Thursday, 8 August 2019

Tarragon Oubliette: Skilless Skill System

I suppose you're wondering how a skill system can be skilless.

Well firstly I'm not going to give you a list of skills. Because I'm not ready to yet. I'm not ready to work on the controls and bodywork until I've got an engine that functions, and a framework to support it, at least on paper. No game system survives contact with the players after all.

And secondly... well I'll get to that.

Skill System.

I said I wasn’t going to do this. This was to be an “old school” and thus skill free system. However in earlier drafts I found myself explaining the stealth mechanic I was then using for the umpteenth time, (well I was copy-pasting by that point,) and realised that species and class combinations were throwing the whole thing off I decided it would be far easier if I had a single “stealth” ability and could just say “stealth +1”.
Thus skills.

Skill Points.

Whenever a character “levels up” they get skill points to add to their skills. Although in some cases/classes this goes on hidden within the class progression system. However in many cases the player gets to decide what skills to improve with these points.
Starting characters also get a certain amount of skill points with which they acquire their starting skills. Although again this varies between settings, classes and characters.
(All fairly standard stuff)

Skill Ranks.

All skills are ranked 0 through to 9 with the number acting as a bonus to dice rolls involving those skills.

Unskilled Use.

If a character doesn’t have a skill (not even a rank of 0) then they are at -4 to any die rolls involving that skill. Modified further by skill difficulty.

Rank 0 

Represents the most basic of familiarity with a skill. A character who has invested a rank in a skill they did not previously have is at rank 0 with that skill. It costs 1 skill point to gain rank 0.

Rank 1 

Represents a minimal professional level with that skill. Rank 1 is enough to pass a test to get a license to practice that skill, if necessary. It is at rank 1 that a character may start investing ranks into specialisations of that skill. It’s also at rank 1 that some skills start to modify a character’s ability scores. It costs 1 skill point to progress from rank 0 to rank 1.

Rank 2 

Is a good solid professional level of skill. It costs 1 skill point to progress from rank 1 to rank 2.

Rank 3 

Is the peak of the professional level of skill. It’s the equivalent to a Bachelor's degree(?). It costs 2 skill points to progress from rank 2 to rank 3. 

Rank 4

It costs 2 skill points to progress from rank 3 to rank 4.

Rank 5

It costs 2 skill points to progress from rank 4 to rank 5.

Rank 6 

Represents mastery of a skill. In an academic skill a character with a rank of 6 would have the equivalent of a master’s degree. If they also had rank 6 in a specialisation within that skill they’d have the equivalent of doctorate. An MD has rank 6 in medicine. A surgeon has rank 6 medicine and rank 6 surgery.  It costs 3 skill points to progress from rank 5 to rank 6.
Total Skill Points by Rank

Rank 7

It costs 3 skill points to progress from rank 6 to rank 7.

Rank 8

It costs 3 skill points to progress from rank 7 to rank 8.

Rank 9 

Is the peak of ability. To further improve one must specialise. It costs 4 skill points to progress from rank 8 to rank 9.

Skill Difficulty.

Not all skills are equal, and some are more difficult than others. These more difficulty skills, usually specialisations, have a penalty that applies to every use of that skill. This is to encourage specialisation. For example a character who has specialised with 4 ranks in quantum physics, a specialism of physics with a difficulty of 4, would be rolling for quantum physics essentially without penalty (although the -4 would still be there, just countered by the ranks in the specialism) whereas a character with the physics skill and no specialisation in quantum physics would still be rolling at -4. A character with no skill in physics at all would roll at -8 and expect to fail. 
Every skill has a difficulty rating of 0 or higher. However I would only recorded the difficulties of skills where the difficulty is higher than 0.
On a skill list it would look something like this:
  • Physics
    • Quantum Physics (4)
In a skill description it looks something like this:

Quantum Physics (Difficulty 4)

Skill Specialisation.

Many, if`not most, skills are general skills that cover wide variations of uses of said skill. Indeed many skills have uses not obvious at first blush. Such as the archery skill also including the maintenance and care, and even the construction of, bows and arrows. In addition to the use of specific types of bow.
All these “subskills” are considered specialisations of the parent skills and can have skill ranks invested in them to improve a character’s use of them in that area alone.
So a character with the archery skill may want to specialise in hunting bows (whatever they are) specifically, but not in longbows.

So Why Specialise?

There may seem little motivation for a character to specialise before reaching rank 9 other than to counter the penalties from higher difficulty skills.
A character with 9 ranks in archery alone is +9 to all archery related tasks while the character with archery 5 and “hunting” bows 4 is only +9 with “hunting” bow tasks and +5 in all other archery.
However to get to Archery 9 requires a total of 22 skill points while Archery 5 only costs 9, and the specialism of 4 only 7, for a total of 16 skill points. A saving of 6 skill points.

Ability Score Improvements.

In the real world people are not static and unchanging. We grow and develop, both intellectually and physically. (We can also go backwards and get worse in things but I’m not planing on modelling that for now.)
To simulate this some skills will increase a character’s ability scores at certain ranks. But only a single ability score. Usually ranks 1, 3, 6 and 9. Others improve scores at every rank from 1 onwards but again only one ability per rank and usually there’s multiple (no more than 3) ability scores to choose to improve.
There are hard limits. No score can be improved by more than 4 points from a single skill. No score may rise more than 8 points from its original score without some paranormal influence. And finally there is a hard cap for ability scores with none being able to be higher than 24. Although this last cap would not apply in many super-heroic games.

Why "Skilless"?

Because I can map anything I want onto this system.

I started this whole process by wanting to simplify my system by turning class features into skills. That hasn't changed. I can take almost any class feature I want and make it a skill. Sure I can say "Halflings get 1 skill point in stealth and Rogues get 1 skill point in stealth. Two skill points in stealth means stealth of rank 1." But why stop there?

Pop Quiz:

Q: What has been measured in levels between 0 and 9 in most editions since AD&D1e?
A: Arcane Spells.

So I can create an Arcane Spellcasting skill and say that a character can cast spells of a level equal to their rank in a skill. Perhaps call it "Wizardry". Do the same with divine spells and call it "Channeling". Sorcerers know sorcery, druids do druidry, witches and warlocks have witchcraft. Class specific casting skills and spell lists. Job done,
Fighters? Well they fight. A fighting skill seems too general. Archery, Brawling, and Melee. There's your Ranger, Monk and Fighter straight off.
A character's level is essentially the skill points in their class skills, so rank 9 around level 22. Specialisms can literally be specialised sub-classes that characters can choose to train into.
Each class can have a few skills, and some special abilities that fill the gaps when they level up but don't get a full rank. Everything tied to class and level. The Basic option.
Or I can go more Advanced and have slightly looser classes, letting players choose some skills from outside their classes. Maybe have a fighter that knows a bit of magic?
Or I can go completely loose. Have players roll on a chart to find out how many skill points and/or ranks they start with. I mean modern setting would expect a character to start with a Phd or MD. Perhaps streamline it a bit with predefined skill packages and let them pick a set number of them. Or something.
The options are endless.

"But Niles, nobody would want to play a starting magic user who can only cast cantrips or a fighter who is at +0 to hit!"
Well, hypothetical reader, I can simply give each class a talent (feat, feature, what-have-you) that gives them an effective +1 rank to one of their skills. So while the MU starts casting cantrips and first level spells, the character who learns spellcasting on the side (say as a "secondary skill") starts with just cantrips. Meanwhile the fighter starts with a +1 to melee. (Maybe the only difference between the ranger, monk and fighter is which skill they get their starting bonus on; didn't think of that, did you hypothetical reader!)

It doesn't even have to be skill based. Maybe, I dunno, the PCs can level up the local economy. Maybe it takes a thousand gold to set up a blacksmith and 22,000 to get it to its cap at "level 9".
With this system I can do anything. Well within reason.

The thing is all of this can be hidden away behind the interface and bodywork. On the outside it runs serenely, while underneath it's scrabbling furiously.

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