Knowledge (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): I’ve always liked knowledge skills, though I’m not certain why. Perhaps it’s because most games, particularly video games, consistently put the player in the position of the most ignorant person in the room. The rationale for doing so is obvious. Representing the player with an avatar who is ignorant of what is going on around them is a useful tool for justifying exposition without breaking the fourth wall. It’s lazy storytelling, but it works well enough in a pinch. Problem is: I don’t like being ignorant. I think that, perhaps, when I first encountered knowledge skills I was excited by the prospect of having a measure of control over what my character knows about the world.
I’ve always maintained that a knowledge mechanic is beneficial to the game. However I must confess, -C’s arguments forced me to seriously reflect on whether or not I was right. He presents a legitimate concern: does the inclusion of a knowledge check lead GMs to restrict information in a way which is not conducive to creating a fun game? Is rolling dice to determine a character’s knowledge of a subject beneficial even slightly, or is it nothing more than a side-effect of the knowledge mechanic being shoe-horned into the skills system? At the time I even said as much myself: “the randomization element isn’t very useful for knowledge skills […] it’s not particularly exciting and the roll doesn’t really drive the game forward.”
My thinking on this matter began to change after a recent experience at the table. My players were investigating a dungeon which had been specifically built to keep gnomes out. In one room, there were a number of statues of gnomes, which were part of a larger statuesque depiction of a battle. Nearly all of the gnomish statues, however, were actually real flesh-and-blood gnomes, who had been turned to stone hundreds of years in the past. My intent was that the players would not realize this until the end of the dungeon, where they would encounter a large number of gnomish ghosts. Once the ogre who had murdered those gnomes was killed, the ghosts would be able to tell the players about their petrified kin on the floor above. My GM notes for that gaming session were actually posted on this blog, if you’re interested.
When my players entered the room with the petrified gnomes in it, one of them actually guessed immediately that the statues might simply be petrified, and asked if there was any way they could know for certain. At first, I was a little flustered. I did not want to deny my player the right to investigate his hunch–particularly because he was right! But I also did not want to hand him information which he had no reasonable way of obtaining. The builders of this room had gone to some lengths to disguise the statues as genuine, even going so far as to include a number of real statues. And if I set a precedent of answering player’s guesses with accurate information, I rob the players of the ability to take actions based on an incorrect guess.
I then recalled that the player had put a number of points into Knowledge(Dungeoneering). I asked him to roll that to determine whether his character knew of any method to differentiate between petrified beings, and finely crafted statues. I set the DC at 15, and the player succeeded. I then confirmed for him that, yes, these statues were in fact petrified gnomes. A fact which the party managed to learn long before I had intended them to, and which proved to be quite relevant when they continued through that dungeon in the next session.
In this case, the Knowledge skill did exactly what I want a skill to do. It took a situation where the outcome was uncertain, and it resolved it with a minimal amount of wasted time. It allowed the players to succeed in a way which I had not intended them to be able to succeed. Even if the roll had failed, demonstrating that none of the players were able to determine petrified creatures from statues, it would have simply created a different interesting situation. One in which the players needed to seek out the answer to their question
Judgement: Like crafting, knowledge works well in its current state, but isn’t good enough. Also like crafting, I plan to devote some of my upcoming time to a complete redesign of the knowledge skill, in the hopes of making its ideal function more apparent, and shaving some of the fat from it.
Linguistics (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): To my knowledge, linguistics is unique amongst skills, in that its primary use (learning languages) is accomplished by putting points into the skill, rather than rolling skill checks. Which isn’t to say skill checks are never made with linguistics, simply that none of those checks would (on their own) justify this skill’s existence in my eyes. Aside from learning languages, you can create or detect forgeries, and you can also decipher writing in an unfamiliar language or dialect. Officially, that’s all you can do with a skill check, and neither of those two is very likely to come up frequently enough to justify the skill’s existence.
Regarding the creation and detection of forgeries, how often will this actually show up in a game, honestly? In all my years of playing and running both Dungeons and Dragons, and Pathfinder, I don’t believe I’ve ever had cause to forge a single document. I’ve never been to a city which required me to carry identification papers, nor have I tried to deliver false orders to a group of soldiers. I’m not saying these occasions will never arise–they might! But will they arise often enough for this use of the skill to provide a significant frequency of use? No, probably not. That’s why Paizo combined the old D&D 3.5 forgery skill into Pathfinder’s linguistics skill, and that’s good. But if there is no other justification for having the skill, then creating/detecting forgeries wouldn’t provide that justification.
The other use of the skill which calls for rolling dice is deciphering writing. Like forgery, this was also a stand-alone skill in D&D 3.5, called decipher script. The idea is to provide players with the chance to interpret written languages they don’t know, or writing which is otherwise incomprehensible to them. It’s like reading Chaucer for you or I; it may be English, but understanding it is a difficult skill to master. Indecipherable writing is a challenge players may face somewhat more often than forgeries, but still not something they’re likely to encounter often. And even in those cases where it does come up, there is more often than not going to be a simpler and more entertaining way to solve the problem: finding someone who is fluent in the language for example.
I propose a new feat; Master of Writing. Players with this feat can decipher any written language with perfect accuracy after 1 hour of study. They are also able to create and detect forgeries with perfect accuracy, so long as they have seen a copy of the “real” document at least once before.
Which only leaves one purpose for this skill: learning new languages. Since that doesn’t require any rolling, it seems obvious to me that this skill has no justification for remaining in the game. But how, then, should a character learn new languages? In D&D 3.5 this was handled by spending a skill point, but that hardly makes sense. Normally, spending a single skill point allows you to become roughly 5% more likely to succeed at a given task. So why should skill points suddenly become so potent when it comes to learning new languages? And as I learned with The Owlbear, there aren’t even enough official languages in the game to support this system to its logical conclusion.
Additionally, why should characters be allowed to learn languages so quickly? I’m not suggesting that we force players to waste in-game years learning languages in pursuit of realism, but why not attempt a middle ground? A character who wishes to learn a new language must either be traveling with someone who speaks the language fluently, or must purchase a book for 10gp which teaches the language. The character must spend 8 hours of light activity studying the language each day (during which time they cannot craft magical items or perform other tasks). After 1 month, they gain enough of an understanding of the language to read, and hold conversations.
Judgement: House rule this out of the game. Languages can be learned by spending time resources, rather than skill resources.
Knowledge and Linguistics both ran a little long, and the next skill on the block is a doozy, so only two skills for this post!