Sunday 3 July 2022

Notes on a semi-successful skill system

When I finished my Team Tsathogga campaign back in 2019, one of the things that I noted afterwards was the extent to which fighters had struggled to keep up with magic users as the game progressed into the higher levels. At the time, I wrote:

One quick and dirty fix that I'm considering is to let each fighter pick a new area of noncombat competency every time they go up a level, so that by level 8 or so they're less 'meat-shield' than 'Batman', although mastering entire new fields of knowledge every few months does rather strain my disbelief. 

When I started my City of Spires campaign shortly afterwards I put this into practise. In this campaign there are three classes, Fighter, Magic-User, and Cleric. Magic-Users and Clerics get spell slots. Fighters get extra hit points, to-hit bonuses, and a skill slot every level. Spending a skill slot on something means you are really good at that skill, and will always succeed at attempts to use it except under severely adverse conditions. If you have the Climbing skill, for example, you can automatically climb any normal surface you encounter, although doing so quickly or quietly might still require a Dexterity check. New skills have to be something your character could plausibly have learned, although given the vast lengths of game-time the campaign has covered (twelve in-game years and counting) this has seldom been a major obstacle. 

Here's how it worked out in practise.

Low Levels: One Weird Trick

At low levels this system worked great. Three level 1 fighters might have almost identical combat stats, but if one of them is great at Running and one of them is great at Climbing and one of them has Heightened Senses then the roles they play in actual play will be totally different. These skill choices worked powerfully to help distinguish mechanically-similar characters, and helped each character make distinctive contributions to the problems they encountered. By level 3 or so I was feeling pretty good about the system as a whole.

Mid Levels: Convergence

As the PCs carried on advancing, the skill system continued to do a good job of letting PC fighters keep up with magic-users in terms of their contributions to problem-solving. But we increasingly ran into a problem: adventuring life being what it is, certain situations just keep coming up, and so it became logical for everyone to start developing a fairly similar set of skills. 

When you only have one choice you might legitimately take either Climbing or Hiding, but once you have six choices most PCs tended to converge on a broadly similar package of skills dealing with perception, mobility, and stealth. Hiding, Move Silently, Tracking, and Night Vision isn't identical to Climbing, Camouflage, Riding, and Heightened Senses, but it's not that different, either - they're both 'sneaky scout' skill sets. Even characters who were determined to develop in other directions often found they only needed 3-4 skill slots to complete their concept: the party builder, for example, took Scavenging, Tinkering, Tunnelling, and the surprisingly useful High-Speed Barricade Building. After that he just spent his skill slots on stealth, mobility, and perception abilities like everyone else. 

High Levels: Superfluity

The difference between having one skill slot and having two was huge, but the difference between having seven and eight was minimal. Most 'adventurer' concepts really only needed 4-6 skills to cover the main bases, so at high levels players were often unsure what to spend their skill slots on - sometimes they'd just say 'I'll think about it' and then leave them unspent for several sessions. This led, in turn, to the rise of 'reactive skill learning', with players saying things like: 'hang on, I've got a couple of spare skill slots. I can spend one of them on Woodworking and then carve the idol that the ritual needs!' (I tended to permit this as long as the skill was one they might plausibly have learned, given their background, concept, etc.) Also, by this point the magic-users had so much magic that mundane skill mastery was getting progressively less important. Thorny problems tended to be solved by throwing huge amounts of utility magic at them, instead.

Lessons Learned

For a game that probably won't go beyond level 5 or so, I think this is a good system, allowing fighter-types to clearly differentiate themselves from one another in ways that add very little mechanical complexity but have a large impact on actual play. At higher levels, however, it increasingly broke down. If I were to use it again I might let high-level characters (7 or above, perhaps) 'double down' on a skill, spending a second skill slot to elevate it to near-superhuman levels. Alternatively I might let high-level characters to trade unused skill slots for some other benefit (e.g. a bonus to hit points or saves), to avoid the embarrassment of just having them piling up unused on the character sheet. Either of these would still allow someone who wanted a true 'Renaissance man' PC to just keep broadening their skill set, without requiring every high-level fighter to do the same!


  1. The idea of a skill going superhuman sounds really fun. Go from "can climb any normal surface" to "can climb anything" allows for a space where utility magic isn't neccsssarily the best solution- why waste a Spider Climb when the Fighter can just Do That?

  2. Or perhaps every other level for a skill. Or as some systems do, it becomes progressively more difficult to gain a new skill each time (though not knowing the mechanics of the game you are playing I am not sure now that would work. I know how it would work for Traveller but few games have skill levels like that: you either have it or not. Though The Fantasy Trip does have some stacking skills)

    I do like the idea here though.

  3. "This led, in turn, to the rise of 'reactive skill learning', with players saying things like: 'hang on, I've got a couple of spare skill slots. I can spend one of them on Woodworking and then carve the idol that the ritual needs!'"

    Isn't this, like, literally the approach taken by storygames?

    1. Sort of? It's certainly a step in that direction, and away from the more simulationist demand that each character has a determinate list of skills they know. It's partly my discomfort with this result that's led me to feel the system needs tweaking before I use it again!

    2. Perhaps have your players roll what their characters learned in the downtime. A random roll off a d100 list: now that's the OSR way!

    3. That has a certain appeal, actually. 'Pick a skill or I'll let the RANDOM SKILL TABLE pick one for you!'

  4. I think that this is a perfect illustration of the idea that the earlier games were largely developed at the table, since similar ideas of skill use (weapon proficiencies) were developed more slowly, roughly one per three levels. If a non-magical character were to start with one such skill, then gain one every three levels, that would mean two skills at level 4, three at level 7, and four at level 10, which seems to mirror the expected progression and keeps the number of skills to the ideal amount. Since skills are defined as mostly competent, succeeding without a roll in most instances, this seems well-balanced as well.

    Another approach might be the one from Adventures Dark and Deep, where skills are gained by spending a couple thousand XP. A third could be the one from Savage Swords of Athanor (originally developed by Akrasia), in which skills are not only competent, but also very broad (Merchant, Scholar, Aristocrat, and such), and a new one can be gained for a sum of money and then some game time—Athanor suggests 10,000gp and 6 months. Instead of the very broad ones, a character could start with two from a list more like the AD&D Secondary Skills list, or gain new ones from that list for less money and time—suggested 2000gp and 4 months. Obviously, new skills/professions could be added to both lists.

    1. One skill every three levels would make them much harder to sell as the fighter's answer to magic. One skill vs. one first-level spell is competitive. Four skills vs. the spellcasting power of a tenth-level magic user, not so much!

      But a smaller number of very broad skills could definitely work. Maybe one entire *area of competence* every two levels? It would make high-level characters even more extreme polymaths, though maybe that's not unreasonable if you consider how many skill-sets someone like Conan appears to have mastered...

  5. I can admit after a certain point Bob the builder did start veering into a general survival mode once he had gotten his main building skills.

    I think the problem in the later levels was as you said it only really took 3 to 4 skills to build a unique role, but after that many of them were less character traits, and more 'subtle' ways to try and indirectly increase any really low base stats.

    For example 'Bill' the tank, whose initial skills 'Feats Of Strength' 'Carrying Capacity' 'Pain Resistance' enhanced his role as the walking wall he became, but then later skills such as ‘Berserk’ and ‘Endurance’ were more ways to try and get around his con and dex. Or ‘Rattagin’ the rat who got the stealth and climbing skills of an assassin, then extra stealth skill to be sure.

    Maybe another work around for high levels is, as someone else said here, the option to retire unused skills for the chance of a new skill.

    Another option - that may be a bit risky balance wise - is to be able to choose to add a bonus point to increase a base stat, instead of a new skill. It would be hard to work out the conversion rate of this, but it could be a way to show a character that after finding their role is now perfecting their craft, tanks getting stronger, rangers better at setting traps or a scout better at sneaking.

    Still, as someone who played with this system, I overall found it a lot more straightforward and enjoyable than the 20 sub categories of skills with points +1 and +2s of other systems, and it let us make some truly unique and specialized characters that we’re easy to read and play with.

    1. Thanks! I agree it mostly worked pretty well, especially at low-to-mid levels - it was only around level 6ish it started breaking down. Swapping out skill slots for stat points is pretty fraught, as you note. But perhaps after level 5 skill slots could be swapped out one-for-one to increase *under-average* stats? I'll have to think about it for next time...

  6. Something that strikes me as very different from spells, is that spells have very specific limitations and advantages that are then fun to try and work around or lean into.

    The invisiblity spell isn't just "I'm invisible", it's "I'm invisible, but only for 4 minutes, but I can also make one other person invisible, but we can't attack" so it immediately raises more questions, to be solved with more plans and spells and abilities.

    If the stealth skill is just "I'm really stealthy", it seems like a much more either-or proposition, a lot less likely to snowball like that, making the stealth skill less interesting even if in some ways more useful.

    Did you see any of that in your game?

    1. I wouldn't say so. Spells need artificial limitations (e.g. the 'no attack' limit on invisibility) because they don't have natural limitations, whereas skills do - you can't hide if there's nothing to hide behind, for example. So they still involved PCs interacting with the game world to try to work within the limits of their abilities, and I still called for stat rolls whenever a player was *really* pushing it.

  7. A few thoughts:

    :- I think that the fact that you didn't allow skills to modify stat checks meant that there were fewer things to do with them. 5E has a (fixed) list of 18 skills, of which the average PC has 5 or 6; I think 3E was something similar. And in most of the games I've played in that doesn't feel like excessive, but a lot of them cover things that in this game would explicitly have been stat check only. That cuts down heavily on the space for skills, and means that fewer of them cover more of it.

    :- A very high proportion of the challenges we encountered, especially in the second half of the campaign, were of the form "here is a new, mysterious, dangerous, relatively conceptually shallow, location/situation without more than superficial connection to anything you have previously encountered", making "send someone to scout it stealthily" very obviously the objectively right move for a high proportion of play time. That in turn meant that the options were "take stealth skills" or "spend a lot of time sitting around listening to people who have describing their characters scouting".

    :- You leaned hard on the "you cannot understand or modify anything supernatural, at all; all first age technology/magic is completely beyond you and can be used as-is but not tweaked in any way, and is incomparably better than anything you could come up for for yourselves". That removed a bunch of use-cases for a lot of skills.

    :- A game with 6 players and 2 PCs per player left very little room for niche protection. With fewer characters, more slots per character might have seen use?

    1. Another obvious thought: a system with rolled rather than generated characters means that most of the time players simply don't get the option to play the kind of character concept for whom a lot of knowledge-type skills make sense, and when they do it's likely to be a caster.

    2. Hm. I agree that the latter stages of the campaign involved lots of scouting, as play moved across wider and wider geographical areas, but I think the gravitation towards movement / perception / stealth was visible even before that.

      Not sure I agree about the random generation. A fighter with Int 8 or 9 and a long list of academic skills would be a perfectly viable and plausible character - not too bright, but enormously well-read and well-educated, and probably with an incredible memory for facts.

      What kind of 'knowledge skills' are you thinking of, here? Technical knowledge (e.g. engineering, herbalism) did appear, though the latter had the standard D&D problem of being upstaged by healing magic...

  8. I am just barging in without having read all comments so maybe someone else already suggested this, apologies:

    Let's suppose you have 24 different skills (number is just invented to give a solid example).
    Lay down a table with the 24 skills, and give each one a number from 1 to 6.
    Either purely in order, restarting at 1, or trying to map the skills to some sort of thematic group, i.e. 1=Mobility, 2=Building...

    Whenever a Fighter moves up one level, the PC has to roll 1D6, and the result of the die means "you cannot choose a skill from this group".

    It *is* contrived, but also picking up a completely new skill over a few weeks is not very "realistic" either, and on the other hand it will force some sort of differentiation (hopefully).

  9. Three options leap to mind.
    1) Add improvements to abilities instead of some of the skill improvements. That way the sphere of the fighter becomes "mundane improvement" while the cleric has the divine, and the wizard has the arcane. The cleric trusts their god, the wizard trusts in magic, but the fighter trusts in themselves. Could do this every other level, or every other level after a certain point. Not sure exactly which system you're using, or I would make more concrete recommendations for where to start such a transition. I'm thinking no more than five or six improvements.

    I feel like this would combine especially well with adding followers and such.

    2) Degrees of skill. One point is getting you journeyman level. Or master level. A second point gets you master level. Or superhuman level. That way everyone can be sneaky, but some guys are superhumanly sneaky. Many can climb, but only some can climb wet glass. Etc.

    3) Supernatural skills. Teleportation, invisibility, etc.

  10. I have nothing of substance to add here, but I love the idea and greatly appreciate you laying out the results of its use for us here.

  11. I really like this idea, i want to implement it at my table. Do you have the skill list? Please, help a fellow DM =D

  12. Are you still writing? I love your stuff and want more! I hope you are well.

    1. I agree, and also wonder if you're going to keep blogging. Contact me if you'd like to talk about your campaign. I'm all tentacles!

  13. i've been using this skill system for a year or so & it's worked extremely well. i grafted it onto a Knave hack instead of old D&D, and i think i've found out the best number of skills for an average PC.

    it's 2. less than 2 doesn't feel substantial & leaves the PC feeling like a one-trick pony. more than 2 and you have all the skills you really want, to the point of devaluing PCs who spec into skills - when you have 2 by default, the guy with 4 skills looks a lot more versatile than you.

    i also let PCs drop an attribute by 1 for an extra skill, or vice versa, to vary the amount of skills different PCs have (so you have the skills guy and the combat guy feel distinct).