Thursday, January 6, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 3: Skill List Overload

Preparing for skill selection feels like this

Goal #1 for today's blog installment? Keep it to fewer than 100,000 words. It seems somehow wrong to ramble overly long about trimming the fat out of what many feel is a bloated system, so I'll dive right in.

Skill overload

There are tons of skills in the Palladium system. Hundreds of them occupy scores of pages in core rulebooks, and with each revision or new edition, the familiar typeset and formatting of the skills section dominates a higher and higher percentage of the page count. Skills range from very broad, like Basic Electronics or General Repair to very specific in their application, like Underwater Demolitions or Rope Works. There is substantial overlap in many of the skills, such as the Gambling, Gambling: Dirty Tricks, and Card Sharp skills and some skills include other skills entirely; I've never fully understood why taking Armorer gives you Basic Mechanics for free instead of requiring it as a prerequisite, for example. And, does anybody really know the extent to which Read Sensory Equipment is supposed to be required? Some skills are cross-listed between categories, while sometimes two categories each contain a skill with the same name, but the description is different. Also, why are there three or four (I've lost count) different skills for shooting a bow and arrow? The list goes on and on.

The reason why

You could argue that we have this complicated, extensive, and often confusing skill system is the result of the type of creative creep seen in other aspects of the game. New authors come along and want to add their piece to the setting and tweak some skills to fit their unique take on the game (particularly in Rifts). New skills are also a way to justify new occupations and their O.C.C.s, which spring up routinely in each new supplement. Skills are also periodically ported wholesale from other games in an attempt to keep the system truly Megaversal.

I think that all of those reasons are secondary to a primary mechanical reason, and it all comes back to how skills are treated in the game. In Palladium's products, each skill represents a small slice of competency, without which the character has virtually no chance of success. If a situation arises where there is no skill to fill that void, then the game comes to a screeching halt.

Let's take your average Rifts adventuring party, with its assortment of aliens and wizards and robots and escaped genetically-enhanced dogs. This party has captured an enemy and need to take him along with them to claim their reward from the local powers. The group leader orders him tied up, but... how is that done? If this group is built with the early books, there is no Rope Works skill. The GM frantically searches for an appropriate skill and lands on Escape Artist, which none of the player characters have. Does that mean that, unless you are a skilled Escape Artist, you can't effectively tie someone up? That doesn't make sense. But, perhaps the skill is automatic. That doesn't really make sense either, though, because surely the person being bound has some chance of worming his way free.

We have discovered a gap in the skill set provided by Palladium. How do you fill it? With the Rope Works skill. The problem is, you can never create enough skills to account for every situation and there will always be gaps. Meanwhile, the more skills you add, the more unwieldy the system becomes, and the more duplication you have.

A universal skill mechanic

If this were Open D6 or D&D, it's a simple matter. If you discover a gap that the skills don't really cover during the course of the game, the GM makes a judgement call and picks an attribute and makes the roll just as if it were a skill on the books.

There is always an outcry for Palladium to link its skills to its attributes for just this sort of situation, and I don't disagree. The truth is, however, is that Palladium's attributes are not set up to be used for skill checks. What is fairly unique about Palladium, however, is that its skills are categorized by the general area of expertise, meaning Communications or Electrical or Mechanical or Rogue or any of the others. The easy mechanic for performing general skill checks, in my opinion, is to assign a base skill percentage to each skill category. It would go something like this:

Any basic skill can be attempted by an appropriately educated character at (just spit-balling here) a proficiency of 20%+5% per level of experience, plus any given O.C.C. Related category bonuses (and I.Q. bonus, or other attribute bonus as ruled by the GM). Therefore if a generic Wrench-Man O.C.C. receives in his O.C.C. Related skills a bonus of +20% to all Mechanical skills, at first level the Wrench-Man O.C.C. has a base Mechanical chance of 40% to perform mechanical/repair/maintenance type skills that aren't explicitly covered by his set skills. By 5th level this is up to 60% and by 10th level is up to 85% to do things like figure out where to sabotage the chain to make that drawbridge stay up, or to read a schematic of an unknown device and try to determine its purpose. Since his professional education doesn't involve stealth and thieving, he doesn't get this sort of automatic skill proficiency to perform Rogue- or Espionage-type skills, only his skills that receive an O.C.C. Related bonus across the whole (or at least most of) the category.

Trim the fat

It's not perfect, but I think something like that is a start. Once you establish a method for doing these sorts of basic skill checks, you can go about hacking down the skill list. Remove the overlapping descriptors of repetitive skills like Demolitions, Demolitions, and Demolitions Disposal and just lump them all together as Demolitions. No need for several different Radio, Navigation, or Sleight of Hand skills. If a player with the Gambling skill wants to try to deal from the bottom of the deck, don't require a separate skill, but just apply a skill penalty and move along. Remove highly-specific, but rarely-used skills altogether and let them be covered by the general category skills.

Another skill tier benefit

One more fix, synergizing somewhat with our discussion from yesterday, deals with normalizing all skills to be either Basic, Advanced, or Elite. If a player comes to you, the Game Master, and really wants to be proficient in a specific, concentrated area that isn't covered in your reduced skill list, creating that skill is now a piece of cake. You just need to determine if it's Basic, Advanced, or Elite, and the percentages are all there for you, ready to go. There's no need for it to be included in the total skill list for everyone, but can be whipped up just for that specific character.

Chime in

Once again I've rattled on, but hopefully it's worth it. Using the given framework, I think this is another example of how a few small mods can cover a lot of holes without requiring a total rewrite. Maybe this weekend I'll write up a new skill list based on our discussions here. What skills do you think should be cut or grouped together? What should the starting percentage and advancement be for a blanket skill as briefly demonstrated, above?

Bring on the comments!


-Mark said...

Once again, this is something I've thought about.

In older-style games (with skill programs), we tried simply abandoning skills almost entirely, just choosing Skill Programs and Weapon Proficiencies. Even languages were generalized... I had an Asian Language skill program, and so could probably communicate in Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. A bit unrealistic, but it was a Ninjas and Superspies game about chasing aliens... it wound up being more background than anything else.

In Rifts, I think the general idea of breaking it down to skill categories would work, but you've also got the issue of "Which set of categories?" Do you keep in the later-addition "Cowboy" skill group? How are you going to define "Technical" which is currently something of a grab-bag?

In some ways, this actually calls back to Chronica Feudalis (which uses another game system whose name I can't recall right now; I'm moving on three hours of sleep and HEB soda), which has you define three mentors (or professions you've followed). Overlaps between the two make you more competent at skills associated with them.

Shawn Merrow said...

The very wide variety of skills is one of the things that made me fall in love with the Palladium system. I'm not a big fan on lumping to many abilities into one skill.

In cases where a PC did not have the correct skill, I let them use another skill if it was close enough. If they had none then a roll under the best fitting attribute.

Jason Richards said...

The problem with rolling under attributes in Palladium is that the ranges aren't standard. An IQ of 17 is nearing the statistical upper tier, while PS or PE can easily be 30.

Runeslinger said...

Yes, the idea of having there be a base percentage for each skill category is a good suggestion, or as you indicate, the spit-ball part of a good suggestion. Being somewhat of a purist, and having stayed with Palladium Fantasy and Beyond the Supernatural, (trusting my instincts that Rifts would take me to annoying places I didn't want to visit with someone's sweaty kid loudly demanding more candy) I find this issue comes up less than it does in the other game lines, but come up it does. In these games - and particularly in the case of Fantasy, this suggestion has real legs. In the others, as Mark stated, the problem just shifts instead of being resolved.

Although I seem to be one of the few who have not felt the need to either gripe or house rule the system to death, some trimming of fat, and clarifying of juices would be a good present for the new year. It would be nice if the glazed look my players get when I want them to make characters for Palladium vanished into a rift, never to return.

Jason Richards said...

I agree that Rifts causes more issues than other games by virtue of the fact that it has to be able to do everything (fantasy, sci-fi, supers, horror, etc.). I'll definitely throw together a skill list that mirrors this new concept as we work it out.

Helmsman said...

I never minded the extensive skill breakdown. It felt more real to me than the more modern approach of creating broader, more concise skill definitions. The reason? I look at a university course list, and I see scads of overlapping disciplines spread across a myriad of programs. Choices everywhere, choices to explore and no perfect path to the specific knowledge you seek, just a winding path that may never end.

The overlap never bugged me. I embraced it in all it's quirkyness because it channeled player creativity. It stretched them to try things with a perhaps less ideal skill to still accomplish the objective.

Does that not mean there should be some fat trimmed? No... trimming would be good in some cases. Physical skills are a fun enough idea, but searching through every sourcebook to pick up every Physical Skill available so my Juicer can have a PS of 35 and a PP of 30 is a perfectly valid approach for some... but somehow I doubt that same person will put the same level of meticulousness into portraying his beefcake as the flawed person willing to end his life prematurely for the sake of a short burst of physical perfection.

Perhaps a more balanced and conceptually sound character would have been made if there were not so many physical skills available?

Other fat-trimming could be done with skills that can be fluently taught in an afternoon. Radio Basic... turn dial to one of 11 channels, press mike button, talk words. I think I taught you how in a single run-on sentence. What's that worth? A 10% skill maybe? I'd say closer to 50%. (I didn't teach you how to turn it on :P)

Also, it might be helpful to establish a certain type of skill that you just have. No percentage. Literacy and Basic Math might qualify here.

Mikey97D said...

Jason, I really like this idea of having a base percentage for each category and then you can have the little niches under each category. I think that would simplify the skill set.
Keep it coming!

Did you write the 100,000 words intro before or after you wrote the blog entry? :o)

Jason Richards said...

@Helmsman: All valid points. I agree that there's nothing inherently wrong about having overlapping skills, but do they all really need to be spelled out? If using a tiered skill system (Basic/Advanced/Elite) if your Rogue Scholar wanted to be an expert in the History of the Mayan Civilization, you just take that as an Elite skill and you don't have to go through the exercise of printing it in every sourcebook.

Let's look at Lore as an example. The Basic skills might just be Lore: Magic, Lore: Supernatural Creatures, Lore: Animals, etc. while the Advanced skills would be along the lines of Lore: Ley Line Magic, Lore: Faerie Folk, and Lore: Cattle. Elite levels would be knowledge like Lore: Spells of Legend, Lore: Bogies, and whatever super-specific Cow Lore you can think up like Lore: Brangus Cattle or whatever; obviously Elite categories wouldn't really apply to everything.

Still kinks to work out, but something like that. I'm now wondering if Elite skills shouldn't be a skill percentage bonus when dealing with a certain area, rather than a different skill altogether.

@Mikey: I just have too much to say. It's a curse.

Helmsman said...

I like your three tiers. The best way to define them would be that Basic covers broad understanding of the basic concepts. You can use the equipment, test it and understand how to do day-to-day stuff using the skill. Everything beyond the basic tier skill challenge would require a percentage roll to see if it's successful.

Second tier could be solid understanding of the underlying principles of the discipline as well. How to alter parameters, do it using sub-standard equipment, or even jury-rigging basic equipment to do the same job. Basic and Intermediate skill challenges could be conducted without a roll, Elite skill rolls would still be based on a percentile.

Elite skills would cost the most, but you could really stretch the limits of what should be possible. The character could design advanced equipment, work with prototypes, create masterworks and understand the skill's utility in alien situations. Only theoretically "impossible" actions would require a percentage roll.

On top of that, you could add specialties that the player could make up, which would add an additional tier to the existing skill when applied to that specialty. So if faeries was the specialty for Lore: Magic, then a basic skill would become an intermediate skill when dealing with faeries specifically.

Krypter said...

In total agreement here, I've revised the Rifts/Palladium skill lists for the last 10 years. I was just discussing this on the N9 forums (before I found your excellent blog) here:;f=5;t=297

Posted my version of a trimmed, yet still compatible, skill list for modern megaversal (aka N&SS). I've also got a more-drastically trimmed and refined list (also prettier) for Rifts, with specializations as you mentioned above.

I'm not sure why you're using the Advanced/Elite nomenclature for skill specializations/focuses though. The whole Swimming/Swimming, Advanced distinction is rather ridiculous.

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