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Ontario Pathfinder Society | 5-Foot Theatre: Skills and Thrills!
5-Foot Theatre: Skills and Thrills!

5-Foot Theatre: Skills and Thrills!

“Remember the basics!” – Attributed to every karate instructor – ever.

When GMs prepare for battle, nothing is more important than the Stat Blocks. With weapon stats, spell resistance, magical weapon abilities, feats and tactics crowding the GMs mind, the humble skill list often gets neglected. GMs overlook Skills largely because we feel familiar with them from a PC point-of-view. But Skills are more powerful and flexible than we might realize when seen from an NPC perspective.

Skills are detailed in the Core Rulebook so repeating their function here would be redundant. Instead, let’s look at lesser-applied uses of Skills that may make NPCs more challenging for players.

Some Skills have no real application for a PFS GM but have been included here for the sake of completeness. Ideally, GMs intrigued by what they read below will revisit the old, familiar Skills and consider ways to use them strategically and creatively during their next session.



Avoiding Attacks of Opportunity: Players take advantage of this ability pretty often but it’s rarely employed by GMs. When looking at Stat Blocks for NPCs, take note of their Acrobatics score. Using Acrobatics to move through threatened or occupied squares can change the dynamics of the battlefield and might end up getting your NPCs into a flanking position – or at the very least, out of a tough spot.

Slow down! Characters can only use Acrobatics in this way if their speed isn’t reduced due to wearing medium or heavy armour or by carrying a medium or heavy load.

Protect yourself: Three or more ranks in Acrobatics allows a +3 Dodge bonus to AC when fighting defensively (instead of the normal +2) and a +6 Dodge bonus to AC when taking Total Defense (instead of the normal +4)?

Did you know? While prone, you can use Acrobatics to move through a threatened square. It’s a full round action to move 5-feet. Doing so increases the DC by 5.



A GM who uses Sunder or Disarm special attacks might use Appraise to determine which items to target. A character succeeding by 5 or more on a DC 20 Appraise check can use a standard action to determine if the item has magical properties. This does not tell the character what that item’s magical abilities are, but it might tell an NPC what items to target!



It sometimes happens that players with high Bluff scores feel that simply beating the opponent’s Sense Motive roll is enough to convince them of anything. This is not the case. As it says in the Skill’s description: “…some lies are so improbable that it is impossible to convince anyone that they are true (subject to GM discretion).”

So, even if a Bluff roll would numerically succeed, the GM has the final word on whether or not such a lie could be believed. Generally, a GM should err on the side of an inventive player’s Bluff. That said, if a player is using a high Bluff score to try and force NPCs into believing anything and everything – it’s a sign the GM should use her discretion on the matter.

Feinting: because Feinting is a standard action, it is generally too risky to use in combat. Using Feint might be worth the risk if the NPC has noted that the PC has a high Dexterity. A successful Feint will deny the PC their Dexterity bonus to AC during your next attack and might be worth the effort. If the NPC has the Improved Feint Feat – all the better!



When a creature has a listed Climb speed GMs should take full advantage of the battlefield superiority this offers.

Remember, if a creature has a listed movement speed (swim, fly, climb, burrow etc.) that creature is able to take a 5-foot step while using that type of movement.

Note that a creature with a Climb speed retains its Dexterity bonus to AC while Climbing, whereas a creature without a Climb speed loses their Dexterity bonus to AC while Climbing. It’s noteworthy to recall that whenever anyone takes damage while climbing (even a creature with a Climb speed), a new Climb check must be made.



This Skill has no applications for a PFS GM.



An important note on Diplomacy from a GM perspective is: it takes at least 1 minute of continuous interaction in order to influence a creature’s attitude using Diplomacy. This is important when PCs are in a pinch and are trying to use Diplomacy to change a rapidly evolving situation. Time constraints apply and can nullify their efforts.


Disable Device:

One of the defining characteristics of Disable Device skill is that the roll is done secretly so that the PCs don’t know whether or not they’ve succeeded. If the check fails by 4 or less, nothing happens, but if the check fails by 5 or more, something goes wrong. This is important for the GM to note. If the device is a trap, it goes off if the check fails by 5 or more. If it was a sabotage attempt, the PC thinks it succeeded but in fact, the device works normally.

Note also that using the Disable Device skill takes differing amounts of time depending on the nature of the device. Most PFS scenarios outline the DC but don’t always describe the time required. If time is important to the scenario, it’s worth looking up in the Core Rulebook.

Lastly, the Try Again entry for this skill says that you can try again if you fail by 4 or less. This implies that if you failed by 5 or more, you can’t try again.



You get only one Disguise check per use of the skill, even if several people make Perception checks against it. That means you don’t get to re-roll every time you encounter a new NPC who is suspicious of you. The Disguise check is made secretly, so that you can’t be sure how good the result is.

Players will sometimes critique each other’s disguises using their own Perception checks. In such cases, it’s important to point out that creating a disguise requires 1d3 X 10 minutes of work. If time is a factor, the GM should keep track of how long the PCs are taking to improve their Disguise.


Escape Artist:

Escape artist’s main combat application is used when grappling. As a standard action an Escape Artist check can be made in place of a Combat Maneuver check to escape a grapple or a pin.



The ability to fly becomes more common at higher levels of play. A few important notes from a GM perspective:

You are not considered flat-footed while flying.

If the flying creature uses wings to fly, and it takes damage while flying, it must make a DC 10 fly check to avoid losing 10 feet of altitude.

Unlike Climb or Swim, a creature with a listed Fly speed cannot take 10 if distracted or endangered.

If a creature has a listed Fly speed, it can take a 5-foot step, but would be subject to a DC 10 fly check (since it likely moved less than half its movement speed to take the 5-foot step).

Did you know? You cannot take ranks in the Fly skill without a natural means of flight or gliding. Creatures can take ranks in Fly if they possess a reliable means of flying every day (either through a spell or other special ability).


Handle Animal:

There’s no application of this skill for a PFS GM to take advantage of.



This is rarely used in PFS due to the ample amounts of magical healing available. The differing time requirements for each Healing task are worth noting. So too is the fact that you generally can’t try again on a Heal check again unless witnessing proof of the original check’s failure.



This skill has a lot of utility in PFS.

When using Intimidate to have an opponent act friendly to you, remember that time is a factor on how long the target will be Intimidated. An Intimidate check of this type only works 1d6 X 10 minutes.

Another important note for PFS GMs is: if the PC fails by 5 or more, the target attempts to deceive or otherwise hinder the PCs activities.

Like Diplomacy, Intimidate (when used to make the target act friendly towards you) requires 1 minute of conversation.

Intimidate can also be used to demoralize an opponent. A successful demoralize check affects a single opponent within 30 feet that can clearly hear and see you. The demoralized target receives the shaken condition for 1 round (the duration increases by 1 round for every 5 by which you beat the DC). Using Intimidate to demoralize requires 1 standard action. If the character has the Dazzling Display Feat, all the better!

Did you know? You also gain a +4 bonus on Intimidate checks if you are larger than your target and a –4 penalty on Intimidate checks if you are smaller than your target.



From a GM Point-of-View, Knowledge skills will be used rarely. The most likely use would be the Knowledge (Arcana) skill to identify a spell that has targeted you. Some may argue that when fighting creatures summoned by PCs, then NPCs might use their relevant Knowledge checks to learn more about the summoned creature (including vulnerabilities, special attacks and so forth).



A defining feature of the Linguistics skill is that Linguistics checks and related Wisdom checks are made secretly by the GM. This way, a PC can’t tell whether the conclusion they’ve drawn from the Linguistics check is true or false.

In the event PCs try to create a forgery, this Linguistics check is also made secretly. A check is only made when someone examines the forgery.

You must be trained to use Linguistics, but if you are trained in Linguistics, you can always attempt to read archaic and strange forms of your own racial bonus languages. In addition you can also always attempt to detect a forgery.



Perception is most often a reactive skill – that is, it happens in response to a stimulus even without a PC actively trying to use the skill. Perception has many functions. It’s most often used to as an opposed check against Stealth.

When used to perceive a stimulus, there are many modifiers that impact the efficacy of the Perception check. There are too modifiers to list here. Some of particular relevance for PFS play include:

Distance to the source, object or creature is +1 to the DC per every 10 feet of distance.

The DC is increased by +5 for every closed door.

The DC is increased by +10 for every wall per foot of thickness.

If the creature or object is invisible, this adds +20 to the DC.

An under-used function of Perception is to identify the powers of a magical potion through taste. The DC is 15 + the potion’s caster level.

While Perception is most often a reactive skill, when it is being used to intentionally search for stimulus, it is treated as a move action.



This skill is rarely used by GMs unless the NPC has Bardic Performance abilities.



This is also rarely used. It’s interesting to note that a DC 10 allows you to answer basic questions about your profession, while more complex questions are DC 15 or higher. Other than that, this skill has little use from a GM’s point-of-view.



Doing almost anything while mounted requires a Ride check. It’s important to note that “control mount in battle” only applies to mounts that are not trained for combat.


Sense Motive:

Sense motive is almost always used as an opposed check against a target’s Bluff skill, but this is only a part of what the Sense Motive skill can do.

Sense Motive allows a creature to: have a Hunch, Sense Enchantment, or Discern Secret Message. Note that the Hunch and Sense Enchantment have stable target DCs whereas Discern Secret Message is an opposed check.

The Hunch allows a gut assessment of a social situation. You get a gut feeling that something is wrong, such as you’re talking to an imposter or that someone is simply not trustworthy. The Hunch is very useful for a PFS GM because the DC is a stable 20. With so many PFS characters with high Bluff skills, a Hunch is a useful way of giving your NPCs a chance to figure things out a bit if the circumstances allow. A successful Hunch check doesn’t negate the need for opposed skill checks, but it gives the character an initial sense that something isn’t quite right.

Sense Enchantment would come into play in very specific circumstances, namely if the PCs have used enchantment magic on an NPC.

Using Sense Motive to Discern Secret Message is outlined in detail in the Core Rulebook.

Note that using Sense Motive to gain information usually takes at least 1 minute; important to remember if time is a factor!


Sleight of Hand:

From a GM perspective, the most likely use of Sleight of Hand could occur if an NPC surrenders to the PCs. In such a circumstance, an NPC might use the Sleight of Hand skill to hide a small object (including a light weapon or an easily concealed ranged weapon) on their body. Using Sleight of Hand in this way depends largely on the circumstances of the surrender and the nature of the NPC’s motives and personality.



From a GM perspective, the most likely use of Spellcraft is to identify a spell that is being cast. This is useful if an NPC is attempting a counterspell. This is rarely used in PFS play but should be in the back of a GM’s mind when controlling NPC spellcasters.



Stealth has a few uses for a GM. Firstly, if the situation and scenario’s tactics allow it, NPCs that succeed in their Stealth check might end up getting to act during a surprise round. You don’t lose anything by trying to be Stealthy, and a round of surprise for the NPCs can change the complexion of an encounter. Remember that you can only move at half speed without penalty when using Stealth. If you want to try a full speed stealth, you take a penalty of -5.

Note also, when using invisible characters GMs are often so confident that the NPC can’t be seen that they forget to use Stealth. If circumstances allow it, the use of Stealth should be considered even for invisible NPCs.



The most likely use of the Survival skill would occur if the PCs are trying to cover their trail. If used in conjunction with Perception, a Survival check may be prudent if PCs are trying to sneak through an area is regularly patrolled by guards, or in the event others are actively searching for signs of intruders.



Similar to Climb, a creature that has a Swim speed can change the way a GM uses the battlefield. A creature with a Swim speed can move through water at its indicated speed without making Swim checks. The creature can always choose to take 10 on a Swim check, even if distracted or endangered when swimming. Unlike the Climb skill, a creature with a Swim speed can use the run action while swimming, provided it swims in a straight line.


Use Magic Device:

It’s unlikely a GM will use this skill during a PFS session. In terms of adjudicating play, remember that a natural 1 means a character can’t try again with the item for another 24 hours. If the character’s UMD score is high enough to succeed even upon rolling a 1, then that character can use the item anyway. No one can take 10 with this skill. Aid another cannot be used, either.


There are probably other uses for the skills than the ones mentioned above. If you know of any please add them in the comments section, below.


Using Skills to their fullest extent will make your NPCs more dangerous and diverse. Any advantage a GM can use to keep the mighty Pathfinders on their toes is certainly worth the effort.

A special note of thanks to Adam for sharing his insights about the Climb skill, Brian for sharing his insights about the Fly skill, and Eric McG for his clever use of Stealth on his invisible NPCs – which was the inspiration for this month’s column. The merits are theirs, the errors are mine. Thank you, gents.

Blaise is a Toronto area writer and gamer. "...an excessive min/maxer is missing the point of the game. Reducing a character to a list of combat modifiers and dice rolls is not role-playing." -AD&D 2nd Edition DMG page 30 When you think about it, if the Hobbits were optimized it would have kinda ruined the Lord of the Rings.


  1. Paul Jackson

    Paul Jackson - June 23, 2014, 7:56 pm

    Good article. Following are a few nits.

    Appraise and sunder –> This is not for the NPCs but for the PCs. MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE A BACKUP Holy Symbol/Spell Component Pouch/Weapon. Just in case your GM has read the above.

    Diplomacy – Blaise is absolutely right about the rules and the time. However, in the right circumstances some GMs will sometimes allow checks to be made in much less time. If the players suddenly try and stop hostilities the GM either just says no (regardless of whether that would actually make sense at that moment) or allows something. I’ve allowed diplomacy occassionally to stop a fight even after it has begun. I think I’m allowed by the “Reward creative solutions” clause. Note – it normally takes extraordinary steps on the players side to even get a roll (eg, throwing down their weapons and all out defending)

    Handle Animal – Actually, this DOES have a combat application although its often considered an antisocial rule. The bad guy can try handle animal checks to get your mount, pet or animal companion to do stuff.

    Secret rolls – What I often do here is to delay the actual roll until it matters. So, if the player disguises themself they roll only when they are in the presence of somebody, they make linguistics as they present the forged document, etc. That way the player gets to roll the dice (and players LOVE to roll the dice) but doesn’t know more than their character would know.

  2. Blaise

    Blaise - June 23, 2014, 9:56 pm

    Great points Paul. Thanks for this.

    The Handle Animal usage is something that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s certainly worthy of GM reflection.

    I agree with your comment about Diplomacy, too. I’d only be strict about the time requirements if Diplomacy was being over-used in some way.

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Paul.

  3. Linden - June 26, 2014, 9:31 am

    This is a really great overview — thanks, Blaise!

    I’ve often found myself with a big bad tripped and at least partially surrounded, and the rest of combat feels anticlimactic. Your tips and reminders in the Acrobatics section will give at least the dex-blessed ones a few extra tactics to attempt. The reminders about Fly and Climb are equally handy.

    One handy note with Ride is that characters can attempt a fast mount or dismount with a DC 20 Ride check. It requires a move action be available to attempt (since that’s how long it takes if the check fails), but a successful check can dramatically change how the next part of a battle unfolds.

  4. DavidC - June 27, 2014, 2:04 am

    Use Magic Device:

    It’s unlikely a GM will use this skill during a PFS session. In terms of adjudicating play, remember that a natural 1 means a character can’t try again with the item for another 24 hours.

    >>Remember the natural 1 rule only applies if the character fails the check. A PC or NPC with a +20 UMD modifier can use wands with no fear of this ever happening.

  5. Blaise

    Blaise - June 27, 2014, 12:25 pm

    Good catch DavidC.

    If a character can succeed on the DC – even when rolling a 1, there’s no issue. I’ll include that in the article as a special note. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Linden – you make a good point about the fast mount/dismount rules. I’ve used it once myself in a really bad situation and indeed, it had a huge impact on the battle.

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