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I have found myself in a position, as a DM, that is causing me some discomfort. What do I do when, in a specific situation, a PC's back-story and skill proficiency do not match? This has occurred to me on several occasions, but here is the most recent example:

One PC is a long-time, heavy drinker. Another rarely touches alcohol. The two have decided to have a drinking contest and they want to roll endurance checks to see who wins. However, the long-time drinker has a zero in endurance and the teetotaler has an eight. It seems to me, in this specific situation, their endurance rolls should be adjusted to accommodate their back-story, but I don't know how to adjudicate such an adjustment in a fair way.

To be clear, I'm looking for ideas regarding this type of problem, not just ideas for the drinking contest scenario. With that in mind, here's another situation, off the top of my head.

One PC grew up on the coast and has spent their entire life on, and around, boats. Another is from inland and has never been in a boat before. Now the two are going to row a boat, but the seafarer has a much lower athletics score than the other PC. Shouldn't he/she actually have an advantage in rowing against someone who has never touched an oar, despite having a lower athletics score? There's knowledge, experience, and muscle-memory that go into the task outside of just "Here's how athletic I am," right?

The question is: have any of you experienced these specific situations where the back-story and skill proficiency don't match up and, if so, how have you dealt with them in a fair and consistent way? Do I just let the PCs roll and say, Despite the fact that PC X has never (blank)ed before, they take to it readily... and Despite the fact that PC Y has been (blank)ing their whole life, they suck at it...?

For some reason, that seems lame. It completely disregards the back-stories my PCs took a lot of time to create and that are meant to be a real part of their character.

So, I guess it's a question of realistic storytelling vs. mechanics, and I'm at a loss. Any advice appreciated.

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A common way I saw many times was "you can attempt it, but with a -x penalty for difficulty" if someone attemps something not ordinary / something he never tried / something against the plot/setting/situation/GM's plan. –  vsz Jun 4 '12 at 6:10

5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

From Player's Handbook 1, pg178 (emphasis mine):

The DC depends on what you're trying to accomplish and is ultimately set by the Dungeon Master... The DM sets the DCs for specific situations based on level, conditions, and circumstances.

Staying conscious is likely to be a much lower DC for the heavy drinker than it is for the teetotaler. Likewise, basic boat-handling is going to be a lower DC for someone that's familiar with it than it will be for someone who's never done it before.

The teetotaler or boating novice is trying something that is difficult for them (because they've never done it before) but for which their innate physical/mental attributes are well-suited. The heavy drinker or expert boater is trying something that's practically automatic for them thanks to long practice, even if it's not something they would innately be good at.

Addendum 1: Note that you shouldn't be too generous with this. Knowing the correct way to row a boat will only help you for so long if you're an 8 STR wizard competing with an 18 STR & 18 CON fighter, even if the fighter has never touched an oar before in his life. In addition to keeping things realistic, this helps you avoid backstories along the lines of, "My character was raised by cultists who worshiped perfection, so I spent my childhood training to be good at everything."

Addendum 2: When appropriate, you may also opt not to give any help to the expert. Maybe they grew up doing stuff on boats constantly, and they've always sucked at it. Perhaps the heavy drinker isn't as "heavy" a drinker as they think they are, because they actually have a very low tolerance that their constant drinking hasn't affected very much.

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Thanks. Two questions: 1) Would you just use the basic DC table and make it easy for one and medium/hard for the other? 2) If the two are actively rolling against one another, even if I set the DC harder for the novice than the expert, what happens if they both succeed the roll? –  Lechlerfan Jun 3 '12 at 17:19
    
Yes, I would use the basic DC table (make sure you're using a DC table that fits your group; WotC has revised them a couple times, particularly for skill challenges, since sometimes everyone has to roll for themselves even if they're terrible at the skill in question, while other times the party picks the person with the best skill and everyone else does Aid Another on them). If they're rolling against each other, there's no DC involved; I would instead give the expert a bonus equal to the difference in the DCs you would assign if they weren't rolling against each other. –  Oblivious Sage Jun 3 '12 at 17:22
    
Ah! Yes! The "bonus equal to the difference in DCs" is perfect! Thanks! –  Lechlerfan Jun 3 '12 at 17:35
    
There's a lot of good and thought-provoking answers to this question so I'm throwing +1's all over the place, but I'll definitely be using this answer for my personal DMing. –  ioanwigmore Jun 4 '12 at 1:11

There are a number of ways to think about this.

First, it is absolutely within your capability and the rules to award circumstance modifers to rolls as you deem fit. Therefore, a trivial solution would be to award the heavy drinker a +2 and the light drinker a -2.

As an aside, the characters, if they've invested that much time in their backstories, should not need to roll for a challenge of this nature. The narrative requirements of their personal stories should dictate who wins and who loses to impact the character arcs of the respective characters.

However, don't sell the skills short. Setting aside a more comprehensive skill view that verges into house-rules, as seen here. The idea of endurance training represents the intentional ability to deal with physical hardships. Therefore, a clean-living character trained in endurance knows the tricks of drinking contests (eat a loaf of white bread with oil a couple hours before being one of the foremost). His body has been trained to endure real toxins. Just because he chooses to be clean living doesn't mean that he hasn't built up a certain level of resilience.

This is either a problem of backstory not matching the mechanics of the character: a clean living farm boy probably shouldn't have endurance training, or an incorrect view of the nature of the character.

The solution to the problem is to either explain how the character got her endurance training or for the character to choose, at the time, to automatically fail the appropriate activity to represent intentional holes in her learning.

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Thanks, especially regarding not selling the skills short and taking a longer view of them. As far as not needing to roll, if I have two PCs and they both want to roll something and that will contribute to their fun, I'm never going to disallow it. Thanks again. –  Lechlerfan Jun 3 '12 at 17:33

This is one of the problems with a low-granularity skill system like the one 4e has. There are two ways that I've seen this kind of issue dealt with in the past; don't roll, or give significant bonuses based on backstory. This works best when the skill involved is much more specific than the skill system can typically handle. In your drinking contest example, you might just say the guy who's been drinking all his life wins, or that since 'drinking without passing out' is a tiny subset of Endurance, they might get a +5 "skill training" bonus on checks to drink. This wouldn't allow them to get bonuses outside of this extremely specific field, but it allows your players to be able to do certain things that are a part of their backstory even if their stats don't quite measure up to what they'd like.

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I'm a big fan of the 'very specific bonus'-solution. In my experience, players generally LOVE things like this that deepen their characters somehow, often even if they're negative. I've had a player who got a permanent +1 bonus to attacking spiders ever since he got over a childhood phobia of arachnids and another player who almost drowned once and thus became so scared of water that she got a permanent -2 penalty for swimming checks. It's details like these that make players feel like their characters in your campaign grow :) –  Ravn Jun 3 '12 at 17:32
    
@Ravn +1 for great comment. Thanks. –  Lechlerfan Jun 3 '12 at 17:41

The 4e skill system is pretty abstracted, and as such there are scenarios that are not covered well.

Trained skills in 4e are rolled at stat+1/2 level+5 Untrained skills at stat+1/2 level

I have ruled, as DM, that for speciic things that a background should provide training at allow the player to treat that specific thing as a trained roll.

For the drinking example, a background that explicitly calls out heavy drinking, I would allow a trained skill check for. On the other hand a claim like my character is a sailor and everyone now that sailors drink lots probably wouldn't be enough for me.

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Hahahahah. Come on! Everyone knows all sailors are drunks! I wish I could +1 twice for the good response and the clever combination of the examples. Thanks. –  Lechlerfan Jun 3 '12 at 19:23

A good rule is to make the players justify their skills with their backstory at inception, or base their backstory on their skills. I used to make the players write their backstory first. Didn't have to be long, just complete enough to cover the spread of skills. Obviously, this got more difficult if the PCs started at a higher level. More skills equal more story. Easy to see.

BUT, if the story and abilities had nothing to do with each other at inception, it's hard to marry them after the fact.

Like others have said, you can always assign modifiers. Using the boat rowing example, there's more to it than that. Just because they're more athletic, does the PC know wave physics? Can they read tides? Is it possible the athletic one turns the boat over for lack of skill? Can they STEER the boat, just because they can row it?

Bonuses don't always have to be numbers, they can also be intangibles, such as time. PC 'A' rows the boat fiercely, but is unable to navigate, so takes longer than PC 'B' who is not as athletic, but more skilled and experienced.

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Welcome! This is good advice if characters/DM want to set some backstory down beforehand. –  wax eagle Jun 10 '12 at 15:53

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