Friday, July 17, 2009

Skills Suck

Shoot…I really thought I’d already written this essay somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps I started it and it was toooo loooong. Strong possibility.

I’ll cut to the chase: I hate skills in RPGs. I mean is, in most games these days they annoy me so much that it makes me not want to play games. The more elaborate the skill system, the higher the search and handling time, the LESS I am interested.

I was going to write about the evolution of my disgust for skills, which has waxed and waned until the last couple years when it’s been pretty much all “wax on” disgust-wise. But why bother? Or maybe, I’ll save it for another “origins” post when I talk about the move from AD&D secondary skills, to non-weapon proficiencies, to Star Frontiers, to yadda-yadda-yadda…

However, I do want to say for the record how much I dislike skills:

A lot.
While I can talk about my historical journey through RPG skills (in another post), I think it’s more interesting to write WHY I dislike them. After all, every non-indie industry RPG designer feels the need to include some form of skill system in their rules. What bugs ME so much?

Well many things, actually, but I’ll break it down into just a few categories (not necessarily in order of importance):

#1 Over-complex character generation. This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve in game design. Aside from overly complex combat systems, nothing else slows down play more. Trying to introduce a new player to role-playing? You have to go through hours of skill lists (and explanations of skills and explanations of rule systems) just to design a character. A knowledgeable person, with his own rule book, and a strong idea of what kind of character he wants, can create a PC in…well, probably under an hour but pretty close to an hour mark depending on other options present in the chargen process. For non-gamers, this process (which generally takes them longer) is INCREDIBLY BORING. Woe unto the GM whose RPG then sucks…this does not grow an RPG industry.

#2 Over-complex character generation. Did I not mention this already? Perhaps I did. When chargen takes a long-ass time to create a character, character death becomes an especially awful punishment in play…one that tends to get avoided at all costs by a GM (to keep his players happy and his game going). When character death gets removed from the table, so does much of the drama of action/combat (you know…the life or death part?). For premise-focused games, that’s often fine. For competitive gamist-type games (like D&D) that sucks.

#3 Attempting to model “real life.” Most skill systems use some kind of universal mechanic…that is, all skill use works the same regardless of skill. One problem with this it’s kind of impossible to be all encompassing of “real life.” Another is that real life works differently in different situations. A design problem is that the same game currency (generally ‘points’ which are assigned to various skills) applies to all skills regardless of disparate application…say Bureaucracy versus Firearms; depending on the type of game being run, one of these skills is going to prove much more useful than the other.

#4 Conceit and hypocrisy. Even though many skill systems profess to use universal systems, often the “combat rules” are its own modified system. Shooting and stabbing are “skills” (albeit, not ones used in polite society), so why have things like, oh say “Base Attack Bonus?” What if I don’t want to ‘train up’ my attacking skill? Many, many games use different rules and sub-system for combat then from “normal” skill use. Since skill systems are often fairly complicated (simple, resisted, un-resisted, competitive, use over time, resisted use over time, etc.) the end result is more rules to digest and integrate to play. See point #1 above.

#5 Unnecessary rules. Good game design should only incorporate rules integral to game play. Call that JB’s Axiom #1. It needs its own post.

#6 Player limitation. Ugh…this needs its own post, too.

Now, just because I don’t like skills doesn’t mean I refuse to play games with skills, and the presence of skill systems does not create an immediate abhorrence for a game. Half the RPGs on my Top Ten list include skill systems of the type I’m describing…however, these games have other ‘redeeming qualities:’

  • Traveller’s skills are assigned randomly without a player needing to put points on a skill list…plus character generation itself is a fun mini-game.
  • Mutant City’s skills are all of equal value in the way they are used to facilitate the game; they actually act as a control of a player’s “spotlight time,” rather than a measure of in-game effectiveness.
  • VTM and HEX both have settings that make their games kick-ass…enough that I’m willing to overlook the skill systems. Plus, both have systems that include simplification techniques (VTM by cutting out anything other than simple successes, HEX with its D2 approach and Ubiquity Dice).
  • Ars Magica has multiple complex disparate systems including skills, combat, magic, and research. The game is for mature (i.e. experienced) gamers that want to run long sagas…it is NOT for one-off games or combat-quick groups. It requires the systems to help adjudicate (and turn game-like!) what otherwise might be a “group storytelling exercise” about Mythic Europe. Plus magi are badass. Oh…and grogs. I’d play it just for the grogs.
: )


  1. Shit, JB...don't sugar coat it! :)
    I'm going to go out on a limb, then, and guess that you are not a fan of Palladium, Rolemaster, or GURPS.

    I actually like skill systems, though I have noticed several problems with them, most of which you noted above. Here is one that bothers me especially:

    Player Laziness- Skill systems often promote lazy play styles. Rather than try to think their way out of things, players just want to make the problem go away with a skill check. Town guards asking for a weapon tax? Player calls for an Intimidate check. NPC's story a little fishy? Player calls for Sense Motive check. Why describe searching a room when you can roll Search or Wits+Investigation or whatnot? Also, my players who take any sort of lore skill (magical lore, religion, whatever) want to roll it against every. Single. Thing. They. Meet.

    However, in games that do not have character classes, I can see the usefulness of skill systems...otherwise, what do we have to judge what a character can do? I do think that many game systems get carried away with this sort of thing.

    For the record, I think the games that have the least obtrusive skill systems are Fudge, Star Wars (the old d6 version) and Savage Worlds.

    Just my 2 c.p.

  2. Kickass post. I agree with you all the way.

  3. @ Ryan: I’ve played a lot of Palladium in the past. I actually recently re-purchased Heroes Unlimited (2nd edition) because it’s kick-ass for street level super-brawls a la the Marvel Ultimates imprint. However, character generation is a total drag because of the skills.

    (not that there aren’t other problems with the game!)

    Regarding player laziness…see part 2 of this series, just posted. You ever hear the term “necessity is the mother of invention?” Take away their skills and see if the players can’t improve their game play.

    @ Meepo: Thanks!

  4. Funny you should say that, regarding necessity and invention... tonight I am running Cyclopedic D&D and I'm not using the optional skill system... I imagine there might be a bit of culture shock for players who are using to busting out Search or Sense Motive or whatnot. I'm sure they'll do fine. (hahahaha)

  5. I hope you're posting the results to SvP. My guess is...well, actually I don't want to guess. Let's call your game a "test group."
    : )