A Quick Thought about Skills in RPGs

I’m typing at a crooked table and I just rescued the first Praying Mantis I’ve seen in over a year from being stomped on — so we’ll see how this post comes out. It’s been rattling around in my head today.

Skills get a lot of attention in RPG discussion. What skills are necessary? How many? Player skill vs. Character skill? Monte Cook jumped in a recently, and many, many bloggers take shots at this all the time. As anyone who reads this blog realizes, I’m not really concerned with RPG theory so much as RPG practice. The practical “at the table” concern always get priority for me.

And here’s my thought. Practically speaking, Graedric the fighter knows exactly as much Knowledge (Demons) as Savris the Wizard.

Does that seem absurd? To put it more clearly, I hope, what I mean by this is — whenever Savris needs to roll Knowledge (Demons) during an adventure, whatever Savris “knows” is really whatever the results of the roll reveal. This knowledge is usually of immediate interest and is therefore shared with the party. So know Graedric the fighter (GtF) knows exactly the same information as Savris the Wizard (StW). Now, in the imaginary world that is our campaign, StW “knows more” than GtF — but from a practical, at-the-table standpoint, the “more” that StW knows never matters.

Now, expand this thought a little more. Over the course of several adventures, Savris and Graedric get into a bunch of wacky scrapes involving demons. Graedric learns which weapons to use when fighting which types, learns their strengths and weaknesses, learns about their politics, learns to identify them on sight, and learns (from Savris) a bunch of history of the Ancient Demonic Wars of Demon-kind. So when Graedric meets up with a fresh-faced young demon-hunter, he can impart this hard-won knowledge… but wait — Graedric doesn’t actually have Knowledge (Demons) despite the amount he’s learned about them. And most likely in many systems, he never will. Because acquiring Knowledge (Demons) would cost him a development choice better spent elsewhere to improve his role as a fighter — and why would he choose it anyway since everything he knows is already being learned when necessary from Savris?

Even when attempting to separate Player knowledge and Character knowledge, this becomes somewhat of a different animal — Graedric clearly knows these things, and so does the player. And what about those sessions where the players pull something like, Savris: “I sit around the fire and tell the party the story of the First War between Demons and Elves and it’s association with the Elven Fall from Grace”? Now, supposing Savris isn’t around in some encounter, how much do the other PCs actually know or how much are they allowed to know? If the Player didn’t actually sit and learn all of that campaign information, then how much should their Character be allowed to draw on an experience that was only partially role-played but clearly happened?

I see this as being a tough question — and it’s why I am in favor of experiential skill systems like Basic Roleplaying. I think this also gets handled somewhat better in a rules-light system where “player skill” is already more implicitly accepted and encouraged (though not all rules-light systems do this and not all rules-heavy ones quash it, I know). I’m thinking here of a game like Barbarians of Lemuria with it’s careers system.

All of this said, I wonder if there is a better way to model this in game than we currently have? I suppose in some games this could get filed under “spend a drama/fate/style point” and we’ll move on. That could work. You temporarily (by which I mean, during the time frame when it practically matters) call upon knowledge gleaned in a narrative manner but don’t actually invest in a permanent way in that knowledge… I can live with that. The other answer is GM Fiat — you remember as much as your GM says you can, based on things like, your mental ability scores (which could even involve INT rolls, right?) but still feels lacking.

Ultimately, I suppose you do whatever your group feels best about — because your game is your game and every table is different — but I really wonder if there’s a better answer.

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12 responses

  1. Well put~

    I wrestled with this idea a lot when I found myself telling my V:tM stories than CoC stories. I think the stochastic quality of advancement in BRP and its focus on skills used effectively in play really spoiled me when it came to dealing with purely XP point-buy systems later on.

    We did try a grand experiment (just after the release of V:tM 2nd Ed) of trying incorporate a mixture of the two types which had interesting results, but didn’t catch on in the end.

    Recently, I have been interested to see how the XP system in A Time of War will actually work out in practice. I really like how it seems in theory.

    Have you noticed a negative reaction among players in regard to the use of training rules where the PCs with the ability to teach effectively generate XP for their students?

  2. That first line should read, “…when I found myself telling more V:tM stories than CoC stories.”

  3. As you say, knowledge based skills are a good example of where skill systems usually break down. The problem does not seem to occur with physical skills. My prefered style is to use the skill points to limit “initial knowledge”, but to allow or encourage subsequent player knowledge to trump that at every turn. To me it is pointless to have players pretend not to know things that they know. I find this issue also extends itself to the intelligence stat, where players find it hard to play a dumb character (or possibly a very smart one).

  4. @Runeslinger
    I really am a big fan of the Chaosium system of experiential improvement. I will admit that I was genuinely surprised (perhaps naively) to find that people disliked that system because it led some players to attempt to exploit it by “skill sampling” their way through sessions to improve skills they weren’t really using…

    I think one of it’s greatest strengths lies in allowing the GM to assign “free training” to the group when appropriate… like this one old CoC adventure that had PCs spending 6 weeks training to go on an underwater expedition — so they learned the skills they needed. It just, made sense to me. And because it didn’t involve “points” or “unbalance” the party, I remember thinking how much I appreciated it as a GM at the time.

    @Dominic
    I still struggle with this myself. I do try to limit player knowledge when it is something that the character really wouldn’t know. Obviously, having run the game I know certain things that I can’t “un-know” but I can mitigate how those impact sessions I play in. That said, I do usually avoid playing low-INT characters myself because I do tend to get frustrated by playing down to a low INT. But I’m a determined “role-player(!)” in my heart and I do try to limit my play by the limitations of my characters. My most recent attempt at a less-than-intelligent character, a bruiser for the mafia named Tony, was actually a real challenge and a lot of fun. He thought vampirism and rabies were the same thing… well… I guess you had to be there.

  5. I think of skill checks as edge-of-ability checks. Testing the threshold of capability. If a character has acquired knowledge in-game, they can “take ten” on the check. No roll necessary. Otherwise, there is a chance that the player may recall some key information, gleaned either from past experience or research.

  6. Admittedly I’m biased, but I prefer a system without skills.

    I know some will balk at the concept since it takes a finer bit of control on both sides of the screen to manage the capability-expectations and assumptions of GM and player.

    A player may believe their concept is capable of performing action X at expertise level Y while the GM may see the concept differently. Whereas having numbers assigned to categories eliminates the possible conflict.

    However, in a game where the enjoyment should be skewed to the player experience, simply following the ideal that in questions or conflicts like those, most of the time the player expectation wins out easily leads to the elimination of any hard feelings.

    If the GM plays this way more often than not, most players will understand when their concept is trumped by the desire to have the challenge beyond their conceptual skill.

    But even with that in mind, I think the benefits of a skill-less system outweigh the benefits such things bring to the game.

    Many times I’ve found players (even those new to RPGs) to be more inventive in how their characters interact with the game world in systems where their skills and abilities are less stringently defined and more vague.

    Something about the representation that the ticks/numbers/etc. next to a skill gives the impression that it defines a limited scope and not a more “in addition to” concept yields players to limit their play rather than open it up.

    But once again, I’m admittedly biased, so be sure to take that into consideration.

  7. I see the “edge of ability” idea in some games — and some usages. I don’t know that it follows as being the default assumption in all games (or groups) but I see it’s appeal.

    In general, I more often think of it as “only testing when necessary” rather than always able to “take 10.” It is a small distinction but important. Knowledge gained “in-game” however is still character knowledge. At some point the PC has the “skill” in question whether we write it down on the sheet or not. And then it blurs the line for PCs that did invest in the skill. I suppose that was more of my point.

    I agree with Kevin that as much as I struggle with “not having skills completely,” I do often feel as if numbers on the sheet can feel more like limits or halts rather than capabilities. I think that happens to me when I play — though I try to encourage players not to worry about it as a GM… go figure.

  8. For what it’s worth, I tend to limit myself to the character sheet more than I would expect players at my table to do so too.

    Though in my defense I usually know the system far more than others at the table so there’s a bit of self-handicapping being done on my part… or at least that’s my excuse.

  9. I’d say that’s probably my excuse too.

  10. Hey everyone, new poster here. I found a new system a few months ago with a genuinely unique mechanic. Houses of the Blooded has only 5 (I believe) stats, Strength (obvious), Courage (Bravery and enhances other skills), Beauty (charisma, appearance, appreciation of other beautiful things), Cunning (Wits, ability to think on feet and scheme), Prowess (Martial skill), and Wisdom (there’s the rub). Wisdom covers your knowledge of the world and arcane. However, the overall system changes this drastically. In the system, you roll a number of six sided dice defined by your stats plus and minus modifiers for your background, family, name, etc. The goal number is 11. You risk dice to see if you can score 11 with the remaining dice. For every die wagered, you get to define one thing about the result, from wounding or disarming a foe to wooing a damsel, to defining the world. That’s where Wisdom comes in. When the GM asks for a Wisdom roll, if you succeed, you get to define the world around you, from who died to who the current king is. The only rule is that you cannot reverse an earlier defined fact. This is powerful, and requires a wonderful group, but it sounds like the most fun for “knowledge” skills I’ve ever seen.

  11. Hello Chris,

    Thanks for reading and thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

    On the subject of Houses of the Blooded, I’ve written a few times on the blog here about HotB and it’s not a game I like very much. It’s very similar — and possibly based on/inspired by — FATE which is one of my least favorite RPG iterations. It’s weird, because with my gaming preferences, you’d think FATE style games would be perfect for me. They just aren’t.

    I agree with you that the idea of “creating knowledge” as you go is a powerful one, and one that could, for the right group, be incredibly inspiring. For me, it just falls flat and tends to cause more trouble at the table than it’s worth.

    If you are enjoying HotB, ignore this and carry on. Good gaming is good gaming whether I’m a fan of your system of choice or not. But HotB is not really my cup of tea. I love the Ven and their world — just can’t get into the system.

    Thanks again,
    RG

  12. cauldronofevil | Reply

    I’m also on the side of not playing games with Skill systems. That’s more crunch than I want or need. I only really care about things that the players are ESPECIALLY good at.

    If a PC tells me they’ve made a habit of reading ‘Histories of Demonology’ the very minute after I tell them “You see an unrecognizable Demon Symbol”, then I’m perfectly okay with that.

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