I have been meaning to write a blog post on skills as part of getting my thoughts down on building the levelless mechanism for characters in using MERP/Rolemaster. As always, life has more urgent priorities and I have thought a lot without coming to any firm conclusions. In the meantime, the debate has moved on with some useful thought on other blogs and forums. Yet I am still not satisfied.
Let me clarify, we bandy the phrase “skill” around in RPG and to each of us, it means a different thing. Regardless of the roleplay mechanics used to provide a measure of success, our use of the word skill is a very personal thing and depending on GM mindset can be a contentious issue at the table.
In general, most games divide the skills into weapons/armour skills; adventuring/class skills and the rest. Now the big question that comes out of this is what actually counts as a skill? Is it only the practical/physical aspects, knowledge/theory, or a combination of both. Perhaps using a dictionary definition will help define some terms of reference.
the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well:
Carpentry was one of his many skills.
competent excellence in performance; expertness; dexterity:
The dancers performed with skill.
a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which a person has competence and experience:
the skill of cabinetmaking.
Obsolete . understanding; discernment.
Obsolete . reason; cause.
Reading all three definitions you can see a flavour of what for me will be the flavour of my handling of skills moving towards playing without levels. The first two, definitions could be argued to overlap considerably but the third sits off on its own. However, it does rather sit with the MERP secondary skills with the idea that these are pre-adventuring professions.
From my point of view, it makes sense to use the meta-skill idea suggested by the first two definitions. It is easier for the players to handle in terms of recalling their character’s abilities and thus playing more to type. Also, it avoids the gaming the system of having 20 ranks in the Quick-draw skill purely to become fire every nanosecond. Yet having addressed the definition of skill there are a few points to consider.
When you start to think about a meta-skill you realise there are a number of learnt factors that influence your ability to perform. Namely, pragmatic knowledge; physical actions; and theory. To take the carpentry skill this could be types of wood and how to handle them (responding to the knot and grain in the wood); use of measuring and cutting tools; and a theory of all woodworking methods and skills which would allow you to adapt what you know to new situations. In every domain, there are myriad mini-skills which is where the dread RM skill bloat started. Meshing this together, this means that it is possible to be an expert in one of the three domains without being anymore skillful than a rank tyro. This begs the question of how to resolve this potential dissonance without resorting to the fearful skill bloat (an idea I will return to in my thoughts on training time).
Another point to think about is specialisation, which might be less of an issue in a low tech setting, but in a high-tech setting is going to be more important. Keeping to carpenter skill idea. What is the difference between a furniture maker and a structural carpenter? They both have an overlap is some skills and I’m pretty sure (based on my grandfather’s abilities) can make a good job moving from one to the other but perhaps with not the same speed and assuredness. I think this is where the theory domain plays a large role in adapting from one setting to another.
These issues to do with skill are part of my considering how to deal with the time needed to secure additional knowledge and practice in allowing players to create rounded characters who don’t spring miraculously from one state to another overnight. Moreover, they also raise into question how to handling those core primary skills that all adventurers need. Perhaps in a true reductionist sense weapons and armour are all one skill.