I’ve written quite a bit about skill challenges on this site. I want now to discuss the foundation for skill challenges –skills themselves. I don’t care whether they are adequate, inadequate, numerous, too broad, mechanically unsound, etc. I simply care what skills are, because that’s actually of use to us and is therefore more interesting.
What I’ve got here is some different vantage points and perspectives on skills. Let’s call them lenses. Each lens provides a filter for skill usage in our game. We’ll talk about the lenses we’re going to use and then we’ll view each skill in the game under this set of lenses. Many of the lenses you’ve probably already used; others are less common but still worthy of consideration.
Skill as Mechanics
Otherwise known as “Skill As-Is”. The simplest but most important lens. Mechanics are what a skill is and what a skill lets you actually do within the framework of the game. It’s important for the obvious reasons — it lets you do stuff — but it’s even more important for what it describes. The skill description creates the sphere of activities the skill deals with and can affect. Stealth for example:
Make a Stealth check to conceal yourself from enemies, slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, and sneak up on people without being seen or heard.
That one sentence provides the foundation for our other lenses. That list of activities translates into platforms, senses, and contacts.
Skill as Platform.
You’ve probably already used this lens; 4e’s skill system does not attempt in any way to be comprehensive. This can be a strength if you put some imagination into it. The “gaps” between skills in this edition of D&D compel you to look at skills as a platform for activities that the game hasn’t necessarily defined. If you are a sailor, your skills become a platform for sailing. Your skills take the context of sailing. Nature as a platform for sailing is a tweaked version of Nature As-Is.
Using skills as platforms is all about creating happy unions between a skill and other activities that lurk in the gap between skills.
Skills as Sense
You’ve drilled and trained and learned and practiced a skill to near-mastery. What do you get besides a high score?
I have an astronomical Thievery score. If you give me a lock, I’ll pick it. If it’s a trap I’ll unlock it. Those are my basic capabilities as-is. But let’s look through the eyes of our master thief. what does he or she percieve? What information do we get when we look at the world through thieving eyes?
Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but the way you’re sitting it would be easy to lift your wallet. I’ve actually already done it. Sorry, bad habit. Here you go.
I’ve cased your entire house in a matter of seconds, reflexively, effortlessly; I can tell what sort of locks are on the door (shoddy craftsmanship by the way) and I’m already figuring out what lockpicks I’d use.
Skill as a form of super perception is a reward from the GM to players for skill mastery. It can also be used as a spice for scene description or narration. It should always be at GM’s discretion, but wise use of this lens can do some fantastic things for your story.
Skills as Social Network
(thanks to Rob Donoghue)
We’ve been dealing a lot with what you know and what you can do with a skill. Skills can also define who you know. To be trained in a skill assumes that you had to know someone to learn from; who else do you talk shop with during adventure downtime? You have to be a little more careful in how you use this lens as you risk making something like streetwise useless, but the basic premise is strong: You have a chance to know other nearby people who share in your skillset.
Viewing skills with these lenses, we acquire perspectives and tools that make our stories more interesting and more rewarding. Now that we have this perspective set, we will apply it to all the standard skills in the PHB, starting with Acrobatics and ending eventually with Thievery.