Thursday, April 21, 2011

Some Observations on Skill Systems

For as long as I've been aware of the existence of games other than Dungeons & Dragons, I've also been aware that there are "class gamers" and "skill gamers" -- the "dog people" and "cat people" of our hobby. I suppose, if push came to shove, I'd classify myself as a "class gamer," since I've spent so much time playing D&D and gamers similar to it, but I've also clocked a lot of hours playing games like Traveller and Call of Cthulhu too. The main reason I'd say I'm not a "skill gamer" is that, in my experience anyway, true devotees of skill systems are vociferous in how much they don't like class-based games, deriding them as "limited" and even "primitive" compared to their preferred approach.

Me, I don't really care one way or the other and will happily play either type of game without much fuss. It's rare that I dislike a game based on whether it uses classes or skills as opposed to the alternative. In playing skill-based games, I have noticed a couple of interesting things, though, both in myself and even in those who are strong advocates of the "superiority" of skill-based over class-based systems. First, I don't demand rolls for trivial uses of a skill, unless they're done under extreme or challenging circumstances. This is, of course, standard procedure and has been for a long time. For example, there's this passage from Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing:
This term [automatic actions] describes activities which are always successful under normal circumstances. There is no need to roll any dice for these. They are assumed 100% successful. These include walking, running, talking, seeing, hearing, and any other normal basic function.

Attempting to do these things under extraordinary conditions, or trying to do them with close scrutiny, requires a die roll, as outlined in the next section.
Of course, we all remember referees -- we may have even been them ourselves -- who didn't abide by this advice and required skill rolls for everything: "I ride to the next town." "Make a skill roll." "I fail." "Oops, you fall off your horse and take 1D6 damage." "But I'm a knight; I've been riding a horse since I was a boy." "Too bad, you failed your skill roll." That rather narrow-minded interpretation of skill use doesn't long survive contact with actual play, so the advice quoted above only makes sense. In these circumstances, there is no actual difference between a class-based or a skill-based game, except that a character sheet in the latter lists a level or percentage associated with riding horses, while in the former it's just assumed.

The second interesting thing I've noticed about skill-based gameplay is a consequence of the first one already discussed. If we accept that skill rolls ought not to be demanded under "normal circumstances," it follows, then, that, as BRP suggests, "extraordinary circumstances" are when a skill system is actually needed. What I've found, though, is that, in such extraordinary circumstances, referees are often quite prone to fudging the results of a skill roll; I know I used to do this unashamedly and I was not the only one to do so. Part of the reason, I think, is that it seems wrong to many gamers to have the outcome of some extraordinary circumstance hang on a single dice roll. "You have to defuse the bomb quickly or everyone will die. What's your Demolitions skill?" "35%" "Make a roll." "Uh, 74." "Boom!" The situation is even more common when the skill rolls in question pertain to finding hidden or unusual things, like secret doors or clues. "I search the room." "Make an Observe check." "I fail." "You don't find anything out of the ordinary." And so we see elaborate rationalizations as to why the skill roll didn't really fail or even a further narrowing of the definition of "extraordinary circumstances," all in the name of seeing a character succeed at something the rules otherwise say he'd failed.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest there's anything wrong, let alone bad, about skill systems in RPGs. I mention this simply because I've noticed that, in practice, skill systems are rarely used much differently than the non-quantified skills assumed to exist in class-based games. The primary difference between the two approaches is esthetic and, believe me, I'm not one to knock esthetics. When I designed Thousand Suns, for example, I didn't hesitate to use a skill system, because, as a sci-fi game, it seemed to make more sense to have characters defined by their areas of training and knowledge rather than by an archetype-based class. It's the same reason why the game uses the metric system -- it feels right in a science fiction game, even though the game would have worked just as well if I'd have adopted US standard measurements. It's the feel of a skill system that appeals to a lot of people, not its actual mechanics. It's the sense that skills are somehow more "realistic" or better reflect reality, and I can raise no objection to such subjective notions. But they are subjective and that needs to be borne in mind in discussing the merits of skill vs. class systems.

This brings me to a broader, final point. I don't think we can underestimate the impact that conceptualizing "adventures" as "stories" has had on RPGs and how they're played. If we see an adventure as having a definite, specific end before play even begins, it seems inevitable that, rather than being an aid to play, a skill system, with its quantification of many activities and areas of knowledge, is an impediment to it. On the other hand, if we see an adventure as simply being a situation into which the PCs are thrown, whose ultimate outcome depends on a combination of choice and luck, a skill system -- or, indeed, any random element -- is a contributing factor to that ultimate outcome.

In my second Thousand Suns session last weekend (which I'll post about eventually), a character failed an important skill roll and I let it stand without any fudging. As a result, the PCs could not achieve their current objective and were forced to move on. Had I conceived the "climax" of that adventure as depending on the success of that skill roll, I'd have been disappointed and might well have succumbed to the urge to fudge its result. But the adventure was just a situation in which the PCs found themselves at that moment. Failure meant only that one particular outcome to the adventure was closed off, but there were other possible outcomes, not to mention other adventures/situations. Rather than being an obstacle to our fun, the failed skill roll enabled it, pushing the characters and thus the campaign in a direction the players might not have chosen if they'd had the choice. Speaking only for myself, that's what all the best game systems do, regardless of whether they use classes or skills as their foundation.


  1. Great Observations. I too come from the class-based system when all your character was capable of was based on his class and secondary skill. Rolling under the appropriate ability score on a d20 is a simple and elegant mechanic I sorely miss.

  2. as a sci-fi game, it seemed to make more sense to have characters defined by their areas of training and knowledge rather than by an archetype-based class

    It reminds me of the difference between low and high concept designs, where high concept is some easily-communicated mashup (it's like pirates in space) and low concept is hard to summarize just by listing familiar ingredients (Tekumel?).

    I would argue that this sense comes from the way the PCs' role in the world is conceived: in lots of games what you do is not necessarily fundamental to your character's identity. Nor is it already clear at the moment you start playing. CoC seems like the clearest example: you are all ordinary people thrown into extraordinary trouble - a big part of the tone of the game is how you apply knowledge you learned elsewhere to this special problem right here. Your character is not best described by a type out of Central Casting. Ditto Amber and Vampire, where the point of your character is to be a special snowflake (although the latter used classes...). In Star Wars there are clear types suitable for classes (although even there they went for an odd hybrid of archetypes and skills...) and Star Trek, with its pseudo-military division of labour functions, strikes me as a classic class/archetype setup (but again, FASA went the other way... And Trav...).

    So you know what, maybe there is something about the starry backdrop that makes people think "skills." Huh.

    Maybe we don't like to think that in the future we'll have clear roles, like we imagine people having in the middle ages. Maybe it's an enlightenment American revolution thing.

  3. Both Skill-Based & Class-based systems have their strengths for the "feel" of the game, as you put it. Sci-fi games are definitely a good example where one has skills that make the character have a defined function or functions. In Traveller, you can have a class, but the skills you acquire are related to it, with few outside of the norm. Some games are hybrid Class w/ skill emphasis. I think either way works well. D&D and fantasy RPGs can take advantage of either system method, but I tend to like Class-based games there.

    Great post. It seems obvious, but I never have seen it articulated in this way!


  5. I think I ascribe to the subset of Skill-Based systems I'll call "Attribute Plus Skill," I think. Even when I play Class-Based games, or when I run them, I end up using things like multi-classing, or feats, or houserules to dissolve barriers between classes.

  6. In thinking about it a bit more, there is at least one way that skill systems are different from class systems in a non-aesthetic sense. Class systems let you play archetypes while skill systems -- typically -- let you build a more personalized character. At least thats what the proponents of skill systems in my group always argued; I'm a class man myself.

  7. I "dislike" class systems by the way they are usually handled THAT I HAVE SEEN.
    That doesn't mean they are bad. Just that the way I've seen it handled would not make me want to play that game. And, more important to me, limit more my character choice and how I can handle it.

    But as you said, skill systems can be equally "bad" depending on how it's used at the actual game.

    As I often find, it is usually a matter of how each particular group handles it. And that is more important than the class vs skills issue.

  8. Skill rolls and fudging: I typically don't permit skill rolls to derail or paint players into corners. The tactics I currently use as a GM I got from reading/playing Robin Laws' "GUMSHOE" games, and HeroWars/Quest -- rather than say "you failed your roll, you died", I cast failed rolls as "something goes wrong with your attempt" failures -- the characterization of what "something" actually means is a combination of how vital the attempt is to the ongoing story's flow, how many other approaches there are, how lethal are the consequences of failure, and how badly the roll is scotched by.

    My typical example is the Library Use roll: I almost always give players the library books they're looking for (unless there are other ways in the story to get the info they need); however, I have plagued PCs with dust allergies, irrationally attracted Librarians, (ir)rationally angry Librarians, Security Guards, rats, mold, town Policemen, and so on. In one case, I judged that a PC fell from a high-ladder, took falling damage, and was laid up with a leg injury for days.

    But the PCs all got their books...

  9. I think a big difference between skill and class systems shows up in combat where skill systems are generally (always?) more complicated while class systems are simpler. A classic skill system like Runequest had lots of rolls in every fight (hit, parry, dodge, all with a chance of fumble or critical, damage, location), D&D just had hit rolls and damage rolls.

  10. "Maybe we don't like to think that in the future we'll have clear roles, like we imagine people having in the middle ages. Maybe it's an enlightenment American revolution thing."

    There's much truth here. In the absence of public education, opportunities to learn skills outside what your father and uncles, or your mother and aunts, knew was largely limited to apprenticeship. In that social sense, class-based rules are entirely appropriate for games built on a medieval social model, which is all about real-life class to begin with. But classes fly against our expectations for modern games where characters have broad educational opportunities.

    What's all too often missing from class-based games is a clear explanation that your class IS a package of skills. It's not just what armor you can wear and what weapons you know how to fight with. A fighting-man has been schooled in everything that a fighting-man should know. S&W got it just about right when it offered each character one "good-at" to represent essentially what you'd be doing if you hadn't gone into a life of adventure.

    One of the weaknesses of skill-based systems is that while they broaden what characters can do, they also narrow it in the ways they punish attempts to do things without the correct skill. No climb skill? Sorry, you can't climb that tree. Rifle skill but not pistol skill? I guess you can't field strip that pistol.

    Hitting the right level of granularity is tough. Many class-based systems have too little granularity, while most skill-based systems have too much. I really can't think of a game off the top of my head that I'd say got it just right.


  11. Have to say this is why I don't play role-playing games. The idea of doing these sorts of calculations just to do things that come natural would be maddening. But as an outsider, I thought this was an interesting window into the cultures.

  12. I prefer skill based but not from a mechanical or aesthetic pov. For me it was always about character creation options, especially after I started looking at primary historical sources for these 'archetypes' instead of just pop culture fiction - and multi-classing always seemed inadequate to me.

    For example, if I want to model a character off of the Norse historical/legendary figure of Egill Skallagrimson (as something for a lowly character to aspire towards... not start off as) would he be a magic-user (he was considered the pre-eminent rune-magician of the Viking era), a fighter (he was a brutal and skilled fighter), or a Bard (he was also a skilled Skald who saved his life by composing a poem for a king)?

    What about the early various Indo-European warrior cults (e.g., the Dacians, the Heruli) which is the source for both specialized military forces and the specialized magic/soveriegn classes of those cultures?

    Heck even Dr. John Dee was as much an espionage agent for the Queen as he was a magic-user.

    Bishop Gottskalk from Iceland? Thief, Cleric, or evil Magic-User?

    If one's interested in playing literary archetypes, the class systems can be great. But, in my experience, as soon as one starts trying to bring in the specifics of a culture or individual examples within that culture the archetypes break down and one is left with creating their own classes... or adopting a skill system.

    I do love the way WFRP had the career paths. It seemed like a really nice mixture of the virtues of both approaches.

  13. I'm equally happy with both skill-based and class-based systems. Perhaps this is because I spent most of my gaming time from the mid-1980s to early 1990s playing MERP and Rolemaster.

    I agree that for 'modern' and 'future/sci-fi' games, skill-based systems seem more appropriate.

  14. And I agree with Osskorrei regarding the strength of the WFRP career path system.

  15. "Failure meant only that one particular outcome to the adventure was closed off, but there were other possible outcomes, not to mention other adventures/situations. Rather than being an obstacle to our fun, the failed skill roll enabled it, pushing the characters and thus the campaign in a direction the players might not have chosen if they'd had the choice. Speaking only for myself, that's what all the best game systems do, regardless of whether they use classes or skills as their foundation."

    Triple yes!

  16. Also, how either game approach can be abused has as much to do with the participants' approach to Game Theory ( - specifically whether or not the GM and players are both in synch with how much Finite vs. Infinite game elements are desired (

    If the GM and Players are both playing with an 'infinite' game approach (i.e., the goal of the game is for the game to continue) then either system can work just fine.

    If either the GM or a player/the players play with a 'finite game' approach (where 'beating' an opponent is the goal) then both systems can fail miserably.

  17. I'm also a fan of the approach taken in "Trail of Cthulhu." It's skill based, but it dispenses with a lot of skill rolls. In many (not all) cases, the assumption is that if you have a skill, then you're competent enough with it that no roll is required. The game becomes more about having the right mix of skills in the group and applying them wisely than about making the right die rolls. ToC is far from the perfect game, but its concepts can easily be adapted to other skill-based games (like Call of Cthulhu) with good results.

    I don't have the game in front of me, so I could be misremembering the details, but I recall Dennis Sustare's "Swordbearer" from Heritage mixing skills and classes in an innovative way.


  18. I think a big difference between skill and class systems shows up in combat where skill systems are generally (always?) more complicated while class systems are simpler
    In many cases, perhaps, but not all. Savage Worlds is a skill system, and its combat is about as fast -- if not faster -- than the less complicated D&D variants.

    One of the weaknesses of skill-based systems is that while they broaden what characters can do, they also narrow it in the ways they punish attempts to do things without the correct skill. No climb skill? Sorry, you can't climb that tree. Rifle skill but not pistol skill? I guess you can't field strip that pistol.
    Again, that may be true of some skill systems, but not all. I don't think I've encountered a single system which would completely bar a character from at least trying to climb that tree; even if they don't have the climbing skill, they'd have some kind of base ability to make the attempt.

  19. I think this is why I've recently fallen in love with Gamma World. It's neither class-based nor skill-based, really. Yeah, it sort of has level advancement, but not really. It kinda has a skill system in the artifact use chart, but beyond that it's all the players stating, "I try to do X?" with the GM responding, "How do you go about it?"

  20. @ James: I agree with almost all of what you say in your post. However, my feeling regarding random skill use has changed significantly.

    In fact, this deserved its own post on Ye Old Blog. Thanks for the inspiration.

  21. While I prefer skill to class systems, I can have fun and run games in both. For me, though, a skill system just "feels right," like a tool with a good grip and the right heft. The preference between the two is one of those old arguments in the hobby that I left behind long ago.

    That said, your point about fudging dies rolls (something I used to do) is spot on. Now, thanks partly to this blog, I'm of the "let the dice fall as they may" camp; if a crucial roll fails, then it's a challenge to the players to find another way to their goal. And if the planned dramatic climax never comes about, the dice may well create another, unexpected one. (Though I am a fan of a "tree approach" to designed adventures, allowing multiple paths to the same end.)

    A couple of people mentioned WFRP, my favorite FRPG. The loosening of limited (IMO) classes into much more flexible career paths was a brilliant idea, I think. The skill system had serious weaknesses, but the overall idea is easily portable to BRP -- which is a longtime backburner project of mine.

  22. I pretty solidly prefer skill-based RPGs.
    I guess I'm lucky to have never played with one of those infamous GM's who thinks every action needs a roll, or that failing a skill roll means catastrophic failure. Just because you fail your 'drive' roll during a car chase doesn't mean you go over a cliff and burst into flame. That's what BRP's 'fumble' is for :P.
    Are there really GMs like that or is it some meme from RPGnet? The guys I currently game with won't play CoC because of all the dumb stories they've been read on that site.

    My argument with 'class based' was how it seemed to have arbitrary limitations ("Clerics can't use edged weapons") and made it hard to roll up the characters that were in my head. Back when I first started D&D it seemed like every 2nd game article I read was a proposing some new class with slight adjustments from the primary ones. Suggesting a lot of folks felt a bit... constrained.
    I'm also not a fan of 'niche protection' or loading up on mechanical artifice for the sake of 'balance'.

    I'm fine, however, with skill 'templates' for archetypes and professions... as in Eclipse Phase and GURPS and others. It makes character generation a bit quicker when learning the system/setting, just find the one closest to your idea and tweak it, or combine a couple of them.
    I'm also fine with setting-based limitations on what certain professions can do ("Your cult won't allow you to carry weapons").

    But really, I think most all my issues with 'class based' stem from my contempt for 'levels'... which I REALLY dislike... for all the usual reasons.
    What are some systems that have 'classes' but not 'levels'? I can't think of any off the top of my head.

  23. I don't think we can underestimate the impact that conceptualizing "adventures" as "stories" has had on RPGs and how they're played.

    But is that any more (or less) specific to skill systems than to any other sort? It seems pretty independent to me - and when you look at what the publishers produce, whether they call them adventures or scenarios or mods or dungeons, there's usually a pretty strong story line that's expected in order to "complete" the whole thing.

    This also ties in with your comment on fudging die rolls. As long as what you are playing has some narrative there will be points where a single bad outcome can prevent the whole thing from continuing. Yes, ideally the master/keeper/whatever should be able to keep going, even if that departs completely from what they've got prepared. But in practice, it's either fudge or say "Looks like we're done for the night, anyone want to watch Buffy reruns?"

  24. In the D&D blue book (2nd edition, Nov. 1978) is the following passage:
    "Thieves are humans wih special abilities to strike a deadly blow from behind, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, filch items and pick pockets, [etc.]...A table for determining whether a thief has accomplished one of these feats is given later."

    I find it interesting that the word "feats" is used given the widespread adoption of the term in skill-based systems. How about this simplified dichotomy for fantasy RPGs:

    Class-based systems (such as D&D) have special rules for combat and magic, and a very few number of feats/skills.

    Skill-based systems have special rules for combat and magic, and a very large number of feats/skills.

  25. One of the interesting things about skill systems is how finely grained people make them. I mean, a system where you play Cleric 65% is little more than a class system, whilst one that differentiates between Mace, 1H, [RH] 88% and Mace, 1H, [LH] 35% is probably going too far.*

    A lot of the reason that skill-based system people dislike classes is that they feel it restricts their portrayal to an archetype, which may not be how they envisage their character. Give people the option to customise their characters, even if the customisation is almost purely cosmetic, and much of their resistance goes away.

    Personally I find class-based stuff a lot easier to run, but probably prefer broadly-based skills. [One modification I was playing with for Dragon Age was to get rid of the characteristics that everyone is ingrained from the birth of the hobby to use, and replace them with skill categories (borrowed from the Fields of Swordbearer). So you'd have a Fight, Stealth, Craft, Rural, Urban, etc, characteristics instead of Strength, Dexterity etc. Never got to test it though.]

    [* Interestingly enough, a lot of skill-based system people feel very uncomfortable in reducing melee combat to a single Melee Combat skill, despite the fact that it really does make good sense in the real world. Instead weapon skills are one instance (given the origins of our hobby, where people generally go overboard with skill definitions. And yet they are perfectly willing to embody the whole field of Chemistry in a single Chemistry 5d6 skill.]

  26. Classes, levels and hit points are great mechanics and give a huge competitive edge to D&D, especially during the hobby's early history when so many games shied away from classes.

  27. Sorry Vigilance, but that's just silly. Being first and everyone having heard of it and most of them playing it is what gave D&D the edge. To say that the class system itself is responsible is a very strange reading of history.

  28. I disagree Eteo.

    I think D&D had several competitive advantages besides being first, and classes and levels and hit points were 3 of them.

    That competitive edge was widened because so many other games ran away from those mechanics.

  29. They ran away from them because, to a lot of people, they felt they were artificial and limiting.

    If D&D had been skill-based it would still be the top dog.
    And it continues... I asked the guys in my group, who are itching to play 4E, why they want to play it so bad... and the answer, in unison, was, "Nostalgia!" It was the first RPG they ever played.
    I started talking to my friends kids about maybe playing an RPG... describing the game to them... and the oldest said, "Oh! Dungeons and Dragons!" He'd never played it or seen it, but he knew the name.

  30. "They ran away from them because, to a lot of people, they felt they were artificial and limiting."


    Also, Your mentioning of levels made me realize that I forgot about my hatred for levels as well.

    One of the things that attracted me to skill-based systems was the steady, gradual improvement of abilities instead of weird 'promotion' like jumps in proficiency.

  31. James,

    the erudite Paul Elliott wrote about similar things in his article on the BRP skill system, you may find it interesting if you mised it the first time around...

  32. Interestingly the original Conspiracy X system "solved" this problem. I think it did, it worked at the table for us - by having what I'd call a quantum skill system. If the rank of your skill was greater then the target number you could essentially not fail however if your skill was equal to the target number you had to roll to succeed on 2d6>8 IIRC and if youe skill was less then the target number you would "fail" and know it and you could do things to modify the attempt ... it made game play very elegant and it was a great game and subject matter anyway and the US and the world was your sandbox. Very nice.

    Hollow Earth Expeditions, "Ubiquity" game system a Binary system using any die normally d6 or special d8 ubiquity dice which are totally optional (interestingly this system seems to be an evolution of the Prince Valiant game system by Greg Stafford)
    “Taking the Average” in this system see the lets the player or the GM take the average possible score to a roll as the automatic total, removing the need to roll at all. Furthermore, using this method means that a GM can run a game without ever rolling if he so chooses.
    It uses an (Attribute + Skill) or (Attribute x 2) dice pool success-counting system, which in and of itself is nothing unique. What is unusual is the fact that the game can use any sort of dice, in any combination, because the numbers don’t matter. Instead, an odd number is a success and an even number is a failure. Or vice versa. Or 1-3 on a d6. All that matters is a 50-50 chance of success on each die. The difficulty numbers of tasks – or the number of successes rolled by an opponent – indicates the number of successes required to succeed. Extended tasks may be simulated by requiring a given number of successes to be accumulated in a fixed time period. Degree of success/failure matters, and a roll with no successes at all results in a Fumble.

    As far as skill games go I like these approaches as they have enough forethought in the system to cater for common table events.

  33. Granted that D&D-style class-based systems do couple improving skills to multiplying health -- resulting in high-level characters unkillable by a dozen or more normal men. Personally, I think that's a feature-not-a-bug if you're simulating certain fantasy stories like Conan or Elric, et. al. But if you do want to avoid that, decoupling skills from multiplied health, then the result will be (almost by definition) a skill-based system. And I agree that itself is a laudable goal for harder types of SF (myself biased from Star Frontiers doing it that way).

  34. Two more thoughts:

    (1) I do think that the foremost dogs-versus-cats schism in our hobby is the story-versus-game divide. This is what will really dictate if someone fudges the "finds info" roll or not.

    (2) That said, my main structural problem with skill-based systems is how they model things by linearly increasing the mean result, when it would be a truer representation to work by decreasing variance (which would require a table, as I wrote about here). Lots of weird counter-intuitive results from percentile skill systems are a result of that fundamental issue, IMO.

  35. I actually prefer a combination of class and skill systems. The idea of class is not altogether bad, if one thinks of it as a package of similar, complimentary skills that have much in common. It is more difficult to learn unrelated skills, since you have no common base to work from. So classes make sense.

    I do like to have some sort of skill/talent/whatever, though, so that the characters do not become cookie cutter copies of one another. Not as implemented in 2E and later editions of D&D, though. Probably something similar to The Fantasy Trip (where Talents generally represent either fairly high competency or even exceptional abilities, as opposed to mundane things like Spot or Jump). In this way even characters of the same class and with the same stats can still be quite different.

    As to classes, etc. being some sort of competitive advantage, I see no direct evidence whatsoever for such a claim. The fact that D&D got there first and gained a certain amount of fame more than explain the "advantage". Indeed, mechanically, as implemented, D&D has any number of disadvantages. All tolerable, but it could have been better.