Chad Perrin: SOB

7 October 2009

There aren’t enough skill points.

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , — apotheon @ 01:31

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

NOTE: I have not edited the text of this entry to reflect the addition
of the APG to the lineup of PRPG base class options.  I have, however,
added them to the lists of skill point progressions per class as shown
for each of the alternate skill progression systems below.

I like the skills in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG. They help flesh out a character, granting more life to the concept and more closely tying the character sheet to the character’s background. I don’t think the skill system is perfect, though, by any means.

Leaving aside for the moment the problems of attributes assigned to specific skills and the selection of available skills, the big problem from D&D 3.5 that PRPG solved was the way skill points were handled as a generic game mechanic. There was simply too much arithmetic involved in spending skill points — starting with the 6×4 (for example) at first level and continuing with the broken-ass way class skill and cross-class skill maximums are figured over the course of a character’s advancement to 20th level. The math wasn’t difficult in D&D 3.5, of course, but it was certainly annoying and inelegant.

One other major pain in my tuckus from D&D 3.5 survived the translation to PRPG, though: there simply aren’t enough skill points for many characters. The worst, and most unforgivable, case is that of classes that only get two points per level. Rogues get a veritable plague of skill points by comparison, and the Rangers are doing pretty well for themselves, with plenty of potential for fleshing out the non-combat interests and experiences of the character in terms of the what the character has learned to do.

Fighters and Paladins, meanwhile, definitely get the short end of the stick. Not only do they suffer the indignity of being forced into a much more narrow focus than Rogues or even Rangers, with only two points per level as a base, but they also require attention to more attributes other than Intelligence to ensure effectiveness at the specialties of the class. Intelligence often ends up being the dump stat, which also affects skill points per level. Paladins, especially, tend to end up being rock-stupid, because in addition to needing all three physical stats to be higher than average to excel, but they also need Wisdom and Charisma. Intelligence is the red-headed stepchild of the Paladin class. At least Fighters get to choose Wisdom or Charisma as the primary dump stat instead, if they prefer.

I’ve kicked around a number of ideas in my head for a while. One very minor fix I’ve employed was to create a replacement for the Wizard class, in the form of the Mage class (I’m currently procrastinating on finishing the process of updating it for PRPG). This class helps deal with the problem of Wizards, who are supposed to be learned scholars, having only two points per level as their base skill progression. Only the aid of high Intelligence as the primary attribute for the class has mitigated this problem in D&D 3.5, and I tend to feel they should have a lot more skill points than that if they want to start gobbling up Knowledge skills (for instance); otherwise, they’re nearly as narrow as Fighters. To grant them more skills without eclipsing the skill-monkey specialty of Rogues, I gave Mages lots of skill points, but also required them to use some of their skill points to buy spells they know.

This doesn’t solve the problem of the rest of the 2-point classes having very dull and boring personal lives as reflected in their skills, though. I’ve considered a few options for a while now to mitigate or eliminate the problem, involving just giving some classes more skill points. I’ve been hesitant to actually use any of those options, unfortunately, because I don’t want to overload the game with skills or cut into the benefits some classes gain by being more skill-oriented than others.

I’ve finally pretty much reached the breaking point, in terms of my tolerance for skill point distribution. Something needs to be done in my games. I just need to decide which solution to use as a house rule. The examples I have in mind follow, each of them raising the minimum possible base skill advancement no lower than four.

Minimum 4

The simplest fix would be to take the Minimum 4 approach. All M4 does is give any class with fewer base skill points per level than four enough additional skill points to bring them up to a base of four skill points per level. The new skill progression landscape for core classes in the PRPG CRB looks like this:

Alchemist   4
Barbarian   4
Bard        6
Cavalier    4
Cleric      4
Druid       4
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        4
Oracle      4
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

Perhaps surprisingly, I rather like the way the vast majority of classes end up with the same number of skill points, with only definite outliers ending up varying from the baseline of four points per level. It assumes a default capacity for learning new skills as embodied in the skill selection for people in general, with exceptions made for those who have chosen life pursuits that require a great deal of flexibility.

Plus 2

Another simple fix is the Plus 2 approach. With P2, just add two skill points per level to the base skill advancement for each of the core classes:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      4
Druid       6
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     4
Ranger      8
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

My primary concern here is that Barbarians, Druids, Rangers, and Rogues may be getting a bit more out of this modification of the canonical system than is appropriate, though in PRPG at least the elimination of the multiplier for first level skill points does help keep things under control a bit.

5 Plus

Another relatively simple modification of the system, in case four points isn’t enough for the lowest point totals, is the 5 Plus system. With 5P, just take the various categories of skill emphasis for different classes — 2, 4, 6, and 8 — and assign them new numbers only one point apart, starting at five:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        7
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  7
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      7
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

This has the advantages of keeping the upper bound the same (eight for a Rogue), unlike P2, while keeping the classes categorized the same so that the classes canonically stuck with a pathetic two per level don’t just get shoved up into the same category as the classes that normally get four per level. The downside, of course, is that the difference between categories has been cut in half, yielding only a one-point difference between adjacent categories, which might kind of eat into the specialness of the more-skilled classes such as Bard and Rogue.

4 Plus

The 4 Plus option is achieved by raising the minimum from two to four, then increasing each category’s base skill point advancement by as little as possible to keep it from being overtaken by the previous category. Thus, any two becomes a four, and any four becomes a five to avoid getting overtaken by the twos that climbed to become fours:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        6
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

As long as you think four is high enough a minimum, I think 4P gives everyone enough skill points without running the risk of giving the more skilled classes too many points, all without cutting into the skill-monkey niche of the Rogue class. It does not, however, deal well with the notion that Bards and Rangers might be dependent on notably higher skill point totals than the less-skilled classes.

Constrained Acceleration

The Constrained Acceleration option gives the top half of the four categories double the “velocity” change in their improvement over previous categories. Thus, with CA, the lower two only differ from each other by one point, but the upper two categories each differ from previous categories by two points:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        7
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  7
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      7
Rogue       9
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

Unconstrained Acceleration

Unconstrained Acceleration is the same as Constrained Acceleration, except that it accelerates by one point for each higher category, rather than only accelerating once beyond the second category. This results in the second category being one higher than the first, the third being two higher than the second, and the fourth being three higher than the third:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        7
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  7
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      7
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

UA is clearly not for those who think that increasing the number of skill points available to a Rogue is playing with fire. Not only do Rogues get two more points per level in UA, but they also get three more per level than Bards and Rangers. Otherwise, its benefits and detriments are the same as those of Constrained Acceleration.

Constrained Plus

The Constrained Plus system is identical to CA, except that it starts at five instead of four:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      8
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

For those who like the way CA works, but believe a minimum of five is more appropriate than a minimum of four, and aren’t worried about Rogues getting into double-digit range, CP might be a suitable choice. Many, I’m sure, would balk at giving any of the core classes double digit base skill advancement, however.

Unconstrained Plus

As UA is to CA, so Unconstrained Plus is to CP. The only difference from CP is that in UP the Rogue is not limited to a two point improvement over the next lowest category:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      8
Rogue       11
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

If the Rogue’s base skill progression having two digits in previous systems made you uneasy, UP should give you a definite case of the willies and an outbreak of goose bumps, at the very least.

4 Refactored

The 4 Refactored system starts with a minimum of four, and changes the way the various classes fit into differing categories. After all, the fact that some classes get extra skill points need not mean that all of them do. Perhaps some classes are exactly where they should be, while others need more skill points to escape the arbitrary limits placed on them in the PHB and CRB:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   4
Bard        6
Cavalier    5
Cleric      5
Druid       4
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        4
Oracle      4
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

4R brings the minimums up to four, but it also keeps the maximums down to 8. Clerics and Wizards, as classes likely to benefit from some amount of scholarly background, get more of a boost than other classes with a canonical two point base skill progression rate. Of course, you may choose to do things differently; this is just a suggestion. As long as I’m not using a systematic modification to the already extant system, it would be difficult for me to claim you shouldn’t make any changes you like, but if you like my version that should make things pretty easy for you.

5 Homogenized

I suppose I could be a dick about it, and just say everyone gets five skill points as base skill progression. In some respects, this seems to have the greatest sense of verisimilitude of all the options I’ve considered, but I’m distinctly hesitant to even seriously consider this option without changing a lot of the rest of the game system.

Making a Decision

I haven’t settled on what I’m going to do, yet, but I’m definitely going to do something by the next time I have anyone make characters for a PRPG campaign where I’m the GM. I will almost certainly apply such modifications to any ongoing campaigns I have right now, too — an easy thing to get the players to accept, since all it involves is handing out a few more skill points to at least some of the characters. If there is any difficulty in that regard, it would probably result from choosing a system that would grant extra points to only some of the classes in a campaign, leaving others perhaps feeling like they got ignored a little.

Regardless of the potential social issues of changing rules midstream in an ongoing campaign, I’m thinking long and hard about what skill advancement system I will adopt for the next PRPG campaign I start running. Any constructive suggestions, critiques, questions, or additional options are welcome, of course. What do you think I should do? What do you think you’ll do — if anything — to change the base skill progression numbers in your own games?

NOTE: I've started using the 4P system, as have some friends.
It seems to work quite well for all of our campaigns.  YMMV.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License