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By "use-based skill upgrades," I mean skills are increased as they're used. At some point, everyone questions the sense in killing just enough Orcs that you get better at sneaking. This sort of system addresses that problem by building up yours skills as you use them.

"Well" is a bit more nebulous. I've seen this sort of system used in computer games since they can handle tracking anything. Gaining 0.001% of a skill point each time you succeed at a skill check works in a video game, but not pen and paper. But if the rewards are too high, the players can potentially game the rewards system.

I also don't want to see a system where characters make choice that would be irrational if they weren't trying to trigger a particular skill upgrade. For instance I've heard of systems where the players consistently make suboptimal choices just because it will let them train a particular skill.

I'm also curious in how these systems prevent grinding. What's to prevent the characters from rolling climb rope 20 times a day until they get the skill where they want? In Mouse Guard (and possibly Burning Wheel) the actual skill checks are a finite resource and you only get so many per day. How else can the game reward skill use without becoming a boot camp simulator?

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closed as not a real question by SevenSidedDie, LitheOhm, doppelgreener, Wibbs, Dakeyras May 17 '13 at 12:16

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, overly broad, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. For help clarifying this question so that it can be reopened, visit the help center.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I don't think this is answerable. There are many, many games that do this, and since your requirements merely amount to "works without a computer", which narrows the field none, you're just going to get people's favourites. That's pretty much exactly what we've identified as the most common way a sys-rec question can be unanswerably subjective. Is there any way you can make this narrower? – SevenSidedDie May 16 '13 at 22:59
Same games, including Mouse Guard and Burning Wheel in @Anaphory's answer, allow the player to make a bad choice so that they get the desired test for advancement. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, and the consequences that come from such a decision are usually awesome. – okeefe May 16 '13 at 23:10
It still seems like a list question without one single answer. I think your last paragraph (ie. skill farming) is a good question but it's not the focus - simply a side note. – LitheOhm May 17 '13 at 0:01
@okeefe that's one of the questions... If this can get cleaned up it can get reopened. – mxyzplk May 17 '13 at 12:45

Mouse Guard has a really simple and effective system for use-based skill improvement. Every skill (ranks ranging from 2 to 6) has space besides it for marking passes and fails in that skill. (For an extended conflict, like an important fight or discussion, you mark every skill used only once.) When you have accumulated skill rank passes and skill rank – 1 fails in a skill, your skill rank goes up by one and all marks are removed.

The fact that skill rolls are scarce in Mouse Guard (single digit figures per mouse per session) and that failures are interesting, not just bad, plays a significant part to the success of this system.

Burning Wheel, the big fantasy father of Mouse Guard, has a similar system, but does not just count passes or fails, but instead uses a table that assigns difficulties depending on the number of needed successes vs. rolled dice, and to advance a skill by one a character needs a given amount of rolls of different difficulties.

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Note that Mouse Guard skills can drop to 1 due to failed recovery from the Injured or Sick conditions. – okeefe May 16 '13 at 23:05

The Basic Roleplaying System used in most of Chaosium's games is the one that immediately springs to mind. It has systems for developing skills through use and through training and practice. It may not be perfect for you as the experience development is a bit speedy for some people's tastes but it's certainly worth looking at given how long it's been around and how much development and testing has been put into it over the years.

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I'm also curious in how these systems prevent grinding. What's to prevent the characters from rolling climb rope 20 times a day until they get the skill where they want? In Mouse Guard (and possibly Burning Wheel) the actual skill checks are a finite resource and you only get so many per day. How else can the game reward skill use without becoming a boot camp simulator?

Mouse Guard

Mouse Guard has explicit GM's Turns and Players' Turns. To advance a skill, you need a mix of successful and failed tests, and failed tests have consequences in the form of conditions (e.g., Sick, Angry, Injured) or twists (complications). For the GM's Turn, the GM dictates what skills will help surpass the obstacles in question. There's some negotiation in this, but the subset of useful skills for a given obstacle is limited. For example, you're unlikely to break out Fighter to settle an otherwise amicable trade dispute.

In the Players' Turn, players get one test (roll of the dice) for free and can earn "checks" in the GM's Turn for additional tests in the Players' Turn by hindering themselves and breaking ties against themselves. They can use these tests for pretty much any situation they want to get into that narratively makes sense based on where the GM's Turn ended. So, if a player really wants to work on their mouse's Fighter skill, they can go get in a fight. However, there's a finite number of checks they can earn, and conditions and twists that come from failed tests will make things difficult for them to accomplish their mission. In particular, the Sick and Injured conditions reduce the dice they roll, making it more likely for them to keep failing.

Personally, if the player writes a Belief like, "I will be the best fighter in the Territories", then I would be totally down with them getting into fights and advancing their Fighter skill to work on that belief. My goal, as the GM, is to provide conflict for that Belief and their short-term, usually-mission-related Goal to get the player to roleplay out choosing between their desires and the work of being in the Guard.

Burning Wheel

There are three rules in Burning Wheel that keep this from being a problem.

Roll Dice or Say “Yes”

If the GM can't come up with an interesting consequence for failure, given the players task (what they want to do) and intent (what skill they want to use), then the GM can just say "Yes" and give the player their intent instead of rolling the dice. In play, that means every roll has a consequence and you only roll when it's important. If you're at home climbing a rope, you're not rolling Climbing—you're not rolling at all. Even if you get in a fight or argument, you can only earn one test for a given scene (even if you use Sword or Persuasion the entire time).

Let it Ride

The result from a roll stands ("rides") until the situation has changed dramatically. If you roll and fail, you don't get to reroll. You've failed; move on to something else. You only test the skill again until you get in another situation where it's relevant.


Just because you don't get a Climbing roll for practicing your climbing in a safe environment, you can earn still tests this way. However, you need to work on it for hours a day for anywhere from a month to a year at a time, depending on the type of skill and what kind of test you want. (The time doesn't have to be contiguous, but you do need to log them all.)

For example, Climbing is Physical, so to get a routine Climbing test you would need to log two hours of climbing for a month. If you wanted a difficult test for Carpentry, it's a Craftsman skill, so you need to spend eight hours a day for a year to earn a test. Generally, Practice only comes up as downtime between sessions, e.g., "We're going to fast-forward a month, tell me what you're practicing."

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If you're interested in Burning Wheel, the basics—the “Hub and Spokes”—are available as a free pdf. It's the first 74 pages of the book, and it includes the rules for advancement and when to roll. – okeefe May 17 '13 at 0:45

Call of Cthulhu is the one I've played that does this best. You get a chance to improve any skill that you crit on during a story. Some groups have played that as crit success or failure, some as only crit success. The catch is that you have a chance to improve, it's not automatic, so "grinding" will only get you so far (the chance decreases as the skill improves).

It does lead to: "I roll fast-talk" "That's a persuade roll, fast talk is for lying" "Then I lie to him, I already have a check against Persuade"

But really, any system can be munchkinned, you have to pick your players to fit with you, if you hate it when players do that, don't play with those players.

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Note that CoC is a Basic Roleplaying System game. – SevenSidedDie May 17 '13 at 2:50
I thought BRS was only their Fantasy system. You live and learn! Either way, Cthulhu is the only game I've played in that system... – Ryno May 17 '13 at 5:48

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