Monday, December 12, 2011

Too Many Notes, or the Fear of Skills

In the film Amadeus, there's a scene in which the Emperor criticizes Mozart's latest composition:

Emperor: "My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect."

Mozart: "Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?"

I always think of this when I hear someone say - of my games or of anyone else's - "There are too many skills." What does this mean?

What I think it means is that the person saying this is afraid of having to learn a whole bunch of new limits and special cases. Understandable, perhaps. The classic way of defining skills is to describe the skill, list its benefits, then list what it is not, and what it doesn't apply to. This is what I call Definition by Boundary, or Edge Defined Skills. It is in effect a description of a special case by describing the limits to that case. Everything inside those limits is, therefore, the skill. In order to properly use the skill, one must know the applicable and non-applicable skills for each situation.

One way designers get around this is to use Professions as Skills. You were a shoemaker, so you know anything a shoemaker would know. You were a hunter, so you know what a hunter would know. This is nice, because the Professions are self-defining - whatever the profession, so long as you know what the Profession entails, common sense and group consensus tells you what would be applicable. It also has another benefit - it is overlapping. A Hunter has to know something about butchering an animal. So does a Butcher, and so does a Cook. Yet no one worries about that! A Cook doesn't know how to hunt, and a Butcher doesn't know how to cook, and a Hunter is not going to be nearly as good at Butchering an animal as a full-time Butcher. Common sense!

We can also define a Profession by the Skills the Profession uses - a Hunter uses knives and firearms, can track animals, can butcher them, is knowledgable about the weather, and can set snares. So we have the Hunter eligible to learn the skills Blades, Firearms, Tracking, Butchering, Weather, and Snares. Some Hunters are better than others at Firearms, some are better at Snares, some are better at Tracking, etc. This is what Skill Ranks are for. They don't just tell us what someone is good at, like Binary Skills or Professions, they also tell us how good they are. This differentiates one Hunter from another.

There is another way to define Skills than Definition by Boundary. This is Definition by Center. A Center Defines Skill is one which is self-defining, in which the name describes what it focuses on - the Firearms skill is about using Firearms. The Tracking skill is all about tracking creatures. The Snares skill is about setting traps. The edges are not described. Edge conditions are left up to common sense and group consensus.

What happens when you have two skills which are applicable in a situation? Say you have a broken firearm! Would you use Firearms or Repair to fix it? If your skills are overlapping, the answer is either one. Repair can fix most anything broken, but it doesn't automatically allow you to use Firearms to shoot a pistol. Firearms allows you to do most anything with a gun, but it doesn't automatically allow you to fix a car or a lamp. Why not? Common sense and group consensus. You no longer need to worry about memorizing special cases and limits, you just have to know in general what the Skill is about, and that should be in the name.

But why not have just a few skills? Define them broadly and from the center, and it shoud cover everything, right? Flavor. More Skills means more differentiation, more shading, more subtlety. Some games work great without a lot of subtlety, and some don't. Let the game itself tell you how subtle and flavorful you want these characters to be.

In effect, Center-Defined Skills are miniature Professions, and Professions are made up of these Skills. You can play any game which uses Skills by using Professions instead, if you prefer. just consider that listing of Skills to be a sort of definition of the Profession. The two concepts are mutually translatable.

There is no need to worry about how many notes are in the music, you can just relax and let the song flow.


No comments:

Post a Comment