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According to the DMG, items grant competence bonuses to skills, but the guidelines for epic-level items only refer to maximum enhancement bonuses to skills. Are the epic guidelines in error, or is it possible to get both enhancement and competence bonuses to skills from items?

To be more clear, should the epic guidelines have said the maximum competence bonus to skills is +30, or are items also capable of granting enhancement bonuses to skills in addition to granting competence bonus to skills? I find it odd that there would be two ways of granting the same bonus allowed. It would be akin to allowing a sword to grant +5 enhancement bonus as well as a +5 morale bonus.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The body and headline of your question don't quite line up: do you want to know whether a single item can grant both competence and enhancement bonuses to skills, or whether a single character can receive both? ... also, do you care whether the item grants both types to the same skill vs. one type to one skill and the other type to a different skill? \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass Apr 22 '17 at 20:39
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First, the Epic Level Handbook isn't necessarily wrong, but it does weasel mightily: It says that the "following are typical characteristics of an epic magic item[, and, i]n general, an item with even one of these characteristics is an epic magic item" (123). Then it goes on to list a magic item that provides "an enhancement bonus on a skill check greater than +30" as one possible typical characteristic (ibid.). Here the Epic Level Handbook is leaving things to the DM while still providing some guidelines. Now, while this is an awfully apologetic stance to take on what's been referred to by wiser and more ardent fans than I as the D&D Joke Book, magic item design broadly really is less hard-and-fast rules and much, much more guidelines, and the DM's given these guidelines so the game can be extended beyond what's already there. This should be clear upon realizing that not one single magic item in the Epic Level Handbook actually grants a +31 or higher enhancement bonus on skill checks!

With that out of the way, let's talk bonuses.

Magic items can grant any kind of bonus the DM permits them to grant

One of the things that the game tacitly encourages is bonus-scrounging: Dumpster-diving for bonuses that either have different names or are unnamed and come from different sources.1 An industrious player with a full bookshelf can find himself with a very big pile of differently named bonuses and unnamed bonuses that're from different sources, all stacking to improve his PC's most important feature.

So, yeah, magic items that grant enhancement bonuses on skill checks exist like the Epic Level Handbook says, magic items that grant competence bonuses on skill checks exist like the Dungeon Master's Guide says, and magic items that grant circumstance, insight, divine, and unnamed bonuses on skill checks exist, too. They're all there somewhere, existing in relatively harmony, and all the different ones (or unnamed ones from different sources) can stack if the consumer is careful in his purchases.

The DM, however, runs the game, and—among other responsibilities, obviously—the DM decides two important things:

  • The magic items that are available in the campaign.
  • The price of any new magic item proposed by a player.

This means that there's no guarantee that a specific magic item is available in a specific campaign (although many, many general magic items should be readily available lest the PCs die frequent, horrible, ignominious deaths), and this means that if a player pitches a new magic item, the DM picks the price by comparing it to existing items, and, if he doesn't like the magic item, he can (although he shouldn't) passive-aggressively price it through the roof, or (more appropriately) he can just say No.

Thus, while I'm certain such items exist in the vast Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e corpus, I'm unaware, offhand, of a lone magic item that grants a creature two or more differently named bonuses to the same feature. For example, I'm unaware of a lone magic item that grants both a +10 competence bonus on Tumble skill checks and a +10 enhancement bonus on Tumble skill checks. That's something that, for whatever reason, the game just doesn't do with any regularity. A lone magic may grant different bonuses to different features—that's not particularly rare. And two or more different magic item can be combined into a lone magic item to provide different bonuses to the same feature, but such an item's usually the result of an owner having paid a premium to combine the different magic items.2

In other words, if you're a new player who's trying to figure out all the bonuses you can get to a specific skill, rather than trying to design wholecloth a custom item and get it approved by the DM, it's usually better to find a published item like the one you want and work from there. And if you're a new DM, and your players are clamoring for a dozen, dirt cheap magic items that each grant a differently named +2 bonus on Use Magic Device skill checks or whatever, you can ask to see similar items to the ones they're proposing and price the items appropriately or you can just say No.


1 My answer here on how to improve Spot skill checks, for example, does exactly this, as does my answer here on how to improve speed. (Don't judge! I like research.)
2 For more information see Magic Item Compendium on Improving Magic Items (233-4).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminds me of my character with the insanely high jump skill check. Last I checked at 12th level that character was able to make a DC 50-60 something jump check with a decent roll. And I didn't even try really hard to optimize. Starting as a Thri-kreen didn't hurt that any. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Apr 23 '17 at 20:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nijineko I dunno, man, the Jump skill's almost too easy. In a campaign I'm running now, one of the PCs is aiming to spring attack from so far away that the enemy can't even reach him on a charge. So he's building up his speed—now 50 ft. at level 4—and he's got, like, accidentally, a Jump skill modifier of +20. Honestly, what I'd really like to see is the skill Iaijutsu Focus exploited so as to use for maximum absurdity the feat Iaijutsu Master (OA 63). Now, if only that feat could be taken more than once… \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 23 '17 at 20:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Multiple bonus types should actually be less exploitable than a single bonus with the same total modifier. E.g. if you have a +10 competence item you can buy a +10 enhancement item to get +20. If you have a +5 enhancement & +5 competence item, you have to find a new bonus type to get to +20. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Apr 24 '17 at 5:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @fectin But it isn't either/or. A player may convince the DM to allow a custom item grantsing a +30 enhancement bonus on Craft (basketweaving) skill checks and the player, once his PC's got that item, then Dumpster-dives for all piddly, cheap other items that grant different named bonuses (or unnamed bonuses but from different sources) on Craft (basketweaving) skill checks. Only the PC's gp and the DM's permissiveness prevent a player from doing both. (I should also note that it's work to break the game with skills other than Diplomacy so this typically isn't a big deal.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 24 '17 at 10:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Right. but a +15/+15 item is less prone to that dumpster diving, because you're using up two possible bonuses. Since this question posted, I've been thinking that multiple bonuses might actually be a good default for anything higher than +5 or so. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Apr 24 '17 at 16:48

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