There is more to the skill system in Dungeons & Dragons than just buying ranks and rolling a d20 to see how well your character performs some action. Optimizing your skill choices, and thus to some extent your character’s effectiveness, requires that you understand a few other concepts about skills.
Skills are part of your class
When looking at a class, skill points and the range of class skills are important, because they can help offset your weaknesses or enhance strengths. A rogue who is good at Hide and Move Silently will have more opportunities for sneak attacks because she can conceal herself from opponents, depriving them of their Dexterity bonus when she strikes. A cleric can boost his turn undead ability with enough Knowledge (religion). A paladin, ranger, or druid can use Ride to take greater advantage of their special mount or animal companion. Don’t neglect the ways class abilities and skills can work together.
When it comes to skills, Intelligence is king. It not only determines how many skill points you have at each level, it also affects the most skills. Even if you don’t plan to play a braniac, you can’t afford to have your character be too dumb, especially if you are playing a class with low skill points like a fighter or cleric. When you only get 2 skill points from your class per level, losing points because of an Intelligence penalty really hurts. You can get by, but it makes things a lot harder. If you are playing a ranger, rogue, bard, barbarian, or druid, you have enough skill points from your class that you have sort of a buffer to deal with a slightly low Intelligence (say an 8 or 9, with a –1 penalty).
If your character is going to be truly, epically stupid, however, it’s actually more to your advantage to take a class with low skill points already. This is because you always get a minimum of 1 skill point per level, even if you have an Intelligence of 3 (a –4 Intelligence modifier)—for a fighter a 3 Intelligence is no different than a 9 Intelligence in terms of how many skill points you get. Sure, your Intelligence-related skills are going to suck, but let’s just say no one is going to be asking Sir Rocks-for-Brains or the cleric who defines ‘blind, unthinking faith’ for their dissertations on the fine points of Knowledge (arcana) or Craft (alchemy).
Dexterity and Charisma also affect a lot of skills, but the skills they affect are often skills that you only use if you want to. Sure, at some point everyone will need to try to Gather Information or have to Balance in a precarious position, but everyone doesn’t need to have Open Lock or be good at Move Silently or Bluff. You can hang back while the stealthy person scouts or keep your mouth shut while the negotiator is talking. You can specialize in those skills and use them well, but many characters won’t need them on a regular basis. Strength affects only a few skills, and equipment can usually help overcome a low skill modifier.
Wisdom affects a fair number of skills and Constitution only one, but in both cases the skills related to these abilities are ones that will be called on all the time. Spot and Listen are how you notice things, especially enemies trying to sneak up on you. Heal and Survival, especially at low levels, can literally affect whether a character lives or dies, especially when a cleric isn’t around or can’t reach you. Concentration, the sole Constitution-based skill, is essential for spellcasters to be able to get things done in the heat and confusion of battle. Thus, penalties in these abilities can really hurt.
Limitations on skills
With some skills, you have to have training or else you just can’t do it. Decipher Script, Knowledge, Profession, Speak Language, Tumble… if you don’t have it, you’re pretty much out of luck. If you have a good amount of skill points, it may be worth your while to buy a rank or two in a bunch of these ‘trained-only’ skills; even though you won’t be an expert in it, you will at least have a chance to figure things out. All in all, the game does reward specialization, so in general it is better to have fewer skills that you are better at. However, spreading a few points in trained-only skills may well be worth a lower score in your “better” skills because you can make checks that you could not otherwise make. This is especially true of Tumble if your character wears light or no armor.
Some skills let you roll again if you fail the first time, but some skills have consequences for failure. If you roll poorly on Climb, you may fall. If you roll poorly on Disable Device, you may set off the trap you are trying to disarm. If you roll poorly on Tumble, your enemies will be able to attack you as you try to scramble past. If you roll poorly on Use Magic Device it may backfire on you. On opposed skill checks (like Spot vs. Hide or Bluff vs. Sense Motive), the skill checks are based on the specific situation, retrying means finding a new hiding place or trying to tell a different story or talking to someone else. Skills like Knowledge—well, you either know a thing or you don’t. Other skills, though, you can do over and over.
With many skills (but not all), as long as you’re not being rushed or threatened or otherwise distracted, you can ‘take 10’—just don’t roll and assume you got an average result of 10 on the die roll, plus your modifiers. To use last column’s example, since Ashwatha has a Climb bonus of +8 and she can climb a rope with a DC of 15, then as long as she isn’t being bothered while she’s trying to do it she can just ‘take 10’ and get a Climb result of 18, automatically climbing the rope. If you have a lot of time and no distractions, you can even ‘take 20’—assuming you rolled a 20 on your skill check. However, this takes much longer (20 times as long as normal), and it also assumes that you are succeeding and failing many times throughout that time period before eventually getting that 20 result, so this option doesn’t work for skills that have consequences for failure or that don’t allow retries.
For example, if your rogue character has a +8 bonus in Open Lock, then she can ‘take 20’ on her Open Lock check (result 28) at a particular door if she has oodles of time and there are no traps on the door. If she is short on time but not being rushed, she can ‘take 10’ (result 18), which may or may not be enough to open the lock. If orcs are coming down the hallway and the door is the means of escape, she must make the roll and take the result.
There are a million things that could possibly affect a die roll in D&D, but there are a couple of main ones that affect skills. Many of these are discussed in Chapter Four (Player's Handbook, pgs. 61-86), but the main ones are summarized here.
- Equipment: Armor penalizes a lot of skills involving movement or quickness (see Table 7-6, p. 123); the skills affected by armor are noted on Table 4-2 (PHB, pg. 63). You also can often buy specialized equipment to improve your skill (see Tools and Skill Kits on table 7-8, p. 128).
- Synergy bonuses: When two skills are related, being good at one (at least 5 ranks) gives you a +2 bonus in another skill or skills (see Table 4-5 of the PHB, pg. 66). Synergy bonuses stack, so having 5 ranks in Bluff and 5 ranks in Sense Motive give you a +4 bonus to your Diplomacy check. Make use of synergies to get a little extra out of a skill when it makes sense for your character to have the related skill.
- Racial bonuses: Many races get bonuses to various skills because of sharp senses, racial affinities, traditional skills, and the like (see each race’s description).
- Circumstances: Sometimes a skill can be a little harder or easier based on visibility, having to rush the job, a slippery work surface, or any factor at all. Your DM applies these modifiers, usually without telling you what they are.
- Assistance: With some skills, you can help someone out. If someone else tries to help you perform one of these skills, and that character gets at least a 10 on their skill check, you get a +2 bonus for your check. Several people can aid one character in this way, possibly giving you more than one +2 bonus. Other skills don’t lend themselves to aiding, such as Spot, Listen, Sense Motive, Tumble, and some Knowledge checks. With these, you’re on your own.
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.