Skills And What they Mean

I was having an email discussion with a Chill fan (and backer of our current Kickstarter, which I would love for you to back!) about skills and specializations in Chill 3rd Edition, and it led to some musing on the nature of “skills” in RPGs, which I would like to share with you. Think of this as a little window in my brain as a game designer, and how my thoughts on skills got translated into Chill.

Skills in RPGs run the gamut from the very broad (3:16 uses “Fighting” and “Non-Fighting”) to the hyper-specific (Chill 2nd Edition broke up melee combat skills into Ax, Sword, Knife/Dagger, and so forth). Views vary on which is better; I think it kinda depends on what you’re looking for, and more specifically, about the assumptions of the game.

A “kitchen-sink” RPG, that has a genre or a setting but without a great deal of definition about what the characters do, might benefit from a skill system that covers any conceivable situation. A character might never need to know how to drive a forklift, but then again, they might, and does it really make sense to cover than under the same skill as driving a car? They’re very different vehicles, after all. Likewise, as anyone who’s shot both a bow and a pistol can attest, proficiency in one doesn’t necessarily equate proficiency in another.

The problem that I run into with game systems that use very specific skills is that it’s often impossible to create a starting character that has the skills they need. Now, if the conceit of the game is that starting characters are young, inexperienced, and just starting out, that’s perhaps appropriate (subject to the setting backing that up, which in a lot of cases it doesn’t), but suppose I’m making a character for a modern horror game. I should be able to make a character with a skill set that makes sense as a modern adult. Sadly, a lot of times I don’t have the points I need to do that.

We can chalk some of that up to assumptions about what a character knows versus what the character uses in play, and that’s actually a really good and important notion that forms the whole basis of the skill system in Chill, so hold on to that for now. I think the larger issue, though, is that skills don’t really work in real life the way they work in RPGs. In real life, people typically have a smattering of knowledge from a lot of different sources about a lot of different topics. We can make allowances for education (and indeed, some games take that into account), but even so, I’d submit that the average adult knows a lot about a few things and a little about a lot of things, and that just doesn’t tend to translate well into an RPG.

Let’s take me, for example. By trade, I’m a speech-language pathologist, which means I have a Masters degree. What does it mean in terms of skill? It means I have a depth of knowledge in a very particular area (communication disorders), and that, in turn, means I have a shallower knowledge in medicine (I had to learn anatomy and physiology, but pretty much just from the neck up), history (of my profession and of audiology in general), child development (actually very important for my current job!), and education law (likewise).

What would that mean in a system like Chill 2nd Ed or Palladium, where individual skills are extremely narrow? Probably a bunch of “Familiarity” skills with medium or low rating, and maybe a rating in something like Research (since you learn how to do research while you’re in grad school). How would it look in a broader system, like New World of Darkness? NWoD uses a static list of skills, so probably a rating in Academics with a Specialty.

What about Chill 3rd Edition? Here we get into how Chill is different, because we have to ask a question: Do those skills have any relevance or effect on investigating and combating the Unknown?

Chill 3rd Ed uses nine skills. All characters have all them, though not all of them have training in them. The skills are about investigating and combating the Unknown, and that’s it. That’s not to indicate that the only things a character can do in Chill are investigate and fight the Unknown, but that’s what the the game is about, so that’s what the system models. The game engine is designed around modeling not what can a character do but how well can a character do these particular things. Anything else isn’t relevant to the game system, or if it is, it’s expressed as the Background Edge (which then adds a modifier to rolls when the Background would be relevant).

So, in context, if I’m a SAVE envoy, I could argue that I’m trained in Research and probably in Interview (since I’m aware of communication styles). I’m trained in Communication (but then so is everyone unless they take the Awkward Drawback), though I might consider a specialization in that skill (Active Listener, maybe? Empathy?). If I think it’s going to come up often, I could take SLP as a Background Edge.

All this means that is in Chill 3rd Ed, we’re not looking to model everything that could happen in a game, but rather to model what the game is about. I ran Chill at Con on the Cob recently, and someone asked about driving – if a character were driving a car, and needed to stop or swerve suddenly, what would the player roll? There’s not a specific skill for driving, after all. My answer was that since that would rely on reaction time, the best thing to roll would be Reflexes. If the character has specific training in driving (the character had Background: Personal Driver or even Cop), then I’d be inclined to add a bonus to the target number. It’s not that we can’t model driving skill, it’s just that it doesn’t come up frequently enough to merit inclusion as its own skill, and the underlying ability can be represented in other traits.

Questions about Chill‘s skill system? Got a favorite method of modeling skills in RPGs? Let’s hear it! 

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