How Many Skills is Too Many?

I think this may be one of the reasons why I still like GURPS in spite of its many faults (and I still think Knot-Tying skill should be killed with fire).

I gave trollwives a Book all of whose rituals had knot-tying as a prerequisite . . .

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I was about to say, Knot-Tying sounds like an excellent basis for a folksy kind of magic. The Scouting Badge for Magery perhaps.


@TomNowell: I’ve not yet got to play Mongoose Traveller, but reading through it it feels a lot like someone’s house rules for a classic-little-black-book game, fed through a ferocious editor who got it into good order – in other words it has a lot of the feel of the original, but with more available detail and some of the jagged edges smoothed down a bit. I’d like to try it even though GURPS is a good substrate for classic Traveller sorts of game.

@Shimmin: what I dislike about it is the moment of you don’t have that skill. I think that many people assume a basic competence in tying things to other things, especially if one is skilled at something like Climbing or Seamanship or Bow or (personal experience) Explosives (Fireworks) or Garrote or Lasso or Packing or Teamster or Traps… but GURPS only gives you a default from two of those, and it’s not a generous one. So unless you the player have learned the system well enough to know that that skill ought to be on your character sheet, you may simply overlook it when you’re building your character, and find yourself way less competent at a fairly key thing than you thought you were. And even if you don’t overlook it, it’s another thing to track on a character sheet that can already be getting quite long.

This can be fixed somewhat in GURPS by:

  • generating characters in collaboration with an experienced player
  • templates that include all the skills you need

And more generally by having broader skills. “Can I tie the knot?” “Yeah, you’ve been loading bales onto donkeys for the last year, you have some idea of what’ll hold and what won’t.” In GURPS that’s an on-the-spot rule, and it would be fair to argue (as Dave Morris does) that if you’re going to have an on-the-spot rule anyway why bother to have the skill. In some games that might be a think you realise you can do with your “works in the merchant caravan” trait. (I think most TV series with continuing characters do something like this: X was a soldier before they were a cop, therefore X can do soldier-related things, they don’t have to be listed individually.)

GURPS has separate Stealth (not be noticed in general) and Shadowing (follow someone in a crowd while not being noticed) – the latter has separate failure outcomes which lead to “you lost them” and “you got spotted” depending on how badly you fail. Is this really necessary? Why can’t I just roll Vision to keep track of the subject and Stealth to not be noticed, maybe even trading off one against the other to slant how the failure may work out? Especially since in a wilderness environment that’s exactly what I do do, per the rules, with Tracking and Stealth!

GURPS has Forced Entry skill, for kicking in doors and windows or breaking them with tools. It has no default: if you don’t have it you’re meant to use your combat skills.

My style is what I might call “relaxed GURPS”, where the system is there to make things happen consistently and it’s available when things get complicated, but a typical session goes talk talk talk talk talk (roll Vision) talk talk talk (roll Climbing) talk talk.


I used to have an early issue of Different Worlds (error: it was Fantasy Gamer) magazine that included a “Gamer’s Guide to Victorian London”, which in turn included BRP-style stats for several notable figure from the history and literature. The stats for Dr John Watson included a dissimulation skill of 17%, reflecting a disparaging comment that Holmes made in The Case of the Dying Detective. A problem arose, though, that no other character had the skill “dissimulation” at all, making Watson not the worst dissimulator but the best.

The problem with stupid useless fiddly little skills like Knot Tying is that they result either in the GM having to grind out templates or a redacted skill list along with doing all the other tedious and painstaking preparation for a campaign, or they make character generation slow and fiddly and produce huge fussy character sheets filled with junk, or they end up implying that most characters are very bad at things that most people can do okay.


Ah yes, I can absolutely see that. Being able to tie knots should definitely default from an awful lot of things. Perhaps it’s a difficulty of there being a very broad basic skill with a long tail of highly specialist knots?

(it’s possible that, to a certain extent, I just like the idea of Knot-Tying being a skill)

Edit: Just occurred to me that Knot-Tying could be modelled in several other ways.

Knot Enthusiast: You gain a +1 bonus on skill rolls to fasten knots per level in this perk.
Knot Specialist: An optional specialization of virtually any skill where this comes in handy. Might work well for a background in the scouts, or similar training that doesn’t necessarily cover the core skill in depth.
Tie Knots: An Average technique for, again, practically anything. Defaults to base skill.

I quite like the hierarchy you get in early Paranoia, so where e.g. having Laser Rifle 5 also gives you Lasers (3), Aimed Weapons (2), “Basics” (1). But like the futile early 17th century attempts to build a taxonomy of everything, if you go beyond the basics you quickly find that thing A needs to default from both B and C, and so on…

(Another pathological case: the “high IQ guns bonus” of GURPS 3e. For this skill, and only this skill, you get a benefit both from high DX and from high IQ…)

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The last thing we need is GURPS Ashley’s Book of Knots, listing 3,854 different techniques each with the appropriate defaults from every appropriate skill from Doctoring to Dandyism.

The International Guild of Knot Tyers publishes a quarterly journal —Knotting Matters—, and has moved to make 18 December international knot-tying day. Did you know that the world record for the standard six-knot challenge is 8.1 seconds? That doesn’t mean that I want to have to cut rules for knot-tying out of mu go-to RPG each time I start a new campaign.


A thing I find myself saying quite often: “this is below the resolution of GURPS”. Some of actual GURPS is below the resolution I want to use when I’m playing GURPS (and I won’t name names because if one of my unfavourite bits works for you and your group that’s great).

Going from “the best available equipment at your tech level” from TL6 (1880 onwards) to TL8 (1980 onwards) takes you from a +3 bonus to +4. That’s all.

What I would ideally like a system to do is be quick to play without hundreds of skills, but at the same time allow me to answer the question “does this PC recognise this weird knot”. (And I’m sure you can tell me that FATE does that. I do want more complexity than that.)

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I think that GURPS would have benefitted enormously if the editors had said that a lot more often.


Well, actually, there’s a third way to fix this: When characters are generated, the GM gives you set aside points (I’ve found 5 a good number) to represent skills that your character ought to have but that neither of you thought of.

If you don’t have Forced Entry, the analogy with Brawling suggests that you can just roll vs. Brawling, or even DX, to kick the door. You don’t get the damage bonus, but you certainly can hit the door. And it isn’t as if the door got a defense roll . . .

That’s a bit ambitious. Let’s say “with only a few hundred skills”.

I saw a documentary on TV one time about the body of a human-sacrifice victim that had been recovered from a peat bog. The archaeologists got in an expert on knots to work out the special ritual knot tied in the cord or thong with which this bloke had been strangled. It was a clove hitch.

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Fair, and indeed I tend to do something quite like that. Doesn’t really solve the core problem that it’s a bit of fiddliness that’s useful only very occasionally but, if you’re running by the rules, has to be thought about every time the subject comes up.

Sure, thus “use your combat skills” as I said. So why do we have a special skill that’s only for people who can kick doors but not punch people? How many people like that are there going to be in games, that this justifies a first-class entry in the skill list?

This moves into editorial objectives, really. I can see that one of the ones for GURPS 4e was “include in the Basic Set all the skills that will ever be used, or at least stubs for them, so that we don’t get into the situation we had in 3e where skills appear in obscure supplements and then we have to have a Compendium to list them all”. Fair enough. But it means that generating an effective GURPS character is a skill that players need to learn, just as winnowing down the skill list to what’s actually going to be important is a skill GMs need, in both cases before they get to play… and I don’t like that.

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How Many Skills is Too Many?

It depends. What are the primary actions of actions of the PCs and what level of distinction do you need between them?

The number and specificity of skills in a game focused on Naval Warfare is different than one focused on High Romance, or on Court Intrigue. If you want a game include all 3, then the the skills will be less specific to any of those areas.

I like using sports analogies. Let’s use volleyball. Is the ability to play volleyball 1 skill? Is it just a sub-skill of a more general athletics skill? Is it multiple skills (bump, set, spike, block, serve…)? The answer depends on what the game is about. If the game is about hot shot naval pilots and volleyball only comes up it one scene, then just use athletics. if the game is about hot shot volleyball team and their adventures, romances, and personal trials as they navigate a season, then maybe you have many skills.

Personally, I prefer shorter lists of more general skills. Something like Savage Worlds, which has only a single Fighting skill rather than a different skill for different weapons and different fighting styles. It is not realistic, but it gets the job done, and two PCs each with a d8 in Fighting can differentiate their fighting styles by which Edges they take.

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I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I would guess that to make its user base tend to expand, an RPG needs to start giving character-players an an enjoyable experience within an hour, and GMs an enjoyable and rewarding experience of play within about eight hours of study and preparation, by actually following the procedures that are written in the basic or introductory books.

GURPS struggles to give players a positive initial impression unless they have someone to teach them the rules that the designers actually use rather than the ones they write.


I’d say that it is realistic, just not detailed.

In Real Life ™ I have neither Forced Entry or Brawling. But I’m pretty sure I could break into my neighbour’s house by lobbing his plant pots through the patio doors. So is that a default from Gardening? :slight_smile:

Skills which are too granular annoy me. But systems where some skill types are granular and others are not should be killed with fire. To be an engineer in Babylon Project (Babylon 5) you had to buy a squillion variants on the engineer skill and ended up unable to walk and chew gum at the same time because you had no points left.

And systems which don’t give you enough points to create your “job role” and buy the “standard” PC skills of sneak, detect lie, fisticuffs and operate genre/setting appropriate mode of transport also suck.

If the PCs are X who do Y, then there should be a free skill package of things related to Y.


When @JGD was doing “skill of the week” on the SJGames forums I found myself saying “colour skill” quite a lot – as in, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone would have to roll this in a game, but it’s a skill that a PC might well have because that’s a thing they do when they aren’t being an adventurer. As @DrBob says, it’s very annoying if buying those skills that suit your character (i.e. being a good role-player) costs you the points that you could have put into game-useful skills.

(Obviously one campaign’s colour skill can be another campaign’s important one…)

Cyberpunk 2020 had cost multipliers for hard skills. The only skills that it classed as hard were martial arts, piloting, and tech skills – each of which had multiple specialisations already. Being the PC competent with all guns, or the one versed in all forms of influencing people, was much cheaper.

Fantasy Gamer issue 2, Oct/Nov 1983, William A. Barton.

I think it’s a great shame that these old gaming magazines are now effectively locked up and unavailable unless you happen to have held on to old copies or you’re prepared to break the law; there’s some very good stuff in them.

My apologies. My memory isn’t up to much any more.