Avoiding Realism Like The Plague II – Learning Skills

RuneQuest Deluxe Edition as published by Avalo...

Yes, this edition did come out nearly twenty years ago. I'm giving them a plug anyway.

A great many games tie learning new skills to “gaining levels”, spending abstract “experience points” (usually gained for doing things that have nothing whatsoever to do with the skill in question), or other thoroughly abstract mechanisms. This leads to another common “realistic” request – that characters either be allowed to “learn by doing” or that characters be allowed to train up skills during downtime – whether by paying instructors, by teaching each other, or by experimentation.

This is hardly unprecedented. Rather a lot of old games handled things this way if they had a skill system at all. There are reasons why it went out of style though…

Chaosium’s “Basic Role Playing” and “Runequest” offered a simple learning-by-doing rule: If you used a skill and succeeded (and you had a minimum chance of 5%), after the adventure you rolled it again; if you failed that time, the skill increased by 5%.

OK, you used your intelligence as a bonus to the chance of learning, a minimum 5% chance of learning let you get skills above 100% (to deal with penalties), there was a rule for formal training, and there was a requirement that your use of the skill actually mean something (so you couldn’t just roll skills at random in hopes of an increase) – but those didn’t really complicate things much.

Not bad as a model – except that it meant that one could learn EXTREMELY fast. You could start as a clumsy farm kid with no weapons training, get into a bar fight (one of the examples in the Runequest II book) and pick up 5% in the weapon(s) you used. Admittedly that sort of thing is a rough school – but you could go from “untrained farm kid” to “master of a dozen weapons” in very short order if you lived through a few weeks of fighting.

Less dramatically, it soon led to a lot of the characters looking a lot alike. Characters would swap out weapons during adventures to get those improvement checks, look for excuses to use any skill they could, and soon EVERYBODY was good with a sword, and with stealth, and with whatever-it-was that their game master often called for. That was dull, and dull is one of the major enemies of a good game.

Like it or not, “learning by doing” has a lot of limitations (for anyone who thinks it doesn’t, I recommend a fine old British drama series – “Danger UXB” – about the bomb disposal “experts” in England during WWII. It is perhaps revealing that it doesn’t have that many episodes). Implementing learning this way realistically in a game is usually too slow and undependable to actually be of interest.

Learning by Training sounds a lot better. After all, everyone is familiar with that; it’s what people actually DO. Why, if you have some aptitude for a field, normal intelligence or better, and a few months to spend, you can easily pick up enough basic skills to get along in a lot of occupations!

That is indeed pretty realistic. Where it runs into trouble is with one of the basic elements of role-playing games:

The player doesn’t feel the character’s pain. You can pull emotional reactions out of the players sometimes – at least if they’re into deep immersion play – but you can’t make them feel that axe to the head, or the terrible boredom of a long wait, or the stress of burning all their free time every day on some project.

Most of us could be martial art experts, be working on our second or third degree, be out of debt, be in great shape, have written three books, be running our own business, and be well-informed on a hundred different topics – if we were willing to devote every moment of our time to hard work, determined study, and practice. We might not be able to become Olympic-level gymnasts without a lot of natural talent – but we could easily work our way into the top 1% in most things simply because on most things 99% of the population isn’t making any particular effort.

Yet most of us aren’t all those things. As far as we’re concerned, the gain isn’t worth the pain. We lack the raw determination and patience to undertake such a program and stick with it. We want to take time off, play a few computer games, relax, and have another cheeseburger. We go out and do, eat, drink, and otherwise use things that we know are killing us.

Player-Characters don’t have those problems. Their actions are controlled by players – who don’t have to live with the pain and boredom – and so their determination is near-infinite. Just as importantly, their abilities are almost always exceptional. After all, playing an incompetent is only fun for so long.

If you allow learning-by-training to make a serious difference in a character’s abilities, you’re going to find that – the first time six months of downtime comes up on a long ship voyage or something – the characters are going to be almost unrecognizable at the end. It’s hard to say that they can’t teach each other either; player characters tend to be grand masters of their fields (whatever those fields happen to be). When simple time will make the characters far more skilled, and far more likely to survive, you’ll soon find that your “adventurers” are all elderly professors.

That works just fine in Call of Cthulhu – which, you may note, is still using a minor variant on Basic Role Playing – but it doesn’t really work well in most other genres.

Now, if you throw in the background assumption that the characters are basically a lot like human beings, and get distracted a lot, you’ll wind up with a system like Classic Traveler.

Classic Traveler’s system did indeed account for the problem. You could designate a topic that your character was studying in each game year. If you allotted enough time to study during that year, and succeeded in a roll at the end of the year, you gained a +1 rating in a skill. If you wanted to keep it, you had to repeat your course of study, and make the roll again. If you succeeded again, your +1 was permanent. If you failed… it went away. Start over.

OK, a +1 was more important in a 2d6 system than in a lot of others, but it wasn’t that big a deal. As far as training and study programs went, Traveler was pretty static. Many characters only picked up a new skill when the game master handed something out by fiat.

Of course, if we use a system like that, we’re pretty much saying that “I’m really not allowing this” without being quite so blunt as to say it outright. Still, that does make it easier for some people to swallow.

So if you’re going to allow downtime studies at all almost you have to make downtime learning extremely minor – whether glacially slow, providing only tiny bonuses, being sharply limited after childhood, being subject to strict lifetime limits, or only slightly supplementing learning through other means.

Well drat! We do want the player characters to be able to improve their skills. Character advancement is one of the major reward-elements in most RPG’s! Yet we’ve established that all the “realistic” methods of learning skills are too slow to really have an impact – and have very undesirable side effects on the game and setting if we speed them up.

This is why most of the current crop of mature games use very unrealistic methods of acquiring and gaining skills – usually providing a small package of skill enhancement options every so often, or using a general pool of “experience” with which the character purchases boosts to his or her abilities.

Oops! The long way around has brought us right back to… various abstract forms of levels and spendable experience points.

Remember: it’s not that all those old game designers COULDN’T design simulationist systems that worked realistically. Many of them were veteran designers of systems designed to recreate historical battles in detail; they were past masters of simulationism. It’s just that there are some points where you have to simulate a fantastic reality, rather than a mundane one, to make things work as a game.

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