Skills: A Conclusion With 10 Rules

If you've done this enough, would a
linear roll really represent your ability?
So, what are my conclusions about this?

There are some pretty steep costs to using skills.
  • They require a lot of up front time from new players
  • Often skills contain 'hidden rules'
  • In many cases skills are not designed with significant consequences
  • A linear roll has issues with randomness of some skills.
  • There are problems with 'non-capped' increasing skills and issues with magic items that improve these skills
  • Some things that are treated as skills are actually designed to not be improved much by increasing the skill. They work better as conflict resolution with standard mechanics then 'skills'
  • Making skill selection a part of the 'character build process' affects player agency. You have to tell players no, to make the cost of taking a skill focus over say, cleave, worthwhile.
  • The point of skills is not to simulate a complex situation with literal real-world accuracy. You are not a computer, and playing roll on the spreadsheet for an hour is a poor way to spend time with friends.
  • Skills in the Pathfinder/d20 system are very complicated with pages and pages of modifiers. Time spend reading the book is not time spent screwing around having fun with friends.

There are some benefits.
  • Players enjoy being able to customize their characters
  • There are things that are just easier to resolve with dice
  • It provides options for solving and addressing problems that don't have anything to do with magic or the supernatural
  • When there is a serious consequence or the chance for a partial success, skill rolls can be one of the most exciting parts of play
  • Allowing good or bad rolls to introduce randomness improves the fun of play
I did not include the fact that they can provide 'quick resolution to questionable situations' in the list. The reason is that so can ability checks and conflict resolution systems like surprise and secret door detection.

So what are my suggestions for good skill design?

1 Don't require skill selection at character creation
Allow it to occur during play or after they survive to second level

2 Don't hide game rules in skills
Skills should have some separation from frequent or standard resolution mechanics. It's better to just make the text a game rule (you climb at one quarter speed) and allow an ability rather than a skill to alter that (you climb at one half speed as a thief). It is very rare that the consequence of rules of these types is either significant or partial, turning it into a waste of time in the game. Since it's so rare, it's better to use a standard mechanic or make a ruling at the table for the situation. Another negative consequence is overloading the skill, allowing a huge bonus to redefine the game.

3 Make sure each skill has a mechanism for either significant consequence or partial success or failure
Don't ask your players to roll for a skill if failure and success don't both produce interesting outcomes.

4 Have some skills that are consistent function on a bell curve. Have others that are subject to many variables use single dice rolls that aren't subject to quite as much consistency as a bell curve
This way you have fewer outliers when skills are used frequently. The D20 system addresses the lack of a mode on a d20 by using 'take 10'. There should be different skill 'stabilities'

5 Don't use skills to withhold information that will increase the enjoyment of the players of the game
Note that this doesn't mean that you have to tell the players everything or anything. "You don't know, but you can find out by doing Y or if you ask X they will know how to find out." is a superb answer. Don't let withheld information close interesting doors.

If they are asking questions about your game world -- if they are asking questions about your game at all, why would you ever shut them down?!

6 Even if there are skill rolls, if the current roll lacks consequences or if the player can bypass the skill check using player skill then don't roll the skill
If the player makes a correct or interesting decision (search the bottom of a footlocker where the secret compartment is) allow them to find it.

7 Do not allow the use a skill to bypass interesting game-play
What this means, is that if the 'serious consequence' is that the player will have to engage the situation, then you shouldn't allow a skill roll to bypass the situation

8 Skills should not be used as a method to avoid DM Tyranny, nor as a method to enforce DM Tyranny. They should be used as part of a negotiated process where the player understands the possible consequences of the use of a skill before rolling. They should not be used by the player in an attempt to bypass play, nor by the DM in an attempt to deny the players the fruits of their labors. In an ideal, the consequences should be negotiated as a group process.

9 Don't allow unlimited skill advancement
There should be a master level of a skill. Unlimited advancement creates a situation where skills checks are whole orders different in randomness between players.

10 Skills should be organic and tied into play - not the gaining of levels or the building of characters
Skills should do things like cost resources (money, time) and they should be able to be acquired independently of the gaining of a level. If the players want to learn Ophidian as a language, then they need to find some lizard men. This is satisfying for the players and motivates the very play of the game.

And this is it! It's been a long road, and I've learned a lot. I can see where the hot button spots are regarding this topic, and have had several in depth conversations with people. In addition to learning about skills, I've learned a lot to where strong opposition to play styles comes from and it has made me a more interested player.

I think this is pretty much my final word on skills - they've been thrashed out pretty thoroughly.

Next I'm going to talk a bit about real-play examples of this skill-light, player agency focused style of play with a particular focus towards addressing the conflation of this style of play with DM Fiat. Also alchemy is on the way soon, along with weekly treasure, alchemy items, and traps!

Thanks for sticking around! The index of the series is below!

Here is the summary of the skill series.
Here is the initial assessment (the I like skills post!)
Here are the 5 criteria for why to roll a skill check
Here are the costs of using skills to customize characters
Here are issues with that are specific to the D20 resolution system
Here is why none of this has anything at all to do with Pixel Bitching or DM Fiat
 Here are the Skill Deconstructions:
The Middle Road
4th Edition
2nd Edition

1 comment:

  1. Excellent conclusion! Thanks a lot for your thorough thought process!


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