Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Skill List and Defining Skills

There are two types of skill lists currently common. Each one has its admirers and detractors, just like anything else in RPG-land:

The first is the long, detailed list - lots of skills, with each skill being closely defined. There's a skill for driving an auto, a skill for driving a boat, and a skill for driving a helicopter, and being good at one is generally useless for performing another. These lists are common in SF, military, and modern/espionage games. In game design terms, the purpose of this type of skill list is to create specialized, niche characters, who each have something to contribute, and to prevent the dominance of one character type.

The second is the short, broad list - very few skills, with each skill being very broadly defined. A character with Driving can drive anything, from submarines to spaceships. A character with Science can do anything vaguely scientific. These lists are common in pulp-derived games, whatever their surface genre. In game design terms, the purpose of this type of skill list is to create broadly competent characters, who - though they may be better at one thing than another, have a core competence in a lot of areas.

There are variations of these basic schemata, such as branching skills to allow specialization after basic grounding, so a civil engineer would be different from a mechanical engineer, though both would have a basic competence in engineering. A character with Driving:Submarines would still be able to drive a spaceship, though not as well as he could drive a sub, and not as well as a character with Driving:Spaceships.

There are also two standard methods of defining skills. The first is the more common of the two, defining a skill by its edges. Edge-defined skills tell the player and GM what the character can do with the skill in some detail - i.e. "Drive Auto - Anyone with this skill can drive automobiles and light trucks, performing basic maneuvers and dealing with ordinary maintenance, such as changing tires, fueling, or replacing coolant. Dangerous or difficult maneuvers would call for a penalty to any skill checks." Typically, edge defined skills leave little room for interpretation. Edge defined skills can be broad or narrow in their definition. Generally, edge defined skills are designed so that skills don't overlap.

The other, less common way is to define by center. Center defined skills usually have a short sentence or two defining where the emphasis of the skill is, but leaving its edges undefined - i.e. "Drive - the ability to drive vehicles which maneuver in two dimensions." Center defined skills by definition leave the interpretation of edge conditions to the group. One group's definition may be very different from another's. A center-defined skill list can be narrowly or broadly defined, as the group sees fit, but generally allow for overlap.

Overlap is the ability for characters to solve the same problem using different skills. All skill lists overlap at least somewhat, but center-defined lists lead to lots of overlap. You may be able to solve the same problem in different ways using many different skills depending on just where the group sets those edges.



  1. I prefer lots of overlap, so I use a center-defined method myself, but I also prefer to use skills as bonuses rather than limits, and I avoid look-up tables as much as possible, so on the detailed/broad continuum, I go with a broad variant often called "backgrounds": pick a profession or background, and if your character does something that someone with that background should know how to do, the character gets a bonus. Any list of backgrounds in the setting notes is thus just a suggestion to help describe the setting; new backgrounds can be added on the fly. For more specific backgrounds, I go with a concrete noun: the "sword" background means that character is especially knowledgeable about all things sword-related -- fighting with, appraising, and showing off knowledge about swords. In some of my game designs, I force players to limit the concrete noun with an adjective.

  2. Hi Talysman!

    In most systems, characters can attempt most skills without having that skill, so in a sense, all skills are ways of giving bonuses in those systems. A few systems prevent skills from being attempted at all by those unskilled, though it is more common for a select number of skills to be barred from unskilled attempts. In those systems, skills are therefore not just bonuses, but licenses as well.

    I have seen some talk of binary skills - i.e. skills which are only licenses, without rank. Skills permit the attempt to do something, but there are no levels of competence. I have never played or read such a system, but they may actually exist.


  3. I've seen the 'binary skill' mindset applied to language skills, mostly. In most systems, if you take a skill in French, you can speak French fluently and don't have to make tests for it, except maybe when running into particularly unusual dialects; thus is the case in Alternity, D&D, the Storyteller system (Storytelling uses Merits instead), and at least a couple of others. Interestingly, it's NOT the case in REIGN, which is the only system I know of off-hand that has language as a skill that you roll for without having purchased fluency.