Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Introduction

Lidda in Color by Pozas (http://old.enworld.org/Pozas/Pictures/Iconics/)Funny story. I’ve got a whiteboard next to my computer with a list full of topics I’d like to cover on P&P. Some topics spend a week or a month on the whiteboard before I write about them. Other topics never get on the whiteboard in the first place, they go straight from my brain to the site. A few topics have been on the whiteboard for a long, long, long time. The follow up to my Scholomance post, for example, has been on the whiteboard for almost six months! Another topic which has been up there for-fucking-ever is “A Critical Analysis of Pathfinder’s Skills.” But unlike the Scholomance posts, this one isn’t because I’m lazy. In fact, in early December I sat down to write it. I had an introductory paragraph finished, and I was procrastinating by checking blogs. That’s when I found this.

-C, of Hack & Slash, had beaten me to the punch by mere hours. He had already been doing his series on skills for a few weeks, but I had not realized he was actually planning to go into that level of detail with regards to Pathfinder’s skills specifically. I could have gone ahead with my plans and written my post anyway, but I’m a prideful man, and I didn’t want to seem derivative. Plus, I figured that reading -C’s posts (which I knew would be much more critical than mine) would give me a better grasp of each skill’s individual flaws. That would give me a leg-up when I began my own analysis. I shelved the idea, and -C assured me that his posts would be coming out pretty fast, so I wouldn’t need to keep my own post on hold for too long. Four months later when -C finally put up his conclusions, I was so overwhelmed by the breadth of his series that there hardly seemed to be anything more to say on the subject. The thought of writing the single post I had planned on just seemed silly.

But after my recent learning experience, I’m fired up and ready to criticize. I believe a good mechanic for skills can exist, but the system that Pathfinder inherited from D&D third edition is not it. Not even close. It is rife with bizarrely wide margins of error due to the problems inherent with linear probability. It confuses new players by forcing them to make choices they can’t possibly understand without first gaining some actual play experience. It reduces the impact of a player’s choices by forcing an unreasonable chance of failure even after careful planning. It tricks new GMs into thinking that coming up with a Dice Check number is an acceptable substitute for understanding the elements of a problem. And it forces more veteran GMs to make a choice: do you allow your players utilize their character’s skills, and fill your game with excessive dice rolls, or do you ignore those skills which are pointless, and frustrate the players who wasted points on skills they’ll never get to use in your game?

This is a bigger problem than I’ve attempted to tackle in my writing before, and getting through everything there is to discuss will require a number of posts. To keep things from becoming too disjointed, I’ll be skipping the regularly scheduled Friday posts in favor of putting up these skills posts in a continuous stream. Following this introduction, the next week or two will focus on reviewing each of Pathfinder’s skills in turn. I won’t be writing a single post for each skill, as -C did. Based on what I already have written, it seems as though I’ll be able to get through about three-to-four skills in each post. My focus will be on analyzing each skill’s current playability and usefulness based on my experience. I’ll also attempt to offer simple suggestions for improving each skill, with a mind toward house-rules, rather than complete system overhauls. My goal is that once I’m finished with this series of posts, it can be used by other Pathfinder game masters as a “patch.”  The idea is to streamline the system without altering it so fundamentally that other parts of the game become too broken to use. Once this series is done, there are a number of skills which will require more thorough attention. Skills which I believe are valuable, but need to be re-built from the ground up to function as they should. In conclusion, I’ll outline the more fundamental problem with Pathfinder’s skills system, and what I’d like to see in a future game which is not bound to be compatible with the blunders committed by the D&D 3rd edition developers.

There are numerous indicators which can be used to determine if a skill is good or bad, but these are the touchstones I’ll be using to keep my analysis somewhat focused:

  • What is my Experience? I’ve played enough D&D 3.5 / Pathfinder to have a pretty good functional knowledge of how these skills are applied in the game. Or, at least, how they’ve been applied in the games I’ve GMed and played in. If a skill works well in actual play, it’s probably a good skill. If it works poorly in play, it may be a bad skill, even if the reason why is not immediately apparent.
  • What is the skill’s frequency of use? If a player puts skill points into a skill, they should have a reasonable expectation that they will be rewarded for doing so. If a skill is only helpful in very rare situations, then the skill ought to be dropped and replaced with some other resolution mechanic, or merged with another skill.
  • Is it necessary that the action’s success is uncertain? We don’t roll skill checks for walking or running, even though it is possible to trip and fall. Just because we can conceive of a way in which an action can fail doesn’t mean that every time that action is performed, we should check to see if it’s successful. A roll should only be called for if the character’s ability to perform an action can be reasonably called into question. A rogue should easily be able to walk along a 1ft wide ledge without anybody wasting time on a skill check. But a check might be appropriate when a cleric in full plate is attempting to cross a 1ft wide ice bridge between two windy mountain peaks whilst orcs fire arrows at her from above.
  • Does using a skill check circumvent potential fun? What exactly “fun” means is going to be different for everyone. I work from the assumption that rolling dice is a sort of fun-neutral activity. So it is only more fun than something which is un-fun.When a skill check is the most entertaining way to solve a problem, it is good. When there is a more interesting way to resolve a problem, but the game demands a skill check anyway, that is very bad.
  • Misc I reserve the right to make up new criteria as they occur to me, because I’m the GM, and I said so.

Before ending this introduction, I’d like to remind my readership of the Rule 0 Fallacy. Rule 0 (which is gamer jargon for “I’m the GM, so the rule is what I say it is!”) is one of the wonderful things about role playing games. We are not only able, but encouraged, to alter the rules of the games we run. Sometimes we do this simply so the rules better fit our specific needs, and that’s all well and good. Other times, however, we must change the rules because the game’s design is flawed. These skills posts are an example of the latter case: Pathfinder has a terrible skills system. I blame this more on Wizards of the Coast than I do on Paizo, since Paizo was only following D&D 3.5’s blueprint. But Paizo isn’t blameless: they could have done a better job of streamlining the system than they did. In at least one case that I can think of, Paizo actually made the skills system worse.

In the coming posts, I will attempt to fix the problems with this skills system. If I’m successful in making the game better, then that’s great–but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the skills system was bad in the first place. We should expect, and demand, higher quality than this from the role playing products we purchase.

I hope you enjoy these posts. I look forward to hearing feedback from the numerous perspectives represented among my readership.

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