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?



Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

13 Responses to Classical Play: Going Skill-less

  1. I was initially annoyed by this article, because the oldschool D&D method of handling “skills” (“You suck at everything unless you the player can explain it in such a way as to satisfy the DM”) was awful.

    That said, the system as outlined in point #7 is pretty interesting and might work well for certain types of games.

    At the end of the day though, this article really argues more for a modest number of broad skill groups than it does for completely dropping skills as a concept. Besides, it’s nice for characters to be able to do something other than what is absolutely expected of their archetype. Yes, you need to protect niches, but if no one wants to “play the rogue”, it’s awesome if a character no one expects turns out to have some points in lockpicking thanks to an unsavory past.

    • The lockpick example reminds me of a game where we had a super buff wizard because he had a 16 strength and no melee/strong character. Need a door opened- wizard breaks it open. It lead to some good stories about people trying to pick a fight with the “thug” in the streets only to find out the “thug” was a mage.

      These situations are fantastic and I would never want to see niche protection go far enough that the games lose this.

    • Walt Ciechanowski

      There’s nothing to be annoyed about – the “Classical Play” series merely takes a look at an old school element and wonders whether it’d be useful to apply today. Some elements naturally work better than others.

  2. I have mixed feelings on eliminating skills. It seems to lead to more “cookie cutter” classes where everything fighter is the same, sure they may have different weapons- but they do all do the same things. Eliminating skills in favor of High, Medium, and Low bonuses also creates a treadmill. The players never really get to experience their characters improving.

    Instead, the bonus to fighting for the fighter is always +10, while the wizard always has +0. This helps keep the number crunching down, but leads to the wizard never being able to become a combat mage, specializing in buffing up and wading into combat.

    I do prefer simplified skill systems most of the time. In the Savage Worlds games I have run, I highlighted the relevant skills to give the players more of a focus. The system lets PC succeed with lower skills since most rolls just need to be a 4.

    I think group size effects this. I am currently in a group of 7 (1 GM and 6 players). We have done a pretty good job of letting everyone be the best at something, and be very good at a few other skills. Having only a few distinct roles would make this more difficult since we would double up on many roles.

    • A few broad skills (or none at all) is interesting; it’s basically the approach of Fate Accelerated. D&D Next, so far, seems to be leaning towards attribute rolls rather than skills, which is similarly broad.

      I know that in my games, figuring out the sine qua non of charaters was critical–but for some players, that was their character’s personality, while for other characters it was what they could do in combat, and yet others found that the feeling of magic versus practical problem solving was the big difference they wanted to emphasize.

      I suspect the “perfect” system is one that encourages great characters and protects roles with the minimum degree of fineness/complexity that the group is seeking. For some groups that’s really minimal… while for others, Aces and Eights scoped skills provides useful differentiation.

  3. I don’t think I have a problem that would require me to think about protecting niches. If two players are good at the same thing, I try to come up with problems that require two characters to be good at that same thing.

    Two good pilots? One has to take over the derelict space ship while the other provides cover as they flee enemy space. Two masters of Linear B? They translate the same word differently, showing a double meaning: “This is a *gate*.” “No, it’s a *demon*.” Oh! And so on.

    And if one player misses a session, no biggie, I tweak things so only one expert is needed.

    The downside is I have to notice when players cross pollinate or the 2nd best pilot will be sitting on her butt while number one takes the spotlight.

    Back-story usually differentiates characters more than numbers on a character sheet.

    Though I wonder, is this why 13th Age includes “One Unique Thing?”

  4. In general, I agree with you, and prefer broad skills.

    But I have to take issue with your points #3 and #4. If your skills are very broad or concept-based it can lead to a lot of confusion during game-play around the question of whether a particular skill can legitimately cover some task. For example, does the “Ninja” skill cover stealth, climbing, and flipping out and killing people? Of course. But does it cover poison-making, arson, and disguise? Maybe. Classical ninjas heavily used these tools even though pop-culture ninjas are more about the acrobatics. Stuff like this can lead to a lot of extra discussion during game-play if it’s not well-defined up-front.

    (This is a great example of a problem I call the “concept-capability mismatch.” Meaning, most players come up with a general concept for their character, explaining who they are in broad terms — but the game system doesn’t care, it only cares about the character’s capability in overcoming obstacles. So at some point you will need to figure out those capabilities. Fine-grained skill lists, like GURPS, force you to do the work up-front. Concept-based skills, like Risus, force you to do it during game play. Character classes, like D&D, are the best of both worlds — someone else has done the work up-front for you — but class limits frustrate some players as well. FATE and Apocalypse World also have interesting approaches to this problem.)

    • I agree that you could easily argue the opposite of points #3 and #4 above. Having a character sheet without skills won’t necessarily stop a player from trying to pilot a starship, it will just mean that, for a character without a skill, the GM either says, “No.” or some process begins wherein a discussion ensues on how to best adjudicate the action.

      This delay and confusion could be mitigated when coupled with item #7, but that’s a house rule to (at least some) skill-less games.

  5. This is definitely a discussion worth having, but I’m not sure I’d really want to go back to the days of skill-less systems.

    I had been playing D&D (1st and 2nd editions) and was getting very frustrated with the cookie-cutter nature of the character classes. When I got in with a new group that played Champions, I was blown away with how I could create a completely customized character that fit my vision, rather than the vision of whoever created the class I was choosing. That was a very defining moment for me and gaming.

    Rather than cutting out the skill systems, as a GM, I usually try and work with the players to make sure that the characters each have their niche in the group.

  6. I’ve played various D&D rules for 30 years. Putting in a working skills system and making it actually relevant to gameplay was one of the chief (and long overdue) improvements of the 3rd edition. It was a quantum leap forward in addressing the problem of cookie-cutter classes that plagued the first 20+ years of the game.

    Your point #1 is about niche protection. Well, having a well developed skill system is a great way to ensure that players know– and control– what their characters are good at. They choose which skills to max out.

    A skill system is also the best solution to avoid expectations clash, your point #2. Requiring players to make an explicit choice about how to allocate points eliminates any credible argument of, “But I thought I would just be able to do X as a member of class Y!” You saw that X was a skill and you chose not to invest points in it, so you’re not a master of it. Stop whining.

  7. You’re talking mainly from a D&D perspective, right? With the play style and all?

    Anyway, the last year, when reading about game design in general, I come to realize that numbers are unimportant. I’ve started to think of how to flatten out different kinds of games by removing all numbers. If someone now says “But how can you tell that one person is better than another?”, I will address that.

    1. You can have abilities instead of skills. A thief can have the abilities Enforce Door, Climb and Sneak. Anyone can have Enforce Door (not only lockpicking but smashing it) but what makes a thief a thief is the combination of certain abilities.

    2. In some games, it’s not important who’s better than another but what the (binary) abilities are used to change the movement of the story being played out. If someone has the ability Turns Violent As The Sun Sets, that will probably affect the story in a certain way.

    3. In other games with a certain style of play, numbers and skills aren’t important. It’s instead about the interaction between different parties. I’m now treading onto the domains of high player influence up to a point there are more rotating game masters than the traditional GM+players.

    But why am I talking about numbers? Because numbers seldom do anything. You can calculate any numbers of +2s but it’s mostly work. What I think is important is instead how different components in a system interacts to create an emergence. Numbers has zero interaction. They create no emergence at all.

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