Game Theory – What is a Skill?5 August, 2009
Some systems (Basic Role-Playing, GURPS) are almost entirely built around a skill system defining a character, others use skills much more loosely if at all (T&T) but most fall somewhere between those extremes. Sometime skills are not even fully identified as such, in D&D for example, combat skill is tied up in attack bonus, feats and powers but there is no one thing you can point to as a character’s ‘combat skill’.
At their core, skills are part of the conflict/task resolution system of a game system. They are what tells you if you succeed of fail in your course of action. Now failure can be interesting too, if structured properly, so skill use can be a signpost to where players what to game to go. This is especially true in the newer Indie RPGs which love to beat up characters for dramatic payoff.
To me, skills represent competency within a area, and one that does not need to rolled most of the time. If your D&D character has say, 12 ranks in Knowledge: Nature, he is an expert in that field. As a GM, I would not not require rolls for anything that is common knowledge about the natural world and, indeed, only esoteric facts would require a roll. Now, a D&D character with a singer rank in the skill would be less able, but rolls still should only be called for when it advances the game (though it could be amusing if the player wanted the character to be nearly continually wrong and used rolls to determine how outlandish his theories were).
Usually, when thinking about skill use these days I am of the opinion, to quote Vincent Baker from his game Dogs in the Vineyard (p.138):
“Roll the dice or say yes.”
If it moves the game forward or is inconsequential, say yes to it. If it adds to dramatic tension to the story and risks failure (which should also be interesting), roll the dice.
While I feel there is a place for mechanics for skills -and sometimes you just have to roll that skill- in many (if not most) cases, just having the right amount of skill is enough to keep the game moving forward. The Gumshoe system, as an example, designed as a police procedural game, says that you find the clue needed to move the investigation forward if you have the right skill, but there are mechanics allowing you to gain additional information from your skills making it useful to be a specialist. Though it is also true that some people just like rolling dice.
So, there are my thoughts. I hope that make some sort of sense. What is your opinion of skill systems in RPGs? How would you make them more useful to the game you want to run/play?
*The question turned on if non-adventuring skills were needed in a game. In summation: For Wyatt, it distracts from the focus of epic heroic action in 4e, which is true. While for me, the added character detail is worth the small increase in complexity but then I do not usually play 4e, so I have a different gameplay paradigm.
And, for bonus pendantic points, Mr. Chris Youngs blacksmiths do not usually make swords, they make useful items usually from iron. Swordsmiths make swords as it is a very technically challenging art. The rest of the editorial is an interesting read though.