Skills and learning

As part of a move away from levels, I want to move my players towards adventuring for the adventure and not a “level up” mentality. That will mean a move away from the EP reward system, which my current players aren’t quite ready for yet. What they are ready for is a way to acquire secondary skills by study and I reckon that is a back door waiting to be opened. So the question now becomes how long does it take to really acquire new skills?

Before beginning on deciding how long it takes to learn a skill it is worth reviewing what the skill ranks in MERP/Rolemaster represent. According to the rulebook, 5 ranks in any skill can be acquired during adolescent development, which suggests apprenticeship skill development but no higher. The Rolemaster blog uses chunks of 10 ranks to define relative levels or lore, vocation or skill.

Skill RanksLoreVocationGeneral Skills
1-10Secondary High schoolApprenticeBasic knowledge and abilities skill and simpler sub-skill.
11-20GraduateJourneymenBroad abilities of skill and sub-skills
21+PhD/Post GraduateMasterAdvanced skills and sub-abilities
50+Erudite MasterGuildmaster or similarSingular mastery of skill and inter-related disciplines

Another consideration here is the level of the character – yes I know the aim is to go levelless but bear with me here. Gaming wisdom would put the average soldier at between level 2-4 and the NCO’s at 5-6 rising up to level 10 for experienced heroic fighters. Beyond this, certainly in the Middle Earth, the characters are getting to be legendary. So if the average competent person is around level 4 in their chosen profession then they will have 8 ranks worth of experience, which is about right for the general population.

Armed with a framework of knowledge and understanding it is time to think about how long it will take to acquire these ranks. Gladwell proposed that very successful people take 10,000 hours to master a skill (possibly by misinterpreting another study on elite athletes which was actually looking for a genetic component). For Gladwell 10,000 hours equates to 20 hours a week practise for 10 years although he does seem to bundle those skills into a domain of learning so they are all focussed on one specialism. The original study, by Tucker and Collins, was really looking to see if deliberate practise was more important than genes and could not find a link either way. In fact, it seemed to suggest that a combination of talent and practise produced excellence.

So much for 10,000 hours but I think it still holds a nugget of truth, even if the time is wrong. If we say a level 20 character is a master then it should take 10 years of deliberate practise to achieve this. However, there are some other factors we should consider in this. It requires someone to support you with food and other necessities to allow you that time (achievable for a single skill on two hours a day). Elite athletes generally don’t have a full time career making demands on training time. Bill Gates wasn’t required to go out and collect the harvest or sow the crops. So only a small group of people in a fantasy setting will be able to achieve this rate of development. Thankfully, adventurers would be such a group with their generally above average aptitude (stats) and focussed learning or as I prefer to call it staying alive.

There is further support for this idea when we look at the modern education system. The primary phase of education, which is mostly general (although Maths and Primary language seem to now dominate) takes around 5 years (5-11). Secondary, still developing a wide set of skills, but beginning to specialise is another 5 years (11-16). Tertiary, a really odd phase of specialisation lasts 2-3 years here in the UK. Whereas the quaternary phase (graduate) is anywhere between 3-4 years. The final Quinary phase (post-graduate/PhD) can last from 3 -5 years depending on field of study or practise.

Taking education and as knowledge based skill basic maths skills which are generally above the level required for basic mercantile skills are achieved by the age of 11 (in fact in modern society well above), a total of about 5 years (bear in mind developmental factors will probably have slowed learning in children). The table below extrapolates taught time for courses in UK in 5 rank chunks (for reasons outlined below). The number of hours spent learning to this basic level would be around 43 hours with a teacher present. So with good instruction a basic level of skill can be mastered in just over two weeks at the 20 hours per week level. What the table also demonstrates is that higher levels of knowledge take increasingly longer to gain. Referring back to the table from the Rolemaster Blog, I would suggest that this should be for levels 1-5. A basic addition subtraction activity is unlikely to be tested by a roll. This would make ranks 5-10 take nearly twice as long. There is a nice mathematical progression forming, but it is also perhaps worth remembering that quaternary students spend as much time reviewing and rehearsing learning as they do being taught. So any player expecting to do a job in between might find a penalty for the learning time.

hours/ week number of
h/ year
h per
1 36 36 6 216 43.2
Secondary 2 36 72 5 360 72
Tertiary 10 36 360 2720144
Quaternary 15 30 450 3 1350 270
Quinary 60 50 3000 3 9000 1800

Overall the thesis of ten years to achieve mastery in a field of study still stands with most specialists taking around 10 years to achieve an expert status after the age of 13-15. This even applies to sportsman with premiership footballers achieving first team debuts early but becoming regulars only at around 23. A similar pattern is seen in athletics although I can’t find a study to back this up.

The next part will consider how to balance vocations and individual skills so that the game remains playable without players power gaming every aspect.


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