Generalists vs Specialists

Generalists vs Specialists

Posted by on Jul 8, 2016 in Tabletop and Board

Generalists vs Specialists

A weekly D&D recap by the party’s resident bard (naturally) got me thinking this morning about a set of situations we encountered during this week’s game.

party1First, the party encountered a panel set into a wall in a narrow hallway. Most of the party tried to Perception it’s purpose, but the overall thought seemed to be that this was part of trap, and should be avoided. Second, the bard was on point when it came to recalling historical details triggered by various elements encountered in the tomb they were spelunking through in search of Varrum.

After reading Brenda’s post and subsequent comment about that weird panel, I got to thinking: was there a bias between allowing the party to figure out the panel, and the bard’s effortless success in parsing things she was seeing?

Basically, yes, although I’m going to blame the way D&D set up its skill system. For those who aren’t aware, characters have skills which are values that are added to a roll on a 20 sided die (d20). This value needs to meet or exceed what’s called a difficulty check (DC) in order to succeed. It’s a streamlined system that relies on the player’s decision to put points in skills which represent the character he or she wants to play, their race, or their class. If a character is a bard, for example, you might expect that she’d have a high History skill because history is something that bards would be interested in: names, dates, places, and events make up a bard’s reason for being a bard. A monk or a ranger wouldn’t really care much for learning how long King Raje the IV sat upon the Obsidian Throne in the depths of the Shining Caverns, and would have lower History values. Because skills are added to a d20, the logic goes that there’s a greater chance of meeting or exexceeding a task’s set DC the higher the skill value.


The problem with the skill-DC system is basically that d20. Between two characters with a low differential in a particular skill, a random roll on the die could see a ranger succeeding in a History check, while a bard fails the same. In some sense, that doesn’t seem right. From an RP perspective, a one specialist class should never get blindsided by a more generalist class in a particular skill. The reason this happens (aside from the die) is that the DC is usually presented as an absolute, or if a sliding value, based on external or environmental factors (such as terrain, available equipment, etc). Breaking down a door has the same DC for everyone, be it a hulking barbarian or a diminutive gnome, remembering the name of a powerful wizard has the same DC regardless of a character’s reasons for knowing that name, and so on.

I understand now that I was enacting a bias in this week’s session. On one hand, a ranger — eagle eyed and always on point for distinguishing elements — maybe, logically, should have had some kind of advantage in dealing with that panel, the same way the bard was granted consideration for pulling all that lore out of recessed memory. I do recall that at the time, having the bard remember something just made sense, but the DC of figuring out the panel was left at the “one size fits all” recommended by the module documentation.

Bard_Clint-Cearley_PHB5eMy thought, then, was to treat DCs on a per-character, per-class, per-race basis. A bard should have a lower DC for tasks involving history, lore, and myths than most other classes. A ranger should have an easier time on observation and situational awareness tasks. Conversely, an elf might know more about elven ruins than a bard simply because the elf would have grown up with stories of ancient racial homelands, while the bard might have just heard rumors. Ideally, skills should be set to model this, but it doesn’t seem that the D&D skill system is robust enough to reflect the kinds of life experiences that come with being specialists that a class-based system is meant to represent. If we’re talking about a role playing game, then it makes sense that a particular role should have intangible advantages based on the situation and that character’s class and race.

Of course, this could go way off the reservation and create a party of uber-specialists. If the bard is the best at history, and fails, then why should anyone else try if they’re going to have a more difficult time of it? I get antsy when only a few players participate in a check that everyone could and probably should be participating in, especially if the party sees the initial rolls coming in low. Sometimes, being a generalist is a Good Thing because you’re not locked into one character, one task, one role as the lynchpin for success. Setting a sliding DC scale doesn’t prevent people from trying, though, and maybe if a specialist fails his or her role, the assistance mechanic could come into play to allow the specialist to help someone else with the task.