RPG System 3: Skills

June 18, 2014

I’ve covered attributes, and races, now let’s delve into skills.

What are skills?

Attributes represent the overall “ability” of a character within a particular field/aspect of human action. Again, the example is “Strength” being not just pure muscle, but how effectively a character can use their body to generate physical strength-based outcomes.

Skills, then, are, well, skills: a measure of knowledge, training, practice, and effectiveness within a certain range of tasks. If Attributes are broad, then Skills are more narrowly focussed.

Astrogation, climbing, martial arts, sneaking, piloting, crafting – these are all examples of skills.

How skills an attributes interact

Attributes and skills should not be seen in a hierarchical or opposing way; neither is more important or more defining of a character. They always will go hand in hand. And that is their beauty, for they work in concert to model a character. As someone trains heavily in a particular or related group of skills, they will also develop the attributes most heavily (see below) associated with their use of that/those skills.

For example, a character who has trained martial arts for many years will, out of that training, also develop certain attributes, such as Strength. Having been thrust into an adventure, they are confronted with a cliff face to climb. While they don’t possess any specific skill in climbing, the fact they’ve trained their balance and their power through years of martial arts training makes them much more adept at climbing that cliff (with their high Strength score) than someone who has never climbed a cliff and rarely lifted even their chair to move it around. This “bleed over” effect is perfect for modelling heroic action and for taking stock of how attributes really show up.

Skill lists

The main question then becomes, how narrow should skills be? How much ground should each skill cover? In the past, I would have enjoyed very granular and specific skill lists: pistols are distinct from sub machine guns are distinct from rifles; climbing is distinct from swimming is distinct from lifting heavy things; fixing a boat is distinct from fixing a car. In D&D 3.0, hiding in shadows was different than moving silently.

But this granularity has, I think, a few problems associated with it .

Firstly, if I run it against the filter of “meaningful differences”, then there are just some skills that don’t make sense that split apart, because no character is going to take one without the other. Hiding in shadows without move silently would be… weird. How could you ever use that? So it’s unhelpful granularity.

Second, it makes characters less easily able of “heroic” action, which often requires a broad swath of capabilities. If I have a small selection of things I can take skill in (due to skill points, or etc), then I have a character that’s capable in one spot, but glaringly incapable elsewhere. And while overcoming that incapability can be a fun scenario to game, it ceases to be fun on the fourteenth time. It no longer becomes a meaningful narrative obstacle to overcome, it’s just another thing that we have to do because only one of us can climb. If the game gives lots of skill choices, then it’s back to the first point – it’s not a meaningful difference as I can choose all the skills that makes sense together for a character to use.

Thirdly, it takes longer to build a character, for the GM to chose what skill to use, and complexity can build upon itself. This pulls the momentum out from under a game.

So, the key is finding that granularity sweet spot. The intent isn’t to make every character an expert in every field – unless the genre calls for it – but at the same time give them enough capacity to be capable in adventuring, unless the genre or the player wants to create that kind of character (fish out of water-esque).

This might be a good way to put it: make skills that are not “specific task/tactic/ability” oriented, but instead “specific intent” oriented. That is, a skill called “sneak” represents all the ways a character knows how to be sneaky, which would include misdirection, camouflage, moving quietly and skulking in shadows, being aware of guard movements, etc. That’s more interesting than a separate skill for each one of those categories, and ensures a more capable character. And a player can always quite easily voluntarily restrict themselves from one of those categories (“I always did suck at figuring out how to sneak around in wooded areas…”) to make their character and the narrative interesting.

Running a skill check

We’re not at dice systems yet, so the specifics of rolling and determining success in a skill check is a topic for another day.   So let’s talk more broadly.

The first game I came across that divorced skills from a very specific attribute was DP9’s Silhouette CORE system. And once I grokked it, I was hooked on that way of doing it. When you do a task, you are trying to do something whose success or competency is outlined by one of your attributes, to which you then can bring to bear your specific experience, training, or practice (ie skill) in that area. Said from a reverse angle, not every task covered by a skill will necessarily involve the same attribute every time, especially as the skills become broader (though even without broad skills I have been witness to many a time where the skill check being rolled made no sense with its hard linked bonus attribute).

As an example, let’s take a mechanics skill.

If you were trying to fix the left engine of your teams flying machine, out in the field, without the correct parts – a not uncommon situation – it would be a Creativity task. (You’re improvising)

If you were trying to trying to impress the local baron by regaling him with the special nature of the introlucolator dooflichy of the model FLR-W class of tanks, that would be a Presence task. (Charm it up by sucking up to his love of tanks)

If you were trying to break an engine with a spanner wrench to foil the bad guy’s plan, that would be a Strength task. (You need to hit it hard, but knowing WHERE to hit is just as important as how HARD you can hit, and therefore the skill gives you a better chance to succeed)

If you were trying to rebuild your boss’ ’57 Chevy in his fully stocked garage, but in 8h or else he’ll fire you, that would be a Focus task. (Keeping your mental wits about you over a long period of time to get it all complete)

In each one of those, as the player chose their action the GM would make a call for what attribute best governs the situation: mental creativity, force of personality, physical power. This would be the same for whatever PC would be attempting that same action of repair, impress, or breaking. However, this particular PC can apply their particular expertise (skill) in this area, using it to their advantage (and thus get a benefit to their resolution die rolls). If the party didn’t have a PC with this skill, they would have to either try a different tactic (impress the Baron with their comedy) or need more brute strength (hit that engine harder, with a PC who has more training in athletics).   Or, they may well be SOL, unable to fix that engine. Time to start hoofing it across the desert…

A bit of expounding

Going back to the notion of how broad or how narrow skills are, I think there is the potential for some flexibility in having both very broad and very narrow skills in the game. While this might sound contradictory at first blush, well, let me explain.

Skills, as noted above, are “intent based”. And many of those skills will be fairly broad, representing fields of study or fields of activity (ie, martial arts, breaking and entering, sneaking around, etc). And many of those can be attempted without any formal training or experience. Anyone can try to move silently, anyone can try to punch another person, and trying to jimmy a lock, why not. However, there are some fields of study/activity that are very specialized, and maybe cannot be attempted untrained.

Take astrogation, for example, in an SF world. If you don’t know how the solar spheres interoperate with each other and the phlogiston of the galaxy’s ley line cycles, then there just ain’t no way you will be able to plot a hyperspace course without putting your ship (and its crew!) in grave peril. You can make one heck of a luck roll, but other than that, no dice (pun intended). Astrogation is also a very narrow skill; it only deals with plotting those kind of hyperspace courses. Piloting the ship is separate; and in fact you this universe may have specialized navigators who sell their services to ship operators, for not all pilots may know how to set these courses. (In other fictions, going to hyperspace may be no big deal).

Adding a few to a dozen of these narrow skills, speak handily to the unique aspects of the campaign world/universe.

Another option is the “specialization” to a skill, a kind of binary yes/no added to some skills that don’t change your character’s skill “level” or “effectiveness”, but represents some sort of specialized training for activities that cannot be attempted untrained. Piloting is a skill, but piloting the military’s advanced direct-neuro-connected fighters is a specialization. Climbing is part of the athletics skill, but aid climbing (using/needing the assistance of pitons and special rope grapples) is a specialization.

At the other end, would be “Backgrounds”. These are the skills, or areas, acquired through your character’s history: formative years, training, profession before becoming an adventurer, etc. Similar to what I created for my “Trades and Professions” supplement on RPGnow, they won’t be skills in a traditional sense, instead they will provide a “bonus” to an action that falls under that category. Each character would get somewhere between one to three of these. So, for example, if you have a background of “desert urchin.” If you can convince the GM that this background applies – “I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, they’re not much bigger than two meters.” — you get a bonus to that skill check. It’s meant to be broad, to encourage role playing and creativeness.

All together

Putting it all together, in this game system, skills will be

  • Mostly broad, focussed on “area of intent”
  • Attribute independent & aid attribute rolls where the skill can be applied
  • Have some specializations and narrow skills to make the world come alive
  • Have background skills to provide RP bonuses where the background can be applied

Your turn

Lots of words here. Your thoughts?  Fire away!

One comment

  1. […] to limit yourself where your story says you should limit yourself.  I touched on this in my (way) earlier post on Skills:  rather than having a separate driving skill for a motorcycle, car, transport truck, boat, […]

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