I’ve been wanting to post about the D&D 3.5 skill system ever since I posted about its use in the Sorcerer class. It’s probably a mistake to try to post about it at 5:30 am after discovering that Medrol dose packs now give me near-total insomnia (I’ve been lying in bed for 8 hours petting the cats, pretty much), but hey, at least that gives me a convenient excuse should I say anything idiotic! So, you know, go easy, okay?
There are a couple of things about the skill system that bug me. For one, it seems overly (and unnecessarily) complex. It seems as though the designers are using multiple different means to try to compensate for things that they see as unbalancing, when it might have been easier (and more effective, since it would be easier to evaluate the results) to use one means.
Basically, there are two ways of limiting how far a class’s skill points can go: by designating class vs. cross-class skills (you spend skill points for C skills on a 1-for-1 basis, and cc on a 2-for-1), and by limiting the number of skill points a class starts with and acquires at each level. The skill system in 3.5 was used as a substitute for many of the specialized class abilities that used to exist in much older versions of D&D (for example, the old table of thief abilities), and it seems as though the designers have tried to write it up such that this is all it can do, in terms of what people are likely to have the points to buy. Yet at the same time they’ve put in a bunch of interesting skills that can lend great flavor to a game—yet that most people will feel they can’t buy, because their skill points have been strictly calculated to copy the old class abilities.
The other thing I have a problem with is the use of the Intelligence modifier as a determining factor in handing out all skill points. Why on earth would Int determine how good a fighter can be at jumping and swimming, or how good a burglar can be at moving silently and hiding in shadows? It just doesn’t track at all.
The following ideas come with the caveat that I’m no game designer; I’ve written for roleplaying games, sure, but usually not system stuff. This mostly came out of a chat with my husband about the skill system and what we’d probably do with it given the chance. We haven’t gone so far as to write it up, play with it, and test it out, although I admit I’m tempted and we might do so at some point. Anyway, there were a couple of ideas we had as starting points:
1. Bare-bones simplify it. Give all classes the same number of starting and leveling skill points, and use the designation of C and cc skills as the sole means of shaping how they might be spent.
2. Make it more class- and ability-appropriate. For example, say that every time a character levels, they can spend two skill points (or other appropriate number) any way they choose, and then use their charisma modifier as skill points that can be spent on Cha-based skills, Dex modifier as skill points that can be spent on Dex-based skills, and so forth on down the line (obviously negative modifiers wouldn’t apply—they’d be rounded to zero). That way each character ends up with more skill points to spend in areas that are appropriate to how he designed his character from the ground up, starting with his ability scores. Again, you could still use the designation of C and cc skills to shape how far these points could go.
The first option is the easiest, and if you like a simple game perhaps the best. It’s also the easiest to test for balance. The latter I think has more appeal for the D&D milieu, because it allows your character design and abilities to have some effect on your skills.
I seem to recall that one of the not-quite-main rulebooks (DM’s guide II maybe?) says in detailing how to create prestige classes, in fact, that certain classes simply should get fewer skill points because they don’t need them. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it. There are a ton of interesting skills available that NO class “needs,” and if you design the classes to only be able to buy what they need, then no one will take them. Instead, I think some of those skills could make fantastic ways to customize and individualize your character, if the skill system were given some minor tweaks to allow it more readily.