Skill Conundrum: Exploration

I have had a bit of a hiatus, part to outside forces needing my attention and because I had a difficult time formulating an outline in my head for the exploration leg of our look at skills. As a refresher let’s revisit our definition of what a skill should be as put down in the first post of this series.


2a: The ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance

2b: Dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks

3: A learned power of doing something competently : a developed aptitude or ability

So to boil down a Skill is not solely knowledge (a whole different mire of In-Character [IC] and Out-Of-Character [OOC] ‘Meta-Knowledge’ distinction) but applying knowledge to accomplish something. It’s the translation from knowing to doing.

As done previously I went through the game systems we have been using as guinea pigs and formulated the below list of skills.

  • Linguistics/Lore
  • Perception/Find/Investigation/Track
  • Travel/Swim/Climb/Drive/Ride
  • Fly
  • Navigate
  • Survive
  • Craft/Profession/Repair
  • Endurance
  • Heal/Medicine
  • Nature

Linguistics/Lore: I grouped these two together as linguistics can be considered a type of lore. The problem with lore is the same as all knowledge skills it’s binary. You either know it or you don’t. How often have you played an RPG, made a lore roll only to recieve a vague answer from the GM, even on a high roll? I have certainly felt the frustration of rolling a natural 20 on a skill check only to find out ‘you are not familiar with X’. It’s an immersion breaker, you know from the result of the check you should know but you somehow do not. I advise GMs with these situations out of combat to avoid the roll and assume the character either will take 10 or take 20. If information needs to be kept hidden let the players know it is beyond the scope of their abilities to find out at the moment.

If you want some alternatives I suggest giving PCs partial information. This is especially good for magic items when a PC knows an item does X and know there’s a Y component they cannot figure out. For languages, if you want to add that extra bit of flair try The Mistranslator found over at The Mistranslator runs a block of text through different language translations to purposefully misinterpret text. It’s a great resource for those ancient dwarven runes with a rare dialect.

Perception/Find/Investigate/Track: We covered perception earlier. Unless your character has a background as a CSI or gumshoe detective there is not really a skill for this. Use a character’s background to give a bonus if necessary. Ever had a Ranger blow a tracking check and lose your way for a few hours/days? The truth is tracking is the ranger’s bag. Assuming your quarry is not attempting to cover its tracks or environmental factors like heavy snow, dust storm etc. a ranger should not need to roll to follow tracks. In modern RPGs the nuclear party is the focus. Sometimes we forget old D&D had a focus on hirelings. A smart party without a ranger knows they probably cannot track someone through a forest. Let/advise them to hire someone with tracking skills. Turn a boring series of skill checks to a fun social scene with a ranger/hunter or even better, a jailbreak scene as the party scurries after a villain using hunting dogs and a hunt master.


Travel/Swim/Climb/Drive/Ride: Another set of mostly binary skills. A character either can or cannot Swim/Climb/Drive/Ride. Most systems even state not being skilled in these does not preclude someone from accomplishing normal tasks. These are common knowledge skills, most people are able to accomplish them under normal circumstances. Though assuming a fantasy setting I personally would not assume someone could swim unless their background makes sense for such. Think of the sort of background a PC would need to be considered a cut above the normal person for such things. Was the PC a pearl diver, a sherpa equivalent, a wagon driver on suicidal mountain switchback trails, or a cavalry veteran? If no I see no reason for him to have gained more experience and skill in doing such activities. As for travel, you could wind it together with survival. A character has experience traveling, though again it may be hard to rationalize why he is much better at it than anyone else. Of course a party could always employ porters or a teamster. If we assume proper packing/carrying of supplies can speed the overland speed of the party. This can be a fun exploration if you are running an adventure with a time limit.

Fly: Remove it completely. Unless your game has some sort of aircraft/airship fly is a silly skill. Assume if you can magically fly (a la Fly Spell), you can magically control your flying. The same for creatures with wings. Unless you really want to get into the minutiae of needing a Walk skill as well.

Navigate: I like the navigate skill. By navigate I mean use a map to get somewhere, not sail a ship. It is beyond a binary skill. As someone who has done a fair bit of orienteering and backpacking it is not a simple task. Its more difficult when maps are expensive and imprecise, which is highly likely in a fantasy setting. Even a simple mistake can get a party lost and in a dire situation. At best they find a landmark and reorient. In its darkest moment a botched navigation can leave a party undersupplied and completely lost.

Survive: A necessary skill for an adventuring party. Considering the amount of time a party spends not in civilization they need to be prepared for the rigors of the wilderness. Basic needs must be met to keep the party in optimal condition. PCs must be able to breathe, eat, drink, sleep, and protect themselves from exposure with clothing and shelter. A lack of one or more of these basic necessities kills people, more deaths than roaming monsters. Really play up this skill with party collaborative checks if you want the emphasize a Man vs. Nature theme in your game.

Craft/Profession/Repair: I personally dislike these skills. These skills give the assumption a character can make a living without putting their life on the line to slay monsters and would choose to do the latter because they have a death wish, higher calling, or they are plain crazy. Unless you run a game where gear breaking is a motif repair is unnecessary. If a PC just needs some pocket change maybe start adding a little more money to their treasure/payments. If you just love these skills and you need them in your game I suggest bartering. In a fantasy setting most people did not have gold on them, especially in rural areas. Give PCs a hot meal, bed for the night, livestock or generic items in payment. If the PCs are being motivated by greed they will likely stop going out of their way to do these tasks. They will come around and focus more on the game’s plot. But it is also a fun way to incorporate fetch/item trade quests if you want to pull some video game techniques into your tabletop game.

Endurance: I find believe this skill is redundant. If your game has an ability akin to Constitution it will suffice for such a check. Grant a bonus to characters with specific gear or backgrounds related to the check. Cold weather gear keeps out the cold, a desert nomad would have a higher tolerance to hot dry climates.

Heal/Medicine: Remember our skill definition is not just knowledge but its application. I like to think of Heal/Medicine as the sort of skill used by a combat medic or emergency response personnel, field medicine. They can set fractures, staunch bleeding, clean and stitch wounds, treat disease symptoms but they are not a walking hospital. They do the best with what they have on hand. Serious injury and disease should need the care of a physician and bed rest. I suggest having a party first-aid kit or ‘healing kit’. It can be used X times until it needs to be restocked. Let PCs make a search for useful herbs and plants when they make camp to add a use to the kit. It is a must have for any RPG, especially for those without magical healing. I suggest using the Savage Worlds idea of the ‘Golden Hour’ mechanic. Each time a target takes damage they can receive one attempt at healing. You cannot make another heal check on the target until they have taken more damage.

Nature: This is a pretty vague skill. For 4e D&D nature covers forage, handle animal, monster knowledge checks of the natural subtype, tracking, and all esoteric knowledge of an environment. Forage and tracking have already been covered. For monster knowledge checks, honestly they rarely have come up in games I play. It’s a binary check, you either know or do not know a monster. The same with knowledge of an environment, most people know what to expect in a forest after all. So nature can really be boiled down to Handle Animal. I have always thought this was a bit of a weird skill. It is supposed to be used for wild animals or to teach domestic animals tricks. I think it is easy enough to just say you teach a dog simple commands without making a check. Like the Ride and Drive skills, I assume any PC with a rural background knows how to work with domesticated animals. As for wild animals, they have not been domesticated for a reason. No amount of treats and body posture is going to make a displacer beast your friend. Strike nature from the list its important facets have already been addressed in other areas.

Next post we will look at the skills that survived the winnowing and see what our core skill list looks like. If you like the article think about subscribing. Have a comment or a suggestion for a future topic leave it!

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