D&D 3.5 Skill System

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.


“I’m not misunderstood.
I’m just chaotic evil!”

Posted in Gaming
6 comments on “D&D 3.5 Skill System
  1. ScottM says:

    Skill points are a boost that some classes currently get that you’ll need to compensate for another way. Right now, Rogues, Scouts, Bards, and Rangers are all get extra skill points (6-8/level)– if everyone else got the same number, they’d be less relatively appealing.

    As far as the bookkeeping, I think that lots of recent releases are better about it. In Saga Star Wars, “Skill points have been eliminated. Characters have a number of trained skills they can pick based on their class and Intelligence bonus. When a character makes a skill check, they roll a d20 and add half their character level + any other bonuses. If they roll for a trained skill they get a +5 bonus to the die roll. Skills themselves have been simplified with such skills as Deception covering the former skills of Bluff, Disguise, and Forgery. The Mechanics skill now encompasses all the Repair skills and Demolitions. Likewise, the new Perception skill combines the Spot, Search, Sense Motive, and Listen skills.” (from Wikipedia)

    That system looks like it makes a lot of sense, both in cutting down meaningless paperwork [how often does 1 skill point allocation do something?] and making skill specialization useful enough to take.

    True20 and Perfect20 both go along similar routes– decreasing the number of skills and restrictions and decreasing the level by level paperwork.

  2. heather says:

    That’s what I mean by retaining the C/cc as a balancer, though. You could give all the classes the same number of skill points, yet give those classes that require a lot of skills plenty of class skills. It’s the same solution, but patched in one manner instead of two—basically the same thing but simpler, IMO.

    The Saga Star Wars system you mention sounds interesting, although I still have the same objection to universally using Int to determine how many skills someone can pick up. That’s just a long-time pet peeve of mine, though. I haven’t looked at True20 or Perfect20. So many systems, so few lifetimes!

  3. brcarl says:

    [Linked her from a comment you made over at Treasure Tables. Nice stuff!]

    I understand your reasoning behind having attribute modifiers indicate the number of points you can put into a correlated skill at level up, but I wonder if that kind of positive spiral might end up being unbalanced: if a fighter starts with 17 STR (+3), and then bumps to 18 at level 4, that’s an awful lot of points to put into STR-based skills, PLUS his inherent attribute bonus.

    Also, I think the reasoning behind skill point bonuses for high INT is an attempt to reflect how smart people are better at things they’ve put effort into. A smart but average strength guy who has worked at (ie., studied) Climbing will probably be just as good as a naturally strong guy who’s of average intelligence.

  4. heather says:

    Yeah, it would probably end up being too much, although it might depend on how wide a variety of skills were available for use and how hard they got used. Like I said—errant thoughts and speculation, without any actual playtesting or beating on. 🙂 There might be some way to modify it such that it worked, but I just haven’t taken it that far yet.

    I still can’t buy the Int thing. Maybe it’s ’cause I went to MIT & Harvard for a while. I’ve met so many folks who were book-learnin’ smart (since wisdom is the common-sense smarts, Int is fairly restricted in its purview) who wouldn’t have been very good at, say, plumbing or dancing, while I’ve met plenty of folks who were brilliant painters or farmers or the like who couldn’t necessarily calculate their way through the dinner check at a restaurant. Int’s relationship to skill is sidelong at best, IMO.

  5. Mike says:

    I must admit I agree with Heather. I disagree with Scott that only smart people can be truely dedicated to something. I like both 3.5 and 2.0 but 2.0 better. I think it’s rediculous for skills of characters to be intelligence based, although I can understand that the smarter you are the easier it may be to learn somethings but as miss heather had pointed out that should not apply to certain skills. I know many highly intelligent people who suck at all physical traits in real life and at other traits as well. They simply focus on there own intellectual issues and trying to be know it alls even if they are wrong hahaha. Hmm I wonder how it would work is all classes used either the highest stat or second highest toward determining skills as opposed to using INT for 3.5. We must make 2.5 version and just leave the skill points out and go off stats like in 2.0 but use 3.5 for everything else JOKING but now I wonder how well it would work. These are just my thoughts nothing to get all riled up over. Enjoy which ever system you like the most.

  6. Derp says:

    Sure there are book learners who don’t know other skills…but that’s why wizards don’t get as many skill points as rogues. You guys are confusing education with intelligence, particularly intelligence as represented in this game.
    Intelligence stat is your character’s tendency to store information, and be able to draw upon it.
    Whether skills are from book learning or like rogues, comes from actually doing it, it doesn’t matter. High intelligence characters can more easily remember what they did and how they did it.

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