Not Quite Epic: The Basics of Skill Optimization

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willpell
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Not Quite Epic: The Basics of Skill Optimization

Post by willpell » Sat Dec 05, 2015 7:23 pm

Other people have probably tackled this subject, but I'm in the mood to run through it for my own reference, and will try to write this as a usable handbook for others if they happen to not already have this knowledge.

The Epic Level Handbook gave us new uses for skills, all of which have a DC of at least 50, supposedly placing them out of the reach of characters prior to 21st level. But in truth, hitting a DC of 50 at least occasionally is very possible within the 11-20 level range (the "Paragon Tier" as 4E called it). Prior to that, yes, characters are no more than mortal (or, from levels 7-10, slightly supernormal, but still more "gritty" than "superheroic", still able to be hacked apart with kitchen knives by a mob of angry mortals, and seldom capable of going toe-to-toe with literal demons from hell); these characters certainly should not be able to (quoting from the book) "hustle across a hair-thin thread, put her ear to a door, and hear a cat breathing three rooms away". But once you're in the paragon tier, some "epic" skill start to seem fairly pathetic, and others highly desirable, but in neither case do they seem special enough to be worth waiting until you're past 200,000 XP before they become available.

Hitting a DC of 50 requires, at bare minimum, a +30 to your check, giving you a 5% chance of rolling a natural 20 and getting these extraordinary results. Managing to reach this level reliably requires a still bigger bonus. But, as anyone who has ever tried to play a Truenamer knows, getting ridiculously immense bonuses to a skill roll can be done in the 3E system - not easily, but it's also not an insanely difficult task. And since the rules on epic skill uses do not specifically limit you to being epic, they can fairly easily be added into a game which otherwise does not use the epic rules, capping all characters at 20 levels. So let's look at a breakdown of how you can get that +30 or more bonus to your skills cobbled together as quickly as possible.

* Your Attribute bonus relevant to the skill in question should be at least +4 if you're planning to try and pull this off. But with racial modifiers, that can be +5 instead (occasionally more; an orc can have +6 to Climb and Jump, but few other races get a +4 attribute bonus without suffering racial Hit Dice, or an amount of Level Adjustment that can never be fully bought off prior to epic levels). And you can get it up to +6 (or +7) by adding an Attribute point at 4th level and another at 8th. By 16th, that can go up again. On top of that, you can potentially add +3 more to your modifier by purchasing an enhancement item (eg Cloak of Charisma) with a +6 to the Attribute, or temporarily get a +2 bonus from the Owl's Wisdom series of spells. If you really have gold to burn, there are even the inherent bonuses from +2 or +4 magic books (Manual of Strength and Tome of Clear Thought among others). So scraping together a +12 attribute bonus is by no means impossible, but we'll limit ourselves to a reasonable boost of +6 to +8 by the mid-levels. That leaves us needing 22 or 24.

* Any skill can have a +3 Skill Focus added at the cost of a feat slot; for most skills (not things like Craft or Knowledge, unless the DM houserules them in), the seldom-remembered "+2 to two related Skills" feats (eg Persuasive, for Bluff and Intimidate) will boost you up to a total of +5 when combined with Skill Focus. So now you need another 17 or 19.

* A 2500-gp "competence item" (such as Boots of Elvenkind) gives you another +5, very early on in the process. This boost is capped and can't be improved by later investments, but you obviously want it, and it supports your character's general concept nicely, quickly establishing you as a master of your specialization, while you're working your way toward the really insane bonuses. In cases where an explicit item like the Boots is not established, the Magic Item Compendium implies that any skill can have the similar version; the DM may well veto a few of the more exotic possibilities (it's very difficult to conceptualize an appropriate competence item for Truespeak, for instance; the writers of Truenamer handbooks have suggestions, but all of these are a bit of a stretch), but in general, an item of this sort will almost always be available. We're already down to just 12-14 more needed; now it starts getting tricky.

* Some skills offer a +2 bonus for synergy from a few ranks in another skill; Diplomacy is notorious for receiving three such bonuses, making the "diplomancer" easily one of the most ridiculous skill abuses. Alas, no synergy exists for most skills, so I'll only mention this as a potential bonus, like the higher Attribute total alluded to above. Thusly, our range is now 10-14.

* Even more conditionally, it's possible to get +2 from Aid Another attempts by allies, and these are circumstance bonuses, so they always stack. The "Expert Assistance" rule in the Rules Compendium even allows the bonus to be higher than +2 per ally; you might well have a cabal of level 20 wizards all make Spellcraft checks to aid you in some amazing research task, getting +5 each for the 10 or so wizards in the room (they need to roll 40 apiece, but that's hardly difficult by their level, as we've already established; they've already got it just with ranks, magic items, and a pretty well specialized Attribute, not needing to take special Feats or otherwise go to extremes, as we are doing to get 10 higher). With enough friends, your potential skill bonus could be nigh-infinite. However, this is another case where taking the RAW as gospel quickly leads to "troll science" absurdities (remind me to put up a description of the Peasant Railgun sometime). Thusly, the DM is free to invoke this rule whenever he needs to rule that no, your character cannot single-handedly exterminate an entire city worth of level 1 commoners because they have no chance to hit your character's AC, but can simultaneously deny you the right to apply these bonuses in an apparently-similar situation. As always, the DM's job is to adjudicate these matters, and his word is final (as long as he's not being so unreasonable that you quit the game in disgust). Since this category of bonuses is so variable in its applicability, we won't count it into our formula, although it certainly can be used alongside all these other measures to improve your chances (especially if you have a Cohort, some Followers, a bunch of Diplomacied minions, or the like, who you've specifically cherry-picked for the purpose of improving your efforts with some particular skill, in which they are also journeymen).

* And at this point, we actually start looking at skill ranks. Remember, our objective is not to be able to take 20 on these checks, just to be allowed to roll them with a potential for success. (Technically, the rules do not say that these applications are any exception to the "a 20 always succeeds" rule, but it's fairly clear that you weren't meant to be able to pull off DC 100 tasks 5% of the time even at first level, so even as we're taking the absence of an "epic only" label as RAI, we won't restrict ourselves to RAW in this instance.) Thusly, 10-14 ranks are sufficient, and that could be available at level 7 in some cases, but on average 11 is where this starts to become an option. By the time you're up to level 20, you have 23 ranks, and these alone provide almost half of the bonus you need.

All of this leaves out the truly cheesy options, such as abuse of the poorly-written Item Familiar rules in Unearthed Arcana; if the DM really wants to run a gonzo game, he'll approve those kinds of loopholes, and hitting checks of 60-75 may start becoming routine for level 19 or so characters.

So, having seen what can be done, even without an overly forgiving GM (as long as he's not overly strict either), let's look at an example. Here is a character designed very quickly for the sole purpose of optimizing a single skill (without the use of any fancy Prestige Classes or other such highly specialized investments).

Name: Temnet Arrowstand
Race: Elf
Class: Rogue (Ranger would do, but Rogue gets a few bonus feats in the "paragon tier", so it makes this easier).
Level: 15

Has an 18 in Dexterity before his racial bonus; other Attributes are irrelevant.

Skill ranks: Tumble +18, and various other things we won't worry about.

Feats: include Skill Focus: Tumble and Acrobatic (which also improves Jump, and Jump has a Tumble synergy, but there's no way he can optimize his Jump this hard as well, since it's based on a different Attribute and thus would require thousands of GP in additional gear, much of which would probably require body slots he's already using).

Magic Items: Gloves of Dexterity +6 (36,00 gp for a +6 enhancement bonus to Dexterity, adding +3 to the Tumble check), Manual of Quickness of Action +2 (55,000 gp for a +2 inherent bonus to Dexterity, adding +1 more to the check), gm-approved custom Boots of Tumbling +5 (a mere 2,500 gp for a direct +5 to the check). Total of just 93,500, out of a total of 200,000. He could potentially have paid twice as much for his Manual, but it would only be +1 more to the check, and the cost is actually starting to become prohibitive at that point - a level 19 version, however, certainly would happily buy the 110K Manual to get that +1, even given that it wouldn't stack with the earlier version and thus would leave him having wasted almost 10% of his total wealth.

Total bonus to Tumble checks: +5 for base elven Dexterity of 20, +9 items, +5 feats, +18 ranks = +37.

To achieve the DC 50 Tumble task "Climb Vertical Surface" (which basically means bouncing off a pair of walls, trees, or the like, Samus Aran-style, in order to reach a height of up to 20 feet), Temnet needs to roll at least a 13, meaning that he fails about twice as often as he succeeds. The DM will probably make him take falling damage in various amounts depending on how badly he fails, but even in the worst case, he auto-succeeds at the DC 30 task "treat a fall as if it were 20 feet shorter", and thus hurts nothing except his pride when he repeatedly flips off a wall and falls back to the earth; eventually, it's virtually certain that he'll make it up to the roof/treetop/whatever. (Meanwhile, his dwarven compatriot uses about 100 gp worth of masterwork climbing gear, and mutters to himself about damn showoff elves.)

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willpell
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Re: Not Quite Epic: The Basics of Skill Optimization

Post by willpell » Thu Aug 16, 2018 6:15 pm

One new wrinkle to all this that I discovered recently: the Blade Meditation skill from Tome of Battle adds another +2 bonus to any skill associated with a Discipline of "blade magic". Thusly, if your Tumble rating is already boosted by Skill Focus and Acrobatic, you can crank that up a little more by selecting Desert Wind (and you don't even need to have a Desert Wind maneuver, you just need *a* maneuver).

And yes, Diplomacy is one of the eight skills to which Blade Meditation can contribute.

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