... now with 35% more arrogance!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Short Note on Skill vs. Ability

Most players who use skill systems think in terms of abilities adding a bonus to a skill roll, or a skill adding to an ability check, or maybe (as in GURPS) treating the skill as a stand-alone value, with ability scores only setting a default or base level (effectively the same as skill adding to ability.) In such a system, skills are theoretically infinitely improvable.

I tend to think in terms of ability scores as a limit, with skills defining actual competency within that context. If you have average Dexterity and train to be an acrobat, you will be an average acrobat; you will be better than an untrained person, and you will be better than other average acrobats if you've had more experience, but you will never be better than a trained acrobat with high Dexterity.

That's why my "skill system" is "write down how many years you've been an acrobat (or other profession.)" All other things being equal, you will be better at acrobatics than someone with less training. If things are not equal, your training might not matter at all.

I know that's completely antithetical to the way most people run games, but it seems important to me.


  1. I think there is a lot to be said for this attitude, which has never really occurred to me. Skill systems do tend to imply an Americanism, that with time and patience and training you can make whatever inborn limitations you possess meaningless. Allowing for training, but emphasizing natural ability over training, seems a very old school way to blend the two.

  2. An "Americanism?" Interesting...

    As an American, I don't feel that "...that with time and patience and training you (I) can make whatever inborn limitations you possess meaningless" is accurate. At least nor for me and those I know.

    Actually, it is completely opposite. For example, I suck at writing. I could practice and I might get better, but I will never fool myself that I will become a great writer. I get it. I am limited, naturally, with slow thought, slow typing, and bad spelling. It's not gonna change.

    When I play a role-playing game, I don't want to play a bad writer because I rolled a bad mental ability score. I am one in real life. So, I guess I like my skills separate? I don't know, I haven't thought about it much.

    Now, with years of training as a bench mark, I could live with because as mentioned, I am better than your average bear for the most part. It only matters when compared to another bear (person with similar training) and only then does my mediocre writing stand out...

    Just thought I'd meander a bit with that, sorry.
    The Bane

    1. I'm an American, too. And I, personally, don't believe that what a person can do is limited only by their will, either. But I do recognize that belief as an Americanism in the sense that it's a central assumption in the mythic underpinnings of the dominant American culture, but apparently absent from most other cultures in the world.

    2. I don't think Anathemata meant anything more by "Americanism" than "idea originating in or strongly associated with America".


      Modeling writing might be problematic, since it's kind of an ambiguous talent and could mean any number of things. If we limit it strictly to good spelling and clear sentences, which I think was your intent, I think it is limited by Intelligence, but how many people who consider themselves bad writers are really Low Intelligence, and how many just have low self esteem when it comes to writing? How many are misidentifying average ability (+ poor training) as low ability?

      If I wanted a smart character who was a bad speller, I'd assume the character has a Bad Speller trait, which lowers apparent ability for one area only. Conversely, a Low Int character could be savant-like with Good Speller, or (if professional, creative writing is involved) use Charisma instead of Int as long as an editor is involved.

      Not that any of that is important, but it serves as an example of the way I'm thinking. Appropriate actions can convince the GM to use a different ability score.

    3. Thank you, Talysman. That is pretty much all I meant, certainly not intending 'Americanism' to be such a loaded term. But I am glad that people seemed to grasp my principle intent anyways.

    4. Okay, I'm feeling you now Talysman. I guess what I was shooting for in a nutshell was that, I live in reality, I don't always want my games to follow that...

  3. I don't "LIKE" the idea of Abilities limiting the effectiveness of Skills. But I do think that might be the way reality actually does work.

    If I were to use this idea, I might do it like this:

    Skill/Profession:# of years practiced (maximum = relevant Ability or average of relevant Abilities)

    That way, Skills are limited by their relevant Abilities -- but, if any Abilities increase, then the relevant Skills can increase, too, if the character continues to practice those Skills for at least another year.

  4. In CORPS, Primary Skills are limited in level to the value of the controlling stat. Secondary Skills can add a further half of that value, and Tertiary Skills half again. So, if a character has a DEX of 6 (which is fairly high), he could have an Acrobatics skill of 6, a Parkour specialty of +3, and a Tic-Tac of a further +1, allowing up to a Skill 10 with Tic-Tac. There are a few more complexities, but that's basically how it works.

  5. I'd like to see something like this:

    Roll natural Ability Scores (STR / DEX / CON / etc) of 1d6 in order. Roll 1d6 and spread those points around as desired (human max is 6, races get + or - 1 mostly, some greater).

    Skills each fall under a single Ability Score. All your Skills are equal to 1/3 the associated Ability Score rounded down (at "adventurer who's been around the block but is still a fresh beginner" stage).

    Get 2d6 x 10 GP starting cash.

    Spend XP equal to the next Skill level squared to raise it 1 point. Yes you need to alter XP awards.

    You can raise a Skill above the associated Ability Score but you cube the next Skill level.

    So you can continue pouring XP into a skill you've capped out in, representing determination allowing you to exceed your natural capabilities. But you're probably going to gain so much faster in other skills that it would help to just become more well-rounded instead of remaining specialized.

    Generally, allowing concentrations and specializations within a skill just encourages min-maxing (such as, instead of having an "unarmed fighting" skill, you specialize in "kung fu" and unless there's a strong mechanical difference you just got a cheaper skill that does the same thing).

    Lately I'm very much in favor of lower-power games where being the equal of four men in a fight actually means something, and a hero fighting a 40' dragon is astoundingly incredibly amazingly out of the scope of almost everyone in the world. Something like a 10th level 3E or 4E PC just feels cartoonish to me at this point. Maybe I should check out WFRP or something.

    1. I really like that system outline. Like you, I am interested in games where characters are at the human scale of ability.

    2. I'm interested in that scale, too, but your approach is quite different from what I was imagining. I'm always leaning towards really simple "build" rules. And low math. I can square two-digit numbers in my head, but I won't consider using any RPG system that has players squaring numbers.

    3. Would it be a problem for you if the normal range of numbers was provided on a table? That is, there would be a table that gives the values of 1 through 6 (say), and also gives the cost of each so that it is the square of the value (leaving it to the Referee to extrapolate if necessary). Is the problem with actually performing the operation, or is it the geometric scale?

    4. It would still be a problem. In general, I try to do away with table lookups as much as possible, too, by creating easily memorized procedures or using a small number of tables in multiple ways (like the Quickie Dice Tool.) Plus, I personally don't feel squaring numbers is generally useful to actual play. It smacks of trying to be more "realistic" in a quantitative way.