Short lists of character abilities

I never got the hang of the RPG Fate¹, mostly for reasons having to do with manipulating Aspects and Fate Points². But there were a couple of things about it that impressed me a lot. One was that it discarded the convention that characters have separate “attributes” and “skills”, which swept away the chore of assigning values to attributes that one doesn’t care about and the angst of fretting how deep you dare dump your dump stats. The other was the skill pyramid, where you assign values to abilities by slotting them in to places in a hierarchy rather than by shaving and spending points here and there to fit within a total.

What I think made the skill pyramid work was a short and carefully crafted list of character abilities. Spirit of the Century has 28 abilities on its skill list, all pretty much separate from each other, each corresponding well enough to a thing that a character in genre might be good at, each encompassing enough useful stuff to be worth considering for a slot at least halfway up the skill pyramid. I don’t think a pyramid-like system for assigning abilities would be so easy to use in the case of ForeSight³ or GURPS⁴. The array of skills would be large because the skills are numerous, and there would be bazillions of fussy choices to be made.

What good RPGs are there with reasonably short skill lists? Hollow Earth Expedition has about thirty skills and about thirty specialities tucked away in certain skills. James Bond 007 has five attributes and 27 skills, but it is highly specialised and tucks lot of abilities that don’t matter into Fields of Familiarity.

¹ The form in which I met Fate was Spirit of the Century, run by @thelibrarian. Spirit of the Century was the inaugural instance of Fate 3, and I suppose that it had innovation, features that were not present in its earlier versions. Even if I don’t make any errors, likely you will find that F.A.T.E., F.A.T.E. 2, and Fate Core differ from my description of “Fate”.

² But that’s another story.

³ ForeSight has nine attributes, 49 listed skills, and 77 listed fields of knowledge without starting on languages, sports, musical instruments, artistic and dance traditions, or the fantasy abilities in HingSight.

GURPS has 380-odd listed skills in its skill table, without counting techniques, manœuvres, or spells. Many of those are a consolidated listing for several related skills, such as the combat, sport, and art versions of most mêlée skill, the technically separate versions of many skills distinguished by tech level, specialities making up groups of related skills with a single listing, so that I once estimated that there are at least 2,200 skills in GURPS skill system, not counting techniques, manœuvres, spells, or generic listings such as sporting skill, games skill, or expert skill.

Savage Worlds feels like a decent start. Explorer’s Edition had 24 skills, the new Adventure Edition 32. (It’s the Edges which explode out of control there, and which seem to be rather more important in play.)

The new Doctor Who (DWAITAS) has 12, and that’s definitely too few; the Areas of Expertise (= specialisation, of which most skills have three or four) doesn’t cover the shortfall. Again, it has rather more Traits which are often more important.

I like the idea of a stat-less game, until it comes to ultimate fallbacks (i.e. can the character try a thing when they don’t have a skill, or the skills don’t cover it): there doesn’t seem to be much space between a normal person and a person who’s dedicated one of their few precious slots to being Very Strong. What if I’m just a bit strong? I’ve seen FATE games that turned into arguing what a particular aspect ought to cover, and that particular trope (of looking over your character sheet scrabbling for something that could give a bonus to what you’re trying to do and trying to justify it to the GM) is one that I don’t really get on with.

Well, in Spirit of the Century you could put the ability Might into a slot at any of five levels, besides leaving it at mediocre, and most of the things that in another game might default to Strength or have ST in their formula in SotC were included in Might. To get that sort of thing to work you have to make sure that your skills are well-chose to be distinct or clearly both include the overlap.

I hated the FATE skill pyramid with a passion.

  1. Partly because there were so few slots (15) that you had a good chance of not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Or at least not be competent at your job - like the cop game which needed every party member to have Law, Pistol, Brawl, Drive, Persuade, Streetwise, First Aid and a bunch of other “every cop has these” skills, which meant the characters were pretty identikit, and we had cops who could barely shoot or barely drive, because they wanted their high skills to be ‘cool stuff’.
  2. Partly because the bloody ‘stats being skills’ in that iteration, meant that you had to use several of your paltry 15 slots for the traditional Strength, Dex, Int, Will, etc or be condemned to World of Flail & Fail (because our GM was always demanding strength rolls, dex rolls, etc).
  3. Partly because you weren’t allowed to learn new skills or to get BETTER at anything. If I wanted my Piloting 1 to become Piloting 2, I had to demote Swimming 2 to Swimming 1.

I like the Firefly version of Cortex+ which has 19 skills which cover everything I want them to, and the stats are Physical, Mental and Social. Alternatively, the Cortex+ core rules offer the option of having 5 or 6 Roles instead of 19 skills. The roles are deliberately broad-based (e.g. Soldier covers anything from fighty stuff to setting up camp to knowing which bars the squaddies head for to buy illicit drugs).

For a campaign, I’d go for the 19 skill version. For con games, I use the 6 Roles version, because there is a bunch of other stuff in Cortex+ cluttering up the character sheets and needing explained (Core Values, Distinctions, Signature Assets).

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That’s why the skill list has to be short and the skills well-chosen, and why abilities that go together nave to be munged into the same skill. And, I suspect, why a bunch of abilities that are not important for distinguishing characters in play ought to be assumed away.

Right. I think the instance that I ran into (Spirit of the Century) might have been later, designed after the designers had addressed that problem, because there simply were no attributes. Might subsumed feats of strength as well as being a fighting skill all on its own. Dexterity/Agility was subsumed into Athletics, Intelligence into Academics or Science, Perception into Alertness, and so on. Though the abilities were called “Skills” there was none of this thing with your having to buy both the skill athletics and the athletic talent that is inextricable from it. You didn’t have to buy both braininess and knowledge.

Also SotC had a pyramid with 21 slots, though that did make one’s apex skill a bit extreme. I tried to run a Fate 3 campaign set on I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Barsoom, in which I did not want the PCs to be that extreme, so I houseruled a 1-3-5-7-9 pyramid.

You see. I liked that. I think that for many campaigns you ought to generate the character you want to play at the beginning, and that characters ought not to get steadily or significantly more capable.

Nope. It was in ‘no attribute’ Fate games (Diaspora was one), and that lack of attributes was exactly the problem.

The first Fate game with no attributes I played, I picked the skills which fitted my character concept, and didn’t take Athletics (Dex) or Might (Str). The game was Not Fun, because the GM assumed everyone had bought all the traditional Dex, Str and Int stats-as-skills and kept asking the whole party to make Athletics rolls, make Academics rolls etc. So we failed a lot. So we got tagged with negative aspects a lot. So we failed a lot more.

Second Fate game with no attributes I was wise to the above… but, as mentioned in another thread, this meant that 5 or 6 of my precious 15 slots were taken up by the ‘these are not stats, honest’.

Plus the probabilities in Fate, mean that there is a approximate 38% chance that the dice will knock numbers off your skill, so even if I used all my Skill 1 slots for the ‘these are not stats’, I’ll still fail a lot: 38% of the time, as compared to 61% of the time for Skill 0.

Well, that sounds miserable. Did the GM ever adjust his or her ways, or wasn’t that possible?

No, not really. Though I’ve talked to him recently and he’s decided that Fate is not the system for him, so maybe that counts as mending his ways.

It was a double whammy of misery, because the other bad habit of this GM is setting the difficulties too high. So in Fate he wants you to get 2 or 3 successes to achieve something, and in Doctor Who he wants the target number to be 17 (when TN 12 is a 50% chance of success), and in Reign he asked “Why does no-one ever take such-and-such an ability?” (Answer: because the text says it makes you better at a skill, but the maths says it makes you worse).

There are lies, damned lies, and GMs who don’t understand statistics! :roll_eyes:

I have to admit that I never got Fate working to anyone’s satisfaction either, so perhaps my enthusiasm is misplaced.

I recommend the episode of The Grognard Files where they talk about and play FATE. I still don’t want to run it, but at least I have a better idea of why.

I’m trying to think of a literary model for this. Long-running iconic characters may acquire a portfolio of positive traits, but I don’t think they ever explicitly lose them; it’s more that (especially when there are multiple authors) they forget that they have them when it would be inconvenient to the story.

It seems to me that in at least some cases, this is presented not as “I gained this new ability” but as “Oh, I just never happened to mention that I could do this.” See for example Lord Peter Wimsey in Murder Must Advertise: He has to learn to write advertising copy (though of course he’s brilliant at it!), but he just happens to have been a cricket player so gifted that a fan can identify him from his style on the field, and to know how to use a “catapult” (I assume that’s British English for “slingshot”), neither of which was mentioned before. Or Ororo Munroe (Storm), who first appeared in the drier parts of Africa, being revealed to have lived as an orphan on the streets of Cairo, where she supported herself as a sneak thief and pickpocket, and incidentally learned to use lockpicks so well she can pick a lock using only her teeth for manipulation. It isn’t as of Xavier’s had a course in lockpicking that she could sign up for. . . .

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The literary model is the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child. Reacher is fearsomely tough, fearsomely competent and fearsomely smart all the way thru the series. He is a mediocre driver and mediocre pistol shot all the way through the series.

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Setting aside effects of aging, such as long-runner Indiana Jones missing a swing on his whip because he has got too old for such acrobatics, iconic characters seldom lose abilities. On the other hand they seldom gain them either. There is very little to point at in source material from any other medium (except D&D spin-off stories, perhaps) of an iconic character undergoing continual substantial increases of capability as conventional RPG characters do. Luke Skywalker is not iconic, and Star Wars and its sequels aren’t procedural or episodic.

There were training montages in martial arts and dance movies up until the late Eighties, but I can only think of one example of an iconic character whose schtick was to go through a training montage and learn or develop a new martial art in each episode of a series. And frankly, Jet Li looked silly dressed as a rooster.

The Dresden Files RPG and subsequent editions of Fate (including Fate Core but not Fate Accelerated) introduced an improvement system - basically you have to keep your skill pyramid, but rather than it having to get smaller as you go up, it can’t be bigger. So 5-5-3-2-1 is okay, but 4-5-3-2-1 isn’t. You have to go from 6 (or more)-4-3-2-1 to 5 (or more)-5-4-3-2-1

Interestingly (and somewhat puzzlingly to me), I know one gamer whose main problem with Fate (and it’s a HUGE one for him; basically, he’ll never play Fate again because of it) is that he has to have some skills at less than maximum. He feels unjustly constrained by not being theoretically able to max out half the skill list, even though it’s extremely unlikely that any character would ever get enough experience to do so if it were allowed.

I am reminded of an anecdote that Lawrence Olivier told¹ about designing his makeup for a famous production² of Richard III. The designer built up Olivier’s forehead, cheeks, nose, chin, and jaw with whatever it was they used for that sort of thing before latex. Olivier took one look in the mirror and said "It’s just me, except half an inch closer to the audience"³. So he discarded it all except for the nose, and thus created a striking and memorable look.

Similarly, an RPG character with one outstanding ability supported by a broad peak of ancillary capability and a broad plateau of competence has definition and distinctiveness, which every one of a party of characters who are indistinguishably good at everything lack. A few years ago I ran a short-lived GURPS play-by-forum-message campaign in which I set no limit on the points that might be spent. The players, being unfamiliar with the use of character representation rules as a description language, came back with 600 to 600 points worth of everything on the list — and I soon made them⁵ much happier by slicing off about 250 points of crud from each,

There is a dirty little secret in RPG: having a more powerful character is not more fun.

¹ In an interview, that is. Not to me personally.

² I think it was for the 1945 season at the Old Vic, but I no longer remember clearly.

³ I think this is a lesson that ought to have been learned by whomever designed John Rhys-Davies makeup for The Lord of the Rings. There is no reason that I can see why Gimli should not look a lot like John Rhys-Davies, and if he hadn’t worn a thick latex mask we would have been able to see him act⁴.

⁴ On the subject of the 2002 and 2004 Academy Awards® for makeup, neither is there any reason for elves and hobbits to have pointy ears, nor for hobbits to have large feet. (Hairy, yes. Large, no.) The Brother Hildebrandt were hacks.

⁵ Well, all except for one.

⁶ Oops! A footnote!

When I ran FUDGE, I divided skills into three classes. Easy skills defaulted to an attribute; what you were buying was being BETTER than the attribute. Most skills defaulted to attribute-2, so if you had a Fair attribute, you had a Poor skill. (On the other hand, if you had an Extraordinary attribute, like Clark Savage Jr. or Bruce Wayne, you defaulted to Great.) Hard skills defaulted to a flat Nonexistent; that is, you could only attempt them if you bought the skill itself. That seemed to work fairly well.

Basically the same thing, yes: a forked stick and a piece of elastic. I agree that such characters accrete abilities by “remembering” them; what doesn’t happen is their losing abilities. Sometimes a writer will forget that back in book X, the hero said they’d been an ace pilot in the War, and so write them as being unable to work out how to fly an aeroplane, but that is generally regarded as an error rather than as part of the literary style.

That’s because in literature (excluding coming of age stories and the boot camp chapters in military SF), the author constructs the character to be good at everything the plot will require them to be good at. The author has plans for a mixed martial arts championship bout, a cricket match and house training a puppy. The character therefore is good at martial arts, cricket and animal training.

The trouble with games is that the author is the GM, and someone else entirely designs the characters. If the GM mentioned cricket and puppies, but forgot to mention martial arts, that championship bout isn’t going to play out anything like it would in a novel or a screenplay.

Character improvement is for:

  • Obtaining the skills the GM forgot to tell you were vital for this campaign plot theme (you didn’t take cricket)
  • Obtaining the skills the GM forgot to tell you were vital for their playstyle (you took animal training, but instead he’s using Empathy to train puppies because these are Faerie Dogs).
  • Boosting the skills the GM told you about, but didn’t emphasis enough (you took cricket but didn’t put many points in it, so are very bad at it)
  • Obtaining the skills the chargen system short-changed you on (you could only afford two out of three of cricket, martial arts and animal training)
  • Boosting the skills the chargen system short-changed you on (you took cricket but couldn’t put many points in it, so are very bad at it)

Character improvement is for bridging the gap between the way the character is in your head and the way the actual character is on paper and game mechanics.

All of which except #4 and perhaps #5 are in theory doable with a “promote one, demote one” system too – depending on what other skills also turn out to be vital to have at high levels.

(My answer to these problems is usually to be very generous about character rebuilding and replacement during the first few sessions – OK, this adventure was the pilot episode, but the actor didn’t work out so the series regular will be this different person instead.)

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