The Advantages of Skill Based Games

I have a strong preference for RPG systems that define a character primarily by the skills they possess, such as The Call of Cthulhu (and other BRP based games), GURPS, Eclipse Phase, Alternity and Shadowrun. There are other games which involve skills: D&D, Fate, and so on, but they aren’t based primarily around a set of skills everyone has. D&D has a common skill list for all players, but most of the time it is overshadowed by other things, and many others may have ‘skills’ or ‘professions’ but each character only possesses two or three of these, there isn’t a universal set that everyone divides points between.

Games that use these old-fashioned long skill lists are currently falling out of fashion due to a perception that they are hard to get into, that you need a spreadsheet to play them, and that games with less stuff on the character sheet are faster to play. In my opinion these are all untrue. Certainly, games like GURPS benefit from a spreadsheet when making a character, and no one is ever going to call Alternity a rules-light game, but there are also games like The Call of Cthulhu, which is quite rules light, doubly so as I play a variant that removes a lot of the rules.

So, why do I like skills so much? I like the flexibility they provide and how easy they are to DM. I can customize a character in a skill based game to resemble a real person much more then I can in any other type of system I have seen. The average Call of Cthulhu character gets 400 skill points, of which, on average, 130 are earmarked for skills related to the characters non-work related experiences and interests. So, I have the freedom to drop a few points into painting if my character paints miniatures as a hobby, without harming the core skills that define what he does in the party. In my GURPS game I’ve used the points that I put into Connoisseur (Literature), and it has come up in play that another character had some skill related to the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. Such things do a lot of flesh out the character, and make them feel alive. In other games I don’t have the freedom to spend a point or two (or the game systems equivalent) on something totally unrelated to the characters main role in the party. This is something that is lost when you only have 4 skills or whatever; you really have to put them into something that will benefit the party, or you are letting the rest of your team down. In systems with an excess of points I can get to a level that helps the party, then put points into stuff purely for roleplaying.

Furthermore as a DM these games are pretty easy to run. If a character wants to do something, I just find the closes skill on the character sheet and have them roll that; if they have something related I can let them apply it at a bonus or a penalty, depending on how relevant it is (Say, using Chemist to analyze some biochemical evidence gathered from a crime scene instead of biochemistry: If you know one, you probably took a class or two of the other at one point, but wouldn’t know as much as an actual biochemist). I don’t have to make a call in each situation about what stat is the most important, which is a pain for things like rock climbing as there are strength, dexterity, constitution and mental components. I just find ‘hey, here is a climb skill, roll that unless you can find something more appropriate to the task, or at least close.’

That is why I like skill based games. I do hope we see more of them over time, given that as of late games that use a very limited set of characteristics and abilities are more popular. Perhaps I’ll even set down my ideas for a system I’ve had kicking around in my head for years and years sometime.

Sorry this post was so late; what with playing twice a week I’ve been getting my fill of thinking about gaming in the real world, instead of online. Until I get the urge to write again, Stay Geeky.


Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Part of the draw away might be that rpgs are holding their own against mmo’s and other video games because of their capacity to deliver a better story and social experience. Video games can specialize in delivering that quantified experience better, and table tops are capitalizing on their ability to facilitate a story with less constraints.

    I think the reason so many people like non skilled based systems would be players aren’t referring to a list of things they can do they simply do them. Instead,you maybe roll + stat. The gm may impose an arbitrary bonus or negative if your character is particularly good or bad at something. Instead of wasting the time adding up how good you are at something you end up just playing it out through the game.

    I don’t think skill based games will go away, but largely how skills are looked at will/did change.

    • I don’t see a skill list as a limitation any more then my real life skills are a limitation. They are just a way of representing what you are good at, and representing your character.

      Roll + stat I think is far overdone; It limits the characters you can create in a statistical sense, since most characters will then come out the same. Whereas in a skill game you can have a lot more specializations, and you can differentiate even two characters who have the same role in the group: For example in one of my GURPS games I’m playing a woodsman/lumberjack with at two handed-axe. In D&D I’d be a basic melee fighter, same in most other games. Howler, due to my skills I can lead the group through the forest, I’ve been learning carpentry as I’m getting too old to be a lumberjack, I know some farming as in the fall everyone in the village has to chip in and help, and so on. At the same time, there is another melee fighter, but he is a blacksmith, so can help the group in totally different ways, due to not just his metal working skills, but knowledge of French (For dealing with rich customers), basic business training, and so on. So we help the party in very different ways depsite us being rather similar in combat. None of this is covered under stat+die systems, and none of it takes a ton of rules (Roll under the skill is actually faster in play then stat+die, since there is no math.)

  2. I actually wish there were more middle ground systems these days. I really liked the oWoD system where you had a skill-based system but it was stripped down. It is hard to get someone into Shadowrun because of how complicated the entire thing looks, but I can help create a character in the oWoD system in an hour. Or less…

    Also, the storytelling systems of things like Fate might be a push the other way too. I got to take a closer look at the system, but what I’ve seen as it’s been pushed into the Dresden file system is kinda cool.

    • Yeah, that is the downside of GURPS: I love how I can make a character that is a very close representation of just not a mystery writer turned vigilante, but a mystery writer who majored in religious studies and history, with a focus on western religions and small cults. However, it takes me days to make a GURPS character.

      The Basic Roleplay or Call of Cthulhu system is a good compromise; less rules then most games, though a pointlessly long rulebook (Due to chapters of optional rules and monsters and things), and I can make a character in 30 minutes or so.

      It was recently revealed to me the DM I played Dresden with was playing it wrong, so I’d be willing to give it another go. Fudge also sounds very interesting.

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