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.