Thursday, January 28, 2010

Skills Still Suck (Axiom #1 Redux)

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!

: )


  1. Like you, I am a big proponent of classes over skills.

    I recall reading someone elses blog, where the title was "Classes Suck" and they preceded to enumerate the various reasons why skill systems rock and class systems suck.

    To each his own. I prefer the simplicity and efficiency of a class system. But let's face it, if you want to promote a culture of "system Mastery" so that you can sell a never-ending stream of players handbooks, skill-and-feat handbooks, and other miscellanity, then skill systems are the way to go.

  2. @ Pal: I got a whole 'nother post about classes for tomorrow.

    While I personally hate skill systems, the main thing I rail against is the extraneous-and-yet-considered-soooo-necessary fashion in which they show up in RPGs. Well, that AND the reasons I iterated above.
    ; )

    But really the main point of this post is that it is possible to have systems in a game that RESEMBLE skills but are not. Or to put it another way, one can have "skills" in a game (like the "thief skills" class ability) withOUT having a "skill system," per se.

    In B/X D&D, for example, magic-users have the class ability to cast spells. IN GAME this might resemble a particular skill set: the ability to read and write the "language of magic," the knowledge of special gestures and pronunciation, the training to keep the mind focused in the midst of combat. These skills (which probably took years of practice and education to perfect) are ASSUMED in the class ability...there's no need to have Spellcraft or Concentration...or even Scribe Latin (hello, Ars Magica!).

  3. I have mostly only played or DMed more recent, skill-oriented games (various D20, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, etc.), and while I think I understand and to a large extent agree with your criticisms of skill systems, I'm curious to know how you handle the situations that the other rules don't cover as DM without a skill system.

    I've never really seen skill systems as a tool for the players to define what their characters can and can't do, but as a tool for the DM to adjudicate character actions more fairly and consistently. Certainly, any DM decision will be arbitrary to some extent, but most skill systems give guidelines about the relative difficulties of different actions.

    I'm interested in running an older version of D&D (probably B/X), but one of the main things that puts me off from it is the lack of guidelines on adjudicating things that aren't combat, perception, or door-kicking. I want my players to not feel limited by the skill numbers on their character sheets, but I really don't know how to run a game without skills.

    When a player tries to do something unexpected in D20, I at least have a set of fairly broad skills that could be applicable, and general guidelines on setting difficulty. In a system without skills, I don't know what I'd do.

    Say a dwarf in full plate armor tries to jump over a chasm. I'm not really sure whether he could succeed or not. It seems like I would have three options:

    1) I could just decide what happened. Since I have no idea what the odds of success would actually be, I'd probably make the decision based on how the party was doing in that session. If it were a deep enough chasm that the fall would kill him, I would almost certainly allow him to succeed, because I am not okay with just killing a character by fiat. Whatever the result, I'd probably feel like my decision was arbitrary and unfair. And if the player felt that way, I wouldn't have any rules to point to to defend my decision.

    2) I could try to come up with some kind of die roll to cover the situation. This would probably slow down the game, because I'd have to think about what the odds actually were. Then I'd have to think about what die I wanted to use, etc. Or I could re-purpose some other roll, like a saving throw. But I'm not sure if that really helps. Is the dwarf's odds of jumping the chasm the same as his odds of not dying by poison? Again, I have no idea. This feels a little less arbitrary and unfair because there's a die roll involved, but in the end it's still the result of me making a decision with no real guidance. And the process slows down the game, to boot.

    3) I could sit there and go, "Durrr...", which is probably what I would wind up doing.

    I understand that a skill system doesn't fully eliminate any of these problems, but it makes dealing with them easier, at least in my experience.

    How do you handle these situations? Is it just something that you get better at with more old-school DMing experience? And what do you do if a player doesn't like your decision, and you kind of agree with them?

  4. @ Zorblek:

    From the D&D Expert set, p. X51 (D. Cook/S. Marsh; 1981):

    "Player characters will often want to do actions not specifically covered by the rules or by their character descriptions. A Dungeon Master must be flexible enough to be able to decide how to deal with the situations that the rules don't cover. A good referee will think about how similar problems are handled in the rules, and then use a similar system. Some ideas on how to handle different situations are presented below:

    "SAVING VS. ABILITIES (OPTIONAL): The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability ratings (Strength, etc.), The player must roll the ability or less on a d20. THe DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task, +4 for a difficult one, etc.). It is suggested that a roll of 1 always succeed and a roll of 20 always fail."

    If the chasm jump is possible, pick an ability (STR or DEX depending on how you define them in your game), maybe apply a penalty of +4 (short-legged dwarf, plate armor), and let the player roll.

    Part of being an "old school" DM is being a "referee" (a judge, an arbiter). And I think most old school DMs will tell you the most important thing (as with any referee gig) is to strive for consistency.
    : )

  5. I'm with you on B/X "skills" all the way, but I'm too much fo a Call of Cthulhu fanboy to agree with your wider point on skill systems! ;)

  6. Thanks for pointing that out. It's very helpful!

  7. Let's take a look at this for a second:

    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.

    Say again? You define skills as something which limits the player arbitrarily, and then tell us that skills suck?

    Sorry, but while I generally find your blog worth reading, this was just stupid. Naturally everyone agree that useless things are bad. By defining skills that way, a very peculiar way I might add, you make it impossible not to agree. A very unfair and plain idiotic way to argue.

    Also, by listing things you like and calling them something else it come across as even more silly.

    Come on.

    Yeah, you don't like skills. Fair enough, but I know you can argue for that point without silly tricks like that.

  8. @ Andreas: Hmm. I'm not trying to be particularly inflammatory nor put forward a bunch of sophisms here.

    I see a prevalence of (what I call) "skill systems" in RPGs. I defined that term in a particular way, and perhaps I didn't do a good enough job.

    Again, I'm talking about skill SYSTEMS, which I define as being a sub-system within the mechanics of the game. Over the Edge doesn't use a "skill system." Basic D&D doesn't have a skill system. Gamma World, Boot Hill, and Top Secret don't have skill systems...not the way I'm defining it.

    And while those games may not be the greatest RPGs ever written (debating that's not the point here), they do show that one can still create a game with economy of design, that provides all the rules necessary to play without adding an extra system.

    An extra system that, yeah, limits what the players can do.

    Now if one wants to build a system that provides additional limits, I suppose that could be a design intention. But to me, it appears that most such "skill systems" purport to provide ADDITIONAL options for players, while actually limiting them and (at times) needlessly complicating a game.

    For me, I want rules to facilitate game play, not hamper stunting player creativity or stacking the learning curve. To me, that sucks. That's my opinion, man. You don't have to buy it.

  9. Here's another take. I think the problem is that skills and character class are redundant. Empire of the Petal throne added skills to allow for some individual variation for a rules set limited to three classes. Note however that it also included class skills (ones that one acquired just for being a fighter, cleric, etc.). Runequest’s just skills no character classes works very well (unfortunately its random experience and requirement that the only the skills which are used can advance lead to some very silly roleplaying). I also like the Elder Scrolls (admittedly not a pen and paper RPG) defining character class as a particular set of skills. However, Third edition with its multiplicity of classes had very little need for skills. I also found skills by class restriction completely bogus. Fourth edition is even worse on skills by class restrictions, I am forever multi-classing just so my warlord can bluff, or my ranger disarm traps (by the way what brainiac came up with the idea that rogues would be could at disarming traps, but lack the wisdom to perceive they were there?). Unfortunately the proliferation of character classes means there is a large proliferation of untested special rules which cause the game to break under the strain. I would be much happier with a game system of 20-40 clearly defined skills with charts for the DM of what difficulty to assign to which action. For things not on the list just roll a d20 add the most likely to be relevant attribute and compare against difficulty 10 easy 15 mild 20 requires some skill 25 hard 30 master talents only. Perhaps I’ll just have to write my own.

  10. @ imredave: hey, man...that's what I'm doing.
    ; )

  11. Congratulations. That's possibly the stupidest thing I've read all year.

  12. @ Justin: Thanks for reading!

  13. You lost me about halfway in. If you don't like skill systems, but you need to find if a character is limited by something that is neither character-dependent or even scenario-dependent (in this case, a chasm that independently exists in a dungeon space that will always provide the same difficulty for one person as it does another to cross based on how big the chasm is, what the stone around it is made from, and what means of crossing are effective to pass it,) then what is the real solution here?

    Yes, I do hate Third's need to toss skills everwhere, especially without enough points to place anywhere useful. My fighter can't jump across pits unless I put one of my two ranks into the skill, and he can't climb out of the pit if he fails unless I put my other rank into the skill. At least, he can't do either with any real degree of success unless I put at least 5 points in each, and that's just to offset armor penalties.

    Even still, my fighter currently doesn't know how to swim properly, nor can he present himself properly to a nobleman's court, nor does he even possess enough sense of his surroundings to see or hear things out of the ordinary unless he wants to spend BOTH points on those (being cross-class skills and all.)

    So, the question is, what makes a proper skill system, and what makes a proper 'task resolution system', as I suppose it can be called when you need to figure out how to cross a gap in B/X? Should it be something that players just put points into? Should it be part of their backstory as to why they possess uncanny leaping skills? Should the DM just roll percentiles based on the size of the gap, the stone the floor is made from, and if the player describes whether he makes a running jump, does a Prince of Persia wall run, or carefully spreads his arms and legs so that he can climb like a spider across the gap without ever touching the ground?

    Honestly, I'm all for using a D6 and adding ability bonuses to the situation. Oh, your armored dwarf with 16 strength is crossing the gap with a running jump? Okay, it's a short gap, we'll give it a small chance of failure, so we'll start with 1-5 being successful. Add +2 from Strength, that'll be 1-7, but let's take away 2 because of plated mail, and another 1 because he's got a heavy backpack, so 1-4 succeed, 5-6 dump you in a pit., too much to rely upon. Maybe I should come up with a better system.