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.
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.
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!