Alternative Skill Training for the Alternative Campaign

A friend of mine (who has a penchant for rogue-ish campaigns) lamented that the 4E rogue skill list doesn’t allow you to make rogue characters that have specialties within the “career” of a rogue.  The main problem, as he saw it, is that when a rogue trains in Thievery, he has a +5 bonus to every subset of skills that fall under the “thievery” category.  Ergo, in a thief campaign, everyone can do everything.  I can’t help but agree.

However, before I inadvertantly indict 4E (yet again) for an issue with mechanics, I think it wise to reflect on why skills operate the way they operate in 4E.  Skills are purposefully broad so as to allow a player great latitude in determining their character’s next course of action in a given situation.  Its simplicity actually facilitates role-playing and allows the players to participate in the story-telling.  The writers at have been doing some great work with exploring the concept of the skill challenge and other ways of looking at a character’s skill set.

With that said, if an enterprising DM desires to write a campaign with a specific campaign theme, such as a “Thief’s Campaign”, these generalized skill categories aren’t going to help engender the atmosphere and flavor of such a theme.  Considering that I have an idea to run a Forgotten Realms Harper’s Campaign (limiting PCs to Bards, Rogues and Rangers) sometime in the future, I thought it would be a good idea to come up with an alternative system. 

What I did first was to break down each of the 4E skills into their sub-skills.  If a 4E character class had the option to train in the category of skill, they could elect to train in the sub-skill. For example, Thievery encompasses Disable Trap, Open Lock, Pick Pocket, and Sleight of Hand.  Therefore, a rogue character can opt to train in any of those sub-skills. He could not opt to train in any of the sub-skills that are encompassed by the Arcana skill (Detect magic, Monster Knowledge, Arcane Knowledge).  Some of these skill categories do not have clearly defined sub-skills. These skills, such as diplomacy and intimidate, I have left as is. These categories are indeed broad and cannot be narrowed down to a manageable number of sub-skills.

Next, I totaled the number of skill bonuses available to a character class when they train in a standard campaign.  This is, essentially, five times the number of skills available for training. Therefore, a rogue has an initial 30 points worth of bonuses, i.e. the rogue trains in a total of 6 skill-categories.  The player then adds the modifier of the character class’ primary attribute.  So, a 1st level rogue with a dexterity score of 18 would have a total of 34 points.

The player then selects the number of skill-categories to train in according to the character class description.  For a rogue, that means they must train in Stealth and Thievery, plus any four.  After that, the player then distributes the bonus points to any of sub-skills located in the skill-categories selected to a maximum bonus of five.  After doing this, the player then adds all attribute modifiers associated with the sub-skill’s category, along with any racial or feat bonuses.

For example, if I wanted to make a halfling rogue that is a smart-alecky and nimble pick-pocket, I would pick the following skills to train: Stealth, Thievery, Acrobatics, Bluff, Streetwise and Perception.  A 1st level halfling rogue with the following attributes could have a skill spread such as this:

Attributes (using the standard array found in the player’s handbook): Str: 10 (+0)          Dex: 18 (+4)        Con: 13 (+1)        Int: 11 (+0)          Wis: 12 (+1)        Cha: 16 (+3)

Acrobatics: (Dexterity)  

Acrobatic stunt: +1 (skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +7  (total); Balance: +1 (skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +7  (total); Escape Grab: +2(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  =+8 (total); Escape Restraints: +2(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus)  = +8(total); Reduce falling: +1(skill bonus)+4(Dex bonus)+2(halfling bonus) =+7 (total).

Bluff (Charisma)

Con-artist: +3 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +6 (total); Disguise: +0 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +3(total); Forgery: +0(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) =+3 (total); Gamble: +1 (Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +4(total); Gain combat advantage:  +1(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus)  = +4(total); Create a diversion: +3(Skill bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) = +6(total).

Perception: (Wisdom)

Listen: +2 (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) = +3 (total); Spot/search: +2  (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) = +3(total); Tracking: +0 (skill bonus) +1 (Wisdom bonus) =+1(total)

Stealth: (Dexterity)

Move Silently/Hide in Shadows: +5 (Skill Bonus) +4 (Dex bonus) =+9 (total)

Streetwise: (Charisma)

Word on the street:   +3 (Skill Bonus) +3 (Charisma bonus) = +6 (total)

Thievery: (Dexterity)

Disable Trap: +0 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +6 (total); Open Locks: +0(Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +6(total); Sleight of Hand: +3 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +9(total); Pick Pocket: +4 (Skill bonus) +4(Dex bonus) +2 (halfling bonus) = +10(total).

 As you can see my halfling rogue’s focus is on escaping grabs, picking pockets, and being a con-artist.  He will not be the locksmith of the group. 

The pros of this alternative approach are (1) it will allow players playing in a campaign that narrows their choices in character generation to differentiate themselves from the other characters with the same character class and (2) the skill point spread isn’t that far removed from what a standard array would look like. Therefore, this alternative skill selection will not make skill checks that much more difficult to hit the DCs the Dungeon Master will present during in-game challenges.

However, the negatives are (1) there will be things a character trained in a skill-category can’t do well, such as disable traps in the example above; (2) the players may be constrained in using their skills in more creative ways as they have compartmentalized their training in sub-skills; and (3) this will not work as well in a standard adventuring party, i.e. if there is one thief in the group and he can’t open locks, the party is going to be hamstrung when dealing with a trap-based encounter.

I hope this helps to add some flavor to your home-brew alternative campaigns.

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