The Seven-Sided Die

Skill systems are sometimes a good idea

Posted Monday May 25, 2009 at 11:12 PM

Last year I wrote that skill systems aren't always a good idea. That piece primarily advocates the old-school approach to handling character interaction with the environment, in which the players' descriptions of what their characters try to do determines what they find, rather than the result of a roll. Since I wrote that I've left behind the D&D ghetto[1. "D&D ghetto" isn't supposed to be derogatory in this use, just descriptive. mxyzplk describes the D&D ghetto well and fairly: "It’s the only game they know, or the only game they’ve played, or the only game they can find a group to play. ... As a result, many different groups try to get their favorite jones – deep immersion, or gritty realism, or cinematic cool, or gamist challenge – using it." The upshot is that many people "know" that D&D does their play style just fine and can't imagine it being flawed, or that there could be any point to using any other system. I know—I speak from experience!] and have used different systems, most of which include skill systems. Many of these I've enjoyed, and I've found that the inclusion of perception- or search-type skills haven't harmed the immersion I aim for or dissuaded players from creatively interacting with the environment. I wasn't able to put my finger on the difference between "bad" uses of skill systems and "good" uses, and it's been nagging at me for a while.

Randall's post Old School Gaming and Skills at the RetroRoleplaying Blog made me realise what the difference is. The key is what I call a "fiction first"[1. The term "fiction first" is clumsy. Coming up with pithy names has never been my strength, but I haven't been able to find an established term for it. If anyone knows of a good set of terms for games that use the mechanics to represent the fiction, and games that treat the mechanics as the "physics" that determines the fiction, I'd love to read about it.] approach to gameplay: the player describes what their character is doing in ficitonal terms, and only then does the GM call for an appropriate check. The difference between old-school play with and without skills is just in how the GM follows-up the player's narration. In a system with skills, a skill roll can be used to decide where the game goes next; in a system without skills, the GM follows up with additional information, and questions that refine how the character proceeds in their intent.

What made it click for me is that defining the fictional actions first, and only then figuring out what skill(s) to use and how hard it will be, is a central and system-critical feature of how the Burning Wheel's skill system functions. I realise now that much of the "bookkeeping" feel of my last session of Burning Wheel was due to my missing this point. We didn't tend to describe the really high-level events of that session that spanned months, instead just figuring out what the next step in the plan was and sorting out the mechanics to get it done. It felt like bookkeeping sometimes because at those points we were just handling mechanics without any related narration. Although it's not an old-school system, the danger that skipping narrative opportunities presents is the same in that it relies on the narrative just as much—if in a different way—than old-school play does.

Comments (6)

Andreas Davour

Tuesday May 26, 2009 at 02:16 AM

Fiction First might be a clumsy term, but I think you're trying to say something really thoughtful here. I like it!


Tuesday May 26, 2009 at 11:06 PM

I agree that the term is clumsy but the point is well made and kept very nicely simple. As a game designer I sometimes forget to take those simple truths that I always assumed everyone knew into account.


Tuesday May 26, 2009 at 11:27 PM

Thanks, both. I'm better at intuitively synthesing ideas together than neatly analysing things into their parts, so I feel like I'm grasping at air trying to explain this idea. It's good to know that I'm communicating something.

I know my idea of fiction being first and foremost has something to do with valuing verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is usually lumped in with simulationism, though, and I find that the gamist-narrativist-simulationist model doesn't really capture how I play these days.

So, I'm not sure how to leverage established roleplaying theory to dig deeper into this way of looking at the relationship between the fiction and the mechanics. I'm stuck falling back on "I know it when I see it," which isn't very useful for anyone but me.

MJ Harnish

Wednesday May 27, 2009 at 07:26 AM

I too have gone back & forth between "I like/hate skills." In the end, it really depends on the the system and type of feel we're going for. With BW, the skill system doesn't feel like it's bolted on like it does in later versions of D&D. Most mechanics of the game revolve around skill/ability checks in BW while in D&D skills are all just ancillary. A side effect of that is that with D&D 3+* offers very little niche protection for the role of a PC in the group - the wizard could (theoretically) be as good at picking locks as the rogue. The non-skill versions of D&D avoid that by using more of a common-sense approach to what a particular knows or can do.

Regarding the bookkeeping part of BW - yeah, I struggled with that too during the first few sessions but it's becoming much more natural, especially now that the players have started actively seeking skill rolls based on what they want to accomplish. At this point the idea of looking for ways in which your skills can shape the narrative, whether your pass or fail, is being second nature to the group as a whole.

*Not to pick on D&D alone, this is what drives me nuts with Savage Worlds - every character in a group (especially if you have 5+ players) ends up with a large number of overlapping skill areas with the result that few characters really stand out as unique or interesting.

MJ Harnish’s last blog post: AP: Reflections on our D&D Game Day

Andreas Davour

Tuesday June 02, 2009 at 01:00 AM

I don't see niche protection as some thing that important in itself. Maybe skills isn't even the best way of achieving it?

Andreas Davour’s last blog post: PDF books, or how to pay more for less


Tuesday June 02, 2009 at 05:37 AM

I don't think niche protection is the "job" of a skill system, no. However, for games where niche protection is—for better or worse—an assumption of the overall system, I can see how skill systems could exacerbate the problem.

In Savage Worlds, I think that Edges are the key to keeping characters mechanically distinct. The skill list is small enough and the scale isn't granular enough to really get many niches out of it. The forester with a +2 to Survival and Tracking and the animal companion is definitely going to be different from the sneaky illusion-using padfoot, who will be different from the trap-breaking dwarven tinkerer. They might all have a d6 in Stealth, but their idiom is different.

I suppose it depends on how much the play leans on the mechanics and how much on the characterisation. I've been thinking about how to use SW for dungeon crawls—I think there I'll have to worry about mechanical niche protection more...