Comparing Skill Systems


Zipdrive requested a discussion on skill systems in roleplaying games in the thread for Rangers are the Symptom. I’m a nice guy, so I’ll indulge him and get this started.


Some games, like DnD provide a list of skills to choose from based on a class or character type. These skills can be taken in any order as long as they correspond with the type. Skills from other classes can be purchased, but at higher cost.

This is my least favorite way of buying skills. The skill lists are small, and the cost to do anything different is too high to be useful.

Why can’t a fighter learn to read? Is the game implying that someone who is good at combat is by default an uneducated lout?

Why can’t a mage, especially one of noble blood, know how to duel with a sword?

Wouldn’t a mercenary, a merchant, a thief, or an entertainer know how to haggle and barter? These are people who negotiate the pay that they receive for the work that they do. Why don’t they get a haggling or merchant skill? I think that Bards do, and maybe thieves, but that’s about it.

Doesn’t make sense to me, which is one of the main reasons why I hate this type of skill system.

Other games, like Shadowrun and GURPS, divide skills by attribute or type. For example, Shadowrun has points that are used solely for knowledge based skills. GURPS classes skills based on the type of skill. Combat vs craft or social. In GURPS, this is done to make it easier to find certain skills as they are grouped by type rather than a restriction on which skills to use.

The only restriction that GURPS has is a logical one. You must purchase some skills in order to possess others. This is most obvious in the magic system. An advanced spell or skill has requirements, usually simpler skills or spells, before the advanced version can be learned.

One thing that I like about Shadowrun is that you can make up skills. I’m not sure if this is a house rule or a system rule, but it’s a good one.

Example: I had a college student with a background in security systems and home repair. Security systems is a listed skill, but I had to invent the Handy Man skill which let me do most home repair type things. Basic electrical, drywall, basic carpentry, plumbing, stuff like that. This skill ended up being incredibly useful in a Burn Notice sort of way.

These two games have great skill systems. Easy to understand and learn. Intuitive. And exhausting in the amount of skills available (especially GURPS).

These two games also have their downside, especially when it comes to martial arts and combat. Which is pretty odd if you think about it.

Shadowrun is a game set in the near future with magic and cybernetics. The PCs are criminals, doing illegal work for money. Yet there are no hit location rules, no dodge or other defensive moves, no martial arts rules, and no real bonus to called shots. It also features a rather complicated turn based combat sequence which hurts the brain unless you are very used to it.

Shooting a guy in the eyeball is harder to do, but gives no extra damage.

A third degree black belt in Jeet June Do is the same as a person with the brawling or Hand to Hand skill.

GURPS has the opposite problem when it comes to martial arts. Steve Jackson Games went into so much detail with martial arts that making a martial artist is impossible with the normal 100 points. There are too many skills to buy. And 150 point martial artist will be a black belt, but won’t have any other skills.

If you are running or playing GURPS, I highly advise treating ALL martial arts as a Physical Hard, just as Karate and Judo are listed in the main book. Use the martial art book for a list and description of martial arts, with weapons and new cool skills, advantages, and disadvantages thrown in, but don’t force the players to spend 35 points to buy Karate. It’s just not worth it.

Another problem with GURPS is the sheer amount of skills available. GURPS has skills for EVERYTHING. Basket weaving? Seriously?

There is another way of handling skills that I love and have incorporated into my own game. I don’t remember if I made this up or if I picked it up from another game system.

You take a base skill, like sword or guns or escrima. You buy the skill and it gives you the ability to use any sword, any gun, and all the differing aspects of the martial art. All swords are basically the same, as are all guns. Escrima incorporates knives, sticks, and empty hand combat.

You can purchase levels of skill up to a certain point. In my system that is three levels, which is the equivalent to a black belt or professional. Once that level is reached, you must specialize. You can specialize multiple times, specializing again every three levels.

Guns to handguns to Sig Saur P-229.

Sword to Fencing to Rapier.

Escrima to Sticks to Disarm.

For example: Once Academics of level 3 is reached, the PC specializes in Law and Psychology. Once the PC has a level 3 in Law she specializes again in criminal law. In psychology she goes for abnormal psych.

When it comes to rolling for skills, you add the corresponding attribute to the skill plus the specialization.

If this character was rolling for abnormal psych, she’d roll her IQ of 4, + 3 for Academics, +3 for Psychology, +1 for Abnormal Psych for a total of 11 dice. Assuming that she is rolling against a difficulty of 6, she has a pretty good chance of succeeding.

Of course, this only works in systems where you roll a bunch of dice and add up the successes rather rolling to get above or below a specific number.

In Timelords skill levels were based on the time spent learning them. A person who has been taking fencing for two years is going to have a better skill than someone who has spent two months learning the sword, even if the second person has higher natural abilities.

I used to know the skill systems in other games, but it’s just been so long since I’ve played them that I just can’t remember anymore. Guess that I’m getting old…

This is enough to get us started. Hope this helps, Zipdrive.

Hi Cal, just a few points:

A 3rd edition D&D Fighter can read by default. It's only Barbarians who are illiterate. And they can buy that off by spending 2 skill points to become literate.

A mage can learn sword proficiency by expending a feat slot. Or there's the Martial Wizard option, in which you get proficiency in a martial weapon and have fighter bonus feats in place of Wizard bonus feats. And there's no end of prestige class options for people who want to play warrior wizards.

Haggling would be an application of Bluff or Diplomacy skill. Sense Motive also useful to determine if you're being conned. You can also take Profession (Merchant) which lets you make money by trading, and the Business Savvy feat improves this still further.

I'm not saying the D&D skills system leaves nothing to be desired - I'm thinking about giving it a bit of an overhaul myself in our campaign world - but it's not as inflexible as you believe it to be either.

I've played GURPS and found the skills system pretty much OK, though I found the way that different tech levels of the same skill were treated as independent skills was a bit odd (and slightly irritating in the context of what my character wanted to do). Maybe we were doing it wrong.

Ah. Magic and logic. Now the thing about magic, see, is that it's magic, and so your idea of a logical progression of magical power acquisition might not agree with mine. Maybe fire spells might seem like an intuitive progression, but my character was trying to learn technological magic and I found the prerequisites for the spells I wanted to use didn't seem 'necessary' according to my own intuition. (Can't remember now exactly what it was I was trying to learn).

The GURPS rules for ranged and burst weapons seemed horribly complex. Probably realistic, then. But a pain. It made using a flamethrower a lot less fun than it might have been.

When I talk about games, I am referring to the core book(s). I understand that there are dozens of Prestige Classes and sourcebooks out there for more advanced options, but I'm cheap and tend not to buy or use them. When I am referring to sourcebooks, I try to mention that so that you know.

Having said that, I don't know if Martial Wizard is an option in the basic 3rd ed book. Actually, I don't even remember if 3rd ed has a Players Handbook and a GMs Guide, or if that was solely ADnD. Just been way too long for a game that I really didn't like.

And why would a Martial Wizard get Fighter Bonus Feats rather than Wizard? Wouldn't they get to choose from both? They are by defination a wizard who has martial training, right? Things like this makes my head hurt and gives me gas. No one wants that.

As for magic... I read once that you can create that most fantastic world imaginable and it will be believable as long as you have rules governing the fantasy that are clearly defined and laid out in the beginning. A frame of reference that allows the reader to know what is and is not possible.

GURPS has a logical progression that is very easy to understand with over 400 spells if you add in the two Grimoirs. DnD has a simple progression as well. In Gurps you must have spell A+B+C before you can get D, which is what you really want. Sit up, crawl, walk, and then you can run. DnD has a group of spells that you can learn every level. Here is a list of every spell that you are allowed to know at your level.

If you think about it, GURPS allows more freedom with spells than DnD of any edition. If you want to start with Exploding Fireball, you spend the points to learn Ignite Fire, Create Fire, Shape Fire, and Fireball. Now you have five spells, one leading logically to the next.

In DnD, you have to reach a certain level (3rd? 6th?) before you are allowed to cast Exploding Fireball.

If I remember right, in DnD you just get spells. You don't need to go find them. You can't learn a spell unless you go up a level, and when you do, you just automatically get better spells. Maybe I have that wrong, but that's what I remember.

In GURPS, you have to study spells in order to advance in them. Just because you can throw a fireball, doesn't mean that you can make a Fire Elemental. But you can pick up spells just by studying them. 200 hous spent studying anything will give you a skill. I personally lower that to 50 hours. I feel that in 50 hours of study, you have a basic understanding of anything. But that's just me.

And I've said before and will say again, the ranged weapons rules for GURPS, while realistic, is hopelessly complex. Just assign a difficulty and roll. And using a flamethrower is easy. Figure out the long range, the last quarter gives half damage, and the rest is full damage. Can't really dodge a wall of flame, nor can you use a shield. So whoever gets hit is toast unless they are wearing fire retardent or other protective clothing.

Remember the KISS theory. Keep It Simple Silly!

"Stupid is a mean word."

"I didn't say 'stupid'. I said 'stupidest', look it up!"

Cal, I didn't intend to turn this into a D&D vs GURPS fight, so I'll resist the temptation to reply point-for-point. (Besides, I'm in a lecture right now so I'd better keep it short...). Though I've found D&D to be a better set of rules for my own fantasy campaign I have absolutely no hate for GURPS - I think it's a fine system. I only wanted to point out that there are in fact answers to the specific gripes you've raised against D&D. Rather than parry-and-riposte over these individual points, we should instead perhaps discuss the overall design philosophies of these two systems and their relative advantages and disadvantages.

Edit: Or indeed, other systems. We needn't restrict discussion to D&D and GURPS.

From what I can tell, I like the GURPS system better (don't worry gherkin, I'm gonna try and keep this philosophical), because it allows more specialization. If I wanted to be a Fire mage, I just focus on fire spells. D&D doesn't really allow that, unless you include all the various supplements. However, the supplements themselves get so ridiculous that the whole thing falls under its own weight.

GURPS philosophy, as I see it, is simpler. You build into the core ruleset what's necessary for general skills and for specialization. If you really want a particular facet to be a part of your game, you buy the supplement, but only that one supplement for that particular facet. There is a fantasy supplement for fantasy games, maybe two, but it doesn't get nearly as cumbersome as D&D, with it's legions of supplements out of which you want maybe one or two prestige classes from the 15 offered...

D&D uses the core rules not as an all encompassing ruleset that could potentially suffer some further specification in your game, but as a base, from which every supplement grows into something else (and usually something more ridiculous). D&D has no limits. GURPS, by it's very nature, is self-limiting. Of course, by limits I mean that D&D just gets more and more ridiculous over time, whereas GURPS just gets more specific. Both have problems, but I think D&Ds is the greater problem. Over time, it just builds and builds, each supplement getting more ridiculous than the last, rather like the U.S. and Russia in the cold war (Oh, yeah! I've 890 universe-destroying nukes!). D&D, potentially could never stop, whereas GURPS has to at some point, and even at that point, unlike D&D, the supplements are still unique and interesting in their own right, something D&D lost after the first couple.

I actually targeted Shadowrun and my own game system in the original article as well. I would love to have feedback on my skill system as I have barely started playtesting.

Based loosely on the World of Darkness D10 system, skills are purchased in general form and specialized or narrowed after every three levels.

Example: Malachai has a melee skill of 3, has specialized in swords 3, then rapier 2. When he rolls he dds together his DEX of 4+3+3+2= 12 Dice.

A 7 or higher on a D10 is a success and a 10 counts as two successes. In combat this is a contest of skill between two opponents. As a noncombat skill, the roll is against a difficulty number.

There are more examples and an explanaition in the original article as well.

Any thoughts or ideas on this?

I like it quite a bit actually. It's free form but still resctrictive to realism and logic. Personally, I think it would be excellent as a WoD house rule, and might use it to that effect. However, what about cost? Should specialization cost the same as moving up in a general skill, or more? I'm inclined to think more, to emphasize the cost specialization brings. Being a fire mage almost inevitably means your water or earth or whatever spells are lacking...

I think as for what's success I'd just keep the WoD method. 8 or higher means success, 10 means reroll. I think it's simpler, but represents a gritty, hard world, like WoD.

When we discuss the relative merits of skill based systems we should not confine our discussions to the mechanisms by which skills work. Mostly games do a good job of ensuring that the mechanism for resolving a skill action is sensible. By mechanism I mean that in D&D one rolls a D20 and adds a modifier for training and attributes and compare it to a difficulty rating (DC) or another character’s opposed roll. At the game table how is that substantially different from rolling a certain number of dice based on your skill and comparing successes (7’s, 8’s, 9’s; or 10’s) to the number of successes required?

There are far bigger philosophical differences between skill systems than playing with the mechanisms. So apart from Mechanism what is there that separates the way skills are handled in a game? Well, there is Scope for starters – how many kinds of things the mechanism for using skills applies to. There is selection – how many skills are available; how are they chosen by the player; and, how flexible are they. Advancement strategies are also central to how skills work in a sustained game. Do skills increase through use, according to character paradigm, or through a point-buy system? We can examine the amount of choice the player has versus the connection that skills have to the setting and narrative. Can skills improve? Do they have a logical growth pattern?

Scope: D&D has a core mechanism: the D20 roll. This mechanism is used almost everywhere. It makes the rule system accessible. Skills, though, have a more limited role in the game than they might. Skills are reserved for mostly mundane knowledge. Skills are not special abilities, supernatural abilities, feats, spell-like abilities, melee skills, saving throws, or attributes. Off the top of my head seven things don’t belong under the mantle of skill in the game.
From a process point of view, D&D is more about exception management than process management. Feats typically create an exception where a character can “break” a rule of the game. Thus, many rules in the D&D world can be broken by the right person. What is inherently confining about this is that “breaking” a rule is no longer accessible to the story. I can’t say that my Ranger loads two arrows onto their bow and attempts a shot if my character does not have access to the feat that breaks the rule (or in 4th Edition, has used that daily power).
Why are melee skills not incorporated into the skill mechanism? When designing the game they needed to control the value and advancement of melee abilities because they are so very important in a miniature battles game. Rather than streamline the system and build skills in a way that certain essential skills threads (magic, fighting, subterfuge) were balanced so that advancement in more than one area was tricky, they opt to isolate the skill and remove it from the list of skills. Most other games are able to reconcile that swinging a sword is inherently a learned skill.
Adding to the micro-management of rules, my character gets to add bonuses to skills, attacks, and saves by using their attributes. A score of 18 translates into a four that gets applied to skills, attacks, and saves that belong to that family. Why? D&D firmly believes that their character needs numbers for how big, strong, and handsome their character is. This creates a problem for game balance as a bonus of one here can be applied across many skills, abilities, attacks, saves – making a bonus attribute often worth much more than training in any one skill. So they decided to introduce rules to ensure that all characters get about the same physical attributes. Homogeny 101.
What is the alternative? Expand the scope of skills in the game to ensure that every action is the result of a skill. Skills drive action. If you balance the skills you balance the game. Ensure that the level at which a character performs a skill includes both their natural talent (including Strength etc) and their level of aptitude. If you want balance, when you increase a skill you increase the level at which they perform the skill and calculate their new level of aptitude rather than the other way round. Everything should affect the skill mechanism directly. It is easy, fast, and balanced.

I have a bias. I am putting the finishing touches on a Roleplaying game. Skills and Action is the first chapter because they are the central concept. I have a flow-chart that I’d love to be able to include in this post that has several main sections colour-coded with connectors between. The sections are: Skills; Actions; Combat; threats and enemies; Injuries and Conditions; Travel; Equipment; My Character; and, friends, places and events (The capitalized items form the chapters in the game, while the others form the last chapter: Source Material). Skills are right in the middle.

Here are some paths that are created:
My Character uses Skills to create Actions that can change My Character and their goals.
My Character uses Skills to create Actions that can overcome Threats and Enemies in and out of Combat.
Threats and Enemies can inflict Injuries and Conditions that reduce my Skills.
Actions allow me to Travel to Friends, Places and Events where I acquire Equipment that can increase my Skills.
If you follow the chart around in a giant figure eight you get phrases like: My Character uses Skills to create Actions that can overcome Threats and Enemies who can use Combat to inflict Injuries and Conditions that reduce my Skills that I use to create Actions that can help me Travel to Friends, Places, and Events where I can acquire Equipment that can increase my Skills to perform Actions that can change My Character and their Goals.

I have lots more to say on the subject, but I’ve got to go for now.

Picking up from my lengthy rant...
The philosophy of the skill system has a lot to do with the audience of the game. In a role playing game there are two different kinds of participants -- and, what appeals to players doesn't always appeal to the GM. D&D offers a lot of things to the players that other games try to restrict (sometimes with good reason). The ways that skills progress and the ease of attaining those abilities often flies in the face of any inherent logic built into skill selection. Unfortunately, being logical doesn't necessarily make it more palatable for the player.

Like it or lump it, D&D has historically done a good job appealing to the player. Where the players go, the GM's must follow. So where I'm picking up with from earlier is ... "how does skill selection work?" Is it based off a player model where selections are made and there are restrictions (pick a skill you want) or from a GM/world model (used skills improve)?

Is it better to have all the skills in a book and have players pick, or to have them discover skills in the game world?
Discovering them in-world puts a lot of power in the hands of the GM. Power can be used to ruin the players experience or take their character in a direction other than the one they want.

Another problem with skill systems is ensuring that they can scale back to reality. There is a general feeling against having reality in a fantasy game. They give facile arguments like "this is a fantasy game," without realizing that for fantasy to be fantastical it must juxtapose a base reality.

Given a choice between:

An entirely skill-based system and a class-based system ... I choose skill-based.

Skills that can be chosen from a book and skills that are acquired in game ... I choose in-game skill development and acquisition.

Skills being used as a mechanism to generate all actions rather than special rules for combat and spells ... I choose a unified mechanism.

Exception-based rules and modular rules ... I choose modular.

This doesn't make any of my choices right. It is a matter of preference. When we talk about what makes a good skill system we have to "fess-up" to our own bias. I am more inclined to like a system like GURPS than one like D&D because it suits my inclinations. However, I should limit my criticism of D&D to those areas in which it fails to deliver to its audience. The audience of D&D is the player. The more I think about it the more I realize that putting magic items into the Player's Handbook for 4th Edition is entirely consistent with the direction of the game. Sure it isn't a direction I like, but it should attract more players.

Who agrees with me that players should have less choices? They shouldn't be able to pick super-powers out of a book, but they have to work for them; suffering through the sacrafices of success. Who agrees that they should have to work harder, and not be able to rely on the dice to rescue their character? In the end stupid choices should leave their characters dead. Players who don't pay attention to what the DM is saying should never find a secret door, a trap, or even a treasure chest ... yes, I mean never. In fact, they shouldn't have much of an adventure at all. Who agrees that a group of stupid players should miss the boat and stand around the tavern achieving nothing?

Mmm... is there anyone left who wants to play with me?

I have been following this, Gil. I'll return to this thread when I'm a little less busy...working against a deadline right now.

Sorry for the delayed response Gil, but it’s been a weird few days…

I believe that the skill mechanism does bear looking at. I don’t think that we should “confine” ourselves to a discussion on mechanics, but the subject does bear merit. Not the final roll per se, but how much work is required to get to that roll.

GURPS is a great example. Most combat is handled thusly:

I have a 16 broadsword skill. I roll 16 or less on 3D6. If I succeed then I hit my target. The target has a dodge of 10. If he rolls 10 or less on 3D6 then I didn’t hit after all. Sucks to be me.

Simple and elegant. Even when modifiers are thrown in the rules are easy to understand and quick to implement.

I’m going to jab him in the throat with my stiffened fingers, collapsing his windpipe and causing him to suffocate to death.

Called shot to the throat = -5

16 martial art -5 = 11 or less on 3D6 (slightly better than 55% chance of success).

Again, a simple yet elegant called shot attack. The defense is exactly the same and unless there are a bunch of other variables (fighting on ice, while being shot at, etc) then the modifiers remain constant and predictable.

It’s weird to me that most games either don’t allow called shots, or they don’t have damage modifiers for hitting specific parts. A kick to the balls is much more devastating than a punch to the ribs or face after all.

Now imagine shooting a gun. That’s where GURPS gets stupidly difficult, making the players calculate an absurd amount of variables.

Distance to target. Size of target. Speed of target (if moving). How much of target is covered by intervening objects (foliage and the like). Lighting conditions. Wind. Weapon accuracy. Tme spent aiming. Rate of fire. Recoil (if more than one shot is fired). Blah blah blah…

Just a massive amount of number crunching, don’t you think?

So yes, the mechanism bears looking at as well.

I haven’t played the D20 system much, so please bear with me. But don’t you still need the whole mélange of dice to play this game? Isn’t it still a massive amount of number crunching to run through combat?

Most of my exposure to the D20 system has been through the video games Knights of the Old Republic (I & II), which were very cool. Didn’t teach me too much about the D20 system though…

One thing that I truly hate about DnD is the incredibly limited role that skills play. They are almost worthless in the game. Combat abilities aren’t considered skills at all for some reason. And Feats are WAY more cool to have than skills. Skills end up being rather useless and more of a lame requirement than a real need.

Imagine having to play an entire adventure that relied solely on your character’s SKILLS. Can you even do that in DnD?

And for the record, I believe that Feats, while cool, add nothing to the game. All they do is allow a character to either ignore rules completely or they replace things that should be skills with a highly cinematic version of a skill.

The game Exalted is similar but the reasoning is better and the over the top cinematic abilities are promoted as such. In DnD you are the hero of a story. A fighter, mage, thief, whatever who starts as nothing and rises through adventure to become a leader and hero of renown and wealth by killing monsters.

In Exalted you are blessed by the Sun God and are much more than human. You’re more of a priest than anything, there to fight evil while gaining followers and preaching about the Sun God. You can leap over buildings, knock an elephant out with a punch, hit seven targets with a single arrow and more. But the game states at the beginning that you will be this cinematic larger than life cartoon character.

DnD is stuck between being a serious game and a cinematic one. It takes itself too seriously for a game that allows characters to ignore or break laws of physics or game rules by taking Feats.

Attribute bonuses are a part of most games. I think that this is simply because of the influence that DnD has had on the gaming industry.

The better written games do not grant bonuses or negatives due to extreme attributes. The attribute IS the saving throw, the bonus to damage, whatever.

In GURPS an attribute gives you a base default level for a skill. For example, a character with a 15 Dexterity will have an 11 sword skill with no training simply because they are naturally coordinated and graceful. If the character learns the sword skill, by spending a point to get the skill, then the Sword skill would be a 14 instead. The more points put into the skill, the higher it gets.

Please remember that in GURPS, you want to roll equal to or less than your skill on 3D6. A 14 if MUCH better than an 11. An 11 skill is approximate a 55% chance of success. A 14 skill is something like an 80% chance of success.

Other games, including Exalted, Shadowrun, and my game add an attribute to the skill roll. If you have a Dex of 3 and a handgun skill of 3, then you roll 6 dice and add up the number of successes. Thus a high stat adds to the skill, but doesn’t give bonuses to anything else.

I am also in the final (testing) phase of designing a roleplaying game. Like you Gilgamesh, I believe that skills and actions are important. However, to me Character Creation is the most important part of a game and that is what my game starts with. I didn’t include flow charts or diagrams. Resolving skill rolls, including combat, is simple, straightforward, and easy to understand.

I don’t like math or number crunching. I love getting a bonus to a roll (but not every time and not the same bonus because it ceases to be a “bonus” and simply becomes a stat) and throwing large amounts of dice at a problem. It is so much more satisfying to add 6 dice rather than a +6 to a roll, even though a +6 makes it really hard to mess up when you’re rolling 3D6 or a single D20.

But that’s my take on things.

"Imagine having to play an entire adventure that relied solely on your character’s SKILLS. Can you even do that in DnD?"

That'd be a trick! They have carved up the rules into Attacks/Saves/Supernatural Abilities/Special Abilities/Spell Like Abilities/Skills/Feats. Trying to run a whole game on skills would like trying to run a whole game on saving throws. Giant attacks you by making a Reflex save and you defend with a fort save.

Ideal Skill System:

Universal: Applies to all skills.
Fits many situations (versatile and flexible).

Selection: You can add skills easily.
Base system has a good variety of interesting starting skills.
Skills grow.

Mechanism: Easy to use.
Realistic (or scales down to realistic).

"Imagine having to play an entire adventure that relied solely on your character’s SKILLS. Can you even do that in DnD?"

I ran an adventure a little while ago in which the party had to pass through a maze inhabited by animated statues placed at certain points. The key to escaping the maze was to collect clues from the statues which, when gathered and analysed as a logic puzzle, would lead them to their destination.

Each statue challenged the party to perform some task. None of these involved combat, and most involved use of one or more skills.

More recently I ran an adventure in which a single character had to climb to the top of a mountain in order to receive a divine blessing. This involved use of Survival, Search, Climb, Jump, Balance and Rope Use skills. The player had to make decisions about which onward route to take at various stages of the climb. Aside from the odd Fortitude save vs altitude sickness that was pretty much skills all the way.

I'm good with that, but at some point your going to want to make a saving throw, shoot an arrow, leverage a feat or use a special ability. There's just too many "bits" in D&D to run a whole adventure on skills alone.

It leads me to another point. How do you reward narrative engagement versus skill rolls? Rolling Survival, Search, Climb, Jump, and Balance checks doesn't make the adventure interesting. In my opinion there should be an advantage to describing where they search, how they climb, when they jump, and what they do to survive/track etc. The D&D mechanism does encourage involvement. It doesn't even encourage paying attention.

I use Stunting for that, which I originally discovered in the gme Exalted. When a player describes what they want to attempt in a descriptive manner and using the surrounding environment, they get a bonus. In Exalted that bonus is 1 to 3 dice. In DnD it could be a +1 to +3.

Describing a search: I search the hillside in sections, looking for movement, color, or anything else that stands out from the norm.

Climbing: I find a chimney and put my back on one side, my feet on the other, and walk my way up.

Jumping: I sprint as fast as I can and launch myself off the edge, doing Goofy's hooting scream as I fly through the air. "Whoohoohoohoohoo!!!"

Tracking: I walk around the campsite in a spiral, searching for disturbed earth, bent grass, an overturned pebble or something.

Each of these examples is enough to give a bonus to if you allow Stunting in you game. And it beats the hell out of... "How many climbing rolls do I need?"

My brain hurts...

I like the simplicity of a true universal mechanic. But I question if it would work. What about things that don't seem to fit under the purview of this mechanic, whatever it be? What if this leads to over-simplification that breaks the realism the rules represent? I wonder if one mechanic is perhaps too few?

I'm still not sure what I think of stunting. Describing what you're doing just to get a mechanical bonus is better than just rolling, but not much. Not to mention that describing every punch in exquisite detail for that coveted +3 tends to grate a little bit. And there's only so many descriptions you can use without repeating yourself. Sometimes it's good just to leave things be. I think that thought applies better to combat, than to skill rolls. I love describing skill rolls in loving detail, mainly because it adds to the realism of the world. There's nothing we use more than what is typically put into the skill category, no?

On Gil's distinction between games that cater to players vs. games that cater to GMs: That's a very interesting thought. I'd never thought of it that way before, but I find that it rings true. However, why do games have to be only on one side or the other? Why settle for one when you can get both? I think the best games would be those that cater to and satisfy both sides. Any ideas on such a game? Does one exist? I was thinking WoD at least tries to fulfill both ends with its insistence on players using in-game time to develop their skills before those skills could be bought further, but there isn't much to influence that if a group doesn't emphasize it themselves, not to mention the options are far as capabilities are relatively pick and choose, particularly when you play a supernatural and pick out "gifts" or "disciplines" or whatever.

Absolutely. I can tell you that there was more to the climbing adventure than just a pre-determined sequence of skill rolls - the player had to make decisions about how he was going to tackle various obstacles and also sometimes make imaginative use of the equipment he had to hand. Yes, I would give bonuses on his rolls based on the way he engaged with the situation. No, the rules as written do nothing to encourage that, and perhaps they should.

Shooting an arrow or making a saving throw are only different to skill checks in name. The mechanics are the same. d20 plus bonus, vs DC for saves, AC for rolls to hit with the arrow. Saying 'Aha! You used something that isn't technically referred to as a skill in the rulebooks, therefore your integrity is forfeit' seems a little pedantic :D

(I don't want to set myself up on this board as the great defender of D&D, by the way - I'm only too well aware of its myriad annoyances. I'm just trying to offer a balanced viewpoint - D&D ain't all bad).

I just have time for a quick comment on Stunting...

When Stunting combat, you don't need to describe and roll for every single move. I typically make two or three moves in each combat round, especially with multiple targets.

Flying through the air fighting off six leaping canniblistic halflings would be a single Stunt incorporating six attack/defenses.

For example...

See, now, Calamar, that just gets complicated. Personally, I just describe everything in detail, and expect my players to do the same. We create the right environment for it, and don't need to add in a rule mechanic to do so. In fact, I'd prefer not too. Just complicates things.

You're right about that, gherkin, they are just differences in name. But then you add in all the extra stuff you can do in combat and it becomes so much more. With skills there's not much to consider beyond the DC and the bonuses when making your roll. With combat, it's ridiculous, and bogs down gameplay. I'm not saying D&D is the bane of all things holy, but I think it is an inferior system. Why settle for an inferior system when you can have a superior one?

But then you add in all the extra stuff you can do in combat and it becomes so much more

But that isn't relevant to the question I was answering, which was 'can you run an adventure in D&D which is purely based on Skills'. I've demonstrated that, yes indeed, you can. And that saving throws (harm avoidance rolls) and non-combat rolls 'to hit' (lobbing the grapnel up over the battlements etc) may be regarded as equivalent to skills checks.

I'm not saying D&D is the bane of all things holy, but I think it is an inferior system. Why settle for an inferior system when you can have a superior one?


  • You think D&D is an inferior system to GURPS for the style of roleplay gaming you enjoy
  • You don't have a strong investment in an existing D&D-based campaign
  • Your playing buddies all agree with you on these points
  • ....I'd agree that you'd be crazy not to use GURPS as your preferred roleplay gaming system.

    I satisfy none of the above criteria. (Though we do break the GURPS out for a bit of variety now and then).

    I am actually quite fond of the combat rules in White Wolf's Exalted. That and GURPS are prolly my favorites. Although I do have to admit that the Charms (magic) in Exalted is pretty lame, at least to me. My LEAST fav combat/skill system is DnD (every version) and Palladium Games.

    Most games fall between these extremes and mostly on the lower end of the scale. I remember liking MERPS (Middle Earth Roleplaying System) and Earthdawn, even though both games are level based (my bane).

    Tzuriel... Stunting isn't complicated at all. It actually makes things SO MUCH easier. Especially since I play with people who usually describe an attack as "I hit him". I like theatrical combat, much like a Jackie Chan movie.

    One of my most memorable fights was in a large study/small library on the second floor of 2 level fortress. I hunted down and attacked the captain of the guard after freeing my friends who he had captured and tortured. Bored with how combat is usually played, I locked us into the room and we went at it with swords. I started kicking chairs at him, throwing books, candlebras, ink pots.... Wall hangings and curtains caught on fire, we dodged over and under the table in the middle of the door, and trash talked the entire time. I actually won the fight by tackling the man through the window and landing on top of him as we hit the flagstone courtyard. It was fun as hell and the GM and I had a blast. Even the other players were entranced and they just sat there watching us roll dice, hooting and hollering or groaning depending on the roll.

    The funniest part is that this fight occured in 2nd ed DnD.

    I have tried to replicate this kind of combat in games that I run. The easiest way to do so is to apply an immediate reward to the players attempting things. I give them a bonus and allow them to make minor changes to the environment and to state their desired result.

    "I shoot the horse in the butt, causing it to rear up in pain. The rider is aiming a bow and arrow at my friend and doesn't have their hands free to grab the reins or anything, so they fall on their head, hitting a rock and getting knocked out." This would be a 2D Stunt in my game. It uses the environment, incapacitates the enemy with a single shot, and the player has a captive at the end of the fight.

    How would you do something like that in DnD? Or GURPS for that matter? Unless the GM describes that as the result, it won't happen. The players have no control, no reward for innovative thinking. In fact, they are usually penalized for trying things like this due to increased difficulty of the shot.

    My ex wife once neutralized an enemy bowman by severing the base of his thumb with an arrow from 50 yards out. She got +3 Stunt dice because it was cool as hell and impressed everyone in the group. In any other game, she would have gotten a SEVERE penalty.

    Isn't giving her a +3 bonus easier than trying to calculate the penalty? In GURPS that'd be a -8 for the size of the target, a -2 for distance, +3 for aiming and +2 for weapon accuracy. Granted, it's simle math, but not nearly as easy as +3.

    I love the simplicity and descriptions that come with Stunting. Makes for a faster, more descriptive game.

    And Stunting can be used for any situation. I have used it in gambling, research, seduction, intimidation, fast talk, climbing, and much more.

    Man, I write too much. Sorry. Your turn...

    Cal - am I right in thinking that Stunting only applies to player characters? If not, then the guy on the horse would get a stunting roll to stay on the horse, despite it rearing up, and get the shot off, wouldn't he? I'd say that's a pretty cool and difficult thing to do, so he'd get a big bonus for doing it, I suppose.

    When running a game I seperate bad guys into soldiers, lieutenants, and main bad guys. Lt and MBGs can stunt, but not soldiers.

    Even if the soldier could Stunt, this would have counted as a surprise attack. He was focused on another character, aiming for his shot. No dodge, no Stunt, SOL...

    The biggest difference in my game between PC's and NPCs is that the PCs get Essence, extra dice equal in number to their skill level in a particular roll, that they can add. They have a limited amount of Essence, but it'll give you a small boost when you really need to make the roll. Essence is regained through Stunting or rest.

    Both Stunting and Essence are ideas that I've purloined from the game Exalted. They are my fav features of that game. Stunting in particular is so fun that I've started using it in GURPS and Shadowrun as well, much to my players overwhelming joy.

    At least that's what they tell me...

    Whoa, gherkin. If I insulted your mother, it was entirely unintentional!

    lol, I was speaking in general, not to the question you were answering. I was saying why combat rolls can easily be interpreted as not being skill rolls. However, you can easily run an adventure with just skills, this is true.

    Well, you've got your reasons, obviously, but I was again speaking in generalities. I also wasn't saying just GURPS as being "superior" because, again, I've never played it in it's current iteration, and my experience in 3rd was a trial run found in the book (you're a thief stealing from this rich dude, and you can accidentally eat some pepper and sneeze or something and I think if you make too much noise you could end up fighting a fat guy). I'm not even sure if you rolled dice during the thing...

    I see your point, Calamar. I think I already do something like that, but I haven't GMed combat in so long I can hardly remember. But I'm pretty sure I never punished characters for coming up with really cool ideas in combat. However, given the mood in my current game (if said game ever gets underway...sigh), I'd limit it to a +1 bonus for really cool ideas to reflect the grit and darkness of the campaign. But I do encourage players to be smart and think up cool ideas. Always encourage that.

    However, I would like to get back to the philosophy behind games. In an earlier post, I talked about how the ideal system would be one that caters to both the players and GMs interests, a distinction made by Gil as I recall. Is there such a system? Is it possible? And am I correct in thinking such a game would be the best possible? Thoughts?


    Finding a game that caters to both the GM and players is completely dependent on the people involved rather than the game system. Exalted is a really fun game where the PCs are super human with really neat abilities. But the world is stifling from player creativity stand point. Most gamers find that their character ideas won't fit the world, despite having read an Exalted novel or two and the main book.

    Examples of characters who didn't fit into the world of Exalted include a Blood Dragon Magistrate who operates in one major city, an ex assassin, and a scholar/professor who is also a serial killer (to be honest, not many games CAN handle this character adequately).

    The GM is encouraged to run the game much as a Jackie movie plays out. Lots of cool cinematic combat, a decent story, really bad acting, and horrible dubbing... Sorry, I think that I added the last two... But unless this is a one on one game, it is much too hard to run a challenging campaign for a small to medium group of players. They are just too powerful. Mundane things hold no interest. A PC doesn't even need to roll combat when fighting a normal person. They simply state how they kill them. And it's hard not to run anything BUT a high flying cinematic game with this system.

    It is like pitting a 10th level warrior against 0 lvl peasants, for those of you who like DnD.

    But some people LIKE this kind of gaming. The cinematic flair, the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kung fu. It was too much for me, but to others THIS game is the perfect system and caters to both GM and Players interest.

    But that's just my opinion.

    Whoa, gherkin. If I insulted your mother, it was entirely unintentional!

    *raises eyebrow quizzically*

    I didn't think my response came across as certainly wasn't intended as such. I was only answering your question.

    Here's a smiley to make you feel better :-)

    lol gherkin, i know i was just joking. And that smiley helped a lot lol

    I see your point, Calamar, but I think it's moot. Every game system, whether they cater to both sides or not, has a target audience. For you, Boothill is an awesome game. For someone who has never liked Westerns and would rather wield a portable 50 cal, you can see the problem. So lets just assume that for every game it's the target audience it desires. But does it satisfy even that audience with regard to balancing, or keeping unbalanced whatever the case may be, the players interests with the GMs? For instance, I find that D&D fails horribly at this. I am the target audience, because I love fantasy games, though, admittedly I'm more a fan of gritty ones than D&Ds usual brand of high fantasy. But it can still satisfy me there. However, it is fairly deeply balanced in favor of the players. Everything is made easier for the players, every edition. Being DM is really a sucky job. I think it pays off even here, but the amount of work involved in calculating experience points, figuring out how these monsters work, etc. is really difficult, even when made a lot easier in 4th. See? GMing sucks.

    Whereas WoD is much more to the other side, especially if you're not playing a supernatural creature. The experience system is very simple (thank whatever powers that be!), and most of the power lies with the ST. He decides just how outnumbered and outgunned you are. But that's how the game's supposed to be. I think when you play supernatural creatures, it more balances out. You get to do cool things like be a werewolf and he still has a lot of ease and power to tell the story he wants to tell. See what I'm getting at here? Lets just ignore target audience and think about the basic power balance here and what all that means. Good or bad, you know?

    In that case, I'd have to give nods to Shadowrun, GURPS, and Earthdawn. Those are the three games that let players be as cool as they want while allowing the GM the power to UTTERLY DESTROY THEM AT ANYTIME HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Ahem... My bad....

    Exalted does a fairly good job at this as well, but I have never seen a group larger than 3 PCs play and don't know how balanced the game would be with more people involved. Exalted is a fantasy game by the same people who made World of Darkness and has a lot of the same mechanics. So if you like one, then you should like the other.

    Does that address your question better?

    lol yeah i guess. I haven't bought exalted but don't really have much interest in it. Though I like the storyteller mechanics, what I love most about WoD is the mood. That's the stuff I just thrive on. I've long had an interest in Shadowrun but haven't yet looked at it. Same with GURPS. I actually haven't done anything with Earthdawn, but I've heard of it. I'm not really sure how to keep this discussion going though. Gil introduced the duality notion and I'd like to explore it further but I don't think about gaming nearly as deeply as he does. I suppose I'll wait until he decides to say something....

    "My ex wife once neutralized an enemy bowman by severing the base of his thumb with an arrow from 50 yards out. She got +3 Stunt dice because it was cool as hell and impressed everyone in the group. In any other game, she would have gotten a SEVERE penalty. "

    To me this seems as though you favour description over realism. Is there a way to encourage both? Is there a way to achieve both? The thumb is a small target, especially in combat. What if she had put the setting sun at her back and called to him at the moment when the light was hitting him... "As he raises his arm to shield the briliance of the sun, I take a shot at his now exposed hand."

    I find it hard to not include examples from my skill system, so I beg your indulgence. Too many years spent "thinking about it" and comparing it to other systems has entrenched it in me. The MOGE/EFRP engine uses a skill die that corresponds to your level of skill minus one (so a skill level of 9 in Archery means that you use a d8). If you ready and execute an action you roll and count two dice. Any action has a target value, and every skill shows penalty conditions -- things that can interfere with your success. For example, shooting a man-sized person requires a 5 (5 hits him/10 hits well). Penalty conditions force a player to roll additional dice (d8 in this case) and sum on the lowest results. Bonus conditions remove penalty conditions and then add dice. The number of dice that you count (2 for normal ready actions, 1 for unready actions) never changes.

    So in the example above a called shot against the hand requires an 8 (8 hits the hand / 16 hits well). The distance imposes two penalty conditions, but using the sun to her advantage earns a bonus. She would roll 3d8 and sum the worst two rolls.

    Players are encouraged to find a bonus in the terrain, circumstance, or opportunity. This draws them into the narrative, while keeping the mechanism simple. The example above is not about the mechanism, but about the fact that I want to encourage the player to be descriptive and take advantage of the story. It makes the game more fun, although it is no harder or easier than a +1 to +3 bonus. If you apply the +1 to +3 bonus to descriptions that show why there is an advantage then we have the same underlying concept.

    When we look at this mechanism it is easy to say that we are either encouraging cinematic action or realistic action. I agree, partly. The mechanism that suggest would result in dramatic-realistic while Stunting gives us dramatic-cinematic. They are both dramatic because they both reward the use of speaking/imagining on the part of the players.
    Stunting skews the odds and makes unlikely events more likely than ordinary ones. This is not a criticism, but an observation. Those who support this rule will note that they want to tell a story of things worth telling about, and the more amazing things that happen, the better.
    My system, however, is completely unassailable as the paragon of perfection. ;)

    Everything has a bias. Each element of any game has a context and an audience. I brought up the idea of GM versus Player as a distinction between systems. Thanks Tzuriel for the kind words (spending a lot of time thinking about games is a compliment around here -- it isn't so much of one when my wife says it, but that is another story).

    A GM likes to have a lot of source material available to them. A game with a lot of content makes it easy. However, putting their own spin on things only works if they can extract and modify that content. A GM wants the players to arrive at the content through them and discover the content (modified or not) in the process of the game. The GM is a particularly self-centred sort.

    A player likes to have a lot of source material available to them. They want to have lots of rules that can justify their concept or character build. They like to be able to build on synergies between their abilities. Maximizing a build often relies on having access to the right items to enhance their character. You see, GM's are a fickle lot who enjoy the torment and anguish of players just a little bit (in some cases more than that). A broad set of rules with lots of options can insulate you from their mercurial nature.

    You see, our hobby is really strange. No other game has this dualistic facilitator-actor structure. A lot of my criticism of D&D comes from the amount of meta-gaming that it encourages. When players huddle around a rulebook like a holy tome and consult it constantly, you begin to lose the game that I love. That game is about the characters encountering challenges and reacting to them.

    If I really had to I'd rather pull out a physics textbook to handle a dispute than a rulebook .... at a depth of 3 miles the atmospheric pressure would be... that way the players are engaged with the story. What does my magic do is more than stats and "flavour text." OOooh I abhor "flavour text" as one of the great evils of this endeavour we call gaming. Add to that the taxonomy of all creatures living and undead with all their sub-types and statistics and the whole thing becomes maddening. We get this steralized pap that discourages innovation. A character encounters a monster and reduces it to one of the 7 known types with 7 known resistances and applies their strategy against its (Will, Reflex, Fort, AC) using energy type (x,y,z). The game is so well organized there is nothing for the player to discover. In an effort to save players and GM's from interpreting words, paragraphs, ideas, and concepts, we can reduce and categorize all actions. We'll appease those "weird" gamers out there and throw them some "flavour text" because they won't notice that we've raped their game. And it's giving birth to video games... how wonderful!

    oops...that was a bit of a tangent.


    lol tangents are always welcome here.

    It seems I have magical abilities. I can just say I'm waiting for someone to say something, and they'll appear! Truly wondrous.

    Thank you, Gil, for stating what has always been my problem with stunting but which has eluded my tongue. I love the idea of rewarding the players for reacting to the environment and being intelligent in their thinking. But my favorite -ism (besides the one I made up!) has always been realism, within limits. To me, realism grounds it, makes it *real*. I can believe it, and because I can believe it, and can treat it like it's either actually happening or could really happen. And then I have a stake in it, and care about the characters, and want to know what happens to them. As most of you know, my realism is fairly flexible - it applies to all worlds as long as those worlds have known and followed rules. When they start breaking their rules in deus ex machina fashion, I walk out. So, I wanna keep my realism to ground the game. But I also wanna have players interacting with the environment in new and interesting ways.

    How to resolve this tension? Personally, I'd go for in-game benefits. Resolve the rules as it makes sense, but, if successful, something really, really cool happens. Of course, this won't do for everybody, but I think it works for me.

    Totally agreed on D&D. Making new creatures takes ages...

    Anyway, I wonder about this distinction you've brought up here, Gil. You're right that our hobby is very unique in this dualism. However, other *genres* of storytelling possess a similar nature. Here I'm mostly speaking of film, with the director/production team as a counterpart to the actors. Of course, there are strong differences, the first of which being that everything is already planned out when production begins with film, but with roleplaying not even close. However, I think these similarities may help illuminate this dichotomy and perhaps even resolve it...