Game Mastery

No Dice – Skills

by on Aug.04, 2013, under NoDice

Designing skills really surprised me.  Stats were easy.  Rules have been easy (although choosing which of those rules are worth keeping is another matter).  I figured I’ve played more games than I can keep track of, so I should be able to churn out a skill list with little thought at all.  I couldn’t have been more wrong and aside from when I was trying to typeset a character sheet, this has been the hardest part of the process so far.


So why was it so hard to list skills?  Before I can answer that, let’s have a look at the requirements the skills had to fill.




Combat skills

I’m treating weapon skills just like the other skills.  There will be more of a subsystem with more depth and options, but the actual weapon skills will be plain old skills.

The only major game I’ve played that does it differently is Dungeons and Dragons.  I’m sure there are others, but this is the big one.  Why not do what the big game does?  Simply, I don’t like that there’s little control over how much your character knows about combat.  I know you can run or play the game with as much or as little combat as you like, but unless you do nothing but multiclass into characters with half BAB, the fact of the matter is you’re going to have a base attack bonus.  That represents combat training.  Yes, any character I’d want to play would have that, but I resent the restriction.  It doesn’t have to be there.  I would like my game to let you play a character without combat training.

Moving on…


Every skill should have specializations.  They should be open ended.

I toyed with the idea of multiple levels of specialization (ie fighting specializes into swords specializes into longswords, etc), but it was obnoxious.   Instead I’d rather just cut them off at one level of specialization.

This is a hard requirement because of how starting skills works.  When you have no points in a skill, you can’t buy a skill until you get a specialization for it.  This is contrary to how all the other games I’ve played to specialties.  It represents that first part of a skill you pick up before learning the general techniques.

Abstraction level

Okay, this requirement is a little vague.  A little abstract.  Har dee har har.

Actually this is an extension of the specialization requirement.  I want all the skills to be at the same level of abstraction.  To use skills from different categories, “speaking” would be the same level as “fighting.”  “Deception” would then be at the same level as “swords” and “little white lie” would be at the same level as “longswords.”  What I want to avoid is a system where one skill is at the longsword level of granularity but another skill is at the speaking level.  I think a system like that would breeze over speaking skills, but spend a lot of time on the specifics of combat.  I’m okay with skimming past some things, (ie, there will be a single first aid skill – no need for doctors, surgeons, nurses, etc) but the abstraction level should be consistent unless there’s a good reason for it not to be.


No synonyms, minimal overlap.  When a player takes an action I want there to be a clear way to perform that action (there should be many ways to achieve your goals though).  There should be a reason for every skill to exist.

Quality over quantity.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

I can’t remember where I read that.  It was applied to software at the time, but it’s always stuck with me.  I think it’s applicable here too.  I want to have the smallest set of skills possible that let characters perform all the tasks they should be able to.

I think too many skills is a design flaw.  I don’t want the GM to punish the characters for failing to take civic engineering.  Nor do I want the characters punished because they took linguistics and electronics communications, but those skills never came up.  Can you tell I’ve played GURPS before?

Same number of skills in each stat

Wait, what?

Okay, this is actually a really specific requirement for this system.  The others (aside from specialization) have been more like my personal preferences.  This one is a bit odd though, especially when you consider that strength is the red headed step child stat.  I didn’t realize that until I made this requirement, but it totally stymied me when I tried listing strength skills.  It turns out that most games will have a consistent number of skills in the other stats and strength will be left with less than half those skills.

So why such a weird requirement?

I’m trying to satisfy an idea I had.  I’ve always liked the idea of RPGs that grow your skills as you use them.  It works reasonably well in computer games – 1000 successful jump checks gives you an increase in your jump skill.  That sort of counting doesn’t make sense in a pen and paper game though.

So what do we count instead?

I figured we could get meta with it.  Count skill increases.  For ever 5 skill increases in a stat, that stat goes up by 1.  Not a lot of overhead and it makes some sense too.  Maybe 5 is too low, but that’s what playtesting is for.  Best of all this means  I have less balancing to do when it comes to advancement – I don’t have to figure out how many XP points increase a skill as opposed to a stat.  They’re tied together and the only way to increase your stats is with skills.

But what about the same number of skills across stats?  What’s that got to do with this?

Let’s stick with the 5 skill points leads to a stat point thing.  Let’s say your strength skills are athletics and swords.  Each skill can hold 10 points.  That’s 20 points for all your strength skills, meaning you gain 4 strength over your career.  Intelligence has 3 different book smarts skills, perception, and magic lore.  Those 5 skills have 50 points, meaning your intelligent character can increase his main stat 10 times over the game.  That just doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, I could make the increases dependent on the number of skills.  If strength only has 2 skills and it takes 2 points to increase the skill, I can get my +10 strength by the time I’m done.  Intelligence would need 5 skill points to increase a stat, also getting +10.  But the strength character would advance a lot more quickly.  That also doesn’t seem right.

I thought about this one for a while and in the end the only real solution I found was to give each stat the same number of skills.


The Skills


Enough babbling.  Here’s what I ended up with.



Polearms, one handed, two handed, brawling, muscle, athletics, manual labor, endurance.


Ranged weapons, dodge, parry, initiative, thievery, stealth, ride, (empty)


Negotiation, comprehend, deception, charm, networking, culture, perform, (empty)


Academia, world knowledge, machinery, willpower, perception, profession, survival, first aid

I didn’t quite make the specialties requirement.  Endurance, dodge, comprehend, and willpower are considered defensive skills.  They aren’t used on their own and exist to let you resist other skills.  They aren’t really specialized and everyone will have them.

There’s a glut of knowledge skills.  I’m not sure if this is a problem.  There was a bigger glut, but I purged some.  I wanted to avoid the problem of the smart character knowing ALL the things.  Somebody who has spent time in academy, shouldn’t have real world knowledge.  OTOH, I also don’t want to run a book reading sim.

I’ll probably talk about the differences between skills next time.  For now, I’ve typed enough and the thought of describing 28 different skills seems way too tedious.

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