This is going to look like another Gripe About GURPS, but the fact is that I’ve been thinking (for the millionth time) of writing a new edition of Dragon Warriors, and so I’ve been taking a look at what I’ve liked and disliked about various roleplaying systems over the last forty years.
Early on we hardly had skills. Lots of people started out dungeon bashing, a form of tabletop skirmish wargame on rails. So, apart from hiding in shadows, opening chests and hitting things, they didn’t think about skills much. The more roleplaying broke out of the dungeon and became about the whole scope of a fantasy life, the greater the demand for rules that covered all the things a character might do.
My 1979 edition of Runequest lists about twenty skills. That felt like a great liberating leap forward. My 2010 edition of GURPS has more than twenty skills that begin with the letter A alone. There's maybe two hundred and fifty skills in all. And that doesn’t feel liberating, it feels like being tied in knots.
‘In the back room there’s a guy who’s tied up. “Thank God you came! They kidnapped me.”’OK, Knot Tying defaults to Dexterity -4, so the player could still try to make the roll. But in practice DX-4 pretty much scotches it. With DX of 12, that nice idea gets squashed down to a 26% chance.
‘I free him. But as I do I’m taking a look at those ropes. Is it possible he could have tied himself up?’
‘Suspicious, huh? Have you got Knots skill?’
‘Too bad. Nice idea, though.’
Obviously a good GM is going to find a workaround, maybe make it an IQ roll with a bonus if the character had had Knot Tying. But now we’re falling back on off-the-cuff rules, often a sign that the system isn’t fit for purpose.
In a much simpler system, with no rules for knots or ropes, you might just ask for an IQ roll. Some early RPGs didn’t drill down to the level of skills, but they did allow for character background, so you’d often hear an exchange like this:
‘…I free him. As I do I’m taking a look at those ropes. Is it possible he could have tied himself up?’That’s also making a ruling on the fly, but the difference in the second example is that the rulebook was probably 50 pages rather than 500. In a very granular system like GURPS 4e, skills are differentiated down to the level of Shadowing (following a person in a crowd, which could just as easily have been dealt with using Stealth and Observation rather than inventing a new skill) or Forced Entry (kicking a door in – yep, there really is a skill for that and it has no default).
‘That’s going to be an IQ roll.’
‘I’m a sailor, too, so I’m familiar with knots.’
‘OK, I’ll give you a +1.’
The problem with all these skills is that PCs are unlikely to have most of them (Knot Tying, for instance), which will often block a course of action that would keep the game moving and be fun. Often they overlap, and inconsistently to boot, so the game degenerates into sophistry as players argue the case for why their obscure skill has a bearing on this situation. And of course, when you do decide to take a character with Forced Entry, the entire world starts looking like it’s made up of doors to kick in. These are all factors that straitjacket the kind of fluid improvisation that powers the best game sessions.
Instead of all that, you could design a system that lets players unpack the level of detail they want. So say I have Melee skill of 10. I can just roll that in any fight, whatever weapon I’m using. But if I prefer there's an option to specialize in one weapon – sabre, say. So now I get a +2 in my specialized weapon but -1 in everything else. Meleeing with a sabre, I now use a skill of 12, but with a club or spear I’m at 9.
And I can unpack further. Specialising in parry, I can now parry with a sabre at 14, but if I attack or dodge I’m at 11 – and at 8 with other weapons.
That’s not necessarily the way I’ll go with Dragon Warriors 2e. I’d like something that moves away from the kind of abstract number-crunching that accompanies character creation in something like GURPS and is instead based around the character’s life up to the time the game starts. Traveller began that trend back in the dawn of roleplaying, I used it in Tirikelu, and it’s in games like Warhammer too. The advantage is that you end up with a character with a history, a context in which his or her skills make sense, rather than just the best numbers you could wrangle using Excel.