Skills and Niche Protection [Pt. II]: Seeking Solutions

While I did, admittedly, ramble a bit yesterday, I was wrapping my head around the question of skills and niche protection. Putting the words down helps tremendously with my thought processes and helps me distill things down more as my mind twists them around until I’m able to properly frame things out.

If you provided commentary yesterday, I want to thank you for your feedback and encouraging me to crystallize this discussion.

Here’s the question I’m trying to answer:

How static should skills be?

I know there is no ultimate answer to this question. There are three camps [1. I know there are gamer types defined out there, but I’m wanting to classify it just a bit differently for the purposes of our discussion.]  (or philosophies) which would each give the expected answer.

The Absolutists: If you’re a member of this group, you most likely  fall into the “RAW” [2. Rules as written.] segment of gamers and will use those rules for better or worse, even if you know they are wrong or fly in the face of common sense. There is a certain comfort to gaming with folks in this group, you know the blade slices both ways and you can hoist them by their own petard. The absolutist running the game will provide NO WIGGLE ROOM. If you need LEVEL 5 SANSKRIT to read the scroll to banish the demon and no one has it, you can expect a bit of hell-fire to come your way. As a player, he likely polices other players to ensure they are following the rules. He will never deviate from the rules, but will certainly use the rules to his advantage.

The Situational: This group contains the folks who are comfortable with adjudicating on the fly and are sprinkling their games with a pinch of common sense. The GM adjusts things as necessary and is not afraid to slay a sacred cow or two along the way. This guy strikes a middle balance. As a player, he will state his case but not get so twisted up in the details, though, in some instances, a debate can ensue, slowing down the game for everyone.

The Flexible: This group consists of those who let folks get away with anything. The Helper GM most likely falls into this camp, by taking nearly any skill thrown out there and letting it be applicable to the situation. You don’t have LEVEL 5 SANSKRIT but you have Knowledge (Ancient History), go ahead and roll! Depending on the genre and campaign style, this philosophy can be okay, but if used and abused it totally eliminates niche protection, but certainly moves the game forward, regardless.

The thing is there is no right or wrong, nor does one group usually consist of the same types of gamers, though they are usually dominated by one mindset. Like, naturally, attracts like.

I’ve fallen into all of these camps at various times. When I’m playtesting some of my own material or trying out other games for the first time, I want to play RAW. This gives me the best idea of playing the game as envisioned by the designer(s). If there is a break between the rules and the intended goal, that points to muddied thinking on the creative side. I should not have to patch the rules to be happy nor twist them to fit a certain style or atmosphere. Believe it or not, I don’t want to tweak the rules to another system I’m wanting to play for fun. [3. Business, on the other hand, is business. I have no problem rolling up my sleeves and adjusting the rules to match my vision.] I want to get on with the story. Let me be my character and roll my dice and I’ll be happy. I will admit I’m not a big fan of the subsystem however splendid folks might think it is. A system should be elevated to match up with the rest of the mechanics. This is probably the biggest problem I’ve had with chase rules, except, most lately with FATE and Savage Worlds Deluxe. While neither are perfect, they are streamlined and quick enough, they do not cause pain. Before you say “Sanity is a subsystem in Realms of Cthulhu” , I will counter it is an integral part of the genre and was carefully raised to be on the same level as physical damage. I tend towards situational in most of the games I run personally, and lean heavily into the absolutist camp when running con games. I want them to get the game I created and take away my vision, not wondering later after getting the game why I ignored the rules I sweated to develop. Finally, the flexible camp is the one my whole group is using currently. There are only two players and one GM. Game can grind to a stop if you are an absolutist. I’ll say we vary between situational and flexible, but flexibility is important if you want to tell a story. However, there can be times when if all characters can do everything there is a sacrifice of individuality and it can become an entire “what’s the point?” type of exercise.

Now, I’ve answered how static skills should be, I’ll try to take a run at how the rules should best represent these philosophies in play first of the week. I’ll be a bit too busy to give this it’s proper due. Let me know if you think I’ve answered this question fully and feel free to provide additional points and counterpoints so we all may benefit be a larger knowledge pool.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!


3 Notes on, Skills and Niche Protection [Pt. II]: Seeking Solutions

  1. Great subject matter Sean and I tend to agree with most of your points. With regards to Pt. I, and your discussion with Ed Wetterman about how the industry has changed, the one game that stands out for me from the 1980’s is the James Bond RPG. The skill lists were not excessively long but allowed for individuality. These were supported by Fields of Experience and the game was one of the first to fully utilise the Hero Point (bennies?). Further, it allowed for groups of one player and one GM, or up to five or more players (depending on the ability of the GM).

    Moving on to Pt. II I agree with your dislike of subsystems and, once again, I refer to the James Bond RPG. At first glance it may seem like there are a number of subsystems but essentially the game sticks to the same mechanic all the way through and the “subsystems” are really just ways of utilising the game engine.

    Our group tends to vary between the the Situational and the Flexible but we’ve had examples of Absolutism occur (but it left a bad taste for us).

    On the whole I think skills can be more static in a game if the system hasn’t overloaded itself with too many skills and the chargen is balanced. Savage Worlds holds up in this situation and the Edges are the area where true character individuality can shine; the beauty is that, whilst allowing individuals to stand out, they don’t necessarily break a game if characters don’t have certain edges. Games with smaller skill lists, however, can come under criticism of being too generic but I think this complaint is only valid if the game doesn’t have other methods or mechanics to support the skill system (such as Edges, Hindrances and Bennies).

    Finally, one great example of a game that has small skill lists and seems overly simplistic is Vice Squad by Precis Intermedia Games. This game was a dirt cheap purchase and is designed to replicate such shows as Miami Vice. My group still loves playing this game and can’t get enough. Why? Not because of the skill system but because of the Clichés; one of the best thought out system of Edges I’ve come across!

  2. Good post, I like how you approach this and I totally agree with your classification. It made me realize that I fall in all three camps depending on the group setup. Depending on how skills are spread around and if specialized skills are even present I will switch gear to another GM Type. If there is a guy with Level 5 Sanskrit the guy with Knowledge “Ancient Religion” can´t roll even if the man with Sanskrit failed his roll. If no one has it I will go with the “Ancient Religion” instead. So in one session I might be absolutist and the next the flexible guy. It might even change from scene to scene. The thing is there might be a situation where the information gained by the Sanskrit roll is important to move the story ahead. So if that fails I will be flexible and either allow someone else to roll a “similar” skill or at least let the “Ancient History” buff assist the “Sanskrit” specialist. I must admit now that I typed it out that might not be the best approach as I act inconsistently in my games. I will have to ponder that.
    Overall a skill like “Ancient History” can be used much more often and much more flexibly than “Sanskrit”. It is not always easy to balance the specialization against the wider knowledge in terms of “information received”. That would be the easiest way to handle the difference in usability. Someone with “Ancient History” will know far less detailed information then the one with “Sanskrit” when it comes to “Sanskrit” issues. But I often fail to do that simply because I have a hard time reducing the information I give out to a level where it is still useful. After all most of the time the information to be found is only one or 2 sentences so stripping info out is almost impossible many times. That is why I personally suggest very broad knowledge topics to my players in my games so I can avoid the “Wide versus Specialized” problem altogether. In addition to the “Three clues” rule it helps avoid dead ends due to a missing knowledge skill.

    Subsystems are a very difficult thing. Sometimes they seem necessary but I am a huge fan of consistency throughout the rules. Eg If I always roll a D10 for skill checks why should I roll a D20 for an Attack? The chase rules are a great example. The old ones seem so detached from the main way of movement that I had a hard time getting them. The new ones are better and more streamlined but still detached from the main game engine which is suboptimal. At least they are furious and the Card dealing is exciting. And that they are so abstract helps, they still feel like a game within a game. However I believe they can not be avoided entirely as not every tool can be applied to every situation, sometimes having a special tool for a task is preferable.

    Looking forward to your next installment, it is an interesting topic that gets me thinking on how I run games.

  3. Thanks for the feedback. I do fondly recall the James Bond RPG, but haven’t looked at it in sometime. Now that I’ve finished, Agents of Oblivion, I”ll probably put it in the reading queue. It was a solid set at the time, though I imagine it will definitely feel “80’s” upon revisiting it. You never can go home again. Right? Clichés sound interesting, so I imagine I’ll be picking up Vice Squad based upon your honest assessment.

    Savage Worlds does have a nice balance, and that’s a proper evaluation as well. A small skill set coupled with Edges as enhancements certainly ensures most essential skills are covered in any given group. Back in the early days, I recall 90% of GMs at our hobby shop were absolutists and the other 10% fell into the crazy, Monty Haul camp and the latter group seemed to be the one where most of the excitement was had. I admit, I fell more into the purist camp until exposed to some of Dave Arneson’s off-the-wall independent stuff. Arduin Grimoire anyone?

    Now, moving on to having players selecting a broader skill set, especially when it comes to the muck and mud of Knowledge skills is a good idea, and establishing a dialogue between player and GM can avoid a lot of frustration and disenchantment when game time rolls around. No one wants to take Astrogation if it’s never going to come up, while Space Sciences allows for a lot more inherent flexibility.

    I’ve created overly complicated rules sets that shall never see the light of day because, while they accurately emulated the effect(s) I was going for, they are ultimately too confusing and impractical for more than a subset of potential players of which I must count myself. Ultimately, I’m a storyteller and not a simulationist. I want the game to evoke a genre appropriate atmosphere and feeling and not drown under its own pretentiousness.

    I’m still turning over the question of how rules should best be framed to address these styles I’ve introduced, and I appreciate you for throwing your grist into the mill.



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