Wednesday, September 28, 2011

DeadOrcs Rolls Initiative on Skills

So despite spending all morning yesterday waiting for jury duty that never materialized and a trip out to the company's super-secret fortress of research and development, I managed to pop on to Twitter a few times to find it ablaze with talk of skills and how they work (or don't work) in 4e and other versions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Skills have been talked about a lot, but recent articles over at WotC's "Legends & Lore" column, and fellow 4Geeks4E host, Tracy Hurley's column over at her Sarah Darkmagic blog, have sparked considerable chatter about skills. Some of that chatter, in fact, led my wife & I to have a lengthy discussion about skills over dinner. I can tell you it's the first dinner conversation we ever had that focused exclusively on some element of the game. Safe to say, skills are the hot topic.

Skill, skills, skills.

When we look at 4e, there does seem to be a disconnect between how skills are presented, and how they work out in practice while actually playing the game. While the 4e skill system is pretty solid overall, there are a couple of issues that seem to crop up fairly often. The first is this bit about Religion skill. Boiled down, the problem is that Religion skill is based on Intelligence, while most of the character classes that would use this skill frequently, have high Wisdom scores instead. You end up with situations where a Wizard would have a better success rate with Religion than a Cleric would. While this might not be a problem for those that consider Religion a Knowledge type skill only, materials in both home brew and published adventures make use of Religion in a far more broader sense. Consider, for example, a situation in which a hero needs to manipulate Divine energy in some fashion. While this task would seem to fall obviously to the hero with a Divine energy source (say, a Cleric, for example), you have instead, the party's Wizard tackling the problem since his Religion score is actually higher. The Angry DM has a fairly decent solution to this issue over at his recently posted blog, so check that out. For my own campaigns, I would just re-key the skill to Wisdom. At the same time, I remove Religion from the Knowledge skills list, and it becomes instead, the Divine equivalent of the Arcana skill.

A far more sticky issue is the one Monte Cook brought up in the Legends & Lore article I mentioned earlier. While the article is really not to be taken as gospel, he posits that some kind of "ranking" system be used to describe a character's "level of Perception" if you will. While that might group the ranges of Perception chances into easy-to-grasp chunks, I think it's missing the point. If I dust off the ancient text, and put on my Grognard hat for a moment, I can show you that Perception in 4e used to be Search in 3e, and before that it was...well, that's just it. Before 3e you didn't use a die roll to determine the results of a search.

What's that? No die roll?

That's right. In older editions of the rules, searching was the result of the Player's (not Character's) intuition, combined with the descriptive abilities of the Dungeon Master. Both used common sense to determine what could and could not be seen or recognized in a given situation. Take the following over-simplified example:

A hero is running away from an Ogre. He runs past a corridor and asks the Dungeon Master if he can tell if there's an exit in that direction. In the current 4e rules, the DM might call for a Perception check. The DM knows that the hero is moving quickly so sets the difficulty to the Hard column and sets the DC to the level of the character. Even if the character doesn't have a high Perception score, he still can roll a 20 (5% chance) to tell what's down the corridor. Now, while I understand we're not playing a simulation game, common sense tells us that being chased by an Ogre is pretty horrible, and that you're probably concentrating more on not falling down (and becoming an Ogre Slim-Jim) than you are looking carefully at every passage you zip by. In an older version of the game, the DM might simply say, "You pass a corridor alright, but you're moving too fast, you can't tell if there's an exit."  While the DM can say that in 4e, as well, there's an expectation that if you roll high enough on a given Perception check, something will be revealed. That expectation needs to go away.

I would like to see adventures & the DMs that run them, move away from using Perception. Let's take it out of the skill list altogether. As a DM, you should be able to categorize the descriptive parts of your encounters by how much you reveal. Try this example:

Let's say the encounter takes place in a Wizard's laboratory. The room is about 40' by 40', has no visible exits (but contains a concealed one behind a tapestry), there are several tables with equipment on them (including 3 potion bottles), a shelf of old tomes (including a trapped book), a magic circle inscribed on the floor, a Wizard, 3 Stone Golems, and a large tapestry on each wall. Now consider how we can group these items together, so that describing them is based on the player's actions instead of the character's skill states:

The Brief Glance: This category is for when a hero is literally only getting a brief glance at a specific area, either by passing by it quickly, viewing the area in a limited way, or simply being too distracted to note further details.  For example: "Peering through a crack in the door, you see what looks like a workroom of some kind. It is lit, and there are creatures moving about the room."

The Once Over: This category is for when a hero can take a moment to view his entire surroundings. It's good for when the heroes have busted down the door and are just about to have to roll initiative. It's also effective when invisible characters are sneaking around and detailed investigation would risk discovery. For example: "Standing at the entrance to the room, you see what appears to be a Wizard's laboratory. There are tables full of equipment, a strange glowing circle drawn on the floor, and a large bookcase. A man in robes directs creatures that look like moving statues about the room. Old tapestries line the walls."

The Combat Assessment: This category is for heroes focused on any foes that might be in the room. It's basically a combat threat assessment. For example: "The Wizard speaks words in a strange tongue and the statues move towards you in a threatening manner".

The Detailed Investigation: This category is for heroes investigating specific areas of the room. These descriptions would be unique for the various features described above. Investigating the work tables reveals the potions (although they may not be labeled in an obvious manner). The book shelf would eventually reveal the trapped book. The magic circle would reveal (to a character trained in Arcana) that it was a summoning circle. The tapestries would eventually reveal that one of them is hiding a concealed passage. You get the point. The Detailed Investigation eventually reveals what the DM wants the players and their characters to know. Not once is a single Perception check rolled, as it's the Players that are guiding their character's actions.

I'll admit, this style of play takes a little more work on the part of both the Players and the Dungeon Master. However, it does get the Players involved in really interacting with the environment. Instead of just declaring, "I roll a Perception check to see what I can in the room.", the Player instead must direct his character to actively investigate his surroundings. As the Dungeon Master, listen for your Players to say things like, "I pick this item up." or "I try to move this item". If a specific action is called for (for example, lifting a heavy object, or figuring out what a specific rune might mean), then a skill check of some kind is of course, appropriate.

In full disclosure, I've not yet used this method in my 4e games. However, as I'm starting my own home brew campaign in a month or so, I'll be going over my notes and removing Perception from the equation. We'll see how it goes!

I'm sure there's more that can be done to tweak the skill system, but that will have to wait for another blog post. I welcome comments and want to hear what you have to say about skills. Let me know!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.


  1. I like it, and that's how we played "back in the day", but there is one issue that you kind of touched on. Player vs PC knowledge and abilities. If I have a highly-perceptive character, but I'm not, personally, a highly creative or intuitive individual, my PC will suffer because I'm just not going to realize I should have checked the bookshelf for trip wires before yanking down a couple of volumes.
    Just as my PC can climb a 50' high wall with an Athletics check I couldn't begin to achieve in real life, not allowing search/perception checks limit my PCs ability to meaningfully contribute to the game...

  2. I like the various types of looks you've described. I recently started a 4e newb game and the players sometimes go straight to the .."I roll perception". Thats when I say No, describe what you're doing. It definitely give more flavor to the game.

  3. @Dave Tavener - I'm not sure how it would effect your character that much. For example, if you play a dull-witted, unobservant character, maybe he just doesn't do anything other than a Once Over, while a Sherlock Holmes type might do a Detailed Investigation of EVERY FEATURE noted in the room. I understand your analogy, but I don't think Perception fits in the same way. Perception should be a means by which we can interact with the environment without the need for a die roll. It provides a much needed exploring initiative on the part of the player. Admittedly, separating character knowledge from player knowledge (meta-gaming) is a challenging task, and one even I have to work on, but I think being able to do so, provides a better playing experience. Thank you for the great comment!

    @Raddu76 - Thanks, Raddu. This is exactly the type of thing I want to eliminate.

  4. While I agree, to a certain extent, for searching, you must remember that Perception wasn't just Search in 3e, it was also Spot and Listen.

    There are some parts of all three that can't be fully removed. Generally, these are the opposed checks. For example:

    - Finding a hidden item (Search). An assassin has shown up at the King's ball with a hidden dagger. The PCs are working security, and can attempt to find it at the door to head off any trouble.

    - Avoiding an ambush/determining surprise (usually passive Spot/Listen vs Stealth). Travelling through the forest, do they hear the bandits before the attack comes?

    - Finding invisible attackers (Spot/Listen vs Stealth). Can you make out the motion of dust on the floor, the sound of quiet footsteps, or the faint shimmer of magical cloaking?

    All of these are far more difficult to do via description, as the method is pretty generic (I look for it) or not an action that is taken (passive check), or an opposed check that is more dependant on the enemy's skill.

    Additionally, if you completely remove Perception, you would also need to remove Stealth, since Stealth does nothing except oppose the enemy's Perception.

    So yeah, interesting thoughts, and I agree it should be used less for certain uses, but I can't support removing it altogether.

  5. Oh, finding a hidden item should actually be an opposed check, too. Vs Thievery. This would also involve trying to spot a disguise, which is Perception vs Bluff.

  6. @Graham - You've made some good points, and certainly, there were other skills provided by 3.x that are now covered by Perception. However, I still think you can get rid of it. Here's how I'd adjudicate your excellent examples:

    The Party Crashing Assassin: I would use Insight vs. Bluff. An assassin will have barely perceptible body language that can be detected. If the heroes are working security, they can notice something odd about the assassin's behavior. After all, they won't have x-ray machines. So if the dagger is hidden really well, they simply cannot detect it.

    The Forest Ambush:Here I go back to my common sense rule. If the heroes are tromping through the forest; talking, whistling, etc. they're going to be surprised by well hidden opponents. Now if they're being careful, I'd simply use opposed Stealth checks. Which ever party is being less stealthy, is the party that gets surprised. It works both ways, too. If the ambushing party has the lower roll, then a party member might notice them in advance, halt, and whisper, " the trees..."

    The Invisible Opponent: To be honest, invisibility is a powerful tool, but not all powerful. In combat, an invisible opponent might make noise, leave a scent, etc. Essentially, a hero has a 1 in 8 chance of getting it right. Once they score a hit, particularly if the target can bleed, they would suffer only a penalty (albeit a stiff one, say -5) to the attack.

    Finally, I have to disagree with your comment on the purpose of Stealth. I have my players make Stealth checks all time. However,it's not opposed by anyone's Perception. Instead, I set a base number to beat, based on their level. I adjudicate the monsters based on the surroundings and what type of creature they are, so the check could be Easy, Moderate, Hard, etc. The hero doesn't know this number, and only knows if they succeed based on what happens next.

    While it looks like we disagree on the use of Perception, I really appreciate the challenging comments. It's easy for me to spit stuff out, sit back, and claim victory; but that's the easy way out. Eliminating Perception probably won't be for everyone, and that's perfectly cool. Keep on gaming excellently!

  7. While your arguments are mostly fair enough, I still take issue with invisibility.

    "Essentially, a hero has a 1 in 8 chance of getting it right."

    Sure. In melee. Good luck at range. But that's not the point. The point is that Perception allows a particularly astute character to increase that chance. Otherwise, an eagle-eyed thief and a blind dwarf have the same chance.

    As for the discussion of Stealth, in many groups those target numbers are determined with the creature's passive perception. You can make them up, sure, but that passive score gives you an idea of just how observant a monster should be.

    But yeah, I love discussions like this.