Deconstruction of Character Creation and Game Modeling of Skill Systems in RM.


Peter’s recent blog, RMU – to infinity and beyond, created a firestorm of comment activity. 64 comments to date! Much of the back and forth touched up on professions, attributes, knacks and character creation. Certainly, the thrust of the debate was centered around the Professions vs No Professions commentary that Peter and I have continued on the RolemasterBlog and previously on the Rm Forums.

Rather than add more comments to Peters blog post, I thought I would take this topical opportunity to discuss the base modeling of the RM skill system (and other game systems too). As I did with BASiL, my own rewrite of Character Law (I named it SWARM) started with a complete deconstruction of the RM rule set. It’s an ongoing process and even now I’m tinkering and rethinking things based on comments here by Peter, Hurin and ITD. I’m going to discuss my own solutions, but the point here is to examine the underlying principles of the skill system, not argue for my own resolutions.

There are 5 basic rule mechanisms that are used in the RM skill system: Stats, Development Points, Skill Costs, Skill Rank Bonus and Profession Skill Bonus.

  1. A standard RPG/game trope, Stats quantify a PC’s various physical and mental traits—the basis of the character make-up. In RM stats are then used to determine “Stat Bonuses” which are added to the appropriate skills. While there is disagreement about the need for actual stats, everyone agrees with and understands the nature of stat bonuses—it is a measure of a characters “Natural Aptitudes and Abilities”.
  2. Development Points. DP’s are “coinage”—used to purchase skills by rank. In RM, DP’s are variable and based on a select group of Stats, while in RMU characters are given a fixed amount. Either way, Development Points are modelling the “Capacity to Learn”.
  3. Skill Costs. In both RM and RMU skill costs are driven by a PC’s profession. Some argue that Professional Skill Costs are a product of formative learning channels, aptitudes or learning paths. This is an argument for WHY there are Profession Skill Costs—but this is not an argument on what Skill Costs ARE. Skill Costs are a measurement of “Profession Aptitudes” & “Time & Effort” to learn a skill.
  4. Skill Rank Bonus. The Skill Rank Bonus progression basically remains unchanged from RM to RMU; for each rank, there is a subsequent, cumulative bonus that is added to your total. Skill Rank Bonus models a “Learning Curve”.
  5. Profession Skill Bonus. Finally, each Profession is given pre-assigned Skill Bonuses based on the characters Profession. In RM it was a level bonus and in RMU it’s a per rank bonus. The is modeling “Profession Aptitudes”.

The first and foremost problem I see here is that Profession Skill Costs is modelling two separate distinct factors: professional aptitudes AND time and effort. The second is that Profession Skill Bonuses are then duplicative; they are both modelling Profession Aptitudes. Personally, I think that’s sloppy game mechanics—it would simpler to just adjust Profession Skill Costs and eliminate the Profession Skill Bonus. Reducing the cost of a skill is the same as giving a profession skill rank bonus.

Ultimately, the simplest measure to test is: Total Skill Bonus/DP’s spent. Adding layers of complexity to model the same effect (Profession Aptitudes) is pointless.

I think it’s a cleaner solution to make each mechanism discrete unto itself, rather than have several game devices that only serve to reinforce professional tropes. Here would by my suggestion for RMU using Professions:

  1. Stats – Natural Aptitudes.
  2. Development Points. Either stat variable or fixed. (I can see both arguments)
  3. Skill Costs. Time & Effort only. The same skill costs for all professions—this is modelling how hard it is to learn a particular skill or lore. Skill costs can vary by skill but NOT by profession.
  4. Skill Rank Bonus. Learning Curve.
  5. Profession Skill Bonus. Profession Aptitudes.

This solution provides distinct functions of each rule component—no duplication. Plus, Profession Skill Bonuses allow for easier to understand Profession distinctions and an easier process for creating new Professions. You no longer have to assign skill costs by Professions— and you can be more aggressive on the total Bonuses per Profession. Giving a Fighter +4 bonus/rank for 1 Hand Edge is a real differentiator and results in the same outcome as giving them a low skill cost. Plus, this solution eliminates huge charts of professional based skill costs as well.

If, like me, you are using NO PROFESSION you might want to try my solution which is slightly different.

  1. Stats – Natural Aptitudes.
  2. Development Points. Either stat variable or fixed. (I can see both arguments)
  3. Skill Costs. Time & Effort only. Skills all cost 5* with +1 cost per extra rank per level with unlimited advancement. (the +1 resets each level—this measures the law of diminishing returns).
  4. Skill Rank Bonus. Bell Curve. I use a 1,2,3…9,8,7,6….1,1,1 progression. This keeps low level characters from maxing out the cost/bonus curve of important skills.
  5. Variable Skill Bonus. Rather than Skill Bonuses assigned by Profession I give players +6 in bonuses to assign as they see fit. This option models “talents” or “knacks” and gives players more flexibility and customization of their characters outside the profession paradigm.

In the final argument, having Profession Skill Costs and Profession Skill Bonuses is redundant and unnecessary.

For summary:

Mechanism/System RM RMU Suggested Solution (when using Professions)
Stats Natural Aptitudes & Abilities. Natural Aptitudes & Abilities. Natural Aptitudes & Abilities.
Development Points Variable Learning Capacity Fixed Capacity to learn Optional – Variable or Fixed
Skill Costs Professional Aptitude & Time and Effort Professional Aptitude & Time and Effort Time and Effort (same costs for all Professions)
Skill Rank Bonus Learning Curve – Decreasing Learning Curve – Decreasing Learning Curve – Decreasing
Skill Bonus Professional Aptitude Professional Aptitude Professional Aptitudes – Enchanced

15 Replies to “Deconstruction of Character Creation and Game Modeling of Skill Systems in RM.”

  1. Those are some weighty concepts you’re wrestling with, and I love that you are thinking outside the box (or thinking of deconstructing it!).

    Correct me if I am wrong, but there seem to be essentially two solutions you’re offering here, either for RMU or your own system:

    –Raising/Adjusting the professional bonuses: Thus a Fighter would now get +4/skill rank to his Bow or Blades skill rather than the current +1. I like this idea in general. To implement it in RMU, you would have to decide which specific skills the Fighter would get this enhanced bonus in; presumably, he wouldn’t get it in every skill on his professional skill list (or maybe he would?). The main downside I can see is that it would make some builds considerably more viable than others, as was partly the problem with the variable level bonuses back in RM2: Classes that got a big bonus to combat skills would really have a big leg up on classes that did not, and this meant (in our group at least) that some classes were very rarely played due to perceived inferiority. For example, the Dabbler’s lack of any bonus to any Spellcasting or Combat skills would really be a severe disadvantage in a world where Fighters and Paladins got +4/rank to combat; it would mean a Fighter or Paladin might have +8/level more OB than a Dabbler. This might be an indictment more of the current list of professional skills for the Dabbler though than a problem with your proposal: you might address it just by making sure every class has a decent bonus in at least one combat skill and/or one spellcasting skill.

    –Lowering Skill costs: Great idea, but unfortunately the current RMU system of category-wide skill costs (i.e. all skills in a category have the same cost) is a real impediment here. You can’t give Fighters low costs in Metalcrafting without also making them masters of Cooking and Drawing, and you can’t make Druids masters of Survival without also making them masters of Piloting. However, you can somewhat massage the numbers by doing what I suggested in my individual skill cost option for RMU: that you allow characters who take a professional bonus in a skill to also reduce the cost of that skill. It won’t allow you to completely reset the skill cost—you have to work from the base cost of the skill category (which sometimes is not very appropriate). But you can for example reduce a Bard’s cost for Delving, so that the Bard is actually good at the skill now, and you can reduce a Monk’s cost for Religion, so that he’s better at it than a Mentalist or No Profession.

    1. Putting my own solutions aside, I see the best option as setting skill costs the same for all classes. Maybe general skills like riding or survival are 2/5 while erudite skills like ambush or poison are 4/7. This reflects the rarity or societal ubiquity of a certain knowledge base. Then Professional Skill Bonuses (specific skills not categories) are used to target profession tropes as you have argued for.

      Let’s take a Thief with Stalk & Hide of 2/4 and a Professional Skill Bonus of +3. At 5th lvl he’s taken ranks at a cost of 30DPs and a Bonus (ignore stat bonus) of +80. That’s about .375 DP/+1. Or you could just set the cost for S&H to 3/5 for all Professions and +6 Profession Bonus. At 5th lvl the Thief has taken 10 ranks at a cost of 40 DPs but has a +110 Bonus. About 3.63 DP/+1. The added benefit is higher skill bonuses at lower level so PCs have a better survival rate.

      I haven’t run a lot of scenarios, I’m just trying to identify these mechanisms and rethink some long held assumptions.

      1. I think this idea is definitely worth pursuing, even if only as a thought experiment.

        One way to gauge it would be to use RMU’s No Profession as the starting point for skill costs. There is also a Baseline skill cost too that even the No Profession started with — I listed it in the chart in my individual skill costs article, here:

        So if you start with that as a rough guide for how easy/hard it is to learn specific skills (or categories I guess), you have some rough numbers to work with for costing the various skills.

        One potential problem I see with trying to implement this in a No Profession system is that some costs will be very high, even if one gets a professional skill bonus per rank in them. Battle Expertise skills like Mounted Combat, and skills useful to spellcasters like PowerPoint Development and Spells start at 9/12 for example, which are simply too high for any character to pay. No caster could afford that cost, and the professional bonus doesn’t help with the cost either.

      2. The basic challenge with this is you have to assume that all cultures produce the same basic skill background, or have a no profession for each major culture (something I feel is better done with Culture Skill sets instead of skill costs). I’m also not a fan of profession bonuses as they exist because they assume automatic advanced competence when you learn a new skill.

        If you want to think outside the box, I think it’s worth looking at the basic concept of “profession as life way” as it exists in RM and possibly discarding it completely. This is especially true to me because the “time and effort” model ignores another factor: “access to training and resources”, which has a definite impact on the efficiency (or lack thereof) of the “time and effort” used.

        1. Agreed–as I mentioned in the other blog comments, the ideal situation is that skills, skill availability and skill costs are determined by the culture or organization. Thus horse riding might be easier (cheaper) to learn from the “Horse Lords of the Plains of Despair” than the “Water Ballet Hermits of the Forgotten Isles”–if they even know that skill. From a functional standpoint, assigning availability and cost by culture might be too unwieldy.

          I’ve already rejected the “professions as a way of life or aptitude”–it just doesn’t make sense to me. I think natural aptitudes are predominant.

          1. If we’re really going to fully reject profession as lifeway, I think it would make more sense to find a way to boost the impact of stat bonuses for skills, especially stats in the higher range. To me it makes more sense for a character to get a boost in a newly acquired skill (for example) based on natural aptitude (the stats) rather than some sort of profession-based affinity (the current model).

            I had gone over to allowing characters to allocate the profession-based level bonuses some time back, and had good luck with that. There were no automatic advances..the points had to be spend in a skill a character developed that level.

              1. I remember that one now. But are you gaining by going from 20 professions to about 90 combinations of culture and other stuff?

                I also have difficulty as I’ve mentioned before with cost systems that ignore access to training, and a single set of fixed costs does just that. Nature plays a role to be sure, but especially in non-fantasy settings access to training plays a major role as well.

                1. When I was struggling with this problem I went in a different direction. I found the fault lay (rightly or wrongly) in the DP system.

                  Am I right in thinking we are all at least familiar with those additional character sheets which are a whole grid where you list the skill cost and name down the left and then slash a box for each rank being learned and you X them when you level up and the skill is learned?

                  So imagining one of those sheets, players do not spend DPs to show what they are learning, that is gone.

                  Now if a character is actively seeking out training or study in a skill I will allow them to slash a box. If they use a skill in a significant way then you can slash the box for that skill. I am not worried about pass or fail but you cannot just tell me you are fiddling with a bit of string if you want to learn rope mastery.

                  In this way access to training is reflected in the skills that can be learned. It also reflects what is being done by the character in a learning by doing sort of way.

                  One can use the specified DP cost to represent difficulty with 1DP representing maybe 5hrs of one to one training. In real world terms to get your first rank in region lore (cost is 2/6) you would be looking 10hrs of training which is a weekend workshop. To get a rank in History that would be an hour a week for a 10 week term in a college assuming they were one on one tutorials or two or three hours a week if it was a course with other students.

                  In this way the character can use their skills to improve and they can get training. The DPs are only used as a guideline for the GM as to the amount of training required. I will allow some one to self study but that will take longer than professional training. So a character trained in Broadsword who finds a Long Kynac can spend hours training with it and eventually will get a learning rank in the skill.

                  I like player assigned professional level bonuses so they can used to make fighters more fighterish and rangers more rangerish. I also like professional skill bonuses applied per rank rather then per level so this stops someone gaining 1 rank in a skill and then becoming a grand master overnight.

                  The only times my players spend DPs are at 0th level to buy their initial skills. After that access to training, opportunity to practice and practical use drive their skill development.

                  1. It is a neat idea. It has been modelled in some videogames like Oblivion, for example, where you had to actually use the skill in order to raise it. This had some comical affects: for example, whenever I ran around the countryside, I would be continually jumping, since that raised my athletics skill, and continually casting utility spells, since that raised my skill in them. But of course in an RPG, a GM can easily shut down that kind of nonsense.

                    I do like the idea of requiring players to actually use the skill in order to become more proficient in it though.

                2. Could you just represent access to training by reducing the costs for skills while characters have access?

                  E.g. Western Samoa Community College grants no special bonus to studying Astronomy, but MIT makes the skill cost 1 shift less (e.g. a 2/3 cost goes down to 1/3).

                  That allows you to preserve most of the profession system. The skill costs thus represent how hard it is for people of different aptitudes to study a skill given an average level of access to training. Access to better facilities gives a bonus to training, expressed in a reduction of the cost of the skill.

                  The only problem I see with that is what it might do to the level system. RMU has I think understandably tried to make level a more accurate gauge of a character’s power. If someone has gotten a discount on some skills, though, they will be a bit more powerful overall than their level would indicate. I guess if you reserved the cost reduction only for special cases — MIT for physics and astronomy, for example — it probably wouldn’t be a big problem.

                  1. I’m actually doing that in my draft military rules, although the profession concept is also used to assign basic skill costs. In other words, a Light Infantry MOS has a general skill profile, but if that character enters a particular unit (Rangers or Special Forces, for example) certain skill costs change and remain changed while that character is in that unit.

                    I haven’t expanded the concept to other genres simply because I don’t find it to be quite as applicable, but I suppose it could be. I still prefer to use the Combat Training assignable skill cost model to allow players and GMs to customize professions to a degree.

                3. “But are you gaining by going from 20 professions to about 90 combinations of culture and other stuff?”

                  The cultural and vocational packages are only used once, at character creation, so having dozens of them (approximately 30 cultural and 50 vocational) just makes for more choice. My players LOVE character creation for the flexibility and choice–they make take a while choosing the right combination but after that the making the character takes 15-25 minutes tops. And while we don’t have traditional Professions, they generally adopt their vocational choice as their descriptor.

              2. I like the RMU way of the stat bonuses being additive. RMU doesn’t actually use (stat-50)/3. I think that is Hurin’s suggestion. RMU gives +1/point of stat over 95 to create a bell curve of bonuses.

                Hurin’s system gives an even distribution and allows us to get rid of another table.

                The RMU additives stat bonuses makes stat gains less of a pain having to recalculate stat bonuses compared to recalculating averages.

  2. I really liked Hurin’s idea of the Skill Bonus being assignable by the player each level, if you retain levels 🙂

    I think that is a neat mechanism for allowing a characters focus to evolve over time. It also stops the automatic improvement in a skill that may no longer be where the character is placing their time and effort or one where they are emotionally invested in.

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