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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, January 27, 2012

What Do Skills Do, Again?

Ever since D&D added non-weapon proficiencies to AD&D, skills have been a staple of pretty much every RPG out there. From 3rd Edition's somewhat bloated list of skills to FATE's highly customizable skill list to Cortex's skill dice, every major game out there seems to make use of skills, or at least some list of skill-like abilities. It stands to reason that they're important, but have you ever taken a closer look at what skills actually do in the game? I'm going to look at the use of skills in two very different games, World of Darkness and Burning Wheel, to see what each game uses them for.

World of Darkness: Dungeon-crawling Sans Dungeon
Running a game of World of Darkness has really helped to open my eyes to the basic uses of its rather robust skill and attribute system. When the players want to take an action, they combine a skill with a stat (a system also used in the Cortex/Cortex+ engines) to figure out how many dice to roll. Basic enough. What's really revealing, however, is which skills get used, and when skills get invoked.

I've noted that, in a way, the game is being played as a sort of dungeon crawl, but minus the actual structure of the dungeon. Also, minus monsters, for the most part. We have yet to make a single combat roll so far. What the players do roll, however, is distilled into two main categories: overcoming obstacles and gaining information/clues. In essence, this is what you get in an old-school dungeon crawl, with its sense of heavy exploration. Players go around, trying to unravel events by using their skills to shed light, and also to overcome the obstacles which then come against them.

Burning Wheel: Dice and Consequences
In Burning Wheel (I'm playing a game with Google Documents), a very different paradigm makes itself evident. A lot of World of Darkness' die-rolling is obsoleted by the "Say Yes or Roll the Dice" axiom: if nothing major is at stake, don't make the players roll for it. Therefore, whenever the dice are rolled, the players are putting something at risk so that something else can happen. I would term this type of skill usage as shaping the world, and it's a usage that you don't often see.

Another interesting point of contrast is the massive size of Burning Wheel's skill list. Counting Wises (special knowledge skills), there are 419 distinct skills in the game. You read that right. 419. Some of those are more major than others, but the fact remains that this is a game where you are certainly not expected to have every skill. You could have an entire group of characters, where each one has a unique cluster of skills. In Burning Wheel, skills become something far more personal than in World of Darkness. This is because they don't represent standard ways of overcoming obstacles; they represent the ways that your character is shaping the world in their own unique way.

What About Combat?
That's easy. You're shaping the world by damaging an opponent or sparing yourself from harm. More importantly, though, this points to a fourth use of skills: deciding a winner. Burning Wheel and World of Darkness both make use of this, as do many RPGs; in fact, I can't think of an RPG where this isn't the case. When two characters want the same thing, there are skills that help you decide who gets it.

Skill List Bloat
Some readers might note, with amusement, that I refer to 3rd Edition D&D's skill list as "bloated", but pass no such judgment on Burning Wheel's 419 skills. One distinct difference is that those 419 skills are actually pretty finely tuned to encompass an effective field that applies to a number of situations but still retains thematic unity.

In contrast, let me critique and pull out some of the skills from the 3.5 SRD. Tumble lets you do two major things: roll in the air to avoid damage, and roll past enemies to avoid opportunity attacks. Unsurprisingly, Pathfinder and 4th Edition rolled this one in with Balance, forming the much broader and more generally useful Acrobatics skill. Spot, Listen, and Search checks all cover one very specific aspect of awareness. Again, Pathfinder and 4th Edition rolled them into one skill: Perception.

The reason why I consider skills like these to be skill bloat is simple: they let you do one or two things. If you had to take a skill for every specific action you could take, the skill list would be massively ridiculous. Good skills should cover a wide variety of uses, and be usable in many situations. They shouldn't be too vague, but they can't be too narrow, either. A sole skill should afford a player a great capacity for the Four Uses.

So, what have we learned? I think most of it boils down to the Four Uses of skills:
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Gaining Information
  • Shaping the World
  • Finding a Winner

When running a game or designing a game, it helps to know which of these focal points the game's skill system tends towards. That'll massively impact the philosophy that you run the game with.

Well, that's all for now, folks! I'll see you around on Tuesday...oh, and I'm going to Ohayocon this weekend, as the Tenth Doctor. There may be pictures up in my next blog post. Allons-y!

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