Sunday, November 30, 2014

More Specialist Skills


Below is a list of skills that I intend to use for my HMS Apollyon games, it includes variants (Legerdemain, Stealth, Acrobatics, Tinker and Search) of the standard ones found (often limited to thieves) in most D&D/D20 systems.  Specifically Ive modeled these on the LOTFP system of X in 6 chance of success. I personally like this far better than the percentile system simply as it feels simpler and can shift more readily with level gain, especially in a system where high level play isnt common, or level is capped at 10th (As it is in my own Apollyon Game, and as it seems to be by the nature of LOTFP play).  These skills do a couple things that I like.  First they offer variability to the thief class, and other classes as well a ranger need not be a separate class, but perhaps just a fighter or specialist with a focus on Animal Handling and Survivial.  Second they allow me to provide alternatives to certain first level spells while keeping those spells useful.  Last they provide some mechanical tests for certain types of odd activities or provide an element of random failure/success for other popular adventurer activities (such as collecting monster poison).

There is a debate to be had regarding the use of skills, including all the classic Thieves Skills because its often opined that rolling dice to solve a problem rather than allowing the players to use their creativity to figure out the puzzle involved diminishes one of the best aspects of tabletop gaming.  However, I think these skill are mostly limited to areas where some mechanical component is necessary.  There should be some mechanical component to certain activities that cant be part of player skill, but are obvious elements of character knowledge. Specifically things that specialists (or other subclasses) know that cannot be readily known by players and which have a mechanical import.  The most clear example of this sort of skill is something like Arcana or Tinker as no game Ive been in has available locks to pick or secret languages to focus hermeneutic knowledge on.  Moreover, focusing on these tasks for too long detracts from the play of other players who arent figuring out the lock puzzle or deciphering the secret inscription.  On the other end is something like the Search which really should be easy to model with player knowledge (I pull on the candle holder, I dig through the refuse pile etc.) but demands a great deal of knowledge by the GM regarding things like secret door mechanisms and what sort of dungeon dressing is scattered about (both to conceal valuables and to provide pointless things to search).  

A GM cant always have these things, but a good module should make efforts at description with this in mind.  Rather than saying secret door in North wall something like twisting a torch holder (one of several) on the North wall clockwise will cause a latch to snap open and reveal the secret door on the North Wall.  Yet this isnt always possible, and sometimes describing the wide variety of cruff on the floor of a goblin lair that the party can dig through is not a good use of game time.  In these cases a skill is helpful.  Skills also have an advantage of being clear about time and risk, with each skill roll taking one turn (10 minutes roughly but who knows in a game using an overloaded encounter die - as opposed to the Gygaxian strict timekeeping), a roll on a random encounter/exploration die and a clear risk reward calculation for the players.  

It is for this reason, the encounter roll, that unless there are compelling circumstances I dont bother with catastrophic failures for character failure with skills.  Its usually just wasted time, though in some circumstances (trying to stealth past alert guards, trying to run up a wall Kung Fu movie style in combat, trying to disarm a ticking bomb or doing emergency surgery on a dying comrade) there are obvious consequences.

The ultimate point is that I like these skills and find they add aspects to the game, specifically a deeper, faction based exploration game, especially in that they both encourage players to use their skills a character with a survival skill will try to identify local flora, because they can and allow the creation of a wider variety of character types.  Specialists need not simply be magsmen, sneak thieves or an assassin, but can be tinkers, scholars, charlatans and doctors.  While the descriptions below are written with my own Apollyon Setting in mind I think they can be generally applicable to most exploration based settings.

Machines and mechanisms play a huge roll in the Apollyon, and this skill serves as a replacement for architecture as well as the skill required to operate heavy weapons like Gatling guns and artillery.  In a more traditional fantasy environment the skill becomes somewhat less useful, but could skill be used for siege engines and other mechanical projects (excavation of the Tomb of Horrors for example).

Machines, gears, hydraulics, pumps, steam and cogs are a lot like magic to most people, somehow with knowledge of these strange apparatuses normal men can do the work of magicians both in war a peace.  The art of engineering fascinates many as it seems a path to power, but really it’s the same sort of knowledge that builders, mill keepers, alchemists and siege masters have always had, an understanding of tools, basic forces and the mechanics of the natural world.  A successful Engineering test can provide information about the purpose of almost any machine and mechanism, as the same principles apply to even the most fantastical ancient or ruined devices.  A skilled engineer will also have an advantage (+1 per skill level) to any roll required to use strange mechanical or technological artifacts and machines.  This bonus does not only apply to artifacts from more advanced cultures, but to the simple machines common in an Engineer’s own society.  From laying explosives, to operating cannon and catapults engineers are more skilled then normal soldiers or artisans.  A successful Engineering roll will reduce the time and cost of any siege project by 50%. Likewise the Engineer’s bonus to use devices applies to siege weapons, giving an engineer a bonus equal to skill level in any hit or damage rolls required for use. 


All worlds have their wilderness, and all have those who learn to survive and thrive in this wilderness.  Survival is not just knowledge of what specific plants are edible, or the habits of a few animals, which is the common knowledge of most that live from farming, hunting or fishing.  Survival is an ethos and way of understanding that allows its practitioners to live and thrive in almost any environment with the knowledge of how to determine which unknown plants and animals are dangerous, which are food and how to best track and snare from whatever materials are available.  Survival provides several bonuses, most obviously allowing some understanding of natural creatures observed for a few moments.  With a survival check a character may be able to spot the claw marks of the owlbear marking its territory, or recognize a poisonous fungus compared to a benign one.  Examining the corpses of dead monsters, one skilled in survival will see more than a carcass, and be better able to spot and extract valuable components, such as fur, teeth and horns, without damaging them.  Survival also covers tracking and other field craft, such as spotting ambushes in natural environments, setting and detecting snares and pits in the wilderness, finding the best spot to ford dangerous streams and finding or making shelter from inclement weather.

In a game that uses exhaustion (such as my own use of an exhaustion result (‘6’) on the random encounter die) a successful survival check will allow a character to push on without rest or food.

Piloting or Sailing

Not all machines are stationary, and those that move require a different set of skills to direct and control than those that don’t.  A pilot can get the most out of any means of transport, from a simple raft to an ancient steam engine or suit of ancient powered armor. Piloting skill is most useful when operating boilermail or other powered armor, as it adds directly to the suit’s reliability, but the skill has a wide application elsewhere.  Most commonly a pilot may control and navigate a sailing vessel of any size (assuming there is sufficient crew) and use the piloting check to avoid the dangers of weather and rough seas as well as to arrive at a specific destination.  A successful piloting check may be used to avoid any difficulty or safely navigate a danger (such as sailing a raft through rapids, or stopping a speeding mine cart) this check should be made in addition to any intrinsic mechanic related to the vessel or machine.  In a more traditional fantasy setting this skill might include riding, and in such a case one would make a skill check to leap obstacles, calm panicked mounts and perhaps even add the skill bonus to hit and damage while mounted.

Not all healing is magical, and there are many things that a knowledgeable chirurgeon can do to brush aside the boney talons of death. As a general matter this skill provides a knowledge of anatomy, health, disease and injury and can be useful from an investigative standpoint when inquiries about the time and nature of death are required.  For adventurers the most practical application of this skill however is first aid and battlefield medicine.  A successful medicine check can provide aid to the wounded in two ways.  First by the application of proper medical procedure (such as it is in most fantasy environments) in the immediate aftermath of battle a chirurgeon can heal up to  1D6/2 points of damage to an individual from wounds received in that battle.  Second, the medicine skill can sometimes prevent death.  If the medicine skill is used on a character (or NPC) suffering a mortal wound (at 0 HP or less) in the next round after the wound is received the dying individual is allowed a death save (or an additional death save if one is already allowed).  Keeping the mortally wounded alive and stabilizing them is difficult however and the medico doing so must spend the rest of the combat caring for any mortally wounded rather then taking any other action.  The death save is allowed at the end of combat, when the medicine check is made as well.


An understanding of value and business, this skill includes both the knowledge of business practices and procedures: trade routes, contracts, commercial paper and deeds as well as the ability to evaluate and appraise items for value.  With a successful skill check the nature, history and value of non-magical treasure and artifacts can quickly be determined and fakes revealed.  Likewise, a successful use of this ability will allow the character to understand the terms of complex documents, bureaucratic processes and the etiquette of commercial society.

On a mechanical level, besides the ability to appraise objects for value, this skill allows the character to move in higher levels of society and to impress the wealthy with their knowledge and class.  Any Charisma check or reaction roll resulting from negotiations dependent on trust, trade or protocol gain a +1 from a successful Acumen check. Unlike the skill Legerdemain, this is real knowledge, the sort useful for setting up a legitimate business deal or hiring mercenaries, rather than getting investors for a shady scheme or seducing a debutante.


The Alchemist and the Assassin both depend on their knowledge of chemicals, solvents, acids, poisons and potions to practice their trade and the Chemics skill represents this.  It may be used to identify poisons, drugs, potions, medicines and other substances as well as to manufacture such items.  A chemic check is required in almost all aspects of poison-craft as well to assure the users safety and to successfully use poisons.  Chemics allows the collection and proper storage of poisons and other dangerous substances (such as slimes and molds), and without this skill even safely obtained monster poison tends to become inert quickly.  Additionally a chemic check is required to properly apply poison to weapons.  Chemics is also a useful skill in medicine as successful uses of the skill will sometimes (it may be less effective against stronger monster poison) allow the Chemist to create compounds that slow or even cure disease, poison and similar toxic effects.


Scholarship is a skill that represents a character’s general and specific knowledge of history, dead languages and other esoteric fields of study useful in exploration of forgotten ruins.  With a successful check, a scholar can decipher the meaning of an ancient inscription or even understand ancient technology well enough to explain its purpose and perhaps means of operation.  This skill can be used to gain information about the likely source and purpose of treasure, magical items, constructions or dungeon dressing.
In a game with ancient technology or non-magical items with fantastical effects, Scholarship may be used in lieu of an identify spell as a downtime action to determine the operation, powers and origin of such technological artifacts.  Some such artifacts may also provide damage or other bonus for each point of scholarship skill.


The skills of the grafter, the actor, entertainer, spy and courtier.  Flattery, disguise, oratory and slight of hand to pass a bribe, lift a pocket watch or dispose of the incriminating evidence as the secret police kick down the door.  Legerdemain consists of all the ‘soft’ skills of deception and its successful use will give a character a +1 to any reaction roll resulting from parlay, or a charisma check based on deception. Additionally this skill includes the disguise and impersonation so that with a successful check, sufficient materials, and knowledge of the habits or classes of the disguise’s subject the skill user can trick others into believing them to be someone else.
As mentioned above this skill also includes the sort of sleight of hand associated with the classic thief skill “pick pockets”.  This has always been an underutilized skill, but a large part of that may be the descriptive name, Legerdemain can be used for anything requiring nimble fingers and deception, from card tricks to swapping documents during a negotiation.

Animal Handling

Beyond the basic care and feeding of animals, there is a great deal of skill in properly motivating training and maintaining control of both war and pack beasts.  While it causes little difficulty to handle a single attack dog in combat, a pack of such dogs or more monstrous creatures demand special skill to control.  Animal Handlers may control up to ½ their own level +1 HD of war beast (more if they are specialists who have elected to take the Animal Handler kit/aptitude).  An animal handling skill check is required to retain or regain control of a frightened beast, and also to compel animals to act against their natural impulses (such as encouraging most hounds to attack the undead or other otherworldly creatures). 

Animal Handlers also know how to properly care for their pets, and their animals will have +1 HP for every point of Animal Handling skill.


A rare skill, limited to those who have actual rigorous training in the magical arts: church inquisitors, well taught wizards and a few esoteric scholars.  Arcana is a powerful skill however, similar to scholarship, but much more focused on specific kinds of magical knowledge. 

With a successful application of the Arcana skill a practitioner may emulate the effect of the 1st level Magic-User Spells “Read Magic” and “Identify” as well as generally gaining knowledge about magical effects or objects.  For example on a successful Arcana Skill check the character could determine that the effect of a polymorph spell was temporary, or investigate a destroyed skeleton to discover it had been animated recently by arcane ritual.

Using this spell to read magical writings means that it can be used by non-casters to cast magic-user spells from scrolls.  This use of the spell has a downside however as failure will result in the destruction of the scroll (while failure to read a magical inscription or conduct an investigation just wastes time).  Likewise the Identify function of the Arcana skill represents a long study of a magical object and requires an entire between session, town phase or downtime action to perform, with failure meaning that the item remains unidentified, but another attempt may be made after the next session of play.


Stealth is the skill associated with assassins and thieves, but useful to any character who wishes to avoid being spotted.  Hiding in shadows, moving silently through piles of dry leaves, and slipping past guards are all part of the stealth skill.  Failure of the skill doesn’t automatically mean that the character gives away their presence (if previously hidden), and certainly if given ample time and in an environment with concealment options, the skill is unnecessary to hide. However, where true skill (sneaking past an alert beast, hiding in the shadows of a pillar, moving across a creaking wooden floor to loot a sleeping merchant’s nightstand or slipping behind a guard to assassinate him) is required this skill should be used.   

One of the more popular uses of the Stealth skill is to try to set up a target for a backstab in melee combat.  I am torn about this, and generally prefer separate backstab rules (targets may engage in melee combat with enemies up to their attack bonus e.g. one per HD for monsters before any additional opponent overwhelms their defenses and automatically makes backstab attacks) for ganging up on enemies, but believe successful round using stealth at the beginning of a combat should allow the specialist to make a backstab attack when they reveal themselves if their target is engaged in melee combat with another.


The skill of fixing, understanding and manipulating small devices and tools.  Most often it is used by scavengers to disarm small mechanical traps or their triggers, but is also valuable for picking locks and to repair jammed firearms or other broken weapons.  It’s a fairly similar skill to Engineering, and in a less technologically advanced setting I might roll the Engineering and Tinker together into a single skill.

When using this skill I generally err on the side of the players, especially involving traps,  a failed skill check results in delay (and another random encounter check), rather then triggering a trap or permanently jamming a lock.  After all, most locked doors in an exploration game are meant to be a minor obstacle rather then something the party has only a small chance of overcoming. And most small traps, susceptible to the tinker skill (I wouldn’t use it for large or magical traps like falling ceilings or explosive runes, depending on player ideas to bypass these sorts of traps) are nuisances designed to make the player chose if they are more afraid of random monsters or springing traps.


Any character can climb a rope, or rough stone wall with time and effort, but the acrobat can do it quickly, silently and with a fair bit of style.  This skill not only replaces the traditional “Climb” skill, but allows the acrobat to engage in other athletic feats, such as leaping over chasms or across rooftops.

Acrobatics might also function as a combat skill, allowing the acrobat to disengage from melee, rush past enemies or make flying attacks from the rear rank, though this sort of use would have to be situational and would depend largely on GM rulings.


Force is a simple skill of properly applying strength to break things in an efficient manner.  It is a universal skill, most commonly used by scavengers to smash open locked or stuck doors.  Tools (crowbars, hammers, or wrenches) give a+1 to skill bonus in appropriate situations.  Failure indicates a noisy and failed opening attempt requiring an encounter check or breakage.  This skill is generally applicable to other tests of strength that are beyond a normal ability check such as bending metal bars, shifting sarcophagus lids  and holding gates shut against a battering ram.  Because of the extreme nature of the feats associated with the Force skill, it is rarely available to characters in my games, instead limited to the 1 in 6 chance associated with opening doors in the early editions of D&D.  However, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of some specialized ‘strongman’ type of character with greater skill. 

Search or Awareness

While passive Listening is modeled in my game with a Wisdom check or as the result of a random encounter roll, active searching and listening at doors is a general skill, which like “Force” is available to all. Certain varieties of specialists (thieves, rangers and explorers) may also increase their ability with this skill.  Search is used to search through a general area for either items of interest or secret doors, specifically examine objects or small areas for a trap of some kind, eavesdrop on other’s conversations from a safe distance or listen at doors for evidence of what’s beyond.   It encompasses the traditional listen, find traps and search checks, making it a generally valuable skill.

An alternative way of using this skill (perhaps retitled as Awareness) would be as a form of save.  Assuming some traps or ambushes (giant falling stone blocks, carefully set ambushes with crew served weapons, large explosives, magical vortexs) are completely unsurvivable, a character might roll a reactive search roll to suddenly sense the danger and drop to the ground, leap back or otherwise narrowly avoid destruction.  This provides most PC’s with a 1 in 6 chance of avoiding these deadly traps, but gives specialists an advantage that really encourages their players to act as scouts.


  1. I'm liking awareness. It's already sorta there in the core rules (i.e. traps) but would the name serve to lead folks to believe it would impact the chance of being surprised?

    1. I don't know, I don't play with an awareness rule in my game, it's just an idea I'm floating. Names are changeable, and house rules are fine. If someone likes the ideas of thieves or whomever getting a chance to avoid surprise with a skill check, why not? I mean I might make a "Scout" subclass ability immunity from surprise, and with individual initiative that works just fine.