This is the third article in my final five series for Gnome Stew, and I have chosen this comment from reader LordTentacle as the inspiration for today’s article:

“Skill expansion” —
when players’ lack certain skills, I tend to let them use skills in a generalist way. “Sure, you can roll survival to track.”
When there are specialists, I like to let them do it. “Sure, ranger, you can roll tracking.” It helps everyone have the spotlight.

But, the characters that played in the group before the ranger joined want to roll survival. And I said no.

Needless to say, my players don’t appreciate that. It’s only come up once recently. The player I shut down on her survival roll didn’t say anything, but I noticed as I reflected on sessions.

I would be interested in your views on skill expansion / shrinkage if it aligns with your passion. Perhaps other gnomes if it does not.

Thank you.

This is more than just a problem with the potential interpretation of a rule. It also combines player expectations and setting characteristics to further complicate the matter.

What is a skill anyhow?

A skill is an ability that must be learned. It is not a talent such as an aptitude for music, or a characteristic such as nimble fingers. A character with a talent for music and nimble fingers may be a naturally superior musician, but only after the character has learned the skill to play an instrument with.

With this key quality identified – that all skills are learned and not innate – we can determine how best to define what is and what is not within the domain of a skill. If it cannot be taught, then it is not a skill.

To use LordTentacle’s example, tracking is something that can be taught. Tracking is thus a skill, and might be included in the larger grouping of skills covered by the survival skill under the game rules (this is assuming that survival and tracking are not explicitly covered by separate skills in the rules).

Does the setting support this?

In a fantasy game setting, tracking a creature or person might be an acceptable skill for a person trained in survival to have, but what about in a sci-fi setting? The fantasy setting with its lack of technology supports a character needing to track and hunt small game as a possible means of survival, but in a sci-fi setting it might mean that the character knows how to use technology to acquire the basic necessities of food and shelter. Consider the setting and how the members of the group perceive it before ruling on what is or is not covered by the domain of a skill.

Communication with your group might be needed at this point. Take a moment and explain to the group what you believe is the correct interpretation of the rules and setting, and then ask for feedback before making your decision. If your group disagrees with you, then make your decision with the declaration that this is a one time call for the purpose of moving the game forward. You and the group will work together later to devise a permanent solution.

Consistency is key.

Once the permanent decision is made, write it down as a house rule and make it available somehow for everyone to reference when needed (a wiki on a web page or a similar solution works well for this). Include the logic behind the decision as well, so that you can apply it to future decisions as needed.

The break in consistency is what seems to have been the cause of LordTentacle’s troubles in this situation. The ranger character was allowed to roll tracking using a survival skill, but another character was not allowed to use the same skill for the same purpose. Are rangers better trackers? Ask your group and determine if the setting supports that conclusion, but that is not the problem here.

The problem is that if tracking is covered by a skill, then every character who learned that skill can track and not just the characters from a certain class. Maybe rangers can gain an additional bonus to certain skill rolls because of their class, but if so write down that rule and the logic behind it for future reference. You can bet that the players will certainly find many situations in which the class of their characters will earn them a bonus on other skill rolls if that house rule is adopted. This is another benefit of writing down house rules, because when you know something is going to be permanent and on record you tend to make better decisions for the future.

Final Thoughts

The domains and boundaries of what a skill covers in a game are not about the skill itself. They are about creating a predictable and reliable frame of reference for the group to use in determining what is and what is not possible within the game world. So if one character can track with the survival skill, then all characters with the survival skill can use it for tracking.

The player’s reaction to an inconsistent ruling is what LordTentacle caught onto, and kudos to LordTentacle for noticing and wanting to correct the situation instead of ignoring it! All GMs make questionable decisions at times, but great GMs seek out ways to improve so as to earn the group’s trust even if a decision can be questioned.

That is all for now. If you have your own ideas on how to determine the domain and boundaries of a skill leave a comment below, and if you have an idea for my last two articles be sure to leave a comment here.