Guidance – Design 101: Class Skills Then And Now

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about class skills and how they’ve changed from D&D 3.5 into Pathfinder.

Class skills. They’re a core part of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 as well as the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. That being said class skills had a bit of an overhaul in 3.5 compared to their implementation in Pathfinder. Since I’m a big fan of taking a look at subsystems and talking about the way stuff changes, I decided that I am going to do a comparison of 3.5 class skills vs. Pathfinder class skills.

You still with me? Awesome, let’s get started!

What’s A Class Skill?

Before we begin, let’s answer the question, “What’s a class skill?” In both Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 a class skill is a skill that is designated as being associated with a particular player class. Every core, base, hybrid, and prestige class in the game is associated with one or more skills, which together compromises the class’s skill list.

As a general rule, the list of skills in the game are pretty similar between the two games. The biggest exception is that Pathfinder tends to have fewer skills than 3.5 on account of Pathfinder merging several skills together. For instance, in Pathfinder the Tumble and Jump skills were merged into Acrobatics while Search and Spot were merged together into Perception.

Class skills also function differently between the two systems in the sense that they do different things. In 3.5, class skills denoted “optimal” skill choices for each class in the sense that using skill ranks from a class to purchase ranks in skills that weren’t associated with said class is more difficult. For example, if a 3.5 wizard wanted to take skill ranks in Hide, he would need to spend 2 skill “points” per for every skill “rank” that he wanted in Stealth. In contrast, Hide was a rogue class skill, so the rogue could purchase ranks in Stealth at a one-to-one rate. Here’s an example

  • Wizard: Rank 1 Stealth (2 points), Rank 2 Stealth (4 points), Rank 3 Stealth (6 points)
  • Rogue: Rank 1 Stealth (1 point), Rank 2 Stealth (2 points), Rank 3 Stealth (3 points).

Now, how did multiclassing work in this system? Well, class skills and skill points were tied to class, so if you were a wizard who wanted to purchase ranks in Stealth it didn’t matter whether or not you had a rogue level; Hide was NEVER a wizard skill so you ALWAYS spent double skill points for ranks if you were spending skill points gained from the wizard class.

In Pathfinder, the system works differently. In 3.5, class skill were unquestionably tied to specific classes. When you take levels in a class, that class’s class skills are added to your character’s “list” of class skills, and from there out the game doesn’t care where your skill ranks come from anymore. You got a rank in a class skill? You get a +3 bonus on checks made with that skill. In short, Pathfinder’s rule is simpler and requires significantly less bookwork than 3.5’s skill system does. That being said, 3.5 has one major advantage over Pathfinder in terms of its skill system that many people don’t always think about—3.5 was a LOT better at allowing for characters who “dipped” into class skills.

The 3.5 Class Skill System

So 3.5 had this system that some people thought was pretty weird—quadruple skill ranks at 1st level. In D&D 3.5, the first time you gained a level (aka character level 1st), your skill ranks from that class were quadrupled. This includes the bonus skill ranks that you got at 1st level for having a high Intelligence, by the way. And if you ever thought that the +3 bonus to skills from Pathfinder’s class skill system was arbitrary, that number actually comes from 3.5—in D&D 3.5, the maximum number of skill ranks that you could have in a skill was equal to your character level + 3. This is why you often see significantly higher skill rank requirements in older 3.5 Pathfinder Prestige Classes, like the Chevalier. As a result, if you were a 1st level character with a +3 ability score modifier who put max ranks in a skill at Level 1, you’d have a comparable skill bonus to what a Level 1 Pathfinder character would have with the same ability scores (from 4 ranks and a +3 ability modifier compared to 1 rank, a +3 ability score modifier, and a class skill bonus).

That said, the 3.5 skill system also had another aspect—cross-class skills. This is the system I described earlier; if a skill wasn’t on your 3.5 class’s list of class skills, then it was considered a cross-class skill. Investing in a cross-class skill came with severe consequences in 3.5. Specifically, the maximum number of skill ranks that you could invest in the skill was cut in half and it cost 2 skill points to purchase 1 skill rank, as I mentioned earlier.

Now, depending upon where you stand Pathfinder’s skill system likely sounds unquestionably better, right? Well there IS one case where the old 3.5 skill system beats out the Pathfinder system—trained skills.

Trained Skills and Having Lots of Points

If you don’t know (or can’t remember) what trained skills are, the idea is simple—no matter how physically or mentally capable you might be, there are some things that you simply will not be able to do without proper training. This is the basic idea behind trained skills, and the system largely exists in Pathfinder as it did in 3.5. Except…it doesn’t. Remember, in 3.5 you got QUADRUPLE skill ranks at 1st level. This means that instead of maxing out a small number of skills, you could put a few ranks in a large number of skills, which was hugely advantageous when you wanted to be trained (aka able to attempt checks in) in a wide array of skills. This is something that Pathfinder occasionally tries to replicate with abilities like the investigator’s keen recollection class feature or the bard’s jack-of-all-trades, but it used to be a core strategy in character building and it simply doesn’t exist anymore.

And frankly, I’m not sure if there’s even a WAY for this to exist anymore. I could see a system where you trade a class skill for 3 extra skill ranks at 1st level that had to be spent in skills that weren’t on your list of class skills, but what happens if you multiclassed? There are surely things that you could do to make a system like this work, but after a certain point one must wonder if its worth the effort.

So, to recap—Pathfinder’s base skill system is awesome. It is streamlined, simpler, and actually makes multiclassing for better skill coverage desirable. It does, however, lose out on the ability to get trained skill coverage. Overall I’m glad that we have the current system, but I feel that it’s always important to think about where we’ve been and what we lost in the transition.

So, what do you think? Do you prefer Pathfinder’s skill system or 3.5’s skill system? Why? If you wanted to design a way for Pathfinder players to have better trained skill coverage, how would you do it? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you back next time for another all-new installment of Guidance! Take care.

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

PS. Wednesday is the last day for my Dynastic Races Compendium Kickstarter. I would love if you’d check it out and maybe pledge a few dollars!

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:

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  1. Nate Wright Reply to Nate

    Honestly, I think Pathfinder wins out due to skill condensing. Imagine rolling a rogue: You’d want Hide and Move Silently for sneaking around, Disable Device and Open Lock because you’re most likely the trap/lockpick guy, Spot and Listen if you want to avoid ambushes, and maybe Search for the same reasons. Bam! Seven out of your eight skills and you’re only filling the ‘core’ things.

    Now what do you do? Knowledge Local to cover that base for the party? Bluff for feinting? Diplomacy to be the face? Olidammara help you if you want to take skills for the express purpose of character flavor. Heck, even under Pathfinder’s generous spread, my Kitsune Rogue still struggles to cover all his bases.

    As for the way 3.5 handles skill points? Honestly, I could take it or leave it. I’ve grown accustomed to how PF allows for one-point-wonders, but I could see the benefit of spreading for trained use and Aid Another. Still, I think it’s too punishing for multiclassing and if I recall correctly you don’t get retroactive points for boosting Intelligence. Boo.

  2. Joe Collins Reply to Joe

    Loved the article! Loved the well-thought-out comparisons between editions. And I would love any future articles in this vein.
    I, too, prefer the Pathfinder style, and this is coming from someone who loved kit-bashed multi-classing and started every character with a class that gave at least 6 skill points.

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