The Big-Pile-Of-Skills problem

I’ve been struggling with a roleplaying-gaming design issue. It’s probably just my own pet-hate. It’s something I call the “Big Pile of Skills” problem.

When creating a roleplaying character, there is nearly always a section on “Skills”. Most of the time you can choose any Skill you like and invest points into them. Some systems have some concept of grouping Skills like D&D’s Class system and Riddle of Steel’s Skill Packets. But most of the modern day systems I’ve played just let you pick any skills you like.  I’m under the impression that most players considered this a good thing and limiting character choices to a select set of groups is considered Badtm.

Let me explain the issue by way of example. I try to create a modern day character based on my own “Skillset” as an embedded programmer. Most generic or non-futuristic systems would have a Skill called “Computers”. By taking this Skill, your character knows stuff about computers. This Skill would allow you to attempt to build any sort of software, use computers at an expert level and in many cases allow you to attempt to hack any security system. Pity my profession isn’t so cool. Certainly “Computers” as a granularity is too vague. But if you break it down, into “Computer Use”, “Hacking”, “Geek Trivial”, “Embedded Programming Techniques”, “Web Programming”, “Blogging”, “Internet Memes”, “Barack Obama”, etc., I’d quickly run out of points and end up with some body who can program really well but can’t actually use a computer, which is nonsense.

For a long while I wondered why it was more fun to design a character’s powers than pick their skills. Picking a character’s skills is prep work for designing their “cool” powers, choosing skills that will support them. Which should be considered wrong. It’s a because it’s a bad “experience” when figuring out the mundane aspects of a character. I guess stuff like powers, magics, gifts, etc. are more exciting but I think they are also more character defining (like super-heroes are often defined by their powers) and they focus nearly exclusively on what they can do and how to use them. I think in part, thats why mortal-characters often appear boring. Not because playing a mortal is any less interesting than playing a super-powered critter, but that a mortal, from the system perspective, is just a bunch of Skills.

For me, Skills should be what you character can do, but most Skill lists read like a CV/resume hit-list. What does “Academics” mean? What the hell can you do with that? Fudge, my favourite hackable RPG system, isn’t so strict on its interpretation of what a Skill is. It has Attributes and it has Skills but only as implementation of Traits and it doesn’t mandate what Skills you have in your Skill List, so I could take “Embedded Computer Programming” with a little “Web Programming” on the side to cover what I can do as a programmer.

The problem really manifests when you’re trying to create a brand new character, not necessarily based on what you know. You end up taking sets of skills to cover what you think your character should be able to do. Leading to the Big-Pile-Of-Skills mess. Most of the time, I think this is acceptable, it’s fine in fantasy-based settings where the characters are, lets face it, a tad unrealistic anyway (come on undetected Vampires in the modern day?). Players will tweak their Skills based on how effective they are in-game, meaning that many of the player-characters start to have a similar feel as they “buy up” the necessary Skills.

Creating normal human characters should be fun but not so unrealistic to break the suspension of disbelief. So I’ve been mulling around some ideas in my head, mostly for Fudge. I don’t want a tight restrictive system like Classes but I still what the freedom of free-for-all Skills. For a start, Skills should only define what makes your character interesting. What can you character do that is unexpected or different from everyone else. What makes them an individual? (If everyone has a big-pile-of-skills, then you’re about as random as everyone else…) In fact, Skills is the wrong word. I think of stuff to put down on my CV when I read Skills, which isn’t what I want to put down on my character sheet, I don’t think.

I’ve started playing around some some sort of “solution” for this. Instead of just a Skill list, you take a Profession, Trade or a Role in Society and then some extra Skills you’ve picked up along the way. This is what ever your character does for a living in the setting. It has a rating like Skills and Attributes. At low rates, such as Poor or Mediocre in Fudge, you’re only at a trainee level or simply new to the work. Fair or greater indicate a decent level of competence in the Profession. The trait’s rating does not define the career path. Often careers are made up of several different distinct Professions. For example Student, Programmer, Consultant and Manager should all be considered different Profession traits, not trait rankings. You can easily create a “Loser” this way by purposely ranking their Profession trait low (such as Poor) and make a serious underachiever.

Professions are not a set of Skills related to the specific function of that Profession. Professions often give a character access to a great wealth of abilities and tools. (Professions would also feed in to their lifestyle and resources). A Software Engineer would probably have a decent computer at home bundled with great development software, would be a good problem solver generally and could easily work out how to use most modern day gadgets with easy. A Salesperson would have good interpersonal skills, has a good insight into people’s motivations, can bullshit like no-other, etc. Players should probably write down a few notes about what they think the Profession is (what they think their character can do with it) and the Games Master can clarify it with them. Profession traits should probably be treated as something between Skills and Attributes for XP cost and other resource-allocation costs but be treated like Skills for most everything else.

You should also be able to take Specialities within the Profession. Such Specialities give you a +1 with tasks that use that Speciality but cause a -1 to any other non-speciality task. You can increase the bonus of that Speciality by taking it a second time up to a max of +3 (but the inverse is also true meaning it’ll give you a -3 on any other task). For each level of the Profession above Fair, you have to take a level of Speciality. For example a Surgeon might have the Profession Doctor with a speciality in Plastic Surgery. This would mean they are great at what they do but wouldn’t be as great on a different type of surgery though they know the basics.

Professions would have to be considered narratively when applying them to a task, nearly like Gifts with ratings than Skills. I think a character’s Attributes should also play a part in what they can do with a Profession, however I haven’t come up with a strict/controlled system that would work in Fudge. The best thing to do with be to let the Games Master apply a -3 to +3 modifier based on an applicable Attribute. Professions (and Specialities) can be applied outside of their fields (with negative modifiers) as appropriate. A Cars Salesman should be able to try fast-talking their way out of trouble, for example.

Characters can have several active Professions. They can also have previous Professions but they degrade over time, perhaps losing up to a full level each year. Certain Professions will subsume old Professions (Student gets subsumed by the first Job for example). If a character using an inactive Profession goes up against another character using a active Profession, then the inactive Profession should be at a -1. Players should not be expected to detail all their characters previous Professions, only the ones they deem relevant to describe the character. They can always take one or two Skills extra to represent the left-overs of the previous Professions. I haven’t worked out how you should model moving or changing Professions. A new Professions would require buying each level individually but if the new Profession is similar in field or type of work it should be possible to start at a higher level or even use the same level as the previous Profession. Old inactive Professions might be turned into Skills if the character continues to practice certain aspects.

Professions shouldn’t be just jobs. They can be also Roles in Society, as mentioned initially, ush as House-wife/husband, Homeless, Student, etc. are all completely valid Professions as long as the character does that as their way of life.

Once a player has chosen Professions for the character, they can then chose a few Skills, not too many. These are more like the old Skills, but describe things the character can do that is outside of their active Professions. Perhaps they do sports, play musical instruments, write (books), etc.

Using Professions as traits, you could create a Salesperson who develops psychic powers, a Homeless person that was once a powerful business owner, an office worker who is barely keeping it together, etc. The system describes the character, much like saying a Vampire with that can control others with their mind (Vampire with Dominate).

What does any one think?

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