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I'm collecting RPG systems and have almost a full library worth of books lying around. From what I saw, at least the big systems that were available in my country between 1990 and 2000, almost all had multiple dozens (and up to 100 and more) skills each. Examples here are Shadowrun, DSA, Gurps, Battletech. Some notable exceptions were the storytelling systems made by White Wolf (thus Vampire ...). It looked to me as if there is a paradigm there that RPGs tend to have A LOT of skills system-wise.

Nowadays, in the RPGs that come out I see only with a handful skills. The limit is 1 or 2 dozens of skills (with the later seemingly being more the exception than the rule).

Now it CAN be that due to what I could get my hands on (its over 100 RPG systems) my impression is faulty, and the greater number of RPGs always had that few skills. This is why I say "seemingly" in the title, as I can't say 100% that my impression is correct.

Thus my question is:

  1. Is my impression correct?
  2. If so, then is there any known reason for this change in paradigm?
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Your first question is difficult to answer with any degree of objectivity. Here are a few recently-published games I've played in the past few years:

  • The core Night's Black Agents book provides four or five dozen Abilities (skills by another name)
  • The core Star Wars: Edge of the Empire book provides 33 skills
  • The core Eclipse Phase book provides 50 skills
  • Burning Wheel provides roughly 1,000,000 distinct skills (I jest, but only barely)

I've also played games with much smaller skill lists. My impression is that it's impossible to accurately answer question #1, so question #2 is moot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The Burning Wheel Gold index of skills, at 7 half-page columns and approximately 64 skills per page-column, gives us an estimated 450 skills. That's including the written-out Wises though, so “real” skills will be fewer; unless of course you note that there are potentially infinite Wises, in which case it's closer to your initial estimate… \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 19 '16 at 0:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ EOE really has 33 skills? oO wow would never have guessed (always looked less to me) \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas E. Nov 19 '16 at 4:07
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It is true, there has been a shift in game design and in how the skills approach has been faced, but as in all things related to small, independent publishers (which, given how big companies tried to stay faithful to their brand, published the vast majority of RPGs), many have kept doing things as they were done 10 years before and many tried to innovate, leading to a very fragmented landscape.

Initially, there were no skills at all. I'm looking at you, D&D, the first large RPG being published. (D&D sure has been a trendsetter for a good part of the last 40 years. I will frequently name it in this answer because it's the game I'm most familiar with, but also because of its trendsetter attributes.)

Then AD&D second edition came, and one of the features of rogues was non-weapon proficiencies. The designers of D&D 3e didn't like this being limited to rogues and built the skill system that originated many other ones.

Anedoctically, I remember talking with a friend that only ever played D&D and Cyberpunk and his idea of making a new system involved lots of interlocking skills and attributes that tried to model realistic characters, like getting a penalty to agility for every five points in strength.
I've seen lots of D&D players lament how some abilities and some skills encompassed too many proficiencies. Maybe I am good at balancing on mud and slippery surfaces but not so much on the tightrope?

To me, this means that there was a perceived need to "fix" the faulty, approximate and existing ability/skill systems by refining them and by decoupling, and this led to a proliferation of skills, resulting in the systems you own.

On the other hand, some other designers felt the need to simplify the game, reducing the time spent looking for the right skill, at the expense of this perceived realism. Having read many forum posts about the paradigm shift from games where you have control over what your character tries to do and games where you have control over the story your character experiences (influencing things that your character can't influence), I think we are looking at a similar concept: elegance and focus of the game versus trying to turn the game into a reality simulator is a common conflict between game philosophies.

So, some games keep using lots of skills, because that's what the authors believe is good for realism, or because this granularity is something they enjoy.

Some games do not, they have more important things to do with their mechanics than trying to be a skillset simulator. But there was a certain point in time when this approach was not used (or at least it was not widespread, or it was used by niche games you didn't knoe yet), and then a point where a large and vocal community said that it was a bad approach.

To go back for a moment ta the 800 pund gorilla in the room, both D&D 4e and Pathfinder (two different evolutions of D&D 3e) reduced the number of their skills. We were at a point where, even with 8+Int skills per level, a rogue couldn't possibly buy all the skills that were needed to define the concept of "things any rogue should be good at". And this could very well be another reason why skills got reduced. 4e gave away with perform, craft and profession skills, that were of no use to adventurers. Again, the game gained focus and lost realism (or rather took those things out of the game, so that the players could be good at it without having to spend points there, subtracting to the more useful things).

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This has been a shift we've seen in both table-top and digital RPGs.

Reducing the number of skills is common alongside the practice of reducing the number of skill ranks. Consider D&D 3e where a skill can have points put into it ranging from 0 to Character Level and D&D 5e where a skill is either untrained or trained.

The reasoning is varied, but depending on the designer it can be one or more of the following:

  • Fewer skills makes the game simpler and hence more approachable.
  • Fewer skills/ranks makes skill selection feel much more meaningful and relevant.
  • Fewer skills/ranks reduces analysis paralysis that arises from having to choose between difficult-to-quantify micro-options.
  • Fewer skills/ranks makes the game easier to balance by reducing the number of variables a designer must account for.
  • Fewer skills helps to reduce gameplay arguments over which skills are relevant to a particular task as there will be fewer ambiguities.
  • Fewer skills/ranks makes it easier for early-game choices to scale into late-game play.

Basically, it comes down to this design mantra: make all options meaningful.

When a player has to pick between "+1% lockpicking to a skill of 47%" and "+1% climbing to a skill of 51%" and "+1 story points to a pool of 39" the decision is, essentially, meaningless. When the choice is between those or 50 other options, the game has gone out of its way to waste the player's time with irrelevant and unsatisfying choices.

On the other hand, choices like "+20% lockpicking" or "2x story points" are satisfying choices that are very easy to reason about as the results will have immediate large impact on the character's capabilities. Removing near-usless or niche options always avoids buyer's remorse on the player's part ("I wasted 6 points on that shoe making skill that I've not needed once in 30 sessions!").

Fewer skills makes options for the GM more meaningful, too. Having to pick between asking a player to test "rock scaling" or "rope use" or "mountaineering" is confusing and slows down play, especially when the player starts arguing for whichever skill they're best at. The GM asking for a test of "climbing" when that's the only skill that even comes close to being relevant is obvious, simpler, and invites little argument.

Fewer skills with a simpler system reduces game designer overhead. It reduces the worry that fighters have more or better options than wizards, or whether a character role has enough skill point sinks, or too many, or enough options that are valuable. Fewer ranks reduces the complexity of removing mix-max munchkin abuses in the rules by reducing the math tricks available for circumventing the spirit of the game.

Scaling is another issue. At late game play, that +1% you dropped into skill A is irrelevant compared to the challenges all being +20% more difficult. Choosing between chunkier choices like "untrained" or "trained" makes it far easier to scale. This is exactly what we see with D&D 3e vs 5e, for example. Putting a single skill point into a 3e skill is meaningless for a 15th level character while becoming trained in a skill in 5e is valuable for characters of any level. The choice to learn the skill in 5e is rewarding for everyone, while the choices of skill point placement in 3e is a game of min-maxing with only one good outcome and many bad ones (e.g. is just encodes into the rules a surface complexity that is uninteresting to pros and confusing to novices).

To paraphrase Einstein: "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." Use just enough rules and fiddly bits as you need to make your game work but don't cram in a ton of front-loaded complexity that hides or obfuscates the heart of the game experience.

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I doubt the history of RPG design is coherent enough to have the kind of paradigm shifts that happen in other fields. Some early games had well-developed skill systems, such as RuneQuest, while others hardly had skill systems at all, such as early D&D. Since then, there have been multiple waves of fashion in design, sometimes more than one happening at a time. Some factors that affect the number of skills in a game:

How does it model characters? There are definite trade-offs in game design between what is a basic part of a person, and what is learnable skill. In class/level game systems, skill learning tends to be controlled by level in some way, while other games base it on the specifics of what you've experienced (BRP family), others still have you buy skills with experience points, or make training mandatory to improve skills, and so on.

How specific to a setting is it? Obviously, there is no Farming skill in Night Witches, a game about a specific (and interesting) Red Air Force unit on the Eastern Front of WWII, just as there is no Pilot Aircraft skill in Bushido. Being able to leave things out of a game always makes design easier.

How simulation-orientated is it? For those two examples, does Bushido have the skills needed to make samurai swords available to PCs, or does the game assume swords are always bought, inherited or taken in battle? Does Night Witches have only one skill for maintaining and repairing aircraft, or are there several, for the different kinds of mechanics that existed in history?

Does the game stress individuals with very broad capabilities, or does it presume that PCs will need to work in teams to have all the abilities they'll need? RPGs are always more on the small group end of that scale than reality is, but often less so than action movies with single heroes.

The changes in the structure of the RPG industry. Desktop publishing, PoD and Kickstarter have made it very easy to start publishing an RPG in recent years, but the average size and profitability of a publishing operation has shrunk drastically. That will tend to produce a bias to smaller games, and if you want to cut your page count, having fewer but broader skills is one way to do it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your answer hints at something else: the rise of indie games with tighter scope (such as Night Witches) may have something to do with the perception that skill lists have shortened. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Schmidt Nov 19 '16 at 0:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wasn't worrying about how publishers identify themselves so much as the page counts. \$\endgroup\$ – John Dallman Nov 19 '16 at 0:12
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I haven't examined the complete range of games as I am focusing on D&D 5th edition now. However, at conventions and whatnot, I have engaged in some conversations on this issue. However, this would fall within speculation and there are only opinions to back it up.

I would observe that the current trend is towards a more storytelling type of play. And a lot of dice rolling interferes with story flow. As does having to look up items in text. D&D 5th edition deliberately leaves things vague to accommodate a smooth narrative.

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