Subskill Thoughts, Question, and such

I haven’t heard a lot back about my subskill system, which is a shame because the piece I intended for today had a bunch of stalled research. So today, I’m struggling to write a sufficiently long filler piece, as I wonder how committed I am to twice a week updating.

Subskill Design

I was asked a question about synergy, whether two different skills or subskills overlapping might provide a bonus. There is (at the time of writing) no synergy mechanic in 5e. Xanthar’s kinda sorta talks about the concept, but not by name and not in any way that gives numbers. It’s couched in term to make it a Dungeon Master opt in mechanic, as opposed to a thing players can use to leech bonuses out of the Aether.

I decided against such mechanics, and I did ponder one or two, because I wanted things to be simple. You may be surprised that I consider a ruleset that adds 84 subskills to the game “simple” but the mechanic itself is pretty simple. It’s just that there are a lot of options available. Heck, the ones listed there are really more like guidelines, albeit laboriously identified guidelines. If a player wanted to become proficient in a Subskill not listed, I would most likely allow it. Depends a bit on what it is, but yeah, if you’ve identified a solid enough gap that I am missing something, I’d allow a new Subskill, and then I’d probably add it to the list of Subskills

For instance, thinking of Acq-Inc and of my Eberron Party, I could probably stand to have a “Documancy” subskill or a “Paperwork”  subskill. I think I’d be okay with contracts and bureaucracy being the same subskill.

I could see “Paperwork” being used a variety of places, but the number one place I can see is being used instead of a Persuasion check to establish how much the party is to be paid for completing a job. All sorts of research and information gathering could be in the purview.  Perhaps not in situ, but if you have some facts and a library, Paperwork could double as Research in a pinch.

Comparison to Skill Buying Games

One of my least favorite game mechanics in RPGs is Skill Point, spooning game credits to be better at a skill. There are many reasons that this annoys me.

First, it’s time intensive. Each point you spend requires some decision that you have to make. First level characters tend to have the lion’s share of the work involved in making those choices, and putting more work onto people making new characters, which always includes people making their FIRST character, and making the game more complicated for them is great for building the player base (/s)

Second, it skews the numbers for the game. I mentioned in the subskills article that with just the ability scores, the range for 5e is -1 to +5, but in 3e, adding in just skill ranks allows the rogue to add +23 to their, I dunno, sleight of hand check at level 20. That is a HUGE swing. That makes Ability scores and the die roll mostly irrelevant. Well, until the game adjusts and the new medium DC is now 25. Which means the untrained or the ungifted have little chance of success. Which is fine, if that’s the game that you’re going for. But it’s not what I like.

Third, these systems take up a bunch of real estate. On one hand, the rulebook has to dedicate space on what skills you’re allowed to take when, the maximums of each skills, how many points you get per level, how many points qualifies you for such and such, a lot of rulebook space is taken up with setting all of this straight. On the other hand, the character sheet has to deal with this massive list of skills. Cyberpunk2020 is probably the worst, although 3e sheets are not innocent. When I’m playing a game, I want the information I need for the character I am playing at that moment, not the potential spaces if my character decides to take up dance sometime.

Fourth, while it’s more of a flaw in skill based systems in general, and not just a problem with point buy, there is a min maxing element that seems worse in point buy. Some skills are just straight up better than others. Planet Mercenary had this bad. Why would you ever take a bunch of ranks in Chemistry? Life is better when you take 9 ranks in Pistol and just use the default weapon all the time.

Now, a lot of these problems can be solved through, well, game design. Incentivize players to diversify their skills. Design character sheets for legibility, not information. Build your caps so they make for a balanced game, and create good shorthand so you can convey a lot of information in a small space.

A better answer on how to deal with this issue is to remove some of the paper from tabletops. I’ve not heard yet of a AAA game that launched with a decent character sheet app. A good app or digital builder can condense the starting questions for a new character to just a handful of examples, can do all the fiddly math bits so we don’t even have to look at the rules for how the skills work. A simple export gives us a character sheet with only what we need.

Of course, there are flaws to such a digital system, as there are flaws in everything. But It would sure deal with all these suckers.

Or, on a similar vein, there’s things that the subskill system do to answer all of these complaints I have about point buy systems. AS much as you buy subskills with “points” comprised of weeks of training, Subskills are not point buy. The simple way to tell is in a Point buy skill system, each rank in a skill costs you. The Specialty System is Point buy. In subskills, though, you don’t get multiple ranks in subskills (although I did think about if you could expertise in a subskill. Still not 100% on that one, but I went with no for the moment.) Instead, you get proficiency, 5e’s answer to the question: How is a high level character better than a low level character

So, in terms of being better than point buy, first: It takes less time. Sure, there is a list, but you don’t HAVE to peruse it. When you qualify, you can just think “man, I suck at climbing. Let’s have Gustav fix that,” add climbing to your subskills, and you’re good to go. Or you can say “Matt’s been hinting that Monster Knowledge might be useful. Let’s take that.” See? Easy. No points to distribute.

Second, subskills can’t skew the game anymore than skills can, because they derive off the skill system. I’ll be honest, I can’t really use this bullet point, as we didn’t really didn’t really design anything. We’re just hiding behind the skirts of the default 5e skill system. So whatever flaws and strengths that 5e skills have built in, we inherit those. Unless it’s something specific that we changed which, honestly, isn’t much.

Third, the space required on the character varies based on what you need. I can do the simple math, easily enough, so I don’t need an itemized list of how the subskills do their math. So for me, it can be in a small area. Other people might want more space. So this comes down to personal preference. 

Fourth, the max-ing is again, based on 5e numbers. But the min-ing is actually something that we sorta account for. With subskill choices, you can shore up weak spaces, instead of, well, just letting things go fallow. Or focusing on your strong points. Admittedly, this appears to be rewarding minmax players.

Oops, I guess.

Subskills in EBerron

While I wrote the subskills system towards the Eberron game, I didn’t expressly customize things. I left a lot of flexibility in it. So here is a list of subskills that are probably useful to take in Eberron

  • Locations: There are a handful of cities you can take, although picking up the countries could work as well. I’m not sure if “Breland” would give you the same details about Sharn as “Sharn” would, but it would certainly be more helpful than nothing. There’s a handful of planes you can specialize in, and a few continents that might be able to provide you some information. Picking Kyhber is useful if we ever go underground.
  • People/Race: In addition to the various nations and species, there are all sorts of societies going on in Eberron. Plenty of cults and insurgent groups, there’s the 12 dragonmarked houses that are doing stuff, most nations have a spy agency, there’s the newspapers, the universities, a few adventurer guilds. Really, there are a lot of options, so many I can’t really share them all here.
  • Religion: Religion in Eberron is complicated. You could certainly focus on aspects of religion to specialize in. Like the Silver Flame or the Traveller. The Draconic Prophecy might also be a religion thing, as well as all the weird elf stuff.
  • Technology: Just because a Mark of the Storm makes flying an airship easy, doesn’t mean others can’t do it. Why not make it easier on yourself and pick up “Airship Pilot?” You could also be proficient in the lightning rail system, which could include knowing the schedule, or knowing the best place to put a bomb. I’m sure we’ll develop a lot more interesting things you can spend a subskill on

Spending a subskill is one of those DM flags: “Hey DM!” They shout “This player wants their knowledge of displacer beasts and court politics to be useful in the campaign”

Character Recompiling

I think it’s important that I mention to my players one of the big things I believe in: there is no way character creation works. Like, I understand why it exists. It’s hard to play a game without a character sheet, but the game thinks you can determine your character’s ENTIRE personality by looking in a book. This is exactly false. Your character grows so much in the first few sessions, as you learn what roles they have in the party and interact with other characters.

I never fill out those characteristics that 5e thinks are so great. The flaws and bonds and whatnot. Because I don’t want to be limited by your d6 table, WotC, and, when I try, I can make compelling characters without them. But until I play at the table, I can’t know what my characters think and feel. Brace Stonewall, for example, was a basic dwarf paladin, but in my first session with him, I learned he mistrusted halflings. A fun bit of chaos to the character.

Now if flaws and bonds gave a mechanical benefit, like as a part of the inspiration system, I’d care about filling them out, but I would also allow players to wait a few sessions, as they learn who their characters are. As I said, there’s a lot that people can learn about their character in those few sessions, and it would not surprise me for people to come to me and say “Matt, my character would make a better fighter” or “I don’t think they would have taken acrobatics, can I swap for Medicine?” Or stuff like that. I am super flexible when it comes to character changes, in part because I once played a character that for the first six weeks of the campaign, I kept making tweaks to his build until it was just right. (Thomas Trask, for you old hands)

My acceptance of a small rebuild is even greater after there is some new rules update. A new UA, a book, 14 pages of Subskills, things like that. I understand that with the new options open, people would have made different changes once upon a time.

One of the more important concepts I’ve come up with about D&D, specifically for heists, but it applies to a lot of things, is that we are not making a movie, or a book or whatever. We are making the rough draft of said media. When we go and rewrite our story, we’ll polish up the dialogue, fix the continuity, and make the heist suspenseful for the audience instead of to the players.


I hope this clears up some stuff about subskills, and their intent. If you have questions, please let me know. I can’t fix things without feedback.

Unless I get delayed more, Friday should start some interesting thoughts about Monster hunting.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *