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Building Better RPGs: Skills Systems & Building Characters

Ok... skill check... so what are my chances to pick the ogres pocket?

Ok... skill check... so what are my chances to pick the ogres pocket?

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!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


2 Responses to “Building Better RPGs: Skills Systems & Building Characters”

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    One system I like is used in some of the Cortex games. This lets you buy broad skills up to a certain level and then after that you have to buy up the specialty associated with every skill. I.e. After you’ve hit the maximum in your guns skill, you need to buy up the specialties (like pistol or shotgun) separately.

    I like a good happy medium. With broad skills, you get anomalies where somebody that’s good at driving cars can now jump into any ground vehicle and be just as good. With skills that are too narrow you end up with somebody who is great at charming people, conning people, reading people’s intentions, and giving speeches, but he’s no good at dimplomacy because he didn’t put skills into that particular slot. A good system to default skills on other skills can help, but it adds complexity.

    One of the issues I have with professions is that the GM has to work with each player to make them about equal in breadth and to make sure that everybody is on the same page as to what each profession covers and doesn’t cover. For example, All of the following could be justified as fitting under “Ninja”: Unarmed combat, grappling, stelath, concealment, acrobatics, jumping, dodging, weapons (sword, staff, club, thrown weapons, chain weapons, spears, polearms, improvised weapons), explosives and pyrotechnics, chemistry, disguise, impersonation, breaking and entering, balance, riding, mounted combat, breath control, silent swimming, underwater combat, meditation, boating, strategy, politics, espionage, recruiting, hypnosis, escaping from bonds, meterology, geography, poisons (creating and using), anatomy, pressure points, first aid and medicine. And these are just what a ninja could do in a non-magical world. In a world with magical powers, there are dozens more things that could easily be covered by “ninja” – ki focusing, Dim Mak death touch, gravity-defying leaps, hurling fireballs, mesmerizing people, truning invisible, teleporting, etc.

  2. Big says:

    I always liked the old 1E AD&D ability check system where you simply rolled a d20 and if you got a number at or below your ability score, you were successful. It was simple and elegant. I like the idea that NEXT is placing a similar level of importance on ability scores again.

    That being said, I also like an open ended skill system. The idea that you can create a backstory and have a profession and this would allow you to have a bonus on checks that relate to that story and profession (without explicitly listing skills) is really inspired to me. I never like point buys or pick and choose character creation. It always felt very meta gamey for my tastes. I think skills should come in packages. If someone is good with woodworking, you can assume they’d be good with related skills. But in a point buy, they might have skills with woodworking, decipher script, and negotiations. You get characters that don’t make much sense but that are very “useful” in game.

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