Let’s make an RPG part 4: Skill Labors

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.“— Lazarus Long

We’ve got some character points.  We’ve bought some stats.  Let’s do something with those stats.

Most tabletop RPGs have some sort of “skill check” system.  The most obvious example is if a thief wants to pick a lock.  This is a fairly complicated action, requiring understanding of lock-picking techniques, as well as the physical dexterity to manipulate lock tumblers into their appropriate positions without the aid of the key originally designed to do so.  Additionally, someone who has some practice in picking locks will, naturally, be better at it than someone who doesn’t, regardless of how smart or dexterous the second person is.


To pick a lock

Picking a lock is a Skill check.  The player rolls the dice, adds the relevant stats(in this case, the average of Mind and Body), and then adds the number of “Skill levels” they have in the appropriate skill.  In this case, that skill would be “Disable Device.”

A Skill increases your proficiency in a particular field of activity, from dealing with an unruly dog, to dealing with an unruly child, to climbing up a sheer cliff face, to holding your breath underwater, to swimming to the surface when you can’t hold your breath anymore.  Levels in a particular skill are purchased by spending Character points.  Additionally, if you want to get some extra Character points at the beginning of the game, you can ask the GM for permission to take negative levels in a particular skill.

Each Skill is tied to one or more of the Stats, Mind, Body, and Soul.  A skill bound to more than one stat may take the average, such as Disable Device, which tends to require both intelligence and dexterity, or it may take the highest, like Intimidation, which is generally done by displaying your physical strength, mental capabilities, or refusal to back down.  The GM may rule that a particular skill check, such intimidating someone by telephone, isn’t capable of bringing a particular stat into play, forcing the player to rely on others.

There are 3 basic types of Skills: Untrained, Trained, and Advanced.

An Untrained skill can be used untrained without penalty.  While it’s helpful to have some practice climbing on rocks, most people can more or less figure out the generalities, so even if you haven’t bought any levels of it, you can attempt to Climb something using just your Body stat.

A Trained skill needs some training before it can be performed well, but you can still try and make it work on a longshot.  Feats of acrobatic skill are dangerous, and should not generally be attempted without at least some practice, regardless of how athletic the individual attempting to perform them may be.  Acrobatics is a Trained skill, which costs 4 points per level to purchase, so if you have no levels in Acrobatics(or if you have elected to build a klutz with two left feet and no hand-eye coordination and purchased NEGATIVE levels of Acrobatics), you will take a -4 penalty on attempts to, say, perform a mid-air backflip.

Finally, there are Advanced skills.  Advanced skills are actually groups of Trained skills all of which are tied to an Untrained skill.  For example, while it’s unwise to do so, most anyone can perform basic first-aid.  Cool a burn, band-aid a cut, apply ice to a bruise.  Sewing up a major laceration, re-setting a broken bone, and performing open-heart surgery are best left to professionals, so First-Aid is an Untrained skill, referred to the Basic skill, and the Advanced form is Medical, which is a Trained skill.

It’s time for another first in this series: Optional rules!  Normally, Advanced skills aren’t anything special.  Just treat them the same as any other Trained skill.  Perhaps you’ve got someone who can fabricate a circuit board like nobody’s business(Advanced Crafting), but couldn’t carve a wooden figurine to save their own life(Basic Crafting).  If you want to represent the skill progression a little better, though, you could apply one of the following Optional rules.

Optional Rule: Having an Advanced skill, such as Politics, implies that the character has an equal number of levels in the appropriate Basic skill, in this case, Diplomacy.

That’s if you want to make skills cheaper overall.  It’s natural that someone skilled in the ins and outs of Political intrigue is also skilled in the much simpler practices of “Talking to people without offending them.”  If you want to make them more difficult, do this instead.

Urban Tracking, quintessential skill for any characters living in a 1950s noir mystery

Urban Tracking, quintessential skill for any characters living in a 1950s noir mystery

Optional Rule: Buying a level in an Advanced skill, such as Engineering: Computers, requires the character to already have an equal or greater number of levels of the Basic Skill, in this case, Technician.

This will slow down your players’ skill progression, and represent that before you can really *get* the intricacies of breaking into a secure network, you need to know the basic ins and outs of how a computer works.

Additionally, you remember when I was describing the Stats, I made a short description of each?  Well, what if you want to make a character who is very strong, but tends to trip over his own feet when walking down a hallway?  We’ve got Skills for that, too.  They’re called “Stat Specializations”

Your Body stat represents your Strength, Toughness, and Dexterity.

Your Mind stat represents your Intelligence, Wisdom, and Instinct.

Your Soul stat represents your Luck, Charisma, and Tenacity.

Strength, Toughness, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Instinct, Luck, Charisma, and Tenacity are each Untrained skills, which cost 2 Character points each, and just like any other Skill, negative levels can be purchased at character creation.  For our aforementioned “Clumsy Strong Man,” you could have a character with a low Body stat and proceed to purchase several levels of Strength, or you could have a character with a high Body stat, but then purchase several negative levels of Dexterity, depending on whether you wanted him to also be fragile or durable.

You may note that it’s significantly cheaper to purchase one level each of the appropriate Stat Specializations than it is to purchase the Stat point itself(6 vs 10).  This is because while you may have a Body stat of 2, then buy 4 levels each of Strength, Dexterity, and Toughness to increase your capabilities in those fields, your Health, Attack, and Defense are still based off Body stat of 2.

Finally, if you have a number of Stat Specializations, and you later decide to increase the Stat itself, you can sell a level in the Specialization in exchange for a 2-point cost reduction on the Stat point.  So if you want to buy a level of Body, you can opt to take a negative level(or lose a positive level) in Strength and Toughness to reduce the cost of the Body stat from 10 to 6.

Skill lists:

B means relevant stat is Body, M means Mind, S means Soul.

B/M/S means choose Body, Mind, or Soul.

B+M+S means use the average of Body, Mind, and Soul.

Stat Specializations(all are Untrained)

Strength: B, 2 points/level
Agility: B, 2 points/level
Toughness: B, 2 points/level
Knowledge: M, 2 points/level
Wisdom: M, 2 points/level
Intuition: M, 2 points/level
Luck: S, 2 points/level
Charisma: S, 2 points/level
Tenacity: S, 2 points/level


Appraisal: M, 4 points/level
Climbing: B, 2 points/level
Deception: M+S, 2 points/level
Distraction: B+M+S, 4 points/level
Escape Artist: B+M+S, 4 points/level
Gambling: M+S, 2 points/level
Intimidate: B/M/S, 2 points/level
Perception: M, 2 points/level
Sleight of Hand: B, 2 points/level
Stealth: B, 2 points/level
Swim: B, 1 points/level


Acrobatics are not for the faint of heart.

Acrobatics are not for the faint of heart.

Acrobatics: B, 4 points/level
Controlled Breathing: B+S, 2 points/level
Law: M, 4 points/level
Linguistics: M, 4 points/level
Occult: M+S, 2 points/level
Performance Arts: B+M+S, 2 points/level
Ropeworks: M, 2 points/level
Wilderness Survival: M, 3 points/level

Advanced groups(Basic is Untrained, Advanced is Trained)

Basic: Construction: B+M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Architecture: M, 2 points/level

Basic: Cooking: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Culinary Arts: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Crafting: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Adv. Crafting: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Diplomacy: M/S, 2 points/level
Advanced: Cultural Arts: M, 4 points/level
Advanced: Ettiquette: M+S, 2 points/level
Advanced: Politics: M/S, 2 points/level

Basic: Driving: B+M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Piloting: B+M, 4 points/level

Basic: First-Aid: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Medical: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Forgery: M+S, 2 points/level
Advanced: Counterfeiting: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Investigation: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Urban Tracking: M, 3 points/level
Advanced: Wilderness Tracking: M, 3 points/level

Basic: Leadership: S, 2 points/level
Advanced: Administration: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Basic Navigation: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Stellar Navigation: M, 4 points/level
Advanced: Cartography: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Ride: B+M+S, 2 points/level
Advanced: Animal Handling: B+M+S, 2 points/level

Basic: Sabotage: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Demolitions: M, 4 points/level
Advanced: Disable Device: B+M, 2 points/level

Basic: Science: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Advanced Science: M, 4 points/level

Basic: Technician: M, 2 points/level
Advanced: Engineering: Computers: M, 3 points/level
Advanced: Engineering: Electronics: M, 3 points/level
Advanced: Engineering: Mechanical: M, 3 points/level

Not as easy as driving a car.

Not as easy as driving a car.

If you have other ideas for skills or want to argue about why I set something up the way I did, please speak up in the comments.

I recognize the skill names can be a bit vague, especially if you aren’t sure what I was thinking when I wrote them.  The full versions of the rules, which will be made available at the end of this series, will include descriptions and examples of each.  Also, if enough people speak up in the comments, you’ll probably find some of those descriptions down there.

And if there’s enough demand, I may just end up using my next post to write the descriptions, instead of waiting until the end of the series.


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