Game Design: Skill Systems & Reality

Wednesday , 8, April 2015 6 Comments

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.

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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.


  • Don says:

    Have you looked at I think it was the profession skill system. The characters will all have professions, vocations, avocations, hobbies etc. So for instance if you have a profession as a physician you would be reasonably be expected to preform any of tasks (given the time and tools) of an MD. An Army Ranger would know the basic skills of a Ranger, running a patrol, military courtesy, etiquette, etc. Combat Skills might or might not be a separate matter. A system like this would allow the real skills that people build up over a lifetime (try and pay for all the skills that someone like my grandfather or Steve Stirling’s father could preform with at least a routine competence and the characters would have superhuman levels of skill points simply as mundane average Americans).

    I’ve used it in several different game types from superhero to modern to fantasy with success. I am not sure where I heard of this skill system but it works well for us.

    • Aurumvorax says:

      It’s pretty effective in Thirteenth Age, despite the crazy escalation of this Fourth Edition D & D-based system.  Not to laud any of the wackier adaptations this game uses to bound combat, the character personalization can also rapidly go out of control as a result of its open-ended conceptualization system.

  • tweell says:

    As bulky as it is, I like ICE’s Rolemaster system because it is one of the best I’ve seen at modeling those shades between total success and failure. Use a weapon that you aren’t proficient with? Calculated as a percentage of a proficient weapon, percentage depending on how similar that weapon is. Same with a related skill. Relevant stats provide bonuses or minuses. It’s all there. The DM should pack a calculator or a laptop, a nice database can be a real timesaver with Rolemaster.

    Finding the sweet spot between complication and realism is a witch, isn’t it?

    • Aurumvorax says:

      Is that the one with the 20-point alignment system, and are they still publishing MERPS?

      • tweell says:

        I do the rolemaster classic, and they basically left alignment alone. There was vague good and evil, all left up to the GM.
        ICE went bankrupt in the late 90’s and lost the license for MERP.

  • Aurumvorax says:

    Yes, it’s Middle-Earth Role Playing I was thinking of.  I won a gift certificate for Iron Crown Enterprises at a con & still have it, because they went out of business before I could use it!

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