Saturday, October 18, 2014

I Hate Skills

This is something I've come to realize over the years, as I've both GMed and developed games. It's not universally true, but it very often is:

I hate skills.

As a mechanic, they seem to really bother me, at least in the context of fantasy RPGs. I've seen it done well before - in Burning Wheel, making good use of your extremely specific and obscure skills in combination makes for a flavorful and entertaining game-within-a-game - but for the most part, they are bland. I think I forgive this in sci-fi games, though I'm not sure why. Likely because science fiction by its very nature tends to lend itself more towards the complex realities of the situation. But fantasy? When one looks back at classical fantasy, we never really worried how many ranks Conan had in stealth, or how high Frodo's Survival skill was. Did someone want to check Aragorn's Speechcraft at Helms Deep?

No, I always want to see fantasy characters in broad strokes - as archetypes. I think that is why the genre lends itself so well to class-based systems. Classes are a quick and easy way to define who the character is, what the character knows, and their general problem solving tools. It's a good basis from which to develop a character.

I always feel like skills get in the way, somehow. Once written down as a list, there's a feeling of limitation. This is what I can do. This is what I'm good at. Maybe I can climb tha-- Oh, no. I don't have any ranks. I know, I'll bribe the guard - hm. but I only have rank 2, this could get dicey (a pun!)

Worse, once you begin to make skills for things, players have a terrible habit of looking at their sheets for guidance. If your goal is to keep them immersed in the drama and suspense of the narrative in front of you, then the last thing you want them to do is switch from thinking about the fiction, to thinking about their mechanical options.

For better or worse, this was one of the things I actually really enjoyed about D&D back when we were growing up. We played AD&D, but essentially ignored all of the rules save for the very basics of class, race, combat, and spellcasting. In essence, we were playing B/x, but with more character creation options.

If a question ever came up about if you could do a thing? It was almost always a question of the fiction itself. Forge a sword? Your character was a blacksmith, right? Of course you can. If anything was ever in doubt, we ran with the ability score rolls - equal or under on a d20. If it was really hard, you used half your ability score. If anything would have been "easy" we just let it go. Does your cleric know about church history? Absolutely. The rival church's doctrines? Give me an Int check.

The beauty being that it all remained in the narrative. You were more concerned with the fiction than anything else, and once you get in that mindset most problems tend to lend themselves to inventive solutions.

This is one of the things I'm really coming to enjoy again in our current Lamentations of the Flame Princess / AD&D mashup. The d6 system that it is set up on is a really nice compromise between the almost entirely free form manner in which I handled things growing up, and having to deal with a "real" skill list. 

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