Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Sense Motive To Spellcraft

Sense Motive (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): By now, I’ve gone over every skill pretty thoroughly, and I have a good idea of what I want to say about each one. I’ve even run a game using the reduced skills list, and it went quite well. Sense Motive Cat is Suspicious of your MotivesI’m sure that some of my changes are breaking other minor rules. No doubt there are a number of spells and feats which have been rendered useless by the way I’ve changed and removed skills. But I believe the reduced list has been an overall improvement. My players spent a little less time looking at their sheets and asking if they could make skill checks, and a little more time engaged with the game world, asking whether they could perform certain tasks.

The one skill I left in the game at the time, which I am now pretty certain I will remove, is sense motive. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with whether this skill has value to the game. On the one hand, I agree with -C’s basic assessment. If you break it down, it seems clear:

  1. In an good game, players are able to succeed by making meaningful, intelligent choices.
  2. In order to make intelligent choices, players must be able to access relevant information to base their decisions upon.
  3. If players must roll a die to access information, then there is a chance they will fail that roll.
  4. If they fail that roll, they will not be able to access to the information they require in order to make intelligent decisions.
  5. If players cannot access the information they require to make intelligent decisions, then they will not be able to succeed by making meaningful, intelligent choices.
  6. Ergo, if players must roll a die to access relevant information, then a game is not good.

There are other skills, however, such as knowledge and perception, which also require a roll in order for a player to receive information. -C’s posts decry these skills on much the same grounds as he decries sense motive, but I have chosen to keep them in my game. Albeit in modified forms. So am I a hypocrite, or is there a difference between the types of information players gain from knowledge and perception, and the type of kind of information players gain from sense motive?


Knowledge is a different beast altogether, but sense motive and perception have a number of commonalities between them. Both are most commonly rolled against an NPCs, both can be used to give players advance warning of danger, and both can potentially produce interesting results regardless of success or failure. With perception, it is interesting both when players are ambushed, and when they detect an ambush before it occurs. With sense motive, it can be interesting both when a players are fooled, and when the players manage to see through a deception. On those grounds alone, sense motive would seem to be a legitimate and useful skill.

However, sense motive isn’t perfectly analogous to perception. Perception is used to determine whether characters can notice things they are not looking for, such as an orc sneaking through the trees. Sense motive, on the other hand, is most commonly rolled to gauge an NPC which players are intently engaged with, such as a back-alley informant who may be lying to them. That alone is reason to cast serious doubt on the value of sense motive.

I don’t think it’s always wrong for a GM to use NPCs to lie to the players. I think untrustworthy NPCs who lie to, or even betray, the players adds an element of social danger to the game which is valuable. But there must be a better way to do it than with the sense motive check. An untrustworthy NPC surely gives some signs that they aren’t being entirely straight with the player characters. Shifty eyes, oddly emphasized words, inconsistent stories about who they are and what they want, there are dozens of ways to give the players a chance to figure out that they’re being had. And once the players have an inkling, the desire to confirm that inkling gives the GM a good opportunity to challenge them. A street thug’s reputation for lying might be easy enough to find out if you know who to ask, but finding out that the duke is planning to frame the PCs for his crime might be a little trickier.

Judgement: After much deliberation, this skill should be house-ruled out of the game. In a pinch, perception checks can be used to fill-in for it. Bluff checks should only be used by the PCs against NPCs, so a DC is adequate. If you prefer, it can be rolled v. another bluff roll.

Bearded Stage Magician with Wand, Cape, and Top HatSleight of Hand (Full Description on PFSRD)(-C’s Post): There is very little to say about sleight of hand. It is just about the perfect skill. It comes up decently often in play, success and failure are almost always both interesting results. And since I can’t think of a way to handle it which would be more fun than a dice roll, it doesn’t circumvent any potential fun. If anything, having this skill in the game encourages players to use it in creative ways. I once had spell caster put points into it so he could attempt to hide his magical hand gestures.

Judgement: I cannot think of anything wrong about this skill.

Spellcraft (Full Description on PFSRD): The spellcraft skill has five officially listed functions in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. It is used to identify a spell which is being cast, copy a spell from a borrowed spellbook, prepare a spell from a borrowed spellbook, and as part of crafting and identifying magic items. The book also indicates that spellcraft “is used whenever your knowledge and skill of the technical art of casting a spell […] comes into question.”

Counterspell, counterspell, COUNTERSPELL!Spellcraft functions well for the most part. I don’t really like the way in which it interacts with the craft skill, but as I’ve already mentioned in this series, I have plans to entirely re-write the Pathfinder crafting rules in the near future. I’m also dubious of the value of needing to roll a check in order to copy a spell from a borrowed spellbook. It strikes me as an unnecessary and ultimately ineffective attempt to control a wizard’s power through drawing out the amount of time it can potentially take to gain new spells. However, requiring a roll to actually prepare as spell from a borrowed spell book functions as a minor but effective throttle on a wizard’s power, since it has a more immediate effect on gameplay. Plus, on the fluff side of things, the failure chance meshes with the way Vancian magic is described in the rulebook.

My only real problem with the skill is the way it is used to identify magic items. I’ve tried a number of things over the years, and never really been happy with any of them. As of late I’ve simply been allowing any spellcaster to identify the purpose of an item she believes is magical, so long as she has 10 minutes to examine it. I would also like for some items to be un-identifyable to a spellcaster, because this can create interesting scenarios where characters must seek aid in identifying their items.

I don’t think the spellcraft skill can reasonably be involved in this process, though. A level 1 elven wizard with 18 Intelligence has a +10 to their spellcraft check. That goes up to +12 if the the magical properties for the item they’re attempting to identify are from their specialist school. So you can’t simply allow casters to automatically identify items with a caster level equal to or lesser than the caster’s spellcraft check bonus, because a level 1 elf could identify items on the high-end of mid-level. The typical solution would be to add 10 to the item’s caster level, and call for a roll, but then you’re back to asking the caster for a dozen rolls every time the party encounters a decent sized treasure horde. Checking an item’s caster level against a character’s caster level is also a possibility, but I would like non-casters to be able to identify magic items by investing in the spellcraft skill.

The process of identifying magic items is one I plan to cover more thoroughly in a future post.

In the past, I’ve also allowed casters to use spellcraft to spontaneously craft new spells. If a caster is in combat, and they would like to modify one of their spells in an unusual way, or would like to combine it with another spell, then I’ll allow them to do so. They must first provide a good explanation of how the spell will work (“I want to cast acid orb on my crossbow bolt, and fire it into the ogre!” or “I’d like to cast Cone of Cold and Fireball simultaneously to create a blast of steam.”) They must succeed on a DC 15 + [level of any spells involved, added together] spellcraft check, and expend one of their highest level spells slots available, which is lost whether the spell succeeds or not.

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4 thoughts on “Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Sense Motive To Spellcraft”

    1. The spontaneous spell crafting rules were, amusingly, spontaneously crafted themselves.

      About two years ago I was running a group of first-time players through their first session. It was going so well that the entire adventure I had prepared for them ended up accounting for maybe a third of that first session, and the rest had to be improvised.

      Near the end of the session, the party had split up, and were entering the same room from two different locations. A large battle with an entire cult ensued, and the player’s backs were against the wall. The sorceress player said “I’d like to cast acid orb on my crossbow, and shoot the priest performing the sacrifice.”

      A more experienced player would have known that acid orb doesn’t work that way, but I liked the way the player was thinking, and I didn’t want to squash it. So I had her make a spellcraft check to see if could pull it off. She succeded, and I let her replace acid orb with a new spell called “Acid Bolt.”

      Thanks so much for linking to your post on magic item identification. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m sure it will be a lot of help. I’ve honestly been stumped on what to do about this problem, so if nothing else a fresh perspective will be immensely valuable.

  1. Sense Motive: I agree with you for the most part, and love your suggestion on using opposing bluff checks, the logic, to mine eye at least, being that a skilled liar is quite capable of catching the tells of other liars.

    Spellcraft: I would argue that the sheer complexity of the spells themselves requires exacting patience, an extensive understanding of the technical jargon involved, with that being the explanation of why it takes time and a successful check to do so, since even one tiny mistake could potentially throw the whole thing off, even more so for more complex spells.

    I do like the spellCRAFTing aspect you mentioned, and would personally rule that you may also use the same effect out of combat, only with the option to take 10.

    Either way, I would say that they would also need to make another spellcraft check if they want to write it down to their book. Some of the best discoveries were never remembered by their inventors after all.

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