Thursday, October 23, 2008

Just A Thought

A lot of people consider a defining aspect of "Old School" RPGs the fact that they lack a "skills system". Just a few quick thoughts about this with regards to "classic" D&D...

- The idea of "levels" in D&D is, really, a representation of how skilled, overall, a character is in their ability to perform the tasks of their given class.

- A character's ability to hit (call it THAC0 or not, you know what I mean), is a generic "combat skill".

- A character's saving throw numbers represent the skill needed to avoid dangerous effects.

- A cleric's ability to turn undead represents skill in doing said activity.

- A character's hit points, being such an abstract, amorphous concept to begin with, represent skill in turning a sword blow that would have killed them at one point (7 hp damage vs. 6 hp) into a minor injury (7 hp damage vs. 30 hp).

- A dwarf's or elf's ability to spot secret doors, or a halfling's ability to hide...all skills. One might argue that it's not a "skill", but an innate ability, but in any other game system, it would still be treated as a skill, albeit not a "learned" one.

- Any time a DM asks a PC to make a roll vs. an Attribute to accomplish something, that is as much a representation of the PC's skill at doing that as their innate "ability" to do the task. If you ask a Mage to make an Int roll to remember some bit of arcane lore, what you're really doing is making a skill check vs. an "invisible skill" that the Mage has developed over time.

- Do we even need to mention Thief Skills? Yeah, they're not in the white what? They're in every other "old school" version of D&D.

Agree or disagree as you like. These are just some observations I came up with while pondering the idea of D&D being a game that doesn't have "skills". The way I see it, any character ability which A) can increase as the PC grows more powerful, or B) represents some aspect of the character developed through character experience, and C) is a basic function of the PC's career (read: class), is a skill. Just because it's not put into a skills list, and just because it doesn't involve a unified mechanic like percentiles or d20/3E, that doesn't mean it's not a character skill.


Dr-Rotwang said...

I like it. You have my approval, sir.

Zachary The First said...

Solid. Adding this to my "good articles collection" :)

Badelaire said...

Thanks guys. When you navel-gaze about system design long enough, this is the sort of stuff that bubbles out of your brain.

At the end of the day, game mechanics is game mechanics is game mechanics. Some systems work better than others, but the VAST majority of them can pretty much just be replaced by saying "you have XY percentage chance to do ABC".

In fact, I'll say now, to any game designer looking to develop a snazzy new mechanic - before you begin selling PDFs off of Lulu or whatever, take your mechanics and convert them over to percentages. Take a look at how, mathematically speaking, your system functions, and make sure it's actually doing what you want it to do. One of the big goofs of the White Wolf Storyteller system as it was originally published was, as was quickly found out, the more skilled you are, the MORE LIKELY it was for you to "botch" your roll. That's right - statistically speaking, the higher your skill ratings, the more likely it was that you'd accrue more 1's than successes - thus, a "botch". This was eventually fixed, but it's a great example of a dice mechanic that looked cool and simple, but didn't actually do what it was supposed to do.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but they're still not a "system", which is important.


Anonymous said...

Well, a chiwawa is a wolf. But not really.

I think your stretching the imagination to make these into skills.

I'm inclined to evalute what a game has in when only minimal stretches of the imagination are used, rather that large stretches.

Badelaire said...

I disagree. Mostly on the grounds that, when you look at other game systems, many of these "non-skills" are treated as skills. A great example of this is Rolemaster - almost everything in that game is based on a skill, including hit points (which are based primarily off of the Body Development skill). In RM, a "Level" is just a convenient plateau at which you are allowed to spend the Development Points you've earned through the accumulation of Experience.

So my reasoning is this: Any ability in classic/old D&D that got better with increased levels, is in my mind a blatant skill, as a character's level is a quantitative representation of their skill and ability, directly correlated to experience.

As for any ability that does NOT get better with levels - it might be a stretch, but everything the mechanics do in D&D can be found represented as skills in many other games. An attribute check is often done to represent generalist (i.e., non-class) skills such as remembering information, balancing on a rail, swimming through rapids, controlling an unruly mount, etc., and Racial Abilities like the ability to spot secret doors, are almost always treated as simply a "racial bonus" to a pre-existing skill in many, many other systems.

In the end, if you look at the design intent and the use intent of many of these "non-skills", they are used just like skills from any skill-based game. Call it a big stretch if you like, but if you make a Wisdom check in order to calm the horse you're riding, you're really just making an Animal Empathy / Animal Training / Horseback Riding skill check.