Saturday, 5 May 2012

Using All Skills as Passive Knowledge Skills

Dominic Matte
In 4e D&D, the Insight and Perception skills function passively as if you got a die roll of 10. This is pretty cool, and a good way to give your players some information if one or more of them have a high Insight or Perception.

On the other hand, if you're constantly giving one player little tips and tidbits because of a strong skill, the other players might start to feel left out even if they have strong skills of their own, because they're not used passively.

The solution? Passive everything!

For the sake of both convenience and making players feel like their choices matter, use only the skills that each character is trained in. Add 10 to the skill modifier, and now you have your passives. Try to apply these whenever you can, even if you're not giving the players any real game benefits. It should make players feel more satisfied with their skill choices, especially when each player has one or two skills that no one else does.

If a character is really skilled in a couple of areas, it makes sense that they'd be able to pick up details in that field that others wouldn't notice. In game terms, this can mean hints about terrain (in or out of combat), flavourful details, or even major information reveals. 

One general example: if a visible hazard can be avoided with a certain skill check, tell the players who are trained in that skill. For instance, if you can roll under the blades of a trapped hallway, tell the players who are trained in Acrobatics.

And a second, slightly more specific example for the knowledge skills (Arcana, Dungeoneering, History, Nature, Religion): consider just giving players the monster knowledge points for which their passive score clears the DC. If they want to try for more, allow them to roll. This will tend to give your players a fair bit more information in the long run, since basically it makes the minimum skill roll for monster knowledge a 10, but it'll really make those knowledge skills feel useful. If you think your players are getting too much tactical information, make fights slightly harder, or add more tactical elements that don't immediately tie to knowledge skills (like special terrain) which benefit the monsters more than the players.

There are some more skill-specific examples in the list below. These are just a few basic ideas. If you're coming up with your own ways to use each skill as passive knowledge, keep in mind that you don't want to give the party automatic successes - skill training is there to give you a bonus to something you're good at, not to make your character automatically win. A good approach is to tell players when they have opportunities to make certain rolls without giving them a bonus or advantage. For example: "Since you're trained in Thievery, you can tell that this narrow corridor is a great place for traps. You might want to roll Perception." In this situation, the players might not spot the traps even though they're there, but the Rogue will certainly feel like her Thievery is coming in handy, even when she's not actively picking locks or pockets.

Perception and Insight aren't covered, because they're already passive skills.
  • Acrobatics: Point out triggers for terrain powers or cool movement options, like swinging from a chandelier or rolling under a small gap.
  • Arcana: Allow trained characters to detect magic, perhaps within a small radius, without making a die roll. 
  • Athletics: The character can pick out the best path for climbing (use this as flavour with no mechanical benefit).
  • Bluff: A good deceiver can identify likely people or times for lies, perhaps telling the party when they should roll Insight but not affecting the result.
  • Diplomacy: The character can tell which NPCs might be open to negotiation, and when not to bother.
  • Dungeoneering: Passively identify architectural styles, geology, and underground terrain features - for example, these tunnels were built by dwarves from granite blocks that must have come from a nearby mountain.
  • Endurance: The character can judge the difficulty or natural dangers of travel in rough environments.
  • Heal: Knowledge of types of wounds and good treatments - bandaging a gash to the shoulder with the right poultices and herbs.
  • History: The character recalls tidbits of lore about the area - "on this very hill, the forces of Bael Turath defeated an Arkhosian regiment in a key battle of the war between the ancient nations".
  • Intimidate: Pick out the big threats based on how they act and carry themselves.
  • Nature: Predict weather a few days in advance, know the general wildlife of an area.
  • Religion: Allow the character to easily sense or identify the temples present in a settlement, along with their general locations.
  • Stealth: The character has a knack for spotting good hiding places.
  • Streetwise: Knowledge of common hangouts and gangs, ie, good places to go for information, while still making the party roll to get that information.
  • Thievery: The character can identify various locks and barriers, or identify areas that could be trapped - still roll Perception to find traps, but let the party know there may be some in certain places.
Have you ever done anything like this in your games? If so, how did it work out?

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