Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Skills I Can Live With

Despite suggestions to the contrary, I don't "hate" skill systems or think they're anathema to old school game design. Rather, I don't see a lot of point in having a skill system in a class-based RPG, since they're either redundant or, worse yet, undermine the logic of classes. Consequently, when I play a class-based game, I generally assume that members of a given class can be expected to know about things related to that class. So, magic-users are knowledgeable about arcane lore and clerics are conversant in theology, etc. Specific character concepts, such as an illiterate, back woods wizard or a scholar-turned-fighting-man, might lead me to rearrange my assumptions a little, but, overall, I prefer to stick with them and view such specialized knowledge through the lens of character classes and run with it from there.

Now, over the course of my Dwimmermount campaign, the players have occasionally expressed an interest in their characters' learning something, such as a foreign language. Gaztea, Brother Candor's thief henchman, is in the process of learning Ancient Thulian, for example, and she's also experimenting with basic alchemy by virtue of the fact that we'd established she was a failed wizard's apprentice turned criminal (and has 17 Intelligence to boot). Since there's no formal way to handle the acquisition of such knowledge in the game, I've been winging it, expecting that time, money, and a tutor are what's needed for learning.

Then, just recently, I was re-reading my copy Empire of the Petal Throne and I saw a rule I'd forgotten about. Section 420 of the rulebook includes rules for "Original Skills," which are background skills not unlike the secondary skills of AD&D. At creation, a player rolls percentile dice to determine how many such skills his character starts with and from what categories. EPT has three categories: "plebeian," which covers ordinary arts and crafts, like baking and tailoring, "skilled," which covers more advanced arts and crafts, such as animal training and ship-building, and "noble," which covers very specialized knowledge requiring considerable study to acquire, such as alchemy or mathematics.

There are several things I like about EPT's "original skills" system. First, with very few marginal exceptions, the skills don't undermine the class system but rather complement it. Second, there's no universal mechanic associated with skill use. Possession of the skill brings with it no mechanical expectations; indeed, many of these skills have no means of resolution beyond referee fiat. And the skills that do have mechanics are tied closely to level, which I find quite agreeable. Finally, the system includes a means of acquiring new skills -- actually, it includes two. The first is based on level, as it's assumed characters will acquire new skills from various categories as they increase in level. The second is through the expenditure of time and money, with plebeian skills taking 2 months and 1000 gold pieces to learn, while noble skills take 6 months and 10,000 gold pieces.

EPT's system isn't without flaws and when/if I adopt it for use in my Dwimmermount campaign, I'll likely make some changes to it, but, taken as a whole, it's an approach to the question of specialized knowledge of which I approve. It's built to work in concert with the skill system without either weakening class archetypes or introducing mechanics uncongenial to my refereeing philosophy. I'm glad to was reminded of it.

17 comments:

  1. I don't mean to sound impolite, but this sounds to me very much like 2e's idea of "non-weapon proficiencies" stripped of any mechanical expectations (not a bad thing, to my mind). Can you tell me how you think the systems differ otherwise? I would appreciate it. Thanks!

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  2. Consequently, when I play a class-based game, I generally assume that members of a given class can be expected to know about things related to that class.

    The lack of this sort of assumption was one of the things that drove me from 3E. The deficiency was illustrated when I was running a campaign in which sinister cults figured prominently. I was relying on the party's cleric to be able to provide information about such cults, but the first time I asked the player to make a 'knowledge, religion' check he said he spent his two skill points on other things and didn't have that skill. It struck me as stupid that a cleric would have no understanding, whatsoever, of religion - that's just one of the things you expect a cleric to bring to the table. That was one of the last straws that sent me looking for a new system.

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  3. I'm in the process of brushing 25 years of dust off of my RPG materials and rediscovering the hobby. Back then I had left D&D for Rolemaster, and so that is what I am currently working with. I was struck by the sheer volume of skills in Rolemaster and the process for obtaining them.

    To your point, James, I found a disconnect between skills and character classes with levels. But I started musing in the opposite direction. What if levels were abolished and experience points were accumulated and the player had full control over when and how to spend them on skill development (different classes have different costs for a given skill, including spells).

    Taking this thought experiment further, what if experience points were abolished. The referee would define combat, traps, and other challenges in terms of the specific skills earned (presumably in small fractions). To pick a toy example, the referee would award "jumping skill" points for successfully jumping over a pit. Also, fighting different kinds of monsters would gain the players different kinds of skill points.

    I can come up with half a dozen difficulties in trying to implement this kind of structure, but it intrigues me enough that I haven't stopped thinking about it. Are there any RPGs out there structured in this way?

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  4. I think a skill system could compliment a class-based system, even beyond what you suggest. For example, a cleric isn't necessarily going to know about every religion, just as Methodist priests aren't all that well versed in Hinduism. I suggest that a limited skill system could include key skills for certain things, including maybe a select few class abilities. If you have a class you are assumed to know those skills, period. If you aren't you may take time, spend money, and learn just a little. A fighter could know a little about the arcane without being able to use magic, especially if he travels with a wizard and has encountered or fought them many times before.

    I guess I think a simple secondary skills system could indeed augment a class system without usurping or upstaging classes. Each character could basically get a skill point a level to learn outside skills or knowledge, which would help them expand their universe outside the narrow confines of their class, or perhaps expand their knowledge within their class.

    A cleric who is normally well-versed in the standard pantheon and a few fringe religions might wish to expand into bizarre cults. A fighter might wish to learn a little more about magic so he's better prepared to deal with a wizard's tricks. A thief might investigate religion in an attempt to determine whether there are any holy artifacts or ritual vestments worth stealing.

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  5. @Todd.A.Gibson - Giga boy beat me to the punch, but it's true: if you 'abolish' levels and experience points, and skills develop based upon their use in the challenges faced, what you're left with is Runequest.

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  6. Some time in the 90's (independant of later editions, which I didn't read and often wasn't even aware of), I decided to let PCs have skills and use stat rolls on D20's for task resolution that might be based on them. I mostly let them have skills based on background (farmer boy, or dad was a blacksmith etc.), but would hear petitions for other skills. They don't make that big a diff in game terms. Just another thing for players to define their characters with.

    but I also have MU's to know about ancient mystical lore and such, or clerics to be experts on Gods etc.

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  7. @Todd.A.Gibson:

    To echo what KP and Gigaboy said, "Welcome to Basic Role Play." :)

    To explicate a bit, rather than classes and levels, BRP-based systems use careers with associated skill packages. Skills increase with practice, but there are no levels, as such, and no increasing hit points. (GW's WFRP 1E was somewhat similar.)

    The choice between class-and-level and skills-based systems are really a matter of taste. I don't think one is better than the other; I just prefer skills-based. (And I take James' argument of the odd fit of skills in a class system seriously, though it's never bothered me.)

    Chaosium has a slightly pricey download of an "quick-start version" to Basic Role Play here: http://is.gd/c64SK

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  8. I find that the modern concept of "Talent Trees" (heavily popularized by World of Warcraft) are a really elegant way of fusing skills and classes together.

    And...

    @Todd:

    Modern game designers will tell you that this is a terrible idea for skill progression. Runequest implemented this idea and it was recognized one of the major failings of the system. The result is a massive positive feedback loop where the skills you use the most are the ones you are the best at (and vice versa). In order to keep game challenge at an acceptable level, you essentially force the party members into hyperspecialization.

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  9. Section 420 of the rulebook includes rules for "Original Skills

    What were they smoking when they added a skill-set to a class-based game?

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  10. I have to agree that Classes and Skills shouldn't be mixed, but just as you're noting, players still want to learn things. Things that make sense. The slope is slippery like that.

    But neither is perfect. I remember talking about this when I posted a mini-review of Mazes and Minotaurs (the parody game) and noted that the Assassin class introduced by the "unofficial 3rd party" module had a list of skills that spent almost as much time explaining themselves as they did intentionally restricting other classes from doing them, even though they were perfectly mundane (immoral) activities. Saying "you can learn this" is one thing, but "you can't learn this" of Class systems is just as silly in the wrong situations.

    (I don't want to imply that was a shot against M&M, as I thought it was a good parody of the manhandling approach of certain 3rd party publishers)

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  11. Oh, I forgot to mention entirely, since I'm so involved and all. Talislanta 1E/2E had a similar system for skills, with a wide variety of skills in various mundane branches like singing, dancing, pottery, alongside crafting skills of the traditional sort(ish) like magic items, forging and thaumaturgy. Your skill use was based on level, while you learned skills by finding someone that already knew them (some skills are not even associated with player classes, like legal skills) and pay the game's limited experience points to learn them.

    Since the Tal 1E and 2E rules are all free and online (if not OCR'd) now, you might want to give it a look. http://www.talislanta.com

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  12. My only beef with skill-based systems, is all the paperwork from writing-out all the useless "underwater basket weaving" skills. I prefer using the Secondary Skills Table over Non-Weapon Weapon Proficiencies for its ease of use. Simon Washbourne was brilliant with using heroic archetypes as a loose skill system in his Barbarians of Lemuria game!

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  13. I don't mean to sound impolite, but this sounds to me very much like 2e's idea of "non-weapon proficiencies" stripped of any mechanical expectations (not a bad thing, to my mind). Can you tell me how you think the systems differ otherwise?

    Nothing impolite about this question! I actually don't have a huge issue with 2e, at least its core books. In fact, I prefer the 2e core books to most of the late 1e books, including Unearthed Arcana, but that's a topic for another time.

    Anyway, it's been years since I looked at 2e's NWP, so someone can correct me if I'm mistaken about them. My big beef with them was that they were based on ability scores rather than levels, thus providing further incentive for high scores, and they were often too specific. That said, I never found them a huge issue in actual play and much prefer them to the skill system of 3e, which is too mechanically persnickety and undermines the uniqueness of many class abilities.

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  14. It seems to me that classes represent constellations of skills crudely aggregated by the game system in an inflexible manner. Classes grind crudely while skills grind fine.

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  15. I think one can easily mix "skills" and "class based systems", if those skills are a merely roleplaying tool to customize your character.

    Back in the old days, we used the AD&D 1st edition skill table (DMG). Our DM allowed us to chose one or two skills, but some of us had no idea and wanted to roll the percentile dice (which could help to determine their character's personality).

    Mostly, those skills were of little use during the "dungeon" part of our campaigns, but could add nicely to the roleplay.

    Chances of success were left to the Dungeon Master, as usual. That was fun, and none of us would have complained if the result of a "cooking" check ended into a disaster.

    Problems come when you start to use a "skill system" which allows players to "cheat" the class based system or to improve your fighting (or magic) ability...

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  16. "It seems to me that classes represent constellations of skills crudely aggregated by the game system in an inflexible manner. Classes grind crudely while skills grind fine"

    Nope, that's not true, in fact its a view that is somewhat distant from the aims of the system: to simulate a type of fantasy. Classes are really imitations of characters from pulpy fiction and mythical sources. Example: the fighter is Achilles or King Arthur. Thinking of classes as packages of skills is to forget why the game exists in the first place, so that people can play their own versions of these heroes.

    Jeff Rients probably said it best when he said 'You play Conan and I'll play Gandalf, now let's team up to fight Dracula'

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