Skip to Content

Help Minimizing Skills in Pen & paper RPGs

8 replies [Last post]
Joined: 10/25/2014

Over the years I have played many Pen & Paper RPGs, for those unfamiliar reference D&D. One thing I am trying to do is to streamline the skills or trim them down. Most RPGs have 36+ skills on average now I have seen games that have gone to the far extreme on both end some have done away with skills altogether as well as games that have expanded to more than 100. I for one like the skill component in RPGs, for me it helps in personalizing your character and play style. But at the same time I believe that a lot of the skills are unnecessary. What I am trying to do is trim down the skill list for my game to 15. I would appreciate any input you offer on skills listed here and any you thing are missing.

The standard skill list for most RPGs are as follows:

7.Decipher Script
9.Disable Device
11.Escape Artist
13.Gather Information
14.Handle Animal
21.Move Silently
22.Open Lock
27.Sense Motive
28.Sleight of Hand
39.Speak Language
35.Use Magic Device
36.Use Rope

Now a list like this can feel a little over whelming to a first time player, especially with a system that does not use a class system to trim down the list to the skills relevant to the player.

Right off the bat I was able to trim the list by removing Spellcraft and use magic device for lack of relevance to my game. I was then able to associate 12 of these skills with Attributes.

Strength: Climbing
Agility: Balance, Jump, Ride, Tumble
Perception: Listen, Search, Sense Motive, Spot (Thou Search and spot are essentially the same)
Endurance: Swim
Intelligence: Forgery, Decipher Script

This brings the total down to 22. At this point I started to combine similar skills.

Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate into Speech
Craft and Disable Device into Repair (If you can fix it you can break it)
Disguise, Hide, Move Silently and Sleight of Hand into Sneak

This Brings the total down to 16.

1. Appraise
2. Concentration
3. Escape Artist
4. Gather Information
5. Handle Animal
6. Heal
7. Knowledge
8. Open Lock
9. Preform
10. Profession
11. Repair
12. Sneak
13. Speech
14. Speak Language
15. Survival
16. Use Rope

But now I have to add a few skills that are required for my skill system.

1. Energy Weapons
2. Explosives
3. Firearms
4. Melee
5. Science
6. Unarmed

Now I am back up to 22.

1. Appraise (Barter)
2. Concentration
3. Firearms
4. Escape Artist
5. Explosives
6. Energy Weapons
7. Gather Information
8. Handle Animal
9. Heal (Medical)
10. Knowledge
11. Melee
12. Open Lock (Lockpick)
13. Preform
14. Profession
15. Repair
16. Sneak
17. Science
18. Speech
19. Speak Language
20. Survival
21. Unarmed
22. Use Rope

Now yes this I considerably shorter than most RPGs but I think I can go shorter.

Let take a look at each of the skills:

Appraise (Barter): There will be buying, selling and trading of goods and services, so this skill has to stay.

Concentration: This skill will governs your ability to preform complicated task while under pressure. Now some people are naturally good under pressure and some people have learned to coop with it so I am not sure if this should be a skill or maybe a secondary attribute derived from the primary attributes though I am unsure with attribute would contribute to dealing with stress?

Firearms: Governs the use and knowledge of standard firearms such as pistols, rifles, shotgun, etc.. Now there will be an extensive selection of firearms in this game and I like the idea that the more knowledgeable you are about the practical use of the weapons your using allowing you to better utilize them.

Escape Artist: The ability to free ones self from bonds such a rope, chains, handcuffs, etc. I thought that I might be able to add this to Sneak but just because you are good at hiding or blinding in with a crowd does not mean you are also able to slip out of your bonds if captured. At the same time this skill would be to specific to be a stand alone skill.

Explosives: Governs your ability to properly use explosives, weather planting or defusing them. Now there will be an extensive selection of explosives in this game and I like the idea that the more knowledgeable you are about the practical use of the explosives your using allowing you to better utilize them.

Energy Weapons: Governs the use and knowledge of energy based weapons. Now there will be an extensive selection of energy based weapons in this game and I like the idea that the more knowledgeable you are about the practical use of the weapons your using allowing you to better utilize them.

Gather Information: Governs ones ability to find out information such as who the big players are in town, or where to purchase Illegal substances, etc.. Now I have never really cared for this as a skill in other RPGs, to me it takes away from the emersion. Instead of asking a local barkeep and playing out the conversation lets just roll a dice. So I am not very fond of keeping this one.

Handle Animal: Governs your ability to deal with animals.(in most cases this skill is used to have a pet as a companion.) Now, this one I though could just as easily be converted to being a feat or perk rather than a skill, but I guess different animals would require more skill than other, such as a house cat compared to a lion. I am not sure on this one.

Heal (Medical): Governs the ability to treat illness and injury. This skill is a staple in most games and will get plenty of use in my game.

Knowledge: Usually a player will have to spend skill points to become knowledgeable of specific bits of history, locations, groups, etc. in most RPGs. In most games that I have played and ran knowledge was chosen during character creation and was required to pertain to the characters past, you were not allowed to level-up and say I now have knowledge of "the brotherhood of silly things". So I am not really sure if this should be a skill or just a box on the character sheet.

Melee: Governs the use and knowledge of melee weapons. Now there will be an extensive selection of melee weapons in this game and I like the idea that the more knowledgeable you are about the practical use of the weapons your using allowing you to better utilize them.

Open Lock (Lockpick): Governs ones ability to as inferred open locks. Now I thought about combining this skill with sneak but Just because you are sneaky does not mean you know how to pick a lock. example would be a sniper needs to be able to hide but he does not necessarily need to know how to pick a lock.

Preform: Governs your ability to preform tasks such a sing, play a musical instrument, pole dance, etc.. This skill was never really used is the games I have played, so I have to real opinion on this one other that like with knowledge part of the character's backstory.

Profession: Governs how one makes a living when they are not out adventuring. This one I was thinking of actually using a part of the character creation instead of a skill and having it dictate starting money.

Repair: Governs your ability to fix, disable, or sabotage items. I have created a durability system in this game, making this a very helpful skill.

Sneak: Governs ones ability to hide or blend in to a crowd. The ability to sneak past a guard is usually a better choice than trying to muscle past him.

Science: Governs ones understanding of biology, physics, computer hacking, etc.. With this game taking place I a modern futuristic urban environment this skill should get plenty of use.

Speech: Governs ones social skills, The ability to tell a convincing lie, to convey and idea or belief. Communication is always important, or at least in my experience.

Speak Language: Governs one ability to speak multiple languages. now this can be combine with speech or maybe based off intelligence. not really sure what to do with this one.

Survival: Governs ones knowledge of tracking, living off the land, etc.. Survival is a major concept of this game.

Unarmed: Governs ones ability to fight unarmed. Now there will be an extensive selection of unarmed weapons in this game and I like the idea that the more knowledgeable you are about the practical use of the weapons your using allowing you to better utilize them.

Use Rope: Governs ones knowledge of knot work and the sort. I am sure there will be a need to tie important knots at some point during a session. The question is how would I best go about judging weather a character was successful or weather the knot does not hold and his companion falls off the cliff.

Wow, I got a little carried away... Lol.

To those of you still reading I apologize for the length of this topic, And would like to thank you for your time.

Joined: 09/18/2014
Other RPG systems

It seems that you're very familiar with D&D / D20, but did you look into other systems for inspiration?

(Well, not GURPS, obviously. You need a scientific calculator to play that LOL)

For example, in White Wolf's Storyteller system, you have a core of skills that is essentially the same and other "extra" skills to give extra flavor to the games and make it more "personalized". The players are also able to take specializations and improve rates of success in the fields they're better, some skills allow you to take it on advanced level (like Science, you specialize when you reach 4+ level, which would be the equivalent of having a Ph.D) and some skills require that the player decides on a specialty when taking (like Languages, you need to choose which ones your character speak). This is very similar to what happens in D&D when you take the Profession and Knowledge skills.

There's a lot of skills, of course, but most of them are scenario-specific and the core group of skills is very lean, like 24 skills or something, and some of them can be completely removed if you want to play in a low-tech scenario (like Drive and Computer).

A suggestion I can give you based on that is to consolidate "Perform" and "Speech" on the same category and maybe give the players a specialization.

In order to help you further, it begs the question: what is your setting? Is it modern? Steampunk? Sci-fi? Cyberpunk? Plain old medieval? Fantasy medieval?

Joined: 07/03/2013
I think...

You started with these:
1. Appraise (Barter)
2. Concentration
3. Firearms
4. Escape Artist
5. Explosives
6. Energy Weapons
7. Gather Information
8. Handle Animal
9. Heal (Medical)
10. Knowledge
11. Melee
12. Open Lock (Lockpick)
13. Preform
14. Profession
15. Repair
16. Sneak
17. Science
18. Speech
19. Speak Language
20. Survival
21. Unarmed
22. Use Rope

I think that you don't need Appraise, because you already have speech (from your descriptions of what it'd be used for. (Make a knowledge check to figure out value, then a speech check to barter if off)

Knowledge and Science overlap. I'd chuck out science (make it a feat or something that lets you get a bonus to science-related knowledge checks)

You could combine firearms and explosives into "conventional weaponry" if you wanted. Usually, a soldier, or a hitman, knows how to use both.

Open Lock and Repair could be combined, based on your logic.

Concentration and Survival could be combined easily. We'll stick with Survival.

Chuck Perform (you spelled it preform, btw). If it's only about background, then you don't really need it. Again, a feat to give a bonus to Speech checks related to performing an instrument will do if you are willing to simplify. Maybe let a character apply their dexterity instead of charisma to the speech check to perform?)

Gather Information is really not all that necessary of a skill in RPGs. It's just a d20 check that determines whether the DM will tell you something that he'll almost inevitably have to tell you later anyways for the sake of the story (for most DMs). Again, speech can cover that.

Unarmed and melee could get condensed. I know that you want to have them be separate skills, and I see why, but you could have other reasons to go unarmed that influence that choice, aside from the skill (maybe handguns jam, so you may need to kick a foo' in da' face!).

That leaves you with my remaining list:

3. Conventional Weapons
4. Escape Artist

6. Energy Weapons

8. Handle Animal
9. Heal (Medical)
10. Knowledge
11. Melee

14. Profession
15. Repair
16. Sneak

18. Speech
19. Speak Language
20. Survival

22. Use Rope

Well, that's 14! do with my advice what you will.

Joined: 10/25/2014
Breaking Point

Thank you for your response JuKarasawa,

Humanity has been pushed to the breaking point and survived. (worldwide famine, viral epidemic, world war, Natural Disaster). I guess you could say post-apocalyptic.

I am actually running a modified d100 system.

Joined: 03/02/2014

Have you looked into FATE games? They typically have a shorter list. Also, the mechanism is, IMHO, a lot better. (I have a huge problem with a linear d20 of random over a skill that is considered expert when you're in the upper teens.)

I do have a couple of problems with the shorter lists, though, including yours.

First, I assume that a player has to allocate points to these skills, somehow, from a limited number. If the skills all have the same 'cost' then it's hard to justify allocating points to the lesser-used skills. For instance, rope use is a fairly specialized skill that might come up once every two gaming sessions. I can't see ever making that skill stronger than Energy Weapons -- a skill that will come up probably many times a session.

Second, unless you're adding a specialization rule, it excludes a lot of interesting characters. For example, I once had a character who was fairly uneducated because he had grown up as part of a gang of (fairly violent) insurgents hiding from the government. I wanted him to be an expert in demolitions, with an instinctive sense for where in a structure to place explosives to cause the maximum effect. Unfortunately, that skill was considered part of "engineering," something that the character would not generally know.

Fortunately, I was able to negotiate with the GM that my character had a decent engineering ability, but it would always get a bonus for demolitions and a penalty for any other use. This put him about right, close to expert in the one use of the skill, and only a bit above beginner in others. However, a less experienced and more rule-focused GM might not have allowed it (or might be too easily bullied by other players to make less appropriate modifications).

In the FATE-based game that I have worked on but currently gathers dust on my shelf, I did exactly this: There are only 25ish skills, but most of them have 3 or 4 sub-skills. When you take a skill, you can be a generalist, in which case you have all the sub-skills at that level, or you can be a specialist, in which case you have one sub-skill at one level higher but all the rest at one level lower (than the 'slot' in which you are taking the skill).

Joined: 10/25/2014
Retooled Skills

Thank you ruy343

1. Barter (Appraise): I thought about what you said, but I was thinking of it like this a you can be a great salesman and socially inept and the same time.

2. Firearms: Yes a soldier or hitman would be knowledgeable with both firearms and explosives, but that is due to extensive training in both fields. I for one was a soldier in the united states army but I was only given minimal training with explosives, I know the proper use of grenades and claymores, but could I tell you how to disarm an IED, no. The military had demolition techs and bomb techs.

3. Energy Weapons

4. Explosives

5. Lockpick (Open Lock): This is a rather specialized skill, thou one could use the repair skill with a penalty. While a person well trained I repair may be able to bypass a lock given time a locksmith knows exactly what to do.

6. Medical:

7. Melee: The separation of combat skills in my mind allows for more diversity in character. Also think about it this way a fencer VS a kick boxer: A fencer is skilled with the use of a fencing sword now if you take away that sword, sure he can throw a punch or a kick but will he be as effective as the kick boxer and vice versa. A character is still able to use unarmed attack but will be a lot less effective.

8. Repair:

9. Science: Science is similar to repair. Repair focuses more on mechanics (Moving parts), whereas science focuses more on the Programing (computers, robotics).

10.Speech: Speech is more of a social skill. Speech could also incorporate speak language, rolling against it the try to communicate with someone that does not speak the common language. I do think you are right working Gather Information into Speech.

11. Sneak

12. Survival: Use rope more a survival still. As well Handle animal.

13. Unarmed: The separation of combat skills in my mind allows for more diversity in character. Also think about it this way a fencer VS a kick boxer: A fencer is skilled with the use of a fencing sword now if you take away that sword, sure he can throw a punch or a kick but will he be as effective as the kick boxer and vice versa. A character is still able to use unarmed attack but will be a lot less effective.
Profession, I have decided that profession will be a separate part of the character and will decide a characters starting wealth.

Perform, I say thinking that would be more of a situational thing than a skill example: Singing roll against Speech, Dance roll against Agility, Act (Theater) roll against Charisma.

Knowledge, what I am thinking that based on the character's intelligence that would be able to choose something they are knowledgeable (Places, History, Groups, Etc.) Example: Intelligence divide by 1/2, so with an Intelligence of 10 they would choose 5 things, thou the things would have to be tied into their backstory.

Now I have started thinking about transportation. Beasts of burden would fall under survival, question is there will be other forms of transportation such a cars, boats, aircraft should I have a skill for piloting motorize vehicles. For instant if a character is driving a car and wants to try to preform an e-break 180 they would roll against this skill. But this leads me to another problem, cars, boats(ships), and aircraft operate differently. Now do I need a different skill for each or one general skill with the need to be trained in there operation separately.

Joined: 10/25/2014
Thank you Zag24Your example

Thank you Zag24

Your example of explosives:

In general explosives covers the knowledge and use of explosives. This means knowing exactly where to place the explosives to do the most damage, weather trying to bring down a building or the optimal location to target in an enemy camp to cause the casualties or the biggest distraction.

Now for General skills and sub-skills:

Each of the skills range between 1-100 and are based on one of 7 specific attributes. This allow for the player to have a little general knowledge of all the skills. Then the player chooses 3 of these skills to be their primary skills giving each of the three choosen skills a starting bonus. This gives the player there starting skill levels.

I have thought about the idea of sub-skills, for example:

(General Skill)

Each of these firearm types are just different enough that they could demand their own skill.

One idea I had was that your starting General skill levels cover all sub-skills example:

Firearms 45

Pistols 45
SMGs 45
Shotguns 45
Rifles 45

From this point the player would then choose which of these sub skills they wish to train, thou allowing multiple character to be proficient with firearms and skill provide different rolls in combat.

Now I really like this idea but from the prospective of players new to RPGs this can make the character sheet look rather overwhelming. Most of the people I play with are rather new to the whole pen & paper game thing. that is the main reason I am trying to simplify my game.

As I sets I have had to make an excel sheet for all the formula within the mechanics of my game because I am one of the few people I play with that can even do the math involved... Lol

Now tackling that monster is a topic for another day.

Joined: 03/02/2014
Some still too specialized

My point about explosives was only an example -- it was not meant to be applied to your system. Anyway, about your specific skills. (I won't bother to put "in my opinion" on each comment -- you should assume it, of course.)

1. Barter (Appraise): You're combining a knowledge skill and a social skill, here. I think you'd do better to have a more general skill for evaluating value of things, and then have rules for combining skills, using Barter as an example of combining Appraise and Speech.

2. Firearms
3. Energy Weapons
Fine, though do they include repair and construction as well as firing?

4. Explosives: Too specialized for its own skill, in spite of my example.

5. Lockpick (Open Lock): How about Mechanics, so it includes setting and disabling traps and security systems, working with anything with gears and pulleys (like a drawbridge or portcullis), etc.

6. Medical:
7. Melee:

8. Repair: Hmm. Now this overlaps with Mechanics. But there are a ton of crafts you haven't accounted for -- making armor, weapons, and tools; construction (e.g. buildings);

9. Science:

10.Speech: Wow. All the social and performance skills wrapped up in one! Bluff, Oratory, Language, Intimidation, Diplomacy, Singing, Acting. Human interaction is clearly not the focus of your game.

11. Sneak (I'd call it Stealth, but it's a fine skill at the right granularity.)
12. Survival:

13. Unarmed: Given how you've collapsed the other skills, I don't see making this a separate one. Also, considering the actual technique involved from a martial arts point of view, it really isn't that different fighting with fists vs. with knives or clubs. It's not as different as, say, repairing a car vs. mixing some poison (which are both, I assume, Science).


Even accepting that you are going for a very combat-centric game, I think you've overdone it. You have 4 combat-only skills and another (medical) which is mostly combat; vs. a single social interaction skill.

Also, you have nothing for Perception at all, nor anything for reading people. (Spot Hidden and Sense Motive are VERY different.)

My suggestions:

Collapse your 4 combat skills to 2: Melee and Ranged. Have another skill, Electronics, that has to do with using Energy Devices and other electronics, and anyone using Energy weapons has a penalty to their Ranged skill if they don't also know Electronics.

Barter / Appraise goes away. Appraising an item relies on the specific knowledge skill that the item falls under. Bartering is a combination of the appropriate appraise skill and speech.

Add Arts (I don't like this name, but I can't think of a better one. Humanities, maybe? Or Valuation?) This is the knowledge about everything from jewels to literature, history to performing arts, currency to culture. Basically, everything for which something has value only because people have generally agreed that it has value falls in this category. (Consider jewels: Why is shiny dirt valuable? Only because we have collectively agreed that it is.)

Add Perception. This includes spotting hidden things, hearing signs of an ambush, noticing someone using stealth.

Add Empathy. This includes reading people, understanding motives, seeing through disguises, and picks up Animal Handling from Survival (which I'm about to collapse away).

Science, Repair, Lockpick, Explosives, and Survival become Mechanics, Electronics, Science, Handyman

Mechanics: Locks, mechanical traps. At the high end, engines and machinery.

Electronics: Computers, programming, Energy devices, Energy Weapons

Science: includes Chemistry (so the making of explosives), Nuclear Physics, Rocket propulsion, but specifically excludes mechanics and medical.

Handyman: Catch-all for building, creating, repairing anything that is low tech, and generally being good with your hands (so it includes Rope Use, leather- and metal-working, plus the skills of survival that are otherwise unaccounted for). You possibly might use this as a combining skill to actually use a lot of the others. i.e. Using your energy weapon is Ranged Attack & Electronics, but repairing a broken one is Electronics & Handyman.


OK. Now that I've completely changed your list, feel free to ignore everything I've said. :-) Good luck!

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
The problem with a restricted

The problem with a restricted skill list is to be as universal as possible. It's easy to have an infinity of new skills to add.

Take a look at my table Theater RPG in my archives:

It was a system designed to have not values. The skill system is inspired on the white wolf attribute which consist in 3 attributes for each of the 3 categories (Physical, Mental, Social) found in white wolf.

All skills would fit in those 9 board groups.

Syndicate content

forum | by Dr. Radut