The Merits of Skill-Based Games

I have an odd perspective on things.  It is a known quantity for most people that have encountered me, either online or in real life.  Perhaps it stems from weird brain chemistry, perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing, or maybe there’s a bit of mercury poisoning along the way.  Short of dissection, I doubt there’s much way for any of this to be answered.  And while I’d love to know why I think the way I do, I’ll hold off on the vivisection for the time being.

So when Dave comments about how different it is to create NPC’s for a level-based game like Saga Edition Star Wars, compared to WEG’s D6 edition, it’s something I’ve honestly not considered.  I’ve spent so long working with various, unrelated systems that it doesn’t occur to me that one is harder or easier to deal with.  It’s just a different procedure to get from point A to point B.  I’ve played both sorts of games so much that most of the rules nonsense is internalized, and the creation of NPC’s is just another step.  This is my experience, and as any social theories class will tell you, my experience is not universal.

A lot of what makes WEG’s D6 Star Wars so quick and simple for NPC generation (and really, that’s key to the whole discussion; creating adventures is the easy part) is that, at the end of it all, you only need to detail a couple of basic stats for an adversary, and everything else can sort of be glossed over.  Sure, that Stormtrooper might have a rather advanced understanding of sociolinguistics or botany, but at the end of the day, it only really matters if he can hit your heroes or if he can avoid being hit himself.  Those extra dice in ancillary skills are interesting, but they’re only going to come up in extremely rare occasions.

At different points, I’ve been accused of abusing skills-based games out of laziness.  I’ll go out of my way to prep the details of an adventure down to the careful details, but more often than not, I’ll half-ass my way through the stats of an adversary.  Most often this show up in the encounters when an opponent goes to attack one of the PC’s, and I thoughtfully pick up a couple of dice for their attribute, a couple of dice for the skill in question, and give them a brief moment of consideration before rolling.  In the case of D6 Star Wars, it’s an internal discussion of how high the base attribute is (on a scale of two to four, where does this guy rate?) and where his skill rating goes from there (on a scale of one to five, where is this guy’s level of training?).  If I’m running a White Wolf game instead, it’s the same sort of internal monologue, with only the numbers shifting a little bit.

Level based games, like the bulk of D20 products, don’t offer the same leeway.  There are a whole host of different calculations and factors to keep in mind, especially for D&D and Pathfinder.  First off, there’s ECL, which is factored against and encounter’s intended CR.  Then you have to build out the NPC’s, taking into account level adjustment from the monster type, especially if the monster has been advanced through class levels or monster levels.  Once this is taken care of, there needs to be skill and feat selection, hit point adjustment, factoring of magic items based on general CR, and so on.  Logically, a game with a heavy base of magic gets pretty arcane in its rules.  If you needed an NPC that had 12 Ranks in Diplomacy, you had to justify how he got those points.  If you needed a character in a game like D6 Star Wars that had an equivalent amount of skill, you just gave them that skill and moved on.

A lot of it comes down to the basic history of role-playing games.  D20 comes from AD&D, which in turn comes from the older Chainmail miniatures rules.  (And so on, back to H. G. Wells.)  D&D broke ground on the industry, giving us rules for the baseline of RPG’s, and we’ve grown accustomed to that level of rules arcana.  Since it is such a mainstay in the industry, everyone has played it here or there, and for a lot of the older players, it’s the standard.

That’s not to say that skills-based rules are anything new or surprising.  Off the top of my head, the first example of a skills-based RPG that went anywhere is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which debuted in 1981.  It used a lot of the same mechanics that D&D had codified (namely hit points, base attributes, and a scale of weapon damage), but all of the relevant mechanics centered on a percentile system for task resolution.  (And yeah, RuneQuest pre-dated C of C by three years, but I’d argue that it never managed to get much beyond niche status.  Love Glorantha as I do, it’s not a game that casual gamers are terribly familiar with.)

Chaosium gave us a template to work from.  The character generation rules were still pretty heavy, requiring you to factor your pool of skills from your Intelligence and Education.  From there, you’d apply them to basic assumptions of skill levels, with certain guidelines, etc.  Yeah, it was a huge step forward, but just like D&D, it thrived on its deep rules minutiae.  It wasn’t until the late 80’s or early 90’s that game systems started to simplify.

Oddly, the two games that carried the industry forward, Ars Magica and Star Wars, were published around the same year, 1987.  And oddly, they’re both games that refuse to die.  Star Wars has gone through three separate publishers, with West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, and now Fantasy Flight.  And Ars Magica started life out with Lion Rampant, which became White Wolf, got sold to Wizards of the Coast, and eventually ended up with Atlas Games (who had been instrumental in its early years).  The difference being that while Star Wars has gone through three (arguably four) different sets of rules over the years, Ars Magica is still largely the same.

Both of these games shifted the industry forward by working with a dice pool (it can be argued that Ghostbusters, published shortly before Star Wars and using very similar rules, was what did it, but given the almost footnote status of the game, it only really exists in very comprehensive collections these days) that was based on the individual character’s skill ratings.  In their own way, they set the stage for the way games would develop throughout the next ten years.  The Ars Magica system would become the Storyteller System, which formed the basis of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games.  It would later be modified for New World of Darkness, Exalted, Aeon/Trinity and Scion, all of which use very similar mechanics.

Star Wars, in the mean time, directly influenced such games ass WEG’s Torg/Masterbook system (which, despite being a far heavier maths-based system, still uses a similar scale of difficulty) and Pinnacle’s classic Deadlands system, which took the dice pool mechanic and broke it out of being a single type of dice.  It’s no coincidence that Shane Hensley, the designer of Deadlands, was a WEG alumnus.

These days, skill-based RPG’s are a lot more common than their level-based predecessors, even though 4e D&D and Pathfinder are still industry mainstays.  They’re a lot easier to use for the more casual gamer, they don’t require the same suspension of disbelief that level-based RPG’s necessitate (characters improve incrementally, rather than just suddenly learning something new), and they’re friendlier to GM’s who have to prep for their weekly sessions.  (Of course, with enough practice in a system, prep becomes second nature, even with extremely complex systems.)


Posted on March 22, 2014, in Systems Discussion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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