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My Final Five: #3 Skill Domains & Boundaries

This is the third article in my final five series [1] for Gnome Stew, and I have chosen this comment from reader LordTentacle [2] 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 [1].

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "My Final Five: #3 Skill Domains & Boundaries"

#1 Comment By Roxysteve On March 11, 2013 @ 9:50 am

“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.”

I couldn’t agree more, and this is why – contrary to a loud majority – rules *are* important in an RPG framework. They help the GM provide the consistency without the need for an eidetic memory.

You’ll already know I disagree about consensus ruling. Experience has shown that while a few of my players read the rules, most of them rely on others to do that and get their “knowledge” of them from those others. Opinion of opinion is largely worthless for me. Those people who’ve read and thought about the rules we are using at the time definitely do get an ear.

For the type of illustrative case chosen, I rather like the idea I sort of picked out of the Savage Worlds subtext of allowing stand-in skills but always with a negative modifier.

I do this with D20 too, specifically have done with the very example cited. “Anyone got tracking?” “What about survival? I’ve got that.” “You can have a go but you are at an additional -2 since your survival courses were mostly on ‘how to find and eat the local fauna using only their footprints as a clue’, not ‘things fleeing suspects are likely to do to the scenery that go unnoticed by the unpracticed eye”.

Good choice of article, Patrick.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 11, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

Why not be the person who gains consensus for what they believe is right? It is not the same as ruling by consensus. It is a form of leadership, and IMO the highest form of leadership. There are times when a decision needs to be made, but when you can convince everyone that it is the decision that they want to have made you have gone beyond power via position to power via ability.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On March 11, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

Interesting approach; to me, the issue seems to be one of niche protection more than consistency… or, rather, than those are the two values being set in opposition. That seems clearest from the way that survival had been permitted as a viable tracking skill for anyone initially, later clarified as “the ranger thing” once a ranger was on hand.

Patrick, it sounds like you’re saying that in a system with skills, generally available skills shouldn’t define your niche. So in a 2nd edition D&D game, a thief can be the guy who climbs walls (because that’s a class exclusive skill), but in 3rd edition, you shouldn’t rely on climb to set the rogue apart–because rangers and barbarians might be just as impressive as climbing, and besides, climbing is something that anyone with climb skill can attempt. Does that sound like a reasonable take-away, if tangential to the topic as you approached it?

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 11, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

Yes, that is a fair argument to describe what I am saying here. If the rules do have class exclusive skills though I would go with the rules as printed.

This is also where having the group agree as to the nature of the setting comes into play. If the GM and the players decide that only members of the thieves guild are taught to be pickpockets, then a skill such as “Sleight of Hand” might not convey the ability to be a pickpocket to anyone other than thieves. I’m not a fan of that kind of thing, but if the group wants more of a style of play akin to a 2nd Edition game why not allow it?

#5 Comment By Teflonknight On April 8, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

I think there was a point that was over looked here. In the original comment it sounded as if survival and tracking are two seperate skills. No one in the party had tracking so the GM allowed a survival roll to take its place. However along come a ranger with the tracking skill and the GM tells the original player that they can no longer roll survival for tracking. In this case I would probably rule that survival can be used to track but with a penalty and make that a house rule so that in the future if the party doesn’t have tracking available they can use survival with a penalty. Hopefully the players will be understanding enought to realize that a GM may occasionally have to revise a ruler when the original ruling causes unintended situations.