Like many, I have always had a problem with skills in D&D, whether it was when D&D and I first "met" with the Red Box or it was when I tried out 4e. Each edition has taken a different tack on skills and in each case I have found something wanting.
This post's title refers to the number of skills I want to bring the list of skills up to, or down to, for my own D&D mash-up. The gambling reference (doubling up and down) refers to the random element or gambling of D&D: rolling dice. The up and down reference also refers to the mechanic of rolling up (above a stated number) or down (below a stated number).
A bit of skill history:
In ODD, skills in an explicit sense are absent, but the accomplishment of skill-like tasks (e.g. tracking or finding traps) is often accomplished by rolling a d6. DMs also often rely on the simple mechanic of having players make stat-based checks by rolling under a given statistic on a d20. Have you ever been told to "Make a dex check."? The d6 thing has lagged along and is still present in 2e (e.g. elves detecting secret doors). Making stat-based checks has also carried on from edition to edition, and has formed the basis of the proficiency system that is used in 2e and the rank/stat modified systems that have come along into 3X/PF and 4e. AD&D and 2e also feature d100 checks (thief skill checks).
The "winning" mechanic which has survived every edition in one form or another is the d20 based stat check. So... based on its ability to keep reappearing, and the fact that I have always taken a shining to it, the stat check is what I am going to keep working with in my D&D mash-up.
Now that I have made this decision I want to consider three different aspects:
Rolling up or down? Do I want players to be rolling above or below a target (or DC: difficulty class)?
I need to decide if I am going to roll with the basic "...make a dex check" or if am going go with the more rules-ey 3X/PF and 4e systems of using ranks and stat modifiers to make up total skill bomuses and penalties.
How many skills do I want to have in my game? Do I want to stick with the expansive list of nearly 40 skills that are ingrained into 3.5 (one extreme) or do I want to take the more minimalist list of 17 skills from 4e?
Rolling up or rolling down?
I like rolling down more than rolling up: rolling to get a die roll below a given target rather than above a given target. I think the draw of this mechanic has three simple, identifiable sources. The first two reasons tie in to one another and the third will be addressed in the next paragraph. First, it is what I did when I was a 1st level cleric (yep... my 1st character was a cleric). It is what I am comfortable doing. After years of playng 3X/PF and some time playing 4e I have to say that the idea of DCs seems somewhat hollow. Second, when I give out a target to my PCs or when I am rolling as a PC, I want to hear "plus"or "minus". I want to know what is going on: are thing going well (+3) or not so well (-7)? I understand that any set DC is either more difficult than another... but it ends up being a bit too abstract. As a player, I would rather hear "Make a stealth check, -4," from my DM, than "Make a stealth check, DC 23". I have asked other players and DMs; they seem to agree. It's just sounds cooler, and more fun, to make a check with a DM given modifier instead od shooting for a given DC.
...make a dex check or add up some modifiers...
I will splitting the difference: using the basic stats upon which the skill is based (e.g. strength for athletics) and adding in some modifiers (e.g. ranks). By choosing to roll below a given number (above) I have already, kind of, answered this question because I need to find a base number for each skill on which a character is going to base its check. I could just select a number and start with that as a base (10 for example... a pretty neutral target for a d20 roll) and then have players add their appropriate ability modifiers (e.g. +1 for having a 12 strength). Then I would have to add in whatever classs and level based modifiers they will be receiving. I have decided to go back to the old dex check: combining the selection of the base target and the ability modifier into one step. A charcater's ability score is already modified in a sense, it is represents divergance from a mean ability scores of 10 and 11. The next piece is to decide how I want to add in the class and level element. I plan on just ripping the ranks system right out of 3X/PF... I do plan on toning dow the amount or speed at which characters get ranks, especially for non-rogues. I have already mentally toyed with a few mechanics. We will have to see what system is teased into long term usage through play.
How many skills?
This is another case in which I am going to split the difference on D&D canons. I have decided to take a mashed up list combining the expansive list of narrowly defined skills from 3X/PF with the slimmed down, broaden list of 4e skills. I have come up with a list of about 22 skills (the final cut is still getting some work). I have made my decisions as to which skills have made it based on a 3 criteria: usefullness, breadth and overlap. Usefullness is simple... Will the skill be useful in play? By this I mean to say that the skill has an application, or many applications, in actual game play. Candlemaking might (...I said might) be kind of cool when you are doing crafts with your grandma. But would you like your barbarian warlord to be trained as a candlemaker? I doubt it. Breadth refers to the need to make sure that the skill has a relatively broad field of use. e.g. A charcater trained in dungeoneering might be able to either successfully find some edible fungus in a cavern or to determine the party's depth underground. Finally, by overlap I mean that in most cases a character will have the option of either using one skill or another. In some cases one skill may be better suited to a situation, but there will still be options. For example: using either diplomacy or intimidate to "convince" a merchant to give the party a better price on a mule. If the NPC merchant is a small, weak weasel of a man, intimidate might be the better option. Therefore a PC using imitimidate would receive a better modifier.
The final list of skills will follow soon.