RPG Design – Skill Systems III, The Optional Skills

   Next up are the optional skills – the things which depend on the setting and/or the exact mechanics of the game. Unsurprisingly, there are an awful lot of these, so this section is going to focus on some representative examples. And yes, this is something of a games-design checklist. Leaving major gaps in your skill system can be quite embarrassing later on.

   For those who will get tired of the list before hitting the bottom, the next section is going to finish up this particular series by rebuilding a skill system – in particular, since there have been a few inquiries, the d20 skill system.

   Biocontrol Skills represent a characters trained ability to manipulate his or her own body processes. While such skills have some precedent in the real world, game characters can often take them beyond all normal limits – if there’s a reason to. Quite a few worlds allow magical or psychic powers which can easily handle all these functions and more.

  • Commonly: Toughness (allows the user to take more damage), Resist Drugs and Toxins, Carousing (lets the user outdrink and outparty other people), Recovery (speeds healing and recovery from various traumas), Resist Death (keeps a character alive longer), Controlled Breathing (allows holding your breath longer, faking being dead, and – in legend – resisting great impacts), Contortionist (allows the user to dislocate his or her joints and fold into quite unnatural positions), Endurance (allows a character to resist hostile environments and keep going for longer than normal), and Adrenal Surge or Berserker (allowing brief bursts of extreme effort).
  • Use them: Whenever you want pulp heroes – characters who go beyond what normal people can do without turning into superhumans.

   Communications Skills are fairly simply. You can throw signaling and operating various communications systems into this category, but this mostly covers languages, alphabets, codes, and getting your point across without manipulation – or in conjunction with social influence skills if you want to be manipulative.

  • Commonly: Particular Languages, Reading Body Language/Sense Motive, Lipreading, Graphic Arts, Cartography, Illustration, Sign Language, Detect Lie, Improvisation (used when no other means of communications exists and you need to get some simple point across), Writing/Directing, Acting, Oratory, Calligraphy, and Decipher (used for translating obscure languages – usually with references – and breaking various forms of ciphers).
  • Use them: when you want to communicate information clearly or when you’re trying to understand someone.

   Deception Skills involve feeding false information to other living beings. They’re a very common element in games, if not quite ubiquitous. This category doesn’t cover social deceptions, they’ve already been addressed under social skills.

  • Commonly: Disguise, Forgery or Counterfeiting (making fake artwork, currency, documents, or whatever if this is not handled by specific skills), Stealth (often divided by the sense affected or into physical, magical, and psychic stealth), Acting or Impersonation, Ventriloquism/Voice Imitation, Concealment (the art of hiding other things, again often divided into physical, magical, and psychic versions. Occasionally found in an instrumental version as well as Electronic Countermeasures), Rumor-Mongering,, Gambling, and Distraction (used to lose pursuit or to get people to pay attention to someone else).
  • Use them: Whenever having someone else find out the truth would be dangerous or inconvenient.

   Espionage Skills are used for getting into places and acquiring information when other people are actively trying to keep you from doing either – or for keeping other people from doing the same things that you try to. Espionage skills aren’t necessarily particularly high-tech, people have been spying on each other for thousands of years.

  • Commonly: Surveillance (including bugging), Security Systems (setting up, detecting, and bypassing), Saboteur (used to cause almost anything to cease working), Mnemonics, Escape Artist, Tailing, Countermeasures (knowing how to block the use of any of these skills), and Connections.
  • Use them; when you want to find out what a particular group is up to by direct observation.

   Healing Skills can be incredibly complicated in the real world – but in most game systems they come down to just a few skills. Whether or not it’s reasonable, no one wants to deal with real-life medical complications and hundreds of sub-specialities in a game. Mostly that’s because the characters are only interested in results and because the players aren’t interested in times when their characters are being treated rather than being out and doing things.

  • Commonly: First Aid, Medicine, Pharmacology, Herbalism, Surgery, Implants and Cybernetic Limbs, Psychiatry.
  • Use them: When a character is injured or out of action. There’s generally no point in going into any details, the players usually won’t be interested.

   Information-Gathering Skills aren’t quite ubiquitous, but they’re a good idea in any setting short of an arena or a pure slice-of-life setting. There’s always information that isn’t immediately to hand, and digging it out is often the only way to solve a problem – or at least the only way that reduces the risks from “quite absurd” to “manageable”. Information gathering skills are usually subdivided by how a character is attempting to gather information – although there’s enough overlap that many games simply reduce the lost to one or two such skills. After all, being good at digging up bits of information and putting them together is fairly fundamental, the exact methods can reasonably be treated as specialities.

  • Commonly: Forensics (searching for and analyzing physical clues), Research (rummaging through source material, such as books and recordings), Conversation (determining whether or not people actually have any worthwhile information and getting it by interviewing them, whether or not they know their providing information), Forward Observer (noting details important to combat and providing those to others), and Investigation (tracing down things and people – especially those who have information). Some games use a “Deduction” skill, allowing the players to get the help of the game master in assembling the information they do have, or a “Recap” ability, allowing them to get the game master to summarize – but such skills can easily become crutches.
  • Use them: whenever the characters need more information, are looking for an easier way to accomplish some task, or are trying to locate something or someone specific that they want but can’t immediately find.

   Magical and Psychic Skills depend on the nature of the game system. After all, if a game doesn’t feature such abilities, there’s no need for skills dealing with them – and if it does, it will probably be defining a lot of it’s own terms and mechanics. On the other hand, there are quite a few elements that almost every system should cover in some fashion, so here are a few of the things to remember to put some form of rules in for.

  • Commonly: Power Gathering (collecting and building up magical energy), Shielding (blocking supernatural attacks), Feather Magic (producing effects with a minimal expenditure of power), Magic Resistance, Gesture (making magical gestures, either to compensate for restrictions or to substitute for other components), Power Capacity (how much magical energy a given mage can handle or store), Ritual Magic, Magic Control (to make small alterations in effects as they’re produced or control details), Surge Casting (dumping extra power into an effect to amplify it or overcome resistance), Power Recovery (how fast a mage can regain his or her power), Meditation/Trance, Prayer (contacting spirits and entities), Sacrifice (offering things to spirits and entities and getting them to remember to give something back), Channeling (allowing external energies to flow through you without destroying yourself), Blood Magic (draining power from the environment or others in harmful fashions), Anchoring (setting up spells that wait for later on), Racking (holding a supply of completed magics ready to go), Arcane Symbols, Arcane Materials, Attunement (making the user a vessel for magical forces that provide special abilities), Occult Perception (detecting and analyzing magical effects), Warding (setting up defenses around an area), Imbuement (storing magical effects and energy in physical items), Particular Fields of Magic or Psychic Powers (usually combined with other skills to produce effects), Spirit Binding, Hypnotism, Faith, Exorcism, and Dreamquesting (dealing with spirits on their own plane).
  • Use them; when you want magic and psychic abilities to be something other than “I wish and something happens”.

   Physical Combat Skills may or may not see a lot of use in a game. While combat is common enough in most settings – it’s an easy way to generate some exciting action scenes – many games have elaborate special-purpose combat systems, often relying on general combat ratings with minor modifications for proficiency with particular maneuvers or weapons. Others use specific combat disciplines or schools. Others simply have a range of skills, often with some allowance for specialization. Games which spend a lot of time on physical combat tend to make such skills unusually expensive or narrow to promote variety.

   From observation, if you’re using skill-driven combat, it’s usually best if defensive skills are general, weapons skills are narrower – focused on groups like “Axes”, “Pistols”, or “Bows” – and special tricks are limited to particular weapons, styles, or situations.

  • Commonly: Block, Dodge, Evade (for use against area-effect weapons or losing pursuit), Use (Weapon Group), Unarmed Combat (often subdivided by technique), Armor Use, Power Armor Operation, specific Martial Arts, Reaction (how quickly the character comes on guard), Tactics (usually used to arrange fights so as to give one side of the other an attacking advantage or to reduce the damage they take), Vital Points (attacking sensitive areas), Nerve Strikes, and Stance (a basic familiarity with combat, used to either increase the number of options available or – in the form of abilities such as “Base Attack Bonus” – to provide a basis for using most weapons).
  • Use them: Whenever combat breaks out.

   Reality Warping Skills are only common in dimension-hopping games, where the laws of nature change from place to place and navigating through warped realities can be a major part of the game. If your game doesn’t involve this sort of thing, such skills probably aren’t relevant.

  • Commonly: Gadgetry (the ability to keep a few things working across dimensions), Reality (the ability to directly warp the laws of nature), Possibility (the ability to warp the course of events), Shadow Walk (the ability to shift dimensions), Dimensional Navigation, Adaption (the ability to redefine yourself, your gear, and your abilities to fit into the local laws of nature), Identities (the ability to drop into a role suitable to the local dimension), Pocket Warp (the ability to store your equipment in a personal dimensional pocket), Quantum (the ability to store dimensional energies, possibly needed to power other skills in this group), and Produce Item (the ability to simply pull items you need out of nowhere).
  • Use them; with care. OK, use these when the characters are expected to arrive in a particular dimension and do something other than try to figure out where they are and how things work for the next six months.

   Technical and Systems Operation Skills come in a virtually limitless array. On the other hand, they’re often fairly closely related – to the point where a through grounding in the basics can be pretty widely applicable. That’s why people can be hired for a wide variety of jobs only loosely related to their basic fields and, after a period of familiarization and perhaps a bit of on-the-job training, perform quite creditably.

  • Commonly: Mechanics, Electronics, Demolitions, Computer, Shielding (defensive systems), Gunnery (major offensive systems), Fortification, Siege, Drive Systems, Power Systems, Sensor Systems, Communication Systems, Industrial Production Systems, and Resource-Extraction and Refining Systems. On a smaller scale, Blacksmithing and all the pre-industrial crafting and production skills, such as Brewing and Baking fall into this category. For those who’re interested in such things, Politics, Administration, Gang Leadership, Bookkeeping, and a great many “Professional Skills”, such as running a hotel or inn, fall into this category as well.
  • Use them: When you need something built, repaired, or operated.

   Vehicle Skillsusually aren’t terribly important in role-playing games. Most vehicles are designed for normal people to operate – and that means that player characters, who are normally notably superior to normal people, usually have very little trouble with them. Armed fighting vehicles, spacecraft, dimensional travel vehicles, and similar exotica may not be as simple, to operate, but their role is almost always the same – they’re a dramatic way of changing the scene. After all, serious vehicle chase scenes and full-scale vehicle combat usually leave quite a few of the characters mostly uninvolved – at most shooting at the other vehicle – or else run a serious risk of wiping out the entire party, and thus ending the game. Ergo, most scenes with vehicles are over fairly quickly, and wind up with the party leaving the vehicle behind.

  • Commonly: Piloting (Air or Space), Sailing (Water Vehicles), Drive (Ground Vehicles), Operate (Heavy Equipment, including tunneling devices), and Dimensional Transports (time machines, dimensional portals, etc). Particular games may require that characters familiarize themselves with particular vehicles before operating them, but there’s usually no point in requiring different skills.
  • Use them: When you have a vehicle to operate, need to make a fast getaway, want to hotwire or repair a means of transport, or you just feel like taking a ride.

   Wilderness Skillsshould be pretty well understood. After all, most of them have been around a very very long time indeed. While some games may never go near the wilderness, it’s almost certain that most will at some point or another – and this particular set of skills is pretty well ingrained in the human consciousness.

  • Commonly: Survival, Fire-building, Weatherlore, Hunting, Scrounging, Harvesting (resource collection, such as mining or lumberjacking), Navigation, Tracking, Homesteading (herding, fishing, and agriculture), and Camping (arranging a comfortable and secure place to stay).
  • Use them: Whenever the characters aren’t in a city, need supplies, or have to deal with dangerous wildlife.

   Now, if your skill system covers all of that, there shouldn’t be too many holes in it. In fact, most games can get along without several entire categories, and with only a few skills to cover each category, especially if they’re limited-setting games rather than generic systems.

   The next, and probably final, article in this series is going to finish up this particular series by rebuilding a skill system – in particular, since there have been a few inquiries, the d20 skill system.

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