I haven’t really done an informal post in a while. The last one was quite a few years ago. Anyway, I’m feeling kind of tired with how character skill is handled and the builds around it. I won’t deny that I have fallen back in love with a more classical approach. I like to egg players on for details with their actions, even awarding silent boons for their descriptions and general ideas. Hell, sometimes I’ll outright ignore a roll. While I haven’t gone all out yet, I feel like I’ll get there soon enough. So, rather than a super codified skill system, I have thought of a few ideas beyond that. It’s nothing really groundbreaking. Hell, the DMG has made all sorts of alternatives already, but I think they’re good for something.
My first idea is doing away the list outright and pondering what sorts of skills, abilities, trades and more the character might be good at; creating a sizable list. From there, narrowing it down to a certain number of specialties that they’re proficient in. These are the personal skills that matter and help define who they are. We still have rolling dice a blazing, but now skills are far less cookie cutter are more personal. Plus, this feels like a solid homage to the Non-Combat Proficiency optional rule from later 1st Edition/2nd Edition. Of course, the list of proficiencies that an Outlander Barbarian would have is probably going to be far different from a Sage Wizard. Plus, keeping with “modern design”, this adds an extra layer of agency for the player.
Instead of some ho-hum preset template, they can further explore what abilities make their character unique and where their own expertise lies. For example, I have a tiefling warrior/rogue that was ported from an old Planescape game. He’s normally not very bright, however he knows many ins and outs on Planar Lore, looking for Portals and other forms of unique and obscure knowledge. As such, he adds proficiency when on the hunt for that knowledge. And that’s quite different from some mage simply looking for new types of spells or lore about monsters. Similar, but still different. Likewise, you could expect a necromancy to study up on the sciences of life, in addition to the dark and foreboding occult in some way. How many Proficiencies they’d get versus the Traditional skills? I can’t really say, I haven’t tested the idea too heavily yet. but I’d imagine a fair few more to compensate for the narrow focus. You normally get 4 – 5 as a level 1 character. So, maybe create about 7 – 8? Plus, one specific thing would probably be a bit easier to teach instead of a massive broad category. It would be safe to say that less downtime would be needed to teach such an ability.
Beyond that, I’ve really wanted to push the narrative in tandem with the game too. Player action should matter more than a few words on paper. After all, there’s much more to a character than a few fiddly number bits. Hell, proficiency in 5E seems to matter more than base stats nowadays. And, should that truly be the case, that’s a good thing by me. But yeah, skills should be no exception to this. Lately, I’ve been pondering ways of engaging the player directly to play out their actions and inform me how someone can use their skills to creatively evade an obstacle. After all, that’s in the spirit of the game to reward creative solutions. If players can circumvent a problem with clever proposals, why penalize them? There’s no shame for even newer school styles of play to ignore the dice should it make sense to do so. For example, a daring swashbuckler with a high dexterity and training in certain feats of swift footwork and dashing panache wants to cut the rope from a sail, swing over to the wheel and engage the captain in a fight. Should they prove physically capable and describe their idea is a plausible way, I have little reason to deny them. Now, should things get wonky or they not prove to be up to par, then I might roll to see what happens on my end. But, overall, competent heroes should succeed at something that fits their own abilities, in my opinion.
This brings me to my last musing, which isn’t exactly related to subverting skills. Something I have noticed in a lot of games, including D&D, is that failure isn’t interesting. Sometimes, we mess things up. Usually, it’s just frustration or something mundane. Even though heroes should usually succeed at a task, there is a chance for things to go wrong… especially when there’s a risk attached. However, most RPGs are a fair bit larger than life. So, to which I say, “make failure interesting… dare I say, cinematic!” Perhaps a critical failure on a sword swipe get dodged by the foe as the warrior’s stance is also ruined, allowing the enemy a prime opportunity to strike back. Perhaps a thief’s sneak attempt is interrupted by failing to study the environment (the classic twig snap) or just bad timing (failing to hide before someone notices). Simply “I drop my sword” or “durr, I dunno” isn’t very engaging. Challenge yourself and the players beyond that, make failure fun. Take Dragon’s Lair. If it wasn’t for the hilarious and amusing game over clips, the game would be very frustrating. Watching poor Dirk the Daring get torn asunder time and again is hilarious. Not only do you learn from failure, the failure is interesting in its own way.
So, tying into skills, player input or the like; this can be fun to play with. In the case of knowledge, failure or a player’s lack of resources could still lead to amusing conclusions. These could manifest as the character misreading a passage of lore or overhearing an in-world conspiracy theory. And should the character be confident, they may consider that bit of “fake lore” to be true, until proven otherwise. Likewise, a climbing character wouldn’t simply let go of a ledge, unless something really bad happened to their muscles all of a sudden or the ledge itself gave out. Though, if you’re going for a more narrative approach, perhaps rolling for the environment itself (should it prove hazardous) could be a fun approach for newer school games.
I guess the point I want to make is that there are different ways to play and shake up your game, including D&D 5th Edition. This is especially the case if you’re tired of the status quo created by keeping things closer to the rules-as-written. Plus, there’s no shame in taking from different games as well. I’ve sampled ideas from Dungeon World, Savage Worlds, World of Darkness, DCC, Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Deadlands Classic and more. Hopefully, I inspired some ideas for you, dear reader. Anyway, there are more mechanical creations on the way. Who knows? Should these musings prove popular, I might make more of them too!