Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Acrobatics to Bluff

Acrobatics (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): This may be the single least broken skill in the game, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that I have to start the list with it, after that big angry buildup I wrote in the overview. Acrobatic CatThe skill is intended for use when a character is on a narrow or uneven surface; when a character needs to pass through an enemy’s space during combat; or when a character is jumping or falling. I’ve personally found that this skill to be extremely handy when my players tell me they want to run up a wall, then back flip over their pursuer to deliver an attack from behind. Players often want to attempt the kinds of things they’ve seen in action movies, and the simplest way to accommodate that is to utilize a skill check.

My experience with Acrobatics has always been good, but it does have some serious flaws. It suffers more than most skills do from the linear probability of a 1d20 roll. Doesn’t it seem a little bizarre that someone with no ranks in this skill can jump anywhere from 1ft, to 20ft, with no result being more likely than any other? Additionally, if a GM calls for an Acrobatics check every time the game would technically require it, then rolling would get extremely tedious. Balancing and jumping are often simple tasks. Much of the time, a roll shouldn’t be required. When a roll is called for, there ought to be serious consequences for failure. Don’t simply call for a balance check every 15ft that a character moves along a narrow ledge. Call for a balance check only if the character’s footing is somehow compromised due to being attacked. And if they fail, the character falls, perhaps being granted a reflex save to grab the ledge before they do, but otherwise plummeting toward the ground below, and some scary amount of d6s.

In a recent game of mine, the party encountered a relatively small pit trap. The rogue was able to find it, but even after disarming it, there was still a 5ft by 5ft hole in the floor. Since it’s such a ridiculously small amount of space, I allowed the party’s Rogue, Ranger, and Sorceress to jump across without any problem. However, the party’s cleric was in full plate armor, had no ranks in the Acrobatics skill, and a -1 dexterity modifier. All things taken into account, she would need to roll a 12 or better to jump across the gap. (DC of 5, her roll would be -1 for dexterity, and -6 armor check penalty). The situation became particularly interesting when the cleric suggested they just go without her, since there were only two rooms to explore in that area. Of course, the Party didn’t know that a boss creature, as well as 4 giant spiders, were waiting for them. In the end, the Cleric decided to simply go for it, and successfully rolled high enough to leap across the gap. But as I’m sure you could imagine, things could have gotten very interesting if the party had encountered foes, called for the cleric, only to have the cleric fall into the pit and leave them without healing for the fight.

Judgement: This skill is acceptable as-is, but should be applied judiciously. It would benefit from from some polish and revision.

Appraise (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): This is the skill I wish I could have started the list with. Appraise perfectly exemplifies my frustration with Pathfinder’s skills. Appraising a Gem - Does anybody know what those gem-studying eye things are called?I really hope Paizo only included Appraise in the game because they felt it was important to remain backwards-compatible with D&D 3.5 modules and supplements. This skill, as written in the Core Rulebook, has no value except to slow down play and to frustrate players. You roll the skill, and if you roll well, you can determine the monetary value of an item.

Why is it desirable to force the players through this step? What value does it serve? I honestly do not know. I certainly cannot imagine that any theoretical value it has could be worth the investment of a skill point. Even in games, such as my own, where players often find themselves in possession of non-monetary treasure, I don’t see that this skill has a purpose. When my players go to fence a piece of artwork or some other oddity, the person they attempt to sell it to offers them a price which is a reflection of how much they value the piece. If the players want to haggle, I let them, and they might get a little more money. I also allow the players various means (such as Knowledge checks) to determine if there is anyone who might be particularly interested in a piece. Gnomish artwork might be worth 50 gold to a fence, but worth 100 gold to a gnomish collector.

And in the very rare cases where your game might be served by having a buyer attempt to cheat your players, wouldn’t a Sense Motive check work just fine? (Though, we’ll get to the problems with Sense Motive later)

Judgement: House rule this skill out of the game.

Bluff (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): The purpose of the bluff skill is to handle NPC Interaction, and I’ve written before about how I think NPC Interaction should be improved. That's a terrible Poker FaceHowever, the kind of improvement I’d like to see would probably require an entirely new sub-system, separate from the current skills system. Developing that idea further is outside the scope of this post. Here, I’d like to focus on working within the Pathfinder rules to improve them.

My experience with bluff has never been what I would call “bad.” Players understand its purpose, and they enjoy using it. In that regard, the skill fulfills its role adequately. I’ve even had one character who came to rely on bluff as his signature tactic, which created a lot of fun situations for everyone in the party, which is good.

My major problem with bluff, and with all social interaction skills, is that they  reduce a potentially involved and interesting process (in this case, deceiving someone) into a single, mechanical, fun-neutral roll. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I feel social interaction should be determined entirely by role playing. In fact, I would be vehemently opposed to that. Social Interaction can be as complex and entertaining as combat, and deserves to have some mechanics associated with it. The problem is that resolving social interaction encounters with a skill check is a lot like resolving combat by rolling initiative. A single roll doesn’t do it justice.

Without entirely overhauling the system, I think the best solution is to require multiple checks for each interaction, each heavily reliant on circumstance bonuses. For example, if the party is attempting to bluff their way past a goblin patrol, the first bluff check is to keep the goblins from attacking on sight. Then, when the players attempt to convince the goblins that they’ve been sent by “the master” on an important mission, their success or failure will be heavily influenced by what details they’re able to include in their lie. Further checks might be called for when the goblins ask what their mission is, or why they’ve never seen the player characters before. Each check would be modified significantly by the player’s ability to lie convincingly. And failure might not mean the goblins immediately attack, it might simply mean they ask more questions, or send another goblin to go speak with “the master” to verify the PC’s story.

Bluff has two other uses as well. It can be used to send secret messages, which seems a little odd but I have no real problem with it. It can also be used to feint, which I do have a problem with. I spent many of my early years studying fencing, and the feint is one of the most basic maneuvers a swordsman learns. Yet fighters don’t have Bluff as a class skill. I call bullshit. Feint is a combat maneuver, just like any other. It functions the same way described in the skill description, with “bluff” replaced by “CMB” and “sense motive” replaced by “CMD.”

Judgement: Not terrible, but its use ought to be expanded and revised. In future games it would benefit from a complete overhaul.

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10 thoughts on “Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Acrobatics to Bluff”

  1. I followed the links you provided about npc interaction all the way to the “advance rules” guide for diplomacy. Sadly all the rules never fixed the problem all they did was provide round about rules that changed nothing. By the end of the “Advance rules” A level 1 bard with the charm person spell can easily get a King to trade his castle for a piece of normal string.

    A level 1 bard can get a + 16 (3 cha mod + 4 ranks + 2 synergy with bluff + 2 synergy with sense motive + 3 skill focus + 2 persuasive) against a DC 21 (11 aristocrat king[lvl 11] (the equivalent to a 60 year old NPC), + 5 [advisor with 20 wisdom] +15 [horrific deal] -10 [charm person makes the king friendly]) congratz the bard now needs to roll a 5 or higher to trade a King his castle for a bit of string.

          1. Good point, though I thought I may point it out since you did link directly to this site which had at the bottom of the page a link that read “Read the diplomacy fix” Which in turn lead to the previous site I linked:

            site in question:

            That said I agree with you completely the “Solutions” people post on their own site have nothing to do with you and what you are trying to explain here.
            As a matter of fact I agree with you’re review of pathfinder skills and I’m planning on using your article as a base to mod the skills in the pathfinder game I’m currently running. ^_^

  2. The tool that jewelers use to inspect gems is called a loupe. (Thanks, decades of collecting useless knowledge!)

  3. The downside to making bluff more realistic is it prevents the hilarious, outlandish lies that bring so much joy. For example, Order of the Stick: 767.

    1. Or the time one of my party members walked into a room, stabbed a goblin, then told his two buddies, “You did it.” They simultaneously yelled, “You killed Kenny, you bastard!” And attacked each other.

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