I Don’t Like Skills

I finally got a copy of the new OSR “domain game” Adventurer Conqueror King (ACK). It seeks to address and allow for what has been called the fabled “End Game” of OD&D. After the players have amassed enough wealth and experience – then what? They were expected to spend their wealth to construct castles and citadels, tax their peasants, and the game dynamics would move towards diplomacy, intrigue, and the kind of big, long-term projects and concerns that only wealthy and established players could indulge in. This kind of play was more than implied in the OD&D rules – as they included the costs for castle and tower construction – but few ever made it that far. Moreover, support for this sort of game, and the transitions it had to have, never really appeared. ACK seeks to address this by providing rules that will take any character from the most humble of origins and give them an opportunity to administer entire kingdoms.

My only real complaint with the game, so far, is a simple one – I dislike character “skills.” These are specialized abilities and training that people can pick for their characters before the game starts and, in the course of play, gain over time. For me, the “skills” appropriate too much of the GM’s “world creation” powers and hands those powers over to the players when they create characters. The assumption that the players can get these skills in the first place assumes, a priori, a kind of world where these skills exist and can be learned and used. That world starts to be more informed by character generation and skill options than it is decided upon and determined by the GM. In ACK, the skills and all the various classes the characters (“Blade Dancer”?) can pick start to create a very definite world of their own. This world isn’t necessarily the world I created, nor would necessarily want to create. Instead, the skills all seem to point to a world that the authors of ACK created. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with their world (maybe the “Blade Dancers”?), and it looks like they have that world ready to be marketed, but it’s not mine. As the GM, I want to make my world myself – because that kind of creation is what I get out of playing the game. Without that process, and without all of those creative options, I am just facilitating play by the players – like their servant. I know some people play this way. I think it’s horrible.

When players choose these skills, the GM usually feels bound to create situations in which they can use them. Again, this is constraining and directing the GM with player choices. In some cases, so I am told, this tailoring to the player’s characters becomes ridiculous. But it doesn’t surprise me. If people do not have the imagination to design and manage their own interdependently created world, then these are the traps they are bound to get stuck in. The OD&D rules assumed the GMs would want to create their own worlds and campaign, rather than buy one someone else made. How wrong these authors were! The younger generations lacks imagination – in no small part – because it is so dependent on films and TV shows rather than their own imagination, real life experiences, and books. Sadly, I get the idea that nearly all of them couldn’t create a half-way decent fantasy world on their own if they tried.

Where did the skills and the “feats” come from originally? These elements certainly weren’t included in OD&D and they weren’t in the first version of AD&D (1E) either. According to online sources, they arrived in the third edition of AD&D (3E) – a game I have never read, do not own, and have no interest in. Skills do form a very large part of character generation in the, now classic, science fiction rpg Traveller – and I have absolutely no problem with them there at all. But they do not feel like a good fit for D&D. This disparity may be due to the fact that I can readily see how people might be more limited by their skill sets in a technologically advanced galactic community. The skills available in Traveller never seemed to place limits on my abilities to GM a Traveller campaign in the exact way I wanted to. But as I looked over the dizzying number of skills in ACK, I yearned for the stark, reassuring simplicity of Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox.

The “End Game” part of ACK may be terrific. I’ll write more about it as I study it. But the skills? No. I don’t want any more of this and I don’t want to play 3E or 4E either.

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4 responses to “I Don’t Like Skills”

  1. Graham says :

    I wonder if ACKs presented the non core classes and proficiencies as strictly optional exactly because they knew people like you wouldn’t like anything that strayed from rigid old school sensibilities?

  2. Brendan says :

    I also dislike skills and feats, even in the relatively streamlined manner they are presented in ACKS. To be historically accurate though, you should note that non-weapon proficiencies have existed in AD&D since either the survival guides or Oriental Adventures (I forget which was first) and Second Edition had non-weapon proficiencies too. Feats were added in 3E. Of course, this doesn’t matter one way or the other with regard to whether we should play with skills or feats now. For me the answer is still negative. There are almost 100 proficiencies (more if you count the proficiencies you can take with different specializations or sub-abilities). That’s just too much game to absorb before making a character, for me.

    I also thought that the Blade Dancer was a bizarre class the first time that I heard about it (a priest with swords that is only open to female characters?). But in the text of ACKS they explicitly talk about the Blade Dancer as an example of a campaign-specific custom class. So I’ll give that a pass.

    I don’t think the proficiencies were presented as strictly optional though (they are pretty heavily used in examples throughout the rules). It would not be that hard to play without them though (ACKS is, after all, pretty much just B/X with some supplementary systems bolted on).

    • citycrawl says :

      Thanks for the heads up. I have no real knowledge of any edition of AD&D beyond the DMG (and some of Deities & Demigods) – and 2E even more so. I was going on what was in Wikipedia.

      I am aware that no one is forced to play ACK with the skills, but as I started to read through them all my eyes began to glaze over and I realized: “I don’t like skills.” I thought the reasons why might make a good post.

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