Just The Rules: Skills and Actions

Hopefully a quick second post for ‘S’, because I need to get onto ‘T’ (either ‘Tiered Abilities’ or ‘Traditions’, and knowing me probably both).

Skills hold a conflicted place in my mind. I like the idea, but they’ve never really been interesting. They offer some useful abilities and options as a character becomes competent with them, but outside of a few adventuring-specific uses they generally don’t do much.

It pays to buy up Perception (which is why Pathfinder 2e made it not quite a skill, but a rating that all classes improve as characters gain levels). If you’re a rogue, Disable Device (to go with Perception to find traps) is handy. In principle Heal is a useful skill to help stabilize allies who are dying, but the skill is usually gained by a character who can cast stabilize so I’m not sure how much benefit this gives (also, first aider here… you can stabilize a dying creature in 6 seconds with a measly DC 15 skill check? Damn am I impressed).

Pathfinder Unchained came to my rescue, though. Skill unlocks give you new options for skill checks, rather than just increasing the check modifier. They let you do new things with the checks. This is way cooler than the normal behavior.

The book also introduced other ways of managing skills. Some skills were merged or separated, distinctions were made between ‘adventuring skills’ and ‘background skills’, skills became binary ‘you have it or you do not’ and skill points fell to the wayside, and so on.

Which brings me to the approach I expect to take.

Keith’s Choice

Skill unlocks, or something like them, is a given. If you invest in a skill you will not only be more likely to succeed at checks, but you’ll get options other people don’t.

I’m going to split things up, though. In most D&D rule books I’ve seen that have skills like this, a skill describes things you can do with it, and includes details like “this skill can be retried” or “this use of a skill can be retried”.

I’m going to break things out. All actions will be described in an ‘actions’ section. Combat actions, of course, but movement actions, craft actions, knowledge actions, all can be described in a big “here are things you can do” section.

Then I can have abilities (skill unlocks, or perhaps ‘skill feats’, or similar) identify which actions they give bonuses to, and what new options are available if a character has that skill. The bonuses between multiple skills don’t stack, but if a character has two skills that can affect the same action, the character gets the biggest skill modifier and can get all options made available to the skill.

To use my favorite example, ‘Ride Anywhere’ lets you ride normally on or through progressively less likely environments. ‘Ride Anything’ lets you ride increasingly less likely mounts. If you have both at the Master tier, you get a +3 bonus (not the +3 for two skills) as you ride your giant serpent through the sky.


  1. Steve Gunnell

    I read a lot about how skill based systems are evil and broken and then I realise that the writer is talking about D&D 5e which from my point of view is not a skill SYSTEM at all. My feeling is that if you are going to have skills then your combat and class specialities all need to be handles by the same system. One thing I have noticed from my recent 5e play is that 5e skills are seriously chancy. In Runequest or GURPS you don’t really consider a skill ready for prime time unless you have about a 75% chance of success. Probably Hero System is the same. I also don’t like the keep retrying until you succeed trope or the GURPS roll vision to notice the broad side of that barn trope. Increasingly I am leaning towards PbtA style moves with a side dose of “if you have the skill you will automatically succeed unless there is an actual consequence to failure”. I’m pretty sure you mentioned PbtA moves somewhere and I think they are a good thing because they are easy for players to understand and they are focused on the desired result rather than the method. Too few skill system do that. In some ways moves are very close to feats.

    • You need to roll checks if there is question of success or failure. I expect that in some cases I’ll require that you have specific training to try at all, and in other cases that specific training means you don’t need to roll.

      I’m open to having combat fit under the same model. You might have noticed I didn’t talk about base attack bonus or the like in this series. I kind of expect I won’t have it. Certain training will give bonuses to certain actions, to be sure, but mostly it opens up new options more than it gives bonuses.

      Then again, on 3d6 even a +1 is significant.

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