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Driftwood: Utility-Based Skill Costs

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On January 10, 2012 @ 1:00 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Many RPGs treat skill selection as an even playing field; when purchasing ranks each skill costs the same as any other skill. There’s no distinction in the difficulty in learning how to shoot a gun versus studying anthropology. Players are free to spend points in any way that they wish, which often leads to min/maxing.

Skills deemed most useful (typically combat-based skills or the Call of Cthulhu trifecta of Library Use, Listen, and Spot Hidden) are bought up to ridiculously high levels while other areas that the player character is supposed to be proficient in are given the bare minimum points to justify having the skill.

Occasionally, buffers are put into place to stem such spending and these buffers tend to be predicated on the difficulty of the skill. GURPS assigns point costs based on the skill’s difficulty to learn. All Flesh Must Be Eaten has regular skills and special skills, the latter of which are more difficult to learn. Call of Cthulhu focuses skill spending based on occupation. Pathfinder divorces the most essential skills from the skill list; how well you swing a sword or cast a spell is based on your class and level. Your mileage may vary on how well these work. Rolemaster adjusted skill costs based on how appropriate they were to your chosen profession (class).

Tri-Stat dX (more popularly known as the engine that drives Silver Age Sentinels and Big Eyes, Small Mouth) takes a different approach. Instead of costing the same or being based on the skill’s difficulty to learn, skills are priced according to their actual utility in a given campaign. To put it another way, the more you are likely to use the skill in play, the more expensive it is.

I really like this approach and I’ve tried it to great effect in several campaigns. There are a number of benefits:

  • It invites players to create more diverse characters, as they aren’t getting hosed on losing a chunk of points to be a neurosurgeon if neurosurgery never comes into play (and, in the off-chance it occasionally does, wouldn’t you want the PC to be good at it?)
  • It makes min/maxing more difficult as players don’t have as many extra points to spread around once they’ve bought up the “essentials.”
  • Players tend to settle for lower scores in their essential skills due to cost
  • It adds a level of “niche protection” as players may focus on one or two essential skills, leaving other essential skills to be covered by other players

There are a number of issues to watch out for:

  • when assigning costs, don’t make essential skills ridiculously prohibitive; you want your PCs to be competent, not artificially ham-strung. I generally follow a 3 session rule: skills used every third session establish my baseline, skills used about once a session are my second tier, and skills used multiple times in a single session are the essentials.
  • make sure skill advancement is also adjusted based on the initial cost; you don’t want characters to buy up essential skills too quickly
  • you may need to adjust the pool of skill points if your new costs make it impossible for characters to be as capably well-rounded as you like; just be sure that the additional points don’t negate the effect of the changed costs.

I’ve found utility-based skill costs useful; how about you? Do you run a game that uses utility-based skills? Do you scale skills according to another method? Is this something that you would like to try? (Bonus question: what systems are particularly bad at having only a handful of essential 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.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Driftwood: Utility-Based Skill Costs"

#1 Comment By MAK On January 10, 2012 @ 2:01 am

Another system to prevent min-maxing is used by the various FATE games: the skill pyramid or column, meaning the character has to have at least as many (usually more) skills at a lower rank than at the rank above it. For example 5 skills at rank 1, 4 at rank 2, 3 at rank 3 and so on. FATE ranks skills in a range of 1-5 (rarely extended to 6..8), so such a method might be more difficult to use in a game with more variance in ranks.

This sort of system does not easily convert to variable skill costs, though, so the variance in cost in FATE is usually modeled by adjusting skill scopes instead. By narrowing or widening the scope of a skill, the “cost per utility” ratio can brought close to a common value between skills.

FATE uses the term “trapping” to denote a certain circumstance where the skill is used, and these trappings are then distributed between skills to achieve a scope that fits the specific game and genre in question.

I’m working on a homebrew FATE system and have run into the issue of how to match the number of skills and which trappings are contained in each to the genre. The utility of those trappings in the game is currently very heavily influencing the scoping. Admittedly being able to scale skill costs instead of scoping the contents would make the process much easier and the final skill descriptions more clear and concise.

#2 Comment By Clawfoot On January 10, 2012 @ 6:45 am

I do sort of use something like this, but not really. I mainly play D&D 4e, which frankly kind of falls down when it comes to the skills section. There is only the small set number of skills, characters can learn only a handful of them depending on their class, and they can learn others or get a single boost to a learned skill through Feats, and that’s about it.

When I run a D&D game, we stick with that skill list for the most part, but I allow the players to take, for free, any other “flavour” skill that’s not likely to come up in game. If they’d like to be a great cook, they can be. If they’d like to be an expert basket-weaver, sure.

It allows the players to branch out into non-Adventuring skills without penalizing them and without sacrificing the party balance.

#3 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On January 10, 2012 @ 8:35 am

I think it depends very much on the number of skills in a game. If the skill system is very focused on skills that appear in adventures on a regular basis, there is no need for adjusting the skill costs It turns into a problem when players can choose between countless skills, some of more use to the game than others. There having to buy ranks in combat, perception and sneak often eats away the points some players would rather put into cooking, horticulture, dancing and the likes. I know of several ways different games solve this problem. Some just hand-wave the issue, concentrating on the core skills, putting the rest into the player’s backstory. If it says “great cook” on your sheet, than you can cook. In this case making actual rolls on it can be a bit tricky, either just allowing simple stat-based rolls for those who have an indikation of knowing the skill in their background, or giving them a flat bonus on any such rolls.
Then there is the concept of hobby skills (I think Shadowrun had them?) Where the player gets a fixed number of points to spend on hobby skills like Troll Thrash Metal and roleplaying games of the 20th century. This allows for customisation without influencing the general skills.
Limiting the number of ranks that can be purchased every level also enforces a wider spread of skill points, as does adjusting the skill costs.

For my group it has rarely been an issue though, apart from one Rolemaster Fantasy character who found out that he had forgotten to buy a number of cruzial skills, but this was more an issue of our inexperience with that system than anything else.

#4 Comment By 77IM On January 10, 2012 @ 8:53 am

You can generalize this to a more basic rule of game balance. If all character abilities (skills, feats, spells, whatever) are priced according to how useful they are, and all PCs have the same amount to spend, then all PCs will wind up being equally useful. Effect-based games like Mutants & Masterminds have used this sort of point-based balancing quite effectively.

(Of course, it’s never perfect; the secret to min/maxing in such a system is that some abilities are more useful in conjunction with one another than what their individual costs would suggest.)

My preference for skills, though, is to KISS by forcing all skills to be equally powerful. In your example, if “shooting a gun” is appropriate for a skill, then “anthropology” is to weak and just can’t be purchased. In FATE, “anthropology” would be rolled into the broader Academics skill. In Savage Worlds, you would just take it as one of your Common Knowledges (which are free, because they tend to be useless).

#5 Comment By Trace On January 10, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

My God, man… this is brilliant.

I’ve run into this problem with an Aberrant (WW, not D20) ruled X-men game I’ve been running. This could really fix a lot. I’ve got to start prioritizing skills!

#6 Comment By Razjah On January 10, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

I understand this concept and I think it is really great. I don’t think it drifts too well into most d20 system based games. But this works really great in a lower powered 2nd edition Mutants and Masterminds game.

#7 Comment By shadowacid On January 10, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

I personally don’t think there is any need to differentiate the cost of skills in a game.

If a player thinks that a skill is important enough to invest in, even a non combat one, then I feel that it’s my job as a GM to find a way to incorporate that skill into the game in a meaningful and logical manner on a semi-regular basis.

Some of the best game sessions I’ve ever have have come from trying to find interesting ways to incorporate those kinds of skills into a game.

#8 Comment By shadowacid On January 10, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

Doing this consistently also keeps my players from focusing only on combat skills in the game and lets them feel free to take skills that make sense for their characters since they know that any skill choice they make will be a valid and useful one when they game with me.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On January 10, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

I don’t sweat this, especially with Call of Cthulhu since my trad CofC players are *supposed* to be bookish, scared and sneaky.

If a player boils off their skill points in too-restricted a manner (and there are a few more checks and balances in place in almost all the games I involve myself in than were mentioned in the article including max ranking and dividing skill points into core competency and special interest budgets) it is no skin off my nose. I want the Call of Cthulhu players to find the clues, because they lead nowhere nice. I don’t mind if my Conan players are muscular athletes of rare intellect – Conan certainly was.

A determined munchkin will make everyone’s life miserable in any event. As a GM I try and minimize a munchkin’s detrimental effect on the others as much as I can. As a player I scream like a little girl when confronted by the genius swordsmaster-linguist of always-stealing-my-thunder, especially if they can be half a mile away treating the headman’s daughter for plague, then instantly at my side when my bit looks like getting some limelight. You know who you are.

If you have someone who persistently minmaxes, and if that bothers everyone, my suggestion is to swap the RPG for FIASCO! for a few sessions. You can’t minmax that and you never know, the love of pure RP might just bring them back from the dark side.

Interesting article, Walt. Thanks.

#10 Comment By danroth On January 11, 2012 @ 5:58 am

I always preferred systems without specific skills. If you want to do something you explain what you’re going to try to do and the DM will probably have you roll against a stat to see if you can do it. It ends up being a lot about the skill and innovation of the player (rather than the character).

#11 Comment By Roxysteve On January 11, 2012 @ 8:22 am

@danroth – But then you have the problem of people remembering that *last* time they were able to do (x) with a roll of 3 or better and now the same thing is being called a 50-50 chance because the GM doesn’t have an eidetic memory and some players care.

We used to do it your way in White Box D&D, but the general population felt that the play experience needed more evenness so we ended up with AD&D, D20 et al.

Plus, how much innovation is required to read a book in Latin, as opposed to having somewhere on your cheatsheet that the character reads Latin?

And all the fixes to that issue to date have been attempts to rein-in the munchkins.

“Sure I read Latin. And Hindi. And French. And Furbish. And Linear B.”

“The manuscript appears to be in late-period highland Martian, specifically the Zoond dialect, and to be written using the pre-diacritic system of the canal priests, of which hitherto there have been no extant examples”.

“I read that too”.

“Quelle suprise”.


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