Saturday, January 5, 2013

Roleplaying 4E Skills

Roleplaying skills in D&D 4E can be improved.
DMs promote skill usage for staying in character and telling a good story.

Roleplaying has improved since my last post about skills in D&D 4E.
There are things that irritate me about skill usage in our group.
I'm not blaming the players, just the way I present situations.

I'm having the following problems:
  • Players look at the list of possible skills and decide possible actions.
    This should be the other way around.
  • There is little creativity in skill usage: if it's not on the list, it isn't possible.
  • Characters are focused per skill, one PC always talks, the other always scouts, etc.
    Usually with out-of-character discussions about it.
  • Some skills are used all the time (diplomacy), while others never (history).
Tower of dice
"Tower of Fate" by Peter Keyngnaert on Flickr

The following solutions are for the DM, the players just follow what DMs present.
Other behaviours are habits of the players and can be changed.
If they have little experience with roleplaying, it's best to help them stay in character.
Like all things, it's best to discuss these changes with the group before proceeding.

Staying in-character

Ask players questions when they use a skill.
What do they do? What do they say?

When players start discussing things out-of-character, keep yourself as DM in-character.
Ask in-character questions about their out-of-character behaviour.

Social encounters should be in-character, with everyone talking in first person.

Present enough details

When describing situations to the PCs, use enough details.
This gives the PCs more options to deal with the situation.

Don't just say: a toxic mist results in Endurance checks.
Say: a toxic mist enters through the pores of the skin and by breathing the toxic mist.

Don't say: skeletons spawn each turn from sarcophagi
Say: sarcophagi are inscribed with the symbol of Orcus, surrounded by magical runes to summon skeletal remains.

Offer limited Passive information

Skills that aren't used much can use a jump start.
Offer limited information so that the PCs get a grip on the scope of a skill.

History checks are good example of this.

Everyone participates

The entire party needs to do skill checks, and not only their best skills.
Using weak skills should occur infrequently, the focus should be on their best skills.
The entire group has to do Stealth checks to sneak in a camp or Athletics checks to climb up a cliff.

Physical skills: it's easy to make the entire party perform them.

Social skills: NPCs might want to talk to PCs that don't have excellent social skills. Or the PCs all need to be questioned.

Knowledge skills: during a social encounter, there should be no out-of-character discussion of in-game knowledge.

Some examples:
  • Arcana: PCs need individual Arcana checks to pass through a magic portal, with monsters right behind them.
  • Bluff: The entire party needs to play dead
  • Insight: See through an illusionary wall to attack 
  • Thievery: Doorway that can only be opened by simultaneous thievery checks in different locations

Hide Skill rolls

If only one character is trained in a skill and rolls low, the players don't know.
A second person trained in that skill is useful in this situation.

If it's a knowledge skill, there are more possibilities than knowing or not knowing it.
Partial knowledge is possible or incorrect knowledge.
If different PCs perform skill check, they may contradict each other.

Redefine usefulness of skills

Some skills are overused, some aren't used at all.
So I'm going back to the Serious skills series.


Arcana should specify which type of school: illusion, conjuration, etc.
More details should be used, how is the magic sustained, what is its focus, does it use magic runes or gems?


Diplomacy is probably the most overused skill.
It is used as a primary skill for social encounters.
Diplomacy should only be used to negotiate or to manipulate.
The best examples are stereotypical salesmen, advocates, politicians, etc.

When talking about something, a knowledge check should provide PCs with enough technical understanding to talk about it.


There shouldn't be an out-of-character discussion resulting in the character with highest Bluff tell the lie.
In-character the party can't just tell NPCs to wait a while so they can brainstorm the response.
NPCs may find it suspicious that a technical person does all the talking except for a short time. They may want the opinion of the technical person.


Dungeoneering is currently Nature for underground.
It's better to rephrase it as engineering as a dungeon is engineered by someone for a purpose.

The new dungeoneering encompasses these domains:
  • Architecture and engineering (buildings, aqueducts, bridges, fortifications)
  • Dungeoneering (aberrations, caverns, oozes, spelunking)


History is more than remembering things that happened in the past:
  • Geography (lands, terrain, climate, people) 
  • Local (legends, personalities, inhabitants, laws, customs, traditions)
  • History (royalty, wars, colonies, migrations, founding of cities)
  • Nobility and royalty (lineages, heraldry, family trees, mottoes, personalities) 

I reuse the Knowledge skill from previous editions.


Insight focuses on body language to determine whether someone is lying.
But besides being a counter to bluff, it's used to:
  • comprehend motives
  • get a sense of moods and attitudes
  • sense outside influence (dominate)
  • recognize illusions.

Do you have other ways to increase roleplaying skills?
Do you know of other ways to use skills?


  1. I dumped the way using skills was suggested in 4E manuals just a couple of months after I became a DM.
    One thing I learnt is to remove the battle grid when calling for skills checks, or use an undetermined map depicting the area, like a city or street, with no grid, or else you risk heavy metagaming.

    1. Thanks for commenting.
      I use skills the same way you suggest, without any grid or battle map.
      Metagaming might be a problem when calling for skill checks.


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