Five More Useless Skills in Roleplaying

Do you do anything? No? OK.

Hark, let us once again gaze upon those skills that do nothing. It was fun the first time, after all.

Roleplaying games are full of skills: social skills, combat skills, magic skills – the list goes on. Some are obviously good. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what to do with Persuasion. Others require specific play styles. Intimidation is potentially useful, but only if you play a character willing to leverage it. Then there are the skills that have no function whatsoever. You should never take these, even if their description makes them sound cool. What skills are they? Funny you should ask. I happen to have a list.

1. Occult, Call of Cthulhu

Hang on, I don't remember that from the Necronomicon. Hang on, I don’t remember that from the Necronomicon.

Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is the game of a million investigation skills: Anthropology, Archeology, Accounting, and so forth. Those are just the A skills. Last time, we looked at Appraise and how absolutely useless it is. While that’s still true, there’s another skill that’s perhaps worse. At the very least, it’s more insulting.

Occult is the skill for knowing about the supernatural, but specifically not Cthulhu-Mythos supernatural. It’s for vampires, werewolves, fairies, and the like, none of which exist in the CoC world. In other words, Occult is a skill for knowing about fake magic in a setting with real magic. As a game master and player, that confused the heck out of me. Why would they even bother putting a skill like that on the character sheet? So you can definitively say this murder victim was not mauled to death by a werewolf? At least Appraise gives you actual information, even if it is useless. Occult just tells you what you already know, because this is a game about Cthulhu, not werewolves.

I’ve wracked my brain and am hard pressed to come up with a situation in which Occult would be useful against the Mythos. Maybe if an Old One cultist tries to disguise their rituals with witchcraft’s trappings? But why would they do that? Even in that very specific situation, it’s not clear what useful information Occult would provide beyond “there’s something else going on here.”

Occult is a skill trap. That is, it seems useful to the uninitiated. A new CoC player won’t know there’s a distinction between fake magic and real magic. They might take Occult under the reasonable assumption that knowing about spells and mystic signs would be useful in a setting full of spells and mystic signs. If they didn’t double-check the skill’s description, they’d be none the wiser.

CoC’s 7th edition added a caveat that GMs may decide if non-Mythos magic exists in their game, and if they did, Occult would actually be useful. But as a GM, I would never do that. CoC is a game specifically about Lovecraftian horrors. Adding witchcraft and vampires will only dilute the theme.

2. Animal Handling, Pathfinder and Many Others

Roll to manage livestock! Roll to manage livestock!

Animal Handling is so notoriously useless that it’s become a joke, much like the old canard of Bards being underpowered. Worse even, because 5th Edition fixed the Bard,* and Animal Handling is as useless as ever. It’s a skill that shows up in multiple genres, from classic, high fantasy adventure to modern, gothic horror.

Why? Why do so many game designers continue to include this skill, despite its reputation? I can’t say for sure, but my theory is that it doesn’t sound useless in the design room. Animals are a constant part of life, especially in high fantasy settings, so it’s natural to assume there should be a skill to interact with them.

The problem is that there are few, if any, dramatic uses for this skill. The vast majority of suggested uses are really mundane stuff, like teaching your dog a trick or making sure you know what to feed different kinds of livestock. The most dramatic game event involving animals is riding, which is always its own skill. It’s almost unheard of for GMs to make their players fight normal animals, because they tend to be weak and because it feels silly. The PCs are armed with swords and magic; they can deal with some wolves. Anything powerful enough to be a threat doesn’t count as an “animal.”

Modern settings are worse because encountering animals is far rarer. Potentially it could be used to get past a guard dog, but most players would rather use Stealth for that. Ironically, the letter of the rules for New World of Darkness (NWoD)* makes Animal Handling really powerful. You see, dogs are powerful in NWoD, especially in a game of mortals. Animal Handling lets you train dogs to attack on command, and there’s no limit to the number you can have.

However, this is still useless because few GMs will allow it. Letting PCs have minions is a headache. The GM has to figure out what’s happening to them at any given moment: if they can even feasibly be in this scene, etc. More damning, a PC traveling with their pack of attack dogs will break the gothic horror mood NWoD works so hard for.

3. Traps, 7th Sea

Look at this fearsome enemy you defeated! Look at this fearsome enemy you defeated! Rabbit in Cage by Kieliopiton used under CC BY-SA 2.5

If you’ll forgive the pun, it’s a trap! The Traps skill* is Occult except worse: It sounds really useful. In a high action swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, just imagine all the awesome traps you could make: chandeliers rigged with flintlock pistols, nets that trap boarders and fling them overboard, the possibilities are endless.

Sorry, but you can’t do any of that. If you read the full description, Traps is used exclusively to create snares for small animals. That’s right, you can’t even catch deer with this skill. It’s wabbit season only. When I first looked at this skill, I read it three times, certain I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t.

When, exactly, are swashbuckling heroes going to lay out snares for woodland creatures? Most 7th Sea adventures are more about adventure than breaking into the fur trade. It could be useful if the characters were lost in the wilderness, though they’d still need the materials to build snares in the first place, and even then Tracking would be more immediately useful.

Many players, not anticipating this level of absurdity from their skills, will take Traps, assuming they can use it on human enemies. Then they’ll be stuck with a skill that, at most, will let them make a few extra doubloons from rabbit pelts. To add insult to injury, there’s a separate skill called Set Traps, and that one is for use on other humans. Really, 7th Sea? Really? Even worse, Set Traps is in an expansion book. So you get to pay money to fix the game designer’s mistake. Beautiful.

4. Enigmas, Mage: The Ascension

Roll to solve this! Roll to solve this! Puzzle Krypt by Schlurcher used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Before continuing this article, you must answer me these questions three: One, what is a skill for figuring out riddles? Two, what is the most useless skill in all of Old World of Darkness (OWoD)? Three—Oh never mind, you’ve figured it out. The answer is Enigmas. According to the book, this skill is for figuring out “puzzles, riddles, and mysterious circumstances.”

Those first two sound somewhat useful, right? In a setting full of magical creatures, surely one of them will demand that you answer a riddle. Maybe they’ll want to know the airspeed of an unladen swallow. The problem is that it’s incredibly anticlimactic to roll to solve a riddle.

If GMs go to the trouble of creating puzzles, they usually want the players to solve them. That’s part of the fun. They aren’t going to let someone bypass an encounter they spent hours on with a single skill roll. At best, they’ll let the player use Enigmas to get a hint. Even then it’s an empty benefit, because if the puzzle is well-designed, the players should be able to solve it with no extra help.

The last item in Enigmas’ list of uses, mysterious circumstances, sounds like it has potential as well. Something that broad has to have applications, right? Unfortunately, it’s actually too broad to be useful. Nearly any situation the PCs aren’t sure about could count as “mysterious circumstances.” Again, we have a problem where the GM can’t let a player use the skill like that, because it would solve the entire scenario with a single roll.

There is one actual use for Enigmas, buried deep in its list of specialties: cryptography. Turns out the skill can be used for codebreaking, though you’d never guess it from the description. That could be useful for a hacker-type character, though it’s not clear why they wouldn’t use Computer instead.

5. Use Rope, 3.5 D&D

The key to all adventuring! The key to all adventuring! Rope in Dunbar Harbour by Flexdream used under CC BY 3.0

In case it was ever important to know if your 12th level elf sorcerer can tie a slip knot, we have Use Rope. This skill is so specific in its use, I can only assume it’s leftover from an early design stage of Third Edition, when it was meant to be a gritty, realistic system.

Use Rope had the dubious honor of being dropped from Pathfinder’s consolidated skill list. The folks at Paizo decided that while they were keeping Animal Handling, Use Rope would be a bridge too far.* It’s not difficult to see why.

Nearly all of this skill’s example uses are better covered by the Climb skill: securing a grappling hook, tying a rope around yourself so you don’t fall, etc. In fact, with the rules as written, Use Rope is a secondary requirement if you want to climb anything. Fortunately, no GM I know has ever run it that way. It’s hard enough to get people to take Climb at all.

Then there’s rolling to tie up a prisoner. While it’s true that in real life someone can escape from poorly tied bonds, is that really something we want in a game? I can just imagine GMs saying to their players, “Sorry, your important prisoner got away because you didn’t know the right knots.” Plus, if there’s ever really a question about tying someone up, wouldn’t Escape Artist be just as good, if not better?

Despite many years of playing D&D in high school and college, I’ve never seen anyone roll Use Rope. It’s just so out of place in the high fantasy romp of a good Dungeons and Dragons game. If anyone reading this has managed to find a real use for this skill, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

While it’s always fun to point at all the silly skills out there and laugh, skill use is an important part of game design. Skills are an opportunity cost. Every point spent on one skill means a point not spent on another skill. Useless skills will cost players fun at the table, as the points they spend generate little to no return. Designers: please test your skills to see if they are actually useful in play. Game masters: help your players get skills that will work in your game. If we all do our jobs right, skills like these will cease to plague our games.

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  1. Adam Reynolds

    Issues like this are one reason why I am lately leaning towards systems without actual skill lists. My two favorites in this respect are Cortex+ and Fate Accelerated.

    Fate Accelerated is nice because it allows extremely simple character creation, especially combined with the system given by Fate games in general. Though its strength is also its weakness. Characters rely on approaches rather than skills. While this is good in that it allows characters attitude to reflect their competence, it occasionally leads to odd results in which PCs try and claim that they can ‘Forcefully’ hack a computer or ‘Cleverly’ punch someone in the face, in order to always roll their apex attribute.

    Cortex also is similarly interesting in that respect in that it allows whatever is important to the story to dictate mechanics. It is especially interesting in this respect how, when Smallville and Leverage are contrasted, we see how emotional connections and competence can drive the mechanics depending on the respective genre. Though I haven’t actually played this one yet, so I can’t really comment on it much. Default Cortex+ and Firefly also both seem to use skills as well regardless.

    Fate Core also gets an honorable mention for having such a simplistic skill list, though it leads to the inverse problem. Probably the worst example is that the Lore skill is extremely problematic. Because it is used for every sort of knowledge, from military tactics to constitutional law, it could lead to something like a former soldier knowing less about a military tactics than a college professor. This gets even worse if Lore becomes the skill used for magic.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ve never tried Fate Accelerated, but I know what you mean about Fate Core. It’s possible, especially with the right stunts, to make a character who can use the Stealth skill for just about everything.

      I’m now considering an article about skills which are TOO useful. Not as common, but definitely something that happens.

  2. Chris Sham

    Animal Handling is perfectly useful if you’re roleplaying a Good alignment properly. Good characters, and some others, shouldn’t want to slaughter innocent animals who are just protecting their territory/young/selves from the adventurers rudely stomping through. Peacefully placating them without violence is a perfect use for Animal Handling. It doesn’t fit every confrontation, but neither do the similar non-violent Diplomacy and Deception type skills.

    These are only useless skills if you treat D&D games as mindless killing exercises and ignore alignment and realistic player character reactions.

    Use Rope should be used the way some GMs use skills like Sneak and Set Traps: Don’t let the players know what number was rolled on their behalf, so they don’t know for sure how good a job they’ve set up until it comes to the exact moment that it either works or fails. It adds tension what would otherwise just force the players to keep re-rolling until they get a success, which is dull.

    Any time the players have to tie up a prisoner, a horse, cargo on a vehicle, the extended rope from climbing down a long drop, an improvised fix to something, and all the other ropey things, you’re building in sneaky opportunities for the GM to add in a moment of surprise tension, but without just randomly being a dick about it. It gives a dice-heavy but fair way of generating these small annoyances and terrible shocks when you least expect them.

  3. Alverant

    I still say “Use Rope” can be a useful skill. Rope is the medieval version of duct tape and knowing how to use it makes the character more versitle.

    Yes, I would advocate a “use duct tape” skill in a modern d20 game.

  4. Sisima70

    I think enigmas are a good skill for Mage: the Ascension. The skill description says: “When gut instincts fail and logic can’t offer a solution, the character with a broad knowledge of Enigmas sees clever solutions, hidden meanings, and the motives behind such tricks.” Enigmas is used in Time of Judgement: Ascension for figuring out that utopia literally means no-place, when presented with “tell them you serve nowhere”. This is highly useful but not absolutely necessary. Also look at the “possessed by” section: “Analysts, Detectives, […] Philosophers, Psychologists, Raving Nutcases, Really Annoying Old Masters” It makes sense for enigmas to be able to oppose Arcane, too (although there are no mechanics for it, or even any mention of it).

  5. Skylark

    My Pathfinder Cleric had a pet owl, and that was the only time I regularly used Handle Animal. I taught it to drop vials of alchemist’s fire on enemy warriors, and had to roll to make sure I successfully directed him. By 5th level I had taken Familiar Bond, giving me an empathic connection to him and rendering the skill largely moot.
    Other uses I put it to were calming a horse (because a couple people in our group never combat trained theirs) and caring for an owlbear cub (though I think after the initial approach, I used Heal instead). Our campaign is set out in the wilderness, tough, and we do a lot of travel by horses. I can see the skill as being totally useless to your standard dungeon-crawling adventurer.

    Your guess is as good as mine for why “Use Rope” ever existed.

  6. bobkat

    I no longer have gaming books and accessories since I lost the house in ’01, but I recall that the CoC editions I had included a description for vamps with an advicer “Every game needs vampires.” And it ahd a description of the ways “Occult” could possibly be used under the skill. But as I never actually played it, I’ll bow to your description:-).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      You could be correct. The 7th Ed book has a little mention that the GM must decide if non Mythos magic is real or not. I just know that as a GM I would never do that because I don’t like mixing Lovecraft with urban fantasy, and that seems to be the default assumption.

  7. Satori

    Handle Animal is actually kinda overpowered in D&D 3.5 if your DM doesn’t ban you from just buying a herd of trained attack mules.

    In low level games, mules are cheap enough that even a 1st level character can afford multiple, and are a valid threat against most foes – or for that matter, PCs.

    Fortunately, few people decide to genre shift from Adventuring to Zerg Rush.

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