IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a skill system in an RPG with any credence for reality shall suck. Some game engines, such as Classic Traveller and GURPS started out with a number of skills that accrued with every release. Some skills are more useful in game utility than others. Other skill checks result in “plot plugs.” Should players fail the requisite checks, the plot will hit a choke point and not go on.
Touching back on my earlier post on the importance of narrowing choices, overly fine grained skill systems are another place where an abundance of choices makes a game less enjoyable. The wider the array of skills presented to players, the easier it is to overlook something that’s appropriate for the character as you create it, and the harder it is to make NPCs. Skills in RPGs generally don’t map to reality that well. In the real world, there are roughly four levels of skill:
Rote training: You’re good enough at the skill to follow written or verbal instructions.
Routine Competence: You’re good enough at the skill that you can get routine results without consulting training assets, but you need to concentrate.
Basic Mastery: You’re good enough at the skill that you can enter a flow state. Routine results happen without checking, you’re sometimes able to improvise solutions to unexpected problems based on things you’ve done prior to this.
Mastery: You’re good enough at the skill that you enter flow state when solving difficult problems. You can often improvise solutions in nearly unrelated areas of expertise based on experiences you’ve had in your area of expertise.
In most endeavors, those four skill levels map to about 100 hours, 1,000 hours, 4,000 hours and 10,000 hours of “flow-enabled” work, respectively. Whether or not a person ever gets past 4,000 hours in a skill isn’t a matter of talent. It’s a matter of distractions available. Think back to when you were in school: Would you ever go play pickup basketball games or talk to friends rather than study or write papers? That’s the kind of thing behavior that keeps real world people from becoming virtuoso sculptors or violinists. For most people, getting past 4,000 hours in a skill requires a level of dedication and enjoyment in practice that’s uncommon.
RPGs fall down on skills another way: RPGs usually treat skills as binary success/failure conditions. There have been several attempts to graft on things like “greater success means it takes less time…” or “more challenging circumstances make it more difficult to succeed” with penalties, but the reality is that skills are tricky to model, and the more intently a game designer tries to put them into a model, the likelier it is that they’ll have a giant mess.
The third place where RPGs run into skill problems is scaling as characters advance to greater levels of competence and power. I’ve played GURPS games (and GURPS is hard to do this to!) where midway through the campaign, every character is assumed to have at least a <22 or <25 in the skills that matter most to them. Often <28 or <30 if it’s a combat or survival focused skill, because there’s never a good reason NOT to spend your experience points boosting the Thing You’re Already Good At.
This also shows up in other skill-based systems, like WEG d6 (used for Star Wars) and to some extent in Savage Worlds and Chaosium’s BRP. Speaking as a game master, “never fail” skills tend to be rather drama sucking, and situational die roll modifiers reward players for stacking as many bonuses as they can get, which quickly gets to needing to roll a 25 or less on 3d6.
I have an unpublished variant of WEG d6, that like WEG rates stats and skills as dice+adds; there’s something to be said for the tactile thrill of rolling a fistful of awesome at the game table. I made a hybrid of a success-counting system (like White Wolf’s) with an additive system.
If you rolled 4D+2, you’d roll 4d6, and add 2 to the lowest die roll in the set. Anything that was a ‘5’ or ‘6’ was a success.
If you gave an entertaining pre-roll narration that was close to in character (“I kick down the door.” rather than “my character kicks down the door…”) you’d get an upshift: Your dice would succeed on a ‘4’, ‘5’ or ‘6’. This had the effect of making ‘narrative tie in” reducing your chances of failure, but not granting you higher levels of success.
To get more dice, I modified the “character point” economy. Characters defined goals that were important to them. Working towards the goal added dice to that pool; any die roll that pertained to an action rolled your skill dice and goal dice as two separate pools; upshifts only worked on your skill dice.
Goal dice were capped at 4D, max, characters could have two or three goals, and goal dice served as experience points – between adventures, you’d take dice out of your goals, convert them to experience points, and buy up your skills.