Singularity: The Grand Unified Theory of Skills and Powers

Singularity: The Grand Unified Theory of Skills and Powers

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I watched yet another Twitter war Thursday afternoon that just made my head spin. For those not hooked on Twitter, @SarahDarkmagic, @AngryDM and @azaroth42 nearly came to blows about the limits of powers and the use of skills. I wanted to get in on it, but my thoughts were entirely too voluminous to try to Tweet, so instead here I am, throwing it down on my home turf.

What is a skill? What is a power? Are they two different things? Are they the same thing? Yes.. and no.

Let’s start with tumbling. No, not the power Tumble, we’ll get to that in a second. Tumbling is the simple concept of rolling around on the battlefield to avoid being attacked. This is an action, not a skill or a power. It’s something the character does to interact with the game world. Like a chemical element, it’s the basic unit of role-playing, independent of whatever way the action is resolved mechanically.

Skills and powers exist on conceptual levels above actions; they’re the manner in which actions are mechanically resolved. Specifically, powers sit on top of actions, and skills sit on top of powers. When performing an action, you first check for a relevant power specific to the action. If the power is not present, you move up another level to the relevant skill. Skills and powers cover the same ground in different ways. Where a skill represents the character’s ability to attempt a wide variety of related actions effectively at any time, a power represents the character’s ability to execute a specific action perfectly at specific intervals. Nowhere better is this described than in skill powers. You’re trained in Arcana? You should be able to use it to gain the edge from time to time in discussion (Arcane Mutterings). The general competence gives berth for a specific expertise.

Now let’s go back to tumbling to give a more concrete example. You have a 2nd level Rogue with the Tumble power. This means that character can always tumble up to his or her speed once per encounter without a chance of failure. The power defines a narrow portion of the character’s expertise that would normally be otherwise covered by the general skill category. If the rogue wants to try tumbling again after the power is expended, can (s)he do that? Of course – the tumbling action is covered by the Acrobatics skill if a relevant Power (such as Tumble) is not available. The difference is that the skill check comes with a chance of failure and that failure should have consequences. At the end of this post, I have several example actions, including tumbling, and how they can be adjudicated using a skill check.

Before that, let’s cover some hang-ups or questions that immediately arise when thinking about this structure. What about attack rolls? You can miss an attack roll, right? Doesn’t that go against what we’ve just said here? Not at all. Look at Spinning Sweep. The Spinning Sweep power is the ability to knock an enemy prone on a hit once per encounter. It involves certain body positioning, movement, outside circumstance and weapon technique to accomplish in the game world. If you have that power, you can execute all those parts correctly once per encounter. Whether you hit, though, is not a factor. The power is the execution of the action, not the resultant effects. If a player in my game said “hey, I’d like to try Spinning Sweep again – can I make an (Athletics, Acrobatics, Intimidate) check to do it?” my answer is “hells yeah, go for it.” It’s now a stunt and I’m probably going to have you make a Moderate Lv 1 (level of the power) check to pull it off. The DC might be different if that character isn’t actually a Fighter, but the idea is still valid.

That begs the question, “if a player could keep using encounter (or utility or daily?) powers with an appropriate skill check, why not just keep doing it?” First, combat is dynamic. You’re probably not going to stay in that situation over and over again to make repeating the power worth it. Second, you have a chance of failure and consequences besides just missing on the attack. The stakes are higher. Finally, you have other powers. You picked other awesome things for your character to do. You’re going to want to use them. Never underestimate the power of “ooh shiny” on a character sheet.

Another retort I can already hear through the time/space continuum between when y’all read this and I write it is “but isn’t this against the rules?” I respond with “why do you think that?” Is it because there’s no rule for tumbling in the combat section? Perhaps you feel that the presence of a power precludes all uses of that action otherwise? I would direct you first to page 42 of the original DMG in which a 8th level rogue named Shiera swings on a chandelier and kicks an ogre into a brazier for 2d8+5 damage.  Now look at the Monk Lv 3 Encounter “Fallen Hammer in Repose” – shift 1 or move 3 (swing on the chandelier) then deal 2d10 + dex mod damage and push the target 3 (into the brazier).  An 8th level Rogue just performed a 3rd level Monk attack with a skill check and it’s in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as an example. Now am I saying you’re playing “wrong” if you don’t pull these sorts of stunts on a regular basis? Of course not. Your playstyle is your playstyle; enjoy the game the way you see fit. I simply wish to point out that not only is the intermingling of effects by powers and skills OK by rule 0 (DM’s discretion), it actually carries precedence in the official game material.

“What about magical or esoteric powers? What if my Wizard wants to make a Religion check to drop a Divine Challenge? What if the Psion wants to cast Sleep? Why bother having classes if you can just steal each other’s powers?” My answer might be surprising: “So?” As we said before, powers individually define narrow areas of expertise. Collectively, they help distinguish classes and roles from one another to provide niche protection. It’s a meta thing. However, if your players aren’t really concerned about spotlight-stealing, why not just run with it, see where it goes? 4E’s math is stable enough that, given the table of regular damage expressions, you could probably run “powerless” and have a workable game. I suspect that once the novelty wore off, the vast majority of players would return to the regular power structure anyway. Drop me a line at if you run even so much as a single encounter this way. I’d love to hear about it.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. As stated above, I leave you with some common examples of skill/power crossover to try in your own game. ‘Til next time, peeps.


Move Action, Acrobatics, Moderate DC, Level (equal to nearest foe)
Success: As per the Tumble skill, shift your speed.
Failure: Lose move action OR move speed, grant CA on opportunity attacks OR shift speed but fall prone

Move Light Object with Magic

Minor Action, Arcana (trained only), DC 20
Success: As per the Mage Hand power.
Failure: Object rolls into enemy’s square OR object breaks/takes damage OR grab similar nearby object instead

Set Small Trap

Standard Action, Dungeoneering or Nature (trained only), Hard DC, Level (equal to foe intended for trap)
Success: As per the Invoker’s Grasping Shards power, no radiant, trigger when target enters square.
Failure: Trapsetter triggers effect OR trap goes off the second time triggered instead of first OR trap slows but does not deal damage

Healing by Encouragement at a Distance

Standard Action, Insight or Diplomacy, Hard DC + 2, Level (equal to intended ally)
Success: As per the Warlord’s Inspiring Word, according to level.
Failure: Loss of action OR heal, but you grant CA (are distracted) OR heal only allows surge (those extra d6s get more important as you get higher in level)

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Ryven Cedrylle was introduced to 2nd edition D&D by his father at age 8 and has been hooked ever since. When not out somewhere with his nerd-loving wife, he spends an inordinate amount of time staring at small objects - primarily beakers, stars, books about religion and virtual gaming miniatures. Follow him on Twitter for previews of upcoming material and random nuggets of wit! There's also a guy Ryven knows who's trying to adopt a baby. Take a look at the site, see if you can help him out.