More Musings on Skill Points and Economies Thereof

When I think about pen-and-paper RPG design, I invariably come around to skill systems and skill points. One thing that strikes me as odd about D&D is the almost complete disconnect between the systems for combat and the systems for just about everything else.

Historically, the reason (if not the reasoning) is clear: CHAINMAIL was a tactical combat game, so there was no need for anything in it besides rules for combat and related activities such as movement, support magic, etc. As it grew and developed as a role-playing game, then, D&D primarily went through repeated iterations of bolting on non-combat auxiliary systems. AD&D Proficiencies were a step in the right direction, but a kludgy and unsatisfactory one. It wasn’t until 3E that a fully-fledged skill system was born… and there are plenty of grognards who are happy to replace it all with fiat and hand-waving by the DM.

I’m not here to argue about that, at this point: people who don’t care for, or about, non-combat skills can do without; I like them, so I’ll do with. But assuming that you’re using them, the question that arises is: why keep non-combat and combat skills separate? Why have a special number called THAC0 or Base Attack Bonus when you could simplify things by having a single, unified system?

I have in mind a skill system similar to D&D 3E, in which each class has skills it specializes at (in which a rank can be bought for one point), skills it is not well-equipped to acquire (two points) and skills it cannot acquire at all (N/A). If you want to play around with the numbers, it might also work to have two points be the standard investment for buying a rank, with three points necessary for less-accustomed skills and just one for specialty skills. Certain skills could automatically begin with a certain number of ranks — I also see each language as being a skill, for example, meaning each character would always have ranks in their native tongue.

Perhaps what distinguishes “fighters” as class, then, is that they specialize in all available combat skills, or even begin play with an automatic rank in some of them. Another benefit of this approach comes to mind: traditionally “the common man” has been mechanically represented (in terms of hit points, saving throws, etc.) by a 0-level or first-level fighter; by making “attack bonus” into a skill and not requiring points to be invested in it, you could model a tough or high-level craftsman by making them a higher-level “fighter” and simply not investing any of their skill points in combat skills.

On that note, let’s go back to the SP Economy and its optional mini-skills. There are several major published systems (such as feats in 3.x D&D, or more elaborately in Mike Mearls’ Iron Heroes) and quite a few more hobbyist or house-rules systems that try to arrange special weapon abilities for fighters in order to make them more interesting in play, or more “special” for balance, etc. Add to this a certain resistance against fiat weapon restrictions by class: “Gandalf swings a sword with the best of them, so why can’t my wizard use one?” The problem is that if you allow wizards to freely pick up and swing swords, you really should give fighters something to distinguish themselves.

Making all weapon skills one-point skills for fighters is a start, but there are two extra things you can do here for flavor: add non-weapon combat skills with functions for parrying, cleaving, shield-bashing, etc. (using a skill system to simulate 3.x-style Feat trees?), and add weapon-specific mini-skills that allow extra tricks to be performed.

Here’s an example of the latter: say there’s a Light Weapons (or Short Blades, etc., depending on the granularity and flavor you’re aiming for) skill that allows anyone to use daggers more effectively. Perhaps this is a specialty (one point per rank) skill for fighters and “thieves” and a higher-cost skill for everyone else. But on top of that you have a Dagger skill, and for each point you invest in it you gain a special trick you can perform that most people can’t, like using an off-hand dagger to parry, or using one as an effective throwing weapon.

Seen in this light, the example that started me thinking about skill point economies (the extensible locking pole) would be the same kind of thing as the Dagger skill: a nonstandard skill with limited investment producing concrete, specialized results that depend only on points invested. This would put it in contrast to most skills, which are to some extend universal and unlimited, with results depending on dice.

I like it.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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