Once upon a time, way back in what some people refer to as the ‘good old days’ or what some now call ‘old school’, you didn’t worry about your skills in Dungeons and Dragons. If you were a fighter it was assumed that you probably knew how to ride a horse, make camp, repair your weapons and armor. If you were a mage, you were probably literate, knew some history. If the DM wanted you to test to see if you could apply those skills you just rolled against the applicable attribute. Life was simple.
Skills did matter in other games, just not D&D. I got into GURPS early on, and skills are pretty much the measurement of what you can do in GURPS. As you adventure you improve your skills, there are no levels or experience points. Other systems were similarly skill based, Shadowrun, even the World of Darkness games.
So you had the skill based games, where character improvement meant improving certain skills, and only occasionally improving your key attributes. And you had your level based games where what you could and could not do was solely based on your level, the higher the level the easier things became. Your class level was your skill level.
But somewhere in the last decade or so people decided to mix the 2 concepts. Well not that the skill based games suddenly gained classes and levels. But that people decided that their D&D characters should have skills too. This actually began with Second edition with the class books, when proficiencies began to become a big thing. I don’t know when the skills really intruded into D&D. I just know that when I returned to the games that all of a sudden everyone had skills.
Having been immersed in skill based systems for the majority of role playing time since Second edition I welcomed this. It was comfortable. It helped me round out my character, gave him shape. My ranger was also an alchemist who dabbled in making potions and poisons.
And when I began really running a more involved game for the boys I began focusing a little more on their skills/proficiencies (the two are really interchangeable in my view, it’s just a matter of semantics between the D&D and Pathfinder systems.) Did someone have this skill? If not then things could get harder.
I then read an interesting post this week, about the concept of Challenge Rating and how it influences everyone. Within the comments section, someone pointed out how an experienced group of players can optimize their first level characters to be really tough. What is one of the ways they can do this? By making the right skill choices, picking skills that could greatly increase the utility and effectiveness of their characters.
Since I spent so much time focused on games where what a character could do was based on their skills I created a character in my Pathfinder game who has lots of skills. I think it is cool. The thing is that the other players created more ‘traditional’ characters, who do not have well-rounded skill sets. And because the GM is definitely old school in his approach I think he tends to forget skill challenges. Which is a little frustrating for me.
I think that the addition of skills to the system really enhances the game. And not using them, allowing the players to attempt to do cool things, or just do cool things because they have the skills, is like serving a meal without any spices. Yeah the nutrition is still there, and you can eat your fill, but it is not nearly as enjoyable. This is still a character class level based game so skills should not dominate what the characters can do, but they can really enhance the flavor and make it a more exciting experience.
The session we played this last weekend allowed us to really use the skills we had. There were perception rolls, survival and tracking rolls, stealth rolls, knowledge rolls. And giving the players the chance to do that really made a difference to the experience in my opinion. It made for the much better game that I expected and anticipated when I wrote this last week. Making me happy for having played in such a good game, and also giving me a sense of validation.