Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

Join in the Adventures!

Career vs Skill Systems

I’ll be honest, for years it felt like skill systems were the only thing which made sense.

I mean, how do you encapsulate the complexity of human knowledge and experience other than a comprehensive list? A rhetorical question, of course. How can one hope to possible boil it all down to a few (or often not so few) items on a list?

Sure, universal systems like GURPS, Erwinian, Cortex, FATE and others try their best to create skill lists or give names to a few broad skills, but that very swiftly turns into systems which have skills for “politics” and “bureaucracy.”

Oh gods make it stop…

Despite its unreality, there is one time where skill lists make sense:

Specific Settings.

It is perfectly within reason to restrict skill lists to only those likely to be covered in a limited setting, such as Conan. It is perfectly reasonable to declare that, in a system which is meant to allow for specific situations to arise, certain skills would never come up or can be condensed down.

A sword and sorcery RPG is likely to have several skills tied to combat, magic, tracking, or trickery, but not so likely archiving books or glassware making. The setting book is written so that, through use of rule presentation, the players are steered into interacting with the setting in a way which fits it. This is the same reason why Eclipse Phase has no skills dedicated to painting miniatures.

“Careful… they clearly have ranks in Visual Art Helmet-Craftng!”

But even then, it’s not a sure thing. Human behavior is unpredictable, and eventually you’re going to encounter a player who asks to do something within reason which is not covered by the limited skill list.

Hence, I turn toward something which as far as I know is fairly fresh on the scene: Careers.

I admit, I’ve fallen completely in love with Careers. Instead of extensive skill lists (which only feel more limiting the larger they are, strangely), characters just have a few occupations they have had experience with, and those alone influence their skill rolls. Shadow of the Demon Lord has a really great system which uses these concepts.

For example, if someone has the career “Burglar,” they would get a bonus to rolls which their background in burglary would help with, such as sneaking, stealing, hiding, or even trying to fast-talk out of trouble.

The vagueness of careers even allows for some neat discussion between players and GMs: would a background in airship piloting give a bonus to bird identification, for example? If you can word it well, it allows for your character’s abilities to be more applicable, as well as potentially building backstory (“I would have learned bird species in my down time, so I could spot them while I was in the air!”)

However, let this not be a one-sided endorsement. There are some problems with careers. Two things in particular:

  1. It is hard to give specialists a great degree of skill. If the system simply grants a set bonus to a relevant career roll (+1 boon, advantage, add your level, +2 to the roll, etc.) then a person with Field Medic would have the same bonus to remove a kidney as someone with the Hospital Surgeon career. And if careers are rated individually (see Barbarians of Lemuria), then we have the same problem; a person with Assassin as their best skill would have the same bonus as someone with Pickpocket as their best skill (if they were both sneaking). Unless the rule system has “expertise” rules, this is a fairly big issue.
  2. The vagueness can make applying careers to skill rolls a little too easy. Once someone has a Thief-esque career, they can essentially get bonuses to any roll they make regarding subterfuge. The same goes for careers like Doctor, Student, Priest, Soldier, and the like. Unless the GM strictly enforces what a career covers (which defeats the purpose of having them), you can end up with characters getting bonuses to most skill rolls without much trouble.

Nothing is perfect, after all. While these days I prefer the simplicity of Careers, I can totally see how they can make the experience a little too “floaty” for others. I’d be lying if I didn’t enjoy building a detailed skill list to get me into the feel of a character!

“Whether I have the Carpenter career, or a +3 to Craft, I’ll still stab you in the gut!”

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: