Sunday, October 9, 2011

Some musings on skills

I was listening to the Roll for Initiative Podcast, and they were talking about non-weapons proficiencies and "skills" and it dawned on me when skills work and when they don't.

In BRP you have skills, lots of them. You also have stats, and sometimes you roll against those. Usually those are the Luck, Know and Idea rolls which are stat x 5 for a percentage. More often than not, those are only used when there are no special skill, or for specific procedures or mechanics detailed in the rules. The specific skills are mostly based on the development points you put in there, even if high stats might give you a slight bonus in some incarnations of the system, like my beloved Stormbringer.

In Warhammer (1st and 2nd ed. at least) you mostly roll against your stats (weapon skill is a stat, I'm just saying...) and the skills you have just gives you a bonus to a stat check. They are mostly feats or talents to diversify your class. You either have a skill or you don't, so you don't develop them with points.

In 1st ed. AD&D (and 2nd ed.) the proficiencies are legion, and they are bascially skills for lot of different special knowledges. To use them, you basically roll a stat check, with a bonus.

In the Nalfeshnee edition (Type IV you know?), you have a very short list of skills. They are based on development points, but bonus from stats play a significant part. You roll the same die as when you, say, make a save.

Do you see some patterns?

This is how I rate those system on a subjective enjoyment level.
1. BRP skills are fun, worth my time and they make the game interesting
2. WH skills are nice for colour, but I depend on my WS and my I.
3. Why not just roll a stat check?
4. "I need to solve this problem? Gee, I wonder what I will choose? I seem to have one skill for stealthy stuff so I roll that I guess. Was it just like a stat check/save you said? Can't I just use my DEX?"

While it might not be the same thing for everyone, I think I've found out what works for me. In 4th ed. they don't really present you with much a choice. You can have any colour, as long as it's black. right? In WH I have a schtick which I can groove on for colour. Nice. In AD&D, why didn't I just roll my DEX?

I think a game which uses skills should have a mechanic that feel fun and involved and don't feels like it could have been a stat check. They have to be something clearly different from a stat check. Preferably they should be something which not everyone off the street can be expected to have access to. Also, when you have a cool skill mechanic, the choice to roll a specific skill must involve some choice and diversity, to allow for multiple ways to place those development points while still build viable adventurers.

Your mileage might differ. I really like CoC, RQ and Stormbringer while 4th ed. bores me to tears. My summary would be: if you tack on a skill system, make it large enough to matter and roll off your stats otherwise. 


  1. I love, love, love, WH's skill system. The group I ran it for a few summers ago enjoyed the rules and and the entire character creation/advancement system. There is something that I find just inherently satisfying about it.

    All I know of BRP is OpenQuest. The skill system feel right to me on paper, but I have to confess that I haven't run or played it yet.

    I really disliked 4e's skill system because the skills really had no function beyond dungeon stuff. You couldn't learn Craft or Perform or anything like that, and all the skills had these very prescribed, very specific uses and difficulties associated with them. While I can see how some gamers might prefer that, I prefer to keep things a bit more ad hoc.

    What are your thoughts on the Castles & Crusades system? It effectively turns your stats into a skill list.

  2. Castles & Crusades is basically T&T in the D&D trade dress. ;)

    It looks like the way to do skills in D&D, I think.

    WH is great fun, but I think the best part of the system is the quirky variant of a life path system.

  3. @Ryan
    While I don't play 4e anymore (in favor of various old school games, my fave being C&C), I have to say I think you missed the point of 4th edition.

    4th edition really only models encounters.

    That's it. For the rest of the roleplaying game, you're free to make it all up. They made it so within the encounter system, each character would have a contribution. You'd no longer have to choose between a 'social character' and a 'combat character'. You could create a completely orthogonal set of rules for things outside of encounters if you liked. The point being that you couldn't choose to use your combat mojo points into social points, or be punished with sub-par combat abilities for spending social points in the first place.
    (Yes, I know that there are diplomacy and history skills. But their primary functions are still within the encounter.)
    For the rest of your 4e game, you're as free (or constrained, your choice of perspective) as back when you were playing cowboys and indians.

  4. I think Red is definitely grasping the idea of the 4th ed system. I still think there are too few choices, even within the encounter frame of mind. :)

  5. Andreas, a minor quibble: AD&D 1E only had weapon proficiencies and broad, vague, unrated, non-mechanically handled "secondary skills" in the core game. It wasn't until late on that Non-Weapon Proficiencies were added (in WSG and DSG, then reprised in OA).

    The flavor of AD&D 1E before those was stat-rolls for everything but thieves and combat. And maybe, just maybe, your DM would let you have a secondary skill. Mine didn't.

  6. Good point, Aramis! I wasn't clear in that I was referring to the whole of the AD&D system and not the core books. In the core books there are no proficiencies. Good to have that cleared up. I didn't write everything I was thinking there...


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