Friday, June 17, 2011

Changing the Leopard's Spots: Reskinning in D&D

I'm gonna sing the doom song!

The terms, "skinning" and "reskinning" get thrown around a lot in 4th Edition D&D blogs, forums, literature and other forms of communication. the terms refer to changing the description (a.k.a. the fluff) of a game element -most frequently a monster or spell- while retaining the underlying game mechanics (a.k.a. the crunch). The discourse in 4th Edition encourages DM's to use reskinning to quickly adapt a particular game element to fit another situation (e.g. using the statistics of an orc to represent a particularly dim but burly street thug.) sometimes even encouraging the practice to bend genres (e.g. reskinning a beholder from D&D into a sentient and malevolent spy droid in Gamma World.)

Now, my game of choice is an earlier edition of D&D (3.5) but I have nonetheless become incredibly enamored of reskinning and ideas about the subject have been ping-ponging around in my head lately. Earlier this week, I was particularly inspired by the Chatty DM's account of his game at the Grand Roludothon, which featured a masterfully skinned character named Elan the Eladrin mage.

Chatty's account of Elan at the game table highlights one of many potential benefits to skinning: It can help push the players out of a passive, hack and slash mindset. It allows both player and GM to customize things like spells and special moves to better fit a character or situation. Casting a simple spell in combat can suddenly become a launching point for deeper roleplay. A fireball could be just a fireball, but if the caster launches it by spitting out a swig of dwarven rot-gut and then flicking a match, it becomes something to talk about. (I smell an intervention!)

I have not had a whole lot of opportunity to incorporate skinning techniques into my game as of yet. So far, I have mostly used it to develop unique magic items, such as the recently acquired, "Gentleman's Defense" -a magic parasol that functions as a rapier when closed, or as a small shield while open. In this example, I simply took the stats for a rapier and shield from the equipment lists in the player's handbook, and the stats used depend on how the parasol is being used.

However! Though I have not implemented a major reskin for a character in my game just yet, I did come up with a pretty kickass idea for a bard based on an archetypal heavy metal singer. Here's the fluff:

Stephen Rawking, Bard
Stephen originally hails from one of the barbarian tribes in the frozen north. Though he has migrated into the civilized "warmlands" (as his tribe calls them) he has retained many of the traditional modes of dress from his homeland. He wears his hair loose and long, seldom bothering to comb it. He dresses primarily in hardened animal skins with, fur boots and accents. Like the warrior skalds of his tribe, Stephen is expected to fight, and so blades have been affixed to his guitar to double as an axe should he find himself in combat. The magic guitar is further empowered with electrical magic, which can deliver a shock to any it strikes.

Bardic Music:
(Here's where things get fun! I will begin with the official summary of each power and then add my own flavor)
Countersong (Su): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use his music or poetics to counter magical effects that depend on sound (but not spells that simply have verbal components). Stephen let's out a sustained wail from his electric guitar, drowning out sonic magic within the area.

Fascinate (Sp): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use his music or poetics to cause one or more creatures to become fascinated with him. Stephen launches into a complex scale progression, which grows in speed, complexity and intensity as he continues to play, all affected stop and watch, wondering "how does he DO that!?"

Inspire Courage (Su): A bard with 3 or more ranks in a Perform skill can use song or poetics to inspire courage in his allies (including himself), bolstering them against fear and improving their combat abilities. Launching into a driving chord progression broken by well-timed key changes, Stephen stirs the blood of his allies with a battle-hymn call to arms.

Spells: (I'll just do one example from each spell level)
Level 0
Summon Instrument: This spell summons one handheld musical instrument of your choice. Stephen hold his hand dramatically out to the side, and suddenly a portal to the 9 Hells opens and an imp in a black t-shirt steps through, placing a fresh guitar in stephens hand before disappearing back from whence he came.
Level 1
Charm Person: This charm makes a humanoid creature regard you as its trusted friend and ally (treat the target’s attitude as friendly). Stephen flashes a smile, speaking in his handsome northern brogue, he invites the spell's target to join him for an after-party later that day.
Level 2
Glitterdust: A cloud of golden particles covers everyone and everything in the area, causing creatures to become blinded and visibly outlining invisible things for the duration of the spell. Rawking lets out a sustained high note and stomps his foot, two bursts of sparkling dust erupt from the ground with a sudden flash covering all within the area.
Level 3
Confusion: This spell causes the targets to become confusedmaking them unable to independently determine what they will do. Caught up in Stephen's music, the targets of this spell begin to flail about in a chaotic revelry of rawk (mosh pit!) roll to determine their action each round.

d%     Behavior
01–10 Attack caster with melee or ranged weapons. (The creature becomes overzealous and lunges at Stephen)
11–20 Act normally.
21–50 Do nothing but babble incoherently. (The creature cheers, whistles or attempts to sing along)
51–70 Flee away from caster at top possible speed.
71–100 Attack nearest creature (Mosh pit!!!).

I think the example of Stephen Rawking does an excellent job of illustrating the ability of custom flavor text to make a character unique and memorable without requiring a whole custom rule set. I hope to start incorporating more of these specific types of description into my game in the future, and if any of my players are reading this: there might be some bonus xp if you come up with something similar for your character!


  1. Have you seen this?

    Reskinning is, for me, one of the most important innovations to come out of 4e. Even though it existed in earlier editions, and other games, it was never called out so explicitly. I don't even play 4e, but I've found it very easy to port the concept to d20, or pretty much any game (especially the stat-heavy ones).

  2. Marshall, that is awesome! My girlfriend reads this blog and should consider herself placed on "gift notice"

    On the broader subject of cross-edition compatibility. With all the edition wars going on in the D&D blogosphere, I really believe that there are excellent ideas that can be taken from every edition and even other systems. Though I play 3.5, I love 4e's emphasis on skinning, and have tried with limited success to adapt skill challenges, too.


Follow by Email