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12 June 2008 @ 10:28 pm
Skills: Simplified?  
OK: As soon as I'm done with this I'll get to that races question I've been promising to address. But this came up and I wanted to put it on the main journal so I could refer back to if necessary. There's good questions here and this isn't the first time I've heard them, and if it comes up again, I want to be able to say "Look up June 12th." So:

Do you feel that 4e seems to skew more toward anime or video game-ish action rather than traditional roleplaying?

First and foremost: whether a game skews towards action is entirely up to you as the storyteller. One of the things I like about 4E is that the skill challenge system makes noncombat encounters more significant, and if I'm running an inquisitive game in Sharn, you're likely to use skills more than your sword. But that's up to you as a DM: you don't HAVE to put skill challenges in your game.

I feel that 3E and 4E are very different in flavor. 4E isn't an evolution of 3E; both 3E and 4E take separate paths from 2E, each with different goals in mind. One of the strengths of 3E is the extreme flexibility of the multiclassing/prestige class system, which allows you to largely escape class roles. A 1st-level fighter/1st-level wizard is perfectly balanced between those two roles. By 10th level, a 3.5E party can be very diverse in nature; rather than the old AD&D party of fighter-cleric-thief-magic user, you may have a ftr2/rgr2/mnk2/Exotic weapon master 4 and so on throughout the group.

In 4E, the 10th-level party is going to be a fighter, cleric, rogue, and wizard. Yes, they may multiclass - but there's a BIG difference between a 3.5 Ftr 1/Wiz 1 and a 4E Fighter with the Wizard multiclass feat. In 4E, multiclass feats help to diversify your character, to make you different from every other fighter out there - but at the core, you're still going to be a fighter. in 3.5, multiclassing can let you truly straddle the line between classes. And paragon paths let you add more color to your fighter, but it's not the same thing as taking five levels in a prestige class.

Looking to combat: in my opinion, 3.5E tries to be more of a detailed simulation. If I try to trip you, I open myself up to an (opportunity) attack, then I need to actually hit, then test your strength or reflexes to see if I can actually knock you down. Anyone can try to do it, and they can try to do it over and over and over again. Without Improved Trip they may only succeed in getting hit with a lot of opportunity attacks, but they can TRY. Meanwhile, in 4E, most people just can't trip period. If you have an ability that allows you to do it (say, the fighter's Spinning Sweep), you just make your attack, and if it connects, pow, target goes down. Of course, that's an encounter power - so unless you have ANOTHER power that takes the person down, you can't do it again.

Some people say this is like a video game. To me, it's more like an action movie. Jackie Chan does lots of cool moves in a fight - but he rarely does the same one over and over and over. Presumably he COULD - and yet, he doesn't. Dramatically, it's not as interesting for him to trip again as it is for him to pick up a ladder and spin around, taking out five mooks (um, minions) at once. Meanwhile, the wizard doesn't even try to trip an enemy; he blasts them with fire. Again, watching the movie, I would expect the wizard to try to do a try, get clobbered with an opportunity attack, and fail to knock the target down at the end of it; I expect to see magic. So I see 4E combat as the dramatic actions you'd see on a big screen. Obviously, this is further colored by how you DESCRIBE the scene. If it's:

Player: I move five squares and make a Spinning Sweep attack. 22 vs AC, 12 damage.
DM: You hit. He's knocked prone.

Then it sounds like a minis wargame. But so does:

Player: I'm moving 25 feet and using my spiked chain to make a trip attempt. Because I'm using a reach weapon, he doesn't get the opportunity attack. I roll a 24, and a 18 on the trip check.
DM: You hit. He's knocked down.

Wow, that's much more exciting! EITHER of these could be much more dramatic if the player puts more color into his description and the DM puts more color into the results. If you WANT it to play like a board game, either edition is going to feel like one; "roleplaying" is what you make of it.

As another quick example tied to the "Video Game" argument, let's take the fighter's combat challenge ability. Yes, clearly this is inspired by the taunt abilities we all know from MMOs - giving the fighter the ability to draw attacks away from other targets. However, the implementation of this ability is nothing like its MMO counterpart. If you want the video game flavor, you'd do something like the 3.5 Knight's Test of Mettle - "Make a will save or attack the knight." Instead, the fighter's ability creates a tactical choice for the DM: He CAN ignore the mark and go after a different target, but there are consequences for doing so. It's INSPIRED by MMOs - but if the pure video game experience was what they wanted, there are many more direct ways to do it. And meanwhile, most MMOs were INSPIRED by tabletop gaming. The fact that a table game has taken a few ideas back doesn't surprise me - and as someone playing a defender, I really like the fact that I have a way to actively encourage someone to come after me instead of the wizard.

So, do I feel it's video-gamey? No. But it's definitely more like an action movie than 3.5. Realism isn't a paramount concern, and there are lots of things - why can't I trip him again? - that require a suspension of disbelief... just like in the movies.

But, of course, what I SAID I was going to talk about was skills. In asking about the video-game feel, the original posted went on to say:

As examples of this I cite the simplifying of the skill system...

The trick here is what is meant by "simplifying the skill system." The skill challenge system is perhaps my favorite thing about 4E, and one reason I like using it in Eberron - because it's a boon for the noir/intrigue campaign. By the core rules of 3.5, far too many things rely on the single role of a die. Diplomacy? One skill check... and that from a skill that a dedicated player can easily build to ridiculous levels with all of the synergies and the like. The Investigate system in Eberron? Take a feat (a fairly big cost in 3E), and then make a single Search check; perhaps you'll get a clue. Either way, one character, one roll, let the die fall where it may.

By the Skill Challenge system, both of these require multiple actions and can involve multiple players. A negotiation is no longer the result of a single check; the cleric can play good cop (Diplomacy) to the fighter's bad cop (Intimidate), with the rogue jumping in with a well-placed Bluff to lend a hand - and at MY table, every one of those checks is going to require some roleplaying leading into it, making a longer and more interesting scene than the single character with the +30 Diplomacy doing all the talking and resolving the situation with a single check. Likewise, when it comes to investigating a murder scene, you might use Perception as the core skill for the challenge, but more than a single success or failure is at stake - and you might be able to use Heal to analyze the blood spatter for clues, Arcana to search for traces of magical energies unleashed in the murder, Streetwise to get information from local gangs, History to come up with other murders that fit the same pattern.

All of these things COULD be done in 3E. Expanding investigation was one of the primary purposes of my book Crime & Punishment, while Dynasties & Demagogues did the same for Diplomacy. Lots of suppliments expanded the simple systems. But by the core rules, Diplomacy and Investigate are simple actions resolved with a single skill check. 4E gives noncombat encounters more weight and more depth, and encourages you to build them out in interesting ways.

But that's skill CHALLENGES. "Simplifying skills" could refer to combining Climb, Jump, and Swim into Athletics; Hide and Move Silently into Stealth; and so on. This doesn't bother me either. Personally, as a fighter, I hated the fact that I never HAD enough skill ranks to really be good at these skills. I might want to be Conan, but with only 2 ranks per level and wanting to have a decent Ride and Craft, I was rarely able to put anything into these skills. So far from making it too video gamey, the fact that I can train in Athletics as a fighter and be good at all of these things finally lets my strong, athletic guy be as good at these things as I always thought he should be - instead of my 3E experience, in which I'm not sure I ever say ANYONE put ranks into Swim. I'm sure someone did, but never at my table.

Or this may be based on the final point...

4e seems to allow everyone to do everything nearly equally rather than having defined roles (wizard, thief, etc.).

I assume we're talking skills here, because as I said at the start, in my opinion one of the main differences between the two editions is that 3E really lets you break out of class roles, and make that fighter/rogue/druid if you want. So I THINK the point is the core mechanic of 4E: the idea that instead of spending skill ranks, pretty much any d20 action is Stat bonus + proficency/training bonus + 1/2 level. Likewise, some things that were purely class abilities are now tied to skills. Anyone who is trained in Thievery can do trapfinding, whether it's a ranger, rogue, or warlock. Anyone trained in Arcana can detect magic.

The illusion of the +1/2 level system is that people end up being good at everything. "I'm a fighter with an 8 Int! How can I end up with a decent Arcana skill?" The fact of the matter is that it just doesn't play out that way. At 10th level, my paladin with the 8 int and no training will have a +4 modifier to Arcana checks, and due to his lack of training, can't do things like detect magic. I've hung around the wizard long enough to learn a few things, but don't expect me to be identifying the mystic runes. And meanwhile, the wizard - who know has a 20 Int, Skill Training, and a racial +2 bonus - has a modifier of +17 on his Arcana checks. So trust me, you don't end up with "everyone doing everything". By tenth level, I'll be great at Athletics, Diplomacy, Heal, Intimidate - and hey, I'll have got up to +7 on my Perception checks, thanks to my decent Wisdom. But again, the ranger will be at a +15 Perception check. We aren't all the same.

With THAT said, one of the big things is that because of the role of skill challenges, I've found that in MY groups, PCs are more likely to expand and build on their skills. When it comes to that negotiation skill challenge, you can't just rely on the guy with the +30 Diplomacy to do all the talking - everyone on the scene needs to contribute. Combine this with the fact that you get feats more frequently and that they don't pack the same combat punch (at least at heroic level) as they do in 3E, and it's often a good investment to put them into skills. My 4th level paladin has three feats: Warlord Multiclassing (which got him Diplomacy training); Skill Training (Heal); and Skill Focus (Intimidate). And for me, those were far more worthwhile than Power Attack or Toughness, because Diplomacy and Intimidate let me play a much bigger role OUT of combat; even Heal can help me if it comes to an Investigation!

So to begin with, once things get going, characters DO have defined roles; everyone can't all do everything equally, even with that +1/2 level modifier. You're going to want someone with a good Dex trained in Thievery in the party, even if that could be a ranger (or even a wizard) instead of a rogue. Trapfinding isn't locked to the rogue CLASS - but it's still a role you'll want someone to focus on, at least if you plan to go dungeon diving.

Anyhow, I'm sure I've rambled on about this at far greater length than anyone cared to hear, and I'm sure people are saying "Just tell us about eladrin already!" But again, the skill challenge system may be my favorite thing about 4E, and it's something that really didn't get much exposure over the last few months. So while overlapping skills may have been combined and skill ranks dropped, I don't feel that the USE of skills has been dumbed down; IMO, it's been given more weight and a more prominent role in the game.
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shadostahker on June 13th, 2008 06:51 am (UTC)
I'm wondering.

There seems to be some concern over the math behind skill challenges, over on enworld.

Around how often would you say your players succeed at a skill challenge? The base statistics seem to indicate an extremely low success rate.

Also, do they Aid Another a lot during skill challenges?

Kensan Onikensan_oni on June 13th, 2008 07:30 am (UTC)
That's due to there being two different Difficulty Tables. It is currently unclear if there was a mistake, if one is to be used only during combat terrain challenges, or any number of other things.

My personal feeling is ignore the second table, as I can't find a reason for it's existence, and use the table on page 42.
shadostahker on June 13th, 2008 07:44 am (UTC)
Actually, the table on page 42 has the same values. If you look at the footnote, it says to add 5 to all values for skill checks. As such, they end up the same.
Kensan Onikensan_oni on June 13th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)


But that makes no sense....
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 13th, 2008 07:55 am (UTC)
At levels 1-3, the DC for a moderate skill challenge is 20. A second level PC with an 18 in a stat and skill training will can have a +10 bonus to a skill; racial modifiers and feats can improve this, as can utility powers (the warlock's Beguiling Tongue, the paladin's Astral Speech, the rogue's Master of Deceit). You can get up to +8 from Aid Another... though, of course, circumstances won't always allow this.

Beyond this, as I said, I'll always get the player to walk through their action; if it's especially clever or involves excellent roleplaying, I may give a small bonus. I may also design the encounter to have hidden rewards - for example, when dealing with a pack of gnolls, Nature is not a primary skill... but if you make a Nature check, you may get insight into gnoll customs that will provide you with a bonus to all future Insight or Intimidate checks made during the encounter.

Skill checks certainly aren't EASY, especially if you've got hard DCs. But that's really the point. A skill challenge should be as challenging as a fight. It should require you to think about the situation and try to come up with creative ways to use your skills - just as you'll likely use tactics to win a battle. You may need to Aid Another. You may be better off using your Nature skill - even though the modifier is lower than your Intimidate - because in the long run, the information you get will help the party win the encounter. A lot of it comes to the DM: what options do you build into the encounter, what clues are there, and how much are you willing to reward clever ideas?
shadostahker on June 13th, 2008 09:09 am (UTC)

Apparently, starting with that +10 bonus, and without adding Aid Another or RP bonuses, the chance of succeeding on a skill challenge becomes something like 15%. So people are a bit concerned about how it will play, understandably. Especially given that not everyone trying will be using a trained skill with an 18 in the appropriate stat.
(Anonymous) on June 13th, 2008 12:59 pm (UTC)
I'm going to put a disclaimer at the top of this saying that I really, really like the Skill Challenge system - it's a great concept, it's something that D&D has needed for a long time, and it is the first mechanic that has made me say "well, maybe there's a place for skills in D&D after all". 3e skills did not do this for me. I also like how the system as a whole seems to be encouraging players to work as a team, even on things like a skill challenge where in prior editions (and heck, even in most other RPGs) things like this are areas where characters fly solo.

However - the complaint about the math behind the actual numbers for the skill challenges really lies not in the DC you're trying to hit, but in the "N-successes before M-failures" mechanism.

A group of characters who use skills where they have better than a 50% chance of success on a single skill check (i.e. 1st level characters each with a +10 on the roll, up against a moderate DC of 20) will be expected to fail at a skill challenge MORE than 50% of the time because of the 4-successes before 2-failures mechanism. In fact, the mechanic requires that your chance of success be substantially higher than your chance of failure just to get a 50% success rate on a skill challenge - if I'm doing the numbers properly, you need to have about a 75% chance of success on each roll in order to have an expected failure rate of 50% at a skill challenge. (Meaning that, for 1st level characters vs. a moderate DC of 20, with bonuses of around a +15 they will fail half the time at a skill challenge).

This seems jarring to people - and I think it's at least partially because the characters are so competent elsewhere that having them be less than competent in the skill challenge area feels like a miss. Sure skill challenges should be as challenging as a fight, but in a fight the characters can "fail" a lot more and still succeed (they have enough hit points and healing surges to pull off a lot more than just 2 misses with their strikes). Which means that the system as written actually makes skill challenges of the same level far more difficult than a fight of the same level. Plus the numbers aren't intuitive - the natural feel is that a character with a +10 should have a 50% chance of success, but that intuition is foiled here. The simplest solution is to just make the number of successes required and the number of failures required equal - this moves the numbers back into where they make intuitive sense (because with equal failures and successes the probabilities snap back to where they are on a single check).

However - this clearly was an intentional design by the developers. And it seems like the folks who playtested it didn't run into these kinds of situations during their playtests. So I'm left wondering if I'm really missing out on something that will show up at the table once we really start using them. (I used them as a "gather information" challenge the other week as the characters were gambling and drinking with the locals in an inn, but at the time I didn't have the books and I was winging the DC of the challenge).
Matthew L. Seidlseidl on June 13th, 2008 03:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, because of the 2x success before x failure model, you have to be really really good at the skill to have a fighting chance. Things change a bit when you start allowing aid another in there, as with only a d20 to roll, a +8 (4 aid another checks) can push a skill challenge from hard to trivial pretty fast. Compare needing an 11+ to succeed (50/50, so yea, like a 15% success rate) vs needing a 3+ to succeed (so like a 90+% chance of success).

When I run a 4e game, I will probably make skill challenges a lot more fluid. First, I don't like the idea of just rolling aid anther checks very much. Its boring for the player's involved. I'll make them make more interesting rolls, but possibly give greater bonuses. I want to hear them describe HOW their aiding. I'll also probably do a lot more with levels of success instead of all black and white. 2 more success then failures? Total success. 1 more, partial success, even? Mixed results, etc. I want to reward good play and good rolls, but I also want there to be shades of grey in the results. In combat, its not black and white. Sure there's win and lose, but as well you have to look at the resources expended. Same with skills. If they PCs don't go all out, maybe they don't get all the info they could have. Or maybe they take some damage while escaping the mob, whatever.

I hope we see a DDI article expanding on skill challenges sometime soon. Showing us some more examples and walking through things like the above. I think that would go a long way toward helping people really get the most out of them.
Keith Bakergloomforge on June 13th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
I want to hear them describe HOW their aiding.

Oh, me too... at least depending on the circumstances. If the warlock aids the wizard with an arcana check, OK, I get it - you're comparing notes. However, if you want to aid on a DIPLOMACY check, you're going to have to give me the same pitch you'd give to make a Diplomacy check in the first place; standing there and saying "Yeah, what he said" won't cut it. And if you come up with something really good, you might get more of a bonus. However....

I'll also probably do a lot more with levels of success instead of all black and white. 2 more success then failures? Total success. 1 more, partial success, even? Mixed results, etc.

This is the key. I'd actually thought this was specifically called out in the DMG, but it looks like it's not. In designing a skill challenge, I often put in effects for partial success. I don't necessarily expect people to succeed - but the closer they get, the closer to the goal.

For example, PCs may be trying to gather information in a bar, trying to locate someone staying at the tavern. Each success gives them a piece of information; I have a little chart of things that can be rvealed as appropriate. If they fully succeed, they can actually get the key to the guy's room. However, even if they fail - at which point, the people in the bar clam up - they'll still have learned SOMETHING about their quarry, what he's been up to, etc. I'd certainly do the same with an Investigation. It's not "Make eight checks and then I'll tell you if you've found anything"; instead, each success provides a new piece of information, which may then inspire people to new action. So the first successful Perception check reveals the blood spatters; at this point, you can use Heal to gain additional information. Total success may get you some very useful poiece of information; but partial success still gives you something to work with.

Likewise, even in something as black and white as a chase scene: if you fail, your quarry gets away. But if you get CLOSE, you may at least be able to figure out what part of town his hideout must be in.

In a Diplomatic negotiation, I'd say that absolute and dismal failure means that the envoy sides with your enemy; an even split means he reamins neutral; a victory means he sides with you. In a courtroom drama, level of success would determine severity of punishment; total success might get you off scott-free, but close failure won't be the end of the world.

However, I do use a few house rules that places a critical role:

ACTION POINTS. I allow people to use an action point in a skill challenge to reroll a failed check. If they've missed the check by just one or two points, I will usually offer to let them spend an action point to turn it into an automatic success.

CRITICAL SUCCESS. If someone rolls a natural 20 on a skill check (not Aid Another), I have it count as two successes.

Again, I see skill challenges as having the same weight as combat - therefore they should use some of the same tricks as combat. Bear in mind that the "RP Bonus" isn't actually a house rule; it's suggested on page 74 of the DMG, right above "Opposed Checks".

In any case, I've certainly had people fail skill challenges. An adventure I've made to run at conventions and run about nine times now ends with a skill challenge, and probably about half of the groups have succeeded at it. But success or failure determines the NATURE of the combat that follows; miserable failure has some unpleasant conseuqences, complete success is a boon, but I actually expect most groups to hit the middle ground. So think about it when designing the skill challenge. You never want to base an adventure around a skill challenge that the PCs HAVE to win, because skill challenges are hard.. You always need to be prepared for the adventure to continue with success or failure.