Monday, 22 December 2014

About skills...

Today, I was wondering about skills in roleplaying games, and the way they are done. What are they representing, and what behaviours can a designer encourage by choosing the right mechanic to go with skills, because there is more to a skill than “roll a d20″…
Starting off, we should define what IS a skill in a roleplaying game. Skills, by and large, are the abilties of the characters that define what can they do. Some games, actually, most of the games, use skills along with an attribute system, and in these games the skills represent the know how the character has learnt over the years, opposed to the attirbutes, which represent the inherited affinity.

Attributes however, are not the topic of this post.
Different games put differing emphasis on skills during gameplay and character creation. This can be seen by the number of skills alone, but there are other indicators, skill levels for example a good one.
The popular d20 game systems, like D&D, Pathfinder and their clones, do not overly emphasize the skills, neither at character creation, nor in gameplay. The main abilities for the bulk of the classes are resolved without using the skill system at all. Health, offensive and defensive capabilites, arcane and divine power, but even the special unique moves are tied to different mechanics and not the skill system.
But a in game like Call of Cthulhu, where most of the characters defining power comes from the skills, there is obviously more focus on it and way less on other traits of the character, like attributes.
Or a third example would be Vampire the Masquerade, and the other White Wolf games. Here, the importance is shared between the skill and attribute, contributing equally to the dicepool, the character can overcome its inherent weakness by acquiring more training.
I brought up three popular examples of different emphasis on skills and, as you can see, different mechanics that go along with them as well. This is very important. You see, the different mechanics enforce a different behaviour from players, and set a different mood for the game as well. Generally speaking, the more skills you add to your game, the more it will bend towards simulation from cinematic. More options allow more detailed characters to be represented mechanically.
Another point is restriction. Restriction is what makes the roleplaying games challenging and fun. When you first describe the idea of a roleplaying game to someone, the following sentence is often heard “You can do whatever you want in it”, but the reality is, that is simply not true. Mechanics are there to restrict characters from doing anything, this is why characters can’t fly and shoot lasers from their eyes, while wielding 6 vorpal greatswords, gutting 3 dragons. Mechanics, and by the extension of that, skills, define the characters and their limits… but how much do they restrict them, exactly?
There are a few methods of that in gaming, I’m going to bring up two.
The most popular method, by far, is what I call, “restricition by attempt”. Many GM-s use this method as their go-to answer to anything when they say “You can try”. What it means, you can TRY to do anything you would like in the world (like flying and shooting lasers from your eyes), but if you fail the difficulty on the roll set by the GM, you will likely fail. In the case of flying and shooting lasers, these numbers are usually high, unless you are Superman.
Mechanically this means, possessing a skill means you get to try anything related to that skill, but the difficult task require a difficult (sometimes impossible) roll. The games that use this type of restriction, usually use skills as bonuses adding to the roll (in the case of White Wolf games or other dicepool systems, these bonuses manifest themselves as extra dice), meaning your chances of succeeding in the task when you became more powerful become better.
Another method, is what I call “restriction by secret knowledge”. Fewer games use this approach, as it is a bit more work to put it in a game properly. This method works by complete restriction until the character has unlocked the “hidden knowledge”, most likely the next level of the skill. What this means, that each level of the skill gives a new application to the user for the same skill, but without the necessary level of skill, the application is unavailable. This type of restriciton usually doesn’t give flat bonuses to rolls (but it can) with higher levels of proficiency, but adds a broader approach for the same skill.
This second method is somewhat more restricting, favouring low-level, gritty style of gaming, as well as a bit more realistic approach. A novice herbalist, for example, could determine if the mushroom was edible or poisonous, but an expert could also gain additional information, like, can it be used in any potions? The difficulty of the test could depend on the type of mushroom he examines, and with the same roll, the expert would gain more knowledge.
With the first method, this would look a bit different. The novice character with no, or small bonuses is likely to discover if the mushroom is edible, but if he rolls high enough, he could gain additional insight. The expert level character is almost sure to discover many of the properties. The difficulty could be very low in this case for simple information, and the more a character wishes to know, the harder the task will be. With a lucky roll, even the most unexperienced character can gain insight to any of the properties, which favours the heroic, cinematic style gaming.
Will be continued…

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