Today’s guest article was written by Adam Meyers, president of Drop Dead Studios. DDS will shortly be coming out with a Pathfinder supplement called Rogue Glory. Adam’s previous guest article here was D&D, Social Skills, and the Zen of Roleplaying Games. Thanks, Adam!
For the most part, players love options. As RPGs have advanced, there are some that do their best to give players every possible option for creating their characters. So many, in fact, that some options are hardly ever used. I’m a D&D and Pathfinder guy myself, so for me the examples that jump to mind first are skills like Handle Animal, Profession, and Craft.
4th Edition famously decided skills had gone too far and cut these options out. Pathfinder has continued the tradition of these skills, but I rarely find a player who takes them, except as a conscious decision to add “fluff” to their characters (the one exception being Profession: Sailor in aquatic games.)
Today, however, I’d like to stand up for these skills and character choices. If used correctly, these skills can go a long way towards making your character unique and helpful, and not in a “fluffy” kind of way. In fact, they can be complete game-changers if used right.
While I’ve used D&D skills as the baseline in this article, my advice isn’t limited to D&D. Just substitute your chosen game’s versions of these skills and you’ll be all set.
Like all aspect of the game, these skills will fly or fail depending on how the players, GM, and campaign implement them.
Many players refuse to take these “fluff” skills because they fear they’ll never be used. Why waste skill points on Profession: (Botany) when you could take Perception? But the problem with that sort of thinking is it places all the blame on the GM when you’re the one making the character. I know we all don’t want to become THAT guy: the bard who stops at every inn to get use out of his Perform skill while the rest of the party sits and watches. But there are other, less annoying ways to use these skills.
1. Pick a profession you can use on the road. For example, take Profession (Brewer), get a wagon and some brewing equipment, and suddenly you’re making your profession check every time you travel. Not only do you get a nice, steady source of income, but you’d be surprised how many situations can be solved by getting people drunk and starting alcohol fires.
2. Planning on using followers? Craft Weapon, Craft Armor, and a few silver coins a day to pay for assistants, and suddenly you’re equipping your 40+ men for half the cost. That’s quite a lot of money when you’re building an army.
3. Use Handle Animal in place of an animal companion. It has the benefit of not limiting you in type or number of animals and doesn’t penalize you for their death. Need to disarm some traps? Send a herd of sheep through the area. Need to distract a crowd? Trained mice will do the trick, and trained monkeys might even steal some jewelery for you. Yes you have to raise it from childhood, but who’s going to mess with you when you’ve got a pet T-Rex?
4. If you’re planning on outdoor combat, Profession (Driver) can be a lot of fun. If someone takes Craft (Seige Weapons) or Craft (Wagons) and builds you a nice armored vehicle, you can drive your party in circles and shoot arrows and spells at your enemies while always remaining out of melee range.
5. Take Craft (Siege Weapons) and Profession (Builder). Get them up high enough and whenever you have a day to prepare either to attack or defend, you can chop down a few trees and make yourself defences and a catapult to help yourself out.
Because these skills are so loosely defined, there are all sorts of creative ways you can change up the game just by taking them. Killing the enemy with a sword is memorable. Impersonating his servant with a Profession (Butler) check and poisoning his drink is priceless…
There’s a concept in storytelling that applies to RPGs as well called Chekov’s gun. It’s the idea that if you want to shoot someone in Act 3, you have to hang the gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1, and if you hang a gun on the mantlepiece in Act 1, then you should probably shoot someone in Act 3.
What this means for GMs is if your players take an obscure skill, you should build them encounters that use it.
I knew a guy who once gave a character Knowledge: (Famous Bigots). It was a joke on his part, a fluffy waste of skill he never thought he’d use. Imagine his surprise when the GM started introducing racist antagonists and began asking him to make famous bigot checks.
Many people won’t take a class with trapfinding unless they believe there will be traps, and if they take trapfinding it’s because they hope to use it sometime. Likewise, many players won’t bother with a wide variety of skills unless you give them a chance to use them.
Did someone take Profession (Cook)? Maybe the castle they’re infiltrating is in need of a chef. They could pay the bandits at the toll bridge, or if they have a PC with Craft (Boats), make a raft and avoid them altogether. Few things make a player feel special like getting to use that skill only he possesses. Heck, maybe the hook that gets them started on that inter-planar adventure you were working on was just someone was in need of a carpenter.
Since deciding to write this article, I’ve thought about how you could base a campaign around little-used skills. As long as the players understand the premise beforehand, I can see a lot of fun coming out of these concepts:
1. Instead of simply guarding a caravan, the PCs will RUN a caravan. They still travel around rescuing innocents, clearing dungeons, and the like, but a large part of their income will be made by trading and carrying goods. The PCs must hire experts or take the proper profession skills in order to care for the animals, repair the wagons, drive through rough terrain, or sell goods at a profit. All that travel time will likewise be great for crafting items to sell in town.
2. The PCs are all in the military, or will eventually gain control of their own private army. Profession (soldier) checks will be used frequently to train new recruits, keep order in camp, and to determine rank and promotion.
3. In a game featuring lots of caves and underground locations, Profession (Miner) checks can be used to dig through soft spots in rock walls, clear cave-ins, and extract rare metals from the stone.
4. In a game that features lots of infiltration and spying on nobles and merchants, players with skills such as Profession (Cook), Profession (Butler) and Profession (Tailor) will find themselves getting into places the average PC will not. Provided they can perform the office well enough to get hired, of course.
Based on all of the above, I hope you can see the potential in these often-overlooked skills. With players, GM, and campaign all on the same page, they can be a lot of fun for everyone involved.