Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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RPG Design: Skill-Based Systems

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 2, 2012

Okay, I figured I’d chat a bit about the features of skill-based RPG systems – good, bad, and neutral. This is a continuation of my previous articles about the skill-based vs. class-based systems, and the features of class-based systems.

When I first started playing skill-based systems, I thought I’d never want to go back to class-based systems again. This was really nothing more than a reaction to discovering that skill-based systems overcame the significant limitations of the early class-based systems. It took a little while before the honeymoon was over and I got tired of the limitations inherent in the early skill-based systems as well. Fortunately, game rules have generally experimented and improved over time, borrowing from the best ideas of either style of rule system, so that while weaknesses remain they are not quite as overwhelming as found in the early systems.

But here are some things to bear in mind with skill-based systems:

Increased Flexibility: This is the obvious advantage of skill-based systems. Rather than adhering to a designer-manufactured template that may not match your character concept, you can build your character piecemeal and achieve a closer match to your ideas. Note that I said “closer match.” Skill-based systems still have to abstract abilities and balance the game somehow, so you may still have a tough time creating your perfect rock-star / brain surgeon / test pilot character.

Gradual Progression: This may or may not be a feature of your skill-based game. While level-based progression is normally paired with class-based systems, that’s not necessarily the case. But more often than not, skill-based games offer the players the chance to build up their skills or attributes gradually rather than massive increases all at once. In a system like The Elder Scrolls or the Call of Cthulhu dice-and-paper RPG, this could be a chance at an increase based on usage. In a game like the Hero System or World of Darkness, you can purchase your increases directly with experience points (or some similar analog). Gradual progression is more realistic, but lacks the inherent milestones of level-based progress, which is a great reward / gratification mechanic.

Skill Combination Imbalance: It’s a lot harder to balance skill-based games, and one of the challenges comes from the difficulty of testing all possible skill combinations. If the game system is “interesting,” meaning that there are several skills that can interact with each other in a course of action, there’s a chance that some “combos” of skills are far more effective than others. If it’s extreme enough, this can cause game balance issues. One example of this is in Dungeons & Dragons 3.0, where the reworked “Haste” spell – which was intended to make higher-level melee characters moderately more deadly in combat –  could be used to allow spellcasters to double-cast spells every round, which was an extremely powerful side-effect (and corrected in 3.5).  And speaking from personal experience, the challenges of balancing feats like Dual Wield, Speedy, Auto-Fade and the various special attacks in Frayed Knights felt like it was constantly fraught with peril. I still don’t know if I got ‘em all right, but at least they don’t seem terribly broken.

Skill Specialization Imbalance: This issue is often a problem with unbounded skill systems. The game mechanics are normally balanced with the assumption that players will attempt a somewhat rounded character, and even make efforts to enforce it (sometimes with the imposition of an artificial level-based mechanic). But there’s always a risk that a player may create a paraplegic pantaphobic idiot-savant who can destroy worlds with mind. It’s really hard to create an interesting adventure that works for a character like that.

Paradox of Choice: Creating a new character for an unfamiliar system can be a frustrating in any sytem. Trying to choose one of a dozen character classes in a class-based system can be hard enough. Trying to choose eight out of forty potential skills can be much worse, particularly when the player has no idea whether or not their favoring of the “Big Guns” skill might actually be nearly useless later in the game.  (Yeah, I’ve been there…)

Characters Can Adapt (eventually): In a skill-based RPG, players may have the opportunity to adapt their characters over time to the content and demands of the campaign.  Or perhaps players might like to experiment with some other skills they ignored earlier in the game, without starting over with a new character. Skill-based game systems do allow this kind of character transformation in a way that class-based systems generally don’t. (Let’s ignore respeccing for the purpose of this article…)

Everybody Does Everything: This is particularly a problem with multiplayer games, but the tendency for players is to take all useful skills (useful can be defined as those skills most conducive to the character’s continued survival, followed by those that work best to maximize progression rate), resulting in all characters being minor variants of a jack-of-all-trades theme.

Minor Skills Get Ignored Completely: With players focused on maximizing all of the skills that yield the biggest bang-for-the-buck, there’s never enough points left over to spend on less significant skills. Which means they will be ignored completely by 99.9% of the player base. Pickpocketing is a great example for me… it’s generally a high-risk / low-reward skill which is useless by the time the player can build it up to a reasonable success level. Plus it often doesn’t fit most character concepts, unless your concept is a dirtbag thief who likes robbing the poor.  (From my perspective, anyone deserving of robbing is often deserving of killing, and since most games don’t throw me against enemies that are too tough to kill but safe to pickpocket, it’s of little value). Maybe I’ve just asked the wrong people, but I’ve never found anybody who has really put any effort into increasing pickpocketing in a skill-based game. And since nobody will use it, the designers don’t bother doing anything interesting with it. It’s a vicious cycle that really dictates that the skill should be removed from the game entirely. Exceptions exist, no doubt, but it’s a problem.

Players Tend to Stay Within Comfort Zones: With class-based games, the early choice(s) of class will dictate play-style for players, which may force them outside of their comfort zone to take on a different type of role than they are familiar with. But in skill-based games, there’s a tendency for players to simply build up the skills that allow them to most closely match a familiar play-style.  This is neither good nor bad, but I do find it refreshing to learn how to “grow into” a less familiar role in a new game system.

Skill-Based Adventure Design: Creating adventures focusing on role-playing and skill usage rather than roles can be a little trickier, but IMO more rewarding. It may force the designer to very deliberately allow multiple approaches to overcoming challenges to make sure players get rewarded for interesting but often less key skills. This is a more satisfying approach as a player, but it may also mean more work for the designer, and lead to balance issues – for example, when everything can be bypassed by a high level of stealth, or when boss encounters are created that demand a high level of combat proficiency from characters who may not have favored combat skills).

Expansion Challenges: Adding a new class to a game that provides a variation on an existing role is fairly easy. But adding a new skill to an existing CRPG as an expansion can be extremely problematic, as the entire previous game must be retro-fitted to allow players to use that skill. In the case of purely combat-oriented or competence-enhancing skills, this may not be a big deal. But going back and making sure the new “computer use” skill has value in the original campaign may be a major pain in the butt as a developer.  Then there’s the skill combo balance problem, revisited.

So there you go. No doubt I’ve missed some aspects… feel free to chime in here and suggest other considerations of class or skill based systems that I skipped.

I’ve found that these are good to review periodically as a game designer. Designers will mold a new system to fit their vision, and the aspects of class-based versus skill-based RPG systems shouldn’t be chosen haphazardly. They may be dictated by license or engine, but if so, the overall game should be structured appropriately. It’s an art, not a science, but there is no one “perfect” system. As either a player or a designer (or both!), it’s important to recognize the issues involved and not just assume that “bolting on” a variation from a favorite system will automatically work to improve things.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read



  • Gareth said,

    The ‘ignoring minor skills’ thing is, I think, a reflection on the emphasis on combat in RPGs. I know that I personally always WANT to try the more offbeat skills, but I’m usually right to assume that they have little use.

    If adventures were actually designed so that pick-pocketing couriers and so on were routes to success, I’d feel ever so clever doing so, and ever so satisfied with my character choices.

    But I’ve been trained not to bother, that it won’t be worth it.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Part of the blame (from a cRPG viewpoint anyway) lies with a couple of issues that you’ve probably talked about previously. Game economies (almost always broken) and a heavy focus on combat (as Gareth said above).

    Economics plays an issue because you always have to consider getting the best equipment for your character. Money is often plentiful (either from cash or trade in items) in RPGs, from looting your enemies and anything that isn’t nailed down. This means that any economics based skills (you mention pickpocket in particular) have little value when you can gain money in easier ways. Fallout comes to mind in particular, where doctor/first aid are rendered nearly useless by the amount of stimpacks you can buy, and gambling was also a waste of time.

    I guess that’s why I like the early parts of Fallout 1/2 than I do the latter stages. At the end it often feels like you’re just killing endless hordes for little gain.

    Second problem: Combat focus. You’d think that the easiest thing to do would be to lower the amount of combat in your game and solve the above issue, but then you run into the problem of satisfying those that are mainly playing the game for the combat. Similarly, it can be viewed as too “easy” if you make options available to avoid combat through stealth or speech skills.

    Personally, I’d love to see a game where combat was rare and challenging, with enemies that will appreciate your gains in power and prestige and run away rather than fight you.

    One game that stood out for me a little while back was NWN2: Storm of Zehir. There were many issues with it, but it handled skills in a much better way than the other NWN2 official campaigns. Skills like “spot” and “move silently” actually had uses, not just in certain scripted locations but on the overland map. Having a party with a balance of skills helped massively. Usually, I had mostly ignored the majority of these skills because I would end up killing everything in my path.

  • Eldiran said,

    Good read. I agree with Andy about Storm of Zehir — it was actually very impressive.

    Also agreed about pickpocketing — I always ignore that skill (like in NWN or Baldur’s Gate), but Skyrim has proven to be an exception. Probably because it’s actually viable to pickpocket enemies, and eventually I’ll be able to remove their equipment from them before combat.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – that reminds me of the scene from “The Gamers” – the thief player is pickpocketing a guy at the bar and is so successful he decides he wants to steal the guy’s pants.

    In fact, here’s the link. Probably the best scene of the movie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTccvj0gc58

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Actually that talk of pickpocketing reminds me of a Skyrim post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/12/09/skyrim-naked-friday-in-whiterun/

  • Xenovore said,

    Having played a variety of RPGs (table-top and computer both), I much prefer a skill-centric system, because it can give players much more agency than a class-based system. Skill-centric systems can also be more intuitive, since there’s a natural “action-difficulty-skill” relationship — i.e. actions have specific difficulties to complete, requiring certain levels of skill — which can be applied almost universally in RPGs or virtual worlds.

    The supposed problems with skill-centric systems are almost entirely design issues, rather than anything inherent with a skill-centric system.

    Gradual Progression: Definitely a feature. In Ultima Online and Morrowind I enjoyed seeing my skills go up as I used them. Conversely, in Fallout: New Vegas I’m starting to get annoyed that I have to wait until next level to increase my skills; I should be getting better now, not suddenly days later. Skill-centric systems provide a more natural progression, unlike the stair-steps of class-centric systems.

    Skill Combination Imbalance: This isn’t a problem solely with skill-centric systems. As per the “Haste” example (which is not exactly relevant; D&D spells have never used a skill mechanic), imbalance can happen in a class-centric system as well. (And I think an ad-hoc, arbitrary system like D&D is actually more prone to balance issues.)

    Skill Specialization Imbalance: Easily solved by making skill progression more difficult as it goes higher. The tendency is either that skill development slows to a crawl if it’s use-based, or if it’s cost-based (i.e. experience or development points are spent), players tend to focus on other useful skills rather than wasting all their development on a handful of skills.

    Paradox of Choice: Easily solved by providing profession packages, like Cyberpunk or Morrowind. You either start with a group of skills at a higher level, or you get bonuses for those skills. You are effectively choosing a class, but without the restrictions of a class-centric system.

    Everybody Does Everything: There is a tendency for this, but once again this is easily mitigated by providing profession packages which focus players onto using specific skills.

    Minor Skills Get Ignored Completely: Totally on the designer. If few to no actions are available for a skill, why is the skill even in the game? A skill is only “minor” because the designer failed to provide things to do with it.

    Players Tend to Stay Within Comfort Zones: This is certainly not a problem with skill-centric systems; it’s more of an issue with class-centric systems! Class-centric typically provides no opportunity to get out of comfort zones; you’re completey stuck with what the class specifies. For example, if you’re comfortable playing a fighter then you pick the typical fighter class; now there’s no chance of trying out magic, because the class says you can’t. Typically, to do anything different, a player has to create a brand-new level 1 character! (Or there’s some kludge like multi-classing.)

    Expansion Challenges: This and some of the other issues are more easily solved if we view things from the perspective of “actions” rather than “skills.” In other words, first determine what actions are required in the game, then fit skills to those actions, not the other way around. A game expansion or DLC could provide new actions, which may or may not require new skills. (And a class-centric system still would have to deal with how to handle these new actions…)

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