Got an email from a reader with regard to my prior post on Axiom #1 and skills “sucking,” and it got me thinking I might have triggered some confusion out there. A few notes to clarify might be worth the time.
Remember that my axioms are principles of what I consider to be “good game design;” Axiom #1 states that the well-designed game should only include rules necessary to the game. Games should NOT include extraneous fiddlyness, attempting to account for every possible nuance and action of the game world. Now, of course, this is simply my opinion, right? But I see a number of benefits to efficiency in game design: smaller word count (less time reading, more time playing as well as cheaper to produce), lower search & handling time (in play), and (often) faster character generation.
When I say “skills suck” (and I have said/written this plenty often), it is because I see the skill systems of most games as the most blatant and egregious violations of Axiom #1. Again, Axiom #1 is about not including what's not necessary. Certain un-mentionable RPGs include all sorts of extra random charts that do little to enhance game play…these would also be included as “violators.” But skill systems are SO prevalent in RPGs these days that I like to single them out for bitch-slapping.
So, having said THAT, we now come to the possible confusion from earlier: my reader points out that there already appears to be skill systems inherent in B/X Dungeons & Dragons: both the actual Thief Skills of the thief class AND the imbedded skills of finding secret doors, listening, foraging for food, interacting with NPCs, etc., etc….all of these actions appear to be an exercise of skill (in D20 terms: Search, Listen, Survival, Bargain, etc.) that are perhaps WORSE than a contemporary system by dint of their non-universal way of checking actions. But even if they’re NOT judged by the merits of their “streamlined-ness,” doesn’t JB consider B/X to be an example of “good economy of design?” And if so why don’t these “skill systems suck?”
Because they ain’t skill systems.
Thief “skills,” despite their name, are NOT a skill system. They are class abilities, no different from a cleric’s ability to turn undead or a magic-user’s ability to cast spells (or a dwarf’s ability to check stonework). Like the other 6 classes of B/X, thieves have their own abilities that function different from every other class’s abilities (fortunately for us B/X players there are only 7 classes, so keeping track of these class abilities is fairly easy despite the variety of play style inherent to each). Thief skills do not model anything particularly “real world;” they simply provide a system by which thieves can do the things thieves do in a B/X world.
Likewise, the other listed “skills” are not some stealth skill system; they are simply game mechanics necessary to play. “Adventurers” in B/X take some universal actions that require rules to model…a method of finding secret doors that is not automatic, a method of climbing trees or rocky slopes, a method of determining whether or not adequate game can be hunted when starving in the outdoors. As these actions are necessary for common situations that arise in-game AND are deemed to have a chance of failure (there’s no “fire building” check to use a tinder box, for example!)…they require game mechanics. However, as they are actions ANY person can take, they are NOT specific class abilities.
They are also non-defined as far as how/why they function. To detect secret doors, a character spends one ten minute turn, rolls a D6 and finds a secret door (if one is present) on a 1-2. Does the character have exceptional eyesight for detail (“there seems to be footprints disappearing into this wall!”)? Does the character have some prior professional experience (“my uncle used to build secret doors, and I recognize a false torch sconce/lever!”)? Is the character simply lucky (“hey, I was just resting against this book case and a panel opened!”)?
Likewise, why do elves get a bonus to this roll? Well, because it’s a class ability of course, but the “in-game” reason could be anything from particularly acute senses to a mystic/psychic “I feel something strange” ability.
The point is, don’t mistake game mechanics for a skill system. Most RPGs have some system that is used to determine the effects of combat. The way in which combat is handled may be based on skill use (most contemporary, commercial games besides D20) or may not be (most Old School games). In both instances the game designer decided mechanics were necessary to decide the outcome of fights, and so they included a system. End of story.
Skill systems are, in general, bullshit. However, maybe I need to describe what I mean by “skill system.” To me the skill system is some set of “universal” game mechanics WITHIN AND OUTSIDE OF a game’s set of game mechanics that ARBITRARILY LIMITS CHARACTER ACTION regardless of whether or not it is pertinent to the game design.
Let’s take a second look at the Thief Skills of B/X. These do not limit the thief at all. Instead, they provide a thief with certain special abilities that help define what the thief “class” is. Without these class abilities, the thief is a rather wussy adventurer (leather armor, D4 hit dice, worse attack ability than the fighter, etc.). WITH the class abilities, the basic adventurer becomes a fun class to play with a pretty well-defined role in the party.
All PCs in B/X have a chance to listen at doors or search for traps. Any PC can use their strength to try to break down a closed door, and (per the Expert rules) have a chance to climb rocky slopes and trees. The class abilities of the thief gives that particular class bonus abilities to all these things (better listening and trap finding, the ability to pick locks and climb sheer surfaces). Just as a magic-user’s class abilities (i.e. spell use) gives THAT class additional adventuring prowess.
Now contrast this with the “universal” skill system of D20 (it’s not truly universal after all or characters would probably use “weapon skills” for combat…like in the Basic Role-Playing or World of Darkness systems). First, of course, it makes chargen extra tedious, complicated, and fiddly right? I need to know how many skill points per level (defined by class), plus bonuses and penalties (from race and attribute scores), plus a host of other modifiers like “synergy” and item bonuses…then I need to know whether skills are class skills or non-class skills to figure out skills maximum ranks as well as how many points per rank skills cost…and of course there’s a huge list of skills to pick through (including new skills from other supplements!), most of which are open to any character as “non-class” skills at least.
Time consuming and tedious makes me want to throw the whole thing out from the get-go, even being a math-oriented guy that has little problem navigating this kind of thing. Quick! Write up the skill list for an 8th level half-elf ranger! Oh, but first make sure you roll attributes, so you’ll be able to work in all the bonuses.
Okay, how long did that exercise take you? Now imagine you’re in the middle of a game session when your character dies, and the DM tells you to create an 8th level half-elf ranger to replace your dead character…how long does it take you to get back into the game with your buddies? Don’t forget you want to be looking down the road at possible “prestige classes” so you’ll know which skills to take!
But even WITHOUT the extra time and work, what does the skill system add? It actually LIMITS what your character can do…if you don’t have a skill (or don’t have it at a high enough rank), D20’s skill system limits your option of in-game activity AND (with regard to prestige classes) limits your advancement throughout the game. Wow, how much fun is that? Especially for a new player who’s just trying to learn the game and picks classes and skills they like rather than ones that are “optimized.” And then the newbie sees other players jumping into cool prestige classes at 6th level while their fighter is struggling along with Hide 3 and a hefty penalty for armor.
But HEY, that’s not even the worst part! The worst part is that in MOST skill systems, including D20, the actual use of skills is based on arbitrary target numbers set by GM fiat! So if the GM doesn’t want you to succeed at something he/she just sets the target out of range (or hard enough that it’s nigh impossible to attain).
That SUCKS. Even Palladium allows skills to succeed if one rolls under the required percentage (with certain specifically listed penalties for things like piloting/repairing alien technology). Other games (World of Darkness, D20, even WEG Star Wars) have suggested target numbers that may be modified by circumstance as the judge sees fit…so if I don’t want you to jump the chasm/climb the wall (and circumvent a particularly fiendish trap/obstacle coming up!) I just need to set the TN out of reach. At least WEG Star Wars allows one to double their skill dice using Force points.
And what is the grand reasoning for adding Skill Systems to games? To give players more options? It limits them. To more accurately model “how real life works?” Let me tell you, flying a plane and researching a term paper are two VERY different things, even if they are both “intelligence” skills and cost the same number of skill points! To provide a universal “action” system for any action? Let me ask: how many of you have a Shadow Run character that knows “Boat, Sailing” as a skill? Who gives a shit?!
Axiom #1 is the principle that says “leave the shit out of your game that doesn’t need to be there.” Almost every “skill system” I’ve seen in RPGs falls into this category. On the other hand, class abilities (for RPGs that have classes) and game mechanics (that provide systems for taking actions pertinent to the game) are just fine to include in a game.
I hope that’s less confusing now!