RPG Design – Skills and Powers

   Most RPG’s need to have skills.

   Like it or not, the notion that someone who’s never heard of the topic will be just as good at performing brain surgery, writing a computer program, or sculpting as someone who’s spent their life enlarging on a natural talent grossly offends most people’s sense of reality – and once the players can no longer swallow the rules and setting, complete chaos is rarely far away.

   There are a few games which get away with it. There are games where the characters start off as blank slates and never actually gain any skills. There are games like Amber, where characters can reasonably be presumed to be inhumanly skilled experts in any field in which they express an interest. There are games which just use descriptive qualities to define characters (fix the rotary cannon eh? I’ll just fix it with my Expert Warrior descriptor!).

   Those, however, tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Those are all either niche games or extremely quick-and-simple systems. Three’s nothing wrong with that – but for an awful lot of campaigns, they just won’t do.

   For most games, skills are the bedrock of realism that the fantasy gets built on. The more-or-less mundane things that anyone can do creditably with enough practice.

   The trouble with skills is that they’re boring.

   Options like smashing the door with your inhuman strength, mesmerizing the guard into opening it for you, or bypassing it with a spell of passage, are dramatic, fast, and flashy.

   Spending twenty minutes fiddling with the lock with a paperclip until you either get it open or give up is dull. Ok, it’s not as bad as if you had to actually spend those twenty minutes fiddling – but that skill check just isn’t very exciting in comparison to the flashy stuff. It’s still dull.

   Dull, dull, dull.

   In real life, dull is generally good. Dull is practical and reliable. Dull is what the people down at the fire department, the ambulance service, air traffic control, and on the bomb squad, spend their days praying for.

   In RPG’s, the players are there for a bit of escapism. For drama and excitement. In RPG’s dull is bad.

   Now, in worlds with magic or psychic powers or some such we can liven things up a bit by presuming that skills include access to some relevant powers. Perhaps the village blacksmith can be expected to know a set of charms for lighting fires, resisting burns, making and working some special alloys, performing quick repairs and maybe even enhancing tools.

   Now, if those charms are weak enough, it’s possible that the only major cultural effect will be greater overall prosperity – and that fits most fantastic worlds well enough. Dealing with yet another set of starving peasants just isn’t fun for most people. Of course, abilities on that level aren’t really going to do much to liven up skills for most players.

   Middling-powerful abilities are more like it as far as the players are concerned. If your skill as a blacksmith allows you to rush into burning buildings to rescue people and survive, or plunge your hand into the molten heart of the celestial forge to draw out your personalized enchanted sword the Hell Ravager, then skills are going to be a lot more attractive.

   They’re also going to play merry hell with the setting. You could hold that off by limiting the magical talents to truly mighty experts – but then you’ll be taking the abilities you wanted to use to make skills interesting out of the easy reach of the player characters again.

   Now, if you allow high-powered abilities, skills become just another gateway to supernatural power – and one that’s available to everyone in the universe. At this point, you’re pretty much losing mundane basis of skills entirely; everyone becomes a supernatural being and all pretense of a conventional society goes out the window.

   There’s nothing wrong with that either if that’s what you want – but, once again, it won’t fit into a lot of campaigns and most systems that allow supernatural powers already have ways for the characters to get them; there’s no need to install an alternate route.

   For a truly generic system, what you’ll want is a basic system for mundane skills with some more advanced options – a set of relatively low-cost methods for adding minor touches of magic to your skills, a more expensive (calling for more of your character-creation resources, whether those are choices, points, dice, feats, or what-have-you) set of options for adding mid-range magic, and a very expensive set for adding high-range magic.

   For example, in Eclipse d20 (available in a shareware PDF version HERE, in a PDF version (with more stuff) HERE, or in print HERE) you can pick any of those options:

  • If you want totally mundane skills, just take a mundane skill.

   If you want to go somewhat beyond the normally possible, add in:

  • Occult Talent (Specialized in powers related to a particular skill and Corrupted to require a skill roll – for a mere 2 CP).

   Or

  • Immunity to the normal limits of the skill (Uncommon/Minor/Major, a rather cheap modifier at 3 CP) – and now, if your skill suffices, you can try to do a variety of things that would normally require special powers.

   If you want access to minor supernatural tricks associated with your skills, try

  • Shaping (the ability to produce minor magical effects) Specialized in abilities associated with your skills (6 CP).

   Or

  • Skill Focus with Stunts – allowing the user to pull off impressive and mundanely-impossible tricks, albeit not too often (8 CP minimum).

   If you want mid-level supernatural powers drawn from your skills, you can try:

  • Rune Magic based on a skill – “Mystic Blacksmith” perhaps? – and a supply of mana (variable CP, but Mana, Rite of Chi, and the skills themselves are pretty minimal).

   Or

  • Either Innate Enchantment or Inherent Spell, Corrupted to require a skill check to activate (6+ CP, depending on the number of abilities desired).

   If you want high-powered supernatural powers drawn from your skills, try:

  • Mystic Artist based on a skill (6+ CP, depending on the paths and special abilities taken)

   or

  • Skill Focus with Stunts and Epic Stunts – allowing the user to pull off some quite astounding tricks (14 CP minimum, and more if you want to use this talent at all often).

   With those options you can accommodate pretty much any character – and keep from warping your setting too much as well. Only adventurers are likely to have a lot of spare character points available to buy major supernatural skill enhancements.

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