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June 7, 2012 / Wythe

5th Edition skills vs. ability checks, skills, and traits

Oh yeah. 5e cometh. They’ve already sent out materials to playtest, as well as thoughts on design and the ultimate goal of the Dungeons & Dragons game/brand/myth in the new millennium.

This nugget of sense is from an official DnD Next update about skills, my anti-favorite game aspect, one I find generally as convoluted as “Feats” but much more important and therefore more difficult to fix ad hoc. Sayeth the Officialest Nerds, mostly my emphasis:

The fundamental design shift rests squarely on moving task resolution from skills (make a Climb/Athletics check to climb) to the abilities (make a Strength check to climb). At this time, the next iteration regards abilities as a combination of both raw talent and training, and it differs from the 3rd Edition model, which made, at least in practice, abilities raw talent only. This means if your character is smart (high Intelligence), you probably know a lot about lots of stuff. This means if your character is strong, you’re probably good at climbing walls, jumping across pits, and swimming through rough water. By placing firm boundaries around what abilities do, we let a character’s abilities decide what he or she can do, what he or she can’t do, and what he or she has a chance at doing.

The six abilities cover the basics of what a character can do in the world, so skills speak to specific tasks normally associated with an ability. Some skills offer a modest bonus on checks related to the task, while other skills improve some aspect of your character—in relation to task resolution. As it currently stands, your background grants you four things—either skills or traits. A skill always refers to a specific task: climbing, charm, deception, and so on. If you have training, you get a +2 bonus to any check made that involves that task. The bonus typically increases based on your class (rogues are good with skills) or, if you gain training in the skill again, increasing the bonus by 1 for each instance. Here’s an example skill:

Trained in Charm (Charisma): This skill applies whenever you would befriend, seduce, or otherwise charm another person.

Where skills can improve your chances for success in specific situations, traits are minor benefits that usually interact with specific tasks. A trait doesn’t grant you a bonus. It just lets you do something or speaks to your character’s place in the world. Here are two example traits:

Extra Language: You are fluent in a language of your choice.

Workshop: You own a workshop somewhere in the world. Work with your DM to determine the best possible location for this shop. You have everything you need to produce the items you have learned to craft.

While this approach might not seem shocking or revolutionary, it gives us some benefits while making skills recognizable to the audience. We can control bonus inflation and DC inflation by keeping the bonuses from skill training modest. We can put things into skills we normally wouldn’t in 4th Edition, such as drive cart, workshop, and carousing. Also, since the skill system is no longer the task resolution system as it was in 3rd/4th (to climb, you make a Strength check and not a Climb/Athletics check), there’s no need to place firm boundaries around the skill system, and we can expand the skill assortment as needed without invalidating adventures, settings, and so on. Finally, since we’re delivering skills by way of backgrounds, the skills we introduce to the game point back to a larger concept such as Sage, Thief, or Mariner.

Does this make sense for 100 M.Y.? (And just what is a sage thief-mariner? Hemingway on a boat?)

This seems to be headed toward the Hollowpoint/FATE idea of simple traits that you have/are, as opposed to “skills” you add points to over time, representing training you’re definitely not doing, because you’re off whooping-ass against various nefarious dungeon-dwellers.

My question is, are they really going to keep feats as well? This would make 5e not simpler (many skills, suffering elegant variation and category mismatch, become one flexible skills/traits system), but much more complicated (a player must think about whether a given aspect of her PC is more skill-y, trait-esque, or feat-ish).

I’m sure my design hypochondria is premature, and many of today’s top minds are even as we breathe advancing toward skills perfection—

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