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I was thinking the other day about skill atrophy - the opposite of advancement. What I mean precisely is a system that takes a use-it-or-lose-it approach to even maintaining skill proficiency.

I was thinking that the current iteration of FATE, as implemented in the Dresden Files RPG, provides a mechanism for skill atrophy in the Milestone mechanic where two skills can have their ratings swapped - so you could provide a mechanical representation of this scenario:

"I've been fixing cars a lot lately, which used to be my hobby, but since the zombie apocalypse started, I sure haven't spent much time practicing my oboe, which used to be my profession."

But while I'm aware of games that provide for automatic skill increases (as in this question: http://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/1058/dungeon-siege-ish), I'm not aware of any that provide for automatic skill decreases when skills go unused.

I know that I could implement this mechanic without too much trouble - but does anyone know of an existing game that uses a mechanic like this?

EDIT: It seems to be that the general consensus is, "This is one of those things that seems like a good idea. But when it comes down to implementation, the amount of fun generated is not worth the amount of bookkeeping required for a straight use-it-or-lose-it rule. That's why most games that embrace this concept go with something more abstract, like the DFRPG solution or the skill limits mentioned in the answers".

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Regarding your edit: I do think that it's theoretically possible to make skill atrophy easy to do without bookkeeping and built into the system in a way that adds to the fun, but I don't think any designer has really made that a priority enough to actually have such a system exist yet. :) –  SevenSidedDie Oct 7 '10 at 17:02
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6 Answers

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Wasn't there an optional rule in Hero System's supplement, Ultimate Skill, about lessening skills that you don't use? I don't have the book myself, and do not recall using the rule in any of the games I played in, but I remember thinking it was really cool.

I see the concept of skills degrading from lack of use pop up in RPGs very seldom. It serves little useful storytelling or strategic purpose.

There are some games that offer a benefit from lowering a skill. You already mentioned FATE that lets you increase a skill by lowering another if the two skills are one point in difference. There is the almost unknown Destiny System that will award a player sand points (a measure of how interesting and thus likely to survive your character is) for declaring weaknesses for your character. Thus if you can't remember a spell that would make the adventure a lot easier because you haven't cast it in ages, or if you can no longer hold a calligraphy brush properly because of a scar on your hand, you get 2d6 sand for each of those.

There are games with aging rolls, but those usually lower attributes. They are more common than use-it-or-lose-it systems because you can say your character practiced unused skills in down time, but you can't say your character didn't age. Plus a character that looses some proficiency as he gets older does add something more interesting to the story.

I recall a really nicely conceived amateur game from a few years ago that forced characters to make aging rolls every winter (past a certain point) and lose points off their traits (which were kind of skill-like, in that there were 16 of them, and Craft and Sneakiness were traits). And... hooray, I still have the link for it. Dark Age

Then of course there's Rolemaster and games of that ilk (games with horrible critical injury charts). Characters have to have access to magical healing or a single critical injury, "Slash muscle and tendons in foe's lower leg" can put a serious damper on his future as a track star. That's not skill atrophy from lack of use but from disabling injuries. This is also more common than use-it-or-lose-it, because it serves that tactical and narrative purpose of making players seriously weigh their options when going into a fight.

I would argue that skill loss from illness and injury is even more realistic than just forgetting because you haven't done it in a while. People who haven't spoken a language in years may say they've forgotten it, but if they were dropped into that country they would remember a lot faster than someone who never knew it. But a singer could get a respiratory illness that ruins her voice. A musician could get a scar on his mouth that prevents him from playing the trumpet. Let's not even think about the fact that most people who are shot never fully recover.

One source of skill loss that I haven't seen and would really love to, is a cyberpunk game that lessens PCs' technology and social skills unless players constantly invest at least a little in their advancement, a kind of Red Queen's Race situation where if they don't work to stay abreast of the latest fashions and technology, they will be left behind.

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I like your argument about "forgotten" skills coming back with relative ease. –  gomad Oct 6 '10 at 16:02
    
Found another game that allows one to "get rusty". QAGS has a rule wherein you can trade in skill levels for attribute levels. It's hard to actually use this to get different rolls, but you could potentially trade a skill down to zero levels in order to increase your attribute and hopefully keep at least one skill at its original level, in order to get a high attribute and one good skill. The game is here. hexgames.com/qags/component/virtuemart/details/4/10/… –  Sheikh Jahbooty Oct 27 '10 at 17:45
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In Men and Supermen, new superheroes began the game with a “%Control” for each of their powers (inspired by The Greatest American Hero). It was a simple percentage chance of their powers working, ranging from a starting point of 80% to 100% (76+4d6). At 1 character point per 10% increase, new superheroes very quickly improved their control to 100%.

The same mechanism was adapted for “growing rusty”. If a skill (or ability!) wasn’t used for more than one month, the character’s %Control would drop in that skill. The skill maintained the same score, but the character’s memory of the skill became faulty.

So if you hadn’t used your surgery skill in a year, there was a 9% chance that you’d fail to use it at all if you tried. If you succeeded, you’d be just as good as you ever were.

It was an interesting mechanic, but it required a lot of paperwork that you didn’t know you needed to keep until you realized you should have kept it.

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Mouse Guard characters can only have 24 skills and wises. If you reach that limit and want to learn a new skill or wise, you have to drop one to make room.

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Frankly, the fact that MG was BW based sort of turned me off of it. Just because nobody in my group ever wanted to play BW. But everybody seems to love it. I guess I'm going to have to pick it up and see for myself. –  gomad Oct 7 '10 at 22:17
    
It is related, in the same way that Gamma World or Boot Hill is related to D&D... and about the same level of "compatibility". Give it a shot, it's not BW-lite, just a game using the same skill resolution mechanic as BW. –  aramis Oct 8 '10 at 0:28
    
I think of Mouse Guard as a focused version of Burning Wheel. Rather than an open, fantasy system, you've got some things baked right in: you're a mouse, you work for the Guard, you abide by their oath. Everything is tweaked to reflect that and to give you an adventure like those in the comics. –  okeefe Oct 8 '10 at 14:00
    
It's different enough that it's worth considering a look—it's anyone's guess whether the particular things your group reacted against in BW are also in MG, since enough things are done differently or completely replaced. Getting and sharing the first comic collection might go a long way to getting your group interested, as the game really captures the feel of the comics. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 8 '10 at 15:48
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GURPS 3rd had an optional rule for required practice in one of the supplements. It was a bookkeeping nightmare, as I recall.

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It's been a while since I looked at my GURPS 3e rules - sourcebooks, etc., sure. But I should take a look at the Compendia, I guess. You don't happen to know which supplement? Because if you did, this would totally be the answer. :) –  gomad Oct 6 '10 at 2:47
    
Half my GURPS stuff was stolen in a move 17 years ago. Rest is boxed and inaccessible. –  aramis Oct 6 '10 at 4:30
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Traveller, in MegaTraveller, has a limit on skills. The same limit appears in some supplements for Classic Traveller, as well. Total skill levels can no exceed the sum of Intelligence and Education.

Therefore, when you raise a skill (In CT, by training; In MT by use or training), if you have hit the limit, another skill must drop.

Not quite a "non-practice" rule, but the net effect is similar.

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This sounds a lot like the almost-but-not-quite mechanic I mention in the question. Looks like GURPS for the win! –  gomad Oct 6 '10 at 2:49
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Burning Wheel Classic has skill degradation as the flip-side of its practice rules. ("Unpractice", on page 58 of core rules.) If a skill goes for an entire practice cycle (e.g., 6 months for an academic skill, 1 month for a martial skill, etc.) without ever being rolled or practiced, it drops by one point, down to a maximum of one-half of its original level or of its root Attribute (whichever is higher).

Notably, skill degradation was removed in Burning Wheel Revised. The designer's group found that it required a slight increase in paperwork but (for their tastes) yielded little to no benefit in terms of playability or fun.

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Ah. I have the Revised edition, which explains why I hadn't seen that in BW. –  gomad Oct 5 '10 at 22:29
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It was mentioned once on the forums by Luke Crane as a "nice idea, bad execution, wrong game" kind of thing. The BWC PDF is floating around now that the print version is OOP, but for my money BW Revised is in all ways improved. It's an interesting historical curiosity though, for reasons like this answer. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 5 '10 at 22:57
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