I have been using a skill system similar to that found in 4e. Although my mechanics are somewhat different, I use all the same skills plus one other that I’ve added. Recently, I’ve been questioning the need for two of 4e’s skills so I thought I’d spend some time looking at the system more closely.
In The Beginning
When skills first appeared in 2nd edition (called non-weapon proficiencies then) I was very unimpressed. Our group had been using our own skill system which was essentially a perception check and a number of athletics checks (ride, swim, etc). We used Perception for detecting traps and secret doors while the other checks were basically saving throws used when characters attempted difficult maneuvers. Our system was very simple and unobtrusive. What 2nd edition proposed was extremely bloated and a bit daunting for experienced players let alone new players rolling up their first characters. We quickly abandoned 2nd edition’s skill system in favor of our own.
Evolution of the Skill System
When 3rd edition rolled out, they had revamped the skill system. It seemed to be quite an improvement over its predecessor, but it was still bloated and overly complicated. I didn’t see any benefit great enough to warrant adding it so it also was abandoned. Looking back now, I see that v3.5 streamlined the system quite a bit. But back then I didn’t look closely enough to notice. It only took a glace to see that it was essentially the same system so I never gave it a chance.
Fourth edition presented a very different skill system. It was greatly simplified, combined a number of skills which both balanced some of the skills while also reducing the number. The implementation wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite what I wanted so I came up with my own mechanics and made some slight alterations.
Time To Re-Evaluate
Although I’m generally happy with what I have, I’ve begun to question the need for two of the skills: Endurance and Streetwise. Endurance allows you to: hold your breath, resist disease, endure temperature extremes, etc. These are things that I have trouble believing that a character can improve significantly through training. That being the case, I think a constitution ability check would be more appropriate. Streetwise (like Gather Information before it), on the other hand, works beautifully as is. It allows the character to walk into a new town and quickly determine who the important NPCs are and locate useful information. However, these are things we’ve always done through role-playing. Using a skill check to accomplish these tasks, imo, takes away an important aspect of the game.
A Little Research
I intentionally avoided looking at pathfinder while I was evaluating 4e. Now that I am done with 4e, I’ve started looking at pathfinder. I went to the PF SRD and looked up skills. At first, I was a bit disappointed. It appeared to be the same old skill system from 3rd edition.
Looking a little deeper, I quickly found that was not actually the case. Skills are still class-based, which I think is unnecessary. But other than that they have made some significant improvements. The various str-based and dex-based activities have been rolled into the Athletics and Acrobatics skills, respectively. Move Silently and Hide were combined to create the Stealth skill. These changes alone vastly improve the system and balance the usefulness of the skills (These same changes were done in 4e which is where I assume they got the inspiration). I also noticed that pathfinder decided not to adopt 4e’s Endurance and Streetwise skills. I can only guess at their reasons, but for now I’ll assume that their reasons were the same as mine and take that as a vote of confidence in my decision to remove those two skills.
Looking through the skill systems used in various editions convinced me to make one other change as well. Most of the skills from previous editions have been combined into those presented in 4e. A very few were not. Specifically, three Knowledge skills (Geography, Local, and Nobility) have been left out. I have already been including a History skill (the same as Knowledge: History in previous editions). I’ve decided to rename it Scholastics and expand it to also cover the three missing knowledge skills. I’ve always been a fan of studying to gain knowledge for its own sake and have occasionally found that knowledge to come in handy. I hope this skill ends up working out the same way for characters.