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  • [Ask-a-GM] History sucks...

    This, of course, relates to the skill found in various forms throughout the history of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Most of the time this skill is only chosen by players because of it's requirement for some other ability or feat. Many never truly expect to use this skill in game and when they do, it is often after things have abraded to a halt in the story. Many of us have vivid images of a player sighing wistfully while massaging their head, only to groan out loud "I would like to use my knowledge of History to figure this **** out."

    Why does it work this way? Does it mean your story sucks? Does it mean that it is just a boring skill that serves no other purpose than to take our precious skill points? Well, probably a little bit of each. Just as it is with most things I find in games, not just D&D, taking the boring and misunderstood and making it better is not only fun but rewarding as well!

    For the remainder of this article, I will be using the 4th Edition rules for Dungeons & Dragons. It's not because I don't like any other edition or game, it's just the most prevalent in my life at the moment as I am continually hacking away at creating content for it. This doesn't mean that you can't find value in what is presented -- in fact, I hope you can adapt it for your own use in other games. Also, my standard disclaimers apply -- you're mileage may vary (and likely will!) Take what I suggest and run with it. I don't expect everyone to do things the way that I do, but it is totally cool to take my ideas and make them more awesome

    Fixing History, one bullet at a time...

    • By doing the homework necessary for creating an intensive and detail-oriented world, you will undoubtedly create plenty of opportunities where this skill can be of use. As an example, I allow my own players to use History to gain an advantage over an opponent. In one such example, in my upcoming Dark Sun campaign, players who are knowledgeable in history might just get a bonus to all attacks made against a specific enemy. This represents their acute knowledge of their opponents tactics and strategies and the ability to exploit it. This should work for as long as you deem appropriate, but I usually cut it off after several scenes as the enemy is capable of adapting.
    • History is cool, just ask Indiana Jones. Running an Indiana Jones-like campaign can be as awesome as it sounds. Allow your players to run around finding artifacts of significance and reward them for their knowledge of History in the process. Maybe a player gets better stats from an item because they know more about it and it's application? Yes, it is very fun and your Historian players will love it even more!
    • The Big Picture. Maybe you are in a long-term campaign and the overarching story has some very important points. Allow your History-totting players the opportunity to glean from this stream of plot and allow them to influence it as they go. At the end of the campaign, they will be able to see how their knowledge directly influenced the events and how the outcome was largely due to their actions (or inaction). For some players, this is worth more than gold itself!
    I hope you are able to take from this article and use it to improve your game. Remember, History only sucks when you make it suck. Whether player or GM/DM, you influence how abilities and skills affect the game.

    Until next time!

    About the Author: Matt James is a disabled combat veteran, having earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart from his recent service in the United States Army. When not freelance writing for Dungeons & Dragons, he works on developing his website ( Follow Matt online:
    Comments 11 Comments
    1. wizarddog's Avatar
      wizarddog -
      History is a knowledge skill and should be used for that purpose:Knowledge. In 4e, I would make it similar to legend lore: where the players may know of stories and accounts relative to their situation. Players may be able to identify creatures by relating a account of a similar beast that had once terrorized a town or they find similarities between one set of puzzles from legend to the current one they are trying to solve. This a perfect case for the DM to say "Yes" for the players.
    1. Matt James's Avatar
      Matt James -
      Exactly, spot on Wizarddog. I should have also added the caveat that you may have a group that is simply not interested in that type of play. If so, then you will undoubtedly have to adapt accordingly. Hopefully by the suggestions above, and any commentary that added to this article, DMs can make these types of skills a more viable option for game play.
    1. Dyser's Avatar
      Dyser -
      Part of the reason why History "sucks" is because when a DM works to include something historical in their games, they don't want to leave it up to a die roll as to whether or not it gets used. In setting, and sometimes in genre, a character might use historical knowledge to know where an ancient treasure is rumored to have been lost or buried, or to discover an important point pertinent to the plot, or to understand a situation and give it context. But if you develop content like that for a game, you want it to be used.

      The best way around this might be to have no failures for History checks like these, but greater rewards for success. Don't reveal the DC of History checks... give them the bare minimum required to complete or participate in the story even if they should fail the roll. But if they succeed, give them something extra.
    1. Matt James's Avatar
      Matt James -
      Well, I was being a facetious in my wording but most players (and DMs) ignore the skill all-together. My intent was to give it more purpose and go beyond the book-skill that many see it to be. Good all-around though- your analysis is correct in the that a die roll should never be so definitive in an outcome.
    1. InvestFDC's Avatar
      InvestFDC -
      Then don't roll the die. Use the level of skill as a guide - for example, with a rank of 1-3 you could learn Item A, 4-6 you could learn Items A & B and so on and so forth. Create a quick sliding scale that encourages your players to develope the skill and you should be well on your way to a fun (and quick) game.
    1. Lord Captain Tobacco's Avatar
      Lord Captain Tobacco -
      I usually have a 'margin of success' which determines how much info is remembered. This also includes the characters past and likely areas of interest.
      Another thing to consider: History may recall interesting trivia, but research skills are what is needed to get the right answer from the Royal Folio Repository. If this is the case, I will often allow for a Q&A session while assigning a length of time which has passed (or will pass) for the answer. This allows me to make sure that the vitals are heard by the players. If they miss it or disregard...well, that's on them.
      Of course, there is no guarantee that the info in the library is completely accurate...
    1. Matt James's Avatar
      Matt James -
      I like it!
    1. Ph0EnyX37's Avatar
      Ph0EnyX37 -
      Part of the problem with history is that it's not very mechanically synergistic. Relatively few classes have Int as primary stat. Of those that do, most are ritual casters, which means arcana and religion will need to be trained. There are no rituals that require history. Unless it's part of the character concept, being trained in more than 2 knowledge skills would be a hard sell because it means less versatility, (history would likely be the 4th anyway, since dungeoneering is better for monster knowledge checks).

      TL, DR version: the game itself gives few reasons to train history. It's up to the DM to encourage and reward that in his/her game.
    1. Richard Littles's Avatar
      Richard Littles -
      I use history for knowledge that characters wouldn't know from proper schooling. If they didn't learn it in school then they shouldn't know it as a historical fact.
    1. Fezzik's Avatar
      Fezzik -
      Knowlege history can be a very useful skill all by itself. If you are starting a land war in Asia (which we all know you never do), or you are looking up some ancient documents, or need to know what angle to take in negotiations. Getting a bonus to attack or defense for that matter doesn't make a lot of sense to me. A bonus to diplomacy, bluff, searching for specific data or even for traps makes sense, however.

      Also, Dark Sun has a TON of history, and specifically seperates out history and ancient history. Guess my point is that the setting can make a big difference in the application of the skill.
    1. Proteas's Avatar
      Proteas -
      The thing is history can usually be easily bypassed by other knowledges. When you could have it used on an item, usually it's an item that only holds other characteristics... if it's used in a ritual, religion takes over, if it is magical, arcana and so on... when none of the other applies then the item is mostly of importance only in a quest or usually a sidequest. Of course this can work the other way around too, for example: a person with high history knowledge could possibly remember events in that region that involve mass poisoning with a native plant similar looking to the one the party is facing... but how often has a DM prepared something of the sort? It's thinking out of the box