Time to learn. About skills.
As we move forward in our discussion about various dice mechanics in various Palladium Books games, our spotlight falls on a fairly large hot-button item: skills. While most elements of Palladium's system (and, in fact, the system of any publisher) have fans and detractors, skills have perhaps the widest variety of complaints. Today, I think we'll talk principally about the actual mechanics of how skill checks are performed, and save issues like the vast skill catalog or the bizarre Boxing skill for another day.
The percentile problem
One common claim against the Palladium skill system is that it uses the percentile mechanic for skill checks, while combat, saves, and most other rolls are based on a D20 mechanic. Many, many gamers feel that this extra mechanic adds unneeded complexity to the game, often described by the notably nondescript term of "clunky." It is also noted that for the game's various D20 rolls, high rolls are good, while using the percentile system makes low rolls desirable, adding to the inherent "clunkiness" of the pairing of these two mechanics.
I'm generally a defender of the percentile skill system for two reasons. First and foremost, I feel that the provided "chance to succeed" mechanic, coupled with the percentile system, is very clear and easy to grasp. When you look down at your character sheet, you immediately know the odds. Secondly, the use of the base-100 setup for skills allows the game designer to make a distinction between how one advances versus the next, whereas in a D20 skill system, all skills increase at the same rate.
Briefly, let me point out that when we talk about Palladium, we're talking about a total level-up advancement system. With the achievement of a new level of experience, all of the character's skills and abilities advance by a level, as opposed to a rank system where the player selects certain skills or abilities to advance as experience increases. For the sake of this discussion, that's the system now, and I'm assuming that it stays that way, for better or worse.
Not all skills in real life advance with the same amount of effort, I think we can all agree. Not to break down the complex functions of education and experience, but it's easier to improve at some skills than others, and core level of understandings vary as well. With practice, learning multiplication tables is certainly easier to do than to find the volumes of complex shapes using calculus. Learning to put a computer together can be achieved at a much greater rate than learning how to design processors. It makes sense that not all skills should advance at the same rate, and the percentile system allows some skills to advance at +2% per level while others can advance at three or four times the rate.
That's about the end of my defense, however, as I feel that Palladium misses real opportunities for good game design in how its skills are presented. Starting skill levels are all over the board, often seemingly at random. Basic and Advanced Mathematics start and advance at the same rate. Demolitions has a base chance of success of 60%, which is twice as pretty much every Language or Lore skill. The rate of increase, while it makes sense that it should change from skill to skill, is almost always the same monotonous +5%.
There should undoubtedly be more rhyme and reason to the way that skills are set up, but here's the flip side: you could go crazy trying to assign these. Is it easier to learn to use a computer, or to speak Spanish? Is the study of robot mechanics more or less challenging than becoming a doctor? How should advancement in a skill like Dance relate to that of Chemistry? If trying to establish a hierarchy of skill difficulties, both to learn initially and to advance, you could spend a year researching and playtesting and guess-checking, but you would never get it right.
How to fix it
Here we fall firmly into my basic rules of game design, namely that mechanics shouldn't be overwhelming. When things begin to look this complicated, simply bow out and make it easy. Why not create three tiers of skills and call them Basic, Advanced, and Elite? Assign a working base percentage and advancement rate to each of these categories, and then throw skills into each. Is that a perfect solution? No, but think of the hassle and heartache that it would save players and GMs when making up, or advancing characters.
When designing skills, I like to consider the question, "At what level should this skilled character be proficient?" That is to say, at what level should a character be at 50/50 on a skill, or enjoy an 80% success rate, or max out at 98%? If going with the Basic/Advanced/Elite model, I'd say that a character who picks up a Basic skill (Basic Electronic, Pilot Automobile, Swimming, etc.) should be successful in ideal situations most of the time from the beginning, have a very good chance of success by level 5 or 6, and max out relatively early. I feel like Advanced skills should probably max around level 12 or so, while Elite skills should probably max beyond the given range of experience, achieving 80% or so at level 15. Remember, O.C.C. skill bonuses will let characters max out earlier if the skill is part of their professional training.
So, just some top-of-the-head, non-playtested stabs at this:
Basic skills have a base of 50%, plus 7% per level. Examples might include Basic Mechanics, Basic Electronics, Cooking, Pilot Truck, Swimming, and First Aid. Common traits may be that these can be self-taught skills, or picked up with some basic instruction.
Advanced skills have a base of 40%, plus 5% per level. Examples might include Mechanical Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Pilot Helicopter, Radio Scramblers, Paramedic, Medical Doctor, SCUBA, and Analytical Chemistry. Common traits may be that there are skills requiring extensive instruction at a college, trade school, apprenticeship, or other intense study. The majority of skills important to a character would likely be Advanced skills.
Elite skills have a base of 25%, plus 4% per level. Examples would all be skills that are super-rare and known only to a very small handful of people in the world, like Robot Electronics, M.D. in Cybernetics, Cyberjacking, rare lores and languages, exotic martial arts, and other skills almost impossible to come by.
I might throw in a fourth category of the most very basic, automatic skills for most setting, like Reading and Writing a Native Language, Basic Math, Pilot Automobile, etc. at 90%+2% per level or so.
More to say
Wow, I feel like I threw a lot of numbers out there. Hopefully it wasn't too crunchy. I have more to say about skills, but that's probably enough for now. What do you think? Right track? Wrong track? What are your house rules and fixes? Let's hash it out, and be sure to check back soon as we dive back into fixing the world's gaming problems.