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The role-playing systems I've played so far seem to either provide a mostly artificial skill system progression, or ignore skill progression entirely.

I'd like to learn about, and maybe try playing, role-playing systems which correctly model the gaining and the loss of skills. I'm alright with super-natural and other types of augmentations to the learning process, but I'd like the basic system to, for example:

  • Account for which skills are used, when computing progression; an adventure which didn't involve combat should most likely not lead to an increase in combat skills, for example.
  • Allow skills which have not been used to "get rusty"
  • Properly account for time spent training. I find it hard to believe any human being would be able to put up a serious challenge when faced with an elven warrior that's spent 250 years training in combat.

Any recommendations?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The best of the bunch...

Mouse Guard: You have to have Level in successes, and Level-1 failures, in significant uses of a skill to have it go up. There is a limit of 24 skills per character (of a list of 50+).

MegaTraveller: Unlike early editions of Classic, it has both in-play experience (use the skill enough, it goes up, but you can only gain a particular skill so fast... and it also has the Int+Edu limit, where if your total of those two stats is the limit to the number of skill levels you may possess; if you exceed that with a new level gained, you must reduce another.

Classic Traveller in later revisions of the second edition, namely The Traveller Book and Starter Traveller, and in Book 7: Merchant Prince, the Int+Edu limit is applied at the end of mustering out. It is from these sources that MegaTraveller gets that rule. The 1st Edition (1977-1980 printings) and 2nd Edition (1981 and later printings of Books 1-3) of CT do not include the Int+Edu limit.

A few that other people think do, but I disagree, and why:

Classic Traveller: There is almost no skill gain in play; it takes characters years to acquire a skill by study, and years out of play to acquire one by taking a sabbatical. There is an upper limit on skills based upon the sum of Intelligence + Education, starting with certain later supplements; it's not in the little black books versions of the core rules.

Burning Wheel: At least in Revised, the skill loss rules have been deleted... Luke's commented on so doing. The rest of it, however, isn't bad, tho' in-play skill gains don't mirror in character generation. The lifepaths are a source of both inspiration and drama, but I'd not call them realistic.

SevenSidedDie notes that the original Burning Wheel rules included skill loss rules, and that those may be ported to Revised.

GURPS: While GURPS 3E has some wonderful practice requirement rules, it has no skill acquisition process in the first place. There is the official statement that 1 point = 250 hours of practice...

Skill loss Rules? Are they important?

You'll note my reasons for BW are the lack/loss of skill loss rules. Doesn't make it any less of a great game (in fact, I'm in a skype game of BW) but it does make it less realistic. I've personally lost a number of skills from lack of use, and many characters probably should have...

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BRP (essentially the core mechanics of Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest) have a "you've used a skill, tick it, you have a chance to improve during downtime" mechanic. This is (essentially) "fail a skill roll, you have one try", so the better you are, the lower your chances of improving.

The Swedish "Drakar och Demoner" games (in at least some editions), while being in some sort of BRP lineage, have replaced the "tick it off, you can try to improve during down-time" by tracking per-skill experience points. There are also "free" experience points that can be used to improve stats or skills as preferred. You gain one XP per day you have successfully used the skill during adventuring and can earn more than one on critical successes. The handling of "it gets harder the better you are" is modeled by having a per-skill base cost and multipliers depending on what skill level you're increasing from. I don't recall the exact values, unfortunately.

This allows for skills to be easier or harder to learn.

None of these systems have, as far as I am aware, a mechanic for losing skill.

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In BRP another method of skill improvement is spending the time and money on Training. Interestingly, the outcome is based on the Teacher's roll, not the training character's. And, if the Teacher fumbles, the training character faces a chance to lose skill level points. (BRP Big Gold Book pg. 184) –  Jeffrywith1e May 25 '13 at 12:37
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To address the portion of your question about "getting rusty", I'd like to direct you to the answers to my question about "skill atrophy".

Having scoured for good rules to govern this, I'm presently happiest with the FATE / DFRPG system of switching the places of two skills. GM approval is required, so you can't go to a bunch of fancy dress parties and then bump your back-alley knife-fighting skills, unless you can explain to the GM how.

In fact, any system that allows skills to be replaced can probably do a good-enough job of modeling skill atrophy without bogging down in bookkeeping.

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I've seen several systems that incorporate skill use into advancement.

Mouse Guard (and possibly Burning Wheel, but I've only played MG). It counts how many times you use a skill. You need a certain number of successes and failures before you can learn anything.

I also saw a houserule in WoD that simulated something like what you're looking for. After the session the GM gave off 'ticks' in skills that players had used. A tick was an experience point that could only be spent in that skill. I liked these a lot because they grew organically. My character may never have wanted the guns skill, but if he keeps shooting his pistol eventually he'd get good at it because I'd have enough ticks that I could buy a skill level for cheap. This did a good job of skill increasing with familiarity, rather than with a player's desire to have a high skill.

Risus has a similar system for advancement. Any of your cliches that was used extensively can be rolled. If you roll only even numbers, you add a die to that cliche. This means that as you advance you're less likely to learn more as you have more dice that have to roll even.

I haven't seen anything that had skill atrophy. Personally I don't think atrophy would be fun to play and I think adding an extra layer of math to the game would slow things down. Also I wouldn't be surprised if players 'forgot' to atrophy their skills between sessions. However if I were to incorporate this, it could probably be tacked on to the tick system mentioned first. If a player doesn't use a skill in a session, they lose a tick. The skill would never be reduced below its actual value, but it gets harder to train the next time. I'd also consider having the ticks expire, but that seems like more bookkeeping.

I think time spent training is abstracted away into the skill point system. A point is a point. Maybe you got it from 250 years of whacking a practice dummy. Maybe it came from a year in the army. Explain your character's skills/levels however you like, the abstraction reduces to skill points or base attack bonus or something.

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The only system I can think of that even sort of models characters 'getting rusty' is Classic Traveller. (I heard that the First Edition Exalted Lunar book's Storyteller chapter says that you'd get weak and flabby if you stay in cities to long, but I don't believe that it gives rules for this.) Classic Traveller characters in creation only get a choice on the sort of skills they want, not on exactly which they get, and once created it has a funky four year period system for determining how skills are built up. If I remember correctly, characters which abort the process, lose a point in the skill they were working on.

(If you're interested, I could dig up the rules later.)

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Classic Traveller only does so if one is using the Int+Edu limit introduced in Bk 7: Merchant Prince... it doesn't appear in CT 1E (1977) nor CT 2E (1981), but does in The Traveller Book (CT 2.1) and Starter Traveller (CT 2.2). –  aramis Jan 2 '12 at 6:43
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Burning Wheel requires using skills in a variety of situations in order to improve them. Skills are mainly improved during play, although you can spend downtime toward skill tests. Practice times vary wildly depending on the skill and the type of test—routine, difficult, or challenging. Burning Wheel Gold and its predecessor, Burning Wheel Revised, do not have skill degradation; Burning Wheel Classic did, but it was removed to keep the bookkeeping simpler and probably because it wasn't interesting.

The lifepath system used in character creation means that your centuries-old Elf is significantly more skilled than a Man with the same number of lifepaths. Without descending too much into the mechanics, an Elf could have grayed out his stats and have gray-shaded skills to match after character creation--a heroic edge over a Man's mundane black-shaded skills. (Gray dice count a success on a 3-6 on a d6, whereas black dice only count 4-6.)

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I'm gonna go a little into left field here and say A Dirty World. The reality is, you don't have the same capability from day to day, you can be distracted, you can be sick, or you could be on the top of the world because life is great. These things can have a dramatic effect on your capabilities, often moreso than how trained you are. A Dirty World models this push and pull of events of your daily life on your capability. It foregos modelling each skill in favour of general personal qualities and attributes that influence your ability to carry out certain actions.

This isn't quite what you were thinking of, but it's good to consider that the traditional and static way of modelling skills, even if there's a lot of detail and keeping track of things, still doesn't take everything into account.

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Bushido has a skill training system that works, experience counts only for a small amount of your skill (skills go from 1-19 and level 1-6 is added). BRP (RuneQuest & CoC) has system that mostly works the other way, you must have used a skill to get an improvement. There aren't many systems that manage loss and I can't think of one at the moment (players general don't like them).

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