Without a doubt, if there is one thing that reviewing RPG products gives you, it is a wide-eyed perspective on just how many skill systems are out there in the game market! And for me, that just covers new games that have crossed my path in the three or so years I’ve been doing reviews. If I start thinking about all the game systems that I’ve played in my 35+ years of my “gaming life”, I quickly lose count of how many different skill systems I’ve read or played with during all that time!
As I mentioned in a previous blog, The Ability Score Conundrum, I’m currently working on a role-playing game system project, and exploring game mechanics to find the best fit in the new system. Skill systems have evolved quite a lot since the early days of role-playing games and range from practically non-existent to massive simulationist-friendly lists.
But which is the best fit for a game system? And which type of skill system do gamers tend to like better?
Less is More or More is More?
Those of us who played the early editions of many RPG systems know that skills varied wildly from game to game. TSR’s OD&D had no skills to speak of, although AD&D added optional professions which could be rolled up during character generation to help define “background” skills a hero might have beyond chopping through orcs or blasting giant spiders out of their webs. While not a real skill system per se, players were encouraged to role-play out knowledge based upon their random profession of Farmer or Draper, but they had little use in dungeon delves for the most part.
On the other hand, Chaosium’s early Basic Role-playing system had a fairly well-developed skill list, using percentile dies to determine a success, and worked fairly well in Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, Stormbringer, and a whole bunch of other games. Hero System’s Champions and later GURPs used comprehensive lists of skills as well. In fact, to me it felt like the trend for most game systems I was playing back in the 80s and 90s was to have fairly complete skill lists, providing players with the ability to define their character by the types of skills they had.
Of course, later editions of D&D jumped on this bandwagon, and the d20/OGL/3.5 system probably had one of the longest skill lists of any game system out there! But some players found the number of skills to be off-putting, and preferred simpler systems with fewer skills – or sometime none at all. In many ways, it seemed to many of us early gamers that superhero and science fiction gamers seem to enjoy massive skill lists, while fantasy gamers seem to prefer shorter lists – but not always. The continued success of Paizo’s Pathfinder and the proliferation of d20-style OGL systems would seem to fly in the face of earlier observations, and suggest there is a solid market for RPGs that have very complete and complex skill list systems.
But is a long list of skills better for building characters than a short list of skills? Or is it dependent upon the genre of the game system? Do fantasy characters need more or less skills than science fiction or superhero or horror characters?
Skill Lists or Professions?
So what’s the alternative to skill lists? Recent games I’ve reviewed have been experimenting with more story driven skill systems that defy using a list of skills to define a character. In my reviews of 13th Age and Enter the Shadowside, I encountered game systems which did not have conventional skills and skill lists, but used professions to define what a character could do. In these systems, a few professions or avocations are chosen – such as Doctor, Computer Hacker, Apprentice Mage, or Assassins’ Guild – and assigned a level of expertise or bonus level which can be used in appropriate situations.
Clearly, one advantage to having a system using professions rather than skills is that a player can use the bonus if he or she can convince the gamemaster that they would have some knowledge or skill appropriate to the task at hand. Of course, the downside is that a GM is now forced to arbitrate each skill check, and listen to the player convince them why they should get to use their profession bonus. There is certainly an element here which promotes role-playing over roll-playing, but it could hamper some players who are less adept at rp-ing or at developing complex character backstories.
Interestingly, D&D Next using a combination of professions and skill lists for the Core rules of the playtest – called themes. These themes hybridize skill lists and professions, allowing a player to select a role-playing element to add to their backstory and obtain a short list of three skills which whay can use during play. Of course, the skills in the theme selection are dictated to the character, which does not necessarily promote good character building, but it is one other possible way to use a profession based system to generate skills for the heroes.
Quantifying & Resolving
Of course the other big piece of any skill system is quantifying the potency of a skill, and how it is used to resolve a task. Every skill system uses a different method for designating a target number, and resolving the skill – usually taking on the form of a dice roll and adding a bonus from the appropriate skill. But what method works best here?
Just looking at the evolution of D&D skills, we move from a system where there was a vague pre-adventuring profession, to a system of point buying and training, to a system of skill selection – and finally, looking ahead to a theme/profession system. And I almost forgot, there was that non-weapon proficiencies skill system which was stuck in during 2nd Edition, and ended up as sort of an ability score check system.
All these systems used a different methods for resolving a tasks, setting difficulty levels, and rolls, and they all have their proponents and detractors in the gaming community. One used no rolls to resolve a task (AD&D), another used a d20 check with an ability score check (2nd Ed), another with skill points and ability score modifiers (3/3.5/d20). And lately, we have a skill system of a flat bonus with an ability score modifier and half of level thrown in to boot – but those skill rolls are aimed at a moving difficulty target number, which makes things even more confusing to resolve.
And assuming we are using a roll-to-resolve method, should skills or professions add large bonuses or small ones? When dealing with a d20 type roll, each +1 increase represents 5%, which seems pretty small in itself. But if a game allows skill bonuses from other game mechanics, a simple +1 can be inflated to a very large number, making some difficulty checks for skills completely trivial.
But is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do we want players to have their fantasy and science fiction heroes do amazingly skillful things effortlessly, or should they be bound by more conventional limitations of reality? Should skill bonuses be capped at a certain point, or should characters be free to have extreme skill levels and capable of performing almost any feat or task they can conceive?
I would love to hear feedback and other perspectives on what makes a good skill system for a role-playing game, and I hope this blog sets out some interesting ideas and questions to begin that discussion. As always, your comments are most welcome, and I look forward to reading about your favorite skill systems!
So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!