Mad Leet Skillz …

So, as I’ve mentioned before I just finished a run of Oblivion, putting me only one full release behind the Elder Scrolls series. Now, Oblivion had another trait that was relatively new for me, which was the fact that your skills only increased as you used them, and not at all when you leveled up. This is, of course, a stark contrast to most of the other games I’d played like the D&D games or Knights of the Old Republic where your skills only increased when you leveled, or the JRPGs where you had to train them explicitly with a trainer, like in the Suikodens or even in the Persona series.

Now, one of the problems with the model of adding skill points when you level up is that you get into the really odd situation of going out into the world, doing things, and then having a totally unrelated stat get better when you level up. So, you increase your speechcraft after spending a long, hard day silently killing mindless undead. It just seems strange. And trainers aren’t much better, since you either have to go out into the world and do things — read, kill things — to get the skill points so that they can be trained, or you have to spend lots and lots of gold to learn these skills, which while realistic is a bit annoying.

Oblivion’s model, of course, avoids all that. You only ever increase in the skills that you use. That’s it. So what you need to do is practice and practice and practice some more until you get your skill to the level you want it. The more you use a skill, the better you are at it. So this is nicely realistic.

But it does have its problems. One of them is that there really is no good way to increase a skill that you don’t use that often. So if you want a character that can pick locks when necessary but that doesn’t pick locks all the time, there’s really no way to train that level without finding an explicit practice point. There’s just no way to learn anything without doing it, even if you don’t really want to do it over and over to increase that skill level. It’s also bad for situational skills, where they happen in certain cases but not in others. Again, you simply can’t train it without doing it, and so passive skills and situational skills are really, really, really hard to do. In the other games, these sorts of skills are just things you increase because you want to increase them, even if you aren’t actually getting into any circumstances that really need them … yet.

Which leads to another problem, which is that if you base skills on how much they are used it becomes a problem if you ever include either in the main quest or in a side quest a portion that relies on them. After all, that character might simply have never had any cause to use that skill up until that point, and you’ll have a wide variety of skill levels per different characters. There’s no way for a player — even one that’s using a walkthrough — to increase important skills just because they might need to pick a lock or use a bow or track something later. So, you either end up with them practicing those skills all the time or, instead, have to ensure that no one skill is ever critical for a quest line, as they can’t even go away and level up a bit and come back; no, they’ll have to practice. Yes, I’m talkin’ ’bout PRACTICE.

Wizardry 8 had an interesting system that was a hybrid of these two models. As you used skills and abilities, their levels increased just as they do in Oblivion. However, when you leveled up you received a certain number of skill points that you could then distribute among all of your skills. Which meant that if you want to increase your thieving abilities, you could do so even if you hadn’t been picking locks and disarming traps. So you could create a back-up to your main rogue so that if something happened you wouldn’t be missing those critical skills. And even for a main character, you had an easier time either making a focused character by sinking all your points into your main skills or, alternatively, making them more of an all-around character by spreading your skills out, no matter what the game actually threw at you in the early stages. Doing it this way, you can then include some cases where a certain skill is needed as players will, in fact, be able to get that even if they dislike the mechanisms for doing it.

Now, this isn’t a perfect compromise, as if you allocate too many skill points you’re basically a KotOR-style game and if you allocate too few you’re an Oblivion-style game. And I’m sure that there are better solutions out there. But ultimately,playing in a good RPG requires you to be able to build a character in a way that makes sense while still being able to make that character who you want it to be. Skills are a major part of that, which is why getting this right matters so much. On the one hand, you don’t want the odd disconnect of using your combat experience to increase your speech ability. But on the other hand, you also don’t want to have your character be limited in what they can do solely by what the game tosses at you in the early stages, or what solutions the player happened to think of first. Thus, both styles have their problems, and it would be a good idea to find a compromise that can fix both problems.

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