Houserule - Skills

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Skill Picker


The Skills system in D&D 4E limits characters too much. Your class determines what skills you have available, and your attributes determine which ones you’ll be good at. Characters are thus railroaded into their skill selection and cannot use this system to differentiate themselves, which makes for anemic characters. Since the classes determine which skills are chosen, the DM is constrained as to which ones he can require. Add to this the total lack of equality between skills (Perception is much, much more useful than Athletics) and you have a right mess.

The central goal of this revamped skill system is to give everyone more options, and make those options better and more interesting.

The basic idea is stolen from White Wolf: in any given roll you pair an attribute and a skill, add their bonuses, and roll with that combined bonus.

Think of this as a “what plus a how”:

  • The skill used determines what you’re interacting with.
  • The attribute used determines how you’re interacting with it.
  • Your RP determines how those work together toward the end you desire.

Say you want to climb a tree. A cliff is the “what”, and it’s natural. Climbing is the “how”, and it involves strength. So combine Nature with STR and up you go. The chart below lists lots of combinations.

This allows any class to be good at most any thing. High INT is useful for knowing things about sports as well as magic; high WIS is useful for understanding people and mechanical systems.

Skill List

The skill list is streamlined to make the combinations work better. See the examples to see how.

Physique Dealing with your own body and making it do what you want (replaces Acrobatics/Athletics/Endurance)
Arcana Dealing with magic stuff
Presentation Dealing with how others see you in a social setting (replaces Bluff, Diplomacy)
Mechanics Dealing with man-made non-magical stuff (replaces Dungeoneering, Thievery)
Heal Dealing with live bodies
History Dealing with what has happened in the world
Insight Dealing with other people in a social setting (replaces Insight, Intimidate)
Nature Dealing with the natural world
Religion Dealing with Gods and their followers
Tactics Dealing with a group in a dangerous situation (Replaces Stealth)
Streetwise Dealing with urban areas and large anonymous groups of people
*Note* Perception has been removed as a skill. If you want to notice things of a specific type (magical, natural, etc) use a corresponding skill.


The Skills can be broken down into two broad categories: those that deal with “things” and those that deal with “people”. Within those categories the skills gradiate on different criteria; “things” skills are differentiated depending on the origin of the “thing” in question, whereas “people” skills are differentiated by the number of people you’re dealing with at any given time.

Skills in to each other and the player

Note the directions of the arrows in this diagram: they point toward the thing being affected by the skill in the most common case. Mechanics usually affects the machine in question. Insight affects the user, whereas Presentation affects others. Nature and some others can be used either to affect the natural world or to control how it affects you. There are always exceptions– Mechanics + INT will let your character know how a machine works, without actually operating it– and clever players should find them.


If something gives you training in a specific skill, you instead get training in whichever skill you want that “replaces” the core skill. If you already have that skill, train in any skill you like.

If you have a something that requires training in a specific skill, it instead requires training in whichever skill you want that “replaces” the core skill.

If something gives you a bonus in a specific skill, you instead get a bonus whenever you make a skill check and can convince the DM that the bonus applies. Your lockpick set isn’t useful for palming, but it is useful for small mechanical objects. Talk to the DM to decide wording and guidance for when a bonus is useful.


Aiding in this system becomes a simple matter of succeeding on any role you can convince the DM will help, which provides a +2 bonus to the “main” roll. If you can identify plantlife that is good cover, it can aid tactics. If you can recall a parable about the temple you’re in, it might aid in disarming the traps. Good players will be able to roleplay their way into lots of aid rolls, and good DMs should be lenient in accepting them. Rolls that fill will give a small penalty. Advising your allies of a tale you heard about flame jets in the Ice queens Artic Ice Temple aren’t very helpful.

Further, if the in-game rationales work together, the bonuses should stack: if your plant-covered approach is during the gnoll’s daily religious ritual, your main roll gets a +4. DMs should take this into account when setting DCs.

Making It Interesting

Using these rules with the revised Skill Challenge system makes for interesting non-combat encounters where the PCs have many, many paths to victory. Keith Baker of Eberron fame has a good article on making the Skill Challenge system works that boils down to:

  1. Roleplay what you’re trying to do, then make a roll to see how effective you are
  2. Allow any roll, but make some more useful than others
    1. Some monsters are vulnerable to fire and some are immune: not every tactic works everywhere
  3. Count Critical Successes as two Successful Rolls
  4. Smart RP or good rolls will open up new opportunities
  5. Encourage aid rolls, utility powers, and feat usage; be liberal in what you accept

The folks over at At-Will have a great series on making them fun, which I’ll summarize as:

  1. Narrate
  2. Make it about what the PCs are doing, not what they’re rolling
  3. Only use them when failure is an option

At-Will also has a series on designing them, which basically says:

  1. Vary the skills
  2. Make different skills have different consequences
  3. Not every success contributes to the total; some just give bonuses or open up new opportunities

I’d also draw special attention to At-Will’s All in the Cards, which describes an interesting way to run a complicated set-up for a single big roll, by using a skill challenge to model Aiding.

Skill Challenges

These are exactly as they appear in the revised DMG. The PCs need to roll X successes before 3 failures. X is dependent on how hard the challenge is:

Complexity Successes Needed Before This Many Failures
1 4 3
2 6 3
3 8 3
4 10 3
5 12 3 Same as a combat encounter

How hard are those successes to get? Well, that depends on the PCs level:

Level Easy Moderate Hard
1-3 5 10 15
4-6 7 12 17
7-9 8 14 19
10-12 10 16 21
13-15 11 18 23
16-18 13 20 25
19-21 15 22 27
22-24 16 24 29
25-27 17 26 31
28-30 19 28 33

And remember that some routes may be easier than others.


This system came about after reading a lot:

  • At-Will has a good big-think article about how skills play on multiple levels, from mechanics to social networks.
  • Keith Baker of Eberron fame has a nice defense of the Skill Challenge system that shows how to make it work with real roleplay.
  • Mike Mearls wrote a good article on the history of skills in D&D and their future; it spawned a huge forum thread that provided some good ideas.

Example Combinations

These are just some examples; clever PCs will come up with many more. The DM should be liberal in what he accepts, but do not be afraid to assign high DCs for unlikely tactics.

Physique (replaces Acrobatics/Athletics/Endurance)
Dealing with your own body and making it do what you want
STR jump a long way (old Athletics)
CON run a long time (old Endurance)
DEX land a double backflip (old Acrobatics)
WIS recognize a disease you have
CHA sex appeal; network with circuses, laborers, etc
Dealing with magic stuff
DEX perform a ritual
INT monster knowledge; rune reading
WIS recognize an artifact; notice a magic item/area/etc
CHA network with extraplanar beings, scholars, etc
Presentation (replaces Bluff, Diplomacy)
Dealing with how others see you you in a social setting
STR cow someone (old Intimidate)
CON fake feats of endurance (lame?)
DEX palm an item
INT identify a lie; lie to someone logically (the old Bluff)
WIS lie to someone emotionally (the old Bluff)
CHA lie to someone via charm (the old Bluff); schmooze someone (the old Diplomacy); perform in front of a group; network with bards
Mechanics (replaces Dungeoneering, Thievery)
Dealing with man-made non-magical stuff
STR build a device
CON Operate a device
DEX operate a device; pick a lock; steal something
INT recognize makes and models
WIS recognize the purpose behind something
CHA network with laborers, handymen, etc
Dealing with live bodies
CON heal thyself
INT recognize a disease
WIS heal someone (the old Heal)
CHA bedside manner; network with medical professionals
Dealing with what has happened in the world
INT know details of the past (the old history)
WIS know why the past happened
CHA know the minds of those from the past; network with scholars
Insight (replaces Insight, Intimidate)
Dealing with other people in a social setting
STR cow someone (the old Intimidate)
INT understand someone’s motivations
WIS read someone (the old Insight)
CHA know someone’s desires
Dealing with the natural world
STR build shelter
CON trudge through the wilderness
DEX climb a cliff
INT recognize a plant
WIS know how to use a plant
CHA deal with animals: ride, tame, etc
Dealing with Gods and their followers
CON fast
DEX perform a ritual
INT recognize symbols; know history
WIS quote; sympathize
CHA lead a worship service; network with priests, followers
Tactics (Replaces Stealth)
Dealing with a group in a dangerous situation
STR muscle into a good position
DEX move silently (the old Stealth)
INT create a plan
WIS observe an enemy plan
CHA Inspire others; plan an advertising campaign
Dealing with urban areas and large anonymous groups of people
STR interrogate
CON stakeout
DEX shadow someone
INT know a city’s layout and character
WIS find hidden details and clues
CHA know and talk to contacts

Houserule - Skills

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