The characters in our hypothetical game system already have Abilities – characteristics such as Strength, Dexterity or Intelligence – but they also need to have experience and training: Skills.

Untrained Use: Skills that can be used untrained receive a -3 Dice modifier. That makes dice checks one category harder. That’s pretty much the gist of our task resolution system, and it fits with the -3 for absolutely abysmal ability scores.

Basic Training: In the post on skill and ability modifiers, we determined that rank 0 in a skill is equivalent to basic training without practical experience. Rank 0 avoids the untrained penalty, and allows use of skills that can not be used untrained, but does not give any bonus to the check.

Flexible Skill Coupling: Some game systems strictly associate a skill with a particular ability, such as Dexterity for Archery. Other systems make it entirely dependent on situation. I prefer the flexibility of the later, but admit that some skills should usually depend on certain abilities. In our archery example, a ranger who tries to keep track of several identical-looking targets may have to substitute his Intelligence modifier for his Dexterity modifier.

So how do our characters gain skills?

Remembering that the maximum our system can comfortably support is a +8 skill rank, we do have to limit the number of skill ranks available to a character in some fashion. An easy solution would be to use skill points and to escalate the cost of skill points for higher ranks. However, I believe there are disadvantages to this: We either have to allow characters to “save up” skill points until they can afford to buy an expensive skill rank, or we have to accept a high level of book keeping, if skill points have to be spent directly on skills, even if it does not result in an immediate skill rank increase.

Both methods also mean that a character who is waiting to improve an expensive skill will not see any character improvement in quite a while.

Instead, I had this idea to keep character improvement at a fairly steady pace, but to reduce the magnitude of improvement over time. The only way I can come up with to implement this are character levels, something I wanted to avoid. But I think it might work, especially if we do not hook other power increases (“hit points” come to mind) to levels.

Let’s whip up a table.

Level Exp Skill Points Max Skill Rank
1 0 4 2
2 10 4 3
3 20 3 4
4 30 3 5
5 40 2 6
6 50 2 7
7 60 1 8
8 70 1 8
9 80 1 8
10 90 1 8

(And so on for levels beyond 10.)

So basically, the Game Master decides what level the characters start on. Each level, they receive a number of skill points that they can directly spend to increase their skill ranks. Since there’s a maximum skill rank, based on level, players can not start their characters out with unrealistically high skill ranks.

The game master then rewards the players with experience points – say, 3-5 points per game session. Every 2-4 sessions, all characters advance by one level.

There’s another benefit to this system: Newer characters can actually catch up to older characters, at least to a point..

Level Total Skill Points
1 4
2 8
3 11
4 14
5 16
6 18
7 19
8 20
9 21
10 22

Older, more experienced characters will always have more skill points in total, but assume a character of level 10 and one of level 1. 18 points difference, but the maximum difference in a skill is 6 points.

By level 14 and 4, the difference will be 12 points; by level 17 and 7 it is 10 points. After that, the difference stays constant. That buys the more experienced character one additional skill at maximum level, or a total of three “+3’s”. It seems hardly game-breaking, especially if you consider that higher skill levels are subject to diminishing returns anyway.

In addition, the game master could reasonably hand out a few Rank 0 Skills to the “younger” characters. This is entirely within the scope of our definitions. Imagine if the newer character travels with an expert swordsman, the older character. Just watching him “in action” should give the young protege some basic hints about sword-fighting. It doesn’t really give the new character a big boost; spending even one skill point on a skill raises it to Rank 1 anyway, no matter whether the character had it at Rank 0 or not.

Such Rank 0 “Bonus Skills” should be awarded at the Game Master’s discretion. However, as a rough guideline, a number of Rank 0 skills equal to half the level of the level difference to the highest character may be appropriate. So if your new character starts at level 2, and the old hand has level 16, the Game Master could assign you a maximum of seven bonus skills at Rank 0. These should be in areas that other characters have high skills in, and should be awarded after you have traveled with your companions for some time (which might well be before the first session, if your Game Master allows it).

The exact numbers for skill points et al probably need to be based on how many different skills the system actually uses – and, of course, this all would have to be play tested to see if it actually works.

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