Skill Conundrum

Role playing games are great. One of the largest draws, especially for table top RPGs is the game can be whatever the group’s collective conscious desires. The facilitation of this expansive anything-goes game design is the rules are arbitrated, amended, and determined. RPG’s greatest strength can ironically be one of its largest flaws. Creating a character who can literally attempt any way to resolve a problem means there must be a frame to cover every aspect of life. The dynamic can cover everything from the Stone Age skill of creating a stone ax to complex government bureaucracy, scientific disciplines and magic.

Most RPGs attempt to wrangle this dilemma by this creating a list of skills. But what is a skill, each RPG system approaches this base of expertise in a different way depending on what the rules system determines to be the most relevant to characters in their adventures. Below is Merriam Webster definition of skill.

Skill:
2a: The ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance
2b: Dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks
3: A learned power of doing something competently : a developed aptitude or ability.

Now crack open the rulebook spine of your preferred system and you will likely find there are articles in the system’s skill list which do not conform to this definition. The most notable are knowledge skills. Skill by definition is not knowledge but the ability to apply knowledge by doing something. The second thing you will likely recognize there is the scope of some skills, some are very specific while others are a general umbrella of other skills.

Pathfinder has a good mix of specific and umbrella skills. Look at Disable Device, even the skill’s name is ambiguous. Disable Device covers picking locks, disabling traps, and sabotaging any sort of simple mechanical device. The encompassing knowledge base here appears to be a general understanding of mechanics.

Compare Disable Device with the Swim skill. Swim is more a check box than a skill. You can either swim or you cannot. Nearly all systems have difficulty ramped up for swimming when wearing armor, the character is encumbered by gear, or attempting to swim in rough water. But swimming is effectively the same no matter the difficulty of the situation. The added difficulty is really an issue of endurance, not becoming exhausted in the situation and drowning. The skill is so narrow that it is effectively a binary attribute of a character. Assuming your game is not based around ship travel and combat this will never be an issue.

In D&D 4e umbrella skills are prevalent. Thievery encompasses Pathfinder’s Disable Device and Sleight of Hand skills. Athletics takes under its umbrella Climb and Swim. If we understand to Athletics to encompass feats of general athleticism it makes sense to use it for climb, jump, and swim attempts. Grappling is where things get a little strange. Escaping a grab can be made by either an Acrobatics or an Athletics check. Though unless someone is a martial artist or professional wrestler escaping a grab is not applying knowledge to the task. This should really be a basic Dexterity or Strength check against the hold determined by whether the character is attempting to wriggle out or break the hold.

The umbrella nature of Acrobatics and Athletics make them unsuited as skills given our previous understanding of the definition. In a general fantasy world people do not really train as athletes. They do not run obstacle courses, lift weights, or other forms of what is known as conditioning. Unless a character made his living in a traveling troupe of tumblers Acrobatics is similarly not something that would be generally trained.

Combat in many systems is also not a skill. This seems strange, given the focus on combat in many RPGs characters would have training. In D&D 4e and Pathfinder PCs just intrinsically know how to use weapons based on their class, race, and background. Other systems such as Savage Worlds and White Wolf systems like Exalted have clear skills for combat.

Savage Worlds: Fighting, Shooting, Throwing
Exalted: Archery, Brawl (2nd Ed. folded this skill into Martial Arts), Dodge, Martial Arts, Melee, Thrown, War

Combat definitely has skills, they require training and the application of learned techniques. If anything combat in table top RPGs comprise the most concrete skills. Fighting, Shooting, and Throwing are broad, umbrella skills but we have an inherent grasp to what falls under each skill’s purview.

Below is the skill list for the systems we have been looking at.

Pathfinder:

Acrobatics
Appraise
Bluff
Climb
Craft
Diplomacy
Disable Device
Disguise
Escape Artist
Fly
Handle Animal
Heal
Intimidate
Knowledge (Arcana, Dungeoneering, Engineering, Geography, History, Local, Nature, Nobility, Planes, Religion)
Linguistics
Perception
Perform
Profession
Ride
Sense Motive
Sleight of Hand
Spellcraft
Stealth
Survival (Track)
Swim
Use Magical Device

D&D 4th Edition:

Acrobatics
Arcana
Athletics
Bluff
Diplomacy
Dungeoneering
Endurance
Heal
History
Insight
Intimidate
Nature
Perception
Religion
Stealth
Streetwise
Thievery

Savage Worlds:

Boating
Climbing
Driving
Fighting
Gambling
Healing
Intimidation
Investigation
Knowledge
Lockpicking
Notice
Persuasion
Piloting
Repair
Riding
Shooting
Spellcasting
Stealth
Streetwise
Survival
Swimming
Taunt
Throwing
Tracking

Exalted:

Archery
Athletics
Awareness
Brawl
Bureaucracy
Craft
Dodge
Endurance
Integrity
Investigation
Larceny
Linguistics
Lore
Martial Arts
Medicine
Melee
Occult
Performance
Presence
Resistance
Ride
Sail
Socialize
Stealth
Survival
Thrown
War

Below is the skills we find across all the above systems.

Combat Skills
Heal/Medicine
Persuasion
Knowledge w/ Focus
Magic
Perception/Awareness/Notice
Ride/Vehicle
Tracking
Thievery
Stealth
Survival

Let’s extrapolate the data and say the above is a fundamental kernel of skills that come up in a general, fantasy RPG campaign. Let’s break them down into the three pillars of RPG game play: Combat, Exploration, Social Interaction.

Combat
Combat Skills, Heal, Knowledge, Persuasion, Magic, Perception, Ride, Stealth
Exploration
Heal, Knowledge, Magic, Perception, Ride, Tracking, Thievery, Stealth, Survival

Social Interaction
Persuasion, Knowledge, Magic, Perception/Insight, Stealth

Most of the skills we find can be used in multiple pillars, and each skill could be used during any pillar due to the open-ended nature of table top RPGs and attempting anything for task resolution. What we notice is there are four of the fundamental skills that are prevalent: Knowledge, Magic, Perception, and Stealth.

Knowledge: While not in itself a skill the importance of knowing, and more importantly knowing what you do and do not know, is critical to success. Knowledge is accrued by firsthand experience and from secondhand and thirdhand sources. Knowledge constructs a PC’s understanding of his surroundings or World Hood, the framework for how he determines how to interact with the world. In combat its imperative to know trolls can only be killed with fire. In exploration you could easily need the knowledge of how to orient and follow a map. In social interactions you need to know local customs and social mannerisms to get by.

Perception: Boiled down to the marrow we might explain it as Sesame Street’s “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other”. It’s the ability to tell something apart from something else. Perception feeds knowledge, it gives a person the ability to compare and contrast something new/different with things and situations accrued in his library of prior knowledge. Perception, cross-indexed with knowledge gives a person the ability to formulate a resolution based on what has and has not worked in prior instances. The success or failure of the new resolution thus adds to the PC’s knowledge. In combat it will be critical to perceive if what you are fighting is a troll. In exploration you will need to perceive if what you see is the landmark noted on the map. In social interactions you will need to perceive how people respond to you and your actions.

Magic: In most systems magic plays a large part. It is a powerful thing to wield and in many systems there are a myriad of ways to use magic in all the pillars of RPG game play. It can be used directly as task resolution or to augment perception to resolve a task. In combat a wizard’s fireball will provide a sufficiently charred ending to the troll. In exploration magic can be used to gain direction or bypass obstacles. In social interactions you can use magic to make someone more friendly.

Stealth: At its core stealth is about avoiding and fooling perception. It is a skill for resolving tasks or bypassing them all together. It works much in the same way as magic, either by directly or indirectly changing perception. In combat you can avoid the troll entirely. In exploration you can hide your tracks to make certain no one without a map is following you. With social interactions you can disguise yourself as someone else.

In my next posts I plan to bring things back down to earth and deal more with the mechanics of skills and their implementation within the three pillars of RPG game play. In the interim I suggest checking out Papers & Pencils blog and the Overview of Pathfinder’s Skills.

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