A new RPG system

Re-Examining Skills

Nearly every game has some sort of fixed list of things a character is capable of doing.  Sometimes that list is attributes, other times it is skills.  The design goal in these cases is to have a fixed point reference to make checks against to determine success.

So when I wrote up Constructing an Ability List I was working from the same premise.

Here were going to explore those assumption, deconstruct the idea, and investigate an alternative.


The basis

The fundamental problem that is attempting to be addressed by the fixed list is how do we define a consistent set of semantics which allows us to determine ability.  For example, let’s say that a character is going to need to notice something.  How do we figure out whether they are capable of noticing something?  In some games there’s a Sense attribute, or at least one tied to those sorts of checks (Intelligence, Will, etc…).  That attribute is then used when making a “sense” check.  Alternatively you might have a “sense” skill, or “spot” skill, etc…  the skill could be used instead.  Something needs to be bound to ones sensing ability!  If a character was just described, like in a book, how would we know what to check against?

There is a solution to that, but first let’s explore what’s wrong with both Skills and Attributes.

The Attribute Solution

Nearly every game lays out a set of consistent attributes.  The exact mechanic of those attributes varies from game to game.  In some games it affects the cost of skills, in some it gives bonuses to skills, and in others it is combined with a skill.  The common element among all of them is that the set of attributes is completely fixed.  But there’s a problem.  The most intuitive way to define, for example a Zombie, is as a character.  How do we define a character?  Well using the attribute method it is a set of attributes.  Well what sensible mental attributes do we assign to a Zombie?  Or even more to the point what physical attributes does a an incorporeal being such as a ghost have?

To be clear – These issues are always addressed in specific game systems.  However they are hacks to deal with the fact that the base model has made assumptions about what a character is, that is incapable of handling non-normative characters.  If we’re going to have a system where Everything is a Character we can’t have a fixed set of attributes, because there is no sensible mapping at all from attributes to the characterization of a fire.

The Skill Solution

The skill solution is a more flexible way of handling this problem.  Rather than relying on an attribute to express the capability, a more specific trait is used.  These are more flexible because it is not anticipated that every character has every skill.  So a character making a “sense” check rolls with their “sense” skill regardless of whether they have the “skill” at all.  Here a ghost just can’t pick something up because the skill isn’t even possible for a ghost, and a talking about a zombie’s intelligence is simply recognized as absurd.  The flexibility here is that it doesn’t matter whether all characters, be they fires or starships, don’t need to have the same skill list because the skill just represents their ability with respect to that.

However, it does create a problem still.  A consistent list needs to be made for Player Characters because every Player Character is going to be making “sense” checks.  So a fixed list of skills needs to be developed.  This list of course needs to also be balanced so that all the skills are of roughly equal utility and priced so that there is an appropriate opportunity cost.  That in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad; what is a bigger problem is that this list needs to be redesigned at least for every setting, and preferably for every campaign!

Think about it.  A drive skill is mandatory when playing a modern action game, but nonsense in a mediaeval fantasy game.  You may think coming up with a list for five or six broad categories would work, but it doesn’t really.  Even in a mediaeval fantasy game the skill list is going to need to be entirely different if you’re dealing with a dungeon hack than if you’re dealing with a largely diplomatic game.

Introducing Flex Skills

There is another solution.  This solution is partially implemented in both GURPS (as Wildcard Skills) and Fate (as Aspects).  The solution is to simply have players write down what their character is good at.  In this case the ‘skill’ can be thought of as representing a “talent”, or a “profession”, or just something really really important about the character.

Scope of Flex Skills

One of the immediate things you might think about this is what is to prevent a player from saying “I’m Awesome” as a Flex skill and then being good at everything.

To mitigate this, Flex skills need to be constrained to a specified scope.  The following guidelines should represent the relative scope of a Flex Skill:

  • A flex skill should give a sense of about a dozen things you do well.
  • It should be about the same scope as a profession would be.
  • All Flex Skills are GM adjudicated.

Of course this alone isn’t that helpful.  What is much more useful is specifying a set of example Flex Skills (especially care given to specify in specific campaign settings to provide flavor), with a set of specializations (more on those later).

For example: Allure, Talker, Bard, Goodwife, Mariner, War Leader, Tactician, Driver, Criminal Mind, Humanities, Crime, Culture, Repair, Soldier, Detective, Spy, Ninja

How to Use Flex Skills

Okay, so we have flex skills.  How does this actually play out?

Well, if we’re going this route we need to give rules to help GM’s figure out actions.  But, we can look readily at the Sense check given above and discern play from there.  Suppose a bunch of characters were investigating a crime scene, and the GM wants everyone to make a check to investigate.  One character has a “Detective” skill, one character has a “Fighter” skill, and one character has a “Burglar” skill.  Two things come from this.  The Fighter and the Burglar are going to have a higher difficulty than the detective (say +5 difficulty), and they are going to find out different things.  The Fighter can give input on the sort of wound inflicted upon the victim, and maybe some information regarding the blood splatter.  The Burglar on the other hand might discern information about how the suspect got into the room, perhaps finding the distinct marks of a crowbar.  The Detective, who already has a lower difficulty, could find out anything since the detective is focused on doing these sorts of things.

So how does this play out exactly?  The GM would say something like “Give me a check to investigate”, and a player may respond with “I’m going to use my Fighter skill to investigate”.  The GM then sets the difficulty based on “How hard would this be for a Fighter”, or better “How hard would this be for a Master Fighter”.  Then the GM bases the ramifications of the check based on the Skill that was applied to it.

Of course there is the issue of wildly inappropriate skills.  “I’m going to use my Computer Nerd skill to attack him with my sword” is of course utter nonsense.  That’s fine, the GM simply asks “How hard would it be for a Computer Nerd to attack him with a sword”, and the answer is that the Computer Nerd as a melee attack is nonsense so the difficulty is as high as it goes (60 in the case of Living Myth).  Which of course brings us to the Default.  The default that one can always check from is 0.  So the computer nerd can have the “base difficulty” (meaning the difficulty for someone who’s skill matches) at an skill level of 0.  This also means that in the case of our Fighter above, the fighter would need at least a 6 in “Fighter” for it to be sensible for him to use that skill in that situation.

Some Issues

Some immediate thoughts might come to mind.

First would be “Why doesn’t a player just take one of these?”.  A character that’s two dimensional certainly could be represented by just one of these.  There is nothing to stop a player from representing a character with a single Flex Skill.  They could just have “Fighter”, and that would be it.  Then during play they would get to do “Fighter” type stuff, and would be terrible at everything else.  You might view that as a problem with the design, but I assure you that it’s fine.  That player will find they are incapacitated for large parts of the game, and won’t have nearly the same amount of fun they would have had if they had expanded that scope some.

The second question is “Isn’t there going to be a lot of overlap?”.  Absolutely.  This is actually a good thing.  Consider that one character has “Spy” and another character has “Detective”.  They are both going to be good at gathering information, and they’ll both know how to shoot a gun.  That means they can both be active in scenarios that involve those things.  Though, even when there is overlap, the Skill still provides a lens on exactly how that plays out.  A detective is more likely to be getting info from seedy bar than from politicians, so this is still relevant.


The final issue that one might have is that the categories are still quite broad.  How does one specialize?  The answer is embedded in the question.  A player can specify, at a fraction of the cost, that a character is specialized in a particular aspect of that skill.  For example, a character might have “Fighter” with a specialization in “Sword fighting”; or a “Detective” with a specialization in “Blood Splatter”.

Of course this means that the scope for a specializations needs to be specified.  We’ll define a specialization as

  • Representing no more than 10% of the parent skill
  • Representing a specific action one could take with the skill; or
  • Representing a narrow method by which one would utilize the skill

So in the case of “Fighter”, he could have a specialization in “Sword Fighting” or a specialization in “Attack”, or even a specialization in each.  In the case of multiple specializations they don’t stack, instead if they are both applicable the highest one applies.

Final Thoughts

The Flex Skill methodology give tremendous flexibility to the Players and the Game Master when playing an RPG.  That’s good, but is also perilous.  Consider, if you will, a Generic System that just laid this out.  While that might be fine for a Free rules lite Game System that few will ever play, it is completely lacking in any form of narrative hooks for players.  This can only work with a large set of example skills that are contextualized to a specific campaign setting.  While this absolutely will work as part of a game system, it is far to flexible without lots of guid rails.

Can you see any problems?  What sort of Flex Skills would you give to characters?


One response

  1. Boris Budeck

    I like this approach, although personally I belong to the old school players that prefer rpgs that use stats like a trump card game. I need some sort of fixed stats to have a common ground to compare characters/nps. I cannot compare one that is called Harrald the Fierce Warrior with Ricco Swift Blade on a game mechanic level. It provides me with vivid images though, but what you and your gaming group make out of that is up to them only. Another group might interpret the aspects completely different. I can argue that Harrald is big, tough and brutal (or rather sinuous, enduring and ruthless) and Ricco is a small and agile rapier specialist (or rather a skilled fast talker with a tongue like sword?) – but these assumptions all root in stereotypes that have been built up by decades of trump card systems. The semantics become too fuzzy, some eloquent player will probably be able to explain why a “valiant” aspect of his knight actually makes sense even if he avoids combat all the time and even shows fear in the face of violence. The typical aspect-driven game I have experienced so far, simply hides the stereo-types of old school attribute block systems behind fancy poetic names, but works the same in the end.

    Having players create characters by coming up with a skill or ability description (aspect) of their character completely “out of thin air” is quite demanding. Many players I know, will be lost at that. You can definitely train that skill of creativity, but not everyone is willing to do that, or has the time. Traditional systems provided a more or less convoluted system of rolling up or buying character abilities. Pre-made builds or build frames assured that players didn’t come up with totally absurd characters that would not fit into the setting at all. All this is left to the players with flex skills, they become GM/world builders to a degree not everyone can or wants to handle. The GM had an easy life with old school systems – the rules were the rules (and he was totally lost whenever a certain rule simply didn’t exist). With flex skills he becomes an arbitrator on every level – even game mechanics or limits. Not everyone likes this.

    The last 10-20 years in rpg experienced a huge trend towards narrative gaming and getting rid of old school attributes, table lookups and dice maths. Some players and GMs have the most fun, though, at rolling dice, regardless of the system used – they don’t ask if the dice probabilities scale, if something makes sense or not, whether they would do it differently when writing a book or directing a movie. They are actually more game-board or table-top players, than creative narrators. A simple fixed ruleset, a pre-written adventure and a handful of dice are fun enough for them. I cannot tell, whether more players tend towards the (old school) D&D fraction or towards the Fate fraction. For having a quick fun session of dungeon crawl hack and slay, I would say that narrative Fate gaming is more cumbersome than chart flipping dice-mayhem hit points counting. Settings and campaigns that require creative solutions different from brute strength, lots of social interaction, politics and the like, I think a Fate-ist mechanic works better than the old trump card system of “my axe has more +1 than thine”. 🙂

    July 5, 2017 at 8:52 am

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