The Fragile Foundation of Skills

This is a rant.  I’m circling an idea, and if you read this, you get to watch.

There’s a truism that gets rolled out from time to time when talking about old school D&D vs newer iterations (and more generally, old vs new games) and that is this: “No one fell off a horse before there was a riding skill.”

Now, the sentiment behind this is couched int he idea of letting the player describe what they are doing, such as riding a horse, unless there’s a good reason otherwise.  In this mode of thinking, the introduction of the skill has created a barrier to play, and is an unwelcome addition to something that exists primarily in the imagination.  Extrapolated, this can be applied to a lot of rules, including things like feats and powers, because without the rules, players were free to do these things anyway, using the descriptive tools at thier disposal.

Now, I admit I’m skeptical of this argument as a whole. It’s not that older games did not allow for this range of action, but there are procedural and presentation differences that tend to get skimmed past in the discussion.  However, I think it’s a great argument for something other than what it’s used for.  See, the problem is not that skill systems intrinsically suck, it’s just that most skill system _implementations_ suck. And I blame the dice.

See, our first thought in terms of what skills mean in an RPG is a value that we roll to succeed or fail.  Can you climb that wall? Can you pick that lock?  Roll the dice and find out.  Because that’s how we handled attacking things, we just extrapolated it into skills.   Because combat was based on a pass-fail (hit/miss) model, skills were built the same way, so the riding skill introduced an option for failure where none had existed before.  That’s an implementation failure, and one we’ve carried with us.

The problem is,  this model sucks so badly that we’ve had to spend years evolving ways to make failure on these rolls is interesting and keeps things moving forward which is a lot of work to solve something that maybe should not have been a problem in the first place.  So I find myself wondering – If we were truly building from scratch, what would a skill really be?

First and foremost, it would be an **opportunity** to act.   Skills determine who does what.  In both real life and fiction, when presented with a challenge, you will more often than not fave a fairly binary question of whether or not this is something that you have the skills for or do not.  In real life, you can drive a car or you can’t. In fiction, either someone knows demolitions or they don’t.  Rather than providing guidance on how we roll the dice, they could provide guidance on _when_ we roll the dice (and one answer would be ‘much less often’).

Now, obviously, there’s some sophistication to this.  Skills are not purely binary, and you need to reflect both very low and very high skills appropriately, but that’s not too great a challenge.  Low skill invites more randomization and crappy successes, no problem.  High skills just require a solid understanding of what the tiering of skills means, but it still can come out in what dice aren’t rolled – effectively, lower tier skill may mean more things you’re “unskilled” at.[1]

Second, when they’re in play, skills are usually one of two axes – it is rarely an interesting question to ask “Will she succeed?” but it is often quite rewarding to ask “Will she succeed (before time runs out | before the guards arrive | in catching the idol without stopping the protective chant| | etc.)?”[2]  This question at least re-introduces a role for uncertainty, but it depends on a different understanding of skills, and it tends to easily fall apart as soon as the GM starts calling for skill rolls without making sure the other Axis is in place.

The third point brings us back to horses, and answers the question of why use skills at all. To me, that one is simple – it’s a strong tool for character differentiator.  Just like the crew in a caper heist, when characters have a thing that they do, that’s an important characteristic.  If one guy is the rider, then he needs some way to be awesome at it, because that’s his thing.[3] It is valuabel to have the game recognize that coolness.

Lastly, if done from scratch, I don’t think skills would be beholden to the mathematical logic of combat which demands that we use a system that _allows_ you to really suck badly at a skill for a long time.  It’s not fun, not dramatic, and not satisfying to anyone (but by god, it’s consistent with combat!).

I dunno. I doubt we can ever really do a full skill system from scratch.  I think the mindpool is already pretty infected, and I haven’t even touched on the dangerous areas like skill granularity, combat skills or the line between skills and powers.   But I think it’s worth thinking about if only to help try to catch our assumptions about how we intuit that skills _should_ work, because if we can bust that, we can make some interesting stuff.

1 – It’s also a genre consideration.  In many genres, certain skills are universal (everyone can fight, everyone knows how to kick a pocket and so on) and those establish a baseline.  In that case, a character is noteworthy for either excelling in that arena, or having less-than-baseline capability. This consideration should totally have been applied to the riding skill – it would have saved us years of headaches.

2 – It’s a little telling that I had to think hard to come up with a qualifier other than “before”.  Makes me onder if the simplest change to any skill system is to do what we do with research in SOTC – the roll is nto to see if you succeed, the roll is to see how long it take syou to succeed.

3 – The cheap way to do this is to make everyoen else suck at it.  This is roughly akin to writng a character as smart by making everyone around them stupid.  It is a TERRIBLE trick, and best never used ever.