Pathfinder Advice: How to Handle Zero Ranks in Knowledge

Knowledge is power, and canny adventurers learn all they can about their foes and where they live. However, sometimes it’s not that simple…

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


In my Borderland of Adventure campaign we’ve recently started running the Shattered Star adventure path. We’ve been having a blast. Part 1—Shards of Sin by Greg A. Vaughan—is very well written, and the various mini-dungeons and encounters are inventive, atmospheric and engaging.

However, we’ve run into a problem.

During character generation, I encouraged my players to create characters dedicated to saving Ratik from a growing, ancient evil. They took to this with gusto and the party ended up looking like this:

  • Aq Quyonlu (LG male human paladin [Aq] 1)
  • Grooble Fizzlebottom III (LG male gnome cleric [Baravan Wildwanderer] 1)
  • Kara Quyonlu (N  female human sorcerer [undead] 1)
  • Narfu Shalmstaff (LN male half-orc monk 1)
  • Nylond Axeheart (NG male dwarf cleric [Muamman Duathal] 1)
  • Tristham Spicer (LG male human paladin [Heironeous] 1)

As quickly became evident during game play, we’ve run into a bit of a problem—with the exception of Knowledge (religion) and Knowledge (arcana) the party have no knowledge skills! While this might be resolved somewhat as our heroes gain levels (and possibly multi-class) at the moment they’re struggling. I thought I’d never say it, but man do they need a  bard!

Knowledge is power, after all, and in several encounters they’ve failed to get useful—or even vital—information. For example, a few weeks ago, Aq (one of the paladins) was bitten by a wererat. Putting aside the party don’t know what a wererats is, they also don’t know that at the next full moon, they could suddenly have a rather pressing problem on their hands! On one level, this doesn’t matter; if Aq has indeed been infected with lycanthropy (Hi Alec!) it’s sure to generate some fantastic roleplaying moments and be jolly memorable. On the other hand, Aq’s potential infection could derail the campaign and possibly even lead to the paladin’s death.

This has led me to ponder exactly what information someone without any ranks in a given Knowledge skill knows.

Although Knowledge is a trained skill, characters can make Knowledge checks as long as the DC is 10 or lower. This means, a character with no ranks in a given Knowledge skill can:

  • Answer really easy questions on a given subject (DC 10).
  • Identify common monsters such as goblins (DC 5 + CR) but not their special powers or vulnerabilities.

Example Really Easy Questions

The core rulebook provides some sample DCs for various Knowledge checks. The following questions all have a DC of 10:

  • Identify mineral, stone or metal (dungeoneering).
  • Identify dangerous construction (engineering).
  • Identify a creature’s ethnicity or accent (geography).
  • Know recent or historically significant event (history).
  • Know local laws, rulers and popular locations (local).
  • Identify a common plant or animal (nature).
  • Know current rulers and their symbols (nobility).
  • Know the names of the planes (planes).
  • Recognise a common deity’s symbol or clergy (religion).

Taking 10

A character taking 10 (assuming an Intelligence score of 10 or more) automatically knows all the above information. Of course, the character can only do this when not in danger or distracted so while he may not recognise the holy symbol of an enemy priest in battle, he should be able to work it out afterwards. Similarly, while the character may not know the ins and outs of a local area, he should know enough to get around.

Furthermore, if a character has access to an extensive library that covers a specific subject, the DC 10 check limit is removed, meaning that with enough time a character can theoretically learn almost anything. That’s rather handy, when time is not critical.

A Final Word—Common Sense Strikes!

Some characters must know more that what can be revealed with a DC 10 check because of their background, race or even class. Sometimes a GM needs to override the rules above, and apply some common sense.

For example, a dwarf fighter was once a miner and has ranks in Profession (miner). Even though he might not have ranks in Knowledge (dungeoneering) he’ll know more than normal about mines and their perils. In this example, a GM could simply rule the PC knows the relevant information or perhaps allow him (within reason) to use Profession (miner) in place of Knowledge (dungeoneering) when in a mine.

Similarly, the same dwarf should be able to identify his racial enemies (orcs, goblins and giants) with a fair degree of accuracy. Given he either hates them with a passion (goblinoids and orcs) or has trained specifically to fight them (giant subclass creatures) he should probably recognise them when they face him across the battlefield.

Applying this kind of common sense to Knowledge checks rewards a character for taking the time to write a background or for choosing to sink skill ranks into Profession and Craft skills. Given these kinds of decisions tend to build more organic, believable characters and often lead to more roleplaying I think it makes sense to rewards such choices.

What do you think?

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

8 thoughts on “Pathfinder Advice: How to Handle Zero Ranks in Knowledge”

  1. Given that ranks in Profession or Craft are often used as character fluff, I’ve always been supportive of using them in place of certain checks. Profession: Miner, Sailor, or Solider are common enough, but I’d allow a character with Profession: Barrister to use that in place of certain Knowledge: Local checks (only in the community he practices in, of course). Maybe a Craft check to know something about a particular type of item, like Craft: Jewelry if the plot revolves around a cursed necklace.

      1. If I remember correctly, gained abilities are not retroactive. A paladin who has a disease would not be cured of it, but would be protected against it in future if he were cured later.

        1. Of course, it is likely that the paladin would do some rather unpaladiny things between contracting lycanthropy and getting divine health anyway. . .

  2. Your gnome and dwarf in your party could take the breadth of experience feat that will allow them a +2 on all knowledges/professions and can use them untrained.

  3. Very interesting. I’m GMing a 5th campaign and have taken the advice similarly. If their background connects with it, like a miner, then can add Proficiency to rolls as they probable know something about basic construction and rocks and things often found in dark mines. Its really my only real issue with 5th that the skill system seems lacking.

  4. I also think it’s reasonable to assume that if a character can speak a language named for a creature, like Goblin, he can recognise the creature too.

    As for recognising a monster based on its challenge rating, I think it’s too easy for low CR ones and too hard for high CR ones; how about a DC of (25+CR)/2. And for iconic creatures of fairy tales like giants, ogres, trolls and dragons this doesn’t really makes sense at all. I dare say they tell little children fairy tales in fantasy worlds as much as they do in virtually every real world culture, so the creatures that star in them should be easier to identify. For these, the DC could be (30-CR)/2: the bigger they are, the more iconic they are and the easier they are to identify.

    Finally, as you suggest, Creighton, use common sense for knowledge types that a commoner would reasonably have some clue about and treat them as untrained skills, so day to day religion is an untrained skill whereas secret religions and dungeoneering remains require the use of a trained skill. And local knowledge has got to be untrained, surely!

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