The skills system in most D20 variants could be better. There are unnecessary skills, mathematical issues, and player agency problems. Let me tell you right now that almost everything in this article has been said by someone else at some point, and there will be quite the link party goin’ on. This post was inspired by LS’s excellent series over at the fine blog Papers & Pencils. LS makes many, many valid points; while we may not agree down to the last angstrom, it cannot be stressed enough that you should go to Pencils & Papers and read the series there. It’s good stuff. You should also go to C’s blog Hack & Slash, an excellent old-school D&D blog, and read the concurrent series there. It’s also quite good. Really, both of those blogs are just good reading, and they receive the Sharpest Regard Seal of Approval. Alright, enough lovefest. Let’s get to it.
There are just too many skills. In addition to the mathematical issues with rolling a d20 and calling 10-11 the average, there is some boring and pointless garbage infesting the skill list. Who wants to waste time putting ranks in Disguise unless you’re going to use it, and how often is that? If your campaign is water based, how long before Swim becomes entirely useless (due to magic)? Why waste points on that? Isn’t Perception the best and most used skill in the game? It sure is. So much so, that under the PF rules, you’d be a sucker not to max that out, basically making it something of a skill tax.
Concurrently, the system is too rigid in some respects. Pathfinder took Diplomacy from ridiculously broken to just broken, and compressed the skill list, getting rid of things like Use Rope and Gather Information, but much of the inflexibility of the system is still there. Of course, there’s always Rule Zero, but I think it would be nice if we could clean it up a little bit more, loosen it up to make it better at doing what we want.
Also, there are skills that the DM should roll for you. Where’s the fun in taking Appraise? It’s not like the player should ever really be rolling that skill. But there it is wasting space on your sheet. And for the most part, what you’re really looking for is a rough estimate of value, which should be something learned with experience, not something tied to level advancement and a point based skill system. What mighty warrior can’t tell a good sword from bad, and what self respecting dwarf doesn’t have the value of a 4 carat blue-white diamond seared into memory? There are questions of player agency, character knowledge, and whether or not there should be any rolls at all for certain things.
None of these criticisms should be taken as shots at any designers. They had issues of backward compatibility to deal with, legacy design issues, and frankly, deadline and other publishing issues that bloviating bloggers don’t often have to deal with. So kudos to those who design the games we love to play. They deserve our respect.
That being said, let’s be clear; there’s some waste of good space in the skill list. In the next article I’ll get specific, and offer a complete solution for all of your skill needs. Not necessarily the best one, but hopefully a complete one.