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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Being Skilled Means

Some recent discussions are making me have flash-backs to the knife throwing posts and urging me to contemplate just what I think skills (if you have them) should do. I'm going to avoid talking about combat in this post, however, since I see a much broader issue at stake.

Here are some quick questions to set the mood. For the moment, let's assume that everyone (even me!) wants a narrowly-defined skill system:
  • Should a person with high Climbing skill be able to climb faster than someone with low Climbing skill?
  • Should a person with high Rowing skill be able to row a boat faster than normal?
  • Should a person with high Pottery skill be able to make pots faster than normal?

And, as a counterpoint to those three questions:
  • Should an immortal person who has practiced one of these skills for millennia, beyond normal achievement, be allowed to have ridiculously high skill levels, climbing or rowing hundreds of times faster than normal, or making a hundred pots in the time that it takes an ordinary potter to make one?
Of course, that last question sound ridiculous, but I think it's noteworthy that pro-narrow-skill systems and those that love them rarely talk about capping skill. However, the final question does reveal that the first three are trick questions.

What I often see in skill systems is that skills are treated as raw bonuses: there's a baseline "normal" speed (or power or effectiveness) of various tasks, and being skilled at that task means a linear increase in speed, power, or effectiveness. Thus, theoretically, you should be able to increase skill endlessly, exactly as assumed in that fourth question, but that leads to the ridiculous conclusion that you could climb a wall at a hundred miles an hour, if you only knew how.

What I'm thinking lately is that this way of looking at skills is fundamentally wrong. Instead of a baseline starting speed, power, and effectiveness, there's a baseline perfect speed, power and effectiveness. The real world being what it is, we can't perform tasks perfectly, especially when we first begin training. We're inefficient. When we practice, we get faster and more effective because we learn to be more efficient, making fewer mistakes, wasting less time on decisions, requiring fewer physical movements to complete our task.

So, the model should be that there's a set potential speed, power and effectiveness based on the physical factors involved, and skill level indicates how close a character gets to that potential in comparison to other characters. And, I would argue, that's the way the abilities should be treated as well: high Strength should not mean that you can lift more, independent of your size, but that you are better able to lift what someone of your size could potentially lift.

I imagine that's potentially controversial. Any thoughts?


  1. At first glance, I'd say I definitely agree. However, I don't have a problem with telling a hobbit their max strength score is a 14 either.

    I think with abilities, rather than skills, it's often useful to compare the same ability from character to npc to monster, in which case an absolute scale is probably more useful than a relative one.

  2. Certainly with the special movement skills there's a set move that you can only fail to achieve. D&D doesn't always give the intermediate option of "stand still" - when climbing, you either move upwards or fall - but if you work this in, this gives you a system where more skilled people move faster.

    Pottery is a skill where I would give the chance to craft a "super-vase" but only if the potter was trying for it. The Legend of the five Rings RPG builds this in with a system of "raises" you can call on a skill check to make it more difficult but with a better outcome. In D&D you can do the same with a modifier to the roll.

  3. >Instead of a baseline starting speed, power, and effectiveness, there's a baseline perfect speed, power and effectiveness.

    This is probably the most realistic way of doing it, but for simplicity's sake it might be best just to say that the bonus from a skill gives diminishing returns. There's probably a clever way to do so with dice mechanics that doesn't involve people having to look at tables.

  4. Combining this idea, and a method I often used in the past, I would look at the margin by which a skill attempt succeeds. If the player makes the check by 12 (for ex.) they have achieved perfection. Making the check by 8 or by 4 nets successful but less impressive results. In some cases, making it by 16 or 20 might result in some sort of masterpiece creation, if appropriate to the skill.

    This method builds in both the die roll and the skill level to determine degree of success.

  5. @migelito: that'd work, for people who use skill checks. Although you might want to incorporate the diminishing returns that Brian mentioned, adding one improvement at a +4 margin and am extra improvement for every doubling of the margin.

    @Brian, Roger: Personally, I prefer to shift most of the burden of better-than-normal performance onto the tools used, so that for example your ability to pick locks is static, but higher-quality lock picks let you pick higher-quality locks.

    I do incorporate both potential limits and diminishing returns into my approach by saying that characters get a +1 if there are more advantages than disadvantages in the current situation, maybe a +2 if there is an enormous difference in advantage. Thus, higher skill level or greater advantage does not mean a greater bonus, but a greater ability to avoid a penalty.