Skills have been my buggaboo for nearly as long as I’ve been writing about RPGs. Every time I look at a skill system I see some new problems that I want to fix. I don’t know whether I’m working towards some platonic ideal, or if I’m just fickle. Either way I can’t help myself. There’s always something that can be done better.
For the last few years, most of the referees I play with and learn from have been using some variation on Skills: The Middle Road. If you’re unfamiliar, the breakdown is pretty simple. When you check a skill, a roll of 5 or greater indicates success. For untrained characters, each skill check is rolled with a d6. As a character advances in a given skill (either through class features or training), the die they’re allowed to roll increases from 1d6, to 1d8, to 1d10, and ultimately to 1d12. The elegance of the system has always appealed to me. As recently as last year I was planning to integrate it into my games, and a variation of the system was originally going to be described in my LotFP house rules. But then I sat down and did something I almost never do: math.
I love math, but I’m shockingly bad at it. It was never my strong suit to begin with, and being homeschooled from the 3rd grade up didn’t help. As such, obvious mathematical realities sometimes escape me. Using AnyDice, I tried to work out the functional difference between The Middle Road, and the way skills work in Rules-As-Written LotFP. (Skills start at a 1-in-6 chance of success, improving to 2-in-6, then 3-in-6, etc).
While The Middle Road gives players a higher success rate at lower levels, RAW LotFP quickly outpaces it. The very highest level of ability in Middle Road only gives a 7-in-12 chance of success, or 66.67%. In RAW LotFP, a character with a 6-in-6 skill rolls 2d6, and the check fails only in the event of double sixes. That’s a 35 in 36 chance of success, or 97.22%.
Now when I first figured this out, it convinced me that I wanted to stick with RAW LotFP. At the time, my reasoning was that players ought to be able to truly master a skill if they choose to devote themselves to it. After all, choosing to master a skill completely leaves other skills underdeveloped. There’s a natural balance there.
More recently, my thinking has changed. A system which allows total mastery of a skill is a system which allows certain challenges to become completely trivialized. If the players can always unlock a locked door, why even place locked doors at all? As a means of justifying the player’s investment? Even players seem unenthusiastic about rolling dice when they feel certain of success. And in the rare events that they fail one of these nearly-certain rolls, they seem more upset by it than usual. As if the dice just told them they’d failed a “walking” check.
When failure doesn’t seem like a possibility, it’s a lot more frustrating when it happens. It might be better to allow players to reach a level of mastery that no longer called for a roll at all. One where locked doors simply no longer existed for a master locksmith. It’s not the sort of system I want, but I think it would be better than a 2.78% chance of failure.
It could be argued that if players have reached such a high level of mastery, they ought to be adventuring in areas with locks that require checks made at -1 or -2. This is a possibility described in the LotFP rules, and is entirely legitimate. But I don’t like it.
Part of the reason oldschool skill systems appeal to me is the lack of any need for the referee to determine the difficulty of a task. Getting rid of Difficulty Checks was one of the best things about quitting Pathfinder. DCs are the fuckin’ worst. They add a ton of boring, yet necessary preparatory work to the referee’s job. They encourage the referee to reduce player agency by saying “Well, this door allows the players to skip half the dungeon. So it’ll have a REALLY high DC.” Furthermore, when a DC has to be improvised, it’s difficult to choose a good DC off the top of your head. And finally, if the referee is placing ever-increasing DCs in the game, at the same pace that the player’s ability to surpass those DCs is growing, then why have any advancement at all?
If I place a lock that requires a check at -2 in my adventure because of the fact that my players are really good at opening locks, then why did I allow them to waste skill points that I was just going to invalidate through future dungeon design?
The Middle Road has none of these problems. Furthermore, it has two great benefits.
First, it enables the referee to include weirder skills in the game. Consider the problem of the Law skill that I mentioned when I drafted the Lawyer class a few months ago. I think the law skill is super neat and fun, but it’s also powerful. If a player were able to master it, they’d be unstoppable. But so long as they still have a decent chance to fail any given check, they won’t be able to push their luck too far.
Second, and more importantly, it preserves the low level experience. It’s almost universally agreed, at least within the OSR, that low level play is the best play. The most challenging, the most engaging, the most fun. People prefer low level play so much that many campaigns (much to my frustration) are terminated just as the PCs start to reach mid levels.
The reason low level play is so treasured is that the game fundamentally changes as it goes on. As PCs reach higher levels, more and more challenges become trivial for them. They don’t need to worry about torches once the magic user learns Light, they don’t need to worry about rations once the cleric learns Create Food and Water, and they don’t need to worry about locked doors once the thief has an almost certain chance of opening them easily.
Keeping skill checks uncertain, even at the highest levels of mastery, maintains that low level play that we all enjoy.
And as an aside, Skills: The Middle Road could easily be expanded using a d14 and d16. Not all Zocchi dice are reliably random, but those two are. I’d love to see them come into more common usage, since they so nicely fill in a lot of the gap between the d12 and the d20. And even with a d16, a player would only have a 75% chance of hitting 5 or higher. Which is still a respectable failure rate.