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 skills.
Remember way back when in 2014 when I did my Master Spy build? That build that was so incredibly awesome at Bluff, Disguise, and Stealth that it was virtually impossible to detect her?
One comment that I got frequently in response to that build was, “Oh, this is EXACTLY the type of build that I wouldn’t allow at my table. Its too disruptive.” Really, so me blowing up your encounters with all the force of a wizard-sized atomic bomb or me warping reality across your campaign setting to play god with your intellectual property is to be expected, but me maximizing my chances to succeed at a few skill checks is disruptive? Really?
A chat about skills has been on my lineup for a while, but I needed to see the investigator class before I actually commented on it. But before I delve into that topic, let’s talk about what players find disruptive about skills. Or rather, certain skills.
Anecdote: The Library of the Lion
How many of you PFS players have heard of a scenario called Library of the Lion? This scenario perfectly captures the biggest problem with skills in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. To summarize the premise, the nation of Taldor has been altering its own history for generations in order to serve one political agenda or another, but rumors abound of a number of hidden facilities within Taldor that possess the nation’s undistorted past. The libraries are secret and only available to members of the notorious Lion Blades, Taldor’s special ops unit. After learning of the presence of such a library in Oppara, the Pathfinder Society sends players to the city in order to infiltrate the library and discover antimagic maneuvers and tactics that the Mendevian crusaders might be able to employ against the ever-expanding taint of the Worldwound.
Before I go any further, I want to mention something important about Library of the Lion: this is a story that players either love or hate, especially when you read the 42 reviews that the scenario has on Paizo’s web page. The reason for this is very simple: players who love Library of Lion probably played skill-focused characters or had such a character at their table while players who dislike the scenario either had no such characters at their table, or were forced to count the ceiling tiles in the local game store despite having such a character at their table because that player effectively got to have all the “fun” in the scenario.
Without spoiling too much, Library of the Lion focuses almost exclusively on skills. Specifically, Knowledge and Perception skills. Most characters have Perception, but few have Knowledge (history) or Knowledge (local), and those three are real big players in this scenario. The problem is that there are few scenarios that are built like Library of the Lion, so most PFS players come to the table expecting to get to bash some skulls in, but the Adventure is set up in a way that not only condones violence, but is also specifically set up so that your mission is jeopardized if you get into too many engagements and none of those special rules are required to be explained to you. As far as I know, no other scenario was ever build quite like Library of the Lion because of one simple fact: the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is not built to truly allow all players to be proficient in skills.
Skills: The Final Frontier in Class Imbalance
I don’t have much to say here that I haven’t already said in my Skill-Less in Seattle article, but if my Master Spy build (or any other skill focused build) is truly disruptive, it isn’t because trying to make a Perception check to spot a high-Stealth character is impossible or because it isn’t fun to have a super spy in the party. Both of those aren’t true. Rather, skills are often seen as disruptive because the imbalance between skill classes and non-skill classes is jarring at best.
Take, for example, a fighter. Your everyday average fighter is very good at martial tricks. He has more feats than anyone, which allows him to use his actions in combat in cool and exciting ways. Now, as I’ve shown in a previous article, the fighter deals less damage than the paladin in certain situations, but the fighter is able to hold his own in a party with the paladin because the fighter has different areas he shines in. The paladin out damages the fighter by a lot, but he can only do it several times per day, typically against the boss encounter. The fighter has more special tricks and martial abilities than the paladin, and he’s able to grab combinations of feats that the paladin won’t see until 10th or 12th level relatively quickly. For the paladins, feats aren’t a particularly limited resource. Even characters that aren’t good at martial combat are still effective in combat. For instance, you won’t see wizards duking it out hand to hand, but their ability to magically dominate the battlefield is combat proficiency at its best. (As I learned all-too-well in a different Pathfinder Society that I played in a few weeks ago.) Being effective in combat can mean many different things, but being effective outside of combat usually boils down to one thing: skills.
Oh, sure, some non-skill out of combat abilities exist, such as the gunslinger’s utility shot deed or the skald’s song of marching and countless pages of spells provide out of combat support. But really, when we’re talking about out of combat challenges, what are we usually talking about: marching to and fro, or some type of skill challenge? Usually its skills, and skills have the most heavily restricted access of any system in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This happens at both ends of the totem pole: for the low skill rank classes, they often feel as though they can’t contribute in any meaningful way to the skill-based encounters because they have so few skills at their disposal. In order to feel more meaningful, these characters seek to maximize their bang for their rank, so to speak, so they often place their skill ranks in skills that will yield the highest bonus. This often translates into classes only placing skill ranks into their class skills. For example, why would a fighter want to invest in Diplomacy when its not a class skill for him? Wouldn’t he rather grab Intimidate and get that extra +3 bonus from Intimidate being a class skill?
Now, this isn’t something that’s required by the system by any means. There’s nothing forcing the fighter to place that rank into Intimidate. Its 100% consumerism psychology, effectively creating the illusion of choice. This is the same thing that happens with people looking to eat on a tight budget. In the long run, eating healthy is more beneficial to your health just as a fighter grabbing Disable Device might be more helpful to his party dynamic, but despite what you KNOW is helpful, you do what is unhelpful anyway, whether that’s buying cheap junk food or placing your skill ranks into Intimidate, because you know that you need to be conservative. You’re not Moneybags McRogue who can afford to spend a skill rank every level in something esoteric like Profession (Money Launderer); you only have a few of those ranks a level to invest into stuff. And the ultimate outcome of this very logical mindset is that Joe McAverage is forced to watch with relative impatience as Moneybags gets to run around and have entire stealthy side adventures by himself because he can afford to invest the necessary ranks in Stealth (and maybe in Bluff too, since creating a diversion to hide is a Bluff check).
Library of the Lion, Part 2
Without giving away any spoilers from the scenario, I want to go back to Library of the Lion to further emphasize my point. Our party consisted of my buddy, Justin, who is optimized for Knowledge skills, a rogue, my swashbuckler, and a paladin. When we infiltrated the Library of the Lion, my friend, myself, and the rogue had a blast. My swashbuckler is Sovereign Court, so he has a lot of those stealthy, infiltration-style skills despite only having 5 ranks per level. The rogue was our go-to locksmith and helped a lot in finding the books. And the bard? My buddy optimized him to be a Knowledge skill master, making him an elf with Breadth of Experience and everything. Together, the three of us had a blast going through the library as covert operatives would. It was sort of funny, because when one veteran GM came and asked our GM how “poorly” we were doing, our GM replied with a mix of exasperation and relief that our party had “a librarian who was decimating the place.” (This is true; Justin has the librarian trait and belongs to the Dark Achieve as a result.) Because of Justin, we sort of cruise controlled throughout the scenario, finding books and getting info. The rogue and I helped out quite a bit in finding stuff with Perception or learning more with Knowledge (local). But the paladin? The paladin sat there and did nothing but DC 10 aid another checks when he could. The player was incredibly bored as a result of this, and when we ran into a woman with whom we could talk, the paladin player’s first reaction was to roleplay as hostilely as possible with her because he (the player) was ITCHING for a fight. Itching for it like you couldn’t believe. It’s a miracle that we convinced the player to do nothing for a little bit longer, but we did. And honestly, I felt bad about every second of it. It would be like designing a scenario entirely within a massive antimagic field; he literally had nothing to do because all he had were three skill points per level. (Two from being a paladin, one from being a human.)
Why Are Skill Scarce?
I don’t have an answer for this one, folks. I’m honestly posing this as a question here: why are skill ranks so scarce in Pathfinder? They weren’t improved to more player-friendly levels like Hit Dice were in the 3.5 to Pathfinder transition and there’s no feat to give you more of them like you can obtain with hit points. Literally the only way to get more skill ranks is to pick them up as your favored class bonus or have a really high Intelligence score. I’ve heard that as the reason why skill ranks are so difficult to obtain, that it makes Intelligence a more important stat. My counterargument would be that the same thing could be accomplished by making skills more important to the game itself; if skill challenges were a thing and every player were forced to pull his or her own weight with skills,
I’ve heard plenty of theories as to why skill points are so scarce in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. They are as follows:
- Makes Players Value Intelligence. I would argue that a restricted skill point system does the opposite of this, however. Because characters with a lot of skill ranks often have a lot of class skills, too, for the average fighter is easier to keep Intelligence at a 10 (possibly an 8 if said fighter is human) and just let the skill-heavy character do his thing. This is compounded by the fact that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game doesn’t really have a cooperative “skill challenge” system; all skills are resolved in a single check (success or failure) for the most part, and are just as often a one-and-done deal. You succeed and you pass, or you fail and something bad happens, but you often don’t have to (or don’t have the opportunity to) try again. So why budget your ability scores on Intelligence when there’s not much incentive for most characters to do so.
- Empowers Humans: I could actually see this one, since character races are stacked to make human an exceptionally good bang for its buck. While I don’t think that this is necessarily to make roleplaying games humanocentric, it certainly helps. Rather, I think the original designers of the human character race figured that everyone playing their game could identify with humans, and therefore humans were sure to be a popular race. Making humans a strong choice, therefore, was a priority. With that said, would humans become any weaker a race if everyone got more skill points? Personally, I don’t think so. Skilled is already one of the most commonly traded racial traits for the human’s alternate racial traits (not that human has many to choose from anyway), and the bonus feat is the big reason that most players go human. The skill ranks are usually just an afterthought.
- Gives the Rogue a Niche: I’ve talked extensively about the rogue and its love-hate relationship with skill ranks in Pathfinder, so I won’t rehash myself. As early as the Core Rulebook, one could make a very effective argument that versatile performance made the bard better at skills than the rogue, and as the game as evolved the alchemist, inquisitor, and investigator all took the idea of a skill focused character class and essentially did it better than the rogue. The problem isn’t that these new classes are too powerful, is that rogue talents do an awfully poor job of making the rogue better at her skills in ways that matter. With Pathfinder Unchained set to give the rogue a few much needed buffs, including a reworking of rogue talents as well as new combat abilities, the rogue may very well end up shaping up to the point that it can hold its own against the likes of the bard, skald, slayer, inquisitor, and investigator. Which would also totally debunk the idea that having lots of skill ranks is the rogue’s niche.
I think what I’d like to do is play around with a house rule that states that all character classes get four additional skill points and see how that disrupts the current game (or not). I wonder if I’d see different types of skill builds for fighters or cavaliers if they had a bit more leeway in what skills that chose to select. I also wonder if giving the rogue 12 skill ranks per level + Int is really the end-all that people claim that it might be. Again, I’m skeptical, and I might not have a good group to test this with for a while, but its something that I would like to do. Eventually.
A Word from Pathfinder’s Sponsor
Since I didn’t have the answer to “Why are Skill Ranks scarce,” I posed the question to someone with a LOT of experience who might know the answer better than I. That person is none other than Sean K. Reynolds, one of Pathfinder’s designers up until April of last year, and veteran of both TSR (Dungeons and Dragon’s original owner) and Wizards of the Coast. Apparently my question prompted an entire blog on how skills are going to work in his upcoming product, the Five Moons RPG. I’m only going to quote the relevant parts to my own topic, but you can read Sean’s entire blog post here.
Then I got to thinking about why class skills are in the game.
In 3E, they were prebuilt into your class, based on the stereotypical example of what that class is supposed to do or be. So fighters were good at athletic things, wizards were good at magic and knowledge, rogues were good at lockpicking and sneaking, and so on. And the difference between class skills and crossclass skills was that crossclass skills cost more points to level up. But in 3E, you got x4 skill points at level 1, so had a lot of points to play with, and you could throw a few spare points into unusual/crossclass skills, even if you only got 1/2 value for it. And you could buy up to your level + 3 in a skill, so a 1st-level character could have a +4 (plus ability mod) in a skill.
In PF, they dropped the “crossclass skills cost double” setup, which meant investing in crossclass skills was a lot more effective. And they created the “if you have a least 1 rank in a class skill, you get a +3 on rolls with that skill” rule. So you could still be a 1st-level character with a +4 (plus ability mod) in a skill. But PF also reduced the number of skill ranks you got (only x1 at 1st level instead of x4), so you couldn’t build a character who had a little bit of training in a lot of skills.
[For example, a 3E fighter started with 2 x 4 = 8 skill points, and if that fighter wanted to put 1 in Diplomacy, Knowledge (arcana), Move Silently, and Open Lock (and put the rest in class skills), they could. But that same fighter in PF only has 2 skill ranks, which pretty much locks them into an essential skill like Perception and maybe another fighter-relevant one like Climb.]
And the PF fighter still has the same problem that the 3E fighter does: their class skills are whatever the designer decided the typical fighter should have. If you wanted your fighter (or wizard, or rogue, or whatever) to be like Indiana Jones, you’d have a hard time picking the necessary skills at level 1, and you’d have to spend some points on crossclass skills to get the proper training. (You could build an archeologist adventurer by using an archetype to change up your class skills, but there may not be an archetype that has the assortment for your character concept.)
[I mentioned the “running low on skill ranks” problem to Jason around the time the Core Rulebook was published, and he agreed it was a problem, and that we should think about putting a feat in the then-upcoming Advanced Player’s Guide that would give you more skill ranks (or at least let you choose 4 skills to get a +1 in), especially at level 1. But apparently we both forgot about it because I don’t think anything like it ever appeared in the core books.]
What do you think? Why do you find skill-heavy builds disruptive at your table? (You could probably infer that I don’t find skill heavy builds to be disruptive at all from my tone in this article.) Do you think players have enough skill ranks? Why or why not? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you back on Friday for another new Iconic Design.
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’s favorite color is blue, and his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class probably needs more skill ranks than it has.
PS. PFS — You should totally push for more skill ranks per level in your campaign so you can do more awesome encounters like Library of the Lion. For a character that was able to participate, it was a fun encounter that was also a breath of fresh air compared to the “enter room, kill everything, enter next room” format that PFS often falls in.