RPG Skills

I’ve been hacking FATE (technically, FATE Accelerated Edition) recently because I’m planning on running a Planescape one-shot soon. Rules wonkiness follows.

One of the secret world-building tools in the GM’s quiver in the FATE system is customizing the skill list; by default the book has 18 skills, and I find that I do not use them equally, which leads to players having to guess the DM.

Too, it’s a wonderful chance to educate, since you get to answer players’ questions before they have them: it’s a usability problem. “How do I attack?” can be answered by “there’s like 10 numbers on your sheet; one of them is labeled attack; roll that!” is a very tempting situation!

But I’ve always wondered, what do these numbers (statistics, attributes, approaches, skills, whatever you call them) actually represent? Are they nouns (D&D statistics, like Strength), verbs (some D&D skills, like Spot or Notice), adjectives (… I actually don’t know many systems that went this way; it would be Strong I guess), or adverbs (FAE goes this way with their approaches).
Or be wishy-washy, and take a mix, which is what D&D actually does with its skills (Spot vs Athletics).

I’ve been kind of interested in this, so I played around with a few ways to do it. Here’s my skill list as nouns:

Attack (Melee combat, ranged combat, armies: killing people)
Strength (Lift/carry, bend bars/lift gates, grappling)
Cunning (Thievery, picking pockets & locks & traps, craft, gather information)
Athletics (Movement like jumping/swimming, sneaking, balancing, dodging)
Survival (Knowledge: Nature, navigation, spot/listen; herbalism)
Knowledge (Medicine, law, architecture, history, languages, heraldry…)
Arcana (Religion, spellcraft, spirituality, supernaturality, alchemy)
Endurance (Resist almost everything, hit points, etc)
Charisma[1] (lead, # of followers, insight)
Faction[2] (resources from faction, knowledge, faith, etc)

That’s it; pick one of those to be best at (+3), 2 to be second best (+2), 3 to be trained at (+1), and one to be horrible at (-2).

You’ve made the left-brain of a character! I can make 10 characters, each with a different apex skill, and thus ensure niche protection.  There’s all sorts of elegance here.

But then I got to wondering. Is this best? I know how to use this list, and am likely to be able to explain it to my players, but what if I wanted to get more arty?

Fight (Attack)
Force (Strength)
Finesse (Cunning)
Move (Athletics)
Hunt (Survival)
Reason (Knowledge)
Invoke (Arcana)
Endure (Endurance)
Charm (Charisma)
Believe (Faction)

It’s a little less satisfying to me!

This exercise revealed that several of my skills here are actually the same skill in drag — Knowledge and Arcana just split “education” down the middle into what you know, and focus on different halves. Others are pretty reductive or lose the shade of meaning I’d wanted — Finesse doesn’t encompass as many thief-like circles of competency as Cunning does to me, and at the same time brings in too many others.

What about adjectives?

Deadly
Strong
Cunning[3]
Athletic
Green
Smart
Mystical
Tough
Social
Aligned

I actually find this layout pretty satisfying — the names are pretty good for the concepts I gave them.

But it’s pretty awkward in speech, at least using my existing cadences — Make a Deadly check? Roll Strong? (I mean, I certainly hope you roll strongly, but that’s not my point 🙂 )

And it looks weird on a character sheet, to me:
Deadly: +3
Tough: +1
?

What’s your take? What do skills represent?


[1] Charisma is complicated; this is high for characters that are charismatic, but it is much more of an investigation skill than a “I CHARM YOU NOW” skill. More later.
[2] It’s a Planescape game;  Factions matter.
[3] Oh English, you so wacky.

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About lackhand

I was born in 1984 and am still playing games, programming computers, and living in New York City. View all posts by lackhand

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