Sprucing Up Skills – Specializations in 4e D&D

After playing in a few Cthulhu homebrew games run by one of my players who is a long time DM, and running an open ended game like Dead of Night I’ve been thinking a lot about skills lately. Reading Mike Mearls’ latest Legends and  Lore post on “Skills in D&D”  is really what really tipped my decision to take action. Recently I’ve been trying to take a more active role in further seperating trained skill checks and untrained checks within my game and all of this piled together is what really made me start experimenting with creating on my own set of house rules for Skill Specialization in hopes to further build on the skill mechanics in 4e D&D I love so dearly.

To keep the post here clean I’ve placed them in this handy container below, simply click the title and it will pull down all the ruling details. If for some reason this doesn’t work for you, just hit up my campaign wiki on Obsidian Portal. I’m asking for feedback of all kinds, love it or hate it – I want you to pick this apart for me before I actually implement it in my game. You can do so in the comment section below.

[toggle_framed title=”Skill Specialization Rulings”]

Skill Specializations

Your character may choose to specialize in a skill, it can be anything your heart desires from “Ventriloquism” to “Tying Knots” to “Slaying Vampires”. Doing so grants you an extra bonus (combat and/or skill check) when performing actions related to your specialization. For major skills – spending some of your livlihood developing these specializations means you’ll incur a small penalty to the base skill check however.

All skill specializations should retain a certain degree of relevancy in context to the story of the campaign and pertaining to your character in a believable way. (Ex: Tabarast cannot specialize in wielding light sabres, hacking computers, etc.) It is assumed that your character spends some of their free time honing/concentrating on whatever these things are and is assumed that these behaviors be at least lightly role played.

Skill specializations are very specific things. You cannot for example, specialize in “Killing Bad Guys”, “Attacking Humanoids” or “Being Charming”. They are more along the lines of “Goblin Hatred”, “Swinging from A Rope” or “Distracting Gnomes with Shiny Objects”. All proposed skill specializations must be approved by the DM before use in-game. The base skill in which a specialization falls in is up to both the DM and Player to agree upon.

Specializations are noted on your character sheet in parethesis next to their base skill, a capital M is displayed for a Major skill and lowercase for minor.


Thievery 15 13 ([M]Disarming Explosives 20) ~ Hobblesworth, Level 10 Rogue.His original Thievery score was 15, this grants him a +5 bonus (1/2 his current level) for a total of 20 on his specialization of “Disarming Explosives”. So anytime Hobblesworth is disarming bombs, handling them, or other things pertaining to this area of expertise he gets his +20 bonus to checks made. All the time spent focusing on schematics and trial and error in this area causes his base thievery skill to decrease by 2, which will decrease further (by 4) when he reaches paragon tier. Along side stat bonus increases and feats gained with level, these penalties shouldn’t seem too heavy in exchange for the ability to become godlike at something.

Minor Specializations

You may take a minor skill specialization at levels 4, 14 and 24. A minor skill specialization may be any of the 17 skills on your character sheet, regardless of whether you are trained in it. Minor skills do not incur a penalty to the base skill as they only reflect things your character may dabble in or only perform occasionally, but still frequently enough that they excel at it to some degree.

Minor Skill specializations warrant a bonus to skill checks (and related actions) equal to 1/4 of your current level. If your specialization is combat oriented this bonus is reflected as a flat +2 power bonus to attack and damage which raises to +3 at paragon tier and +4 at epic.

Major Specializations

You may take a major skill specialization at levels 8, 18, and 28 A major skill specializing must be one that pertains to one of your characters already trained skills. Major skill specializations incur a -2 penalty to the base skill per tier, so -4 and -6 at paragon and epic respectively, these penalties are not cummulative.

Major Skill specializations grant a bonus to skill checks (and related actions) equal to half your current level. If your specialization is combat oriented this bonus is reflected as a flat +4 power bonus to attack and damage which raises to +6 at paragon tier and +8 at epic.

Unlearning & Retraining Specializations

A skill specialization may not be “quick swapped” at any point in time unless specific circumstance warrants it. Should a character wish to change a minor specialization they may do so over the course of a few sessions, however a Major skill is one they have dedicated a lot of their time and resources to and may not be dropped as easily and is only allowed per DM discretion and over the course of numerous sessions.

Swapping and Trading Out

A Major skill specialization may be skipped in favor of taking another (single) minor specialization, this occurs as it normally would at the indicated level for the intended major skill. A player may choose at a later time to drop that minor and resume taking up a major, or perhaps turn their minor into a major, however this process is not backwards compatible.

Skill Specializations

Skill Specializations Level Earned Bonus Incurred Penalty Incurred
Minor 4th, 14th, 24th + 1/4 level on skill checks, +2 / +3 / +4 in combat (per tier) None
Major 8th, 18th, 28th + 1/2 level on skill checks, +4 / +6 / +8 in combat (per tier) -2, -4, -6 to the base skill (per tier). Non-cummulative


  1. Interesting!

    One thing about trained spells is that it only increases the odds of success by 25%, which really isn’t that much when you think about it. Granted, your skills are also based on your attribute scores, but it seems like training in a skill should give you more of a bump.

  2. Looks good: Easy to implement doesn’t interfere with any other systems, is simple once the math is initially figured out, and allows players to give their characters niches that can bring out a lot of individuality. I like it. The overall penalty for more than double-training from the Major specialization is a neat idea and makes intuitive thematic sense.

    I’d like to see many more examples if you wouldn’t mind.

    I’m sure it’s not for everyone, since some DMs may not want to have to adjudicate whether a Specialization is too broad or too narrow, but these could also be good opportunities for tie-ins to the setting that could be unique to each game. In my campaign world there is a lot of to-do about dhampyrs and elemental shards holding everything together (similar to Eberron dragonshards), so specializations related to those features would be unique from some Dark Sun flavored Specializations.

  3. I like the idea in concept, but I think there are better ways to go about doing what you’re aiming for.

    First, the mechanic of punishing the base skill for its specialization feels awkward. If you’re going for “I practice this in my spare time to the detriment of other skills,” shouldn’t you be penalizing OTHER skills? Take 2 points from Diplomacy and put them into Stealth (Breaking and Entering) instead. That matches the fiction of the system.

    Second, the penalty to payout ratio is really bad after Heroic Tier. A Trained character with a good stat passes a Hard DC about 65% of the time. After level 8 (a +4/+20% bonus), I don’t care to go any higher; I’m happy with those odds. In fact, after level 14 (+7/+35% bonus) you can’t fail the check anyway so you’re just piling on penalties for no good reason. Conversely, a -4 to -6 penalty is essentially like being blinded in combat. You’ve got to do something really cool to get me to volunteer for a -4 penalty.

    Third, the skill bonuses feel like feats, or at least mini-feats, and should probably be at least ruled by the feat progression.

    With that in mind, allow me to suggest the following:

    When you gain skill training, you can forego training a new skill to gain a +4 bonus to the specific application of a currently trained skill (Major Specialization) or gain a 1/4 level bonus to specific applications of two untrained skills (Minor Specializations).

    • To reply in order:

      1. My thought process behind doing this was for myself at least, in the real world – when I begin to delve into one subject and really know it in and out, other facets of my life tend to become a bit blurrier. There was a time when I could probably act as a walking/talking strategy guide for a few video games and it definitely made me feel stupid in other aspects of my life – devoting so much time to this ONE thing. Now that I think about it though, you’re spot on. It didn’t really affect similar elements but converse ones. Now my problem would be do I do this on a per instance case of which stat to deduct from, or attempt to find each skills inverse? Perhaps a short array of non complimentary ones to deduct from? Lots of ideas there…

      2. This is where I needed a math person to tear it apart, I suppose DC’s by the book do basically prove that as true for auto success. Then again the “auto success” would be a very specific check and not “Uber Athletics God Mode” and I figured with stat bonuses increasing every 4 levels as long as they are primary stats the penalty wouldn’t be too bad. The penalties do not stack so at epic tier it would only be a -6 which is kind of a splash in the pan at that point, no? (I’m honestly unsure) and those penalties only apply to skills themselves and not combat.

      3. My original idea was to do 4th, 8th, 12th, 14th, 18th, 22nd, and 26th levels alternating minor/major but decided to space them out a bit more, perhaps reverting would help? What exactly do you mean by “ruled by feat progression?”

      Also, I really like that idea you wrapped up with.

  4. I’m going to echo Ryven’s last thought here. Using the Feat system seems a better way to accomplish your goals.

    Star Wars Saga offered players a feat called Skill Focus which applied a flat +5 to skill rolls at the cost of a feat. Of course, the system was built to accomodate this math.

    Reskinning it to accomplish your goals should be relatively easy. Offer the same feat, but make the player indicate what part of th skill they are focusing on. The rogue from your example can take Skill Focus(Explosive Devices)and as such only gets the +5 in that particular area. However,they don’t need to take a penalty to general Thievery roles, and you don’t need to worry about trading numbers between skills(or developing a system of ‘invesre skills as you called it).

    This also preserves game balance in the sense that while you are adding math DnD doesn’t account for(thus breaking their math)it is only in a very particular situation so it doesn’t break the existing system completely. It does however give the player a sense of that god like superiority in a very specific niche, while preventing the DM headache of having to adjust DCs for every role based on the base skill to account for one players broken abiltity with it, which would be the case if Skill Focus was a flat, always on +5 in the 4E system.

    Also, it addresses your concern of losing skill in other areas as a result of attention paid to a specific thing. By using a feat, the player is giving away other power gains in different areas. Now, instead of a combat bonus, they’ve chosen skill proficiency. Perhaps someone trades extra diplomatic skill in a specific area for the flat bonus to healing a different feat might offer, etc.

    As a player, I wouldn’t mind this kind of thing being governed by the feat system. As a DM, it’s neat and tidy and easy to implement with little extra mental effort required by the player. As long as every one agrees with the specialization at the outset as you say, things should run smooth.

    Great article, and great ideas but I personally prefer simplicity over complexity when modding a system, especially in one as diverse and mechanically heavy as 4E.Players and DMs both have a lot on the go. Adding to the game should be quick and easy for both groups.

  5. It’s definitely a neat idea to add some more depth to the skill system and the open-ended nature of the specializations is something that I’d like to see more of in character creation.

    For the math, I’d recommend avoiding anything based on a fraction of character level and going with fixed modifiers for d20 rolls (damage mods increasing with tier is good though). Scaling bonuses to rolls with level ends up producing problems at low levels because there is no benefit (ex: at level 2, you’d get a +1 bonus to a specific application in exchange for a -2 penalty on all other checks with the skill) and at high levels because the benefit grows too large (see Ryven’s example of auto-success).

  6. I too beleive that the versatility of 4E skills is not something that should be modified. Particularly in a negative manner. The push of 4E is to apply positive modifiers as often as possible, and not to incur negative ones. I too agree that if you truely wish to do this, that the feat system is where it’s at. However, I would find it rather silly to specialize for a +5 to one type of traps, when Skill Focus can supply a +3 to everything skill related.

    Perhaps, the item system might be a better vehicle. Some tool that allows him to work on explosive devices with a bonus. In fact the adventuring gear is chalk full of items which do just that. Bonuses for just about every skill you can think of.

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