Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Why Skills?

In response to my recent meditation on skills in RPGs (especially in modern and sci-fi settings), Anzon asked the very pertinent question: Why skills? To answer that question I need to quote another question from John 18:38. Prior to sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilot asks Christ, "What is truth?"

In his Gospel, St. John uses a lot of contrasts (Light v. Dark, Life v. Death, the World v. the Kingdom, etc.). This question is no exception. Pilot, representing the non-Christian world view, cannot see the fact that Truth is right in front of him:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life." — John 14:6

In other words, Pilot asks the wrong question. Truth is not a "what." Truth is a "who." While this has a bunch of connotations, I want to concentrate on how this distinction affects the way we understand ourselves.

When truth is a who, we tend to define ourselves by what we do — what Orthodox Christianity sometimes calls praxis. For a practical example, take surnames. Widespread use of surnames did not exist in Europe prior to the mid-to-late medieval ages — a world very much Christian in its world-view. A quick glance at European surnames will reveal a plethora of names that describe what people do for a living: Baker, Cook, Smith, Wright to name just a few.

Beginning in the Late Renaissance, Pilate's version of the question began a comeback in the Western world. Indeed, in our own post-christian world asking the question, "Who is truth?" sounds strange. With this shift, people began to define themselves by what they know, not what they do. As technology got more complicated and essential for daily living, this view of ourselves became normative. College degrees became a basic qualification to get most jobs. Indeed, the types of jobs suggested by the surnames Baker, Cook, Smith, and Wright began to be known as "menial," because they didn't require the type of knowledge necessary to qualify for "better" jobs.

The term "Doctor" is an example of this shift. While colloquially it still refers to a medical doctor, the term isn't exclusive to the medical field. For instance, if I were to continue my education, I could a get Doctorate in Theology. In other words, doctor does not refer to what a person does, but rather what they know.

This distinction also manifests in the mechanics of RPGs. D&D, especially the earlier editions, mechanically reflect the medieval mind quite well. PCs are defined by their Class — what they do. As one moves into games that try to emulate modern and sci-fi genres, the mechanics shift away from Classes to Skills — what a character knows. Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and the Hero System are examples of games that make this mechanical choice.

Thus, when meditating on how to use the B/X chassis to emulate a sci-fi setting, I am almost compelled to use a skill system of some kind. This is especially true of any setting that is 40k adjacent. The Grimdark is an extreme materialist dystopia where what passes for acceptable religion has its adherents worshiping material things such as the Emperor or the Machine. Factions who acknowledge beings in the Immaterium (aka the Warp) are classified as Chaos and are understood to be among the worst antagonists in a setting that has no real good guys.

If I am to emulate such a setting, I feel that a strictly class-based system doesn't do the setting or the mind-set of those who live in that setting enough justice. Some kind of skill system better represents the presuppositions of a culture that asks Pilate's question, "what is truth?"


  1. This is a great insight into why skills feel necessary in modern/future RPGs but classes are sufficient in premodern styled RPGs.

  2. Thank you, that makes a lot of sense

  3. "PCs are defined by their Class — what they do."
    They are also starkly limited in what "they do" and that has always been inadequate to me.

    It's why I've said for over 30 years, "I hate classes and levels", because it so very limiting.

  4. This is definitely true of, say, Star Trek, where everyone is just another flavour of professional, but isn't 40k quite medieval or even hyper-medieval in this way? Everything is a role you're born to and/or an all-consuming lifelong career, often to the point of different careers implying radical physical differences as a result.

    You can't just pick up the Science skill, you have to dedicate your life and body as a cyborg devotee of the Machine God. Space Marines are not merely trained from their youth as fighters (although they are), they're also surgically upgraded Frankenstein monsters. You can't just go to wizard school or pick up a book on magic, you have to live your life as a shameful mutant and/or betray everything you were to strike a deal with the Chaos Gods.

    1. Actually, maybe the medieval side of things is a coincidence, and it's just a result of early D&D and the 40k setting both originating from wargames? Although I think it is no coincidence that medieval fantasy wargames were best able to offer a wide variety of distinct "pieces" in the first place, whereas in more modern game settings, all your little army dudes with guns are basically the same.