Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thinking About Skills & Abilities

Today some thinking about how to restructure Skills/Abilities in Action Cards, our house system. I'm still working on the 3.0 revision. I've done some base level dissection of game rules before and I want to revisit that to consider the idea of skills again. I'm going to use the terms skills and abilities a little interchangeably, even though I have distinct sense of them. In an rpg skills generally represent some training the character has which aids them in a task. They may need to roll under a number assigned, add the skill's value to a roll or some other form. That means that in most games skills have an associated value.

Slightly off course, but important to consider-- a distinction can be made between skills and “abilities”-- generally the latter represents static bonuses or unusual things a character can do. They either fall outside of the sphere of skills or provide a bonus to them. In GURPS these are advantages, in Unisystem they are Qualities, in d20 they may be feats, in Rolemaster and elsewhere they're Talents. These are generally aside from the skill system-- and often they're a tool for game expansion. Supplements might only tinker with the skills a little, but they'll add a heap of abilities-- providing cheap and dubious chrome for the game.

Skills themselves have a couple of key features. In most classic game systems have a discrete list of skills. Depending on the system, some of these will cover combat (Rolemaster, GURPS) or combat will be a separate module outside the skill system (Advanced D&D, HERO). Beyond that how a game handles skills has several dimensions:

*Training: Some things everyone knows, but some know them better than others. One approach to handling this is to have default or everyman skills granting all characters a simple base value. d20 has a version of this, in the idea that some skills requiring purchasing (trained) in order for anyone to even make a default attempt on them. GURPS has an even more complex set of connections in that some skills “default” to others, representing related training so that even if you don't know something you might be able to make an attempt at a penalty. It think that's a great concept, but one that does add some book-keeping and tracking.

And in practice, having run GURPS it is also a function that rarely gets invoked. When it does, it ends up requiring a hunt through the rule books. So based on experience plus a general desire to minimize tracking in play, I don't care for that.

*Open vs. Closed: Since most of these systems provide a set list of skills, the question remains how it handles skills which fall outside of the list. Some provide broad category skills: like Sciences, Professional Skills, or Knowledges to cover all of the narrower areas. Some don't-- instead having the idea that anything can be a skill on its own and adding to the bloat of the list. Rolemaster and GURPS suffer from this-- you get a great deal of color at the expense of a larger volume of rules. Some games have a very narrow set of skills, with the idea that everything ought to fall under the broad rubric presented.

*Evenness: Systems also have to deal with the idea that not all skills have the same value. Some will be more useful in the course of a game. Generally combat ranks at the top for utility. followed by broader and more genre-applicable skills. While the situation has shifted as games have evolved, early skills were secondary in games like Champions. In many games any skills with practical combat use would be the only ones invested in. Some systems ignore relative utility-- with all skills seemingly equal. That's the case in Storyteller, with Exalted as a particularly egregious example of this. [Sidebar: each caste or group in Exalted gets key skills they're associated with, so it sucks to the the group stuck with Sail or Ride...]. Hero System has a two-tier cost system for skills with more apparently important skills costing 3 for the initial value and 2 for +1; lesser skills cost 2/1. GURPS has an even more detailed system with a difference between Physical and Mental skills and then a degree of ease between them which determined cost. Even more elaborate, and some would say INSANE, would be Rolemaster Classic and Standard where each character class had differing costs for every single skill or skill grouping depending on the focus of the class.

OK, so it just want all of those ideas and details on the table as I consider how I want to handle skills in Action Cards-- and other systems I might be working on.

One of the basic assumptions I've come to is that a set skill list- while sometimes useful for the players- doesn't work. It limits by grouping certain things together or eliminating certain possibilities. That can be avoid, but it requires additional jury-rigging and mechanics. A set skill list then either assumes the need to hunt back to a rule book or else a list of skills printed on the character sheet. So that leaves the option of eliminating skills or allowing a completely open and player-driven approach to skill creation. For Action Cards I've chosen the latter.

Fixed with that is the idea that common sense prevails as to “everyman” skills. That is-- there exist certain tasks which the players can't even get a test on unless they're able to explain how they have training, background or other experience in that field. It has to fit with the background and the character as played so far. Generally, for very narrow applications and archaic knowledge I've allowed players to spend a drama point to define themselves as possessing a strange background in that (i.e. Ancient Nithian Basketweaving).

So that covers the question of training and open vs. closed. The hurdle to deal with is one which has stuck with me for a while, the question of eveness. Unlike other systems, in Action Cards, all skills are functionally equal. There's no rating for a particular skill-- which does mean on the surface that all persons with that skill seem equal-- they all get the same result which is the option of a repull. So in most games, skills either set the target number for the randomizer or add to the value generated by the randomizer against a target. And also usually there's some interaction with skills heavy (GURPS), moderate (Unisystem) or modest (d20). In AC your cards are both the randomizer and your stats and having a skill gives you a second chance if you fail. So the center of resolution has shifted.

Which brings me around to some new things I've been thinking about. First, I don't think all skills actually are equal. Some cover a wider range than others. Something like Perception or HTH would be a broad skill. But something like Detecting Kitchen Odors or Close Quarters Knife Fighting would be a narrow skill.

Second, as an assumption, I'm going to say that narrow skills are more interesting. They provide a greater degree of color to the character. However, as they stand now, broader skills are more useful as they cover a range of situations.

So the question lies in how to encourage players to buy narrow skills. One rule I've borrowed from Robin Laws discussion is the idea of second chances. That is, if one fails on the redraw, one can make a second redraw, but the following skill must be a narrower one. That encourages some duplication-- but at the same time, it still reinforces the utility of the broader skill as a starting point. One could go at that in the opposite direction: where one could only redraw if one had a broader skill, but that doesn't seem to make a lot of logical sense. And while this is a game system and hence artificial, it probably won't stick in people's minds when they're playing because it doesn't seem right.

That being said, I do think the broad to narrow mechanic does work-- it just doesn't work to encourage the buying of narrow skills-- so I need another approach to that.

One theory, borrowed from a couple of sources has broad skill users working at a penalty against persons with a more fine grained or specific set of skills. In theory that's a good idea. However it does potentially mean applying a penalty to players or having them track penalties and that's never a good idea. It is also something that can get swept away pretty easily in play. Also-- if a person has a skill, but doesn't use it because they got a good pull, then have they used that skill? If so, then the GMs asking for another set of declarations in the game. Generally I say something like “Make a Physical Pull for me...” and the players do. If they fail or end up unsatisfied with their results they can declare a skill and make the repull. I think adding a compulsory extra stage to the system isn't a good idea. I'll stick with my present approach which is using the relatively narrowness of competing skills as a tie-breaker-- which I hardly ever end up doing.

So what options remain?

Points. Quite frankly, the most obvious solution right now is to actually have broader or narrower skills cost more or less points. Given that I'm eliminating a couple of other character sheet mechanics in the present revision (traits, for example) I think I can rework the character sheet to have skills split into three sections: Broad, Standard, Narrow. Standard skills right now cost five points, I suspect I'd leave that there and base the other costs on that. One of the things I like about this approach is that it puts some of the mechanical determination in the character creation section, where it belongs. It also could create an easy visual shorthand on the character sheet-- with the player looking at the lefthand column for their broadest skills to apply and then working their way down. It is going to require some example giving and discussion in the rules, but I do think it could work.


  1. One short blog post could never cover every idea for RPG skills. But let me throw in another idea. Each skill is a pyramid. At full score use it's specialized (one weapon, one form of engineering, one regional cuisine). A level down it's broader (a class of weapons, construction engineering, national cuisine). Two levels down, it's a broad skill (melee weapons, engineering, cooking).

    So if you have only one point in a skill, you've started studying one narrow field. At two points, you get 1 pt in broader applications. If you have 3 pts, you get 2 pts in broader application and 1 pt in the broad skill. Etc. So you could have Sword at 6, and automatically get chivalric weapons 5 and melee at 4.

    Something like this is used in Decypher's CODA system. After you bought skills beyond ~4 you got a 1pt bonus on a specialty. Which is a nice simple system too.

  2. I like Gene's idea of the skill pyramid, but I might invert it point-down so that the more focused the skill is, the more expensive it is in points.

    If you purchased Cooking as a broad skill, you know your way around the kitchen better than the average person, one pot from another, but the skill isn't very deep.

    Paying points to go further lets you specialize; maybe at the mid-tier you choose Pastry Chef, which gives you that more specialized knowledge and more proficiency.

    I'm not sure how the mechanic might change to represent the difference in skill, however.

  3. And what I left out from my comment was that broad skills are purchased first, then narrowing from there to reflect deeper training and specialization. Musashi can use a club or a staff to good effect, but the sword is his life, the entire focus of his training.

  4. The first edition of Paranoia had a skill tree system, from broad to narrow-- so closer to what Kaiju's saying. And I tried a variation on that with HERO system once which didn't work. I think systems like that would work for a more point, mechanic and detail oriented game, but I'm not sure they solve the kinds of problems I'm considering for Action Cards. As a general concept, it is a decent one-- especially for a game where the center of design rests on skills.