D&D 5E The skill system is one dimensional.

Imagine that you had a spell and you wanted to create an upgraded version of that spell for a higher level spell slot, this spell need not be identical to the previous one, but it needs to feel thematically related. You can start by just looking at the spell you want to upgrade and consider some parameters. You might increase damage, you might change casting time, you might change duration etc. etc in short there are plenty of different ways you can change this spell.

Consider Fireball vs Delayed Blast Fireball. One is an upgraded version of the other spell at a higher level and with several things having changed.

They didn't just change the DC.

When you think about this system and how to improve components of it, it is natural to think of things changing in more than a single way.

Skills, though, are not like this. All skills are one dimensional, they only upgrade in one single way. Whoah +10 athletics! Amazing! No it's just that you're slightly more likely to pass that DC whatever check than if you had a +9. Yeah sure the number is higher but what does it do? What actually changes? Nothing. In my opinion this design is bad. It's particularily annoying because it makes people think about their skills as just numbers, which is quite different from how people think about spells.

A low level wizard knows that at a higher level he will be able to cast wish or dimension door. A low level fighter knows that at a higher level he will be slightly more likely to succeed a DC 18 athletics check.

In my opinion the current system is excessively granular while at the same time considering improvements only along one dimension. It's focused on maximising this one single number that represents how likely you are to succeed if you use that skill. It's uninteresting. Isn't it more interesting to think about skills as something that changes how you can interact with the world? It's not interesting to know that you have a 50% chance of picking this one lock, but it's interesting to know that you have a 50% chance of picking that lock without any tools at hand, just using your hands and nothing else.

The bard is so good at card tricks that he can fascinate his audience. The fighter is a master of athletics, he can swim in full plate with no effort. The paladin can intimidate armies alone. The wizard can copy any book from memory that he has read once. But D&D is too focused on these tiny numbers and how they improve by 1 or 2 now and then and then giving us pages upon pages of spells, but barely anything skill related.
 

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Pedantic

Legend
Perhaps expertise dice and skill specialities might help?

While I like both systems for adding more granularity to skills, they do ultimately file down to just adding more numbers.

Unfortunately, explicated skill systems have gone quite thoroughly out of fashion, and I have all but given up hope of seeing a new design take on the task of listing out everything one can actually do with skills, much less plan sensibly for scaling and increased breadth of ability as characters level up.

Instead we get generic or scaling difficulty tables.
 
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Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
Supporter
So... there's problems with that. And the big one is the purpose of skills in general:

Skills are meant to be a simple method to resolve a wide variety of conceptually connected activities.

Asking a Gymnast to perform at gold medal levels in every type of gymnastic performance is a way to get slapped for being foolish. Same as expecting every Baseball Player to also be an exceptional Power Lifter. But Acrobatics and Athletics cover all variations of each.

A skill system which -actually- covers things to a meaningful degree, so that you can progress into different kinds of acrobatics or athletics, would have "Physical Fitness" as a basic skill with -very- limited usefulness, and a requirement to take each specialization of PF to be able to successfully attempt other specific activities, with ever more specificity as it goes up a tree of branching options...

All of which make Physical Fitness useless unless there's some kind of build up of alllll those points you spend up the tree buffing the roots.

Finding a balance between the "Wide Net" skills of 5e and the "Narrow Skills" design I'm imagining would be difficult, by and large.

Could use Expertise and the like as a stepping stone, but you'd still need to narrow down the baseline skill, significantly, to make the later "Improvements" worthwhile.
 

I've been toying with a system where skills are replaced by skill groups. Each skill group consists of a number of sub skills and each sub skill can be "advanced" into the next stage whenever an opportunity is given. Each sub skill has a number of possible stages from 1-4 where the number roughly corresponds to the tier of the game and no sub skill can be advanced beyond the current tier of the game.

The system has not really been fully realised, so I have just a rough outline at the moment. Here's how a simple skill group like Mobility could work: Each skill has 4 stages.

Skill group: Mobility
  • Speed +5ft, +10ft, +15ft, +20ft
  • Climbing 10ft, 15ft, 25ft, 35ft
  • Swimming 10ft, 20ft, 30ft, 40ft
  • Jumping 10ft, 20ft, 30ft, 40ft

This would have a number of benefits. A big one is that you could gate certain skill group advancents behind classes, so particular advancements would be very difficult to get for, for example, casters.

You could just note this in the class descriptions for like an ability: "Advance two Mobility sub skills" or "Advance one Mobility sub skill and one Endurance" sub skill.

Handling checks in this system is easy. The GM calls for a Climbing check; you note which stage of Climbing you have, and then you look at the table of modifiers [0, +2, +4, +6, +8] (for example) and add the corresponding modifiers together and roll. But in this system, the point is that skills can do things that don't even require rolls, like just flat giving you increased base movement speed.
 

Jaeger

That someone better
Skills, though, are not like this. All skills are one dimensional, they only upgrade in one single way. Whoah +10 athletics! Amazing! No it's just that you're slightly more likely to pass that DC whatever check than if you had a +9. Yeah sure the number is higher but what does it do? What actually changes? Nothing. In my opinion this design is bad.

Non-D&D Skill based RPG's with skill systems that work basically exactly the same way do not get critiqued for this. It's just not an issue.

I think that it is more of a thing in D&D because of the way PC's combat ability and HP scales in comparison to D&D's tacked on skill system.

There is just a different set of player and GM expectations of what a PC should be able to do...

You never see fans of Interlock, or BRP systems complain about the "single upgrade" nature of skills. If anything, the arguments revolve around the skill lists themselves.

In my opinion; it is the way those games instruct GM's to use the skill systems, there is a different mindset/expectations among the player base.
 

azabaro

Explorer
I've been toying with a system where skills are replaced by skill groups. Each skill group consists of a number of sub skills and each sub skill can be "advanced" into the next stage whenever an opportunity is given. Each sub skill has a number of possible stages from 1-4 where the number roughly corresponds to the tier of the game and no sub skill can be advanced beyond the current tier of the game.

The system has not really been fully realised, so I have just a rough outline at the moment. Here's how a simple skill group like Mobility could work: Each skill has 4 stages.

Skill group: Mobility
  • Speed +5ft, +10ft, +15ft, +20ft
  • Climbing 10ft, 15ft, 25ft, 35ft
  • Swimming 10ft, 20ft, 30ft, 40ft
  • Jumping 10ft, 20ft, 30ft, 40ft

This would have a number of benefits. A big one is that you could gate certain skill group advancents behind classes, so particular advancements would be very difficult to get for, for example, casters.

You could just note this in the class descriptions for like an ability: "Advance two Mobility sub skills" or "Advance one Mobility sub skill and one Endurance" sub skill.

Handling checks in this system is easy. The GM calls for a Climbing check; you note which stage of Climbing you have, and then you look at the table of modifiers [0, +2, +4, +6, +8] (for example) and add the corresponding modifiers together and roll. But in this system, the point is that skills can do things that don't even require rolls, like just flat giving you increased base movement speed.
5E might not have a lot of skills, but even so coming up with a handful of sub-skills for each seems like quite a bit of work, especially since some aren't likely to be amenable to adding simple modifiers to existing actions (e.g. what does a 3rd or 4th stage Religion sub skill look like?). After that, you also get to spread advancements around between classes...I don't know, it all just seems too complex, at least for my taste.

If I wanted to handle skill upgrades, I'd probably be lazy and let characters emulate spell effects with advanced skills. I'm not sure I'd even want these to be static selections - I don't want to tie Conan down to having an advanced climbing effect from his Athletics, I'd rather let him do some ad-hoc Athletic thing every so often, determining in the moment if it's more of a jumping-type effect or if it's Water Breathing so he can swim like Beowulf or what have you. Assuming I had to systematize this...well, off the cuff I might try to use a point system: every level a character gains that doesn't provide any spellcasting ability gives them 1 Extraordinary Deed* point. A character can spend Extraordinary Deed points to emulate a spell effect which is thematically appropriate to a skill they're using; max spell level emulated is character's proficiency bonus -1, cost is spell's level in Extraordinary Deed points, and Extraordinary Deed points refresh after a long rest.

I admit this is all pretty half-baked, but I tend to prefer that - there's enough going on in 5E that I'm always concerned about players hitting their complexity ceiling and losing interest. I'm hesitant to add more subsystems of any real length, especially ones that affect relatively straightforward classes like non-casters.

* The word Feat would be useful here if it weren't already attached to something else...
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Skills, though, are not like this. All skills are one dimensional, they only upgrade in one single way. Whoah +10 athletics! Amazing! No it's just that you're slightly more likely to pass that DC whatever check than if you had a +9. Yeah sure the number is higher but what does it do? What actually changes? Nothing. In my opinion this design is bad. It's particularily annoying because it makes people think about their skills as just numbers, which is quite different from how people think about spells.
They aren't in 5e, that's for sure.

The edition that must not be named, on the other hand...
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
So... there's problems with that. And the big one is the purpose of skills in general:

Skills are meant to be a simple method to resolve a wide variety of conceptually connected activities.

Asking a Gymnast to perform at gold medal levels in every type of gymnastic performance is a way to get slapped for being foolish. Same as expecting every Baseball Player to also be an exceptional Power Lifter. But Acrobatics and Athletics cover all variations of each.

A skill system which -actually- covers things to a meaningful degree, so that you can progress into different kinds of acrobatics or athletics, would have "Physical Fitness" as a basic skill with -very- limited usefulness, and a requirement to take each specialization of PF to be able to successfully attempt other specific activities, with ever more specificity as it goes up a tree of branching options...

All of which make Physical Fitness useless unless there's some kind of build up of alllll those points you spend up the tree buffing the roots.

Finding a balance between the "Wide Net" skills of 5e and the "Narrow Skills" design I'm imagining would be difficult, by and large.

Could use Expertise and the like as a stepping stone, but you'd still need to narrow down the baseline skill, significantly, to make the later "Improvements" worthwhile.
I definitely don’t agree with the broad base skill being super limited. IMO the first step in a tree should always be worth taking by itself, whether it’s skill trees, talent trees, or feat trees.

Beyond that…idk I guess I don’t see the benefit of going more granular than some broad skills and a few specialities for each. That seems like plenty to reach the desired game design goal? Maybe I’m missing some aspect of the idea, though.

Maybe we should look to 4e skills, which were more interesting and also had specific things they could do in most types of scenes/encounters, like Arcana letting you mess with magic devices.

The PHB UA has delved into that a bit, but not for every skill, IIRC, which worries me.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I think the core problem is that D&D's skill system has always been tacked on as an afterthought. It doesn't rightly know if it wants to be a "your character knows what you know" or if it wants to base results on the characters abilities instead of the player's abilities. Worst of all, the skill system doesn't feel integrated but instead as a poorly thought out side show to combat. Having proficiency in a skill should feel meaningful and worthwhile - it rarely does when your Sage character only has a 10% better mechanical chance to know History than the fighter standing beside him. And then your Sage rolls a 2 and the fighter rolls an 18 - that's when you really feel proficiency in the History skill is all it's cracked up to be ...

I do wish there were a handful more skills (and/or slightly different ones that what we were given), and the ability to specialize in subskills under broader categories. Getting a certain rating unlocking special talents or tricks would be a nice addition, but nothing too complicated. Most characters have a lot of abilities to remember now, adding a half-dozen more skill tricks would only add to the pile of things to remember.
 

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