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Friday, 1 March 2019

How a surfeit of skills in an RPG stifles interesting stories

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.

Having too many skills limits the narratives that will emerge, because not having a specific skill tends to block potentially interesting developments.
‘In the back room there’s a guy who’s tied up. “Thank God you came! They kidnapped me.”’
‘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?’
‘Er… no.’
‘Too bad. Nice idea, though.’
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.

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 going to be an IQ roll.’
‘I’m a sailor, too, so I’m familiar with knots.’
‘OK, I’ll give you a +1.’
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).

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.


  1. "based around the character’s life up to the time the game starts. . . you end up with a character with a history, a context in which his or her skills make sense,"

    That sounds a lot like Barbarians of Lemuria and its derivatives. Skills are abstractly determined by a character's past Career history, with greater experience being represented by a higher rating in that Career. A starting character has 4 points to distribute between 4 different Careers (a score of 0 is allowed, otherwise there wouldn't be much variation). So even a starting character already has an interesting back-story.

    Characters also have 4 Attributes (Strength, Agility, Mind, Appeal). For difficult actions "task rolls" are made on 2d6 + relevant attribute + relevant career + difficulty modifiers. (Score 9+ to succeed.)

    If you can plausibly argue that one of your careers confers skills relevant to the action you can add your score in that career. If you have no relevant Career experience at all you may take a penalty or, occasionally, be prohibited from making the attempt. For that reason even a score of 0 can be useful (representing only a little experience, or even just an innate talent for whatever it is).

    It may be worth noting that a lot of the time success can be assumed:

    "The mundane actions that your character performs will automatically succeed – buying food, walking down the street, talking to the city guard and so on. Even trickier actions can be carried out without a task roll if your Hero has the appropriate career (even a career rank of 0 will help here) - if you are a merchant, then buying uncommon items isn’t too difficult. Most characters should be able to obtain a few coins to buy a plate of food by recourse to their careers; a thief can pick a few pockets in the marketplace, a minstrel can play a rousing tune in a tavern, a blacksmith can mend a few farming implements etc.

    "It is only when the action can have some sort of repercussions that you should normally resort to the task roll." (One example it gives is the minstrel performing before the king: you really don't want that to go wrong!)

    There is still some number-crunching in there, but it's a lot less than in games with an extensive skill list.

    1. That sounds nice and simple, and with some similarities to what I'm planning for Dragon Warriors 2e. I'll take a look -- thanks, Andy.

    2. You're more than welcome. I've had great fun playing Dragon Warriors since I first stumbled across it in W H Smith back in the 1980s, so I should be thanking you!

      I know you've said in the past that an extensive skill list can easily end up defining what a character *can't* do, rather than what they can. Having played FASA's Star Trek and 2nd & 3rd edition Shadowrun I know what you mean.

      A couple of years ago I ran a Dragon Warriors campaign and some of the players, being used to D&D 3.5 found the absence of a skill list rather disconcerting: the idea that you can *try* pretty much anything without the skill list telling you that you can't (or, at least, shouldn't: if every tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.)

      Of course, a character's Profession defines what they can reasonably be expected to know and be proficient at to some extent, but I've always liked the idea that anyone *try* wearing any type of armour, or using any type of weapon, without the rules explicitly telling you that you can't.

      We are currently playing "Honor & Intrigue", a swashbuckling derivative of Barbarians of Lemuria. Since I've been listening to Radio 4extra recently here are my suggestions for Dr Syn:

      Scholar, Duellist, Priest, Pirate

      and Cyrano de Bergerac:

      Poet, Duellist, Soldier, plus one of: Gambler, Nobleman, Scholar, or Don Juan (despite his looks, he knows the way to a lady's heart!)

      (Sorry, another long post! Giving characters a rich backstory and representing that in the game without being too prescriptive is an idea I find interesting.)

    3. I found an early 45-page edition of BoL as a free PDF, Andy, but your character descriptions there of Syn and de Bergerac have me hooked. I might have to shell out for the deluxe 250-page version.

    4. The career structure is quite a flexible system. In addition to the base game there are at least two other versions that have been tweaked to make them more genre appropriate: Honor & Intrigue (cinematic swashbuckling) and Barbarians of the Aftermath (post-apocalyptic survival).

      I must confess that I haven't played the base game but reading it impressed me enough to buy Honor & Intrigue, which is the version I'm most interested in at the moment. It hasn't let us down so far.

      Some people might find BoL too vague leading to either "there's no skill list: I don't know what I can do", or degeneration into sophistry as people argue about which knowledge and skills a particular career covers. (Presumably that's why skill lists developed in the first place: to formalise things).

      Personally, I'm inclined to be fairly lenient and let the characters do cool stuff: we can usually agree on something that sounds reasonable.

    5. I came here to say, "sounds like you might find BoL interesting" but glad to see I'm not the only one thinking that.

      But remember that there is now a 'generic' version of BoL - Everywhen - and, perhaps more importantly, several examples of what the BoL "no skill, but careers/backgrounds" system looks like for different, non-S&S settings.

      I also came here to repeat the old joke - no D&D character fell off a horse until they got a 'Ride' skill.

    6. I hadn't heard of Everywhen but apparently it was only published in August last year, so I guess I should't feel too bad about not knowing. Having looked at it, I may have to pick that up myself!

      Contrary to appearances: this is not just a conspiracy of people called Andy.

    7. Guy Sclanders was musing last week about there being a Council of Daves. It sounds like an alliance with the Parliament of Andys may be in the offing.

    8. Today: an organic, character-driven alternative to prescriptive skill systems. Tomorrow: the world!

    9. Also Dragon Age focus system (page 7) maybe interest you:

    10. Thanks. That's not too far off the direction I've been taking with Dragon Warriors 2e, except that skills (similar to their focus) don't add to the chance of success, but instead give more finesse in using an ability. Still, I like the approach: try anything, and if you have the relevant focus you get a bonus.

  2. Hi Dave, I can spot some opportunity for cross-marketing here, with the GOT Finale looming into view on the about we run a series of ads with Emilia Clarke reprising some of her famous lines from GOT with a subtle alteration - "Where are my... Dragon Warriors 2nd Editions ?"

    We could then cut to Kit Harrington saying "Personally, I prefer D & D". Cue Emilia: "You know nothing, Jon Snow."

    (Smiley/winking face)

    1. Circling a bit back to the topic, I don't play AD&D past the 2nd edition because of the huge skills and all the feats. Do I have all the feats I need? Will my character die of a bowel blockage because I forgot to get the "take a crap" feat?

    2. I had to Google feats. They do sound like way too book-keeping. My goal for Dragon Warriors 2e will be for a system where players only have to unpack as much detail as they want.

  3. You had me at Emilia Clarke, John. Although really I should hand in my fantasy nerd membership card. The other night at our game, Oliver described somebody as "the Jon Snow of diplomacy" and I thought he meant the broadcaster!

    1. Well, Jon Snow and Daenarys Targaryen could well have a child called Dan Snow...(You know, that joke worked a lot better when I though Dan Snow was real-life Jon Snow's son, not just his cousin !)

      As for your Nerd Membership Card, your resignation will emphatically not be have a life membership of that one Dave ; )

      Finally, could you pass on to Oliver my regards for the excellently dark scenario he wrote for "The Power of Darkness" - the tragic last acts of the doomed Selentine legionaries in that story still send a shiver up my spine, and have entered the 'historical section' of my mind's library as the best 'mood interpretation' of what befell the vanished 9th Roman Legion in our own world...just as your conjuring of Albion, the True Faith and relics helped to inform and enlighten my early understanding of those aspects of the Medieval world.

      Basically, you both got it spot on and I'm sure you will get DW2E absolutely right. Skills should be there to support the storytelling, not straight-jacket it and I know you will steer far from the GURPS rules-lawyer, contract-minutiae mentality.

  4. So...I do generally like simple skill systems/ low rolling density systems, especially for online play, as you'll know. And in my GURPS games as in Tim H's games, rolls are fewer than thet might be. Very much not discouraging you from aiming from streamlining in DW2.

    I'm going to make a few defences for GURPS though. Here goes:
    1. You're comparing a Universal RPG system with a genre-specific system. Not very fair: GURPS tries to be a toolkit for any genre, tone, period. Necessarily it caters to the highly granular and has skills from tech levels from Stone Age to Star Wars. That's a lot of skills to cover.

    2. You rather mischaracterize the skill system. The skill level is meant to represent an action under quite severe stress and time pressure, with rudimentary gear, for an average level challenge of task. If there's no time pressure, or if you have great equipment, or if the task is simple: either you get big modifiers or (more commonly) the GM would hand-wave it.

    3. Worked example: Knot-Tying. You rather suggest if your DX is 12 and you haven't bought skill in Knot Tying then you have only a single attempt at <=8 to untie any knot, ever. If you're not under time pressure, +4 to your roll (Basic Set, "Meaning of Skill Levels" p.171). If the guy who tied them up wasn't an expert either, it's likely an easy knot to undo. If you have a sharp knife, even easier.

    4. There certainly are some cases where skills seem needlessly multiplied (Shadowing/Stealth/Camouflage is a good instance). The 4e rulebook certainly suffers from being rather expansive and side-bar/index-heavy. But, like any system, if you are looking for gaming rules as -to use a language comprehension analogy - a sympathetic native rather than as a grammar nazi, 4e can be a fast smooth gaming system without getting too crunchy.

    1. I almost missed your comment as this is quite an old post! Good points, Tim, and as you know my gripes about GURPS are like Paris finding fault in Helen's little toenail, as for the most part I think 4e is the best simulationist system out there. (I'd like a streamlined 5e even more, but that'll never happen.)

      Perception vs Observation remains one of the things I stumble over. I think it's akin to "I'm looking for a thing" contrasted with "I notice a thing", ie active/passive use of abilities as cited by Roger Bell_West in the current post's comments.