Friday, April 30, 2010

Help! Are bigger skills systems required to make sci-fi RPGs viable?

Image: Spaceship Mechanic by the incomparable Jon Hrubesch! 

I’m working on a few other classes for X-plorers in addition to Space Pioneer and I’ve hit a snag.

I realized that for this particular techie class I’m working on, I need to include skills that aren’t already a part of the core rules. Now that’s not in and of itself a huge deal—I can make up a few skills. But then, X-plorers is really a “what if” experiment that hypothesizes what RPGs would have been like had Dave and Gary created a sci-fi game, rather than a fantasy-based one. The rule book’s forward states:
By today’s standards, this game may be considered “out-dated”. It doesn’t take into account modern technology, super computers, cyber-punk or the advances in modern cinema and special effects. It’s an attempt to envision a unique universe of science fiction through the eyes of someone living in 1974.
The game's rules are appropriately consistent with this goal and offer only a few beginning skills for four main classes: Scientist, Scout, Technician, and Soldier. In true OE form, the skills are basic and intended to cover a wide range of applications.

Do rules-light systems like X-plorers or OE D&D and its retro clones sufficiently support sci-fi settings where technology is highly specialized? In a futuristic (or modern) setting, skills become crucial for defining characters, moreso than in fantasy, I think.

Take for example the Mechanic skill for Technicians in X-plorers. Its primary requisite is Intelligence and states “This is the Tech’s chance to repair, undertand, and operate any type of mechanical device.”

The rules don’t say the Mechanic skill needs to be further specialized. Should they be?


West End Games 2nd edition of the Star Wars RPG had a wide array of skills under different ability scores—including at least a dozen for different types of repair (computer, ground vehicle, star fighter, walker, etc.). This makes a lot of sense because one might assume that someone who can repair something like a hover car/skimmer (the equivalent of an automobile) shouldn’t really be able to apply the same skill to a Star Destroyer’s hyperdrive (a naval battleship).

So when I come back to the X-plorers forward--which acknowledges a certain outdated-ness--I have to wonder if this is an inherent flaw. The rules should probably take in to account that even in the 70s, a master auto mechanic working on the latest model sports car still wouldn't be able to repair a satellite launched by NASA around the same time.

Better questions might be: how many and what type of skills are needed to give a sci-fi RPG “good enough” footing so players can customize without violating the rules-light principle sought in the game’s mission statement?

If a fix is needed, what’s the answer?
  • Add specialized skills to the existing ones balanced with an extra XP cost? (i.e., mechanics would spend more XP to learn how to fix something complicated like a star cruiser jump drive. 
  • Or maybe specialized skills should be limited to higher levels—imitating life in a sense that you spend time mastering the basics before you graduate to bigger/tougher challenges in your training.
In any case, I can't seem to move forward until I can reconcile these issues.

I’m almost wondering if I should convert what I’ve made over to a different system (SW WEG, Star Frontiers, Traveller, etc.). I guess I want to avoid having to write up new skills every time I create a new class.

Am I over thinking this? Is there a simple/elegant solution? Please share your thoughts!


  1. I'm considering making one blanket 'Specialization' skill that piggy-backs onto each class so that it essentially covers any stuff that is part of what would be expected of that particular class. I dislike the tables of 400+ skills including basket-weaving. It's overkill.

  2. Howzabout a few very broad skills with write-your-own specializations that sit on top as bonuses? Such as two otherwise identical characters with the same Technician skill, but one of them gets +2 with robots and one gets +2 with atomic reactors?

  3. I think it depends on how "hard" your science-fiction is. In a game for gearheads, like Traveller, a complex skill system is a must. You have different types of techies for different jobs and no one would accept that a guy who works on grav tanks all day would have the necessary skills to fix a jump drive.

    On the other hand, in a more space operatic or pulpy game, I'm not sure you need skills at all. Just being a Techie is sufficient. Consider a Star Trek engineer. Those guys seem equally adept at fixing warp drives, androids and phasars.

  4. I had noticed this very same thing about X-P, but I think X-P is intentionally left rather general and basic and with that it's skills are rather wide-ranging and sweeping.

    I have dicsussed this with a few folks before. At least X-P has SOME sort of skill system. I don't think a scifi RPG can work without them in the way that fantasy RPGs do.

  5. Try something like this, if you want no skills at all.

    Techie level:
    1-repair (devices)
    2-repair (weapons/armor)
    3-repair (vehicles)
    4-repair (computers)
    5-repair (robots)
    8-repair (spaceships)
    10-repair (alien technology)

    You could stick some other class features in the dead levels, such as rapid repair, if you wanted to give a boon at every level.

  6. I think there is room in X-P for an advanced rules supplement similar to how things were done with Labyrinth Lord.

    The biggest problem is that the skills are integrated as part of the classes and really the only thing that sets one class apart from the other.

    Specializations would be an interesting plug-in that could be written as its own rules set. This could then be overlayed onto the existing character classes and their skills.

  7. For a cinematic sort of game (like Star Trek or Star Wars) characters seem to poly-specialty folks (doctor of medicine means mastery of a vast array of biologic sciences)--unless, the plot dictates they not be.

    For "realistic" games you probably want more granularity.

  8. The way I see it, Star Wars (WEG D6) and Star Trek (Last Unicorn Games / ICON) had the right idea.

    A character picks a skill like Mechanic or Cultures or Pilot. They have a rating in that skill, let's say a 5. Now they choose a specialization for each like FTL Drive or Zorgians or Starfighter respectively.

    Now, with each specialization you get a +1. So when dealing with any culture where you need to use your Cultures skill you get a 5 but on Zorg or when dealing with Zorgians you get a 6.

    Now, in X-P, you could say that on odd levels you get a +1 to your skill (and therefore, automatically, your specialization goes up one). On even levels you get a new specialization. This means that at third level you can have something that looks like this -Cultures 6 (Zorgians 7, Altairians 7).

    That's 5 at first level, a 6 at third level and two specializations (1 at first level and 1 at second).

    This is the simplest and fastest way to do it that I can think of. In truth you might want to make new specializations occurs every three levels or something akin to that.

  9. Thanks guys--this is the kind of advice I was looking for! I'm working now on a bonus/specialization system that's sort of a blend of several comments here. WEG Star Wars has something very similar.

    Good discussion BTW, I'm sure I'm not the first person to bring up the idea of skills in techie/sci-fi settings. I love the simplicity of X-plorers and I'm doing my best not to over complicate things!

  10. Hi all, Bill DeFranza here. I probably should have jumped into this discussion sooner; I’m working with Jay and John Adams editing/proofing X-P, writing two or three adventures and shaping the next iteration of the game.

    I, for one, immediately fell in love with X-P on my first reading, so I feel really lucky to be involved and responsible to take this seriously and to help create something that is a strong product, well liked, and FUN.

    Some of my thoughts: What I loved about X-P right away was that the elegant simplicity lends itself to easy house ruling. It’s a toolbox that says, ‘make it your own’ instead of ‘this is the only way’. Any of the skill rules above will work well, or there are easy fules for newbs or those who favor it fast and loose.

    At this point in my life, I favor the simple approach, though back in high school I was running a 2nd edition AD&D campaign with scads of rules from about a dozen optional books. I appreciate that a ‘crunchy” approach is fun for many and a lighter approach is fun for others. I say there’s no wrong way to have fun.

    So what does that mean for X-P? I favor interpreting the skills as broadly as possible, like in Star Trek/Star Wars. “Scientist” knows chemistry, nuclear physics, and can even breed mutants. “Pilot” can fly a car, operate a crane or an alien warship. Realistic? Sure, it’s a stretch, but I think players have more fun when the default answer is “yes” instead of “You don’t have that skill/feat/power/ what have you. YMMV.

    As far as shaping the future of X-P, I favor keeping the skills broad and the skill rules simple, but making clear that anyone can do whatever they. Maybe some space in the rulebooks can list two or three examples of optional skill systems. My only hesitation is that by codifying one system, the reader, or especially a new gamer may think the can not do it simple or differently at all.

    Aside: While it’s always true that the GM can rework any rules in any game to their whim, this gets more difficult to run the game “out of the box” which I think is how we want X-P to be: grab the box, roll up characters, (which should take 10 minutes tops IMO), and GO.

    That said, here’s an idea I had for character creation/ skills that I think is pretty strong: each class would still have 4 skills by default, but a list of 6-8 skills from which to choose. This way, they are still archetypical, but not cookie-cutter identical. What say you all to this?

    I think a Mystic/Psionicist/Jedi-type class is (pretty much) required, even if optional, but what other class(es) would you like to see? (if any) Jay and I have had some preliminary discussions about a post on Grognardia about Scifi archetypes, but I’d like to hear more opinions.

    Does anyone like a class-less character creation system? Maybe a list of 20ish skills, and you pick 4 or 5 to create a character? 4 skill characters would need fewer xp to advance in level than the 5 skill characters.

    What skills are “missing” from the rules now?
    “Tinker” comes to mind, the ability to build maguffins that do wondrous things, though, going broad as I mentioned above, I’d say this probably fits under the Technician’s mechanic skill, and arguably under the Scientist’s science skill (we’ve seen Spock modify photon torpedoes and stuff like that, though he’s usually helping Scotty do it).

    So there’s this balance… what’s needed, and realistic enough to allow suspension of disbelief without limiting the other characters? Where do we draw the lines? Why is Robotics separate from Mechanics? Is it the strange alchemy of computers and mechanics that makes Robotics a separate skill?