Skill Wedges: An RPG Subsystem

I've been noodling on an RPG skill subsystem inspired by the Clocks in AW and Blades. It is meant to highlight diminishing returns of practice, partial progress toward goals, and opportunity cost of training. Can be adapted to most systems.

I'd love some feedback!


  • edited March 2016
    Very cool!

    The initial premise you led off with is very familiar to me -- I've been doing an "increasing cost for next rank" skill thing in a homebrew since 2002, and I assume I got that from one of the various point-buy RPGs I played before then, maybe GURPS or White Wolf. So I initially saw your system idea as a way to tack a different set of visuals (circles of wedges) onto a very old concept. But then you got to the applications, and some of these are great!

    A few I liked:

    1) Although many games have used high ability scores to grant bonus points or advances or multipliers or ranks to skill improvement, I think the visual of circles and wedges makes this particularly quick and easy and fun. I also like the way this interfaces with the other budget-optimizing concerns below.

    2) Different learning curves for different skills; playing guitar is tough to start, then gets easier for a bit. It's always bugged me how "realistic" advancement rules inevitably devolve into "one size fits all" abstraction for the sake of not having to reinvent the rules for different cases. A book that comes complete with a skill list with the clocks already drawn out next to each skill would give us the best of both worlds. With that visual language established, I think we could even add symbols for thresholds and requirements -- single bar between "intermediate" and "expert" means "must travel to find new resources", while double bar means "must find a Master instructor", etc.

    Note: To me, this sort of reality-modeling seems like a slightly different project than the resource management game this system seems geared toward otherwise. No reason you can't do a bit of both, but I'd recommend calling that out if so. You don't want players buying into one type of logic only to find that another subsystem breaks it! Also, I wouldn't go down the "you hunted through the archives in play, so you get a bonus/free History wedge" rabbit hole unless you're prepared to incorporate that into every character action. In my opinion, unskilled tests and "here's what we did this session" can be great, but only if you commit.

    3) The time economy! Trading skill advances off against each other is not exciting to me, but trading them off against Blades in the Dark-style projects definitely is! Especially if you throw in "gather intelligence" or other prep or legwork that impacts the next roleplayed mission. Very interesting! I suspect that this requires a world where time ticks forward and fictional opportunities come and go. Otherwise, the cost of choosing Time Expenditure 1 is simply that I have to wait until later to do Time Expenditure 2 -- this is too little bang to be worth bothering with, IMO. But if I can only perform the Big Mission if I get to it within 9 units of time, and now I have to ration those units, then we're in business. (Or maybe 10 units is viable, but mission gets harder, and then harder still at 11, with mission only fully impossible at 12, or something.)

    I know you wanted a subsystem that could be tacked on to FATE or whatnot, but I think it has by far its most potential if incorporated into a time-budgeting game. Maybe some gamey "during sessions"/"between sessions" abstractions would suffice, or maybe there's a definition of "downtime" that's clear enough (can't remember exactly how Blades defines it). I don't think you need to write a whole new game, but some sort of "use this clock!" component would probably help the skill-advancing sub-game sing.

    4) Characters might be able to hire (or win over) an incredible instructor who causes them to earn more wedges per unit of time. If this is on the table, then pursuing instructors could well become its own major component of play. If all time is factored into resource/budget concerns, then "how much time do we spend now pursuing instructors instead of accomplishing short-term achievements" is an interesting short-term/long-term strategic trade-off.

    If this is a fun and important enough part of play, it could even be further embellished/gamified -- maybe the likelihood of winning over an instructor depends in part of what you've already done, so "try to get an instructor on board early" must be weighed against "possibly waste time failing to get an instructor early; better odds of not wasting time if you try later".
  • VERY clever idea--in particular, when you show a non-linear progression (4 > 2 > 8 wedges for guitar). In fact, I'd try to generalize or modularize that thought:
    * Hard Mastery: 2 > 4 > 6 > 8
    * Hard Start: 8 > 6 > 4 > 2
    * Hard Competence: 2 > 8 > 6 > 4
    [and so forth; maybe with more-clever designations, but 'standardized' so that you could just list everything that falls under each progression, rather than it being willy-nilly; which would in turn make it easier to guess where an undefined skill falls, by comparison to those in a progression]

    I could see this system being a solid core to an RPG system that really folds it all in (rather than tacking it onto an existing system).

    Did you also look at Burning Wheel (use skills to progress; harder to level higher skills)? I'd very seriously consider 'use it to advance it' rules; perhaps each test that requires a "close" test earns a wedge for that skill for that session? That could lead to folks trying to hit every skill each session (maybe a Feature, not a Flaw?); and it could mean a skill that was really heavily taxed in a session isn't gaining as 'it should'. BUT, perhaps by lifting from Burning Wheel there's a way to mitigate that?:
    * An 'easy test' can only earn Circle 1 wedges.
    * 'Harder tests' earn wedges at higher Circles.
    [defining 'easy' v 'hard would be a factor of how a circle relates to a bonus to a test, and how that compares to a degree of difficulty; in general, masters doing trivial stuff don't learn at all, and amateurs doing master-level stuff don't learn as well as if doing stuff only slightly above their ability (i.e., they are out of their depth and don't have the sufficient context to learn at that level)]

    heh... this is the most I've posted about a design in months... so you've got something that trips MY triggers, at least! :)
  • When I was playing a lot of GURPS, I developed a system where you kept track of your daily training (roughly) and it was counted over the course of a year.

    The catch was that once you invested over 10 points in a skill, at the end of each year, 1/10 of your invested points (or something like that, can't remember the exact numbers) would be subtracted.

    This meant that the higher your skills got, the more maintenance they required. With time and age, the amount of work you could put in would decrease, and sooner or later your skills would start to deteriorate (or level off at the point where you could maintain them).

    It gave great numbers: modelling careers of apprentices and masters over the course of a lifetime, as they grew and learned and then hit their peak and then declined with age.

    However, of course, I pretty soon realized that there wasn't much useful application of my mechanics in an actual (no matter how well they worked).

    That was my initial reaction to this, as well. However, David Berg brings up some excellent points, and I also agree with David Artman's ideas about how you can "personalize" various skills. (Although I'm not sure what it means to use a "hard start" skill, or any non-linear kind of learning curve - couldn't this be modeled more easily with appropriate difficulty numbers or whatever?)

    David Berg's ideas of using this to build skill training into the context of limited time and then balancing that against various projects and missions - now it becomes interesting. It could be particularly interesting with a stable of characters.

    I could some (limited) interest for this kind of game: you're playing with the logistics or training and time. Perhaps each character has some internal sense of discipline, which limits how much time you can put in while remaining focused. And then you add various teachers/sources, and you have to maintain your relationships with them - piss off the Grand Master and maybe no one will teach you now... and finally you balance all that against the time pressure of some kind important events or deadlines... that has potential.

    I'm thinking of novels where a country bumpkin challenges the local jousting champion because he's in love with the princess... except he's never been on a horse! He has a month to learn, and he doesn't know anyone in the city. What will he do? Can he prepare in time for the duel/tournament/concert/Hunger Games?

    Or perhaps a ship full of marines is heading on a sleeper ship to a dangerous alien planet. You must deal with politics, drama, romance, and the hints of a traitor on board in the last few months of the trip. How prepared will you be for the challenges of the alien planet when you finally land, and what will it cost you?
  • edited March 2016
    * An 'easy test' can only earn Circle 1 wedges.
    * 'Harder tests' earn wedges at higher Circles.
    Ooh, yeah, good point -- if we're modeling reality enough to care about the difference between guitar-learning and history-learning, then spending equal time for equal wedges kinda violates that. In real life, some skills take way longer to improve than others, and some skills require stress-testing as opposed to practice as opposed to study. But maybe realism really is a backseat concern here, and the point of skill-training variety is primarily strategic fun, with a nod to realism as just a minor bonus?

    My experience mirrors Paul's -- I've never actually played an RPG where such nuanced modeling of skill change really mattered in a "my character's experience" sort of way. My groups have always enjoyed it more for point-spend strategy and power-balance than anything else. The main result of increasing advancement costs with higher skill ranks has been to keep super-high ranks rare and exotic and special-seeming. So, y'know, if you ever get to Mastery in a thing, it is official: you are a super-special badass. Even if, mechanically, Master is only a little better than Expert. Rolling at +4 is pretty cool when no one else ever rolls at more than +3! (Unless there are tons of other bonuses to the same roll, which dilutes the difference, rendering Mastery so very not worth the cost that no amount of Cool Factor can compensate.)

    On the other hand, I think realism and character experience are super fun when pulled off well, so maybe there's untapped potential there! A system that truly models the learning processes of real-world skills could be pretty neat, at least if included in a game that finds something compelling in all permutations -- high-stakes testing, endurance-challenging drudgery, etc. I like Paul's "discipline" idea, measuring focused and productive training, and perhaps there could be "stress" and "neglecting other stuff" metrics to track the costs of obsessive study/training.

    In a budget-management game, I can imagine early-game characters needing to devote a lot of their resources to general life stuff, but then freeing up more time or stress tolerance or whatnot to spend on training over time. "Now that I've had some adventuring success and amassed some wealth and hired servants to cook and clean for me, I can do 3 fencing classes a day and not suffer from starvation and filth!"

    Or, the opposite: "when I was a freelance operative, I could spend my time however I wanted, but now I have all these relationships to upkeep, underlings to oversee, ventures to update, etc., and I have no time left to train!"

    Sorry if this is a total digression -- I'm just enjoying musing about the possibilities here.

    I had a general thought about skill-advancement and game type, which I've broken off into a new thread.
  • The article has very good points about improving skills, but it neglects the side of skills that matters: their use and usefulness.
    Being an expert or a master is only an empty word; player decisions about improving their character have to be based on the concrete impact of skill ranks.

    The suggested system of tracking individual training/experience units is good with few total wedges, i.e. some combination of few skill ranks and few skills; many modern games have broad skills and large qualitative differences between skill levels (for example, access to many more and obviously more advanced spells for a "spellcasting" skill), but there are systems with many skills (e.g. GURPS, where each spell is a separate relatively cheap skill) or with deliberately undifferentiated and fine-grained skill levels (e.g. D&D hit rolls).
  • Thanks for all the great feedback!

    @David_Artman - I like the idea of using it in game in order to complete the wedge; sounds like a great variation!

    @David_Berg great observations and extensions - I especially like the tradeoffs in obligation and time that you propose for freelancer / aristocrat / etc. The +3 vs +4 modifier point is well taken. I think the non-mechanical benefits might be greater. An expert might have access to opportunities / individuals that the next tier down doesn't or they might be treated differently by NPCs.

    @Paul_T love your ideas for scenarios to use the system. Your ideas about continued practice to keep the skill level high and implications for the arc over a career are very cool - I'll have to noodle over it a bit more

    Synthesizing a few of the threads - it definitely seems like this system is most interesting where either:

    - There is a fixed amount of time until an event (e.g. reaching an alien planet, the big game) forcing opportunity costs
    - Time passes pretty quickly so you're likely to see the arc of character's life over a few session
    - There are plenty of non-skill things to do with one's time that are more tempting than training in the short run

    Lot's of directions to take this in - hopefully I'll have some time to prototype games around this soon :)
  • * Hard Start: 8 > 6 > 4 > 2
    I was trying think about what would use this kind of progression, especially with how easy (and hence tempting) it would be to max out it once you've invested in the first place. Some kind of horror-cultist stat would be fun - something where the more circles you have also makes it more likely you'll have horrific consequences from using that cool shit. Once you make the effort to let in the whispers of the dark god, it starts to look more and more like the easiest way to power.

  • the more circles you have also makes it more likely you'll have horrific consequences from using that cool shit
    Totally! I was noodling on a version of this for a magic system where the further you invested in one path the more corrupt you'd become. Each path had it's own flavor of corruption.

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