Monday, October 6, 2014

Skills, proficiencies, and secondary skills in D&D

I was going to try to run one-on-one D&D this past weekend, but my friend's napping stopped that. So instead I was looking through some old D&D stuff and thinking about the 5th edition game I've been trying to play. One thing I noticed: even with this new group, people are rolling a shit-ton of perception checks. I even heard someone tell one of the new people to take perception because that and stealth are among the most useful skills in the game.

My dislike of skills keeps growing. Or, at least how they've been implemented in D&D. When I ran some 2nd edition this past year, I was happy to skip proficiencies. I'da had the players roll for secondary skills, but it didn't seem relevant at the time. Secondary skills, in second edition, were just backgrounds basically. You were a blacksmith, so you should know blacksmith sorts of things. Simple as that.

But looking at proficiencies again now, I feel like some are misplaced. Blind-fighting is a key example. The only reason it's a non-weapon proficiency is because weapon proficiencies came first. If they were called combat proficiencies, blind-fighting would obviously be one of those. The Players' Option books have lots of different options (not surprising) for things to do with your weapon proficiency slots other than weapons, so a backwards compatible (i.e. OSR) revision of 2nd edition might distinguish between combat and non-combat proficiencies.

There's also a few which provide real good benefits, while others are more back story. Pottery or Agriculture, for example, are occupation-based backgrounds that could really just be a secondary skill. There's almost no reason to roll those. Tracking and healing, however, provide some really great benefits. Yet these are, to an extent, still background related.

Then we see the thief skills in 2nd edition. Acrobatics and read-lips are proficiencies, but the thief-skills aren't. I assume that's backwards compatibility too.

So. I might consider using proficiencies, but in a slightly revised way. Most characters would need an occupation-based proficiency or two. Or maybe just that one-word background that'd cover some of that stuff. Then maybe those other things could become more like thief skills. Reading lips, healing, tracking, setting snares, disguise, forgery... These are useful but... really. Why should a wizard be reading lips? And how could a wizard not have Spellcraft? Some need to be baked into the class a bit more, others less. Maybe I could just use the secondary skills and assume wizards would get the benefit of having spellcraft with just intelligence checks.

But then we come to Healing. Back when I thought I'd be playing, I was totally min-maxing the healing non-weapon proficiency to see how good it could be. There's a Halfling healer kit that is for priests and doesn't modify the proficiency. There's an Anatomist in the necromancer book who ends up getting a +2 to healing checks. There's a medician in the paladin book who gets to heal 1d4hp if they get to the wound within a round or three, rather than 1d3 if they get to the wound immediately. Both the necromancer and paladin books have a proficiency (anatomy and diagnostics respectively) that boosts healing, while herbalism does that too in the main book (but herbalism actually boosts the amount of healing too, not just the check). So it looks like the best you could do is that medician paladin who heals 1d4+1 hp if you tend a wound within a round or three. If you use skills and powers proficiency rules, you could heal 2 pts if you get to the wound within an hour. It only works once a day on any given character, but you can also ensure an extra hp or two for resting. Of course, if you were a paladin, you'd also have magic healing via lay on hands anyway. I thought it'd be cooler on the necromancer. Meh.

I also was a bit baffled about the rate of healing in older editions, but a friend of mine pointed out that it could be a feature, not a bug. If hit points represent some kind of ability to deflect wounds and such, then a fighter is legitimately taking a lot more damage than a wizard, and the wizard who was reduced to 1hp should heal up faster than a fighter in the same situation. Meh. Digression. Healing plus herbalism gives you 1d3+1 hp on a good healing check, once per character per day. Plus maybe an extra hp each day over night of travel/camping (or 3 if they're full-on resting).

This isn't impressive healing, but it is useful at lower levels. Even higher levels a little bit of healing can help, as a by-the-book 10th level fighter might only still have 50-60 hp, and you only get a fixed bonus after a while so a level 20 fighter might not pass 100hp without a hp boosting rule. And what does this digression mean? Some nonweapon proficiencies are actually useful. As in, might have a noticeable impact on the game. Of course, this seems to be a 2nd edition thing, my copy of Oriental Adventures doesn't have a healing proficiency at all. The healing proficiency could be overrated.

But, maybe skills aren't all that bad. 5e seems a little simplified for my taste, and includes that awful perception skill. If I run 5e, my house rule will probably just be that I roll most skill checks for the players. Perception is still overly useful compared to, say, preform, but at least it might stop people from constantly rolling perception checks (to be fair, it is the DM for this new group asking for all the perception checks).

It might be worth giving Lorefinder (gumshoe rules for pathfinder) a closer look, since I picked that up a little bit ago. Seems like an easy transplant, but its also designed for a game with good recurring attendance. I'm thinking I might be running a megadungeon with a slightly rotating cast, if I can get some people into it.

I'm not sure how you can fix more backgroundy skills (carpentry, blacksmithing, pottery) with useful skills (stealth, tracking, survival, healing) but there must be some better system than these games are currently using. I think 13th Age has it good with their backgrounds-as-skills, but it doesn't give you mechanically effectual healing. Though 13th Age is one game where that doesn't seem needed based on all the recoveries (i.e. 4th edition healing surges) PCs get. For an old school game though, a few of these skills might really benefit a group, if only they could be worked in to the system a bit better. Maybe that just means pairing down the proficiency list and putting some skills (back?) where they belong (i.e blind-fighting as a combat proficiency, read lips as a thief skill) and giving fewer proficiencies for PCs to choose? It might work. As long as one of them ain't perception. That still grinds my gears.

[Update: I was looking at Combat & Tactics over lunch. It lets you buy some proficiencies which are normally listed as non-weapon with your weapon slots (awareness). So, backwards compatibility, but they recognized some problems with the weapon/non-weapon distinction.]

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