Quite simply, skills are something that your character knows how to do. If character class represents your job, your skills are the specific talents and abilities that you have built up to help you do that job. There is a difference between talent and skill, your natural endowments and the things you have practiced.
In D&D, this is represented by your ability scores being your natural talents (which you can improve, though at a slow rate) and your skills being the things you have practiced and learned. Feats, which we’ll talk about an upcoming column, are a little of both. Clearly the two can go together—someone who is naturally very bright will be better able to take advantage of Knowledge skills while someone with a great personality will be good at bluffing people.
Still, practice and effort can go a long way toward compensating for and even overcoming natural disadvantages; a person who develops the skill of watching a person’s reactions and listening intently for clues will eventually do better at Sense Motive than someone who only has great instincts and a natural intuition for people.
Some skills you learn specifically to prepare for the job or through working there, and others are things that you learn on your own time. It’s easier to practice and improve skills that are closely related to your job, partly because they are obviously of central importance to you in doing your job well, partly because job-relevant skills are often related to each other (so learning about one helps you learn about another), and partly because of a simple process of elimination—because you have to (or want to) spend a lot of time honing your job-related skills, you just don’t have as much time available to work on other things. You might really want to learn Spanish, but you spend so much time working on your C++ programming skills for your tech job that you just never get past adios amigo. Some skills you can try to do even if you have no formal training. Hey, anyone can try to tell a lie; they just won’t be as good at it as someone who has practiced their bluffing skills. With some skills, though, you either know it or you don’t. If you don’t know how to read Japanese or rewire a toaster or how to train a horse or you’ve never studied art history, there’s no faking it, other than resorting to your Bluff skill! All of these are very common-sense concepts for how people acquire, maintain, and improve their skills, and all of them are represented in various ways in the skill system in D&D.
The Basics of Skill Use
Making a skill check uses the basic d20 mechanic: roll 1d20 and add a bonus or penalty related to the skill. At the simplest level, this bonus is the sum of your ‘ranks’ in that skill and the bonus for the ability score tied to that skill. If Ashwatha has a Strength of 18 (a +4 bonus) and 4 ranks in the Climb skill, she rolls 1d20 and adds 8 to see how well she climbs. Usually you are rolling against a set Difficulty Class (DC). Climbing a rope with a wall to brace against is DC 5, so Ashwatha automatically succeeds. If she tried to climb a free-hanging rope without a wall to brace against, that is DC 15, so she would need to roll a 7 or better (7+8=15) to make it. There are other things that can modify skill checks, but these will be treated in the next column.
Sometimes you have two skills that work against each other; you are trying to sneak past the guard, so you roll a Move Silently check and she rolls a Listen check. In this kind of ‘opposed roll’ the higher roll wins (the higher modifier wins in the case of a tie).
Improving Skills: Buying Skill Ranks
To ‘buy’ ranks in a skill, you spend skill points. Characters get skill points based on their class plus their Intelligence modifier (Table 4-1 of the Player's Handbook, pg. 62). You also get four times the normal number of skill points when you are starting out as a 1st level character. This represents a sort of ‘basic training’ or the preparation that you did while working up to being a professional adventurer in whatever your chosen class may be. You only get this skill point bonus at the beginning of your career. If you ever multiclass, taking the 1st level in a class other than what you started out in, you don’t get these extra skill points. Hey, changing careers midstream is hard to do! You don’t have the luxury of a lot of preparation. You have to make your plans while you’re still in your first career.
Some skills are ‘class skills’ for the class you have chosen, which means that buying one rank costs one skill point. Other skills are cross-class skills, which means that spending one skill point gets you only half a rank. The concept of class skill has two different applications. First, when buying skills you can only treat skills as class skills if they are on the class skill list for the class you have just chosen for this level. Second, you can’t just spend all your skill points in one skill. There’s a limit to how much you can really prepare for anything before you actually get out there and start working in your career. There is a limit on how many ranks you can have in a skill equal to three plus your character’s level (adding together your levels in all classes if you have more than one), or half that total if the skill is not a ‘class skill’ for at least one of your classes (see Table 3-2 of the PHB, pg. 22). In this case, if a skill is a class skill for any class that your character has, then you can have (character level +3) ranks in it, even if it is not a class skill for the class you have just selected at your newest level. For skills that are not class skills for any of your classes, you can only have half the total ranks of a class skill.
Example: Ashwatha is a 1st level barbarian who spends 4 skill points to buy 4 ranks of Listen. At 2nd level, Ashwatha multiclasses and becomes a 1st level fighter. Listen is not a class skill for fighters, so if she wants to buy more ranks at her fighter level they will cost double. Her maximum ranks in Listen, since it is on the skill list for one of her classes, is 5 (3 plus her total character level of 2). She spends 2 skill points to buy 1 rank of Listen, raising it to 5 ranks. If she had wanted to buy ranks in Move Silently, which is not a class skill for fighters or barbarians, skill ranks would still have cost double, and she could have a maximum of 2 ½ ranks in that skill.
Next time, we’ll look a little more deeply at some of the ins and outs of the skill system.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.