Tuesday, April 21, 2009

REVIEW: Delving Deeper: Skill Systems

The utility and admissibility of skill systems are at the center of a great debate in the old school community, with many grognards being firmly of the opinion that they run counter to the logic behind character classes. What else is a character class but a particular archetype, including that archetype's unique talents and abilities. Make skills independent of classes and you run the risk of blurring the distinctions between classes. Beyond that, skill systems bring with them additional risks. The presence of a standard mechanic for adjudicating non-combat actions makes it an attractive alternative for players who don't wish to describe their characters' actions and would rather trust in the dice than in the good judgment of the referee. Furthermore, taken to an extreme, skills can be interpreted in such a way that they imply that characters without a given skill cannot attempt such actions, an interpretation that elevates skills into a cornerstone of gameplay rather than as an aid to it.

While I'm personally in the camp that sees little point in having a skill system in a game like Dungeons & Dragons, I've nevetheless come round to believe that, in the right hands, they can prove useful. That a game mechanic can be abused is insufficient basis for condemning it, which is why I've softened my stance on thieves, for example. They're not something I'd probably allow in my own campaign, but, fortunately, my own tastes aren't normative -- thank goodness!

It's with this in mind that I picked up Brave Halfling's 5-page PDF entitled Delving Deeper: Skill Systems. Retailing for only 75 cents, I find it hard to imagine that even the most diehard skill hater would't find it useful as food for thought. That's because author Luke Fleeman openly acknowledges the problems inherent in attaching a skill system to a class-based game. He then stresses that, despite that, skills can work with the class system rather than against it, provided one takes care to avoid some common mistakes. Speaking as a skill skeptic, I found Fleeman's approach refreshing, because it encourages both advocates and naysayers alike to re-examine their stances in a constructive way.

Delving Deeper: Skill Systems first provides a list of 11 skills, ranging from Open, used for forcing open doors and gates, to Persuade, used when trying to convince NPCs of something. Each of these skills is associated with an ability, a feature that becomes important later. The list of skills is a bit odd, since it specifically avoids anything that might overlap with the thief class, as well as "mundane skills like crafting and smithing." I can certainly see the justification for the elimination of craft skills, since I'm not certain the game needs mechanical sub-systems to deal with forging a sword or weaving a basket (though I am open to being convinced otherwise). The thief question, though, is less clear. One of the main objections to the thief is that it promotes exceptionalism, which is to say, the aforementioned "if you don't explicitly have the skill, you can't do it" mentality. If moving silently or hiding can't be treated as skills lest the role of the thief class be undermined, then is not a skill like Arcana, which simulates the occult knowledge a magic-user might rightly possess, similarly out of bounds? If not, why is the thief's skill so privileged? It's here, I think, where Skills Systems falters a bit, even if I fully understand the dilemma the author found himself in.

The product offers three different options for how to handle skills, two of which draw on existing mechanics in the game and universalize them, while the third uses a very common house rule to do the same. Option 1 uses a simple D6 roll to determine success or failure, mimicking searches for secret doors. Option 3 uses percentage-based skills similar to a thief's abilities. Option 2 is an ability check that relies on the ability scores associated with a given skill and a D20 roll. All three options provide rules for the initial selection of skills, as well as improvment as the characters gain new levels. Each option also includes a brief discussion of its advantages and disadvantages, a feature I appreciated.

Delving Deeper: Skill Systems is not a ground-breaking product nor will it, I think, put an end to the philosophical debates on forums and blogs between old schoolers about the merits of skill systems. It's a modest little product that provides food for thought, along with plenty of options, some of which can be easily retooled for other purposes, such as building new class-based abilities. With its low price, I felt I more than got my money's worth, but it's definitely a niche product that won't appeal to everyone.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 5 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for some alternate approaches to skills in old school games
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in skill systems or already have a skill system you're happy with.

30 comments:

  1. Just a quick comment from the peanut gallery:

    If moving silently or hiding can't be treated as skills lest the role of the thief class be undermined, then is not a skill like Arcana, which simulates the occult knowledge a magic-user might rightly possess, similarly out of bounds? If not, why is the thief's skill so privileged?Because, like him or not, those special skills are all the thief has; make them open to everyone and there is nothing to make the class stand on its own. Meanwhile, you can give another character the Arcana skill, but it doesn't let him cast spells like the magic-user can.

    That being said, I did enjoy this product, and it did get me thinking about ways to include simple, hopefully unobtrusive skill list into my game next time I run old D&D.

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  2. Thanks. I'll check this out. This is an evolution I am particularly interested in. Still, I was hoping to see a novel mechanic.

    I do agree, adopting a skill system within a class system pretty much undermines the thief as a class. The thief is still possible, but looks more like a big skill bundle than a class. I don't think throwing a class-only bone like backstab is a good solution either. Yes, I'm in agreement, James. Skills don't add much to a class system.

    Speaking of skills, can you touch on the 1E assassin someday? I could never come to terms with that assassination matrix, or the class in general. Did Gary ever speak about his intentions with the assassin?

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  3. I think the confusion around the lack of any "thieving" type skills comes from the fact that the Delving Deeper series is intended primarily as options for Labyrinth Lord, which includes the Thief as one of its core classes. Thus, those skills are already wrapped into that class. I do agree that having a fighter runing around with more Arcane knowledge than a magic-user is kind of odd, though.

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  4. I think this review format is much more informative than the previous 1-5 ranking. Nice revision!

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  5. Thanks for the review. I will definitely check this out, though the elaborate skill system was a big reason why I grew disenchanted with 3.5 and returned to older versions of the game.

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  6. My plan is to swipe T&T's Talents for skills, including Thief skills but to give Thieves a bonus equal to 5% per level over and above their Talent bonus. So there's only one broad skill to take, everybody can attempt it, people who actually take the trouble to learn it (either as part of their background or as they level up) are 5-30% better at it, and Thieves are better at it still.

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  7. One nice way of handling skill checks based on stats, is to not use a d20 at all! Instead use one or more d6 depending on the difficulty! Try something really hard? OK, break out 5d6 and try to roll under your stat, cowboy!

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  8. Nice to see someone mentioning the 7th ed T&T Talents!

    They is a very neat way to add a skill system to a base system that "don't really need it", like Classic D&D.

    The idea there is you get one as a starting character, and it's a way to do one thing a bit better than anyone else.

    That way you can have e.g. a Fighting Man who happens to have perfect pitch, is exceptionally good at disarming, sixth sense or can weave baskets.

    In T&T they are based on a stat, and you get more as you level up. In D&D you probably would limit them somewhat, though.

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  9. @Andreas - yeah, my thought is keep them based on a stat, so in D&D they don't tend to improve; they're just one thing that your character is singled out as being good at. That also reduces the problem of the existence of the skill making there be haves and have-nots...those with the skill will never totally outstrip those without, regardless of level. So everybody can still attempt it, but some people will succeed somewhat more often. We'll see how it works out in practice.

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  10. I'm all for adding generalized % skills to D&D. It's very old school. In fact, it is what a guy called Steve Perrin did with his excedingly elaborate D&D house rules that were published in 1978. They were called Rune Quest. ;P

    That's an exaggeration, of course, and as such only partially true. It is true that RQ evolved, in part, out of the earlier 'Perrin Conventions for playing D&D'. But, from the beginning, RQ was commissioned by Greg Stafford to be a different game than D&D -which Stafford apparently did not like the D&D very much.
    (Ironically for the future publisher of Call of Cthulhu, Stafford was no fan of "pulp fantasy"-rather he was an avid reader of mythology and chivalrous romance.)

    It would be a great exercise in writing alternate reality retro-clones, to imagine a world where RQ never happened because Steve Perrin never met Stafford and Glorantha and the Perrin convention evolved "naturally" to a game keeping more of the original D&D mechanics and pulp ethos. Oh that would be a really fun project if I had time to write it!

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  11. "those special skills are all the thief has; make them open to everyone and there is nothing to make the class stand on its own."That is the most convincing argument for the elimination of the thief class that I've ever seen.

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  12. I have looked at this but not checked it out. Maybe I should.

    FWIW, I think the roll-low-on-1d6 approach is about as old-school as it gets.

    I worked up a thief "sub-class" for Swords & Wizardry White Box which gives standard numbers for all characters on most "thief-like skills" and allows a character to slowly improve success rate by electing to be essentially a multi-classed thief for an XP penalty to advancement. Everything uses 1d6.

    So there are no thieves, but there are fighter-thieves, dwarf-thieves, and magic-user-thieves. I think this approach does a pretty good job of mimicking the old Sword & Sorcery literature.

    Check it out here if interested.Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

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  13. @Lord Kilgore- Heh, that wasn't really my intention, as I have a soft spot for thiefly characters.

    I have left some feedback on your S&W thievery on your page. I really do like the system and find it quite workable. I will show it to my S&W DM when/if we resume his campaign... it would do the trick for creating the "sneaky fighting man" we always wanted to have in the party.

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  14. The question is, what are a Fighter's skills? That concerns me, because it seems like a Fighter should be more than just dumb muscle.

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  15. I've been thinking about this lately after reading various blog entries about the topic here and around (thanks to all the bloggers btw for getting me psyched about gaming again).

    Perhaps it comes down to skills vs character class:

    * If you keep the classes then it will be up to the GM's discretion whether the player can get a dice mod on a stat roll perhaps based on what class his or her character might be.

    * Or you can do away with classes and define the character simply on skills which provide for dice mods for prescribed or general kinds of activities.

    Of course, in the background to all this is the assumption that the character already has certain experience in doing things before play starts and as such has developed into a class, eg. thief, or has developed certain skills, eg. pickpocketing. And this brings to mind the Traveller approach of having characters who are veterans with an already accrued skill-set.

    I like Option 2 described in this post which reflects an idea I had for grappling: to be successful you must pass an ability check on both Str and Dex modified somehow by the opponents attributes. If you're a Fighter then you get a +1 per level say, or if you are classless with a Grappling skill you get a +1 per level of that skill. Doubtless someone has already had this idea.

    As for leveling up of skills, perhaps the GM can keep notes of how many times the character has used a certain skill or attempted a 'feat' and award permanent dice mods accordingly. This way you can simulate career advancement as per Traveller.

    But yeah, in the end it all comes down the style and flavour of play that develops around your group of players and your combined sensibilities.

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  16. Speaking of skills, can you touch on the 1E assassin someday? I could never come to terms with that assassination matrix, or the class in general. Did Gary ever speak about his intentions with the assassin?I'll jump in here and say that I finally made sense of the "assasination table" only when I got to read the original in OD&D Supplement II: Blackmoor.

    It simply this: In the original Blackmoor presentation, the table is clearly for use by someone hiring an NPC assassin, and dicing to see whether their whole mission is successful. In the AD&D PHB, Gary tried to get away from that, recreating the table, but then trying to morph into something else, namely a particular kind of strike in melee (or something: it's confusing and unsuccessful IMO).

    There's a bunch of other stuff that likewise got weird in AD&D and only truly makes sense if you see the OD&D original. I think that includes Wizard spell access by Intelligence, weapon space requirements, alignment languages, ship-to-ship combat, etc.

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  17. JAMES,

    i have a house rules
    skill system that is easily tacted on to ODnD and compatable with v3.5, that MIGHT be acceptable for
    FIGHT ON -

    if you are interested/ send me an email at
    abbadon @ clearwire dot net

    and I will forward the word file
    (11 pages) to you

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  18. Because, like him or not, those special skills are all the thief has; make them open to everyone and there is nothing to make the class stand on its own.

    Correct and I think this is precisely why many people argue that the thief doesn't rise to the same level of archetype as the other classes.

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  19. Speaking of skills, can you touch on the 1E assassin someday?

    I don't much like the assassin as written. He's half-NPC as written (that's the purpose of the assassination table, I think) and the other half just lacks anything unique enough to justify his existence.

    I have some vague ideas for a class I'm calling the Slayer in homage to Leiber. Maybe I'll post those some day.

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  20. I think this review format is much more informative than the previous 1-5 ranking. Nice revision!

    Glad you approve. I have you and Robert Fisher to thank for the new format.

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  21. It is true that RQ evolved, in part, out of the earlier 'Perrin Conventions for playing D&D'.

    The Perrin Conventions are a topic that come up around here every so often. One of these days I should track Steve down and see if he'll consent to an interview about them.

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  22. Check it out here if interested.Feedback is welcome and appreciated.

    I think what you did is simply awesome.

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  23. The question is, what are a Fighter's skills? That concerns me, because it seems like a Fighter should be more than just dumb muscle.

    The fighter's "skills" are having the best attack progression, being able to wear every type of armor and use every type of weapon, and being generally tougher than any other class. Beyond that, depending on the character conception, he might also know many other things, but, as an archetype, "dumb muscle" is what a fighter is.

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  24. There's a bunch of other stuff that likewise got weird in AD&D and only truly makes sense if you see the OD&D original. I think that includes Wizard spell access by Intelligence, weapon space requirements, alignment languages, ship-to-ship combat, etc.

    You make a post about them sometime. I'd love to read it.

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  25. Clovis,

    I have no editorial connection to Fight On!. If you want to make a submission, I'd recommend getting in touch with its editor.

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  26. I agree that the thief causes problems, but the way I handle his abilities is to make them *exceptional*.

    Anyone can climb, but few can climb sheer surfaces with no equipment. That becomes the climb wall ability of the thief.

    Anyone can hide, but few can hide in plain sight no matter what they are wearing. That becomes the hide in shadows ability of the thief.

    And so on.

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  27. What are a fighter's skills?
    Probably the biggest one is more HP, which may seem like a contradiction in terms (how can having more HP be a skill?) unless you understand that HP in D&D are not "how much damage can you withstand points" like they are in most video games and are rather mostly "how skilled have you become at avoiding damage points". I was just rereading the 1e DM's guide and Gygax's entry on HP was spot on, his description of the high level fighter emerging from a slew of blows that would have killed a dozen 1st level fighters only covered with minor nicks and scratches reflects the "skill" of avoiding damage.

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  28. That's a really good point. In my campaign, I also reserve the two handed sword for the fighter, having the fighter's guild jealously guard the training required to use it, to give them a further advantage.

    Also, multiple attacks (in Labyrinth Lord) are the sole preserve of the fighter.

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  29. Skills are a tricky subject. I wrote a post about them earlier tonight after reading something else:

    http://scrollean.blogspot.com/

    They're mostly hard to use because of the class based d&d system- which makes sense. Appreciate any feedback.

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