Player characters didn’t used to have skills with which to tackle non-combat challenges, but they’ve been around now for quite some time. Skills were born back in the day of non-weapon proficiencies (NWPs). They made an appearance in AD&D and came into their own in 2e (which was my first exposure to role-playing games). This incarnation of D&D realized that players wanted their character to be able to do more than fight in combat. Non-weapon proficiencies hovered somewhere in-between what we know from 3e skills and feats. They were broken down by class, so that a class had its own specific list of NWPs that were thought to make sense for the role of that class. I’ll discuss the feat aspect of NWPs later, but for now let me focus on Skills.
One of the things that old-school gamers praise about AD&D was that the gaps in the game encouraged creativity. Andy put this well in his comment on The Optimization Problem:
This is what I always like about going back and playing the 1E D&D clones – you’re liberated from optimization. You are an Elf. Or you are a fighter. Your race/class don’t define you. There are a billion other fighters. Your actions in the game do. Encourages roleplaying as there aren’t already a billion things that distinguish your characters from others.
The designers of 2nd edition saw that players wanted more depth to their character than your race or class, so they designed some rules for NWPs. You could now have skill in gem-cutting or wine making. They formalized, with a list of NWPs, the occupations your character could be and gave each class its own list. NWPs began being published in varying sources, expansions, and splatbooks until they achieved a pretty healthy list, but a list that was scattered over the content of the game.
The designers of 3e saw that NWPs generally look like skills and they formalized them into a concrete list of skills that would both allow characters a way to interact with the world and allow GMs to design around a specific known quantity. In addition, skills would have varying degrees, so you didn’t just spend a NWP slot on a skill and master it. With a defined list of skills, game designers set universal difficulties. In some ways, it gave the players more agency, because players knew during character design what the universe of skills would be for the game, and how they interacted. You no longer relied on GM evaluation of a scenario, because the game rules provided specific check numbers that the players could mostly rely on. Because some character classes seem more inclined to use specific skills (the Thief using the Stealth skill), skills were once again doled out to the character classes.
The problem with the skill list, even though it gives players some agency and a way of differentiating their characters of the same class, is that in practice it tends to do the OPPOSITE of what it was intended. Think about the times you’ve played 3e or Pathfinder, and you’ve encountered a non-combat challenge. What’s the next step? It’s far too often looking at your skill list and then picking one you have ranks in. Players start using language like: “I use Diplomacy” or “Knowledge Arcana…??!” When this happens, the game design has broken the role-playing and replaced it with a dice mini-game. The skill list ends up LIMITING choices and dampening creativity. It’s falling back into the limitations of computer RPGs that require a very specific pick list of actions and available options.
So what can we do? We want to give players the flexibility of differentiating their characters, while at the same time creating a mechanic that allows for non-combat action resolution! Quinn and Ryven over at Thoughtcrime turned me on to a new game by Jonathan Tweet (lead designer on the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons) and Rob Heinsoo (lead designer for the Fourth Edition) called 13th Age. In 13th Age, players create their own character background, which replaces the skill list entirely. Instead of putting ranks into Bluff or Climb, you place ranks into a descriptive background.
For example, as a Thief, you normally have a bunch of interrelated thief skills to put ranks into in order to be able to do your normal thieving things. If, as a player, you forget one, you find yourself in some strange role-play scenarios where you’re simply unable to complete some tasks that thematic you should be able to accomplish With 13th Age, you instead put points into a background, and use the background when appropriate. For example, your background might be: “Cat Burglar ” Then, in game, any time you want to perform an action related to your background at a Cat Burglar, you actually role-play the action you want to perform and use your background training as the foundation of the roll. You might decide you want to forge an official notice, or sweet-talk the guard while your comrade sneaks past. You can stop worrying about classifying every action into the skill check it most closely resembles, and instead you act naturally in character and apply your background.
This solution accomplishes a few things. For one, backgrounds add depth to a character by describing where a character comes from. You can get creative with your backgrounds, and they can add a dimension of worldbuilding to the player’s toolbox. For example, instead of a Cat Burglar, maybe you were “Trained by the Grand Pasha of the Guild of Shadows.” With some collaboration between the player and the GM, you now have a significant organization and a significant character (maybe even a villain) in the game that may not have existed before. Creative backgrounds are a way for the player to signal to the GM some story elements that they find interesting and would like to see in the game.
Next, backgrounds free players from the standardized skill list that often seems to limit potential responses to a situation. We’re humans with the ability to adapt to a wide range of inputs, and we don’t really require a short pick list of solutions to a given problem. Let the players improvise, and let them take advantage of their character’s depth in order to do it!
Backgrounds also keep the game more “in-character” while not in combat because players are now role-playing in terms of actions instead of in terms of skills or skill-rolls. You can’t just “roll your background” because your background isn’t an action, and doesn’t imply a static pregenerated set of results. With backgrounds, players are now taking actions in-character that are based on what their character’s themes really are. It changes the language and focus of the game back to role-playing.
Another nice thing that backgrounds accomplish is that it gives you groups of skills that make logical sense together. With a set skill list, it’s hard to tell when a skill should end and be picked up by a different skill. For example, should Hide and Move Silently be two skills, or should they both be rolled up into Stealth? Should Slight of Hand and Forgery be two separate skills, or should they be rolled up into Thievery? All of that goes away, and actions that are thematic to your background are all on the table, and you don’t have to worry about which skill is involved.
This will take some getting used to be the players, and it is more difficult, at first, than selecting some skills from a list. I actually designed a similar set of rules for as an experiment a few years ago, and tested them with a couple of players in my game. The focus was slightly different. Instead of backgrounds, I was still focused on individual skills. Still, it was completely free-form and allowed the players to decide exactly what their characters could do and what they couldn’t, without limiting them to a list of a dozen to two dozen choices. I think they found it a little bit disorienting to have such a wide array of options.
The biggest drawback I can see to the system, other than the difficulty for new players to adjust to the limitless options is presents, is over interpretation between the player and the GM on whether the background truly is applicable. I think my compromise would be that if there is a disagreement between player and GM, the GM could instead grant a half-bonus for the background. Even so, this might not sit well with a player who owns the background and whose vision of their character, thematically, isn’t meshing with the way the system is working for them. On the other hand, it could prevent the gamest players from selecting intentionally very broad or vague backgrounds. Players should know that if they pick clear thematic backgrounds, they’ll get full use of those backgrounds within their scope, but if they pick very broad or vague backgrounds, their likely to only get a partial skill roll, but on a wider variety of things.
Despite the disadvantages above, I think for Lost Worlds, I’m going to go with a background system. I really like the opportunity for player input into the world-building process, and I like that it sets the character up to match exactly to the theme the player has in mind. It gets rid of the book keeping of skills, and drops the pick-list limitations of a discrete skill list. Design-wise, it’s in-line with my other choices so far for allowing maximum customization by falling back on the creativity and maturity of the players and the GM.