Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Turns Out I Hate The Skill Guy

3rd Edition D&D, including 3.5 and its successor Pathfinder is pretty clear on how it deliniates the focus of a character. Ignoring specific class features, each class relies on a specific part of the game mechanics to define its role in an adventuring party. For instance, fighters have the best Base Attack Bonus and are the "Feat" class; mages and clerics are the "Spell" classes and rogues are the "Skill" class.

At first glance, this seems reasonable. Of course fighters have the most options in combat. Of course, wizards and priests solve problems with spells. And of course, when it comes time to pick a lock or disarm a trap, you are going to rely on the skills of the thief. Makes sense -- each class has a role and gives up some other important abilities to excel in its role.

But, over the years, I could never shake the idea that there was something inherently wrong with this mechanical split. The first thing that struck me was the fact that if the rogue was the "Skill Guy", there wasn't much room for anyone else in the party to have skills. At 2 skill points per level (plus intelligence bonus, of course), once you take spellcraft and maybe knowledge: arcane, there isn't much room for the wizened wizard who wants to be a history buff. Priests have it even worse, since they likely won't have INT as a primary stat. Because the rogue's niche is skills, the other classes just don't have enough skill points to go around, leaving wizards and clerics among the most uneducated characters in the game.

Then there is the concept of "class skills" which seriously limit which skills can be reasonably taken. The fighter’s class skills are climb, craft, handle animal, intimidate, jump, ride, and swim. You can take other skills, of course, but only at a penalty... and as noted before, skill points are already at a premium. Good luck if you want to be a warrior who is also a diplomat.

Certainly multiclassing helps with this situation, but it too comes with its share of pitfalls. In the case of mages and clerics, taking a level of rogue for the skill points makes no sense at all. Stylistically, it does not work for many characters and mechanically, the spellcasting level is inifitely more valuable than 8 skill points... especially when you take into account that many of the rogue's skills can be made obsolete with the proper choice of spells.

But still, your party probably needs a rogue, if only to gather information and deal with trapped chests and locked doors. And let's say your party is heading into an adventure littered with stuff for the rogue to do. There are NPCs with which to negotiate. There are traps to disarm and locks to pick. There are dangerous dungeon corridors with lots of listen checks and stealthy scouting...

All of which is a lot of action for the rogue. In the meantime, everyone else sits aound and probably waits for a blundered stealth check to thrust them into combat.

I call it the Netrunner Syndrome. When cyberpunk games were popular, almost all of them had a fairly detailed set of rules for hacking virtual reality computers. Netrunning was almost its own minigame, complete with skills, gear and mechanics. It was all very cool... for the player who was playing the netrunner. Everyone else's character sat around waiting for JimmyL33t to either return from his solo adventure with the ciritcal piece of data, or for his head to explode into jelly. Either way, all but one player was bored.

Scouting and other rogue duties aren't as bad as netrunning, but they can come close. When it is the rogue bartering and the rogue scouting ahead and the rogue listening at doors and the rogue disarming the traps and the rogue searching the room... it can get boring for the other five people at the table.

So after running Pathfinder for a few months, it turns out I hate the "skill guy" as a class concept. What would happen if we got rid of the rogue (and probably ranger) class, gave everyone something like 5-6 skill points each level and got rid of the idea of class skills. Class features for rogues would become feats (possibly with a limitation on the armor worn). That way, everyone would have part of the "skill guy" job. Mages and clerics could take many of the skills and knowledges they really ought to have. Scouting, stealth, negotiation and trap duties could be more evenly distributed among the PCs in a party and those wanting to be sneaky, fast killers could still do so by taking the proper feats.

Would a rogue-less Pathfinder game work? I'm not sure, but I may certainly try it.