4E Skills – porting over indie skills

June 10, 2008

Edited to add:Keith Baker’s thoughts on Skill Challenges

So looking at the 4E skill system, I think it’s very good, despite the likely errata error which makes the outcome of most contests a bucket of FAIL. I think though, what’s missing, is advice on -when- to use any given thing.

Say Yes AKA the Freebie

“You enter the room and see a teleportation circle on the floor”

Tabletop roleplaying has a bad history with this one, both in published adventures and actual play. It can never be repeated enough times- unless conflict, failure, or spending time on a given thing would be fun, skip it- say yes, put it in the players’ faces, and keep it moving.

You know how in a movie there’s a montage of the hero climbing a mountain, crossing the desert, and cuting through a jungle in 10 seconds? That’s because it’s neat, but not the focus of the movie. If something isn’t the focus of your game, don’t waste time with it, and don’t leave the door open for players to spend 40 minutes checking for traps, haggling over apples, or trying to figure out what to do next.

Basic Interaction Required

This isn’t listed, but it’s a classic of old school and traditional play.

“There are runes on the floor”
“I look closer”
“It’s a teleportation ring”

This doesn’t require a check, it just requires that the players interact with the fiction. It rewards paying attention, curiosity, poking things with sticks, and even creativity. It’s a good way to draw players into the fiction, but if you over do it, they end up checking every nook and cranny, afriad they are missing something.

Passive Skill Checks

“The runes are common, the craftsmanship is not. The edges are perfectly smooth, it would take a master stonecutter three lifetimes to do it… and inhuman patience.”

This is sort of like a conditional Say Yes or Gimme- you give information to players who have invested into certain skills While D&D is mostly focused on who ambushes who for this, I use it mostly to add in flourishes, extra clues, but nothing crucial.

I like to make it a chance for each player to shine in their niche- the warrior knows the approaching company of soldiers to be veterans by the way they hold their spears, the ranger can see that this region is plagued by periodic droughts, the wizard recognizes a specific flourish of handwriting that only comes from the Southern College of Arnna.

Single Skill Checks

I generally use these rarely. They only get used when both success or failure would be interesting, equally, and YET it’s not worth making into a full scene (and an extended conflict).

Extended Contests

So here’s what’s tricky about Extended Contests. It’s all about fictional positioning.

Instead of making choices based on clearly defined mechanical options, players have to make choices and input on fiction, which is something traditional games are kind of widgy on.

Like, if we have the chase through the market and the player says, “I jump over the apple cart”, who gets to say if the apple cart is there? Does the GM have to introduce it to be used? Does the player suggest it and the GM yay/nays it? Beyond that, when do the dice get rolled? Is it an Athletics check? Or do we simply narrate it and then the player tries to do something else and uses some kind of Local Knowledge check to lose the chasers?

Savvy GMs with experience know you can totally change the outcome of a scene by selectively choosing when and which things to roll for and which ones not to- either weighting things on the character’s strong or weak skills.

It’s this general sort of widginess that makes one group have a great time with extended contests- creative, tactical choices, and another group it’s boring- just playing craps with narration and no real control over success or failure.

Difficulty and Outcome

Finally, how do you weight skill checks? Should you decide based on how hard it would be “realistically”? Do you weight it based on plot convenience? Do you make it easier for good narration? How do you decide how much outcome there is? Again, this can scale from realistically to cinematically to your own whimsy.

This becomes another issue when it comes to the GM as the sole determining person- players either pick up on your preferences and learn to meet it, flail blindly, or even resent it because their conception of how difficulty and outcome should be rated is different (“But realistically…”).



  1. Hey Chris,

    Just to add to the difficulty and outcome bit… There is a chart, I think in the DMG, that has suggested skill difficulties for easy, medium, and hard tasks. The suggested numbers go up based on level, but there’s no discussion I remember telling you what to do with that. The numbers going up is understandable to maintain challenge, but do you stop rolling for the Apple cart at 5th level or tenth level, or is the Apple cart always medium difficulty, and why?

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    I remember hearing people who played the D&D Experience Day saying that players got to choose the difficulty for an extended contest, and easy/medium/hard produced different additional effects besides the base roll. This made sense to me.

    But yeah, at what point does the Easy check just become a free gimme? Etc.

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