Skills, and why I struggle with them

When I started in RPGs, there were really no skills, not as we know them. Well, there were what the thief got in AD&D, but you’d have to be crazy to rely on those. Seriously? Pick pockets at less than 15%? I never really noticed the lack of a skills system in play until just about every game published thereafter contained one. Sometimes they were a call to ‘realism’ with pages and pages of the things, and in the case of Rolemaster I’m just talking about the character sheet. Sometimes they were pithier, but still, a laundry list of things you could now do with your PC.

My personal sweet spot for the skills list has topped out at about 15 or so in the past, but actually I’m increasingly looking to get that down to sub 10 where possible. Better, lose skills entirely and put the onus back on the raw ability.

This really struck me when I picked up my first version of Fate with Spirit of the Century. It doesn’t have stats, it just has skills (among other things), but on closer inspection you realise that what they’ve done is just put the stats and skills into a single list and treated them with equal weight in the game. When you think about it, that particular judgement call has existed in gaming ever since someone wrote a game and put Perception in the ability list rather than adding it on to skills. I like the notion of shorter overall lists, but with broader applications.

It’s not just an aesthetic thing either. As I’ve been playtesting D&D Next in recent months, the skill system has wavered in and out of the game. When it hasn’t been explicitly there the group has been much more free form and creative in their actions. With skills listed on the sheet, they’ve become more of a drop down menu of possibilities (or really, things you cannot do without permission). I want to retain that spirit of ‘try anything’.

Skills often work simply as another piece of algebra in the core mechanical formula. Stat + skill + dice = result. The combinations of stats and skills are often hard coded with one tied to the other, whereas I like to mix it up and have stamina + computers sometimes. But that’s just me being annoying to my players. I’d like to have it a single list that incorporates stats ideally, though I’m happy for skills to rear their heads as talents, or special expertise, that sort of thing. Both 13th Age and Next have ideas in that direction.

For War Stories, I’m still on the fence a bit. I have my stats. I have an idea for some skills, but I really want to avoid listing them, and I really don’t want to have anything like Athletics or Notice. I want Jimmying, Jerry Building, Horseplay and Scrounging, but I think I want those as on/off abilities seeded elsewhere in the character.

Lots to ponder.


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