RPG Design – Skill Systems II, The Basic Skills

   The first step in building up a skill system is deciding what your game is going to be like and what the skill system is supposed to cover – but there are some general things categories that might be useful. Essentially, if you can get better at something by training, or it covers the application of a sub-aspect of a more general attribute in a game and has a wide range of possible values, it’s probably a skill.

   Perception Skills aren’t quite a necessity; you can always fall back on simple attribute rolls, and that may be quite appropriate with games with some sort of sensory sub-attributes. Still, perception rolls are usually made to see if a character noticed some important bit of information – often a clue or warning. Most games ought to cover them, if only because characters will often want to build them up. In general, a skill for each major sense a creature possesses is in order. Creatures don’t have to have each skill – there’s nothing wrong with relying on their basic abilities – but they’re very handy for creatures with sensory enhancements.

  • In most games; Sight, Hearing, Touch, and Taste/Smell (chemical detection). Some creatures may have the ability to sense vibrations, magic, life, magnetic fields, or other qualities, in which case additional skills are in order.
  • Use them; When a character wants to get detailed information about something with a sense or when there’s some significant bit of sensory information available which might easily pass unnoticed.

   Movement Skills come into play when a creature wants to do something unusual or is competing against another creature where the outcome is in doubt. Horses trot and fish swim without worries – but when they’re dodging a predator, in a race against a creature of similar physical capabilities, or want to pull off some fancy maneuver, a skill check is in order. Most games should have these skills, if only because knowing how to pace yourself for various distances, or how to handle environmental difficulties, normally takes practice.

  • In most games; Ground (Run), Air (Fly), Water (Swim), Tunnel (Burrow), Vertical (Climb), Swing (Brachiate).
  • Use them; When a character is competing against, or evading, another creature, when he or she wants to move in some unusual fashion – tumbling, performing gymnastics, or dancing – when there are environmental difficulties, or when he or she is attempting to function in an unusual environment.

   Basic Manipulation Skills tend to be simply assumed in most games. Virtually all role-playing games assume that the primary characters are both sapient and natural tool users and that – if some exotic situation comes up – a couple of on-the-fly rolls and rulings will cover it. This is usually true; how often does someone – say – get turned into a bear or dog and want to work some bit of machinery? Still, just in case someone in your game routinely wants to try and pick locks with his or her toes, or spends a lot of time in animal form, or you have a player-character race with no hands (maybe not so uncommon; there are three on this site – the Riall, NeoDogs and NeoDolphins) or someone playing an animal that’s been granted sapience, here you are.

  • In most (OK, in a very few) games; Basic Mechanics (understanding how tools can be used), Apply Strength (being able to effectively apply your full strength to objects), Fine Control (being able to precisely manipulate objects), and Adaptability (using limbs in ways they’re not normally used, such as walking on your hands or eating with your toes – skills which are occasionally developed by the disabled).
  • Use them; Almost never… well, OK; when a character wants to open a door with their mouth since their hands are tied, when someone who’s been transformed into an animal wants to write a message, when a scavenging raccoon wants to get a bottle open.

   Knowledge Skills can be found in almost all game systems, but are always an awkward point. The problem is that any given field of knowledge can be subdivided, and studied in more detail, almost without limit and that broad fields – say “earth sciences” or “physics” – cover astounding amounts of information. Secondarily, they’re often almost useless unless the game or game master happens to have enough detail on a topic. “Magic Theory” might indeed tell you something about how a given effect is being produced, what it’s limits are, how it could be amplified or interfered with, and what counters there are – but if all the game and game master has on the topic is “it’s a special power they’ve got”, you might as well not have the skill at all. Players who know too much can put a crimp in things as well. If the plot depends on the characters not being able to distinguish between the original NPC and a clone who was grown in a lab last month, what will you do when someone says “Well, my character’s a medical expert, he’ll just stick them with a sampling needle and take a look a the microstructure of the bone. The original will have a lifetimes worth of micro-fractures in the mineral crystals. The clone won’t have those.”? Announcing that “that won’t work!” without a reason simply tells the players that there’s no point in investing in knowledges; they’re on a plot railroad and can’t get off anyway.

   On the other hand, if the game master is either well-prepared or good at improvising, knowledge skills can be quite vital. They are also, without a doubt, THE primary candidate for the variable cost option. Knowledge of “Physics” or “Physical Sciences” – which is certainly about as broad as a knowledge skill should get – is likely to turn up far more often than a knowledge of “french wines of the 1800’s”. Thus the sample skills here will be listed by Category, the General Skill, and (some likely Specialities).

  • In most games:
    • Supernatural Forces:
      • Arcane Lore (Runes, Glyphs, Spells, Spell Research, Potions, Power Ingredients, Ancient Enchantments, Inherent Powers, Magical Theory).
      • Psychic Lore (Psionics, Soulmelds, Psychic Devices, Mentatics, Psychic Entities, the Astral Plane).
      • Religious Lore (Spirits, Undead, Gods, Theology, Death, Holy Mysteries, the Outer Planes and their Creatures).
    • Living Creatures:
      • Behavior (Psychology, Criminology, Modeling, Insanities, Animal).
      • Life Sciences (Biology, Botany, Naturalist, Herbalist, Medicine, Biochemistry).
      • History (Archeology, Civics, Current Events, Heraldry, Social Structures, Wars and Tactics).
    • Natural Forces:
      • Physics (Optics, Astrophysics, Radiation Physics, Field Theory, Cosmology).
      • Engineering (Electronics, Clockwork, Mechanics, Armor, Weapons, Metallurgy).
      • Planes (Dimensions, Temporal Mechanics, Reality Manipulation).
    • The Physical World:
      • Earth Sciences (Geology/Geography, Hydrology, Meteorology, Navigation, Nature, Astronomy, Caverns).
      • Constructs (Architecture, Mining, Cartography, Demolitions, Knowledge of particular Areas).
      • Chemistry/Alchemy (Toxicology, Metallurgy, Elixirs and Potions, Transmutation, Biochemistry, Polymers).
    • Information Sciences:
      • Communications (Linguistics, Ancient Languages, Art, Philosophy, Propaganda, Semantics).
      • Culture (Sociology, Law, Business, Civics, Government, Streetwise, Politics, Folklore).
      • Interaction (Mathematics, Games Theory, Economics, Tactics, Formal Logic, Information Theory, Cryptography).
  • Use them: Whenever you want to know something obscure, find out how something works in the game world, or figure out a countermeasure for something.

   Social Manipulation Skills are another awkward point. If you include them, you risk things like “So I’m carrying the body I want to get rid of and I’ve just turned a corner and run into a contingent of the city guard? I use my incredible persuasion skill and massive special bonuses to tell them he’s just drunk and go on. Minus some huge penalty? No problem! My bonuses will cover that!”. That might be plausible if the characters skills are indeed that high – but a lot of players and game masters find it jarring.

   If you don’t, you hand a massive advantage to the players who happen to be smooth and persuasive talkers, you tell tongue-tied players that they can’t play more social characters, and are reduced to handwaving when the wheelchair-bound player wants to have his massive barbarian intimidate the scrawny mage character being run by the football player. Do you really think that you can entirely separate the impressions the two produce when playing in character from the physical reality?

   As is so often true, this seems to work best when there’s some compromise between “game” and “simulation”. I recommend using the skills to determine how good the attempt is – but setting the difficulty according to how plausible the players explanation is.

  • In most games; Persuasion (via reason), Trickery (via lies, bluffs, and fast talk or by leading people to conclude that something was their own idea), Rhetoric (via emotional appeals and rabble-rousing), Intimidation (via real or implied threats or actual infliction of injuries, Negotiation (via offering property or personal benefits, this skill is also commonly used in bribery and bargaining), Protocol (via appeals to precedent, tradition, and custom), Seduction (via real or feigned friendship or sexual desire), Command or Leadership (via example and appeals to honor, conscience, and personal self-respect; this is commonly combined with Rhetoric).
  • Use them; Whenever a character wants to manipulate someone else’s behavior and the result isn’t clearly obvious.

   Sadly, due to a bit of computer trouble and the resulting time crunch, the rest of this will have to wait until after the Shadowrun game and perhaps tomorrow.

6 Responses

  1. Again. Very thorough. I particularly like your rundown of all the various social situations.

    I do note that you seem to be an advocate for comprehensive skill lists with individual skills having very narrow purviews. The game I’m currently writing for has that approach as it’s pushing for a very strong and accurate simulation, but it’s been my experience that that level of detail and granularity in a skill system is only needed in the most hardcore of simulative games.

    The downside of having such huge skill lists is that character creation takes longer and it requires an extremely knowledgable GM to arbitrate what particular esoteric ability applies to whatever fringe situation. That pretty much eliminates any possibility of high school kids liking the game.

    My personal preference is a system where the game sets a maximum of around 20 to 30 abilities that cover fairly broad concepts. Then you allow for specialties (it’s actually best if specialties aren’t tied to a particular ability but can be related) that are about as specific as what you advocate, these are added to the more general abilities when rolling. So you might have a White Wolf style “Science” ability, but could choose specialties in Microbiology or Xenology, or Botany or whatever. Then you simply model your difficulty curve to favor more general tasks and as a task becomes more specific you increase the difficulty so that the specialties become more and more applicable.

    I also like the idea of certain situations requiring multiple skills that are combined. An example of this would be say… installing a cybernetic arm. This requires (roughly) equal parts medicine (surgery, neurosurgery etc..) and mechanics (electronics, hydraulics etc…) so I think such a situation should say combine the modifiers of the two skills (in this case I’m saying they’re mechanics and medicine) for the roll and the difficulty is accordingly higher. This means that if the character has a poor score in one ability but a good score in the other he’ll be having a hard time with the increased difficulty.

    Lately it seems like games are going even more broad-spectrum on what the skills cover. D&D 4th seems to be abstracting entire skillsets altogether which I’m not entirely pleased with personally, but I know lots who like it this way, so each to their own I guess.

    • Well, thank you. It did take a couple of hours to put the list together.

      As for comprehensive skill lists for a particular game – sometimes. As noted, quite a few perfectly good games don’t have skills at all. Some have extremely elaborate lists, dozens of attributes, and numerous special traits. The point of the long list here is simply a resource; does the game you’re writing, or the house rule system, or whatever, have a way to handle most of those things? If not, which ones are actually likely to come up? You don’t need magical skills in a game with no magic, and you probably don’t need anything too elaborate in the way of a combat system for a game based around courtly politics. A game set in the early bronze age can forget entire categories of skills. The narrower the setting, and the more restricted the type of characters, the more you can cut down on the list of possibilities that your game needs to cover without anyone really noticing.

      More importantly, how do whatever skills you are using work in the setting? What are the actual physics and activities that the game mechanics are trying to represent? Once you have that pinned down, you’ll know what you can combine without winding up with overly-broad mechanics that require exceptions and special rules. After all, it is quite possible to write rules that cover everything a character might try to do and to keep them simple – in the real world they’re called “laws of nature” – it’s just that trying to make sure they’re easy to apply as well is pretty difficult.

      I don’t know about high school kids though. I started off in junior high school, and we added an awful lot of complications to that little blue book before first edition came out.

      I have found that it makes life for most players much easier if the skills and abilities in the game are divided into sets. As a sample, the old Continuum II rules included several hundred skills (some parts of those rules are up in the Other Games tab). However, the number available to any given type of character was far more limited, and the lists were subdivided by purpose: thus a character who wanted to be a “ninja” would simply select “Rogue”, grab the skills from the Assassins Arts and Burglar sublists, and fill out with whatever looked appropriate with the remaining skill choices.

      •Assassins Arts: Ambush, Awakening, Intrigue, Resist Poisons, Seduction, Survival.

      •Burglar: Casing, Catwalk, Climbing, Perception, Rope Use, Search/Conceal.

      Part of the trick there was that the initial skill decisions were basically simply yes/no, that the names were broadly descriptive and easily understood, and that even later skill upgrades only had a few levels. Since later upgrades were mostly measured in “Dice Off”, upgrading was a large and satisfying thing – but the math was as minimal as possible (add up 4-5d6 was the usual limit).

      That’s one way to handle a long skill list; make actually selecting and using them as simple as possible.

      For things that require multiple skills, there are a couple of likely situations:
      1) High skill in one area can compensate for low skill in another. Use the average or make both rolls and combine the results weighted according to which skill is primary. Can your inspiring oratory make up for the fact that you have no clear idea what you’re talking about? Quite possibly! Which skill weighs in most heavily will probably depend on the audience.
      2) Each skill must succeed – as in installing that cybernetic arm successfully. Use the worst of the applicable skills against the overall difficulty – and long complex procedures are often quite difficult. This works better than simply rolling each skill, since doing it that way can reduce the odds of success to something minuscule.

      As for D&D fourth edition – well, given that our games rarely spend much time on combat, and sometimes have several sessions between fight scenes. that does leave very little in the books that’s of any interest. Several of the local groups did give it a try, but they all found it quite boring – and none of the games made it past four sessions. They wanted games with noncombat abilities that actually represented what they wanted to do.

  2. Good article. Though I wasn’t really understanding the part about basic manipulation skills. If you were saying that there should be a specific skill for a player using a hand operated device with their feet, then I would just say negative to the roll.. I use my feet with my TV controller all the time, but I’m still using my TV controller skill. It would be awesome if they made TV controllers for feet.

    • Not precisely – you’d only want such a skill (or perhaps a set of modifiers, or special background abilities) if (1) your setting involved player-character species that were not reasonably well-adapted to using tools, or (2) someone wanted to – say – be able to wield a scimitar with each foot while doing a handstand and still fight without penalty.

      Thus Amorph, the giant blind and deaf superheroic player-characer amoeba from a Champions game (Ah, nostalgia!), got some massive penalties for using tools, or manipulating small objects (since he only had big blunt pseudo-pods and didn’t even comprehend the IDEA of tools). Given that he was a fairly unique case, he used disadvantages and some hefty negative modifiers to represent that. If there had been a lot of creatures with similar problems running about it might have been better to add a couple of skills – perhaps “Comprehend Technology” and “Fine Manipulation”. When Amorph would have invested enough points in those to buy off his disadvantages he would have been presumed to have reached normal human levels of proficiency – and would no longer need to roll or use those skills as a cap on his abilities. That would allow him to improve gradually, rather than suddenly announcing that “I bought off the disadvantage! Suddenly I can do embroidery with my pseudo-pods!”.

      If some clown wanted to do the scimitar trick, he could just take a penalty – but if he wanted to get rid of the penalty, taking a skill in “Foot Hand Technique” might work; when it exceeded the skill he wanted to use, he’d no longer take a penalty. In d20, it might be a special feat.

      There are some games where this sort of thing comes up often enough to be relevant – and so it makes the list, even if just as an item that 95% of the game designs can simply skip right past.

  3. “And perhaps tomorrow” he says… Seven years later. :)

    • That did rather wind up in the forgotten pile didn’t it? Thanks for the reminder though; maybe when I have some vacation time. After all, there are now enough “skills” articles to make a decent PDF with a little assembly.

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