Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Skill-based systems gone bad

As with many things, skill-based RPGs began with the best of intentions. I wasn't there when they started, but I imagine it happening as a reaction to class-based systems. In old-school class-based RPGs, there were an awful lot of things left unsaid about a character, mechanically speaking. The race/class combo pretty much dictated only combat efficacy and, to a lesser extent, dungeon-delving skills. Anything else that you wanted your character to be able to do was up to you and GM to work out.

Lots of solutions came about to fix this problem, culminating in the ultimate skill-based system, GURPS, where fighting skills and other skills exist on equal footing. So what's wrong with this approach? Well, nothing, at first. The problem is that, whenever there is doubt about what skill should be used for an action in the vast majority of skill-based systems, the answer is to create a new skill. Skill inflation causes problems on multiple levels.

Here's an example. D&D 3e boiled skills down to a fairly manageable list, but it made skill points into a very precious commodity: they are received in very limited quantities for most classes, and the whole cross-class skills thing makes them even more scarce. This isn't so bad if you assume that a given character only needs a few key skills to supplement her class abilities and feats. But when you set people loose with the OGL, they start making skills up for every damn thing. When I played in an Oriental Adventures game (using the Rokugan setting) I was appalled to find that they added Tea Ceremony, and GO to the list as skills. Yes, in real life these things are skills that take a significant time-investment to be good at, but in the game, they are on a totally different scope than being able to persuade people or take their stuff.

When you create a character in a system like that, you end up in a crunch. You don't want to short the skills that you know will be important to your role in the game, but you want to have all the skills that fill out your character concept.
The Hero System tries to fix this by making "background" skills less expensive to get than skills that are more effective in the core of play. But then they fall into traps just like anybody else. For example, if you want to be a black belt in a particular martial art, the Ultimate Martial Artists advises you to buy a knowledge skill that applies to the art, and potentially a separate professional skill to be an instructor, and buy a perk called "black belt".

Part of the problem here is that designers are trying to design systems that model reality. They think that ff something is hard to do in real life, it should be hard to have your character be able to do in the game. This is the biggest red herring of character design systems. I have never seen a game that models reality even slightly accurately. And I don't think I'd like a system that succeeded in doing so. The trick with a game is not to seriously trigger a "bogus" response from players. Any amount of unrealistic stuff is fine up to the point where the players don't buy it anymore.

Vincent Baker says on this post:

Never, ever [design a mechanic] as a model of reality...
...Unless it's the central, thematically charged reality your game is to comment on. Like, Sorcerer's demon rules are a model of the reality of abusive relationships. Dogs in the Vineyard's town creation rules are a model of the reality of communities in breakdown.

I would add that if you want to simulate some reality with your rules, simulate the fictional reality of the genre of your game. But whatever you do, don't ever assume that the right way to model a skill system is to systematically catagorize the whole range of human skill and ability into a huge list. It will break your game. Guaranteed


Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Something I've noticed in my recent play of D&D is that there's never a need to buy ranks in a Knowledge skill. 9 times out of 10 a knowledge roll has been about information that the GM is desperate to impart to the players, so you get it somehow even if you fail the roll.

I think that falls into the same philosophy family as Jared's advice on never asking for a roll that could bring the game to a halt. Knowledge skills and D20 Modern's 'Gather Information' both have that potential problem.

Sunday, May 15, 2005 6:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

This is what I'm talking about.

I've been in games where the knowledge skills are not only important, but the GM expects them to be very granular. So if you have Knowledge of geography, it has to be of the geography of a very specific, narrowly defined place. And if you don't have the exact knowledge, the GM holds the crucial info back!

Major dysfunction.

Monday, May 16, 2005 12:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Brennan taylor said...

Interesting. I have fallen into this trap myself, and it is a classic problem with skill-based systems. I am inclined to go with something more like a vocation-based system, where your character has "lawyer - 3", allowing the character a roll to do things a lawyer can do. I'm exploring this direction in a game I am currently designing, so we'll see how it goes in play.

Monday, May 16, 2005 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

I'll be interested to see what you come up with. I'm making a move to separate background from mechanics in my own work on Gallant. So far, it seems to work out well enough.

Monday, May 16, 2005 12:17:00 PM  
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Saturday, November 19, 2005 2:02:00 PM  

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