Friday, 20 February 2009

Class systems vs skills systems

I've never been overly fond of skill based systems, probably because I like class based ones so much. Class based systems are about the team; if the game system is designed correctly then no single class is a match for all challenges. This forces players to work together and becomes the spirit of the roleplaying experience - cooperation.

Skill based systems, on the other hand, are more about the opposite - the individual. Players will instinctively attempt to cover all bases when choosing skills, minimising their dependences on others and essentially making their character as independently powerful (as opposed to being powerful when operating as part of a group) as possible. Skills based systems are a good fit for single player or low player games I think.

Normally skill based systems are fairly balanced at the start of a characters career then go a bit haywire when a character hits the higher levels, so I've been avoiding using one in Labyrinth Lord. Until now. I've changed my mind because there is a side effect to skill based systems which can be quite desirable ... variety.

When the players roll up characters, ability scores alone are not enough to differentiate two characters of the same class. They can be roleplayed differently and a variety of equipment bought for each; but after you've done this a few times.. well a fighter is a fighter and isn't too different at level one than the next one. So now I'm thinking, lets bring a skill system into play.

One criticism of skill systems which I agree with also is that they can be exclusive. For example, if you make a riding a horse a skill, it tends to prohibit players from attempting to do it that don't have the skill and the rules may explicitly prevent this also. So skill systems can detract from the game experience for this reason, too.

I've been thinking of a way around this situation. Take my riding skill as an example. Say it was based on your dexterity attribute when you had to make a riding check. If the skill was rated in points, it could add to your dexterity score to make it more likely you pass the test. Characters without riding could still ride but would be relying on their natural dexterity (with no skill bonus) when tested, such as when jumping an obstacle on horseback. Clearly, this would still be inclusive - not exclusive - and provide a benefit to the skilled characters. I've not got it mechanically sorted out yet, but say you test on a d30, you could assign a +5 for a character with riding skill and allow it to develop still further as the character levels up and assigns skill points to improve it. I think this might work.


jamused said...

I think whether skill systems lead to characters trying to cover all the bases really depends on how they're designed. If they have diminishing returns, particularly if those returns kick in early (such as during chargen) then players will be pushed to spreading their skills out. Systems with increasing returns to specialization (e.g. access to really powerful abilities deep in a prerequisite tree) encourage narrow specialization. So much so, in fact, that they sometimes have to bribe/threaten players to make well-rounded characters (e.g. in Savage Worlds taking new skills after chargen cost double, or some systems that give a certain number of background skills for free).

For LL, at least at first, I'd suggest making skills binary. If you have the skill, you get the plus, if you don't it's an unadorned roll. Spending points on skills when you level up is one of the things that I thought made 3e too fiddly. Plus, if you want to keep the feeling that it's inclusive, you need to keep the bonuses from growing too much. Otherwise you'll end up with either some reasonable things have difficulties that are out of reach of untrained characters, trained characters end up doing super-human things, or trained characters always succeed at anything that's not super-human.

So for a class & level system, I'd go with lots of extra skills you could take, but you get a very limited number of them (maybe 1 per level? Maybe not even that?) but they can't be further improved.
Or, if they can be improved, a second application makes them broader instead of deeper. So, say, Riding (Horse) becomes Riding (Horse, Camel) or Riding (anything), but not Riding +5, Riding +10, etc...

The Recursion King said...

Food for thought there. I agree that broad, rather than deep, is probably the way to go. There is a lot to be said for keeping things simple but providing lots of options.

With that in mind, perhaps having a skill grants you a reroll when it is put to the test. E.g. if riding a horse, attempting to jump a hedge requires a dexterity check but having the riding horse skill allows a reroll if the dexterity check failed.

It would definitely be an inclusive system, allowing any character to attempt the jump on horseback. It even allows some characters to be naturally very good at riding without training, a thought I like, as someone somewhere figured out how to do it without being shown as part of the origin of the training in the first place.

Samuel Van Der Wall said...

Good observations. I go back and forth over which I like more, class systems or skills systems. Honestly, I think I like to have a variety of both. If I was creating a game and I had to pick one, I'd probably pick a skills system. You can always mold classes or archtypes for your skills based system. And things do seem to just run smoother in most of those games. But there are exceptions, like 4th ed D&D, which is a class based system that runs very smoothly.

Recuring Wolfe said...

To advance in skills thou should have to train, say horse riding, at a ranch or stables. Like we do for leveling up normally

The Recursion King said...

Yes, I would agree with that. Perhaps link it to levelling up too so that a character is ready to improve a skill on levelling.

Subsequent skill improvement (after learning the skill) could lead to additional re-rolls. For example, an unskilled rider wanting to make his horse jump makes a dexterity check. A skilled rider gets a reroll on failure. A rider with further training gets another reroll and so forth.

This way, characters can be naturally good at things without needing training to do them but can specialise to gain further benefit. Also, if the character is a bad rider (low dexterity), he can keep improving his riding skill to get additional rerolls; reflecting his need for further training to make up for him being naturally bad at this task.

jamused said...

The problem with rerolls is they amplify differences in the base chance of success. If you have 25% chance of succeeding, 1 reroll increases your chances to 43%, and 2 to 57%. But if you have 50% chance, then 1 reroll increases it to 75%, and 2 to 87.5%. If you have 75% chance, then 1 reroll brings it to 93% and 2 to 98.4%. Which brings you right back to the original problem of the haves and have-nots when it comes to attempting things covered by skills.

If I might make a suggestion, perhaps additional levels of a skill should only reduce negative circumstantial modifiers. So the difference between a novice and a veteran is not that the veteran always succeeds at difficult tasks and often succeeds at absurd ones, but the veteran is much less bothered by attempting the task when it's noisy, dark, raining, etc. So, something like every extra level lets you ignore 3 points of penalties on the die roll caused by circumstances like poor lighting, rain, unsteady footing, wounds.

The Recursion King said...

That's an interesting idea, but there is something to be said for rerolls. That is, its quick and easy. Also, I think it accurately reflects real life.

Skills are knowledge sets, essentially. Like riding a horse; you could figure it out yourself, or be taught how to ride by another. Some people need lots of extra tutoring to get good at it. So in such a system, maybe they need five rerolls; whereas someone with a natural knack by need only one [to achieve the same chance of success]. The five rerolls would come about from all the extra tutoring, all the tutoring the person has needed to overcome their natural ineptness at this task.

jamused said...

It might be realistic (I'm a bit dubious), but I see it as going against your original design goal of being inclusive. A lower stat can't really hope to compare to a higher stat, even with much more training.

The Recursion King said...

Its inclusive in that any character may attempt any activity. E.g. any character is allowed to ride a horse.

The way I'm envisioning the system is for skill tests to only come in to play when the character attempts a difficult task. An example of this may be making the horse jump an obstacle successfully.

Take a strength based skill as another example; power lifting. You could have a character lift a portcullis on making a successful strength check; and allow a character to use his power lifting skill to get a reroll (or multiple) on failure. In this way, power lifting would be a technique that the character knows (using his legs, back posture, etc) that improves his natural strength.

AzaLiN said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AzaLiN said...

In real life I there are sort of character-classes: if 'fighter' is the class that becomes the strongest fighters in D&D, then today we have special forces troops- say Green Berets or something. They would have a range of specific, daily trained job skills, requiring hours and hours every single day to keep honed; a specialization based on role (ie/paratrooper, demolitions, recon, sniper), and then less-perfected secondary skills, like driving, that they picked up off the job (which could be anything from fencing to stock trading to cooking). Given that a green beret "class" can vary so much, yet maintain a hard core of green-beretness, RPG character classes should be able to do much the same things.

Cleric=Combat Medic; Thief=thief...; Wizard= psychic? no idea here.

Yeah, if a green beret tried to ride a horse, if he wasnt trying to jump something, he could probably get around- it might just be faster for him to walk is the only thing!

Food for thought:
"Subsequent skill improvement (after learning the skill) could lead to additional re-rolls"

In Whitewolf RPGs, to determine success for something you roll a d10 and you succeed if you roll an 8, 9, or 10; skill and difficulty determine how many dice you roll (like the rerolls you mentioned). So, if you have 5 skill, but its dificulty 3, you roll 2d10.

The Recursion King said...

Yes I vaguely remember that from a game of Vampire: The Masquerade I played about 10 years ago. Whitewolf RPG's are all about massive bucket loads of dice.

As an aside, we've been using this skill system for a while now and its worked out fine. So we test against an attribute (e.g. tracking might be intelligence) and if the character posseses the tracking skill (e.g. training) then he gets a reroll. It's certainly not perfect, but it's done us alright.

AzaLiN said...

Actually a single reroll on a d20 strikes me as simpler and faster than the whitewolf method.

AzaLiN said...

Actually a single reroll on a d20 strikes me as simpler and faster than the whitewolf method and the 3.5/4e method. I like it quite a lot.

The Recursion King said...

I do prefer the 'inclusive' approach to skills as it tends to avoid most of the issues that people have with skill based systems. It definitely helps to avoid this scenario ... 'What do you mean I can't do that? Why do I need a skill to try?' which I think is the crux of why many dislike skill systems.