Some in the OSR complain about skill systems, particularly due to the introduction of the Thief character class. I understand that with the 3.X/Pathfinder and 5E, skill systems have gotten out of control. In response, I have even heard a call to remove Thieves from the game!
The purpose of this post is not to defend the Thief as a legitimate class in an OSR game, but as an aside, I would like to point out that in Moldvay Basic, on page B8, the climbing skill that Thieves get is called “Climb Sheer Surfaces” on the table and “Climb Steep Surfaces” in the description. Leaving aside that slight difference in terminology, this suggests that the Thief is climbing something that no ordinary person could. Anyone can try and climb a knotted rope or a cliff with handholds.
What a Thief does is climb something that seems impossible for a normal mortal.*
So, back to the main point of the post. What is the purpose of a skill system? I would argue that there the purpose of a skill system (whether a limited skill system that only pertains to a couple character classes or if skills apply to everyone) is the following:
Give a character an ability that other characters do not have (or give them a chance to improve an ability everyone has)
What does this look like? For example, the nearly supernatural wall climbing ability of a Thief. No one else can climb a sheer surface without handholds or rope, but they can climb walls with handholds or the assistance of a rope.
Let us suppose I am making an OSR game set in the modern day. I create a “Ne’er-do-well” class. One of the abilities of this class is that it has a percentage chance to perform a crazy maneuver in a car (instant U-turn, weaving in and out of traffic turning a high-speed pursuit, parallel parking, that sort of thing…think of the Fast and Furious movies). This class is the only class with this kind of ability. As a game designer, am I saying that no other characters can drive cars? Absolutely not! Other characters can drive cars normally, but only the Ne’er-do-well can do incredible driving feats.
Here is a real-life example: I can change the tires on my car, but I cannot change them as quickly as a NASCAR pit crew can! Even though my character class (Incredibly Handsome & Smart Guy) does not have “Change Tires Quickly” as a skill, I can still change a tire. However, if time is of the essence, I better hope I have “NASCAR Pit Crew Dude” in my party when a tire goes flat!
All of this assumes that players know what their characters can do. Modern players sometimes are under the impression that their characters can only do what is explicitly written on the character sheet. I know; I used to be that way!
When a player asks these questions…
Can my character tie someone up?
Can my character ride a horse?
Can my character cook some jambalaya?
…say “Yes”. Don’t add a “Hog-Tying” or “Ride Horse” or “Cajun Cookin'” skill to your game. Assume that the characters can do lots of things automatically, without a need to roll (if the situation is not desperate). This isn’t to say that a character could have a skill that lets them tie up a person in only five seconds or ride a horse up a mountain or cook a Cajun meal so delectable that it improves a Reaction Roll by +3. It just means that under ordinary circumstances, a character can do many tasks automatically, without a need to roll and check modifiers and add and subtract and do a quadratic equation.
ACKS covers this with the “Adventuring” proficiency that all characters get:
The character is well-equipped for a life of adventure. He knows how to clean and sharpen weapons, saddle and ride a horse, set up a camp, and search for a secret door. He has a rough idea of the value of common coins, trade goods, gems, and jewelry. All player characters are assumed to have Adventuring for purposes of the proficiency throws of standard adventuring tasks.
In your own games, if you have players coming from 3.x/Pathfinder/5E, make it clear what the characters can and cannot do automatically. Hopefully, this will help your players come out of the mindset that “I can only do what my character sheet says I can do” and allow them to do something creative with their characters.
To change gears a little bit, I also want to talk about player choice in games. In order to make smart decisions, a player generally needs to know what their chance of success is when rolling the dice. This is one reason I really like ACKS; it gives the player a lot of information regarding the success or failure of most rolls (or it gives them enough rope to hang themselves with!).
If my character needs a Proficiency Throw of 19+ to do a task, I know that when I roll the d20, I have a 10% chance to succeed at that task (if I roll a 19 or 20). Because my chance of success is so low, I may not attempt the task if death or dismemberment is the cost of failure. If I do choose to roll the dice, I know exactly what I am getting into. Even if the GM secretly rolls the dice so that I don’t know the result (for example, a Thief disarming a trap), I know the rough chance of success. When the trap explodes in my face, and I must roll a Saving Throw of 15+ too survive, at least I knew the odds!
In OSR games, this can also pop up when the GM says “roll a d6 and if you get a 1, you succeed” or “roll a d20 and if you get a result under your Intelligence score, you succeed”. These are quick and simple ways to adjudicate some of the weird situations that come up in play. In these cases, the players knows the odds before rolling the dice.
In 3.x/Pathfinder/5E, the GM sets a Difficulty Class (DC) of a task, but if I understand the rules correctly, the DC is not told to the players. For example, a trap might need the Thief to make a DC 15 Remove Traps roll. The Thief’s character sheet has a +5 next to the Remove Traps skill. When the player of the Thief rolls the d20 and adds 5 to the result, they get a 12. The trap is not removed. However, the Thief’s character had no way of knowing what the chance of success was, so when the penalty for failure comes calling, it can seem unfair. All the player knows is that higher is better.
Without the transparency of a game like B/X or ACKS, the GM can fudge the dice in the player’s favor. If the GM is the only one that sets the DC and knows about it, he can miraculously lower the DC to match the result on the dice. I have been guilty of this in the past. I repent in sackcloth, ashes, and spending too much money on Kickstarters.
Combat is a special exception. Sort of. After a few swings, players that are paying attention will be able to guess the AC of the enemy and they can calculate the effectiveness of their own attacks from there.
So to all you GMs out there, I say this: Give your players the information they need to make bad decisions in the dungeon. Let them know the chance of success or failure!
* For you Appendix N lovers out there (looking at you Jeffro!), I am aware that Spiderman’s climbing ability was not the inspiration for the Thief. However, in our modern media environment, it is the quickest way to explain the difference between “normal climbing” and “Thief climbing”.