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.
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