On Skill Deconstruction: An Assessment

During these many discussion over skills one misunderstanding occurs more frequently than the rest. I'd like to take a moment to clear it up.

I do not hate skills.

In fact, I am quite fond of mechanical systems to resolve conflict.

I am very interested in what makes for fun resolution mechanics. My complaints are about specific issues with specific systems - not the idea of conflict resolution mechanic systems in general.

So let me start off by saying, I have never to date and would never run a game that lacked skills. I think they are crucial not only to the play of the game, but also enjoyable for the players to feel a sense of accomplishment outside of just leveling up.

However, by RAW in d20 their skill system has serious problems.

What are the solutions?

Well the first solution has been pointed out by several people, notably DomDem and Confanity who's comments started this in-depth examination of skills.

Be a good DM.

The way a DM handles skills is the single largest factor as to how they are received by the people playing the game and a huge influence on the amount of fun they are having.

Pick a non-broken resolution mechanic or subsystem based on what you intend the skill to do.

There are many different types of resolution mechanics, and we will examine some when we take a closer look at specific skills and their uses in upcoming posts. At the end the different techniques we've come up with will be collected into a single post for a review. (hints: simple, low granularity, increase in accuracy as skill increases)

Characters must be able to improve applicable skills (like real people) separately from advancement in level.

I have a fairly large OSR readership (and I appreciate you, natch!) and most of us run older games where there is little mechanical advancement past a certain point. Sometimes it can be a long long time between levels once name level is reached. So some ability must exist for players to increase their skills separate from level giving them non-level oriented goals, as well as potential rewards. Not all skills are learnable or improvable though.

It must work within the confines of the games we are already playing.

Basically if it requires major redesign of the nature of any version of D&D, we need to take a step back and reconsider. We're all playing the game we want to play - suggestions should fit within that and not destroy it. The special case is of course 3.5/pathfinder. Since the preexisting system is so large, you would need to address that in a fairly major way (i.e. truncated and replaced, or house ruled seriously)

These systems should not - as a general rule - prevent those without training or those possessing the skill from attempting the said task.

After all - we want to focus on player skill. These skills are not meant to replace player skill but supplement it in order to resolve conflicts that meet our criteria here.

Also: apparently this series has been so terrible? Inflammatory? that I've had three people stop following my blog.

I really think I must be on to something.

If you'd like to show your support for this post, and my blog in general, feel free to click the follow button over there on the right!

We'll be looking at individual skills next!


  1. I've found this a very thoughtful and balanced series of posts. Thanks!

  2. Take a look at Skills in Neoclassical Geek Revival, it meets your criterion.


  3. @Zzarchov:

    It does at that. :-) I think that's my new second favorite system.

  4. I don't use blogger to follow blogs. I really don't know anybody who does. But I'll follow you, because I love basically everything you post, -C. Especially when I disagree with it vehemently.

    I wish I had been able to participate more in the discussions surrounding these posts. I've had a rough week with work/sleep/blah/blah/blah. But I am thoroughly enjoying them.

  5. I wanted to show my support for this excellent conversation; thank you for sticking with it.

    As someone who is currently attempting to hack Pathfinder elements into a Swords & Wizardry rule set [more 'slashing' than 'hacking' actually], I have found this conversation invaluable.

    In my humble opinion, it always feels contentious whenever your own culture [and systems of resolution are cultural artifacts] is examined critically. I would hope that folks could relax & realize that their 'tribe' is not actually under attack here -- just looking at how the different tribes do stuff.
    I suppose it gets even more contentious because this critical examination is also an evaluation of these different cultures: an evaluation that includes numerical ranking as well!
    Oh MY!

    Finally, while I recognize that they are separate rules sub systems, I intuit that there is a strong connection between the manner & mechanics that D&D rule sets / cultures handle both skill resolution & saving throws: Gygaxian actuarial tables or 'whatever-you-call' d20+mods vs DC. I'm not certain one can fully address one without consider the other.

    Thank you, again.

  6. I can't imagine why someone would turn themselves off of one of the few OSR blogs doing actual analysis as opposed to nostalgia (but Grognardia's fun too).

    I don't use tools to follow blogs, but ever since someone pointed me at your pdf of empty rooms I've made sure to check your blog out at least once a week. 2nd most useful fan-made supplement I've ever seen (after Kellri's encounter book).

  7. @Danger dino

    Thanks! That is high praise.

  8. I'm already following, so I can't do that again, but I just want to say that I have been really enjoying this series.

    So some ability must exist for players to increase their skills separate from level giving them non-level oriented goals, as well as potential rewards.

    That's an interesting goal, but I'm not sure it is one I share. There are a lot of other ways that characters can develop once level advancement has slowed down. In fact, I might argue that relying on skill development to satisfy psychological progression will likely lead to skill rank inflation and mix/maxing temptation (as in the version 3 family of games).

    Some other dimensions that high level characters can advance in:

    - Wealth
    - Followers
    - Social achievements
    - Domain development (SimCity)

    And I'm sure many more that I'm not thinking of right now.

  9. I'll also be very curious to see how the LotFP skill system stacks up against your criteria, as that is the system that I currently find the most compelling.

  10. It sounds like you should check out Adventurer Conqueror King, it sounds a lot like what you're talking about here (although it has the big malus of not being out yet, it should be out by Christmas though). That D&D hack has Proficiencies that aren't tied to level and each of them has its own sub-system that works for it alone.

  11. @Brendan/David

    I am familiar with and like both. :-)

  12. I'm already a follower, so that's that. Tremendous blog and I like this series of posts about skills. Ever since I changed systems (from 3.0 to Hackmaster 4th ed. to Rules Cyclopedia) I see myself confronted with players (mostly the younger ones) who actually MISS the way the third edition handled skills. Not because it's a more complex system to define a character, more like because of insecurity. I think computer games are to blame. A computer game (the popular ones, anyway) works within very clear defined parameters and the abilities of your character are the ONLY thing you need to influence the game world (player skill is more or less the ability to use the tools at hand). It doesn't matter how complex a system is, it's always within those alternating and cohere frameworks. It's the difference between the player using a hammer (computer games, skill heavy systems) and the player BEING the hammer (old school gaming, few skills or no skills at all).

  13. Follow you with Sage, don't know if that counts.

    Regarding the illustration: I don't know if its intended to point out a particular absurdity of some or not. But, truth be told, what it illustrates is actually one of my ideals of a skill system: That most skills just keep increasing in effectiveness well beyond what we mortals in the real world imagine to be possible.


    I've already thrown my hat in for a middle-road-ish approach (in particular: coarse-grained descriptive gradations of expertise which can be correlated to quantitative values for die rolls if the need arises), so I won't rehash that again. But a few comments on criteria you're looking at:

    "Characters must be able to improve applicable skills (like real people) separately from advancement in level.
    Sometimes it can be a long long time between levels once name level is reached. So some ability must exist for players to increase their skills separate from level giving them non-level oriented goals, as well as potential rewards."

    It's funny you should point this out. My couple years playing AD&D compared with my 3E experience contrasts this way even at low levels:

    2E took us forever to advance just the first couple levels (it was a slow campaign without many experience rewards), while the 3E game had pretty regular advancement.

    But, chalk it up to DMing style maybe, the pace of events in both games was such that I don't think our characters would ever have had a chance to train or acquire skills through any means other than level advancement (or maaaaagic).

    Probably just my limited viewpoint from a limited number of DMs. But this is the sort of reason, as a player, I've never really trusted anything I couldn't get through level advancement.

    I think level-based vs. non-level-based advancement is something that could easily be swapped in or out of most skill systems. But my challenge would be to have a non-level-based system that doesn't rely on cash paid and specific amounts of time spent away from the adventure.

    Maybe something that would say you could learn a bit of lore from the sage traveling in your caravan while on the road, or learn to ride better as you traveled, learned to read with the help of a companion . . . all for free, at the rate of some % completion per day/week/month.

    "These systems should not - as a general rule - prevent those without training or those possessing the skill from attempting the said task."

    "As a general rule" I agree. I can certainly see where you're coming from on this, although I think there should be some "skills" that aren't readily doable without at least some training (self-training possible).

    Maybe you'd call these "powers" or something to distinguish them from common skills, or make them class-dependent abilities, but they could even include things like very strange languages.

  14. For another idea, does anyone know of a hybrid skill/level system where you can choose to use XP toward either level advancement or skill advancement, but not both at the same time? That would really mess with many of the assumptions of D&D, but it might be interesting to try out.

    1. XP for gold, skills for gold works this way.

  15. @Brendan, I am intrigued by your idea although if skills were something you gave up class advancement for, they would have to be just as substantially useful (which some are, and some aren't). You would have to have a very good balance of skillful interactions and combat situations so players wouldn't feel punished for choosing one focus over the other. Intriguing indeed.

  16. @Brendan, I don't know if it fits, but in the German rpg Midgard you have to spend your xp for skills (weapon proficiences are skills too, but the xp are separated) before you can gain a level. It's a very old and skill heavy system (the first German rpg) and most of the skills are little subsystems. Either way, you are free to choose how to develop your character and every now and then you have (regardless of the focus) spend enough xp to gain a level (to get more hp and a chance to increase your abilities and your saves, if I remember correct).

  17. Like others, I have also been very much enjoying this series on skills, as well as the blog in general.

    As for solutions to the skill system conundrum, how is this: in my games, I generally house-rule some sort of reward for "critical" skill rolls -- that is, rolling a natural 20 and then "confirming" against the DC. If that happens, the player adds a mark next to the skill in question. Once they get three such marks, they receive a skill rank for free.

    What if this was used _instead_ of the normal skill progression, perhaps reducing the number of marks needed to improve at the skill to two or even one? That way skills improve independent of levels, only the skills the character actually uses (i.e. practices) improve, and they do not improve at an inflationary rate. Also, by using the "critical roll" mechanic, the players receive a similar satisfaction from rolling a 20 as they do during combat.

    The mechanic breaks down when dealing with skills such as the Knowledge ones that cannot be improved through practice. However, those can be handled, I believe, by roleplaying (i.e. "I spend the two weeks we're going to be in town to do some research about the flora and fauna of this here locale."). Granted, the skills that are present in the system need some work too, but that's a much hairier beast.


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