Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Knife: the very last skills post (until the next one)

I had the unusual pleasure of playing in a pariah game that someone else (specifically Louis from So Much Game) was running. One of the other players (specifically Nye of the internet and Garblag Games) expressed frustration at the lack of opportunities for his character to be useful: he seemed to have a lot of social, charisma-based abilities that weren't of use in the wilderness scenario Louis was presenting.

I did a pretty terrible job of explaining tactical infinity in old school games, and how this can work alongside a skill system, but I stand by my words: I know a lot of old school RPG enthusiasts would say that this is because character skill always detracts from the application of player skill. I want to address that supposition—it in a non-confrontational way—with the notion of skills as tools.

Neolithic flint knife blade.

First among tools is the adventurer's friend, the knife.


Every bad essay contains a bit of space-filling gumpf lifted straight from a dictionary, and I am a bad writer so I will do just that. Let's look at the OED's definition of a tool:

Pronunciation /tuːl/

  1. A device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
    ‘gardening tools’
    1. A thing used to help perform a job.
      ‘computers are an essential tool’
  2. vulgar slang A man's penis.

Let's ignore the vulgar definition, which I've included merely for levity. Ha. You need to get all the laughter out your system now: discourse is a grim business, there's no room for humour, unless you're ruthlessly taking down a fellow struggling designer.

A tool is an implement, usually held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function and to help perform a job. Clearly weapons are a subset of tools: they are hand held implements used to help perform a particular job, in this case injuring people.

Note the emphasis: they help in this task, but they are not necessary to perform it.

Knives, of course, are a subset of weapons. An adventure will carry a knife because it will enable them to injure an opponent (for whatever reason) more effectively than their bare hands. However, players may find themselves instructing their characters to use that knife in other ways:

  • To cut food (including butchering a slain monster for food) or material (fabric, rope etc.)
  • As a lever (prising gems free from their setting, opening a door, removing the lid from a paint pot)
  • Inflicting bludgeoning damage with the flat of the blade or the butt of the hilt.
  • As an impromptu handhold when stabbed into the soft bark of a tree needing climbing.
  • To wedge open a door or the jaws of a creature.
  • To create sparks by striking a flint (metal knife) or striking metal (flint knife) for the purpose of igniting gas or lighting a fire.
  • As a projectile weapon...
The list goes on: the point being it has many things for which it can be used, though it is most effective at cutting and stabbing. 

Imagine a character equipped with just a knife: are they only going to be able to perform tasks for which the knife is useful? Of course not. They are still equipped with 5 senses and opposable thumbs to perceive and interact with the environment and, most importantly, the ability to assess a problem and calculate how best to overcome it. 

This is precisely were player skill comes into play: it's up to them to ask questions about the environment, and to evaluate the situation with the other players, before deciding how to overcome whatever challenge confronts them (hint: run away). The solution will invariably utilise some of the tools at their disposal, especially if we include the environment and the characters' abilities among those tools.

Skills, Abilities and Attributes

Think of skills as tools that are picked up and then not put down again. A tool that is super light and takes up no inventory space (though you could play with that idea if you wish, see below).

Using the pariah character generator I built using perchance I've just rolled up a character called Quickening is the Others. She is exceptionally strong, so she starts with two core skills tied to her strength: swimming (which can also be a con skill) and acrobatics (which can also be a dex skill).

These skills represent activities in which she has some experience or even training. It does not mean that other pariahs without these skills cannot swim or attempt acrobatic manoeuvres, just that she has an improved chance with these skills. It does not mean that when she's out in the wilderness she can only solve problems using acrobatics or swimming.

Ultimately, skills give a very small edge to what a character can achieve compared to ability scores, and ability scores fall far short of what can be achieved with a well-executed plan.

Here the old maxim: good plans don't roll dice should be burned into the brains of all players of old-school inspired games. 

I've written too many posts about skills and ability scores already, so I'm not going to re-write the resolution mechanic again, though I will provide links below. Read in the order posted to get an impression of the idea's evolution if that's your thing:

Skills as tools: Inventory Slots

This is an idea that popped into my head while writing this post: if a skill is a tool, should it take up an inventory slot? This might seem a bit silly but could also be used to limit a character's options when they are encumbered. Lots of rules-lite games (Mausritter... maybe Knave?) use inventory slots for "conditions", and I'm sure other games use inventory slots for skills, too. Probably Knave? I really need to read Knave...

This might even fit nicely with the "all attributes contribute to inventory slots" mechanic in Veins of the Earth. Actually, VoTE is a great example of creative use of the six ability scores across a range of scenarios, especially the climbing rules. If you use skill ranks or some other method of improvement (Pariah uses die size) then an improved skill might take up additional slots: the skill level/rank is reduced as the character becomes more encumbered.

Not something I'd introduce into my games as I think I have too many rules at the moment, but one to consider. 

A Final Note: Skills & Thieves

This is covering some very old ground, but it re-appeared on the Keep Off the Borderlands podcast recently (well, towards the end of last year) and won't stop cropping up on the OSR discord so I want to say a short something on this subject.

Thieves have divided opinion since the first appeared in the Greyhawk supplement for the original D&D series. Those who like thieves generally point to the archetype being a staple of fantasy and/or sword & sorcery fiction. Critics claim that the existence of a thief precludes other characters from doing the things a thief can do: sneaking around, disarming traps, climbing sheer surfaces...

This assumption must arise from the notion that the fighter is the default class, and all others are specialists: only clerics can cast cleric spells and turn undead (well, apart from paladins) and only magic-users can cast magic spells and use scrolls: therefore only thieves can do the things described by thieves' skills.

Maybe the way out of this mental cul-de-sac is to picture thieves' skills the way we picture what a fighter does: this is stuff EVERYONE can do, just the thief can do it better...

...except they can't, can they? Thieves are rubbish, as Colin Green of Spikepit pointed out in a call-in to Keep off the Borderlands: " grandma could do better than that... I HATE thieves, they're rubbish."


  1. Skills as tools is good, but I have a feeling that when the skills are also generic, it causes their uses to be generic as well. I've been trying to move away from that a bit by making skills really specific, but with a variety of uses. "A Knife" has properties that can be described quite specifically, how long is it, what is it made of, is it stronger than etc. while "Swimming" can only be determined when you try and use it for something, which makes player planning much less reliable. "You can swim up rapids and and through stormy seas" gives you important details, and then lets the player also figure out what other *kinds* of things they can probably do as well.

    1. I take your point but re: player planning isn't that all about questioning the situation?

      "Does my character think they're going to be able to swim these rapids?"

      "It's possible, but you run the very real risk of getting dashed on the rocks."

      My issue with specific skills is it starts to get very granular, which is what I wanted to avoid. You're right though, the analogy is pretty flawed, indeed by own definition of tools. I don't know why I write these posts other than to justify my own design decisions to the broader scene!

  2. I like the idea of skills as tools. So often rolling a skill check feels wrong where the key should be possession of the skill: languages especially but also the staple Religion, Arcana, and things like Heraldry.