more difficult part. Rather rapidly.

    That is to say, sure a Level 15 Fighter (sans Thievery) can pick DC 22 locks as well as a 5th level Rogue (with Thievery). But while at level 5, Moderate Difficulty locks are DC 22, at level 15 a Moderate Difficulty lock is DC 27. And the Fighter has very little shot at DC 27.

    Yes, this kind-of means that “getting more skilled” is all an illusion. And it’s true all thru the game. Attacks and Defenses go up roughly in step, as do Skills and DCs. The chance of success on any one roll of a given type doesn’t actually change much from level 1 to 30. What does change is how much a single success can mean.

    Also, the DC of “Aid Another” is fixed at 10, so I suspect what actually happens over time is that everyone gets VERY good at helping out the party expert, to the point where most checks are effectively at +(n-1)*2 most the time.

  6. Pingback: Review: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player’s Handbook « Worlds in a Handful of Dice

  7. I would also like to point out that the NWP skill system was way more in depth than the 3rd edition skill system. Especially with the release of the options books. When 3rd came out, the skill system was dumbed down a bit. 4th only went further down that road, but the train left the station already in 3rd and was heading that way.

  8. I liked some skills got combined (Perception / Stealth). But they nobbed off so much (Craft/Perception). It’s all adventurer focussed stuff now. NWP from 2nd ed are more gamer advanced that 4th ed is.

  9. The question of whether Stealth or Perception should be passive is fairly intuitive when you think about it. What’s more, they aren’t mutually exclusive.

    The Stealth check sets the DC which the Perception check must beat in order for the Watcher to notice the Sneak. If the Sneak isn’t actively trying to hide, then the DC is equal to his passive Stealth. If the Watcher isn’t actively trying to watch, his passive Perception is used as the roll. The former would likely be used when a character who doesn’t realize he should be hiding is being watched by someone else who wants to track him. The latter in the case where an observer doesn’t realize there’s anything to observe (but the Sneak knows damn well it wants to hide.)

    If neither of them is actively trying to perform the respective task, then the Watcher’s passive Perception is compared to the Sneak’s passive Stealth. This would be most commonly used (in my games) to determine if a party of heroes who aren’t really trying to be quiet are heard by a group of monsters in the next room (or vice versa.)

    If both are actively trying, then both roll and Stealth sets DC for Perception. This would be the more traditional “we’re trying to sneak past the guards who are on watch” or “we’re watching for any thieves sneaking past” situation.

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