Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Scoundrel, Part 4: In Defense of Skill Systems

So, to get this out of the way, my take on Dungeon Crawl Classics is that I love the art, the extra dice are awesome, I'd love to be a player in a game or maybe a campaign some time, but I haven't seen anything yet that makes me want to switch over to it for the games I run.

Also, to transition to the subject at hand, in the section on skills, there's this: “Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is necessary to adjudicate a situation. Only make a skill check when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.”

Now go read this. Trollsmyth, by the way, is awesome, though he seems to have slowed down in his blogging recently, which is really too bad. One could do a lot worse than reading through his old posts.

So, after reading that, I'm going to argue two things.
  1. We can define skills as abstractions of actions the characters engage in, usually meshed with dice rolls to quickly determine success or failure.
  2. Skills are used to quickly move past parts of the characters' lives that are not what the particular game is about, but that are necessary supports for the parts of the characters' lives that the game is about.
Using this definition, and this purpose statement, we can see that skill systems in Dungeons and Dragons aren't a question of presence/non-presence but a question of where we're falling on a spectrum of skill systems.

For example, while I haven't actually read 0e, Sham tells me this on his old houserules site for his Solstice setting (click "Dungeon Tasks" on the left): “In OD&D, the following tasks were defined: Find Secret Passage(Door), Elf Sense Secret Door, Listen (Hear) at Door, and Force Open Door.”

These are all "abstractions of actions that characters engage in," adjudicated by dice rolls. For that matter, combat, turning undead and learning new spells (in systems that make you roll for that) are all skills. The game isn't about eavesdropping techniques, SWAT door-busting techniques, medieval combat techniques against imaginary monsters, relationships with imaginary gods that allow sending the undead to their graves, or learning arcane imaginary magical spells. All of these things are activities that are necessary for our PCs to engage in to support their dungeoneering or adventuring, so they need to be a part of the game, but they aren't what the game is about, and they are cumbersome or impossible, for the most part, to act out at a gaming table, so we assign values to chances of success and let the dice, more or less, do the rest.

This, as anyone who has played D&D knows, is both OK and necessary to the game.

Moving, perhaps, up the spectrum a bit, we also see a very loose and informal skills system with attributes. It's what I referenced in my last post: a PC attempts something and the ref decides that the task attempted falls under one or more of the PC's attributes. The PC's player then has to roll the applicable attribute score or under in order to succeed. This is very common in Old School play, from what I understand. It's suggested on pages 10 and 18 of Michael Shorten's Swords and Wizardry Quickstart.

Moving up the spectrum a bit more, we see that the Majestic Wilderlands contains a very simple skill system which has essentially, as I understand it, split each attribute up into smaller domains of actions that are still very, very general. In this way, PCs can have different levels of proficiency in different areas that fall under the same attribute score.

No one argues that Rob Conley and the Majestic Wilderlands aren't Old School. The Majestic Wilderlands are, after all, houserules for a retro-clone of 0e for a campaign setting that is the descendent of the first published D&D setting, and the product of three decades of continuous gaming in that setting, though not all with D&D, so far as I understand, I'll admit.

Moving even farther up the spectrum, and out of the realm of D&D (into other games that I know much less about, so please correct me if I'm wrong) we find that some other games out there that are "Old School" have skill systems. The first edition of Pendragon, for example, includes 36 conventional skills on its character sheet. It instructed me to add three more when I rolled up a character while trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it includes skill categories for 12 personality traits and a varying number of strong emotions, all of which are assigned numbers and which are used, in conjunction with dice, to determine things in the game. This is the game that James Maliszewski describes as "to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played." (I'd also talk about Traveller, which, from what I understand, is far enough up the spectrum that you could call it "skill-based" instead of "class-based," since it doesn't even have classes, but I haven't studied Traveller like I've studied Pendragon, so I won't.)

We can move up the spectrum even more, but I become less and less familiar with what I'm talking about, and the games further up the spectrum generally don't get considered Old School with the same unanimity as the ones I've described. I also think I've made my point: skills, as I've defined them, are compatible with, and even necessary to, Old School D&D and, to an even greater degree, other Old School RPGs. Skills are important for adjudicating actions that aren't what the game is about but that are necessary for what the game is about to be possible for the PCs. Even traveling along the spectrum of "skillsiness" doesn't automatically disqualify a game or house rule from being Old School, as my examples show.

So far as being Old School goes, then, skill system inclusion isn't a binary question, but a question of execution. How is the skill system designed and how does it mesh with the other parts of the game, both with design and actual play? That's the important thing, not whether or not a skill system is included in the game because, if it's a table-top RPG, it has a skill system (except maybe for some of those diceless RPGs, but I'm not even sure about those, since I haven't read them).


  1. Here's a brief explanation of the skill system I implemented in my RPG books:

    There are twelve broad skills (Athletics, Civics, Craft, Diplomacy, Entertain, Knowledge, Outdoors, Medicine, Perception, Pilot, Stealth, and Trade). All skills start at "rank 1" ("untrained"), which means that any character has at least a 1 in 6 chance to do something related to that skill. Non-humans generally have a +1 racial bonus to some skill (Elves get Perception, Dwarves get Craft, Halflings get Stealth), essentially replacing (but mathematically preserving) such abilities as the elves' 2-in-6 chance to find secret doors.

    Characters also start with (3 + Int mod) skill points to buy higher ranks, and they get a new point at every odd-numbered level. The thief/rogue/expert/specialist class gets (6 + Int mod), with a new rank at every level, completely replacing thief skills. Each skill point buys one rank, and skills can be trained up to rank 5. The skill check itself is a simple matter of rolling under the rank on 1d6.

    The skills have no precise definitions. What they cover falls to the players and the referee. Anything not covered by the skill system is easily relegated to an ability check (either on 1d20 vs. the score itself, or some kind of 1d6 roll modified by the ability adjustment, like the Open Doors rules). That's about it. =)

  2. Thanks for this. I've been pondering, considering and re-considering Skill Systems in OD&D (and their derivatives.) I know how I want them to be played out, in general. But I'm also aware at the same time the games themselves are ultimately skill systems. The key is how granular you want to go. In a Class/Level/Abilities based system, I want every "check" (we'll use the term check to mean anytime task resolution needs to have an element of randomness, failure &/or danger) to be based on those 3 key factors. In a "Skill Based" system, every check factors in the degrees of skills you have in each individual task. Then you have everything in between. D&D has been officially a hybrid of the two (more so in 3x than 4x) since 2e (which made it optional.)

    So what is better? Should there be a skill-system? It depends. It depends on what your definition of a skill system is, or (in my case) how granular the skill system is before I call it a skill system.

    I know what i like, what how feel like playing, and this determines the game I play.

  3. J.D.: That sounds both similar, in the breadth of the skill descriptions, to what Rob Conley did in the Majestic wilderlands and, in the mechanics or improving in skills, to what I'm planning to do. I'm planning on having my skills be more specific and concrete, though; I figure I can use simple attribute checks for general stuff. Everyone being able to improve, and thieves improving faster, though, is something I really like, and am planning on including in my Scoundrel class.

    Rev. Dak: You're right, it definitely depends on what your definition of a skill system is, or "how granular the skill system is before I call it a skill system." Do you have a set point of granularity in mind? I'd be curious if there is a good simple way to categorize skill systems according to granularity. All I'm seeing right now, so far as granularity goes, is a fuzzy spectrum. Thoughts?

  4. More and more lately, I see less difference between so called Old-school RPGs and new-school story games.

    For instance, the story games folks zeroed in on this exact principle a couple of year ago at least, with the whole idea of the Fruitful Void (I'm not saying they were the first mind).

    Fruitful void:

    Currently my house rule thinking is this: I like simplicity, and I like using attributes (or their bonuses) to make rolls on - because I see them as the core of the character... and otherwise why are they even there? Most skill systems are derivative of attributes to the point where you may as well remove one or the other.

    But I do recognize that someone can have knowledge of a field that isn't reflected by their attribute and I also see a satisfaction in allowing differing and defining traits between otherwise similar characters. Skills are good for character building because they flesh out who the person is/was.

    Combine this with the fact that no skill list can ever be complete, and I'm going to take a story-game leaf out of the book and allow players to define one or two skills each of their own. They can be anything at all as long as they support the character concept. This represents previous occupations or special training and is simply a bonus that gets applied to attribute checks when in the right context. Obviously abuse and powergaming has to be watched out for, but common sense is the best rule of thumb here.

    Right now I don't know if it will be a flat trained/untrained bonus or something that can be improved upon with time. We'll see.

  5. Interesting. Trollsmyth, from what I understand, has done some amount of messing with story games and Indie RPGs, so he probably got this idea from doing that. I hadn't made that connection because I'm really, really unfamiliar with story games.

    I like the idea of individualized skills, though I'd also consider making some background based proficiencies into automatic-success abilities. I liked having blank skill slots on the Pendragon character sheet, but hadn't thought to do the same thing until you posted this. Thanks!

  6. Hi Staples, I've played OD&D with no "Skills & Non-weapon proficiency, etc". I've played classless skill points only systems. I've played everything in between. I guess it really depends on the game I want to play. Trollsmyth really nailed it though. The way I see it, certain genres lend themselves better to having more comprehensive lists of skills (secret agents, private investigators). While some games work perfectly well with simple skill mechanics when the character archetypes are very specialized (fighters, clerics).

    Ever read 3:16-Carnage Amongst the Stars? There are only 2 stats: FA and NFA, Fighting Ability and Non-Fighting Ability. It's one of the most brilliant games I've ever played. I think D&D sits in the middle of the spectrum with Indie Story Games at one end, and % based skill systems on the other. The character sheet is the first thing I look at when I look at a new game. The more complicated the sheet, the more complicated the game.