So something that has been on my mind lately as I’ve been brainstorming a new RPG (Inspired by the freeform skill/flaw choices in Eric Nieudan’s amazing White Books) is the concept of Skills. There seems to be two main schools of thought, and each has two subsections I’ll discuss a bit as well. The first of these categories is Structured Skills, indicating that the skills come from some sort of list that the player picks from and records, while the other is Freeform Skills, where the players are free to make up their own skills rather than pick from a list.
Of the two groups, I have to say I heavily prefer Freeform, as it allows for far greater flexibility when making a character and generally requires less memorizing of rules as well. Examples of this include Risus and one of my personal favorites, Simple D6. Freeform skill systems also fall on a gradient, between Mechanical and Fluffy.
Some of the Mechanical skills are shown very well in both Risus and Simple D6, where a skill (Or Cliche, for Risus) is used in the game mechanics, allowing the player to better complete tasks, or otherwise having a measured effect of some sort. The opposite end of the spectrum, Fluffy, I think is shown oddly well in the most unlikely of systems: Burning Wheel. While the system is normally very much a Structured Skills system (I’ll bring it up for that later), players can choose to take Character Traits, which have no real in-game effects besides being descriptors of the character.For the most part, though, I think almost all systems using Freeform skills fall on the Mechanical side of it.
Overall, I really prefer Freeform skill systems, as they tend to make character creation intuitive and quick. A player can often create a character more accurately with two freeform skills than a dozen or more picked from a list of a structured skill system. A major drawback though is how easy it is to accidentally neuter a character by choosing a “bad” skill. While it might be accurate to give your character a “Piemaking” skill, this either won’t come up in a dungeon delve environment, or you will need to explain and fudge plausibility to an inordinate degree in order to make the skill “work” where you need it to.
This usually hasn’t been an issue in games I’ve run, but typically it’s because the players are relatively genre-savvy (Which helps make sure you can anticipate what might be most useful). I think as long as your players are aware of what kind of game you’re planning on running. A high-court-intrigue game will necessitate a vastly different set of skills than a adventurers-traipsing-through-a-dungeon game, and a game with elements of both will have a yet different set of skills that work best.
The other overarching category of skill systems is Structured Skills. This is where D&D/Pathfinder, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Burning Wheel, and a huge swath of other games fall into. This system is really useful, as it tends to eliminate ambiguities for how skills can be applied (Usually. I’ll talk about this more in a moment), and minimizes “explaining away” how or where a skill would be useful. This is nearly always mechanically-based, providing gameplay bonuses and/or penalties depending on a player’s (in)competency. I believe this category of skills can also be split into two different methods of approaching it, either Comprehensive or Minimal.
Comprehensive would be exemplified by systems like GURPS and Burning Wheel, where basically ever possible imaginable scenario or aspect of a character that might need to be quantified is. On the other hand, Minimal is a very, very few but broad skills, such as the ones in Microlite20, and oftentimes they are so few they tend to heavily overlap with character’s core non-skill attributes. D&D 3/3.5, Pathfinder, Traveler, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tend towards the more Comprehensive side of the spectrum, while D&D 4e (As well as Savage Worlds, from what I’ve read of it) cut quite a few skills and now sits much more closely to the Minimal side.
For the most part, I prefer Minimal skills systems when using a Structured skill system, simply because they’re easier to remember and track. While there’s nothing wrong with playing a Comprehensive Structured skill system*, I personally find it too much paperwork for too little roleplay benefit. However, for those of you who enjoy strong adherence to detail and/or realism, Comprehensive systems would probably be a perfect match for your playstyle.
So these are my thoughts on the different systems for skills across the various RPGs I’ve encountered. In the comments, be sure to let me know if I missed any large categories, or if you know of other games that might fit in the different categories!
*Remember, there’s no wrong way to play any** RPG: Make it your own!
**Except F.A.T.A.L., which should be incinerated and the ashes disposed of in a bottle of rubbing alcohol jettisoned into the sun.