Skill Taxes and Ability Scores

As has been mentioned several times previously on this blog, a skill tax is some feature that a player feels compelled to take, not because they are interested in the skill itself, but because someone in the party should have the skill for the good of the group. Perception is such a skill, because you only need one character to be able to notice things (with perhaps one backup if the primary goes down). This is usually considered a bad thing, because the player that takes the skill is down one resource slot compared to all the other players. The same kind of dynamic can arise for things other than just skills (for example, the thief as trap finder and the cleric as healer).

I was thinking about this when reading the 5E playtest materials, which boil down skill-like checks and saving throws to ability scores. This is not a new thing, as people have been making ability checks (and even ability saving throws) for a long time. And I gather other systems (like Castles & Crusades) do something similar. But it does institutionalize and generalize a system that is already rather well understood and well liked.

What is the connection to skill taxes here? If wisdom is perception (one example from the playtest materials) then you also get all the other benefits of a high wisdom when taking it for the boost to perception (never mind for now all the problems with perception systems; my point is about features that players feel obligated to take). And, running this system using 3d6 in order (which will presumably be one of the character creation options in the final product) will help avoid excessive optimization potential.

7 thoughts on “Skill Taxes and Ability Scores

  1. JDJarvis

    I must confess I don’t really understand the concept of the skill tax where a pc in a group is Mr. Skill X and this is seen as a bad thing. Being really apt in a skill isn’t a disadvantage its a perk, it isn’t a loss of mediocrity its a boon.

    1. Random Wizard

      Good point. My players get a real satisfaction from being specialists. One is the “pick pocketer”, one is the “meat shield”, one is the “diplomat”.

      I think the real issue might be similar to what happens in MMOs. In warcraft their are three roles, protector, healer and dps. The problem has been what if you can’t find a protector or a healer?

      The parallel would be what if your D&D group does not have a trap finder or a diplomat? The Dungeon Master has to work around it I guess. But sometimes the role is very important to how the game plays.

    2. Brendan

      It’s true that many people enjoy being specialists. And it’s actually more realistic. Division of labor in modern society means that many people specialize in skills that they are not really interested in “for the good of the party.” I think the problem is that some of these skills (esp. in their 3E and 4E manifestations) are so potent and critical to potential game flow (perception and diplomacy are the standouts to me) that it seems to make sense to roll them into their respective ability scores (wisdom and charisma). To make them skills just adds to the optimization potential (and thus character build complexity) without really adding anything to the nature of game play, I think.

    3. Random Wizard

      I am still trying to write an article about the old system of “roll under your ability score” versus the 3E mechanic of “DC rolls”. I much prefer where the target number needed is written down on the player’s character sheet and then you just make up a quick modifier (-2, -4, etc…). Since I played 1E and 2E back in the day, it just feels more natural to me then trying to come up with a DC number on the fly.

    4. Brendan

      Yeah, I agree regarding roll under. For some reason, many people now think that sometimes wanting to roll high and sometimes wanting to roll low is confusing. It has never seemed like an issue to me (and rolling under percentile has always seemed very clear to me). It is also perhaps an artifact of the obsession with a core mechanic.

    5. Brendan

      I’ll also quote a reply I left on G+:

      I’m not dogmatic on this issue. Back in the 90s when I played Second Edition, one of our common house rules was a seventh perception stat, rolled 3d6 (or 4d6 drop lowest, depending on the game) just like every other ability score. We didn’t have a DC system, since this was prior to 3E, so it was just roll under.

      However, what is gained by making this open to character optimization? That is what makes it a skill tax. The traditional hear noise (1 in 6 or 2 in 6 depending on class) works just as well, is simpler, and doesn’t mean that one player needs to spend skill resources on perception. At least, that is what I have come to believe recently.

      (Note: edited for spelling. Stupid Blogger doesn’t allow editing in place, so now this is out of order.)


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