Abilities vs skills

I occasionally get this being thrown around in different gaming conversations with how folks lament that skills are just awful in D&D. That it’s so much better just sticking with ability scores. That skills ‘limit’ roleplaying and finding solutions. I consider it poppycock and have been a champion for skills in D&D.

Skills and life experience just make sense, they help add another realistic layer to resolving tasks. Take a theoretical physicist. I’d garner that would translate to an above average INT score in D&D terms. Then take a normal Joe that graduated from high school (regular INT score) that works construction doing welding. Now give them a task of cutting through a locked metal door. Both could very well get the job done eventually.

Now throw them into a sinking ship and give them that same task of cutting through a locked metal door (much like what would model a typical RPG scenario). I think that regular Joe would get through the door in record time, while the physicist would be sleeping with the fishes. It’s not just raw abilities, we also make the use of skills and life experience all the time and even more so in pressure situations.

What also blows my mind is that 4E (and 3E before it) already does this! Skills are based on ability scores. So right off the bat that high charisma PC would likely have a silver tongue, and their diplomacy is above some regular person. It’s not a complete dissociation of ability scores and skills, but rather skill training that compliments natural ability.

I love this idea. It allows for greater flexibility with characters. You are not just a pile of raw ability stats, you can branch out and be good at other things. You can reach beyond just relying on how strong or smart your PC is. If you want to be a learned barbarian with knowledge in the arcana, you can do that and not be saddled if your intelligence score is somewhat average.

Not all skills fit the situation, however I liked the trend that 4E took with making skills be applicable in a broad number of situations. As a DM I think it’s better to remember the importance of pairing up a skill depending on the ability type it’s based on.

As an example in a Gamma World game I had a player trying to focus one of his ranged mutant powers in gravity to pop open an exploding barrel of goop. It was a tricky shot, something as a gut check I would say be based on dexterity, so I called out for an acrobatics check. I got this blank look for a moment. It didn’t register that acrobatics was a skill based on DEX. A dexterity check alone could have worked, but if a player had additional acrobatics skill they could get a bonus. If anything, it was a potential boon to the character depending on where their skill training lay.

I never saw this as a problem in the game. If anything it would encourage players to try different things and round out their character more than dumping everything into a skill or two. The broader the applications a skill could have, the more adept they would be at handling different situations. If anything, they were more confident of trying things rather than sitting back and letting the high charisma player do all the talking.

I’ll admit skills are not perfect for all systems. Savage Worlds has a big divergence between skills and traits. While it’s easier to pick up skills if you have a high strength, you actually need training in fighting to be good at it. However this isn’t seen in D&D.

In 4E particularly, the constant level bonus is sort of silly. Especially as the DCs are continually shifted up. I never quite liked that and felt it better to have just stuck with the idea of paragon and epic penalties that were in the DMG. If I run 4E games in the future, likely I’ll just have a bonus every 4 levels and keep all DC’s at level 1 (with appropriate tier penalties).

DnDnext has some nifty ideas. Most task resolutions revolve around ability scores, but there’s a bonus if trying to do certain tasks based on a skill mastery. It’s pretty close to what is in 4E right now. Still I wish skills were more prominent in DnDnext, but I guess that label of skills chafes at people.

So I encourage folks to not get mired down with terminology. Instead look at the mechanics underlying checks. It’s all based on ability scores you just have the added bonus of being able to train in specific skill sets. Allow that in your game. It’ll give the players freedom to work out a PC that is more unique than a set of six stats.Half-OrcWillingham


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