As I write my "Dark Fantasy Hack" - a somewhat minimalist (or at least elegant) version of the game - I'm considering cutting skills entirely... but less make a small exercise first.
Here is what we've got int he original game:
* Sleight of Hand
* Animal Handling
How many skills can we cut without significant loss?
|art by Rick Troula.|
* Athletics - this skill in redundant with Strength. This means that characters with low Strength and high athleticism are rare; you'll have a hard time finding them in movies, literature, etc., when comparing those that are good (or bad) at both things. You can safely ditch this skill by using the optional rules in the DMg or doubling the Strength modifier.
Notice I'm using "adventurers" or "protagonists" as a rule. Of course you can have some kind of professional athlete (or other specialist) that is only good in one sport. But this is not a common character concept in D&D and adjacent fiction.... at most, a great athlete that cannot fight would be a NPC.
How do we measure that? Well, ONE way is to see how many classes in 5e have athletics as a skill and ALSO Strength as a "suggested" ability. I'm not looking at this one a case by case basis, but, to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, you can see that the classes who rely most on Strength (Barbarians, Fighters, Paladins) have athletics on their skill lists.
* Acrobatics - similarly to athletics, this skill in redundant with Dexterity.
* Sleight of Hand - a bit redundant with Dexterity... However, I could see a character good with delicate things that is not necessarily good at dodging or shooting a bow, and vice-versa. Maybe this has more to do with Dexterity being too powerful than with the specific skill. Does this make sleight of hand a specialist skill? I dunno. I gonna say "maybe" for this one.
To make things clear, I would call a specialist someone who could be great with a skill regardless of ability. So, maybe we might have someone who is not wise or clever, but is REALLY good with nature. A healer with low Wis and high Int is also easy to imagine, etc. Also, so specialists are a bit RARE among adventurers... every PC should be able to run, hide or dodge, but not necessarily know magic or medicine.
This is not clear-cut. But I think you get the idea.
* Stealth - redundant with Dexterity.
* Arcana - like sleight of hand, I could see how this would be redundant with Intelligence (and, in 5e, there are no classes I can think of that rely on Intelligence except spellcasters). It si easy to see, however, how this would be a specialist skill in a low magic setting.
* History - probably redundant with Intelligence... like arcana, could be a specialist skill.
* Investigation - "When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check". I had to look that up to make sure. Well, this is similar to history; probably redundant, could be a specialist skill, but I doubt it - all PCs should be able look for clues and make deduction, and even Batman and Sherlock Holmes are extremely intelligent characters.
* Nature - This is where things start to get difficult. This is certainly NOT redundant with Intelligence, when you think of the low Int barbarian that know a lot more about nature than a high Int wizard. Using Wisdom would make it slightly better, but not much (think Barbarian versus Cleric).
But it is also not exactly SPECIALIST skill - since it is a common enough character concept IMO, and also something LOTS of characters in the same party could have (a party with three healers or historians is a lot rarer, for example). So... this skill is almost necessary.
* Religion - look, a cleric or paladin know a lot about HIS OR HER RELIGION... but not necessarily ALL religions. So, specialist skill. However, theologians are rare characters. and, in a world where deities are magical, magicians will certainly know a bit about deities, demosn, spirits, ressurrection, etc. (use history for the non-mystical aspects). So, probably redundant with other skills (arcana and history).
* Animal Handling - Similar to nature. In fact, a bit redundant with other skill (nature), since, again, not many character that are "good with animals, bad with nature".
* Insight - Your Wisdom (Insight) check decides whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Redundant with Wis.
* Medicine - a bit redundant (most doctors in fiction are smart, but smart people are not that often capable of doing medicine), but mostly a specialist skill. Also, could be Intelligence instead of Wisdom, but anyway...
* Perception - redundant with Wis, and also a bit redundant with other skill (Insight). Also, wouldn't it be cool if perception were context-specific? So,t he ranger notices everything in the wild, but the aristocrat measures every look in the court, etc.
* Survival - a bit redundant with other skill (nature),
* Deception - redundant with Charisma. Not being able to lie is a common limiting factor in some archetypes, but not exactly a lack of skill.
* Intimidation - shouldn't be a skill. Also, you could intimidate with Strength, etc.
* Performance - redundant with Charisma. If very specific (playing a lute, for example), it might be a specialist skill.
* Persuasion- redundant with Charisma.
Notice that it is hard to think of a good actor, leader, or lair with low Charisma.
* Sleight of Hand - redundant, maybe specialist.
* Arcana - redundant, maybe specialist.
* History - redundant, maybe specialist.
* Nature - useful.
* Medicine - specialist.
So, let's say we keep sleight of hand (which should probably include Thieves' tools), arcana, history, nature and medicine. Everything else gets folded back into ability scores. Five skills.
Here is one idea: you get to choose one skill, or more if you have high Intelligence (two at 14, three at 16... or something). Spell-casters MUST take arcana. Thieves (or other classes with many skills) get a few extra ones. Maybe you could trade a skill for a few languages or tool proficiencies. Might be a cool way of making Intelligence more useful.
Notice that these five skills are VERY close to backgrounds... you have a "wilderness" background (nature), an "urban" background (sleight of hand), and "arcane" background (arcana) and a couple of "scholar" backgrounds (history and medicine). If assign "history" to relevant nonmagical events (important families, lineages, wars, etc.) you'd have a "noble/knightly" background in there.
On the other hand, this is almost - ALMOST - fighter, thief, wizard and cleric.
But I'm still not sure that the entire skill system is worth keeping for these five skills.
Well, this is what I have for now. See you soon!