Friday, September 4, 2009

Skills vs. Classes

The first RPG I was exposed to that used a skill system was GURPS. We played quite a bit of it while I was in the military. Because of the circumstance of being stationed at a base with a bunch of other guys and a LOT of free time a lot of gaming gets done. This was during the long dark period of 2nd edition - which had caused me to virtually abandon D&D.

On the surface a generic RPG that does everything sounds like a great idea. Well, so does a spork, which is neither a good spoon or a good fork. I thought at the time that a skill based RPG was superior to a class based RPG, it modeled real life better after all, right? And it allowed more specific customization of your character so it must be better. The skill system in GURPS turns out to be quite granular, and it has a complicated web of if your proficient at this then you'll be kinda proficient at that.

If I have skills in battle axing then I should also be able to use a mace or swing a sword to some degree, right? So I have battle axe level 3, and mace and sword around level 2.

In a class based game I'm a level 3 warrior. I can use any melee weapon as a level 3 warrior.

On a d20 this means using a mace my skill based character misses 1 in 20 times more often. This is a negligable 5% difference that in practical gameplay has little meaning for considerably more complication.

The only benefit I see is for those who like the post and pre game noodling of their character. Fiddling with all the possible choices. But, if like me, the fun for you is in the actual playing of the game a class based system is arguably superior in addition to being less complicated.

I can see the fun in endless customization choices for your character. I enjoyed 3rd edition's various prestige classes and feats quite a bit, until after the 30th supplement when the combination of choices became astronomical, and stat blocks practically became one-pagers (the OSR crowd can describe an entire dungeon in that space!). And to some degree the balance of class and skill was ok, though the skills were unnecessarily numerous. Bluff, climb, listen, move silently, search and spot covered 90% of skill use (YMMV).

I've come full circle on the issue. With my first RPG experience playing D&D, then migrating to GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Champions, Deadlands, L5R, several "indy" games, and so on. I can say D&D was the most fun to be had in general. (the one exception is a Pendragon game I played once that was probably the best gaming session ever experienced)

Skills are not superior to classes. Where the rubber meets the road: actual gameplay. Classes do the job admirably well.


  1. But even in the class RPGs they usually have a number of proficiency slots. If you may be a 3rd level fight, but if you do not have proficiency in the weapon you are using then there is a penalty there also. In the systems I am familiar with there seems to be a very small gap in this area. I like both classes and skills, but prefer the skills slightly because it's more suited to the style I prefer. GURPS being my drug of choice.

    And Pendragon is great, but I've only read the books and never had a chance to play it. But if its half as good as the books it would be an absolute blast.

  2. This topic is a particularly close to my heart. I prefer classes over skills.

    In fact, I will let people play any class they want, as long as the class is fighter, magic-user or cleric. You wanna play a thief? Okay, you're a fighter who likes to steal things. You wanna play a paladin? Okay, you're a cleric who's on a holy crusade. You wanna play a necromancer? Okay, you're a magic user who gets all emo on people.

    I like having the players justify their "special class abilities" and role play those, rather than having skills that the players roll against. If a player tells me their character was a spy before he started adventuring, as long as his actions are related to that flavour, I let his actions succeed (or at least give him a good chance of succeeding).

  3. Understanding the controversy over the Thief is what finally made me understand the spirit of the OSR (old-school rennaisance) in general.

    The description of Fighting-Man in Swords and Wizardry: "Perhaps you are a ferocious Viking raider, a roaming Samurai, or a medieval Knight." says a lot about this style of play. Instead of making individual classes, or individual skills to create your particular fighter, it is generalized into one class - and YOU create the flavor depending on how you PLAY the character, not how the rules define him.

    For me Swords & Wizardry was the nail in the coffin for skill based systems. Yeah, I might play the occasional Call of Cthulhu one shot on Halloween or something, but I just can't go back to the needless over complication and headache an extenseive skills system creates.

  4. I don't have any particular hostility to skill systems, many of them are very good. But I prefer to use those systems as a resource, rather than as a mechanic. By that I mean its nice to have a comprehensive list of the types of skills and trades that a character could have access to, but use those lists as an opportunity to describe your background, rather than have specific die-roll thresholds to do those activities.

    I'm currently re-reading the Dragon Warriors RPG rules. They have seven classes, which seems excessive, and all characters have certain "skills" such as evasion and stealth. I like the flavour of the game, but I think it falls into the same skills trap as most RPG's have.

    Even Savage Worlds, which I purchased recently (as it was getting a lotta love in the blogosphere) seems to be heavy on the skills and abilities.

    I'm interested to hear if others find role-playing advantages in using a skill system.