Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Conclusion

Lidda The RogueAs a GM, I’ve always gravitated towards using some skills, and away from using others. In my limited experience, I’ve found that most GMs do something similar. There are skill checks which they call for, and checks which they don’t. Beneficial as those decisions may be, players are often harmed by this practice. Because, in my experience, GMs don’t communicate which skills they will be using for and which they will not.  They may not have even noticed that they ignore certain skills. In my own experience, when a player says “I swim into the river,” I’ve never even considered asking for a swim check. I’ve always simply allowed players to do so. But what I’ve come to realize is that I have been, in effect, lying to my players because of that.

When a new player is joining my games, I’ve never told them not to put any ranks in swim, or climb, or disguise, or escape artist. I let them make their own decisions, not realizing that in doing so I am implying that any skill they put points into is a skill which will potentially be useful to them. How many of my players have wasted skill points on skills which would never be rolled even a single time? I have been at fault in this, which is why I set out to correct that oversight with this series. Over two weeks of posts here on Papers & Pencils have been devoted to overviewing Pathfinder’s skills. I’ve approached each one in turn with as clear a mind as I could manage, analyzing its strengths and its flaws in the hopes of cutting the fat from the system.

What has been the result? Well, the original game of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 had an amusingly appropriate 35 skills. Pathfinder combined a number of these skills together, bringing the total number of skills down to 26. With the additional cuts I’ve made, the total number of skills is down to 14 total.You can see the breakdown of the skills on this chart:

List of All Skills

Lidda The Rogue D&D 3.5 Use Magic Device Explode FaceMy reduction in the number of skills is pretty drastic. It is legitimate to be concerned that it may be too drastic. If a human rogue rolls 18 for their intelligence, then they can add two to that, and start the game with an Intelligence modifier of +5. If that character also selects rogue as their favored class, then at each level they can receive a total of 15 skill points (Rogue is 8 + Intelligence Modifier, +1 for the human racial trait, +1 for leveling in a character’s favored class.) Considering that both Craft and Knowledge represent multiple skills, this doesn’t mean that the character would end up with excess skill points at each level. However, such a rogue would almost certainly be forced to put skill points into a number of abilities they had little to no interest in actually using. Such a character does not even imply any attempt to manipulate the system on the player’s part. All it would require is a lucky roll for ability scores, followed by common-sense choices.We could reduce the number of skill points each class receives. However, for now, I will be allowing characters to maintain their current speed of skill point acquisition, to see if this is actually a problem or not. After all, no class gains skill at the same pace that the rogue does, and rogues are supposed to have a wide variety of talents.

I hope I have been somewhat successful in streamlining, and improving Pathfinder’s skill system with these posts. But there’s only so much that can be done. The D20 system’s skill mechanic is fundamentally flawed, and from what I’ve seen, so is the way design decisions have been made. If not by Paizo, then at least by Wizards of the Coast.

First, there’s the issue of linear probability. Rolling a single twenty sided die for a skill check means that none of the potential results are even slightly more likely than any other possible result. A character can roll a 1, or a 20, or anything in between with equal probability. With some rolls, like attack rolls in combat, it makes good sense. Combat is chaotic, and unpredictable. Your skill at thrusting a sword is mitigated by the quality of your opponent’s armor, and their skill at parrying, or blocking, or dodging your attack. This is not true with something like a ride check or a acrobatics check. Take the instance of a jump: in Pathfinder, a level 1 commoner who attempts to jump as far as she can is just as likely to make it 1ft as she is to make it 20ft. Can you imagine anyone in the world with that kind of variance in their ability? A much better system would be one which used multiple dice for skill checks. Something like 2d10, or 3d6, which would have a bell curve of probability, where the numbers in the middle of the possible range (right around 10-11) will appear much more frequently than the numbers at either extreme of the number range.

Lidda threatens with her bladesI’ve also found that there has apparently been no real attempt to balance the skill’s usefulness against one another. It would seem to me as though any sufficient amount of play testing would reveal that skills such as escape artist are used much less frequently (and to much less effect) than skills such as perception or acrobatics. Given this wide disparity in the frequency and effectiveness of usage, a skill point put into escape artist is significantly less valuable to a player than a point spent in acrobatics. Now, I would not suggest that each skill needs to be precisely equal in value to every other skill. A game which offers as many choices for character building as Pathfinder does will always have more and less ideal ‘builds.’ But there is a limit to the disparity of balance which is acceptable. Some of Pathfinder’s core skills are more valuable than others by an order of magnitude, and that’s unacceptable.

For many of these skills, I can only imagine that they were kept in the game because the game needed to be compatible with D&D 3.5 products.

I would like to thank all of my readers who stuck with this series throughout. I know it has been a rather dry read. Truth be told, I’ve been itching to be done writing it myself. There have been a number of topics I’ve been greatly interested in writing about, but I did not want to interrupt the flow of these skill posts. Now that they’re done, I look forward to covering a variety of topics which have been on my mind these past few weeks. As mentioned earlier in this series, I am intending to re-write the Knowledge and Craft skills, as well as the process of identifying magic items. You can expect those posts in the coming weeks, but not before I’ve had some time to touch on some other subjects first.

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7 thoughts on “Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills: Conclusion”

  1. I’ve always found the Strength related skills to be situational and not demanding of having three separate skills to account for them. I combine Climb, Jump, and Swim into Athletics. Which I find players are more willing to invest in. It just seems to make sense to me. I too prefer a simpler, more streamlined skill system and use them in the games that I run.

    1. I myself considered an athletics skill, but it still doesn’t seem worth it. None of the athletics skills strike me as actually being useful in the game.

      It almost seems as though the designers just wanted to make sure every ability score had an associated skill check. I’m surprised there was only one Constitution based check. =P

      1. What if Athletics influenced your maximum speed – not your combat speed, but the speed at which you could sprint? That would open up an opportunity to include chase sequences!

  2. Hallo,

    I am an old-school player, and it is a couple of days that I am crawlling through your site.

    I really appreciate your point of view on role playng and your analysis of Gygax DM guide.. maybe will comment also there.

    I think your interpretation here is correct: to many skills tends to let the player facing encounters looking their sheet for the most fency of them instead of looking for an intelligent reaction.

    Nevertheless, I would let skills such as swimming, reading, climbing etc. It may seems trivial for us, but it could be funny to have a player that can’t swimm, or to manage a player who want to cross a river in half mail or similar.

    Or for instance, have a single player who can read in the whole team, and let him profite of this to lie to other players etc.

  3. it probably goes without saying, but a DM could construct a situation in which any skill could be useful. i mostly agree with everything said here, great analysis.

    i did want to point out, though, that Sense Motive can be used against an opponents Bluff when they attempt the Feint action.

    in a campaign heavy in social interaction, Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Sense Motive could all be important, for example a spy or assassin in an assumed identity

  4. Instead of 3d6, “Roll 3d20, drop the lowest and highest rolls” could be used instead if the full range of numbers from 1 to 20 need to be present.

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