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Key Ability Scores Can Suck It

September 27, 2011

A Simple House Rule for Skills

Okay, let’s do this one quickly. Listen up.

I got drawn into a discussion on Twitter this morning about Monte Cook’s first Legends and Lore column and about skills in 4E. A few folks brought up The Religion Problem and, honestly, this one was new to me. “Where have you been, Angry?” I know, I know. Here it is, in a nutshell: because Religion is an intelligence skill, and because intelligence is not an important attribute for clerics, it turns out that a wizard untrained in Religion is just as good at it as a cleric who is trained.

I never noticed the problem. And I’m not sure it really is a problem. You can disagree if you want, but frankly, you won’t make me care. Thing is, I’m okay with it. See, I still think of Religion as a knowledge skill. Its based on memorizing facts like the names of gods, their symbols, their commandments, the scriptures, histories, and so on. That’s intelligence, man. And it stands to reason someone more intelligent is going to be better at it because they have a memory like a gelatinous cube.

But, this is 4E. And Religion isn’t just a knowledge skill anymore. We’re supposed to improvise now and we don’t have nearly as many skills to play with. So now, Religion does anything religiousy. Need the name of the High Holy Pugilist of Kord? Religion! Is that divine magical energy I smell? Religion! Oh, I need to consecrate this wax fruit scultpure for a holy ritual. RELIGION! Its just too damned broad!

And a lot of skills are like that. I can come up with similar goofy uses for Arcana. Or Thievery. Or we could talk about the many, many, many uses for Diplomacy (anything that involves talking to people without lies or threats). And what the f$*%^ is Dungeoneering supposed to do? Anything! As long as its underground! And let’s talk about about swimming. Its great for swimming out of the grasp of a kraken that has watched one too many of those tentacle porn videos, but what if you’re in some medieval iron man competition and have to swim the fantasy equivalent of the English Channel? Is strength the issue, or is it just about constitution? Sure. Just make it an endurance check. But is that fair? What’s the more applicable skill set? Eight hours of forced marching or actually knowing how to f$*%ing swim?

Way back when 3rd edition didn’t even have a point in it, let alone a five, I started using a trick that I swear came out of the Player’s Handbook, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. I may have made it up. I call it: The Rule of Key Abilities Can Suck It. Whenever I, as the DM, determined that a player’s action was appropriate to a certain skill, but not the key ability score, I made them substitute the modifier for the more apporpriate score. And I’ve been doing it ever since. It doesn’t come up often, true. But I’ve done it often enough that I had forgotten that I would need a doctor with rubber gloves and a flashlight to show where the rule had come from. So, when I mentioned it today on Twitter, I was kind of surprised that it wasn’t something everyone was doing. Who knew?

4E makes it really easy to do this. There is so little to a skill now. Its the equivalent of just making an ability check with a +5 bonus for certain types of training. So, yeah, when a cleric in my world has to recall specific passages of scripture, he’s drawing on intelligence. But when he’s sensing the divine energies of some deity, if its important enough to worry about, I tell him “make a Religion check, but use your wisdom modifier.” When a wizard is trying to win another wizard’s help by impressing him with magical knowledge, its a Diplomacy check using intelligence. It just makes sense.

I base the mixing and matching on a simple rule of thumb: the goal or end result determines the useful skill, but the method determines the ability score. Whenever you’re trying to win a friend or convince someone to help, its Diplomacy because interpersonal skills, reading people, and knowing how to win people over are things you learn and get better at. Those are the relevant skills. But if you’re trying to impress someone who is more interested in knowledge than your glowing personality, its your intelligence that is going to help you out. A rogue trying to get a puzzle box unlocked and open will still use Thievery because the goal is to manipulate a device, but, depending on the nature of the puzzle box, he might find intelligence to be more help than dexterity since the thing is designed to be solved rather than forced or finagled.

The thing is, though, that the DM is the one who makes the call. Why? Because players will cheat. They will abuse it. “Yeah, I’m totally diplomacying with my strength!” No! You tell me what you’re doing, I’ll tell you how to resolve the action. But if the players know you are doing it this way, it forces them to solve problems (even in skill challenges) by thinking like their characters instead of like they have list of skill modifiers. The strong fighter is always going to look for ways to use his strength to solve problems, regardless of the skills involved. That’s natural. Most people try to throw their known strengths and best assets at problems. So, the fighter is generally trying to shove Athletics and Endurance into every situation like a stupid-shaped peg in a round hole. But the fighter who is trying to intimidate the local blacksmith and use his strength might pick up a metal tool and bend it menacingly. Intimidate is still the key skill because its still about carrying yourself the right way and scaring someone by pressing the right buttons, but the feat of strength is more important than the force of personality behind it. Instead of picking off a list, the player said “how can I use my physical strength to help solve this problem?” That’s a very natural, very human thought process.

Is it balanced? Who the hell knows. Probably not. That’s why the DM makes the call and the players just declare the actions. I honestly don’t care. I can’t imagine its any worse than a skill system that hamstrings people at iconic skills. I’m okay with the cleric who can’t rattle off the scripture of every god in the world without the intelligence to back it up, but the intuitive, wise cleric can fiddle with divine forces, conduct rituals and prayers, and do the real stuff of clerics. I’m just throwing it out there because its a simple thing to do and maybe it will work for you.

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