Once I accepted the idea of skills for a sci-fi version of BX, my brain started to run in several directions at the same time. I apologize if this rambles a bit, but this post serves the function of trying to find some order within the chaos firing off in my brain...
Firstly, I am sore tempted to fiddle with ability scores. D&D has never really seemed to understand WIS. Indeed, CHA seems to be a better fit for what WIS should be. I also think there needs to be a better representation of knowledge and how society and individuals understand themselves in relation to knowledge.
The first place I went to begin this exploration is my favorite Sci-fi RPG — Traveller. CT also has six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education, and Social Status. I really like the distinction between Intelligence and Education as well as the implications on the game for the existence of Social Status. I am not done fiddling yet, though.
There are quite a few rules that are unique to the Holmes edition of Basic D&D. On paper, one that seems to be broken is DEX = Initiative. I held this opinion for many years, but I did so without ever putting it into practice. Once I had the humility to do so, however, it became my favorite way to handle initiative at the table. Once everybody gets used to the overall order within the party, it makes combat faster. Players understand when they always go, and so have a tactical and strategic role to fulfill, which they no longer have to think about, just do. I know what to expect, because the basic pattern remains similar if not the same. It is difficult to explain other than to say: It works.
I do, however, worry that using DEX = Initiative places too much mechanical weight on DEX. While in my own games I have tried to mitigate this weight by giving low DEX characters tactical choices higher DEX characters would likely not make, I think Initiative should be its own thing. Thus, I am tempted to roll up STR and DEX into one attribute: Physical. I'll address the mechanical implications of this below.
Before we get there, I need to explain my own expectations of a classic D&D campaign vs. those of a generic Sci-Fi RPG campaign:
The first is centered around delving into various areas of a campaign map looking for treasure and fighting/avoiding a variety of monsters and traps along the way. As the party delves deeper, monsters and traps get harder and treasures become more valuable. Thus, as the campaign goes on characters need to gain abilities that can better adapt to the increasing difficulty of these monsters and traps.
The second is much more mission oriented with a healthy slice of exploration/information gathering. Thus, the rewards that characters get along the way are much less about the character's ability to deal increasingly difficult challenges, but rather on obtaining better equipment and reputations so that they can attract better paying/influential patrons to get increasingly more meaningful missions.
To illustrate this, let me compare Conan the Destroyer and the original Star Wars. At the beginning of the movie, Conan is fighting normal soldiers. As the movie goes on, the relative strength of his opponents increase in strength and danger until the climax where he is trying to kill some demon/demi-god thing. In contrast, the main combatants throughout Star Wars are Storm Troopers and Tie-Fighters. What really changes is the mission, who is sponsoring that mission, the equipment being used, and the importance of that mission.
As an aside, the guys that I played D&D with growing up almost all prefer low-level campaigns. The stories we tell each other about the old days almost always involve a PC that has absolutely no business adventuring, let alone succeeding. As a consequence, we have discussed at length about various mechanical means by which to keep the game low-level without sacrificing a lot of the other stuff we love about the game. One bugaboo we keep running into is the Hit Die — a central mechanic in the older rulesets we prefer to play.
Given the narrative structure of a sc-fi game, the import of the Hit Die is far less significant. Characters are just as likely to encounter their campaign's version of storm troopers early in the campaign as they are late in the campaign. Thus, the need for the HD/hp arms race of D&D isn't really necessary. If I wanted to be radical about it, Hit Points could even be static throughout the campaign.Thus, I am sore tempted to simply equate Endurance/Constitution with hit points.
This brings me back to Physical — combining STR and DEX into one ability. Given that STR and DEX both have a lot of mechanical consequences in combat, this seems like I am putting too much mechanical weight into one ability score. I would agree, if I kept all of the mechanical bonuses that STR and DEX have in D&D. I don't plan to.
Classic D&D has three Classes (Cleric, Fighting-man, and Magic-user), three Prime Requisits (STR, INT, and WIS), and (almost) three Abilities that directly affect combat (DEX, CON, and CHA). I want to use this structure.
Classes: Adept, Expert, and Warrior
Prime Requisits: INT, EDU, PHYS
Combat Abilities: INI, END, SOC
One might notice (and even complain) that this set-up gets rid of various mechanics such as "to-hit" bonuses, AC modifiers, etc. You aren't wrong; however, this is where the idea of a "trained" skill comes into play. Classes and Backgrounds will give players an opportunity at Character Creation to choose various skills that are "trained" and therefore give the character access to an additional mechanic based on an Ability Score. For example, if you wanted a melee character, you would choose a class or background that gave you access to PHYS skill training and then choose a skill that would give you access to melee "to hit" bonuses or damage bonuses.
I'd have to play-test this, but there is also the opportunity to have two levels of "trained" skills. As a general rule, all skills are 1-in-6. Class and Background allow characters access to training all skills under specific ability scores, allowing them to increase their success chance based on the Open Doors mechanic from B/X.
All I have to do now is come up with a balanced list of skills for each ability score and the mechanics associated with them...God help me.