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?)