I decided that my urban campaign setting for 4E would be better off if characters had some "mundane skills and knowledge."

One solution is adding the Knowledge, Craft, and Profession skills back in again. I could just port them from 3.5E but I'll bet someone has already done it.

I'd be more happy to see any alternative systems for handling "mundane skills and knowledge" that aren't just putting those three skills on the list and making players spend the trained skill slot to be good at making armor instead of good at surviving in dangerous environments. That is, I get why the skills were removed from the list in 4E.

A good alternative system would help "flesh out" a PC's back-story in an urban setting, and give them a mechanical device to "know" stuff related to that back-story... and use that knowledge in a practical way in game terms.

I'm looking for answers that satisfy these criteria:

  • Helps flesh out a PC's back-story.
  • Has some kind of tie-in to character generation.
  • Has some kind of system (other than DM fiat) for using the skill/knowledge.
  • Preferably integrated well with 4E.
  • \$\begingroup\$ WotC themselves noted that one of their upcoming books will include optional systems to add into games, including adding profession and craft skills. Of course, it's not that useful to have it 'coming' for a year of play or so, but they see the utility of adding them back in as an option as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Brisbe42
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 12:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thing is, if my character's background is in shoe-making, how is that at all ever going to be helpful to my character? \$\endgroup\$
    – John Fiala
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 16:23
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ John, in social encounters and skill challenges where an adventure in my urban-based fantasy campaign might involve a shoemaker. I would treat the backgrounds as "flags" and create adventures that gave these weird skills some spotlight time. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 17:46

7 Answers 7


So, here's my approach:

A custom skill can be bought at the cost of any 2 other skills. This includes skills a character gets as part of his class.

The custom skill must be some sort of role (sailor, soldier, blacksmith, whatever) but it must also have a setting specific context (i.e. a sailor must have sailed with a particular navy or merchant fleet or something similar). This doesn't need to be written down in the skill name (though it can be, if it's brief), it's just something the GM and player need to be aware of, both to tie the custom skill to the setting and to help answer questions of context when they come up.

This custom skill can now be used as any skill within its specific context. That is to say, that when performing shipboard tasks, the 'Sailor' custom skill can be rolled in place of Endurance, Athletics or anything else. When it comes to knowing strange lore of the sea it may be used in place of Arcana. In short, it is a superskill within that specific context1.

Now, this is in part why it's important to keep the context very clear. Without boundaries, it is entirely possible to make custom skills overwhelming, especially if you treat it as just geography. It is not that a sailor can use his Sailor skill for EVERY activity on a ship, just the ones that sailor's do. Thus, he might be able to use sailor as a perception base to spot what's wrong with a ship, but not to spot ninjas sneaking aboard a ship.

Still, this is easily addressed with clear communication, and because this system mostly works within the context of existing skills, it's minimally disruptive while still expanding the scope of what can be done beyond the existing list.

That said, here are some optional rules:

  • If a custom skill seems too broad but not broken, it might be purchasable for 3 skill slots.

  • A less potent version of this approach swaps in custom skills for a single skill. In this system, you roll the new skill when no other skill is appropriate, but if you roll a real skill instead, you gain a +2 to the roll2. If you use this rule, you can replace the racial skill bonuses with a racial lore skill which implicitly covers those bonuses and which also allows for knowledge of what Tieflings enjoy for breakfast (and, implicitly, make those skills available to people outside the race)

  • The least potent version is simply "Works like a skill when no actual skill exists". In this case, I would not charge for it, but instead give each character one for free as part of the background system.

Hope that helps.

1. Structurally, the skill provides the capability to perform actions, knowledge about the topic, and a certain amount of awareness about relevant data.
2 - I forget the bonus type, but it doesn't self-stack.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's elegant. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bryant
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 12:28
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I like your main suggestion because it actually makes these crazy "secondary skills" useful. I also really like your "least potent version," though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 17:53

I'd tie them into backgrounds, to encourage the backstory aspect you're looking for. Backgrounds already provide for skill bonuses. For each background, add a Knowledge: Blah, Craft: Blah, or Profession: Blah skill, or perhaps the choice of a few. That's maybe too much work, in which case I'd let the players choose one of those skills and then justify how it's connected to the background.

In play, I'd treat it as an auto-success most of the time. Can you expand on how you want the skills to be relevant in play other than filling out the PC's background and characterization?

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ You know, I'm not sure, and maybe I need to back up and figure that part out first. Partly, I posted this question to see what other people were doing. I figured there was enough grumbling about the skill list reduction from 3.5E to 4E that someone must have thought about this long and hard and come up with some solutions. Right now, I'm leaning toward a daily power for each character that lets them use their specific knowledge in place of a skill check, and automatically succeed--assuming using that knowledge makes sense. \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 17:51

If the skills aren't game-relevant, it's preferable to "handwave" them. You grew up as a baker? Great - you know how to bake bread and run a kitchen. No rolls required.

You can take this a fair ways - you want to know how to sail a ship? Great. As long as it's not being used as a crutch for an existing skill, there's no real harm in letting someone know how to juggle.

The only restriction we put on it is that it has to be declared at character creation - no inventing backstory "just in time" for it to be handy.


If they want a skill not on the standard list that fits their background, just give them the skill and count it as trained. Or simply let the skill exist and have them work in-game to become trained in it.

What do they want to do with the skill? That's the interesting part. Let them do that.


This response inspired by the serious skills set of posts.

Skills and backgrounds are actually sufficiently broad as they are. All that's necessary is to allow players to note topical areas of expertise.

Consider: any profession is easily encoded as a background. Butcher, baker, candlestick-maker, etc.. A background is (without extra fiddily bits) 2 associated skills and maybe a language.

A butcher would have Heal (knowledge of anatomy) and Nature (animal handling). Given that heal works on the various sentients in the game, it would be silly to have it apply only to sentients, and represents a far more focused field of knowledge.

Therefore, a player with a butcher background would be able to apply any of their current skills towards "butchery" activities.

Athletics: restraining an animal Arcana: using knives of force to cleanly flense an animal. (Arcana would be an awesome skill to have as a baker. You could renew a "cold room" spell, make an arcane meat-slicer, and disinfect hands. Dungeoneering: (as engineering) constructing a cattle slaughtering building. Religion: knowing how to ritualistically prepare animals for sacrifice

And so on. The trick is to view the backgrounds as an "overlay" for the skills.

Looking at skills as broad bases of knowledge that reflect a life's experience means that any task can be filtered through them, according to the perceptions of the character. As almost all occupations consist of combinations of skills performed to a certain end, the idea of an occupation should not be reflected as a new skill, but what additional things one can do with the already extant skills.


Not sure how far afield you're thinking from standard 4e, but I used the secondary skills table from the 1e DMG (p. 12) and just gave everyone in the party some kind of background mundane skills. (Skill being used loosely here--I don't quantify it in points and skill checks). From that section of the DMG:

As a general rule, having a skill will give the character the ability to determine the general worth and soundness of an item, the ability to find food, make small repairs, or actually construct (crude) items

Might not be crunchy enough or integrated into 4e's other systems enough, but I've found that just having a general sense that the character "knows stuff about tailoring" has been enough to go off in my own campaign.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I want more system in place. I can already hand-wave things for a character to "know stuff about tailoring." Thanks though! \$\endgroup\$
    – Adam Dray
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 5:34

Just as you suggested, I'd simply allow virtual skills according to character background. If a character logically ought to have some skill that's not actually on the list, just go ahead and let him or her do it as an ability check with a +5 as if trained in a skill. Standard DCs ought to work pretty decently as a guide for how to handle the results. I think anything that really needs to be above that semi-handwavey level of complexity is already part of a 4e skill.


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