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.