RPG Design: Skills and Languages

I previously discussed skills, and I’d like to expand on that slightly.

Tiers upon tiers upon tiers

Skills represent your character’s ability to do something. When you attempt to take an action, your skill bonus (combining a basic ability modifer, a number of points you’ve spent training the skill, and various other bonuses and penalties) is added to a d20, and compared to the difficulty class (DC) for the action. The more difficult the action, the higher its DC. If you look at the table of skills below, you can clearly see the tendency for related skills to get grouped together in subsequent versions. This makes the skill list smaller and easier to use. It also helps players from feeling that their points are wasted if they apply to a general skill such as Acrobatics, rather than having to spend them separate on Balance and Tumble. On the other hand, the shorter list does less to suggest interesting actions or make clear what’s going on. For example, the Innuendo skill used to provide a mechanism for characters to communicate without the meaning being picked up by outsiders. Since it was rolled into the Bluff skill, that simply doesn’t happen. It’s not on the list, so it doesn’t occur to people. Pathfinder’s skills have a number of specialisations, like Track or Search for Traps, that elaborate on a skill and add class-specific bonuses. But class bonuses based purely on level are one of the things I’d like to cut down on. So I’d like to make specialisations an explicit part of the system. The skill list may be shorter, but

Shuffling the deck

There’s a grand tradition of rearranging skills. Every new roleplaying game and every iteration of D&D shuffles the skills around. What matters isn’t the specific way the cards land, so much as they way they work. To start with, here are all the skills in Pathfinder grouped by base ability, along with a selection of skills from previous versions, and some commonly used specialisations:

Pathfinder Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Other Games Specialisations

STR Climb

DEX Acrobatics Balance
Disable Device Open Lock
Disable Traps
Escape Artist
Sleight of Hand
Stealth Hide
Move Silently

CON Concentration

INT Appraise Mercantile
Craft (…)
Knowledge (…)
Decipher Script
Speak Languages

WIS Heal
Perception Listen
Locate Traps
Sense Motive
Survival Intuit Direction

CHA Bluff Innuendo
Diplomacy Gather Information Etiquette
Handle Animal
Perform (…)
Use Magical Device

A common thread is the grouping together of skills that relate to each other. Intelligence and Dexterity have always had the most skills, while Constitution-based skills seem to be out of fashion. One guide for the migration was the skill synergy mechanism in 3.5, in which having 5 ranks in a certain skill (such as Handle Animal) gave a bonus to a related skill (such as Ride).

The List

So finally here’s a provisional list of the skills and specialisations in my proposed system:


  • Attack (STR/DEX)
  • Defend (DEX)
  • Acrobatics (DEX)
  • Finesse (DEX)
  • Knowledge (INT)
  • Language (INT)


Every one of the above skills can become specialised.

  •  Attack
  • Defend
  • Knowledge
  • Language


You probably spotted languages in that list and wondered what I was smoking. D&D has always had an exceptionally simple idea of languages: you either know them or  you don’t. If you know a language, you’re assumed to speak it perfectly as well as read and write (unless you’re a Barbarian).

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