I had an interesting conversation with a gamer who thought that skills were the devil. His point was that just by existing the skills were artificially limiting your options and forcing you into boxes that a new gamer with clean perspective wouldn’t actually want. And I get that, but I still think they do more good than harm. Let me try to make the case for skills, and why I approached them the way I did.
Skills provide the grammar for the language of imagination. For a game to function you have to be able to build up expectations. Charging into a room of 30 armed cultists could be reasonable or suicidal depending on your character and this grammar. The gamey part of a game happens when players have meaningful decision points. We take the decision part for granted, but without that context it’s not a meaningful decision. And as an aside, you can get some really entertaining results without meaningful decisions (see pretty much every random character/encounter/whatever generator ever)…but that’s not a game as such.
Where skills can become cumbersome is when they add interference to setting that expectation. Let’s take being perceptive as an example. At it’s heart, you’re trying to communicate how aware of details and surroundings your character is. But you can start dissecting this idea into different parts: spotting enemies, finding clues, sensing danger, and so on. The nice thing about getting specific is it gives you more room for different characters to have a specialty, and it points out distinctions that you might not even have thought about otherwise (such as the differences between a soldier’s situational awareness and a detective’s attention to detail.) But the downside is all the static it creates. Do you have to invest in 4 skills just to do one thing competently? Is it intuitive which skill applies to a situation? If more than one applies how do you handle it, and does that essentially make some of the skills irrelevant?
The approach I’ve chosen for Adventure Frameworks has evolved over time. For one thing, it uses skills. The original design for the game came from a dream where I saw the character sheet being used, and that sheet had distinct skills listed on it. This was kind of unusual for the time, as I was mostly playing Champions or GURPs which used skills, but which ones you had ratings in (if any) were completely optional. So I started with a static list of skills that everyone had some kind of rating in, and went from there. That list grew and evolved, and over time I dropped it in favor of just listing what you’d invested in. It turns out that was a big mistake, it’s just as important to see the skills that you aren’t focused on as the ones that you are, going back to that idea of the grammar of imagination. The dream was right. The problem was, I had built up enough skills that it was really clunky trying to fit them all on a sheet, keep them together in a relevant way, and also prevent blatant min-maxing from capsizing the fiction of the game. Though I am not fond of it, Role-Master does a really great job of organizing the approach where you have lots and lots of really narrow skills. I went the other way, starting to roll my skills up into broader ideas. I already had ‘abilities’ which gave extra uses or bonuses for skills in some circumstances, so why not let those take on the load of differentiation. What this rollup eventually led to was fairly manageable and elegant list of nine:
- , which handled melee combat.
- , which handled movement.
- , which handled anything to do with nature.
- , which handled anything to do with technology.
- , which handled scheming and hiding.
- , which handled awareness and attention to detail.
- , which handled leadership and intimidation.
- , which handled diplomacy and bargaining.
- , which handled art and deception.
Everything I’d had people roll checks for up until now rolled into one of those skills, or one of the three attributes that controlled them. The thinking is the skill gives you a baseline. Abilities add bonuses to that baseline. And if you really want to just be good at a single part of that skill and suck at the rest you need what’s called a fault, a disadvantage that takes away some of the options you otherwise should have. Abilities might also change up what skill you can use to try something. So guns would normally fall under operate, but say you think perception at long distances should play into that somehow. You’d have an ability like Snipe that lets you shoot with your Study skill instead of Operate, and gives you more options with your rifle than another character who just had good operate skill would have. You’d also have good eyes and be generally perceptive. Or you could just keep using Operate to shoot your rifle, and probably choose different abilities that let you reload quicker or use more effective suppressing fire.
Adventure Frameworks has a baked in assumption that you’ll have three skills that you can heavily invest in, three that that you can moderately invest in, and then three that will be average at best. This plus abilities still leaves a lot of room for differentiation between the characters while still giving you options when you have to use a skill that you don’t really specialize in.