Pretty much every game has a skill system. A few games are built around them. Oddly enough, however, most skill systems get tossed in more-or-less as an afterthought. After all, skills are a familiar part of real life – and most game designers never really settle down and categorize and sort out the possibilities first. They simply throw in a selection of the skills they feel are important for their setting and have done.
That’s the major reason why skills never seem to work quite right in most games. Ergo, I’m going to break things down a bit. Into five basic categories in fact, starting with…
First up: How broad are your skills going to be?
Some games use very broad skills indeed. For example, TORG uses skills like “Air Vehicles” – a skill that lets the user pilot everything from hot air balloons through biplanes, fighter jets, and space shuttles.
Other games use very specific skills. For example, Ysgarth uses skills like “Net Weaving” (as opposed to other kinds of weaving, or other tasks involving tying knots in string) and “Clamming” (the specific skill of digging clams, mussels, and other shellfish from beds in ocean shallows).
Most games try to hit a happy medium, using skills which are narrow enough to be believable, yet broad enough to be used fairly often.
To establish some upper limits for this, lets consider one of the most common types of skills to find in a game system – perception skills.
Now, “Perception” is probably too broad; unless the game already has specific ratings for the acuity of various senses (and some do), the skill is rating a combination of how good your senses are, how quickly you can interpret the incoming data, and how well you interpret the information you get. If you only have a “Perception” score, how do you represent such common situations as a nearsighted man with good hearing or a person with a poor sense of smell but good eyesight?
It’s easy to go too far the other way too. I could easily break up Perception/Hearing into the ability to evaluate tones (“Perfect Pitch”), sensitivity, the ability to pick out individual voices in a crowd, a skill in locating things by the sounds they make, and a dozen other specific applications – but this will rapidly become a bookkeeping nightmare and it’s likely that quite a lot of those skills will never actually be used.
Ergo, our “Perception” skill category is probably going to want to contain four major skills for most games: Perception/Sight, Perception/Hearing, Perception/Touch, and Perception/Scent and Taste (since they are very closely linked). Most characters probably won’t have magical or exotic senses such as the ability to sense magnetic fields, but if any do those should be separate skills as well.
Since we have some reasonably-natural divisions here, we’ve got a base; each skill should be about as broadly applicable as our perception subdivisions.
There are two major ways of handing this.
First up is simply making sure that all the skills used in your game are roughly equal in terms of breadth. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to keep this realistic. You either wind up with a horde of very narrow skills or you wind up bundling loosely-related narrow skills together – for example, putting code-breaking, speaking foreign languages, forging documents, and deciphering cryptic documents, all into a “Linguistics” skill – and thus announcing that, in your world, characters can’t learn to speak Spanish without also learning to forge drivers licenses and other documents.
Secondly, you can make broader skills more “expensive” – requiring a greater investment of character-building resources to excel in – than narrower skills, either by offering bonuses to those who invest their resources in narrower skills or by making them literally cheaper. This is probably the best available solution.
A lot of games haven’t done very well here. For example, 3.5 d20 has the skills “Use Rope” and “Knowledge/History” available at the same cost. Now, there are indeed a lot of different knots to tie, and there’s the knowledge of how to splice rope, tie up people and animals, run pulleys, rig for descending a rock face, and how to properly strangle or hang people – but honestly, you can probably get pretty good with using rope and doing most of those things in a few months. You can study history for multiple lifetimes, and still not have even touched on many parts of the field.
Next up is something that varies greatly from campaign to campaign – applicability. Take, for example, a scientific skill – knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Now, in a 1920’s Chicago gangsters game, that skill is going to have pretty limited applicability. Maybe you can use it to get in to talk to a few academics, get a job as a museum guide, or drone on at parties, but that’s going to be about it. It’s quite likely that you’ll never actually need to make a roll using it.
In a game where the characters are time-travelers stranded in that general period, are exploring a “lost world” environment full of dinosaurs, or are visiting some alien planet or dimension inexplicably populated by creatures of those epochs, such a skill will be utterly vital, and will doubtless be used many times each session.
It’s quite broad – after all, it covers the entire earth over a period of more than one hundred and sixty million years – but its only really useful in specialized settings and circumstances.
No matter what the game system, if it bothers with skills at all, they’re always a limited resource. Players may be willing to spend a small portion of their budget on “flavor”, but there are definite limits to that. Few players are willing to place their character at a serious disadvantage because the concept calls for expertise in areas that aren’t commonly used in the campaign, no matter how neat the character concept is.
There are ways around that. The old rule-of-thumb that “if the player expended character-building resources on something, they must be interested in it and want to find it in the game; either oblige them by finding ways to bring it up and to make it important or allow them to stretch the rules to make it useful” works nicely, but it’s a clumsy rules hack and a nuisance for the game master. You shouldn’t have to stretch the rules and bend over backwards to make the game system work properly; it should be well-written in the first place.
There’s really no choice here; in such situations game systems have to be a bit unrealistic in order to work well.
The two basic solutions are (1) giving each character a separate pool of character-building resources to spend on relatively useless background abilities and (2) rating the skills in your system according to how useful they are in your setting and varying the prices for them accordingly. The “separate pool” solution is generally easiest, but tends to lead to characters with randomly tacked-on background specialities when their character concept doesn’t call for any and doesn’t account for variations between skills that are useful in the setting. Ergo, variable prices seem to be in order.
Next up is how a game system handles skill interactions. In reality, skills tend to overlap and to compliment each other. Skill with a longsword isn’t the same as skill with a cutlass – but an expert with a longsword won’t be entirely out of his or her element with almost any kind of one-handed sword. More technically, a good knowledge of radio systems is helpful in troubleshooting DSL and cable-modem systems, despite the fact that – on the surface – they’re entirely different fields of study. Of course, accounting for this kind of thing once again adds bookkeeping.
Some systems, like Champions or Legend of the Five Rings, keep skills entirely independent. This is quick and simple, if a bit unrealistic. Of course, Champions, as a super-hero system, often uses some pretty broad skills. In Champions you can simply buy “Engineering”… Oh, if only it was really so easy.
Ysgarth uses a complicated system of skill hierarchies and contributions. Each rank of a skill a character purchases contributes towards the purchase of several other related skills. Characters can also buy ranks in entire skill groups, which contribute a small amount towards each skill in the group but which are never used directly. A wide variety of racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as natural aptitudes, vary the cost of each skill. This is very realistic – but it’s also a bookkeeping nightmare.
Some systems, such as Shadowrun (in at least some editions), allow the use of complimentary skills; a character can make a roll with a skill that’s related to the task to try and get bonuses on the roll with the primary skill for the task. That’s nicely flexible, but requires asking for game master approval each time and for two rolls each time. That’s a bother. There are ways to simplify it, but they pretty much amount to simply giving the characters an automatic bonus on their primary skills.
Other systems, like d20 Modern, allow a related skill – if at a decent rating – to provide a modest bonus on a skill check. This cuts out the roll, but still involves asking for game master approval each time you want to use a skill. Still a bother.
The basic 3.5 d20 rules use a list system; particular skills at a decent rating add bonuses to other skills. That doesn’t require any decisions, and can be handled with a simple notation on the character sheet – but it leaves many potential interactions unaccounted for and is a considerable bother every time you add a new skill to the system. What contributes to it? What does it contribute to?
For realism, it’s a good idea to allow some sort of skill contribution. For ease of use, it should be a preset static bonus. To keep such contributions under control, such bonuses should be small, narrower skills should not be allowed to contribute to broader ones, and only a limited number of skills should be allowed to provide bonuses to any one other skill.
This brings us to actually acquiring skills. Once again, there are only a few major options.
Like it or not, skills in a game always come in discrete levels or ranks. At the crudest end you have Skilled/Unskilled (you either have a particular skill or ability or you don’t) – an option often used to handle items such as languages. At the high end you have percentage-based systems with many fine graduations of skill. There really isn’t a way to avoid assigning a value of some sort to a skill though; you have to put some sort of rating on your character sheets if you’re going to have a skill system at all.
Learning by Doing is typical of games such as older-edition Runequest and is an option in World Tree and other games. If you use a skill, you get some credit towards improving it. In some systems you have to have used it successfully, in others you get credit (if usually less credit) for simply trying. Classically, as in Runequest, the better you were with a skill already, the harder it was to improve.
On the plus side, this is very realistic. On the minus side, it tends to make the characters look a lot alike after awhile – after all, they’ll all get experience in common tasks pretty much every session – and it leads to odd attempts to make sure that every skill gets at least some use, such as trading out weapons during a fight. It also tends to be slow and means that – even if a player is interested in a particular skill – he or she will only get to develop the ones that the game master tends to call for.
Learning by Training is also very realistic, at least up until the point where the character is a world-class expert and no one else should have much to teach him or her. Unfortunately, it’s awkward to include in a game. If it isn’t very effective, there’s no point in bothering with the bookkeeping. If it is effective, you’ll find characters attempting to fill every bit of downtime with training opportunities – and when you say something like “after a three-week voyage”, you may suddenly find the characters fluent in the local language or otherwise drastically changed. It’s not especially realistic, but it’s usually best to restrict learning by training to childhood, to unusual situations, and to either acquiring basic skills only or to a limited post-childhood lifetime allowance.
Finally, of course, we have the Abstract Learning systems, such as Palladium, Champions, and 3.0/3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, where characters gain more or less abstract “experience points” and either improve when they hit particular thresholds or simply invest their points in the abilities they want directly. This is quick and easy, since it involves only one – or, at most, a few – numbers to keep track of. It ties character advancement to actually doing things, but avoids the pitfalls of tying improving specific skills to particular activities. On the other hand, it avoids the realism of it too; you beat up a dozen monsters, and now you can learn to speak a new language. There’s often an attempt to apply a gloss of “realism” to this by adding “training requirements” to realize the benefits you’ve earned by gaining levels, spending karma, or whatever system is in use for advancing characters based on their adventures – but it’s a gloss only. If it was the training which was important, what did you need the levels, karma, or whatever-the-system uses for in the first place?
Each of those options has two further subdivisions.
Skill advancement can be linear – making it no easier to go from “completely untrained” or “rank zero” to “rank one” (whatever that means in the system), than to go from “rank three” to “rank four”, or – for that matter – from “rank twenty” to “rank twenty-one”. This is easy and scales well with systems that feature a linear or semi-linear increase in character power or which allow superhuman levels of skill to be achieved with relative ease – which is why so many games, including d20 systems, use some version of this system. It is, however, pretty unrealistic unless we assume that the underlying scale is non-linear. After all, you can pick up a lot of the basics of painting in a week or two. Does that mean that a year will make you Michelangelo? Presuming that “skill one” represents a major increase over “skill zero” and that “skill nineteen” represents only a tiny step over “skill eighteen” fixes that – but it’s not how most games portray actually using skills. In fact, it’s very difficult to come up with a system that actually works that way without some fairly complex math as long as you’re using dice in any form.
Non-linear skill advancement is found in World Tree and the various White Wolf products. It’s also simple enough; each skill increment beyond the first is progressively more difficult to obtain. This is nice and realistic – but really tends to encourage generalists. Lets see now… I can either advance one skill from level 12 to level 13, going from “awesome expert” to “slightly more awesome expert” or I can pick up a dozen or so skills at level one, going from “incompetent idiot” to “tolerably effective”. Not an especially hard choice. Even if the system provides greater rewards for specialists, flexibility is it’s own reward. It works better when the skills provide actual powers though; when the difference between levels eleven and twelve is the difference between telekinetic force-bolts and telekinetic force-storms, getting to higher levels is a bit more tempting than if it’s only the difference between “he has an 8 in 20 chance to spot me” and “he has a 7 in 20 chance to spot me”.
The best choice from among those two options depends on your games style. Non-linear skill advancement is best if the characters are supposed to stay fairly close to their baselines and not turn into hyper-specialized superheroes. On the other hand, it can make it near-impossible to do anything really spectacular. If you want the characters to develop a lot over time and to eventually be able to become epic heroes and reliably pull off spectacular stunts, you’ll want linear advancement.
Learning-by-doing works best with a non-linear advancement scheme and in realistic systems, where characters don’t become superhumanly skilled or tough. Chaosium’s old Basic Role Playing system demonstrated this approach neatly; the characters might become really good at attacking, defending, and parrying, but there was always a chance that an opponent – no matter how inferior – would roll well, the character would hit that 5% automatic failure percentage, and he or she would wind up abruptly dead. Characters became highly skilled, but never truly superhuman.
Learning-by-Training works well if you use a lengthy time requirement, expect the characters to be fairly static, and make improving a skill a fairly big deal. Many games assume that characters underwent lengthy periods of training before they actually began their adventures, but that they improve by some other method later on – making Learning-by-Training a flavor text point than something that actually occurs much in the game. Classic Traveler worked this way; once you had determined a characters skills and attributes – picking up 1-4 +1 bonuses during each four year term of pre-game service – they generally didn’t change much. It was possible to undertake training programs, but you could only undertake one at a time, you had to make a check to see if the character could stick with the training, each required four years to gain a +1 rank in each of two skills – and you had to successfully repeat the training program to make such increases permanent. Of course, in a 2d6 system, a +1 was fairly important – but your starting character would probably still be quite recognizable when he or she retired.
Abstract Learning works well in games where the stress is on relatively rapidly-paced adventures, where a lot of background activity is simply assumed, and where characters are free to develop their own talents and abilities regardless of the details of their current adventures. Of course, it also breaks the connection between acquiring skills and actual experience and training and turns “Experience Points” (or Legend of the Five Rings “Karma” or Godlike’s “Will” or whatever) into a supernatural force that accumulates in adventurers until it’s expended on specific upgrades or hits a critical point and transforms them (raising their “level”). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s no reason why the reality of a game world has to conform to expectations based on how things work in our reality – but it’s always worth mentioning it in your rules system. Otherwise it leads to a lot of arguments over what such bonuses represent and how they work.
Now that “experience as a mystical force” idea is very handy if you want to allow the characters to become inhumanly durable and to gain powerful supernormal abilities over the duration of their careers. What makes them different? What allows them to do things that no starting character – no matter how well trained – could ever match? What allows them to withstand massive amounts of injury? Why their accumulated “Experience” (or “Essence” or “Might” or whatever) of course!
Now that we’ve had a look at the breath, applicability, and acquisition of skills, it’s time to have a look at how they’re actually used.
Using skills in a game normally involves rolling some dice. Whether skills add to the number of dice rolled, determine the number of dice rolled, or are added to the number rolled really isn’t important. What is important is something pretty fundamental about dice.
One die generally produces a linear result – equal probabilities of each face. Outside of a few special dice, that usually means equal chances of each result.
Multiple dice produce results on what’s known as a bell curve. It can be distorted by picking some dice and leaving others and by various modifiers – but the results towards the center of the bell curve are distinctly more probable than the extremes.
Like it or not, reality runs on bell curves. A few people are very tall and a few people are very short, but most people’s heights cluster around the average. The same thing applies to an immense number of other qualities and abilities – including skills. A good cobbler doesn’t turn out his best work, his worst work, and every graduation in between with equal probability. Once in a while they may turn out a bad set of shoes, and once in awhile an exceptionally comfortable set – but the vast majority of his shoes will turn out to be about average.
That doesn’t really work for combat, or dodging spells, or similar situations. In combat you’re dealing with active and unpredictable opposition, are subject to many random factors, and are working in a great hurry – so luck plays a much greater role. A linear distribution works just fine in combat – and, since many rolls are made in the typical fight, a single-die system will usually be much quicker and easier to deal with in play and to estimate odds on during system design.
That is why many games use two or more differing mechanics – one for combat and one or more for other situations. Despite the craze for “unified mechanics” or “core game engines”, using the same engine for two radically different activities makes exactly the same amount of sense as trying use the same engine that powers a fighter jet to power a moped. Mechanics shouldn’t be unnecessarily multiplied – but expecting the players to remember two, or perhaps even three, different types of rolls really isn’t really asking very much of them.
Ergo, when you’re designing a game, most skill uses should be rolled with two or more dice.
Skills can have other benefits. Some of the most common variants here include:
Skills provide special bonuses at various levels – most commonly a small bonus on related rolls or game values, but daily rerolls, free specialities, increased effects, incomes, being able to stretch supplies or survive without them, making higher-order benefits available, and similar effects are all possible, as can be seen in Rifts and other games. How far you go with this depends on how complicated you want to make your skill system. As an example, the skill of “Dark Evocations of Markavar” may consist of little more than special bonuses. “Mountain Climbing” might provide a few special knacks and bonuses elsewhere – but “paper making” probably doesn’t do anything too exotic.
As a rule, it’s best to keep things relatively simple, and usually best to use some sort of template with an option list, rather than attempting to determine individualized special bonuses for each skill. That kind of system makes it very awkward to add skills later.
A few other common options also fit in here:
Trained versus Untrained skills. In many systems there are things that anyone can try to do and things that can only be attempted by those with the proper training. Anyone can try to tie knots, but attempting to derive the solution to a complex equation will take training – if only to know what the symbols and operations mean. With other skills the difference is not quite so stark, but even minimal training will offer a great advantage. The difference between a few hours of instruction and complete ignorance can be quite dramatic.
Some systems – particularly those which include skills with supernatural effects – include various forms of fatigue systems or other limitations on their use. While this can blur the line between skills and powers, it’s really more than reasonable, even with regard to particular skills. After all, after a few hours of proofreading, it’s best to do something else for a time or rest; otherwise you start overlooking things. The same trouble pops up with woodcarving, lockpicking, and many other activities; repetition makes for fatigue, carelessness, and accidents.
Doing the same thing, or using the same ability, over and over again also makes for boring play. I’d recommend including some form of “Skill Fatigue” or repetition rule as an option in most skill systems.
“This is the eighth lock! My fingers are cramping and my hands are shaking! I cannot work like this, I must take a break!”
The last basic element of a skill system is it’s Extent. How much of the mechanics of the game are based on it?
At the high end, you can find games where a character sheet consists of nothing but skills – even injuries are simply assessed against the character’s “toughness” skill (or, with less purity, against some form of simple wounds track). Such games may assume that the underlying attributes exist, but are simply reflected in the character’s choice of skills, or they may not even acknowledge the idea. Games like Maelstrom or Fudge really don’t have any kind of independent “attributes”; they simply have phrases that describe a character’s strengths and weaknesses.
Most games mix basic attributes, skills, and special traits – innate talents and flaws derived from a character’s race, prior experiences, inborn traits, and (possibly) profession. The various White Wolf games, World Tree, Deadlands, and the various d20 systems all do this.
A few games, such as the Amber Diceless RPG or First Edition D&D really don’t use skills at all, relying entirely on raw attributes – either because skills are difficult to acquire and adjudicate in the game, because it uses a sufficiently diverse set of attributes to not need skills, or because – as in Amber – the raw power of the character’s attributes and powers dwarfs any possible skill.
Obviously enough, this sort of decision depends on the style of the game and on the breadth of the skills you’re using for it. Is combat entirely based on relatively narrow skills? Be prepared to see a lot of extreme specialists. Very broad skills? Be prepared to have the characters effectively using anything that comes to hand as a weapon. Doesn’t really use skills? You may see warriors stumbling around with no skills at all, or – if they get skills anyway – with completely random skill selections.
All three of the options here have merits of their own – but it’s worth noting that both skill-only and no-skill games tend to be niche productions. Most gamers find the attribute-skill-traits combination easy to understand, relatively easy to use, and familiar enough to be willing to invest their time in playing yet another variant. Unless you have an idea for carving out a speciality niche of your own, both original games and modified or house-ruled versions of older ones are usually best off sticking with the middle of the road.
Now that we’ve broken down some skill systems, it’s time to build one back up again – but that can wait for a later post. This one is quite long enough now.