Mad Skills

It is better for a game to have skills than classes. It is better to offer more options rather than fewer.

This is not a non-controversial opinion, especially given that our best-selling games are pretty uniformly class-based. They all try to add some of the flexibility that skills give you, but they are class-based systems. Which won: UO, EQ, or AC?

I always liked the skill-based design of Asheron’s Call. You can focus on whatever areas you want to whatever extent you want. Asheron’s Call 2 tried to mimic this in a class-based system, to no great success. When the skill cost goes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 121, 122… we can tell where you want our skills to be at any given level. You might as well just hand out the 5 skill points with each level and get it over with.

AC, though, lets you pick which skills to take, which to specialize, and how much experience to put in each. You can do the same with your base attributes, which affect those skills and some other things. No classes, except that a few starting templates offered you a title.

I am convinced that EVE Online has one of the best skill systems around. We can argue about whether real-time training of skills is a good thing, but the whole set up is great. In this case, every skill has a (relatively low) hard cap, and only so many skills can be brought to bear on any given situation. There is a big difference between how a new character performs versus one with a year of training, but in any given area one year versus two does not matter much. An older character may be able to pilot many more ships and/or research and/or mine and/or build things and/or so on, but he will cap out on ability in any given area after a while. Your expertise with Gallente ships will not keep me from catching up on Caldari ships.

Either system provides diminishing returns that impose soft caps before the hard caps come into play. When an AC skills costs 100,000,000 experience to increase by one point, it might be worth becoming really good at something else. When that next skill level in EVE will take 2 months to train, you might want to try something new. Or maybe that 5% is worth that much to you, but someone else gets those two months of benefit working on something else.

The Grouchy Gnome proposes that one skill’s gain is another’s loss. Didn’t Star Wars Galaxies use something similar? As I recall it (having never played), you had a maximum number of points possible, so that training one thing would involve de-training another. Either way, all characters reach some finite cap where improving anywhere involves become worse somewhere else. That does not really appeal to me; I do not want to throw away progress to get new progress. We will see how that system works for Boundless Adventures, or if there is some way of implementing it that appeals to me.

(Not that everything needs to appeal to me. I’m just saying that I do not play games that do not appeal to me. Actually a lot of games have individual systems or large aspects that appeal to me, such as Shadowbane’s crafting system, but we all still dream of the Perfect Game, the Total Package.)

Horizons was theoretically supposed to work along the lines I am seeking, where you could effectively reset yourself to a newb in a new class without tossing away all that you have. A Tale in the Desert allows you to strike out in any direction you like, your only loss being time you could have spent elsewhere. Your Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates pirate can go in whatever direction you like.

These last couple, along with EVE, effectively encourage you to have just the one character, which SWG enforced. I like that. It solves a lot of other issues if your players each have one character (per account). Everything is tied to the one character, rather than having a separate warrior, healer, rogue, etc.

Personally, I like that. Maybe I should RP more, but I tend to treat my characters as avatars rather than characters. The character is either an extension of myself or a tool I am using, not a separate person I am playing. I would rather have the one Swiss army knife than a toolbox of characters. The toolbox just means I need to keep separate friends lists, guild ties, key bindings, etc. Just give me the one character, allow me to save multiple key maps (power sets, whatever), and let me play that way. (Also, if you can give me the ATitD multiple guild affiliation option, that would be nice, too, but that is a separate post altogether.)

I can see how this would be bad if you RP separate characters. Sorry about that. (See the parenthetical above about “appeals to me.”) I have rarely been able to maintain separate characters that way, so I do not worry about it. Most of my friends are on TS anyway, where we do not talk in-character, which is good given the ratio of female characters to players.

I look at a PnP game like Champions or GURPS and want that. I look at the latest version of D&D, which has come close to a skill system via almost unrestricted multi-classing. Choice, while difficult for some, is a good thing for a game to have.

And frankly, if you give me 50 nigh-useless vanity skills that I can grind endlessly, I will spend a lot of time on that. Why yes, I would like to cap out both Calligraphy and Water Purification, let me get my equipment for that!

: Zubon

3 thoughts on “Mad Skills”

  1. I have an entire set of theories about skill-based systems, mostly with respect to RPGs set in a heroic fantasy universe. EVE works well because, frankly, the cyber-integrated self-programming humans that populate EVE really can just make themselves better at things given the time to write the skills into their wetware. The protagonists of heroic fantasy, however, are, well, people.

    If the idea of a heroic fantasy game is to replicate the thrill and drama of a classic fantasy novel (‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ is my personal gold standard, since LotR is a bit divergent from the actual goal of such a game), skills systems need careful design and, IMHO, design ideas in place that are not native to the basic idea of a skill-based system. The fact is that not everybody can do magic; the reason that classic wizards are the way they are is that, in a universe of people that picked up a sword at 14 and became a knight, learning to channel your latent magical ability starts at 12 and takes two decades. There aren’t very many wizards in light mail with swords because getting good at both is very very difficult and not many people even have the aptitude.

    But this is a problem, because if just anybody can learn to do basic magic, then anybody that doesn’t learn it is a fool. Purify your stream water in the field, never get dysentary! Cleansing your wounds so they heal clean is worth so much on its own that actively HEALING wounds seems like greed. A class system is limiting and somewhat unrealistic, but the alternative is very often something like AC, where EVERYBODY casts at least some spells and most people have a great deal of magic in them.

    I don’t want to go into some of the fixes for this here, and certainly this can be overcome. But skill systems have to be very very carefully designed so that they don’t encourage uninteresting or out-of-context characters. People, by and large, want to play wizards and paladins and warriors and rogues; skill systems should give them that and reward them for that, rather than pressing people into a very limited set of ‘good’ builds.

  2. “A class system is limiting and somewhat unrealistic, but the alternative is very often something like AC, where EVERYBODY casts at least some spells and most people have a great deal of magic in them.”

    I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing, assuming it doesn’t come as a blatant contradiction to the stated nature of the setting. I mean, if you’re going for a LotR-style world where magic is rare, it’s obviously idiotic. But if anybody can learn magic on Dereth, why -shouldn’t- everybody learn magic?

    I think a big part of the problem here is that we naturally expect a D&D-style balance to the PC population–where you’ve got sword guys, fireball guys, stealth guys, and healing guys–but when we get a skill-based character system, the magical skills are (on the whole) notably more attractive than the non-magical skills. I mean, even if you’re not a solo player, who the hell doesn’t want to be able to heal his own wounds just by expending some of that blue bar that’s constantly refilling for free?

    But if a setting where basically everyone takes healing magic sounds like a bad idea, I think it’s possible to design the game so that such an investment isn’t such an obvious requirement for every PC. For example, if quick, out-of-combat healing is available to everyone (and, indeed, a lot of games these days include such a “rest” option) then why would sword guy or fireball guy sacrifice ass-kicking ability for the chance to heal themselves during the fight? Or if ranged combatants have a chance at keeping their targets out of melee range, why would fireball guy waste his skill points and encumberance on a sword and armor that he’ll hopefully never get to use?

    Personally, I like the idea of soft skill limitations, like having the player pick three skill trees at character creation. You can be a tank mage and pick Bladed Weapons, Heavy Armor, and Energy Magic, but you’ll be missing out on a third sword guy tree like Resilience or Battle Rage.

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