In a previous article I offered the possibility of protecting niches. Another related classical element that takes this a step further is the elimination of skills.
One element of classical play that may seem strange today is the lack of skills on a player character sheet. Several early games, most notably early versions of (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons, either had a rudimentary skill list (where PCs may only have one or two notable skills) or lack skills entirely. Villains & Vigilantes only offered skills as a type of superpower, while a Marvel Superheroes PC generally had only a handful of broad skills. Star Frontiers offered two options; the basic game was playable without skills while the expanded rules included them.
Digging a bit deeper, it’s more accurate to say that games like D&D had skills; they were just hard-wired into other parts of the character sheet. Character classes were optimized for exploring and, outside of combat, the players’ wits were supposed to fill in the gaps. Occasionally an optional rule would grant a PC a skill or three, but these were designed more to enhance a character’s story rather than define her.
Put another way, character classes offered niche protection. In (A)D&D, for example, each class fulfilled a particular role in the party. Fighters had the best combat bonuses, clerics and magic-users had exclusive spell lists, and the thief had, well, thief abilities. Subclasses, such as druids or rangers, were still slotted under these main roles; a four-PC party may make due with a barbarian instead of a fighter, but they’d think twice before substituting the barbarian for the cleric.
While other systems may be less clear in terms of roles, players generally look for niches to fill when creating characters. A modern mercenary team may want a sniper, an engineer, a ninja, and a face. A group of supernatural investigators may want an academic, a detective, a grifter, and a medium. A group of interstellar explorers may want a gunnery marksman, a negotiator, a pilot, and a tank.
In any of these groupings, niches are clear. The ninja PC expects to have the best infiltration abilities in the group. The medium PC probably wants to be the only one that can interact with ghostly spirits directly. The pilot PC wants to be the one that the others rely on to get them out of a firefight with space pirates in an asteroid field in one piece. If it turns out that the engineer is the stealthiest, the grifter is the best researcher, or the tank is also the best pilot, then something is off.
So why not eliminate skill lists altogether? Why not instead define a PC’s niche and set task bonuses accordingly? Here are some arguments in favor:
1. Players want to be confident that their characters are the best at what they do. Here you are freeing the player from the aggravation of being prudent and vigilant when spending XP; she’ll always have the best bonus for the stuff she’s supposed to be good at.
2. It cuts down on the player’s irritation during “oops” moments. We’ve all had “oops” moments with skill selection, whether it was forgetting that a ninja should have a climbing skill or that you forgot to subdivide gun skills. While this can be played for laughs, I’ve often found that a moment of snickering wasn’t worth a moody player for the remainder of a session.
3. It speeds play. From cutting down on XP expenditure time to shortening a combat round that would otherwise drag while the player scours her character sheet for the proper skill (or worse, adding numbers together), keeping it simple speeds play.
4. It cuts down on confusion. How many times have you had a player stop the game because she forgot a particular situational bonus or forgot she had a rarely-used skill? While “tough, you forgot” is a valid answer, it’s something that should not have happened save for a metagame reason.
5. Players can’t “min-max.” Sometimes this is blatant; the player with a pilot PC is barely proficient at piloting because she really wanted to be a confidence artist. Sometimes this is insidious; the player tried to spread points around to cover every base. Sometimes this is a misunderstanding; when the player said “ninja” everyone else at the table thought she meant “infiltrator” but what she really meant was “lethally quick killing machine.” With a skill-less system, the capabilities are defined up front.
6. Players find it harder to cheat. Let’s face it; some players are going to add a few points when no one’s checking. This is much harder to do with less bonuses to keep track of.
7. You aren’t really eliminating skills, you’re simply making broader skill categories. As a simple example, you may create three categories: highest bonus, middle bonus, low bonus. A private detective PC may have the highest bonus when investigating, a middle bonus when doing academic research and fighting, and a low bonus for everything else not barred outright. “Investigating” covers a wide range of skills, from evidence gathering to questioning, while “fighting” covers attacks and defenses.
8. Even if you don’t use this for PCs, it’s a great shorthand to quickly stat out NPCs. I use this in virtually every campaign I run; otherwise I’d waste a lot of time comprehensively statting NPCs.
So how about you? Have you ever eliminated skills from a game system or collapsed them to the point that your PCs were practically skill-less? How well did it work? What problems have you seen or would you anticipate converting a system to eliminate skills?