How I Use the Skills I Hate

I really fuckin' hate this movie. When I started running my most recent campaign, I wanted to keep things simple. “It uses LotFP, rules as written.” I said. Naturally, my players rolled up their characters according to the written rules of LotFP. This, predictably, means that they have skill points in skills which I don’t really like. And now that the campaign seems to be sticking, I find myself in the frustrating position of running a game with a search skill. A fucking search skill. Blerg.

It would be easy to simply never call for the players to roll these skills. But that would be a shitty thing to do. The skill points spent on Search could have been spent on anything–like sneak attack or stealth. The player put them in search because its presence next to those options explicitly implied its usefulness. If the skill is secretly useless, that makes me a liar.

Alternatively I could tell my players that the search skill has been removed, and that they can redistribute those skill points as they wish. While this is appealing from my perspective, players don’t like it. I know, because I’ve done it before, and it kinda bums them out. Nobody likes it when the referee tells them to just erase part of their character sheet because that bit has been retroactively removed from the game. The rules start to feel completely arbitrary when the referee just tosses them out like that.

So what should a myopic referee do when he forgot to disallow the skills he hates? Rewrite the skills he hates!

Climb

Why I don’t Like it: In terms of pure mechanics, I love the LotFP climb skill. Particularly the bit about rolling percentile dice to determine how far along the intended climb the character was when they fell. Unfortunately, climbing doesn’t actually happen that often in my games. So while the skill is mechanically solid, it just sorta sits there gathering dust, which isn’t good.
Fortunately, there are several other niche activities which I think should be resolved by a skill roll, and aren’t in the RAW version of the game.
What I’m doing about it: The skill is renamed “Athletics,” which is suitable, if not very original. It is still used to climb, and when climbing it functions exactly as originally written. It’s only used to climb sheer surfaces without obvious handholds, everybody but specialists have to be unencumbered to attempt it, and on fail you roll d% to determine how far along the character was when they fell.
In addition, Athletics is rolled to move through space that is occupied by another person. If you fail while trying to pass an ally, you make it to your destination, but your ally is knocked to the ground. If failed while attempting to move past an enemy, the enemy may choose either to attack you as you pass, or grapple you and stop you in your tracks.
Athletics is checked when a character is swimming in disadvantageous conditions, such as during a storm or while encumbered. It is checked when attempting to balance in any situation in which that would be difficult (though it cannot be used to counter knockdown effects). Finally, it is checked when a character is attempting to leap forward more than 10′, allowing them to leap up to 30′.

Bushcraft

Why I don’t like it: I imagine Bushcraft would make a ton of sense in a game with a lot of hex crawling. One where civilization is sparse, and settlements are far apart. I’d be really interested to run a game like that, but I never actually have. In fact, the last two campaigns I’ve run were set in a post apocalypse. Neither Dungeon Moon, nor On A Red World Alone had much use for the Bushcraft skill as it is intended to be used.
I have no problem letting the skill work the way it was originally written, but since that’s so unlikely to come up, it needs some additional utility.
What I’m doing with it: In addition to its function as a means of foraging for food and recovering from getting lost, Bushcraft can be used to gain animal companions. If the players have an encounter with a natural animal with a neutral or better reaction, a successful Bushcraft check will allow that animal to be tamed. A tamed animal will follow the character around, and perform simple, safe tasks for its master. If the character wishes to send their animal companion into combat, it must first be trained. This requires 1 month, and 200sp per hit dice of the animal.
When encountering a creature, a Bushcraft check can also be used to learn some basic information about that monster. It is up to the referee to determine if such information would be available, and the information provided may or may not be considered useful by the players.

Architecture

Why I don’t like it: There are two reasons I really don’t like the architecture skill at all. First, if my players are walking down a slight slope, I don’t see any reason not to tell them that. Nor do I see any reason not to simply tell them about any of the information this skill is meant to reveal if they ask me about it.
This gets into my problem with search a bit. From my perspective, part of the challenge of D&D is figuring out what to look for in your environment. So if a player has correctly figured out what to look for–has succeeded in one of the game’s primary challenges–I fail to see the benefit in denying them that success based on a failed die roll.
Second, I don’t like the architecture skill because it seems to imply that I should know a lot more about buildings in my game than I typically know. Do you know what culture built your dungeon? Do you know what specific method they used to build it? Because I don’t know those things.
What I’m doing with it: First off, I’m changing the name to Engineering. It’s a skill less about the art of creating a building, and more about the science of creating a structure.
A successful roll can be used to direct the swift construction of basic structures. While any player can throw together a barricade, an Engineer can throw together a wall. (Or a bridge, or seige equipment). This may be particularly useful when setting camp at night. The reverse is also true; the skill can be used to quickly assess how to demolish a structure.
As a specific consideration for my ORWA campaign, Engineering is also used to move through dilapidated buildings safely. A successful roll indicates that you reached your destination safely; whereas a failed check may indicate that you’ve fallen through the floor, had a bit of ceiling fall on you, disturbed some vermin living in the walls, or had some other misfortune befall you.

Search

Why I don’t like it: My distaste for the search skill is already long standing and well documented. The whole process of it feels deeply wrong to me. When a player asks me if a thing exists, and I tell them that it doesn’t because of a bad roll, I am betraying my position as referee. It makes me a liar, and I hate that.
I’ve read all the various ways of thinking about this, I’ve tried all the techniques, and I’ve only become more assured in the fundamental failure of this skill to provide anything but ruin to the game. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen players search for secret doors. Why, when the event is already so infrequent, would I lie to the players in the rare event that their search actually does coincide with the location of a secret door? I worked hard on the cool things behind that door, I want them to see it. Like hell am I going to let a die roll stop them when they’ve actually earned seeing all that cool stuff!
And then, of course, there are traps. “Haha, you were smart enough to ask me if there were traps, but you were stupid enough to believe me when I said no! Now you’re dead!”
Fuck that noise.
Knowing where to look for a secret door or a trap should be the challenge. Not whether or not to trust the die roll. And once a secret door or trap is located, it’s no guarantee of discovering the means by which that door can be opened, or that trap bypassed. There’s plenty of interesting challenge to be had here without muddying the waters with the hated search roll.
What I’m doing with it:Search rolls are not made with respect to a character’s ability to find something. Rather, the search roll is oracular. It is used in cases where the thing being searched for may or may not exist.
For example, a search check might be made to find clues of recent activity (or lack thereof). Success might indicate that the players find the spoor of a wandering monster. If another character came through recently, success might indicate that they left something behind which the players now find.

Search is also used when players are attempting to pursue someone by tracking signs of their passing. Each successful roll allows the players to follow 1 day worth of travel by their quarry.

Sleight of Hand

Why I don’t like it: I don’t even get this skill. It’s like…mini stealth? Really there’s no reason that any of this couldn’t be handled by the stealth skill, except for the fact that Stealth is already a very powerful skill. There’s some logic in wanting to break it up, I do get that.

Except nobody actually does any of the stuff that gets dumped into Sleight of Hand. I don’t think I’ve ever once seen a character pickpocket anybody. Maybe I need to start putting some maguffins in people’s pockets?

What I’m doing with it: Unfortunately, I have no idea how to make Sleight of Hand good. There’s no problem with allowing it to cover what it already covers: picking pockets, hiding small objects, readying a weapon stealthily, etc. To that list you could add cheating at gambling, performing simple magic tricks, and essentially any kind of stealth that is done with the hands rather than the feet.
But even thusly expanded, I actually don’t forsee people putting points into this skill. If I think of anything better, I’ll letcha know.
Edit: I originally finished writing this post on March 11th, and I haven’t really thought about it since then. But now as I’m re-reading it in preparation for it going live on the site tomorrow, I realize I came upon a good use for the Sleight of Hand skill just the other day!
Taking weapons from an enemy’s hands during combat can be accomplished with a successful sleight of hand check. If need be, the character may suffer a penalty to their check equal to the difference in hit dice between themselves and their target. However, I don’t think I’d use that penalty myself. I’m fine with my players being able to take the sword out of a big bad guy’s hand. If he’s really that big of a bad guy, he won’t be helpless without his sword. Not to mention all of the monsters who use natural weapons, and would thus be immune to having their weapons stolen.
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6 thoughts on “How I Use the Skills I Hate”

  1. Great post! I especially like how Athletics and Sleight of Hand have uses relevant in combat (making sure skills provide meaningful options in combat is way too underrated a concept).

  2. I’m surprised you never had a thief do any pick pocketing. A clever thief could use this skill to his or her advantage. And it’s always a fun part of the game, whether the attempt succeeds or not.

    I completely agree about the Search skill. Unfortunately, I am running a campaign using the Pathfinder system. I would love to transition to something “old school” but my players like Pathfinder and changing that would be difficult for some of them.

    1. Yeah, I’ve just really never had anybody do any pickpocketing. Maybe it’s my fault for never mentioning something cool in people’s pockets? I dunno.

      Hopefully by making the skill more appealing I’ll get more people using it in general, which will lead to more people using it for subtler things.

      I empathize with your Pathfinder situation. I had a similar situation when I discovered the OSR. I wanted to swtich to LotFP, but all my players wanted to stick with what they knew.

  3. I’ve always thought of the difference between Stealth and Sleight of Hand like this:

    Stealth is for the actions you take when no one’s looking at you and you want it to stay that way. It has an INT flavor of staying hidden by avoiding actions you know will draw attention.

    Sleight of Hand is for when everyone is looking at you and you want to act without anyone noticing. It has a CHA flavor because you have to appeal to your audience and distract them from your shenanigans.

    So breaking into a guarded manor, silently searching, then leaving everything exactly as it was so no one can tell you were ever there would all be stealth checks.

    Subtly extricating yourself from a ball or formal dinner where you’re the guest of honor to read the note that your cohort (disguised as waitstaff) passed you, then returning to plant incriminating evidence on a particular noble without anyone noticing would all be sleight of hand.

    My group uses both, split along those lines, pretty often.

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