Quick Skills Idea

Assume for the moment that you like playing with skills and feats. Why do first level characters get skills and feats? Video games rarely introduce all their mechanics at once; why should tabletop RPGs? Why not start accumulating skills & feats at second level rather than first? There is nothing special about second level of course, other than that it is not first level. This has a number of benefits:

  1. Character generation is simpler and faster.
  2. Players will be less likely to take skills or feats that are not useful in the particular campaign.
  3. Character concept will be clearer once the character has had some play time.
  4. Getting skills and feats is always a reward rather than an entitlement, and so will be appreciated more.
  5. Character building becomes less of a self-contained pre-game.
  6. Basic knowledge required to start playing is decreased.
  7. Skills & feats become more about character development.
  8. The principle of definition through play is strengthened.

Some might argue that the same problem applies to magic-user and cleric spells. I would respond that the cleric did not originally gain a spell at first level (a design choice I am coming to increasingly appreciate, for a number of reasons). The design of the magic-user is indeed vulnerable to this critique, but it is only one of several classes, and so is a form of opt-in complexity. Further, there are a number of methods for randomly determining spells known, so though it might take some time, it does not necessarily require any choice.

I bet 50% of characters played never reach second level. Why is the common case (first level) made nearly as complex as the rare case? What percentage of games start at first level? (My guess is the vast majority.) What is the average level a campaign reaches before petering out or being ended? These are interesting empirical questions that have potentially important implications for game design.

In fact, I think this principle can be applied in general. Why not make players earn their rules complexity? This is one of the reasons why a long list of powers for every class (I’m looking at you, Fourth Edition) does not work very well. This character generation rules proliferation is a side-effect of trying to stretch the “sweet spot” of D&D play over all 30 levels (an explicit design goal of 4E).

Or, to put it another way, why not back-load the complexity?

25 December 2011 edit: Jeffro wrote a great post about applying a similar idea to magic users (described below in the comments) by only starting them out with read magic, so that all spells are introduced through play. Go read it, because it’s a great post, and something I’m definitely going to try myself.

6 thoughts on “Quick Skills Idea

  1. jeffro

    This principle is sound. It is consistent with the design of Keep on the Borderlands: give the novice Dungeon Master everything he needs for immediate play, but no more. It assumes that the novice DM will develop his own campaign world from scratch in the course of running a dozen sessions or more. Compare that to the what can be expected to happen when a complete amateur is given a fully fleshed out campaign setting without a corresponding beginner module. (I’m looking at you, 1980’s Forgotten Realms boxed set….)

    I am surprised at how much I like the no-spell-at-first-level cleric as well. It’s not at all what I expected.

    Note that the magic-user under Moldvay Basic only gets one spell in his spell book at first level. He can’t even use scrolls unless he chooses Read Magic! You could conceivably start all 1st level magic-users in your campaign with just the Read Magic spell… and then introduce the spell list over the course of several games as befits the learning curve of both players and the dungeon master. This would avoid forcing new players to absorb the first level magic user spell list in their first session to pick out the best, most useful one in the list. (“You’re going with Sleep? I’m shocked… shocked!”) It would also give a tone to the game that is closer to, for example, Infocom’s Enchanter.

  2. Brendan

    You could conceivably start all 1st level magic-users in your campaign with just the Read Magic spell… and then introduce the spell list over the course of several games as befits the learning curve of both players and the dungeon master.

    That is a fantastic idea. It could also work for more experienced players, by bringing some mystery back into magic-user spells, since the player would not know the available spells until they are learned.

    I am not familiar with Infocom’s Enchanter. I’ll have to look into that.

  3. jeffro

    Enchanter is basically Zork IV.

    A bunch of guys at MIT played original D&D… and when the first text adventure made the rounds of the mainframes of the day… these guys decided to make a better one.

    The first three games in the series feature the classic Adventurer character with his iconic lantern and glowing elvish sword. They are mostly about finding treasures and taking them back to a safe location– nothing flashy, but it allows the player to look at multiple puzzles at once while the game designers pace how much of the game world has been revealed at any given stage.

    Enchanter introduces a magic-user type character who can cast spells and is much closer to being an true piece of interactive fiction. The spell names are all quirky and are probably derived from the MIT’s early hacker culture of the late seventies. In the context of the game, spells are implemented essentially as verbs… which is surprisingly clever. As a kid, I always thought the D&D magic system was odd, but these guys had a pretty interesting take on it and seemed to embrace it with no trouble. Their tongues were often in their cheeks, however.


Leave a Reply