Skills in D&D 4e – Some Simple Math

I was looking through this thread on the wizards forums and it got me thinking about skills in D&D 4e again. The thread was started in response to the Dragon article by Mike Mearls about Item Rarity. One of the complaints some people mentioned was that with new item rarities, players are basically restricted to minor stuff that give skill bonuses. Thus, skill DCs for skill challenges and other checks will be even crazier and wacky as players fill their slots with skill boosting items.

The thing is, skills have already been like this! Between training, ability scores, backgrounds, racial bonuses, powers, and items, the range of skill modifiers is way to wide to really work for any given DC. The only thing that is really sure is that the current DCs are too low!

Some simple numbers to illustrate my point:

Level 1 Character:

  • Unskilled Diplomacy Modifier with Charisma stat of 8: -1
  • Diplomacy trained with Charisma of 10: 5
  • Diplomacy trained with Charisma of 20: 10
  • Diplomacy trained with Charisma of 20, racial bonus to diplomacy, and background that boosts diplomacy: 14
  • Diplomacy trained with Charisma of 20, racial bonus, background, and skill focus: 17
  • Diplomacy trained with Charisma of 20, racial bonus, background bonus, skill focus, and Bard Power Majestic Friendship: 22!

That’s all without a single item. Throw in a modest item bonus (more prevalent at higher levels), and you can climb to the mid 20s! Things get worse at higher levels where primary stats increase (widening gap between primary and unimproved skills), item bonuses get better, feats become more prevalent, and skill boosting powers become a little more common.

Granted I used Words of the Friendship in that example for a cheap boost to Diplomacy. But similar powers exist for other classes. Offhand, I can think of the Paladin’s Astral Speech (+4 to diplomacy for an encounter) and Disguise Self (which gives a +5 bonus to bluff checks to keep up a magical disguise).

Where would one even put a DC for a skill that would be at all reasonable? Even if you use Mike Mearl’s suggestion in a previous Dragon article of increasing a DC  by 10 for a truly awesome result in a skill challenge you still run into players who are basically auto succeeding at the higher skill modifiers (though it’s probably still a good way to mix  up skill challenges). And even when things are pretty reasonable, a +4 bonus which is pretty easy to get from race and background is a full 20% better than someone else who merely has a maxed out ability score and a trained skill. Imagine if some people routinely had a +4 bonus on attack rolls (with no comparatively higher defense to compensate)? It would really screw up the system!

I don’t think the huge gulfs in possible skill modifiers totally breaks skill challenges and skill checks. It just means they require A LOT more DM fiat. When I run skill challenges, I usually up the DCs on the chart by 5 or so levels and even then tend to stick with the high DCs for most checks. I try to make every success or failure mean something, so that each check has tangible rewards for success and failure. Thus, even if success is pretty much guaranteed overall, a possibility of a failed check still has consequences. Finally, I often offer different tiers of challenge, similar to Mearl’s idea of upping a challenge by 10. So a moderate DC might merely contribute to the skill challenge, a hard DC will have a minor benefit beyond the challenge, and an extra challenging DC will have a nice reward.

Handling skill challenges in this way makes them workable and quite fun, but they do lack the punch of sink-or-swim combat where you can really let loose against the players after setting everything up. So for the time being it looks like skill challenges will remain the side course instead of the meat and potatos of D&D.

2 Responses to “Skills in D&D 4e – Some Simple Math”

  1. paul paul says:

    The fix for skills might be to roll a d40.

  2. […] chart to run with. I've been using the rule of thumb of 10-15-20 plus half level, but because of issues with 4e skills, my system does give trained PCs a lot of gimmes at high levels. I guess I'll give the new DC […]

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