Skills and their use

From your experience of the RPGs you’ve played how useful is a long list of skills?  4e has only 17 but previous editions had plenty more as have many D100 systems. Savage Worlds has 24 I think.  My question is; in reality what skills are really used?  I’d guess its primarily abilities around athletics, sneaking about, noticing things and influencing others.  Do we just need four skills? Do we gain flavour by having a massive skill list?  What are your thoughts?

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13 Responses to “Skills and their use”

  1. There is no much that I like about Whitewolfs World of Darkness, but I like the way you combine skills with an atribute compared to the task at hand.

    So in a simple system, I would probably Have
    Communication
    Physical
    Reaction

    And lets take the standard 6 D&D stats.
    Physical examples:
    then to sneak you would use a Dex based physical test. For jumping a Str based physical, for a marathon a con based. For driving a car an int based physical.
    Communication again could be: for intimidating use str, for diplomacy use charisma, for giving a lecture con
    Reaction I would use for: combined with wis for spotting stuff, combined with int for recalling facts (knowledge), with dex for fancy football manouvers.

    And then every time you think of a new test you want to be rolled, you combine one of the three with a stat.

    Of course the danger with very little variety of skills, you end up with completely identical characters, you end up either as superman or cornerstore clerk, and you have a very hard time making a balanced system of how to acquire skills 🙂

    So I think my conclusion must be: No we dont really need many skills to actually roleplay, but for the management and character building process they are needed.

  2. I like rules to be streamlined and elegant, and the trend in modern RPGs has tended to follow this path. So I naturally go for fewer skills rather than more; I prefer D&D 4.0 skills to 3.5, and don’t think much of the Dark Heresy/ DeathWatch “everything and the kitchen sink” approach. I feel the more skills you have the more overlap you have. Also some are much more useful than others (“Stealth” vs Knowledge (Flyfishing)), and frankly it all gets a bit fiddly and mechanical.

    And yet those very granular skill lists can be useful. In a modern setting what other way do I have to check whether my character knows enough computing to decrypt an intercepted email? Or install a keystroke logger on an enemy’s computer? Or hack NASA? A simple roll against Intelligence doesn’t really fit.

    I’d almost go as far as to say, ditch skills entirely. Go for a system where if it’s not in your back-story you don’t have it. Almost, but not quite.

    I think the system that has best balance between simplicity and versatility for me is Icons, that little light Superhero RPG I ran a while back. There you have a very short list of skills, which you can take in place of powers, and if the skill you want isn’t on the list, you just add it. That way you only have a few skills each, and they matter to your character, and need to be part of their origin. I really like that trade-off; you have less fire-power but you’re more skilled.

    Why do you ask, Jules?

  3. I’m cookin’ some homebrew based on the biblical-style Runequest I ran last year which we can hopefully do again when I’m finished. I’m trying to think in a fresh way about every element of the game. I’ve really enjoyed the simpler systems (4e included) but feel a romantic whistfulness for a thousand and one skills.

    Personally I like dice-rolling that accompanies the roleplaying. In an interrogation say, we can act out the good cop/bad cop thing (doesn’t it normally end with someone eviscerating a goblin?) but rolling against the skills IS fun. And for this it’s good to have a persuasive skill, an intimidating skill, a bluffing skill and so on. Hence my question, what’s the maximum number of “specialisms” a character needs to allow this game dynamic to work without it being fiddly?

  4. Russell Bannister Says:

    I think more important than the skill system is how they are used. The GM should only call for a roll if both success and failure are entertaining and move the story forward. I have played in lots of games where failure in a skill check stops the story dead. My favourite example is from CoC
    “GM: Make a spot hidden roll
    Me: Failed
    GM: OK, make an idea roll
    Me: Failed
    GM: Well make a Luck roll then
    Me: Failed
    GM: You find this letter anyway.”
    There is a good write up of this in DMG2.
    In a Warhammer Fantasy RP game we spent three sessions wandering about the city of Altdorf failing every roll to find a clue about what was going on. This possibly could have been entertaining with a bit of effort from the GM but he, for some reason, blamed the players for spoiling the game by not rolling better and inflicted increasing lethal combat encounters on us to make the point that we weren’t succeeding.

    On the other hand I personally don’t like freeform role-playing as a way to decide the outcome of an encounter. In CoC most of the game requires questioning people to gain clues. Most role-players are intelligent enough to string together a reasonable argument so these interviews are either just for colour if there is no chance of failure (which feels a bit like a laboratory rat pushing a feeder bar to get a food pellet) or purely arbitrary if the GM assigns success or failure based on whether the argument would convince them personally. I prefer to make the player roll on their persuade skill (or whatever) rather than just arbitrate depending on whether or not I had a bad day.

    In answer to the original question I prefer short skill lists and simple systems. The players should be able to use the skill system to describe what they would like their character to be good at. This is why I love the HeroQuest system where you invent your own skills (in a similar way to Icons). The GM should then prepare adventures so that the characters have an opportunity do cool stuff by using these skills. In Carl’s example about decrypting an e-mail I would ask why the characters are trying to do this. If no-one has any computing skills why is it necessary? Either this should be a chance for the person playing the techie character to shine or an opportunity for the character with Streetwise to introduce an interesting NPC. Otherwise don’t make the e-mail encrypted or leave it out completely.

    I apologise if this is incoherent. It was much clearer in my head than when I wrote it down!

  5. Very coherrent and very good. I think it asumes that the GM writes his own campaigns though.

    Socially (this is not a problem with this group, but has been in others Ive played) there is also the security of a dicerole for people who are shy or not very eloquent to actually play characters that are opposite themselves. That is some peoples motivation for playing RPGs, mine included, to be able to escape reality for a moment, and pop into the head of someone with a completely different attitude to myself.

    About how many skills and skill accessability for the classes: I think 3.5 had it down pretty perfect for a fantasy setting. There were enough skills so that you could not possibly get everything you wanted, unless you really focused on it, so you had to pick and choose and find what best suited the character. Per the rules I did miss a little bit of flexibility though, to be able as a GM to say “roll a str based crafting check” or similar, but that was easyli overruled/fixed.

    Im sorry if IM not coherent…my head is clogging up as I type :p

  6. I think the real question here is… what’s the homebrew juice you’re brewing, Jules?

  7. Ah, the tasting will have to wait a little yet.

    Russell’s post expresses my own views really. Ultimately I like to dice to decide whether there is success or failure (thereby giving me the illusion of control of my own destiny). The roleplaying gives the dice-rolling context but I still think RPGs are games of skill and chance.

    Re: the HeroQuest system (which I have read but not played) I think the Create-Your-Own concept is really interesting but wonder whether in practice the variety of esoteric skills cooked up by players morph into approximations of “standard” skills over the course of a game. EG;, the GM calls for the party to negotiate with the Badass Tribal Clan Chief whom they have offended. The player might look at his character’s skills and say “Can Thogbad attempt use his ‘Flawless Recitation of Ribald Folk Poetry’ to impress the Chief?” If the GM agrees then really the player and the GM are doing a simple Persuade/Oratory test. Perhaps the hand-picked skills add flavour and would be entertaining to role-play but if I’d picked just martial skills would my character be unable to even attempt to talk his way out?

    As I say, I’ve never played the system so not sure how it works in practice.

    For interest (or possibly not) the skill list I’m working on is:
    Athletics (all physical tests)
    Decieve (lying, disguise etc)
    Drive (chariots, bullock cart)
    Fight (all weapon skills)
    First Aid
    Influence (persuasion through argument and charm)
    Intimidate (persuasion through threat)
    Lore ( separate ones for languages, crafting, inner secrets etc)
    Manipulate (lock picking, trap setting etc)
    Nature (basic knowledge about plants, animals and the world)
    Perception
    Perform (singing, playing an instrument etc)
    Ride
    Sail (using boats)
    Shoot (all missile weapons)
    Stealth
    Streetwise
    Survival (Being Ray Mears)
    Track (Being Sacagewea)
    Trade (Bargain, evaluating worth)

    I reckon all characters with even basic natural ability in these skills should have a *chance* of coping in any given situation. I don’t think I need any more but with the possible exception of merging Nature and Survival I reckon I can’t slim the list down any more.

  8. Really nice list of skills, very much 3.5 ish!

    Few suggestions for slimming (discard at will! :p):
    Let First Aid be a part of Manipulate as it has to do with manual dexterity
    Nature a sub section of Lore, as it is a knowledge
    Sail a part of drive, could rename skill to operate vehicle
    Track a part of Survival for Natural invironments
    Track a part of Streetwise for Urban situations

    I dont know the system you are planning and what dice to use, but you could give a -2/-10%/-1 die or similar for all untrained attempts, but let everyone try at least to use the skill. That way the Terminator COULD win an election if he rolled very lucky.

  9. Nice suggestions. The system is d100 and everyone will have some basic competence in all these skills as the starting percentage is derived from one or two Attributes (STR + DEX or DEX + INT etc)

    I really like the Track idea and will adopt forthwith. However, I’m not persauded that First Aid and Lock Picking are so analagous that they could be handled by one overarching skill. Perhaps First Aid could be part of Survival or a Lore skill?

    Despite it making the shortlist, I’m not convinced a Nature skill is actually necessary and perhaps it creates situations where a GM calls for a dice roll where one is not needed.

    GM: You are being charged by a bear, make a Nature roll to see if your character knows it is dangerous or not…

    I’ve derived Sail and Drive from the same Attributes (STR+INT) so they could be combined into one skill but in the game setting (Fantasy/Hittite/Assyria/Egypt) I wouldn’t allow the champion charioteer to jump into a boat and operate it with the same skill he does his team of horses.

  10. I completely agree on all points.

    And yes First Aid is a tough one. I think the dislike that I have is that all of the other skills are things that it takes years of practice to learn and master. Where as first aid can be picked up in a couple of hours if you have your wits about you. Maybe it just need a renaming/branding to something more serious such as Medical treatment or Surgery?

  11. Russell Bannister Says:

    Jules, the benefit of the Heroquest “invent your own skill” approach is that your character can do everything their background suggests they should be able to. If you take “Tribal Warrior” then you get all the things that that person could do, Tracking, Wilderness Survival, Spear fighting etc…
    You don’t end up with a situation where your Tribal Warrior starves to death in the wild because you forgot to put points in Wilderness Survival or Fire Building (or more likely didn’t have enough build points to take them).

    Also they are a signpost to the GM what the players want to have happen to their character. You get this from other systems from the skills the player chooses to some extent, but it is much clearer when they choose the wording. If someone takes “Good with the ladies” they want a different type of persuade conflict to someone with “Master at Haggling”.

    In your example Flawless Recitation of Ribald Folk Poetry could be used in a few circumstances as persuade, but in others as Local History or in different ones as Etiquette. The main point is that player has flagged that they want the character to be good at folk poetry. A different character with “Oily Charm” skill also has persuade skill but in a different set of circumstances.

    As to unskilled use, I don’t know what the second edition of Heroquest rules say, but in the first edition unskilled rolls were against a difficulty of 6 (1-6 on d20 being a success). Therefore in your example the character with all combat skills WOULD have a small chance of persuading the chief.

  12. We should give Heroquest a go by the sounds of it.

    Getting back to the mechanics of my original question I think the list can be trimmed but I need to keep some variety and differentiation. The key point from this thread are however about the use of the skill tests in the game and how they links to the story.

    I hope you chaps will be willing to play when the game is ready.

  13. Yes, I’d be happy to give it a go.

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