In the second half of my last article I explained why giving the rogue “weaponized ability checks” would be a bad idea. Basically you’re forcing the DM to choose between allowing all characters to attempt these actions (thereby making the rogue’s special abilities meaningless), or allowing only rogues to attempt these actions (thereby stifling player creativity). It’s kind of setting up a lose/lose situation. To understand what I mean fully you should really go ahead and read the article. I’ll wait.
Back? Alright then. Let’s continue. The latest D&D Next playtest packet (released December 17th, 2012) gave rogues a new class feature called Skill Tricks. These allow a rogue character to spend a skill die[¹] when making an ability check that uses a skill they are trained in to gain an effect above and beyond what a “normal” character could obtain. Some of these skill tricks simply make rogues better in certain areas than other characters, while others effectively prevent characters without these skill tricks from attempting these actions. Let’s look at all 23 skill tricks and I’ll explain why I think some of them are an absolute killer for player creativity. But first, I want to get something out of the way.
Fiction vs. Mechanics
If you’ve read some of my previous articles here on The Douchey DM or my posts on the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast Forum, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of narrative games. However that doesn’t mean I dislike “crunch” or mechanics. I love mechanics. I love pulling systems apart and seeing how they’re put together and what makes them tick. I love tinkering with them and seeing what effects a change in subsystem A will have on subsystems B thru Z. But I find myself growing tired of systems that attempt to cover ever single possible action or situation with a different mechanic. I don’t need a giant tome listing all the possible modifiers to a ranged attack roll due to wind speed and direction, the amount of available light, the speed of the target, the quality of my bowstring, or the material my arrow is made from. I don’t need detailed mechanics on casting a fire-based spell during a driving rainstorm while on the deck of a pitching ship in the middle of the Elemental Plane of Water. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.
Every rule system, no matter how detailed, cannot hope to cover every edge case or weird rules interaction that will arise during play. It’s simply impossible. While I do appreciate the authors of a system doing their best to explain how to handle these strange situations when they pop up, I don’t necessarily need these issues to be solved by adding more mechanics. More often than not, these edge cases can be resolved using simple common sense on the part of the players and GM. Don’t get me wrong, though. As a GM I like having mechanics to give me a basic idea of how to handle character actions in a game. But I don’t need exhaustive detail. A few task resolution mechanics that can each handle a wide variety of different situations is fine for me. The Defy Danger Move from Dungeon World is a perfect example. It can cover all sorts of dangerous situations, from dodging a dragon’s fiery breath, to maintaining your footing on an ice bridge, to resisting a giant spider’s poisonous bite. Based on the situation, the player can decide which stat to use when making the Move. Resisting poison? Use Constitution. Grabbing a ledge? Use Dexterity. Confusing a trio of Mountain Trolls with double-talk until the wizard shows up to rescue you and your Dwarven companions? Use Charisma. No need for different mechanics for the different situations.
But I also like my systems to be “even”. What I mean is that different areas of the system should have the same level of mechanical detail, otherwise they’ll feel lopsided and uneven. D&D Next is, in it’s current incarnation, an example of one of those uneven systems. Combat is very mechanically detailed, with rules dictating what actions you can attempt during a turn and their effects, what happens on a successful hit, and what it means to be frightened or restrained. Very little is left to player interpretation. Which is fine. Players usually want to know exactly what happens in situations as dangerous as combat. But then when you look at the skills section, the mechanics are very loose and open to interpretation. We’re not told (mechanically speaking) what happens on a successful Bluff attempt, or how difficult a Ride check should be after a bolt of lightening spooks your horse. Again, rules that rely largely on player interpretation are not a bad thing, I’m quite fond of them. It’s also impossible to anticipate every situation a player will attempt to use a certain skill in and the effect they’re trying to obtain. But when one aspect of the game allows for almost no player interpretation while another aspect of the same game is almost nothing but player interpretation, things feel disjointed.
So while I am going to critique the mechanical aspects of the new rogue skill tricks, it’s not because I hate mechanics. As much as I love Apocalypse World-based games because of their “use a mechanic that fits the spirit of the action” mentality, I don’t think all games should be some narrative, granola-eating, hippy-fest. And with that out of the way, lets get to the meat of the article; skill tricks.
Bag of Tricks
I’m going to try and keep these descriptions vague to hopefully avoid getting tracked down by the WotC police. Though I’m sure anyone who’s interested in this article has already signed the agreement and downloaded the playtest packet for themselves, I’ll err on the side of caution.
Charming Presence: This allows a rogue to spend a skill die to charm another creature (with the same mechanical effect as the charmed condition) on a successful check. This skill trick doesn’t step on the toes of the other characters and is one of the better examples. Any character can use their “diplomatic” social skills (Bluff or Persuade for example[²]) in an attempt to manipulate another character into doing what they want. But only a character with this skill trick can apply the charmed condition to the target. The skill trick makes the character with it better, without robbing other characters of attempting social interactions. Verdict: Good.
Climb Sheer Surfaces: This both adds the skill die result to a climb check and allows a rogue to climb faster than normal. Again, this doesn’t prevent other characters from making climb checks, it just makes a character with this particular skill trick better. Verdict: Good.
Detect Noise: This allows a rogue to spend a skill die to obtain more information when listening at a door or wall, requiring a check if any targets are actively hiding. A rogue with this skill trick also doesn’t have disadvantage when attacking an invisible creature they can hear. Another very nice example. All characters can gather information by listening at doors and walls with a successful check, a character with this skill trick just gets more accurate information than those without. Verdict: Good.
Display Deadliness: After killing a foe, a rouge with this skill trick can spend their skill die to in an attempt to intimidate nearby enemies. This one is sort of on the line. My feeling is that any character should be able to make an intimidation attempt, especially after showing how much of a bad ass they are by killing someone. However, how does a DM handle intimidation attempts by characters without this skill trick? They can’t be allowed to affect multiple foes, nor can their action give targets the frightened condition as that makes Display Deadliness worthless. It could give a single target in range the frightened condition for a turn, I suppose. Or multiple targets could be scared without having the mechanical effects of the frightened condition applied to them.
That starts to get into a messy grey area between narrative effects and mechanical effects, though. Does the narrative quality of being scared impose more or less of a penalty to a target than the mechanical effects of the actual frightened condition? If the narrative quality has more of an impact, then the frightened condition is mechanically toothless. But if the mechanical condition has more of an effect, then being scared without the frightened condition also being applied is meaningless. Verdict: Bad.
Distract: This allows a rogue to spend a skill die (as an action) to give a creature disadvantage when attacking a target other than the rogue on it’s next turn. This one really hamstrings the other characters. Giving someone disadvantage was a nice simple way the DM could make a player’s actions matter. A distracted target is less likely to succeed at what they were trying to do, hence rolling two dice and taking the worse result. Bam. Disadvantage for the win! But by making this skill trick, that’s no longer an option the DM has when a non-rogue character wants to distract someone. Allowing a character without this skill trick to spend an action and impose disadvantage on a target makes this skill trick meaningless. Why take the Distract skill trick if every other character can do the same thing without it? But what other penalty can the DM impose on the target that will make the player’s action matter? It can’t be as good as disadvantage, but it needs to be something meaningful as the player spent their action doing it. I’ve read before that disadvantage is roughly the equivalent of getting a -5 penalty to a roll. So you could give the target a -3 penalty (about half of 5) to their roll when distracted by a character without this skill trick. It works, but I was under the impression that the advantage/disadvantage mechanics were created to do away with all these little bonuses and penalties for something a bit more streamlined. Oh well. Verdict: Bad.
Feint: Effectively the opposite of Distract, this allows a rogue to spend a skill die and their action to give advantage to the next attack made against a target before the end of their next turn. This has all the problems of Distract; granting advantage was an easy and effective way to make a player’s action matter. Now the DM has to grant a bonus that is “worth less” than having advantage when a character without this skill trick attempts to trick a target into opening themselves up to attack. Again, granting a +3 bonus to the next attack against the target after a “normal” character uses a feint-type maneuver works, but we’re getting fiddly again. Verdict: Bad.
Gilded Tongue: This allows a rogue to spend their skill die and make a second Charisma check, keeping whichever result they want. Perfect. Other characters can still make Charisma checks, this just represents someone with the skill trick being especially good at it. Verdict: Good.
Great Fortitude and Iron Will: These both allow a rogue to roll their skill die and add it’s result to certain saving throw rolls (Constitution, Wisdom, Charisma, etc.). Like Gilded Tongue, this makes a character with these skill tricks better at resisting certain attacks and effects than those without. Verdict: Good.
Master Linguist: By spending a skill die and making a successful check, a rogue with this skill trick can understand the basics of any language, even if unknown. This lasts for as long as the player wishes, but prevents them from using skill dice for other reasons while this effect is active. This brings up the problem of what effect a successful Intelligence check by a character without this skill trick should achieve. A character without this skill trick can’t be allowed to understand the basics of the language for as long as they want, as the skill trick’s effect only lasts for as long as the skill die continues to be “spent”. The character with the skill trick should be better than “normal ” characters, not the same. But what should “normal” characters get then, and for how long?
Should the DM require a check every time a character without this skill trick tries to understand a phrase or idea conveyed by a creature that doesn’t speak it’s language? That seems rather excessive. Should the effect of a successful check last for 3 turns? 5 turns? 10 minutes of game time? However long the duration, it has to be less than, and less effective than what a success by a character with the skill trick would get. That’s a tough one for the DM to figure out. This skill trick would have been better if spending the skill die simply added to your check to understand languages like Climb Sheer Surfaces does, or allowed two checks like Gilded Tongue does. Verdict: Bad.
Mimic: This allows a rogue to mimic a specific creature’s voice, mannerisms, and quirks when disguised as that creature. Like Master Linguist, this effect last for as long as the die is “spent” on the effect (preventing its other uses). Also like Master Linguist, this one suffers from all the issues of what a “normal” character should get on a successful disguise check. How good should a character without the skill trick be when attempting to imitate someone? A successful check can’t allow the character to imitate another creature until they choose to stop. That’s better than the effect of the skill trick as the character is still able to use their skill die for other things. Again, this would have been better if the skill die result was added to the disguise check, or allowed two checks. Verdict: Bad.
Poison Use: A rogue with this skill trick adds the result of their skill die to the saving throw DC of any poisons they use. Great. Another skill trick that makes a character better than those without it, without causing all sorts of problems for “normal” characters. Verdict: Good.
Quick Reflexes: This allows a rogue to add their skill die to initiative checks, or to spend it to not be surprised. Another fantastic skill trick. Verdict: Good.
Read Lips: Similar to Master Linguist and Mimic, this skill trick allows a rogue to spend their skill die (and keep it spent) to read lips on a successful check. Just like the other skill tricks it’s close to, this puts characters without the skill trick in a grey area about how good their skills should be. One check to be able to read lips for an entire scene? Nope. That’s better than the skill trick’s effect. One check each time the target speaks? That seems excessive. The skill tricks that activate an effect for as long as the skill die continues to be spent really bring up issues of how frequently those checks should be required for “normal” characters. Verdict: Bad.
Superior Footwork: This allows the rogue to add their skill die result when moving, can be spent to ignore difficult terrain for a turn, or to not be knocked prone when they otherwise would be. Wonderful. It makes a character with the skill trick better than a character without, while not stomping all over the “normal” character’s abilities. Verdict: Good.
Taunt: This skill trick is almost exactly what I predicted in my last article. It allows a rogue to spend a skill die (and an action) to force a target to move towards them on a successful check. This has the same problems as Distract and Feint. A character without this skill trick can’t be allowed to goad targets into moving towards them, as that makes having the skill trick meaningless. But in my opinion, every character should be able to taunt an enemy into moving forward, regardless of what class they are. What bonus can the DM give a creative player that is still meaningful but isn’t as good as the skill trick’s effect? I suppose the target could move forward until it would put itself in harm or danger and then stop (while the skill trick causes it to move forward while ignoring everything else). Still, this one tells players “Taunting foes should only be done by rogues.” which is limiting options, not creating them. Verdict: Bad.
Trap Sense: This skill trick grants advantage on trap-caused saving throws, disadvantage on a trap’s attack rolls, and allows a rogue to reduce damage taken from a trap. Another great skill trick that makes the rogue better at dealing with traps, while not completely preventing other characters from attempting to disarm them. Verdict: Good.
Tumble: This allows a rogue to add their skill die result to their AC against opportunity attacks. Fantastic. Other characters can still tumble, but the rogue is harder to hit when doing so. Verdict: Good.
Unassuming Threat: Similar to Tumble, a rogue with this skill trick can add their skill die result to their AC when the target enemy has another hostile creature within its reach. Brilliant. Other characters can cower and pretend to be harmless, but the rogue gets an AC boost when doing so. Verdict: Good.
Unflappable: This skill trick allows a rogue to spend their skill die to cancel disadvantage in social situations. Wonderful. Where “normal” characters would be at a disadvantage, the rogue simply isn’t. But that doesn’t mean other characters can’t still go ahead and try, despite the low odds. Verdict: Good.
Use Magic Device: This allows a rogue to ignore a magic item’s requirements on a successful check. While Display Deadliness, Distract, and Feint cause problems because they are things I feel every character should be able to do, Use Magic Device is different. I’m OK with only rogues being able to “break the rules” in this specific area. Verdict: Good.
Vanish: This skill trick allows the rogue to move before attempting to hide. Other characters can still make an ability check to hide, they just can’t move before trying to do so. This makes the rogue better without preventing other classes from stealth attempts. Verdict: Good.
Vault: By spending their skill die, a rogue can add it’s result to the distance they jump. Like other skill tricks that add the skill die’s result to the effect (like Climb Sheer Surfaces, Great Fortitude, and Poison Use) this is a great mechanic. A character with this skill trick can jump farther and higher than other characters, while not making their attempts useless. Verdict: Good.
So out of the 23 new skill tricks, only six of them cause problems. That’s pretty good, and actually a whole lot better than I expected when I started writing this article. Heh. For the ones that are a problem, there are rather easy way to fix them.
- Allow a character with Display Deadliness to keep their skill die “spent” (like Read Lips, Master Linguist and Mimic) to maintain their foe’s frightened condition from turn to turn. This would allows other character to apply the frightened condition to foes on a successful intimidation attempt, while allowing the rogue to be much better at it.
- Distract and Feint can be fixed in a similar way; allow the rogue to keep their skill dice “spent” to maintain their target’s combat disadvantage or their ally’s combat advantage.
- Master Linguist, Mimic, and Read Lips can be fixed several ways. The quickest way is to have the skill trick allow the rogue to roll two dice on a check and keep whichever result they want, like Gilded Tongue. Or, let the rogue spend their skill die to cancel any disadvantage they might have on the check, like Unflappable. Another way to fix these skill tricks though, is to establish what a character without the skill tricks would get with a successful check. That would provide us with a baseline so we could allow the skill trick to be better, while still detailing what “normal” characters could do.
There you go. I don’t claim to be a designer, even an amateur one. But the fact that a) these issues exist in the rules and b) that I was able to fix them leads me to believe that the designers of D&D Next just aren’t looking at the overall effect small mechanical changes can have on the game as a whole. And that worries me.
[¹] In case you haven’t read the latest playtest packet, the static bonus granted from being trained in a specific skill is gone. Now characters have a skill die instead, that increases from a d4 at 1st level to a d12 at 20th level. Whenever you make a check using a skill you’re trained in, you roll your skill die and add it to the check result. It’s kinda cool, but it just adds yet another random element to the game, which I’m not a fan of.
[²] Interestingly enough, Diplomacy is absent from the skill list now. The “social interaction” skills are now only Bluff, Intimidate, and Persuade, with Disguise, Gather Rumors, and Perform filling that role in certain situations. I wonder why they took out Diplomacy?