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Evolution of Skill-based Character Creation Systems @ Sinister Design

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Evolution of Skill-based Character Creation Systems @ Sinister Design

Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 25 September 2012, 22:49:28

Tags: Fallout; GURPS; Sinister Design; Wasteland 2

Sinister Design's Craig Stern, the developer behind Telepath RPG: Servants of God and the upcoming Telepath Tactics, has put up a rather lengthy and informative article on the evolution of skill-based character creation systems in CRPGs. There is a lot there on GURPS, the general problems skill-based systems might have, and different ways to solve those problems. Here's a snippet:

RPGs continued to diverge from war games as the genre developed, and so too did their character creation systems. With increased focus on unique, individual characters came an increased focus on the abilities and limitations of each individual character. At their peak, these considerations would come to supplant the notion of character class entirely. Published in 1986, Steve Jackson’s GURPS represented a coming of age for skill-based RPG systems. GURPS characters have no classes at all–rather, they have four primary attributes and a huge variety of skills that can be leveled independently of one another.

In a way, this represented the zenith of the individual-focused approach to character creation. All vestiges of the old system were gone: in the skill-based paradigm, characters became unique, fully realized individuals rather than mere instances of a uniform military unit to be used in battle simulations. This approach became quite popular among pen-and-paper role-players, not just with GURPS, but later with White Wolf RPGs such as Mage: The Ascension and Vampire: The Masquerade.

Compared to pen-and-paper games, skill-based systems in cRPGs have been comparatively rare in cRPGs; and not for no reason, as we will see below.

[...] The point is, cRPGs aren’t pen-and-paper role-playing games. There’s no Dungeon Master to appeal to with creative uses for your characters’ various skills. Every last skill check that applies to a non-emergent game system has to be incorporated into the game in advance. The average player’s skills are useful in direct proportion to the number of times the game checks for them. Skills which are rarely used may serve a role-playing purpose, but they can also completely undercut a player’s enjoyment of the game by making survival and progression extremely difficult based on front-loaded choices the player is forced to make blindly.

[...] So here is my humble suggestion to developers who want to create a game with skill-based character creation: don’t force players into making a choice between skills of high value and skills of more dubious benefit. Instead, create two tiers of skills: survival skills and elective skills.

The survival skills tier should contain only those skills so consistently useful that at least one of them is probably necessary to complete the game in a reasonable playthrough (i.e. completing most main quests, and not exploiting special knowledge of where things are hidden in the game world). These will necessarily include skills that play into the game’s core emergent systems (e.g. combat; stealth; and physical manipulation abilities suited to the setting, which might include pick-pocketing or hacking). Ideally, persuasion should feature as well, assuming that the developers take sufficient care to make the game both challenging and beatable primarily through the use of dialog options.

The elective skills tier, by contrast, should consist of what I choose to call “flavor skills”–those which are useful only in specialized, uncommon scenarios (e.g. Science from Fallout 1-2 or the infamous Toaster Repair skill from Wasteland), or which provide benefits that do not directly impact the player’s ability to gain survive most in-game challenges (e.g. Outdoorsman from Fallout 1-2 or Cartography from Eschalon 1-2).

The player should get two pools of points to spend: one pool of points that may only be spent on survival tier skills, and a second pool of points that may be spent on either survival tier or elective tier skills. This ensures that the player cannot create a character incapable of surviving a normal playthrough while still giving the player the flexibility to pursue unique avenues of play and opportunities for role-playing.​

If that has caught your interest, click here for the full article.

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