Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Skills in a class-based game...thoughts?

The traditional complaint about the thief class in earlier versions of D&D is that it adds a new class of abilities, skills, to the game. As D&D went through more editions, proficiencies were added, which are skills but they are not percentage-based like thief skills are. People have proposed alternative "skills" for thieves, but from my perspective simply changing the dice used, to say 1-2 on 1d6, is simply a different way of presenting a probability, not really a different fundamental solution.

I never liked the way skills were handled in AD&D 2e, or 1e for that matter. They took a different path with the Palladium system and fully embraced percentage-based skills and integrated them into classes. The Chaosium system, which shares a definite heritage in OD&D, integrates percentage skills but does away with classes altogether, defining what a character is by his/her collection of skills.

The only point to this is that I'm curious to get peoples' different perspectives about these ideas.

Discuss!

26 comments:

Matthew James Stanham said...

Non-weapon proficiencies are not really skills, but abilities added onto a character. In that regard they are also a bit conflicted, because they very often seem like what we would consider skills.

The problem with the thief class, from my point of view, is when you start treating thief abilities as mundane skills. At that point it only makes sense to roll them into a more generalised skill system.

Badelaire said...

Take a look at Rolemaster. You have races and you have classes and you have levels and you have experience points. You also have skills for pretty much everything you do, from weapons to magic to "maneuvers" (stealth, swimming, etc.) and professions/knowledges. Even hit points are handled this way (via the Body Development skill), but HPs work differently in Rolemaster than in D&D, so don't consider that a direct comparison.

The way it is handled is that every time a PC gains enough experience to level, they gain a pool of Development Points with which to raise their skills. Each skill has a cost in relation to the characters class; combat skills are cheaper for fighter types, spells cheapter for mages, etc.. Skills can receive multiple "bumps" per level, but the more bumps you give, the more expensive it gets, and some skills can be bumped up fewer times per level (or only once).

Also, you have categories of skills as well as specific skills, and you can raise both the category as well as the specific skill. So if I'm a fighter, I can raise my "one-handed edged" skill category as well as my "broadsword" skill. In this way, you can build your character to be a more generalist, but weaker, fighter, or a more specialized, but stronger, fighter.

I played RM for about three years back around the end of my college days very extensively, and with the right group of involved players and the right GM, it does work very well. For those players who like to have a lot of granularity and control over their character's abilities, I think the way RM handles levels and skills is a very good blend between more traditional D&D-like class/level systems, and point/skill systems like BRP or GURPS. People tend to malign it with terms like "ChartMaster", and for the untutored it could be a daunting system to learn, but once you did learn it, you got a lot out of it.

The Devil's Janitor said...

I'm willing to give a pass to the Thief, just because over the years that's what I've always done. I'm not looking to change that up.

Personally, I've never had a problem with Secondary Skills. I've always found they add a fun element to a character, & I've never had a player abuse them - probably because they are so abstract in the first place.

In my opinion, a class-based game with skills becomes over-complicated, & detracts from the archetype being presented for play in the first place. Once again, the Thief gets a pass in my book, just because I'm not sure how to rectify them (other than dumping them completely - which I won't do).

Talysman said...

I find most skills systems weird. An old-fashioned hero, though gifted in one or two areas, can attempt must about everything, but most modern RPGs interpret skills as restrictions on what you can do. That's antithetical to sword & sorcery, pulp, or superhero genres, yet just about every post-'80s RPG in those genres has such a skill system.

I prefer very broad skill descriptions (backgrounds and professions) that indicate only an above-average ability, while still allowing characters to attempt most things. The thief class, as written, doesn't really fit. Heck, even weapon proficiencies don't really fit: too narrow, and fighters lose an important advantage.

Badelaire said...

Well, it depends entirely on how much power over one's character you want to give the concept of the Archetype. Rolemaster has fighters, but it has several different types of fighter, and you can specialize in being an archer, or a broadsword and shield fighter, or a duelist, or an expert in mounted combat, etc..

In D&D, a 3rd level fighter with St 12 Dx 12 who picks up a Broadsword is exactly as good with that broadsword as he is with using an atl-atl or a staff-sling or a bardiche or a stiletto. That works for D&D because in D&D, the archetype is pretty much the end-all, be-all of the character; ability scores have, at best, a mediocre influence on how good you are at a particular task (and some tasks are almost entirely unaffected by ability scores).

Rolemaster takes some of the power of the archetype and gives it back to the player. Complicated? Not so much complicated as it is...in depth. Once you understand the basics of how the skill system works, it's actually pretty easy to roll with it. I'd actually say it's easier to come at it from a skills-based direction and learn how Class and Level affect the skills than come at it from a D&D perspective and have to learn how to develop your skills.

James said...

It's something I've been thinking about, off and on, for months. Keeping the ability of any character to try anything, is essential, to my mind. I'm playtesting my own "Critical OO Task Resolution System," which can be downloaded from the second section at the top right of my blog. It's not too much more involved than the old roll a d6 method and allows for characters to get better at tasks, through successful performance.

Norman Harman said...

Skills junk up the game. They make character creation advancement take too long, promote dice roll fests over thinking and lead to the dark side of "everything is a rule/can't do anything unless you have the splat book for it"

I (sort of) like Castles & Crusades SIEGE system. In which all skills/saves/feats/whatever are "ability" checks d20 + lvl + bonus > target number. Characters get to pick a couple stats as "prime" which provide a large bonus.

"Games with Pornstars" skill system is if you have skill 'X' then you get to reroll (once) failed attempts at 'X'.

That also sounds very groovy without dictating how one rolls for success. never tried it out though.

Badelaire said...

"I find most skills systems weird. An old-fashioned hero, though gifted in one or two areas, can attempt must about everything, but most modern RPGs interpret skills as restrictions on what you can do."

I don't agree with this.

First, show me a fighter in D&D who can "attempt" a mage or cleric spell. Or turning undead. Or picking locks. Sans house ruling, of course, or the ubiquitous "Roll a die and get a '20'".

I actually think most good skill systems actually empower a PC by clearly stating what their chances of doing something are, and usually, Rules As Written, tell you what your chances are. For example, in RM, you typically needed to exceed 100 in a roll to get a decent success (d100 + Skill Bonus vs. 100). However, even if you are completely unskilled in something, as long as it was not a restricted skill (such as casting a spell), if you rolled a 96-100, you counted that result and rolled again, adding that onto your first roll. Thus ensuring that every character has at least some small chance of success.

How is that restrictive? How is that antithetical to "pulp" or S&S gaming? Unless you just want your PC to Mary Sue at everything they attempt, there has to be some restrictions in place, or what's the point?

Sure, you can represent the old conundrum of Conan (the awesome fighter who is also sneaky and also picks pockets and also knows a dozen languages and also...and also...) in D&D by just handwaving a bunch of crap, or you could just give him the appropriate skills at the appropriate levels in RM, and while he'd be a fairly high level character, he'd probably fit his literary self a lot more smoothly.

I guess what it all comes down to is one person's "restriction" is another person's "clarification".

Badelaire said...

"Skills junk up the game. They make character creation advancement take too long, promote dice roll fests over thinking and lead to the dark side of "everything is a rule/can't do anything unless you have the splat book for it""

Not having skills junks up the game. It makes character creation a pointless exercise because all the numbers mean nothing if the GM decides you can't do X, Y, or Z, character advancement just means you "get better at everything the GM decides you're good at", and promotes players being weasel-like jerks who try to twist and distort every vaguely-written broad-brushstrokes rule to suit them when they want it to and not apply to them when they don't. It leads to having to re-invent the wheel every time a situation arises where the pitifully spotty rules don't discuss something and leads to the dark side of "if the GM is cranky today don't expect to convince him your fighter can sneak past the guards just because you tell him you're being 'extra-special' quiet."

Badelaire said...

And for the record, I like D&D just fine. I play/have played it plenty (although my "D&D" these days tends to be "C&C").

But, I also have no problem whatsoever with skill-based systems, and I think most people who dislike them think there's some secret rule hidden away in there somewhere that says "If the character doesn't have skill X, they CANNOT EVER TRY SKILL X". In every major skill based system I own - World of Darkness, GURPS, BRP, RM, Savage Worlds, and many others - there is a clear mechanic for handling "unskilled" skill attempts. Some of these systems might not give you much of a chance, but there is still a chance.

What I think a lot of people are actually confusing is things like "Feats" and how they restrict some abilities that probably should be actionable by anyone, or at least, people of a certain class.

Again, all in the eye of the beholder. I actually find a well-written and comprehensive skill-based system quite freeing because I don't have to endlessly wonder how Action X is going to be handled this time, in this campaign, under this GM.

Dan of Earth said...

@Matthew: Yeah, I mostly agree that in 2e proficiencies perform sort of like additional abilities but it's a fine line. I'm not sure how well the distinction holds up, especially where a proficiency overlaps a class ability, like tracking.

Bard said...

I think that a true skilless system is when the characters actually don't know nothing besides fighting and casting and detecting traps and secret doors... I never played in such a game, I need to find some players...

I'm running a close to btb ad&d game now, and my players want skills, I mean not a skill system, but different things that their characters know, proficient at etc. depending on their off adventuring activities, and backgrounds. Its the most easy for me to wing it, and resolve the situations differently each time they want to use a skill... But it's still a skill system, and I feel that nothing would change if I would adopt a skill system, either the siege engine, or something other.

The real game without skills, when the players don't use these things. They don't know these things. They are uneducated bounty hunters...

JDJarvis said...

In a class based game skills shouldn't replace class abilities and shouldn't trump levels. They probably shouldn't do much to impact the relevance of ability scores either.

I think It'd be best to rate them fairly simply, avoiding mechanics as much as possible. Noting skill disadvantages might be a good idea as well.

Furd the Fearsome (Fighter-4)
STR- 17 INT- 10 WIs- 13 DEX- 14 CON-18 CHA-14

skills- Good swimmer, talented equestrian, able woodsman and bad dancer.

the guy above is clearly an outdoorsman. He should have no issue swimming across a meandering river (and since he's a fighter he should be able to deal with a crocodile along the way), he might have a chance in a horse-race (likely more capable of a wide open outdoor race as opposed to a fixed and groomed course), he can identify the calls of local animals and track in the woods but would have limited ability in a desert. Should he somehow be in fancy ball if he gets dragged out on the dance floor he'll just not be very good at dancing but his DEX and CHA should still have him be able to avoid stomping on too many toes and getting people to brush it off when it does happen.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Yeah, I mostly agree that in 2e proficiencies perform sort of like additional abilities but it's a fine line. I'm not sure how well the distinction holds up, especially where a proficiency overlaps a class ability, like tracking.

Not very well, is the answer. When class abilities are thought of as mundane (as in the case of tracking) then the proficiency looks a lot like a skill. If anybody can follow tracks without the proficiency, but rangers can perform extraordinary feats of tracking then the problem fades away somewhat.

The problem with 2e is that it had a bit of an identity crisis in that regard. They planned to roll thief abilities into the proficiency system, abandoned the idea, then rolled a ranger ability into the system. Why? What was the difference? Hard to say at this distance, I think, but possibly it was this conflation of "ability" with "skill".

When all is said and done there is a lot of crossover between abilities, proficiencies and skills. In a class based game that does not use a skill system, the division needs to be clearer, so that nobody thinks that only thieves can "sneak" or whatever.

Norman Harman said...

@Bard > I think that a true skilless system is when the characters actually don't know nothing besides fighting and casting and detecting traps and secret doors.

Yeah, it's not for every campaign style but in my current one characters are layabouts, screw ups, thugs, failures and other 'riff raft' that has failed to fit in or make it in civilization.

If characters had skills they'd be blacksmiths, scribes, scouts, husbanders?, etc instead of risking their lives in the wilderness and slinking around dungeons murdering and stealing.


@Badelaire
You have an extremely skewed view of how skilless games are played.

Badelaire said...

@Norman:

Ah, no. I think skill-less systems are just fine. It is your argument that I think is crap, and I was turning your argument around and making the same points you were making in the other direction, as I see you having an extremely skewed view of how skill-based games are played.

So if you want to point at a game with skills and talk about how they "junk it up", I'll point right back at skill-less games and talk about how they typically turn games into a confusing pile of dung.

When you can provide some more substantive, objective arguments for how you see skill-based games hindering gameplay (other than senseless blather like "promotes roll-playing"), I'll be listening.

1d30 said...

I think mixing classes and skills is a bad idea. Unless a "skill" is a package of skills that modifies your character like a clear projector overlay (this I would call a "kit" from 2E D&D).

Feats have the same problems, each feat being a small modifier to an existing task or a new option (examples would be Weapon Focus giving a bonus to hit, and Whirlwind Attack giving a different attack type, respectively).

What I'm saying is you should be able to describe any character through a free multiclassing scheme, or by only using skills, or by application of multiple "kit" overlays.

Let's take a pretty complete Ranger character type:

Two-Weapon Fighting
Limited Druid spells gained late
Very limited M-U spells gained late
Tracking
Animal Handling / Training
Animal Companion
Outdoor Survival
Limited armor use
Stealth

You could create the Ranger in 3E simply by taking levels in Fighter and Rogue, adding one or two of Cleric and Wizard later, and picking up a feat or two for the outdoorsy stuff. Or if you wanted a profusion of classes, create a custom Ranger class that does all that you want. But you don't need all those classes / prestige classes.

You could create that Ranger using kits, too. You'd start with a kit for wilderness stuff, another for limited spellcasting, and another for stealth and another for swashbuckling. Your main character level determines what you get out of each kit.

You could create that Ranger using skills just by choosing them from a big list. They can each improve independently, so your Ranger would focus more on fighting and stealth, less on magic.

But you want your game system to be as slim as possible without sacrificing interesting choices. You absolutely do not want a system that includes Classes, Feats, Skills, Kits, etc. if you can do what you need to with any of the four.

Badelaire said...

"But you want your game system to be as slim as possible without sacrificing interesting choices. You absolutely do not want a system that includes Classes, Feats, Skills, Kits, etc. if you can do what you need to with any of the four."

Keep in mind that in Rolemaster, which I think is the best example of a class/level/skill combo system, class just determined skill costs, and levels were just a convenient benchmark for when you could buy your skills, rather than being purchased on a rolling "spend 'em if you got 'em" schedule.

Once you get away from "D&D" versions of class and level, things open up a little more in terms of flexibility. This is why I like terms like "archetype" rather than class, since it doesn't carry the D&D baggage that "class" brings along.

Robert Fisher said...

I’m pretty happy without skills in my D&D. Classes are essentially broad skills. 1e secondary skills (though I used to think they were worthless) I like too. But I’m not completely against them either.

I really like rogueattorney’s categories from this DF thread. I think these are helpful when considering adding skills to D&D.

The Trolls had a PDF with Gygax’s idea of adding LA style “skill bundles” to C&C, which is adaptable to D&D and clones. I can’t seem to find the link at the moment.

Of course, my own stance on thief skills, I think, mostly side-steps the “How do thief skills and general skills work together?”

My biggest problem with skill systems is that I end up feeling like the characters fail much more often than they should. So, I am usually looking for ways to compensate for that. Using multi-dice rolls. Setting low difficulties. MSH-style “burning Karma”. Making the roll determine whether it’s a good or bad success rather than if it is a failure or success. Etc.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Hey, you got your chocolate skills in my class-based peanut butter!

Skills in a skills-based game seems alright to me.

The same with class abilities in a class-based game.

Not a big fan of the "customize your class-based character using a skill-system" paradigm though. Hey, that's just me...

Zorblek said...

I think a good skill system needs to balance a couple of different factors. Ideally, it will help answer the question, "What are the odds of so-and-so doing such-and-such?" But on the other hand, it shouldn't restrict the players' creativity, or encourage them to lapse into "roll-playing".

In this respect, I haven't been fully satisfied with the skill system(s) in any version of D&D. They tend to veer too far in one direction or the other for my tastes, although I've mostly been okay with using them.

I also think that player/DM experience (especially DM experience) is a major factor in what kind of skill systems are appropriate. Obviously this varies by individual, but it's been my experience that newer players need systems that do more hand-holding (a la 3e and 4e) and veteran players and DMs are more comfortable with improvisation, and do better with more flexible systems that provide less guidance (a la OD&D and AD&D).

This has certainly been true of me. I first started playing in the era of 2e, and had no more-experienced players for guidance. I and my friends were definitely under the impression that characters couldn't do anything that there weren't specific rules for - so nobody but thieves could climb walls or hide, for example. When 3e came out, we thought that its skill system was a great advance in that regard. While I'm still fond of how 3e handles things mechanically (it's the system I've played with the most, so I'm the most comfortable with it), I now see its flaws, and how it encourages some players to simply roll for everything and not solve problems creatively.

(Comment got too long, so I'll continue it in the next...)

Zorblek said...

Ironically, I think 4e almost got things right but screwed up in the end. They reduced the number of skills and made each one more broad (which I like, as it reduces the number of statistics you have to keep track of), and they also simplified the application of most of them. They also - and this is what I liked the best - introduced the skill challenge system. I think that, when used well, skill challenges are a great way of encouraging roleplaying and out-of-the-box thinking while still giving players a concrete system to work with. However, they screwed things up in a few ways. First, they did an absolutely terrible job of presenting the skill challenge system. Not only did they explain it poorly and provide too few examples, they also got the numerical parts of the system wrong, and it had to be fixed with extensive errata. Second, the design of the skill system is almost completely at odds with the design of the combat system. Rather than being flexible, the combat system is designed exclusively around "powers" that are very specific and constrained in their effects. Moreover, pretty much every cool thing you could think of to do in combat is covered by some power, and most of them aren't available to your character. So if you come up with something cool and creative for your character to do in combat, there's no good way to justify it in the system without stepping on someone else's toes. Also, the powers encourage players to think about what their characters can do only in terms of those few abilities. If there's not something on their character sheet that is relevant to a specific situation, they often feel stymied.

I wish 4e had done a better job of developing the skill challenge mechanic, and made it more integral to the overall design of the game. Instead of a bunch of individual specific powers, I would have liked to see a more free form system where different classes were empowered to use their skills in unique ways, and there was more guidance on using different skills in combination, with "powers" reserved for the classes that traditionally had spells and the like. Maybe something a little more like the systems found in the various Storyteller games, but simplified and altered mechanically to make it fit in D&D.

At the moment, I'm gravitating more towards older, more rules-light versions of D&D. (I'm gearing up for a Labyrinth Lord campaign.) I think I and my players are getting to the point where elaborate mechanics get in the way more than they help. But it's taken me years to get to this point, and I wish there were a version of D&D that I felt like I could confidently point a complete newbie to with confidence that the system would meet their needs.

Robert Fisher said...

Zorblek: “it's been my experience that newer players need systems that do more hand-holding (a la 3e and 4e) and veteran players and DMs are more comfortable with improvisation, and do better with more flexible systems that provide less guidance (a la OD&D and AD&D).

My experience is that newer players easily get overwhelmed by 3e but do fine with classic D&D.

The DM picture I don’t think is so clear. My friends and I certainly did fine starting with classic D&D, but—based on my understanding of the game today—I think it could have definitely explained some things to us better.

With 3e, I’ve found it depends upon the DM. Detail-oriented novice DMs actually seem to do pretty well with 3e, but big-picture novice DMs get overwhelmed just like novice players.

For veteran DMs, system is less of an issue. (Especially since they’ll already know what works best for them.)

This has certainly been true of me. I first started playing in the era of 2e, and had no more-experienced players for guidance. I and my friends were definitely under the impression that characters couldn't do anything that there weren't specific rules for - so nobody but thieves could climb walls or hide, for example

I don’t think you can blame that misunderstanding on 2e. As I recall, the 2e PHB had pretty clear rules about non-thieves climbing and hiding. ^_^

But it's taken me years to get to this point

The funny thing to me is how much the way I play the game now resembles how I first played it. What I’ve come to decide is that the system that inspired LL was fine for newbies, but it could’ve used some design notes to help us understand things better.

Jerry said...

I have two ideas for skill systems. One is that, in an old-school game people are like old-school sci-fi characters, or Dumasian protagonists. They just plain know lots of stuff. No skill system required: if a "skill" roll is required, make an ability roll. Skills are innate anyway. A scientist is a scientist because they're intelligent, not because they studied science, and d'Artagnan is a fast-talker because he has Charisma, not because he's tried to learn the skill. It's all innate.

If what I'm currently using doesn't work out, that's the skill system I'm going to use: none.

But what I'm currently using in our class-based game (Gods & Monsters) is that skills are in fields that are like mini-classes. So a character might have the Field "Languages" at +3. Within that field, they have skills like "Dragon", or "Frankish"". Their bonus when using those skills is +3; it's the field bonus. When they improve their ability at languages, they improve their ability at all languages.

Because in the kind of fiction I'm using the game for, people are really good at languages; or they're really good at natural science; or they're really good at war. When a "scientist" at +2 gains the skill "botanist" they are not a beginning botanist; they're a +2 scientist who now knows botany just as well as they know any other scientific skill.

It's freeform, lets players give their characters special skills, but keeps skills from being limiting.

1d30 said...

And that fixes one complaint that people have with skills-based games: if you don't have the skill you often fail in it.

The assumption there is that everyone sucks unless a skill is noted.

But if you assume that characters are all pretty capable but they excel where skills are noted, it solves the problem. Anyone can start a fire without Fire-Building. But if you want to do it in the rain you have to have the skill.

Anyway, on the original topic, all this stuff is actually the same. A class or archetype is just a bundle of skills, a kit is a bundle of skills, a feat is a specific powerful skill. A skill is a specific and improvable ability score / statistic.

What matters is how to display and organize these numbers. You don't want too many choices, or too few. You don't want three or four different layers.

Player's Option was possibly the worst in regard to simplicity. It had Races, Racial Abilities you select, Classes, Class Abilities you select, Kits, Nonweapon Proficiencies, Weapon Proficiencies / Mastery / Weapon of Choice, Edges and Flaws, and of course the D&D magic system.

Just too complex. Expecially since you can do the whole thing with just Proficiencies.

Giga boy said...

I've settled on secondary skills a la AD&D 1st edition.
They work by pure DM handwavium, or ability checks I chose on the fly.
No granular skill system for me, thanks.