What's Your "Sweet Spot" for a Skill system?

JohnSnow

Hero
Okay, this is another "let's get people talking" post. And I know everyone will have very different answers to this, but I'd be interested to know if there's any trends...

Skill systems feel like one of the most divisive subjects in RPGs. The earliest editions of D&D had a solidly defined "skill system" to cover combat and a bolted on subsystem for the various thief skills...and not much else. After introducing the concept of non-weapon proficiencies (1e Survival Guides and 2e), 3e went nuts with a simulationist skill system using the core mechanic. Other than cleaning it up and greatly simplifying the list, that's largely held on in D&D, although the granularity isn't great, and most of the "improvement" is dumped on leveling. Counting tools and languages, a starting 5e character gets to train in 6 (most), 7 (Rangers), 8 (Bards, w/"musical instruments" as a single tool), or 9 (Rogues) skills, in addition to their combat and spell-casting abilities. All the non-humans usually get an extra language. It's worth noting that D&D only has 18 official "Skills," although languages are separate and some of that load is dumped on Tools, which seem to be considered "less useful."

Outside of D&D, many other games have highly developed skill systems, some of which (classless systems) even handle combat and spell-casting. But those run the gamut from Palladium to GURPS to VtM to Savage Worlds and everything in between.

And then there are a ton of games which basically don't have skill systems, or that replace them with something highly abstract, like Castles & Crusades Primes, or the minimalist systems that lean heavily on attributes, like PbtA, or many, many OSR games.

Personally, I'm kinda in the middle on skill systems. I like them because I like not having to rely on something as artificial as "Class" on which to build characters, and I'm highly skeptical of the "just wing it" based on what's plausible from a character's background, but I really don't want to go back to the days of having separate skills for pistols, rifles, and bows ("Shooting" feels right) or highly curated lists of proficient weapons. By the same token, I'm also perfectly fine with combining "Hide" and "Move Silently into a single skill called "Stealth" or "Sneak" and "Listen" and "Spot" and "Seach" into one skill called "Notice." I'm not even sure we need to separate athletics and acrobatics. And the various social and knowledge skills create a whole extra level of problem, but in the interest of keeping this post manageable, I won't go into detail about that.

I can also appreciate that the more load we put on skills, the less we need attributes. Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure. As a sword-fighter, I know that strength doesn't impact your ability to inflict damage with sharp weapons nearly as much as many people think it should. That's honestly why people use swords.

I certainly have thoughts on this subject, but I'm not 100% sure where the sweet spot is or even theoretically "should" be. And it probably varies greatly from table to table. I just know that too much complexity bogs things down, and too much abstraction starts to feel weird (to me, at least).

Thoughts? Anybody else want to weigh in?
 

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Staffan

Legend
It depends a lot on what the game is about and trying to do, but generally I think the Troubleshooters is in about the right spot with 25-30 percentile skills plus a number of binary abilities supplementing them. Notably, the Troubleshooters does away with attributes/ability scores – some attribute-like things still exist, but as skills.

Another game with an interesting approach to skills is Star Trek Adventures. ST:A has six Attributes rated 7 to 12 that mostly represent innate aptitude and how good you are at approaching problems in different fashions: Control, Daring, Fitness, Insight, Presence, and Reason. You also have six Disciplines rated 1-5 representing training in various areas (0 is theoretically possible but not for PCs since Starfleet makes sure their crews are generally competent), and since this is Star Trek the Disciplines are Command, Conn, Engineering, Security, Science, and Medicine. When rolling, you usually roll two d20 (you can get more via various means) and want to get below the sum of the appropriate Attribute + Discipline on as many dice as possible (with a roll of 1 being a crit and counting as two successes). So far it's a pretty bog standard stat+skill system, but you also have Focuses, representing narrower training. These can be things like Botany, Small craft, Hand phasers, or Warp systems. When making a check where you have an applicable Focus, each die equal to or lower than your appropriate Discipline is a crit instead of just a 1. This makes sure that PCs are widely competent (as Starfleet characters are generally portrayed), but still have their own specialties. So Dr. Julian Bashir is better than Dr. Beverly Crusher on most Reason + Medicine checks (Sum 16 vs 15), but Crusher is a better surgeon because she has a focus in Surgery, and Bashir instead has one in Genetic Engineering.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Traveller is my favorite skill system RPG. 2D6+Attribute+Skill. Target is 8 on average, but could be easier or more difficult based on situation. Advancement is largely flat (in comparison to D&D) so you just dive in and play away.

I like skill systems that you can interact with and improve in intricate ways, which means 5E sucks donkey goobers for me. However, PF2 has an interesting proficiency system, but also a new bucket of skill feats. At first glance it seems awesome, until you realize its the worst of both worlds. Feats vary so much in usefulness, and proficiency has no player input. I guess that leaves me in the PF1 group for game of fantasy RPG skill system of choice.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Skill systems seem routinely to be designed in the precise inverse manner I want to use them. I want to know what actions each skill allows me to take, and how difficult all of those actions are. Instead, we tend to come up with a set of descriptive terms of what we think a character should be able to do, and then maybe create/assign actions to them thereafter. Then, skill selection should primarily be a strategic choice players make, to let them use some amount of those actions that are broken up between them at the desired level of efficiency.
 

Skills are rough. It's nice to have some mechanics so players can do things mechanically, but they often don't work out in game play. It's hard to get them to scale. Some games like 3E go for characters with +100s, other games go for more static "its always a 10". But it's hard to get away from just rolling past things. The players encounter X, roll some dice, and move on.

I really only like and use skills for more physical things. Mental skills are a mess, much like the role playing question. A player can't 'role play' a smart character by rolling a clever idea check.

I do like skills connected more to classes, backgrounds and such. But again, it's tricky to do.
 

but I really don't want to go back to the days of having separate skills for pistols, rifles, and bows ("Shooting" feels right) or highly curated lists of proficient weapons. By the same token, I'm also perfectly fine with combining "Hide" and "Move Silently into a single skill called "Stealth" or "Sneak" and "Listen" and "Spot" and "Seach" into one skill called "Notice." I'm not even sure we need to separate athletics and acrobatics. And the various social and knowledge skills create a whole extra level of problem, but in the interest of keeping this post manageable, I won't go into detail about that.
Everything you've said here is spot on for how Fate handles skills. Not sure how well you'd like the system otherwise, but you're describing its skill system to a T. Shoot, Stealth, Notice, and Athletics are all on the standard list of 18. Knowledge skills are broken up into Academics and Lore, with Lore referring mostly to supernatural stuff. (You can specialize in a sub-area of a skill with stunts.)
 

I haven't come across a game that does everything I want with a skill system. Shocker. But as I've expanded my game knowledge I've been able to narrow down what I do and don't like.

The game should only include skills that make sense for the game. Don't try to shoehorn in skills just because they sound good/are standard in other games. Bonus points if the design allows adjusting what skills are in the game. That doesn't have to be a major aspect of the design, but I like it when that freedom is included.

Play the game and make sure there is some balance between each skill in terms of use. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it sucks to have a skill that never gets any use or another skill that feels mandatory for play. If there is an intentional unbalance that should be called out in the skill section so that everyone is aware.

I like when skills are grouped by how, when, or what they're used for. One long list doesn't do it for me anymore. Whether it's exploration/social/combat, general/advanced, or quick/normal/slow I think grouping them can give mechanical and character benefits.

Skill systems that are clear in what each one covers and minimizes overlap are my preference. If a situation calls for X or Y skills then I expect the success and failures of X to look different than those of Y. I'm okay with exceptions every once in a while. Just attempt to avoid that.

Each skill should come with an example of it's use and what we can expect to occur when we get certain rolls. Using D&D 5e as an example, XGtE does a decent job of this with the tools section (especially compared to the PHB skill section). Each tool gives a description of what it is used for, interactions with other skills, and a few DCs. Now a player knows with a DC X check they can expect certain results and build characters accordingly.

Don't hide a subsystem in your skill section. This is more of a layout issue, but if you have an encumbrance system it should not be hidden under the Brawn skill section. The Brawn skill section should mention that it can effect encumbrance. That's good. But the actual rules for encumbrance should be in their own section.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
The skill system in my homebrew system has gone through a few (more like many) revisions. I originally started with the skill list and mechanic from Worlds Without Number before paring it down considerable and then fleshing it back out.

Paring down the skill list seemed really appealing. Characters would have the minimal skills needed to be adventurers, and the remainder of their skills would come from an open-ended list where you could buy “skill specialities” for a narrow area. You might have (basic) survival skills, but you would need the speciality to track or do other non-basic things. This ended up being too confusing conceptually. Even I would mess up which skill to use from time to time.

I currently use a list of twenty two skills. I need to do a review of the social skills, so that may change a little bit, but I feel pretty good about the final skill list. Weapon skills are now also separate, and even armor is integrated as proficiencies (effectively, but they cost less EXP to buy). Unlike the previous way of doing things, this list is fixed. Specialities still exist, but they serve a different roll in the game. The hope is this will make determining the right skill easier to use for everyone.

Skill Checks are made using skill + attribute. The attribute is the approach you’re using. Are you using force (Strength), agility (Dexterity), smarts (Intellect), past experiences (Wisdom), fortitude either physical (Endurance) or mental (Willpower)? That’s the attribute. The skill is the method you’re using. Forcing open a chest with a prybar would be Burglary + Strength while fiddling with the lock might be Burglary + Dexterity or even Burglary + Wisdom with the right experience (“These are standard locks used on chests like this, which I’ve seen before.”). The choice of approach and method is left to the players, though they should change one or both if the table feels a suggested method + approach is not appropriate for the situation.

Wisdom is a bit of a special attribute because rather than represent something like intuition, it is your actual wisdom from past experiences. You get a fixed number of these at character creation (your background is one, then you decide two more). More can be obtained via longterm projects. Aside from working with the Wisdom attribute this way, experiences are also used for a handful of skills (Crafting, Performance, Rituals) to determine how those skills can be used.

I should also note that there is no “Perception” skill. Things like sneaking or surprise work through other mechanisms. I don’t really care for the loop where the stuff to do in the room is hidden behind a skill check I request as soon as they enter the room. I don’t think take 10 or passive checks are a good solution for this. I’d rather just describe the situation and let the PCs interact with it. When they want to learn more, they can use the Investigation (encounter) and Research (long term) skills.

Dices mechanics have varied considerably. As noted above, I started out using 2d6 from Worlds Without Number. The skill system in those games is inspired by Traveller. I wanted to use a fixed target difficulty and eventually degrees of success, so I have tried several different rolling methods to accommodate the range of modifiers in my game (2d6 → 3d6 → 2d6 → 2d10 → ??). That question mark is where I am at currently.

One problem I have encountered with degrees of success is the perception by one of my players that “mixed success” means he failed. Even though his character does what he wanted, the fact that something else happens feels bad. To address this dissonance, I’m considering a mechanic I am calling “dual rolls” for our next session. With dual rolls, instead of his rolling alone, I would simultaneously make a roll for the consequence. Based on the combination of rolls, this determines the result.

The idea is decoupling the consequence should make it feel better to players like the one in my group. As part of the system’s design, I don’t want to decide what happens. I’m only supposed to do that when the system requests it (part of my attempting to be a neutral referee by keeping my hands off the till). The consequence is my space for doing that, and for doing that as hard as the situation merits. It should be thought of as something akin to a wandering monsters check except systemic.

I’ve done some looking at the math and done one mock combat so far. I’d like to also mock out some of the conflicts I’ve described in the commentary thread (particularly this one and this one). The combat went okay. It’s a little more dangerous because the target rolls one of dodge, block, or parry. I’m currently using 1d20+mods versus 11 or 21 (for a Critical Success). This means success is “easy”, but it’s not always going to be consequence-free.

In the mock combat, Dingo took a bit more damage than he did in the actual session (due to some bad dice luck where both he and Deirdre whiffed). One thing I did like is it makes it possible for even those with crappy values to have some success attacking and defending. Trying to balance a progression of modifiers without instituting a difficulty threadmill has been challenging. Dual rolls obviates that. You can do some fiddling with the opponent’s roll (Deirdre’s Unbalance speciality was applied to the target’s next dodge), but they’ll typically get to make their roll.

As an aside, I’m not aware of many games that use this approach. @pemerton has brought Pendragon’s opposed rolls to my attention, which has been the closest. Most games that use opposed rolls compare the results. My approach does not. That’s how it can generate the different degrees of success and how consequences are still possible even when you’re very likely to get what you want. Otherwise, the system breaks down when actions never have consequences (and needing to determine the consequence roll becomes an easy and visible test of whether anything is at stake).

Update: After doing some more testing and consultation with the player who had issues with the 2d10 method, we’re actually going to stick with the current method. The “dual rolls” method has some edge cases relating to things like spells that would result in quite a bit of upheaval in the way I’ve designed specialities and spells. I can do some things to better signal what consequences are coming, and I need to better tune the monster numbers. The rest of this post should still be applicable.
 
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Committed Hero

Adventurer
I have come to think that it's unnecessary for a system to have both attributes and skills. I understand why such systems exist and endure, but for me there's no extra utility inherent in the additional layer of detail. It's less of a useful method of comparison than we think, because most players will expect a die roll of some sort to determine the outcome of a contest between two characters anyway.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . I like them because I like not having to rely on something as artificial as "Class" on which to build characters, and I'm highly skeptical of the "just wing it" based on what's plausible from a character's background, but I really don't want to go back to the days of having separate skills for pistols, rifles, and bows ("Shooting" feels right) or highly curated lists of proficient weapons. By the same token, I'm also perfectly fine with combining "Hide" and "Move Silently into a single skill called "Stealth" or "Sneak" and "Listen" and "Spot" and "Seach" into one skill called "Notice." . . .
In Modos 2, I encourage the guide (GM) to write her own skill list, and it's exactly for this reason. Some groups don't need 10 thief skills. Some do. The guide can keep it simple by throwing out the skill list, pruning down the 21 (22ish?) default skills, or keeping the default list. Or, she can go gonzo, and keep adding beyond Pistol, Rifle, and Bow.

By the way, I included "melee" and "ranged" skills in the earlier version for combat, but that does two things that I was trying to avoid: make the default skill list slightly longer, and put more focus on combat (since they were both weapon-focused skills). The two became "armed."

I can also appreciate that the more load we put on skills, the less we need attributes. Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure. As a sword-fighter, I know that strength doesn't impact your ability to inflict damage with sharp weapons nearly as much as many people think it should. That's honestly why people use swords.
This doesn't follow, unless you're talking about a specific game or specific definition of attributes. I.e. hit points are treated as an attribute in some games, and in those games, you probably need them, regardless of how much skill you have. To continue the Modos 2 example, attributes determine how much "damage" a character can manage. So they're pretty important (unless the guide mods them).

Skills are rough. It's nice to have some mechanics so players can do things mechanically, but they often don't work out in game play. It's hard to get them to scale. Some games like 3E go for characters with +100s, other games go for more static "its always a 10". But it's hard to get away from just rolling past things. The players encounter X, roll some dice, and move on.
Emphasis mine. I wouldn't call that a skills problem. That sounds more fundamental. Like a "pass or fail" problem. Which isn't hard-coded into all games...
 

Staffan

Legend
I have come to think that it's unnecessary for a system to have both attributes and skills. I understand why such systems exist and endure, but for me there's no extra utility inherent in the additional layer of detail. It's less of a useful method of comparison than we think, because most players will expect a die roll of some sort to determine the outcome of a contest between two characters anyway.
I can see the point in having both, particularly in a system like Star Trek Adventures or Storyteller/Storypath when you can have different combinations of attributes + skills for different situations. For example, in STA you might roll Reason + Medicine to diagnose a medical problem, and Control + Medicine to perform surgery.
 

pemerton

Legend
I tend to think of this topic as what's the function of a skill system?

A skill system creates subtle variations in prospects of success for different sorts of PC builds, depending on the fictional details of (i) the situation and (ii) the player's action declaration for their PC.

In the case of games like RuneQuest, Burning Wheel and Torchbearer, the system also creates a feedback loop into PC advancement/development.

So varying the skill system generates different play experiences. A system with many and varied skills, like Rolemaster or RQ or BW, encourages a focus on minute details of situations and action declarations. In play, this creates a "grittier" experience. Minutiae matter.

A system based on a small number of broadly-described attributes (like say Agon - each PC is rated in Arts & Oration, Craft & Reason, Blood & Valour, and Resolve & Spirit) makes the general fit between these PC descriptors and the described action salient, while making minute details of the fictional situation less important.

In both approaches, it is important that players are expected to have the freedom to describe what their PCs do, and how they approach situations, just choosing how to bring their PC skills to bear. If the focus in a RPG is on the players being expected to follow the GM's lead on what sort of action declarations are appropriate (eg as per some module-based/AP-based play) then skill systems seem rather pointless to me, or even potentially unfair, because they will simply create a "gate" between PC build choices and prospect of succeeding at the GM's adventure.
 

Committed Hero

Adventurer
I can see the point in having both, particularly in a system like Star Trek Adventures or Storyteller/Storypath when you can have different combinations of attributes + skills for different situations. For example, in STA you might roll Reason + Medicine to diagnose a medical problem, and Control + Medicine to perform surgery.
For sure, the decoupling of skills and abilities is a step forward. But I submit that this character would be just as competent with the Medicine skill by itself ;).
 

JohnSnow

Hero
I honestly think I would favor a system where skills define the character, and attributes either determine how good you are to start with (natural ability counts for something) or make it easier for an appropriately "gifted" character to train a skill (meaning that starting characters can get more ranks for the same investment if they're "gifted" in the attribute). Both of these are an appropriate way of modeling what natural abilities actually mean in "the real world." Not that this is always good game design, but why not start there?

But after creation, I think that should go away, so that advancement is just advancement. This is because, as both a DM and a player making a "higher-level" character, I hate having to worry about when I bought what skill (see 3e and "cross-class skills"). It may not be "realistic," but this is a place where I'm personally willing to sacrifice a little realism for expediency.

Of course, not all systems allow for varying levels of skill training, so that may not be relevant in every set-up.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I have come to think that it's unnecessary for a system to have both attributes and skills. I understand why such systems exist and endure, but for me there's no extra utility inherent in the additional layer of detail. It's less of a useful method of comparison than we think, because most players will expect a die roll of some sort to determine the outcome of a contest between two characters anyway.

It seems to me that designers of a game should figure out about a dozen() distinct things that are *actually rolled in the game and make 'skills' for them. If it's not rolled often, fold it into another 'skill' and make that beefier.

(*) Actual number can range, but I think a dozen is about right, give or take, depending on the game.
 

pogre

Legend
It seems to me that designers of a game should figure out about a dozen() distinct things that are *actually rolled in the game and make 'skills' for them. If it's not rolled often, fold it into another 'skill' and make that beefier.

(*) Actual number can range, but I think a dozen is about right, give or take, depending on the game.
I guess I am on the other side of this equation - I really like lots of skills. Not sure if I have as good of a justification as you do for your position, but I do get frustrated when skills I consider very different are lumped in the same category. It's not a make or break situation for me in a game - I play a lot of 5e after all. It may be a left over from my WFRP days.
 

JohnSnow

Hero
I guess I am on the other side of this equation - I really like lots of skills. Not sure if I have as good of a justification as you do for your position, but I do get frustrated when skills I consider very different are lumped in the same category. It's not a make or break situation for me in a game - I play a lot of 5e after all. It may be a left over from my WFRP days.
The easy fix for this is what SWADE does. There's 32 skills, of which 5 are the various "use magical powers" skills, and another several are technology-based. So it's about 2 dozen total (of which "Language" is one), including the three skills that cover combat ability.

Beyond that, you can decide that your game requires "Specializations" ("Skill Specialization" is a setting rule). They are explicit that even if you choose to use this rule, you do not have to use it for every area, but can pick and choose if a particular subject were particularly important to your game.

It's a pretty neat system that isn't too granular.
 

JohnSnow

Hero
I'll also add that SWADE has separated out certain skills that might not be relevant in all settings - they have boating, driving, and piloting as separate skills, for example.
 

pogre

Legend
I'll also add that SWADE has separated out certain skills that might not be relevant in all settings - they have boating, driving, and piloting as separate skills, for example.
I'm sorry, but is SWADE a Star Wars RPG system?

edit: Oh gosh! I just figured it out - Savage Worlds! I even own that system! LOL
 
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JAMUMU

go, hunt. kill haribos.
My Runequest and 5e hacks have 50 skills. I consider this the minimum number of named proficiencies for a skill-based game. If you're going to have fewer than 50, then the game should be attribute based. Some people might think it's obvious that I run a lot of Burning Wheel.
 

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