Designing a Pathfinder Skill

Lego Blacksmith

A photo of the undisputed best toy ever.

I’ve long intended to redesign the Craft and Knowledge skills from the ground up. I’ve even taken a shot at it a few times in the past. I’ve got a completed, but unpublished post from mid Summer where I went on a rather vitriolic rant about the failings of the skills system, based on one of those unsuccessful attempts. Regardless of the system’s failings, though, I do think that both of these skills are beneficial to the game and could be improved from their RAW state without fundamentally changing the way the skills system works. So with some new ideas in hand, I’d like to give it another try. This time moving more slowly, and “showing my work.”

It seems logical to me that any skill must be created with at least two different types of characters in mind. The Moderately Invested Character, and the Focused Character.

The focused character is one who has made this skill their top priority. Whether the skill is a crafting or knowledge skill, or any other skill for that matter, this character is determined to be the best at what they do. Through luck or point-buy, they start the game with an 18 in the associated ability score, and they select a race which grants them a +2 bonus to that ability score. Every four levels, they improve that ability score by 1 point, culminating in a +6 modifier at level 8, and a +7 modifier at level 16. The focused character also takes Skill Focus at first level. And, obviously, this character has selected a class for which this skill is a class skill, and places new points into the skill at each level.

Now, it wouldn’t be hard to take this further. Their are races with better than a +2 ability score bonus. There are magical items and spells which–temporarily or permanently–increase a character’s ability scores. Some races receive bonuses for specific skills, such as the gnomish +2 racial bonus to craft. Often, masterwork tools give characters a functionally permanent circumstance bonus to their checks. There are even magical items which increase competency with a skill, though in my opinion these should be almost entirely ruled out of the game for reasons which will become obvious in a moment.

If a person really wanted to max out their skill, and the GM was willing to humor them, then I think the skills system is so fundamentally, mathematically flawed that it would be impossible to create a well balanced skill. But when attempting to craft these skills, I will assume that the players are not quite so obsessive, and the GM is not so foolish to indulge them if they are.

The other type of character which the system must be balanced for, the Moderately Invested Character, is much simpler. They do not make this skill a priority, but it is a class skill, and they do put skill points into it at each level. Their associated ability score is a +2, which is above average, but not great. That, I think, is a sufficient level of involvement that a player should expect to see solid, level appropriate returns on their decision to invest in this skill, whatever it may be.

For all of these characters; the focused, the moderately invested, and every character who falls between; the skill ought to work ‘right.’ Certainly, within this gradation, there will be players who are more or less skilled than others. That’s fine, and in fact it is one of the benefits of the Pathfinder skills system. However, a moderately invested character should never feel as though the skill isn’t useful to them, nor should a focused character receive such significant rewards that they become overpowered. Players with less skill than a moderately invested character can be legitimately viewed as handicapped in the skill, and should not expect full at-level rewards from it. And characters with greater skill than a focused character can be considered overpowered already.

So how do the numbers work out?

Pathfinder Skill Analysis

Not great.

At first level, there’s already a variance of 6 between the moderately invested and the focused characters. By level 20 that variance has widened to 11. Those may not sound like very large numbers, but notice that a 10th level focused character has reached the same level of expertise that a 20th level moderately invested character can.

Forging ahead, now that we know which ranges the two character types will have available to them at each level, the question becomes: what acts should a character be able to perform at a given level? For example, according to the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, +1 swords cost 2,000 gold pieces. They’re also available for sale in large cities, so in the assumed Pathfinder campaign setting, +1 swords should be available to a character who has sufficient gold. According to the wealth by level guidelines, a level 4 character should have 6,000 gold, so I think it’s safe to say that a character is meant to have +1 weapons by level 4. If characters are to be able to craft magic items using the crafting system (as is my goal), then what should be the DC of crafting a +1 sword? 25? That gives the moderately invested character a 25% chance of success at level 4, and the focused character a 40% chance of success at level 1.

Clearly an additional layer of complexity is required here. Materials cost will obviously help limit this crafting, but it’s important to me that I avoid requiring feats in this system.

Further work on my part is required, but at this juncture I’m eager to hear what others think. Perhaps one of my betters can save me some time?

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14 thoughts on “Designing a Pathfinder Skill”

  1. I’m glad you’re going for a featless magic item creation system! If you complete one I may use it as my players are leaning towards wanting to make them.

    I’m going to hand you a page out of your own book (albeit possibly not the right one). When someone in ToKiMo wanted to be Spider-Woman you had them go on materials quests. I think something similar could work well for just about all magic item creation. You could tie this in with some magic item binding spells. Have these spells be pre-reqs for even attempting to make an item. Go further and have them learn to be a smith. Your proposed rules for learning a language translate swimmingly to learning a trade or craft. You could even make them have to learn from someone who already works in the field of magic item creation. Have them determine how many weeks they will devote to crafting, and give them bonuses or negatives for how long they spend working on it compared to how long you think it should take. Research and talks with sages and people in the field would help them know appropriate lengths of time. Assign a DC based on whether the item is minor, medium, or major, giving a bonus to the roll for the items they have made in the past (or cut out the die roll altogether). If they fail that die roll, instead of saying the creation fails completely, come up with a similar, but vastly underpowered (or even cursed!) version of what they’re trying to create.

    Putting this all together our system looks like this:
    1. Learn to smith as per your language-learning rules.
    2. Take item creation spells.
    3. Research the item you want to create.
    4. Secure the correct components.
    5. Determine how long you’ll work on the item.
    6. Die roll with bonuses and negatives based on time spent working on the item, research done, and past item creation.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Glad to hear you’ll find this idea useful. It’s apparently something a lot of people are looking for–including myself. I’ve got a lot of ideas, but all of them have big flaws so far.

      I’d like to avoid forcing too much of a questing element into magic item creation. My players gained 2 levels in the search for 1 out of the 3 Arachnohominid components. If every magic item required that much work, then a single crafting character could take over the entire game. However, a questing element isn’t something I would entirely discount either. Part of my thinking is that if the item’s creation requires only basic materials and gold, then that should be sufficient. If, however, it requires spells, players will need to:

      -Find a spellcaster willing to cast for them
      -Find a scroll and someone who can use it
      -Find a rare material component which will take the place of the spell.

      What I’ve envisioned is a system where items have DCs and costs. Players must invest X weeks of time, and gold into each roll. Success means the item is created, failure means half the materials are destroyed. I’m not married to the idea, and the details are highly variable still, but that’s where my thinking currently lies.

      I also have a significantly different idea more in tune with my style of mechanics which is waiting in the wings. But I’d like to accomplish this first.

      1. Spending 10% of a campaign looking for 1 magic item does seem a bit excessive, so I see where you’re coming from there. Personally I don’t like any published magic item creation rules so this have me the opportunity to work on my own. I’m saving a copy of this thread so I can work on expanding this myself later. Thanks for jump-starting my thoughts!

        1. If you’d like to discuss this in more detail, email me. (Email info is under “Contact me” at the top).

          I have further thoughts which I’d rather not discuss openly at this juncture.

  2. I don’t think the high variance d20 fits crafting very well. In combat, it represents uncertainty and unpredictability. Even a very skilled warrior can miss or an untrained warrior can get in a lucky shot. And from a game point of view it increases tension.

    But for crafting, the system seems to suggest that those with only moderate training have at least a 5% chance of creating a masterpiece (if they roll a 20 on their skill check). Or am I misunderstanding 3E skills?

    1. Well, there are no critical successes or failures for skill checks. So a roll of 20 won’t automatically result in a masterpiece, nor will a roll of 1 automatically result in a failure. A masterpiece might be DC: 35 for example, meaning a character must have at least +15 in the skill before they have a 5% chance to create a masterpiece. That certainly represents a significant investment in the skill. And I do think there’s some room for variance in a crafting system, though I don’t think it’s really a very important thing to strive for.

      Really, though, I agree with you. The high variance on the d20 is not well suited to this manner of task. But sometimes one must work with the tools one has. I’m curious to see if I can make this work in a satisfactory manner.

      1. I haven’t completely digitized it yet. When I do you can see it on my Wikia (Click on my Name & Feel free to contribute)

        Basically I combined Jump, Climb, & Swim into Athletics.

        Made Craft Calligraphy part of Linguistics. Made Craft Armour and Weapons into Craft Blacksmithing. Bows into Woodworking.

        I got rid of Spellcraft being able to craft anything. and use Character Level/HD instead of Caster Level for Crafting Feats and dropped Master Craftsman.

        1. Those all sound like solid changes. Though they don’t go quite as far as I would go myself, they’re certainly changes I could get behind.

          1. I also increase all but Wizards, Witches, & Alchemists Skill Ranks by 2 and make the minimum Skill Ranks 2 instead of 1.

            I prefer small changes that way new players don’t need as much adjusting to my methods.

  3. What if you got points per week based on your skill level that you could put towards various crafting tasks, along with a “quality ceiling” also based on the skill level? Strictly speaking, no rolls would be required, though you could add in some randomness for interest if desired.

    1. Ya know, I was intentionally avoiding that option, because my goal here was to make crafting work within the frame of the skills system.

      But screw it. I think you’re right. That’s probably the best choice. Or at least something similar to that.