Tome of Prowess (3.5e Sourcebook)/Running a Skilled Game

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Running a Skilled Game[edit]

Giving new abilities based on something that everyone gets, like skills, doesn't just empower the players, it empowers the world. And this means there could be big changes to the threats that players face and the structure of the campaign setting itself. Incorporating these changes means that some challenges that used to be trite and banal for their level have new life breathed into them, but more than that, they make the world a more fantastic place to be. It also means that there's more to keep track of, though, in a game that already had a lot to deal with.

This chapter is primarily intended for the DM, to help them more easily work these changes into their games without increasing their workload. Shortcuts and special rules for using these abilities with monsters are presented here. These should help keep encounters manageable.

Ways that these skill abilities affect the day-to-day lives of people in the world are also listed here. While not important in most encounters, remembering these changes when describing a scene or building a campaign world helps make the world feel like a cohesive whole. Players may also find these suggestions useful during their downtime, as they allow them to interact with the world in fantastic, yet normal, ways.

Running Skillful Creatures[edit]

You've seen the new skills and their abilities, and that's a lot of extra stuff for a DM to worry about applying to every creature in the world. You will need to remember it with respect to more classed NPCs, since a substantial portion of their power now comes from these skills. Not making use of the skill abilities for a fighter or barbarian means that they are a substantially reduced threat against the player characters who are using their abilities. Primary spellcasters, on the other hand, who tend to have more spell options and fewer skills, have other effects to fall back on and probably won't need to use their skill abilities as often.

Monsters are a different problem, however. Most monsters already have abilities relevant for their CR, and adding additional abilities based on skills adds complexity and depth, but not necessarily substantial combat ability. Most monsters played at an appropriate level before this was written, and most of them will continue to do so without utilizing it fully. So if you don't want to worry about tracking all of these extra tricks for monsters, you don't need to. In most cases, you can just give them the rank 4 and below abilities and not worry about anything else. If you do want to grant a monster use of skill abilities for whatever reason, you will need to determine which abilities they have access to.

Skill Abilities Available to Monsters[edit]

For most PCs and NPCs, their level is equal to their hit dice is equal to their CR. This statement is not true for the majority of monsters. They don't always have levels, and their hit dice often exceeds their CR. While this leads to some odd but manageable behavior in saves and attack bonuses, it is absolutely unworkable with these skill abilities. A creature with humanoid hit dice, for example, gains 1 CR for every 4 hit dice that it possesses. This means that a CR 1 humanoid has 4 hit dice and up to 7 ranks in their "class" skills. It would have access to the skill abilities of a 4th level character if there weren't additional rules governing access in these cases. The problem just gets worse as the CR increases. A CR 4 humanoid has 16 hit dice, up to 19 ranks in any "class" skills, and the same skill abilities as a 16th level character. That level of ability is pretty much unworkable for a creature with such a low CR.

So, for the purposes of monster skill abilities, a monster that has non-class based hit dice is limited to skill abilities with a rank requirement of less than their CR + 3 in any "class" skill, regardless of how many ranks they actually have. They are limited to abilities with a requirement of half their CR + 3 for any "cross-class" skills they possess, regardless of how many ranks they actually have.

For their skill bonus, you have two options. Reducing their skill bonuses to their CR + 3 + relevant attribute modifier + special modifiers is certainly the best course of action, but it is also a substantial amount of work. In most cases, you can simply allow them to retain their full bonuses or reduce them by up to half without causing significant issues. Since they are limited to certain abilities already, their having a large modifier just means that they can use skills more reliably than a PC of the same level as their CR. In some cases, their using an ability reliably may be exactly what you want out of the encounter.

Setting the DCs for Abilities Used Against Monsters[edit]

Once you have determined which skill abilities to allow, you may need to do a bit of work to set DCs for the skill abilities. While many of the skill ability DCs are simple, some ask that you add a particular number to determine the DC. Which is all well and good for the players who don't have a lot of creatures to track, but the job of a DM is a busy one, and in the middle of combat, it's not always convenient or even worthwhile to look up the specific numbers of a monster. And in this system, that can happen as often as your players feel like using particular skill abilities. Thankfully, you don't have to be particularly rigorous here.

If you don't feel like looking up a monster's attribute bonuses when determining the DC for a skill ability being used against them, you can use the following shortcut. If you assume that their attribute modifier is +3, with an additional +1 per 3 CR, you'll generally have a reasonable estimate. You can also add or subtract 2 from this number, for creatures who would have an above average or below average attribute score.

DCs that ask for base attack bonuses are harder to work with in this sense. Because base attack bonus is based on hit dice, which doesn't match with CR, you can have values ranging from half of a creature's CR to almost twice a creature's CR. And that is actually a huge range. For monsters without class levels except for dragons and outsiders, you can use a value of three-quarters of their CR for poor combatants, their full CR for average combatants, and one and a half times their full CR for good combatants to get close to their base attack bonuses. For dragons and outsiders, just use their full CR. For NPCs with class levels, you should just look it up or select a value between half of their CR and their full CR. You generally shouldn't add or subtract anything to these values, because you've already dealt with creatures being good or bad at combat and base attack bonuses are much more strongly tied to CR than attribute modifiers are.

Yes, this really boils down to "just make up something appropriate if you can't be bothered to look it up", and that's actually fine. If you stick to this range, apply the bonuses or penalties fairly and evenly, and do it often enough for things to average out, your players will still succeed on their abilities as often as expected over the long run.

Running a Skilled Society[edit]

There are a number of ways that having fantastic skills affects players, but these skills also impact the way the world functions. This is a list of the ways that the world looks different (while still somehow staying the same) when everyone has access to the fantastic.


It is rather common for those in certain arts to have substantial ranks in acrobatics. Tumblers and similar physical performers are almost assured to practice the skill. Dancers, however, are also often skilled in acrobatics and use it to perform particular difficult events. Swan Lake set over an actual lake is a perennial favorite, and ballet scenes performed atop fog to illustrate a dream sequence are also quite common where skill permits. As the skill needed for such a dance is relatively rare, tickets are quite expensive.

Acrobatics has substantial uses among rapid response guard teams. Those sufficiently skilled can remain in a central location, and then ride a ballista bolt, catapult shot, or similar projectile to wherever they are needed (most bows are unsuited for this task due to their relatively short range, but skilled archers can make up for that). If they overshoot a bit, they can just tumble into the wind to land safely. It's thus a good idea to not allow guards to sound the alarm when you know such people are employed, because they really can paratroop into the fray. While this trick also works for messengers, and thus couriers of all sorts, it is used less often because of the damage that siege weapons can do if fired repeatedly at your own city.

Aside from those groups, acrobatics also tends to be a favorite skill of sailors. The ability to traverse narrow joints and rigging with a constantly changing incline is quite valuable on a ship. Practice with this skill also serves a sailor on land, when they inevitably say something to start a fight. Even surrounded, a sailor has a fair chance of tumbling out of the thick of things, to find a nice corner to finish their ale while they watch the new floor show. In campaigns where flight is relatively common, sky sailors (or aeronauts) also enjoy the ability to fall hundreds of feet without bouncing violently off the ground at the end.


Affability doesn't affect the world in ways that are particularly apparent. Affable people can shortcut long-term relationship building and can make people like them rather quickly, but that just means they have a lot of friends. They can talk their friends into slightly (or even actually) crazy things, but people do crazy things without significant pushing all the time anyway. These two abilities of affability don't have much of an impact then, they just put a bit more narrative control in the hands of players.

What affability changes is how fights start, since it can be used to delay a fight or even defuse it entirely. When two sides are about to turn to violence, the ability to delay things for even a few seconds is potentially huge. That time itself could be all you need to convince your enemy that there really isn't anything to fight over, or buy a few more precious seconds for reinforcements to arrive. Villains can even explain their master plans without PCs jumping the gun and murdering them. Stalling the heroes while you really get into a good monologue can even buy just enough time to trigger your master stroke!

It is a favored skill of all who value words and relationships over violence — i.e. nobility, diplomats, and Saturday morning cartoon villains.


Like affability, appraisal doesn't really change much of how the world works. Where once you could get a feel for the price of mundane objects, now you can get a feel for the price of most anything in the world. Merchants who see a wide assortment of bizarre and ancient goods are better able to judge the power in an item, and thus its worth. Some merchants can even tell you what functions an object has and how to trigger them. As few players went to merchants to purchase mystery items, this simply reinforces what they should have been doing all along.

Similarly, any reasonably good merchant should know what corners they could cut with their product to make it appear better; that most don't is more a matter of ethics than ability. This is reflected in the inclusion of the forgery ability. Its inclusion also means that shysters are as good at catching bad products as they are at hiding them. Again, this just reinforces the sort of shady merchants that should have been here all along.

The only substantive difference from the changes to this skill is that merchants and fences are harder to trick. Skill in appraisal allows them to spot tiny inconsistencies in a forgery or disguise that might escape others. It is not as fast or reliable as simply being perceptive, though, which is why a merchant might look you over long and hard before deciding to trust you. Their ability to think through these details also allows them to talk their guards out of certain dangerous mental patterns. As an interesting side note, groups of appraisers are largely immune to fascinate-style mass marketing attempts.


The arcana skill, and the other magic skills, actually does change the way the world works a fair bit, since the number of people who can recognize and understand arcane phenomena is vastly expanded. Those who actually practice magic can just cast a spell to locate the magic in the world, while those with just an understanding of how it works can simply carry around an etheliometer and examine magical phenomena with it. Additionally, knowledge of how arcane magic functions can allow one to make inferences about creatures that are closely tied to it. This is applicable whether it's a creature common in myths and legend or one that was just created in a lab before the previous morning, and it lets towns better respond to new types of arcane creatures.

Those who learn about the fundamentals of arcane magic also gain the ability to use arcane spell completion items, even if they lack the consistency of those with more formal training. The ability to use these items increases the presence of magic on the battlefield, without increasing the number of spellcasters, since even a first level commoner could potentially pick up and use an arcane wand. It's no surprise, then, that low charge wands, whose charges may even renew daily, are handed out to defenders and strike teams alike.

This skill is not one that a commoner is likely to invest in, as they likely have more pressing and mundane concerns, but it would hardly be uncommon for a shopkeeper or a nobleman to have taken ranks in it. The benefits of the skill are also useful to those of less than honest professions, as some of the best 'troubleshooting' spells are arcane.


The athletics skill doesn't change the world much. If anything, it makes the lower levels of the world look more like the regular world. There are just some things that some people can't climb or swim in, like perfectly smooth walls of force and tsunamis. The higher levels, however, look a lot more fantastic. People can walk up those perfectly smooth walls of force, and then across the force ceiling without using their hands. All day spider climbing is the norm, not the exception, for higher-level characters. And this has a lot of implications for city defense.

Even if a city is lucky enough to have a wall of stone built around it, that just sets the DC such that only 3rd level characters and above can climb it. Most mundane fortifications, like hewn stone or wood, have DCs in the range that a 1st level character could climb them. Thus, material isn't much of a hindrance, but height can be. Any wall with a height greater than 15 feet is more than most creatures can climb with a single check, and increasing the number of checks required to get over a wall, and thus the amount of time, is a better way of stopping people from clearing it quickly. This also nicely counters the revised jump skill, so defensive walls intended to keep people out tend to be tall and reasonably well patrolled.

The swimming implications are less strong, as they don't come up as often. There just aren't a lot of tsunamis to swim against, and they're certainly not used as defensive fortifications to be breached. The swimming portion of athletics makes underwater excursions more bearable, however, as higher-level characters can actually fight and function underwater without any magic other than that used to breathe.

Aside from its pretty obvious use for those who spend time in the wild, athletics is a favored skill of those who travel the seas, since it assists them with climbing rigging quickly as well as staying afloat if they fall into the drink. The ability to swing stylishly from chandeliers into or over tavern or banquet fights is just an added bonus.


Bluff, as a skill primarily about lying, doesn't change much about the world at low levels. Except for people trying to get away from a fight. Liars, scoundrels, villains, and everyone else that is good at lying actually get to escape to fight another day once in a while. Combat distraction can often provide all the time that you need to start your escape unseen, which is often the difference between making it out alive and having your head posted on a spike at the nearby tavern while the heroes celebrate your demise. You can also foil the attempts of others to make people like them more, but that is often just a time-saving method used instead of more traditional swaying of opinion.

The higher-level implications are a bit more involved, however. Those skilled in lying can successfully evade alignment detection, the thought police, and even divination spells. They can actually be spies without getting caught in a magical web of detection, and they can do so without relying on magic themselves. As a result, espionage can actually occur, and not simply be ferreted out with a lucky detect magic followed by a mentally intrusive interrogation. It also means that there are effective non-magical counters against any thought police regimes in the world, and that resistance movements can grow as a result.


The ciphers skill doesn't affect much in the general world. Coded messages are sent and received, just as they have always been. Densely coded messages are possible with the skill, though, as they are not simply treated as an alternate language and translated by comprehend languages. The ability to share code schemes with others also allows for coded messages to be more common, as they are not the sole domain of those who understand them. And the ability of those who practice ciphers to understand and use scrolls is not particularly special, as there is only a slightly larger group than existing spellcasters.

The skill does changes things for explorers, archeologists, and other styles of grave robbers, though. Ancient tombs and unearthed manuscripts often contain written and symbolic traps in addition to the more standard ones, and this skill leaves them much better equipped to avoid them. Unless the traps were set by someone with a fair amount of skill in ciphers themselves...


The concentration skill is a useful one for spies and messengers. Since they can memorize a message or image and recreate it perfectly (with the proper artistic skill, anyway), they don't need to worry about being caught with incriminating or otherwise damaging documents. It also grants them the ability to resist magical attempts to strip the carried information from their minds.

That ability also has some strong implications for those who would run a country with magical enforcement of their will. There is nothing in the get out of my head ability that requires a creature to fight a magical compulsion as soon as it is applied, though in most cases you would probably want to. You could instead just bide your time and wait for an opportune moment to rebel. These sorts of breaks make it a bit harder for despots to crush the minds of their subjects, and allow for pockets of resistance to pop up in similar ways to the bluff skill.

Creature Handling[edit]

The expansions to animal handling present in the creature handling skill make for a much wider variety of creatures found in the bazaar for sale. Hydra used as beasts of burden, spiders used as riding mounts, stirges used as aerial messengers, and much much more is all possible with the expanded rules. That the people who train them also happen to be good riders of them is a simplification that works well enough in practice.

Other aspects of the skill rear themselves in security considerations. Leaving a creature with a good sense of smell and sharp ears outside a building entrance to signal when someone approaches is not a good security feature. People skilled in creature handling can calm these creatures, and even potentially befriend them such that they turn against their previous owners and masters. Man's best friend can be a fickle creature under the right circumstances.




A skilled and patient dowser is an extremely common feature in almost every city and mine in the world. It's easy to find the best places to dig a well when you can walk around with a stick until you find a good place for water. Similarly, you don't have a lot of mine shafts that aren't providing useful ore when you can point at the earth and know what's hiding in it.

Mid-level dowsers also make excellent guards, since they need not focus solely on perception to detect people trying to sneak into an area. They can just close their eyes and sense when people are entering an area. Those with a great deal of skill can even sense when people are trying to do it from a coterminous plane, like the ethereal. This makes them an extremely valuable commodity as guards, and somewhat common as backup to traditional detection methods in high-security castles and dungeons.


Escape Artistry[edit]


The Geomancy skill, like the other magic skills, does change the way the world works a fair bit, because it expands the number of people who can recognize and understand natural and elemental magical phenomena. The magic that can be understood is different from that understood with arcana, but the implications are similar. The applicability of this knowledge to creatures from the depths of myth or only recently seen in the world allows those who study it to better deal with swarms of elemental creatures or a grell invasion without running to a spellcaster for assistance. And the implications for magic items are the same as with the other magic skills as well — there are potentially a lot more wands in use out in the world.

And like the other magic skills, geomancy is not a skill that a commoner is likely to invest in. Or even most people in a city, for that matter. As it is primarily concerned with expressions of magic in the natural world, it is much more common in small towns out in the wilds. Here sheriffs or woodsmen may study it, as a number of natural spells make their lives easier. That they also provide debuffs or non-lethal takedowns for the rare brigand is much less concerning. Shamans and members of less civilized tribes are very likely to prefer the skill over arcana.










Like the other magic skills, the thaumaturgy skill does change the way the world works by increasing the number of people who can recognize and understand divine phenomena. The type of magic that can be understood is different from that understood with arcana or geomancy, but the implications are similar. Likewise, the applicability of this knowledge to creatures from myth or only recently seen allows those who live in the world to better deal with plagues of demons or hosts of angels without running to the nearest spellcaster. The implications for magic items are the same as with the other magic skills as well — there are potentially a lot more wands in use out in the world.

And like the other magic skills, thaumaturgy is not one that a commoner is likely to invest in. It is common among city guards, however, as a number of divine spells are great debuffs or non-lethal takedowns. They are ideal for use in locations where collateral damage should be avoided as much as possible. It is not as common among healers, however, as the revised heal skill performs many of the same functions without being wand-dependent. Some battlefield healers do take both, however, just to increase the number of options they bring into a fight.


The transformation skill changes the lives of adventurers much more than it changes the world. That isn't to say that it doesn't bring a few quirks with it, however, and there are many social events that make use of techniques from this skill. For example, it is not uncommon for seamstresses to have ranks in transformation so that they can capitalize upon the weight reduction and shaping techniques. Indeed, fetching "disguises" in the form of body sculpting and weight adjusting gowns, dresses, and lingerie are quite common among women at balls and other gala events. And while it does not take long to put one of them on, there is the chance that a party-goer might see through the innocent ruse if one does not make certain that everything is correctly applied. The result is that it really takes nobles forever to get ready for a party because they, or their servants, are taking 20 on their disguise checks.

Similarly, apothecaries with skill in transformation (or skilled suppliers) tend to carry Fire Walker Paint. This relatively inexpensive cream comes in every color of the rainbow, though red, orange, black, and gold are the most common. When applied to a person, it provides just enough fire resistance (6, for reference) for a performer to dance among the flames themselves. And at the right kind of parties, that's all that is applied to the performer. These ointments are also available in varieties that protect against lightning, acid, and cold, but those parties are out of fashion or just difficult to arrange in many locales.

More complicated transformations may be seen occasionally at themed parties, but they are often whimsical more than functional. Actual creature replication is almost always frowned upon, because those things can be scary. And no host wants to let them slip into his party and cause a ruckus by blending in with the entertainment. It would take forever to live that sort of shame down, if they were lucky enough to live through the night.

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