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Game Theory – What is a Skill?

5 August, 2009

This discussion*, which I fear may have generated more heat than light, on The Spirits of Eden got me thinking about skills in RPGs, what they can represent and how they should be used.

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.

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9 comments

  1. I think you’re missing an important nuance to Wyatt’s argument that goes along with your philosophy stated earlier: there’s nothing to stop you from creating a character with the backgrounds that you say add to character detail. It’s just that it’s a “say yes or roll the dice” situation: if you say your character was a Fisherman, and he wants to fish, the DM will either say “you catch a fish!” if it makes sense in the story, or have you roll, but it’s not a roll that needs to know if you have 3 ranks or 17 in the context of most D&D games (from my experience) especially at the mechanical expense of skills like Concentration or Tumble that were often “must takes” in a heavy combat game… which makes up the majority of D&D. Obviously, in a game like GURPS or Gumshoe like you list, the priorities and primary mode of play are different.


  2. Well, for something like that, yes. And I admit the discussion with Wyatt got bogged down in unneeded system minutia before I could clarify some of my ideas, which is why I wrote this.

    But say, you are playing a character who wishes to be remembered as the greatest architect in the world? Does just writing into his background “greatest architect in the world” make any sense? Sometime having a (games) mechanical point to ‘hang your hat on’ is helpful for defining what a character can do (or cannot do, yet).


  3. My question back is: what’s the greatest architect in the world doing adventuring with a D&D party? Even if I were running 3e with a Profession (Architect) + Skill Focus I would still be asking that question. It’s not just that it doesn’t fit the system, it doesn’t fit the genre. Now that’s a perfectly fine choice for something like CoC, GURPS, etc., but it’s never been something that fits into the core assumptions of D&D.

    Plus, if that’s the characters goal, that can be worked into the story easily enough, without penalizing them with having to devote skill points/training/etc. to it.


    • It depends on what you like is a game, I like having mechanics and roleplay reinforce each other when possible (which is not nearly as often as I would like).

      Well, I choose that example as I played that character. Being an adventurer was not his first choice of things to do but sometimes you do not get what you want . . .


  4. What I’ve come to see as the critical divide between what I like having as a skill in D&D* and what I don’t is whether the skill represents something you do while you’re actually playing the game or whether it represents something you do while you’re not playing the game. Profession and craft are outliers in the skills system. Their base functions represent activities boring enough that people delegate them to happening when the game is not even in session. It’s fun to run dozens of diplomatic encounters; it’s not fun to run even one make-a-sword encounter. Even if someone thinks that the make-a-sword encounter sounds like fun, it’s sure not fun more than once.

    You want to be the greatest architect on the planet and run around adventuring on the side? Go for it. Say you’re the greatest architect on the planet. It’s not like it’s ever going to make much of a mechanical difference, and when it does, it’s not going to make a bigger difference than just being “an architect” would. (Is any DM seriously going to rule differently on a character’s architectural knowledge because they merely described themselves as an architect instead of as the best architect?) I’m of the belief that numbers on a character sheet mean squat on their own; they’re only “real” inasmuch as they influence gameplay. A number that’s not influencing gameplay might as well get shipped off to the character description, where it can be much more nuanced and fleshed-out anyway.

    (I’m capable of appreciating systems like GURPS that use an entirely different philosophy towards skills.)


    • Making a sword might not be fun to play out but questing to get the Star Metal of Alakar to forge it from could be. Some people like doing off-stage pieces for their characters and others do not. That is a playstyle more than a system issue though.

      As to numbers on a character sheet, exactly. I like knowing how good my character is within the context of the game’s system. There is a difference between someone with a Knowledge: Theology of 1 and someone with a Theology of 20. As least there is for me. As I say above, I like to have a mechanical piece to hang my (character’s) hat off of. Having a number in a skill does that for me.


  5. I’ve gotten quite frustrated reading several articles like this. Crafting and profession can be quite mundane – in which case the character background takes care of it. Want to make a horseshoe – fine its done.

    However want to be the best architect in the world? The rules don’t cover it?!?

    Being an architect, farmer, blacksmith is not a single skill its a combination of skills that deliver the final product. The skill challenge methodology supports this perfectly.

    Skill Challenge – Architect

    Key Skills: Dungeoneering, Diplomacy, Insight, Nature
    Additional Skills: Bluff, Religion, History, Intimidate, Streetwise.

    Difficulty – 4 successes before 3 fails for something straightforward like a house

    Multiples of 12 successes before 3 fails for the greatest cathedral ever built.

    Ask the player to nominate 1 skill as the skill to represent his ability to draw up plans. I’d nominate dungeoneering as its the only skill that mentions construction – although very obliquely. Nature would be a good fit too as the construction will almost certainly be made with wood and stone. History is another possible. A little tenuous maybe but it would work – and lets face it there aren’t that many people wanting to play world class architects are there?. Assuming the player nominates dungeoneering a major skill challenge might include the following elements.

    Phase 1 – Getting the commission

    Streetwise: Working contacts the PC strives to get an audience with the Archbishop commissioning the new cathedral.

    Diplomacy: You persuade the priest to consider you despite your lack of experience – or perhaps because of it.

    Insight: You listen to the priests requirements including limitations on cost, accommodation, statuary etc to guide your design.

    Dungeoneering: You impress the priest with your flair and obvious skill.

    Phase 2 – Preparing the design

    Dungeoneering: You complete a rough outline of the new building.

    Nature: Using your knowledge of wood and stone you decide how the building will be constructed.

    History: You incorporate historical flourishes and elements evoking earlier grandeur and alluding to great events of the past.

    Religion: You ensure the appropriate religious connotations and symbolism are prominent.

    Dungeoneering: You update the original design, fleshing it out.

    Phase 3 – Approval to build.

    Diplomacy: You present your design effectively and eloquently. Modify this check with a modifier based on success in Phase 2.

    Bluff: Of course you can deliver on time and on budget.

    Diplomacy: The archbishop wants to feel he contributed to the design and has some suggestions. You add some minor changes but manage to deflect some of his more stupid suggestions.

    Phase 4 – Building the Cathedral

    Diplomacy: You hire a builder, organise wood shipments, find a quarry. As many checks as you like.

    Dungeoneering: You find some problems at the site, its too boggy, small cave under a key foundation, bedrock harder than expected. Your knowledge overcomes them.

    Intimidate: There is a contract dispute. A corrupt underworld boss threatens to pull out the teamsters. You face them down.

    Nature: You select the right key materials for the build. Oak for the beams, Elm for the doors. Granite pillars, limestone for walls.

    Dungeoneering: The budget is cut – or increased, the delivery date changed, another annex required. Can you incorporate the changes?

    Result: Well hopefully anything from the greatest cathedral ever built to a collapsed, botched job by the greatest con artist the town has ever seen but either way several hours of entertaining roleplaying.


    • You certainly could built it that way and I do like the phases involved. But I think I would rather have something designed to engage the entire group, as well as the architect, and lead to more adventures.

      With that in mind, I would probably play out the phases as:

      1) Roleplay/SC the encounter with the Archbishop, be sent on adventure to prove your worth (fix another church, explore ruins of a lost cathedral, or some such).

      2) While wizards research spells and warlords train their armies, your draw out your plans. General downtime actions.

      3) More roleplaying/SC leading to more adventures (opening up an abandoned quarry, clearing a pass for supplies to move through, countering the opposition of a cult, and so on).

      4) This happens in the background, historically cathedrals took decades to build in the Middle Ages, with the character dealing with problems -leading to more adventures- as they come up.


      • Absolutely there is significant room for expansion, whether as a focus for a party or merely as a sideline for a player.

        I think the key is that even in a skill lite system set in a quasi medieval setting you can still roleplay an architect if you really want to (I chose a 4e methodology because of Wyatt’s original post).

        Sometimes its about looking a bit beyond what the rules are specifically designed to cover and look more at what they enable with a bit of imagination. Which I think was Chris Young’s point.



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