The lost art of skill synergy

Those of us who played D&D 3.5, especially the “high skill” classes like rogue and bard,  may remember “skill synergy.”  Skill synergy was a +2 bonus to one skill because you were trained in another skill.  For example, being trained in bluff gave you a +2 skill synergy bonus to diplomacy.  In this specific case, it was assumed that being able to lie made you better in diplomatic situations (“MY but you look lovely tonight!”).  There were a few of these, and if you had enough skill points, it was generally considered a good idea to load up on them whenever possible.

So, now we have 4.0, and no more skill synergy.  It’s an understandable change, since the point system behind skills is different now, and the skill list has been shortened considerably.  To give a blanket +2 to a skill is actually more significant now because there are less skills overall.  That’s fine.  However, I feel that the idea behind the mechanic is sound.  After all, it is easily argued that, for example, being athletic makes you better at certain acrobatic tasks, and being insightful makes you better at lying in certain situations.

It seems to me that all the articles I’ve read about skill challenges (and skill challenges themselves) seem to address the idea of synergy, even if they don’t call it “synergy.”  Giving a bonus to a “primary” skill check because there was a success at a “secondary” skill check is a nod towards the fact that skills do, in fact, interact and help one another towards an ultimate goal.    It’s not quite 3.5 synergy, but it’s close.

I think it’s high time to bring synergy back.  No, not as a house rule, and not as a blanket +2 to a specific skill either.  How would it work?


Next time you’re sent as an ambassador to a king who you have every reason to hate, perhaps you should request the DM to give you a +2 to your diplomacy checks because you’re also trained in bluff.  After all, (you could argue) we hate this guy, but we have to act nice towards him in order for our diplomatic overtures to come off as genuine! (Feel free to quote that word for word – “diplomatic overtures” is the real clincher)

What’s going on there?  Well, you’ve basically requested that the DM use his “best friend” (a +2 to a roll) in a specific situation.  You’ve also shown that you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on, and have defined a relationship between your PC and an NPC.  In other words, you’re thinking about the game, putting yourself into the situation, and being a good role player!  A well thought out, plausible argument as to why there should be a +2 for skill synergy would get that +2 at most tables every time.



To get your players thinking in this direction, they may need a little push.  After all, skill synergy was taken away from them in 4.0.  There is no doubt that they will latch back onto the idea if you show them that, with a little strategic thought about the specifics of a situation, they could have +2 to a skill check.  So, next time you pose a situation wherein a skill check is necessary, keep in mind (or find out) what skills the PCs have.  Then do a little synergistic thinking for them.  “Ok,” you tell one of them, “since you’re trained in endurance, and you’ll be doing this acrobatic performance for the queen for three hours, I’ll give you a +2 to your acrobatics check.”

I believe that this mechanic works best in non-skill challenge situations, since most skill challenges have primary and secondary skill checks already.  As noted above, these secondary skill checks are a type of built in synergy.  For example, if the “acrobatic performance” example above was a skill challenge, the endurance check would probably be a secondary skill that granted a +2 to the primary skill of acrobatics.  There’s also the hybrid “no sudden death” skill challenges where you keep going until you succeed, and cumulative penalties for successive failures.  In that scenario, you’d probably roll endurance alongside acrobatics, and gain acrobatics penalties for endurance failures; it’s the same idea, but moving in the opposite direction.

Using synergy, then, would work best in situations where you’re making a one-shot skill check.  Here are some more ideas, to get the creative juices flowing:

  • You’re looking for information around town regarding the activities of a religious cult (Trained in Religion; +2 Streetwise)
  • You’re observing the interactions amongst one of the oldest and most well known families in the area (Trained in History; +2 Insight)
  • You’re in the middle of the wilderness trying to tend to a poisoned or diseased comrade (Trained in Nature; +2 Heal)
  • You’re trying to scare off a gang of meathead street thugs (Trained in Athletics; +2 Intimidate)
  • You’re talking to a member of the local thieves’ guild (Trained in Bluff or Thievery; +2 Perception or Insight)

So what do you think?  Do we need to bring synergy back?   Can you think of any other “synergistic” scenarios?

This entry was posted in Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s