Abilities versus Skills

In this post, I'm going to offer one view on the difference between abilities and skills as they are often defined in tabletop role-playing games. This is informed by previous posts I've made on the difference between open and closed systems of interactions, and the difference between kinetic and potential abilities. This isn't going to be very long, and it's just for my own reference (and to get some thoughts down).

Abilities Versus Skills

The ultimate difference between attributes and skills is that attributes are abstract whereas skills are concrete. This ties into the distinction I have made prior [1] between closed and open systems of interaction. A closed system is complete in itself since all its interactions are formally defined and systematized. Hence a closed system does not account for things which are outside of it. Only within a closed system can we speak with certainty about the total set of interactions that occur, and hence (were you to implement a skill system) you could assign a score to each anticipated interaction.

On the other hand, an open system is incomplete and it requires interpretation to fill in the gaps. Ability scores, by serving as heuristics of player character ability rather than representing concrete applications of character skill, infinitely expand the set of possible interactions for the character (or the set of possible interactions to which the character’s particular attributes can be applied). You can imagine a character’s Strength score to apply to wall-climbing, to combat, to door-pushing, to pickle-jar-opening, et cetera. However, were a character instead defined according to any one of those particular and specific use-cases, those skill-attributes would not be as infinitely applicable.

There is some nuance with this, especially due to the nature of language to which abilities are owed their open applicability. First, you could extrapolate other use-cases from particular skills. For example, you could decide that a character whose pickle-jar-opening skill is great enough must be physically capable in other respects (such as wall-climbing, if it were not itself given as a skill in our system). Second, although skill systems are often associated with an obsessive effort to systematize a complete anticipated set of interactions—I’ve read plenty of posts on the /r/rpgdesign community where people ask, “Does my skill system have everything I need?”—there is the possibility of an open set of skills that expands to encompass any situation regardless of whether it is anticipated. Troika, or at least some supplements, accomplishes this by giving character backgrounds some hyper-specific skill bonuses. The effect is perhaps that by explicating bonuses for characters in this way, the players are encouraged to seek out those situations given how specific they are. Nevertheless, in general, it is difficult to define a closed set of skills for a game that is open-ended because in doing so, the set of anticipated interactions is closed.

In an earlier post [2], I distinguished between attributes that are kinetic versus those that are potential, based on whether they actively inform the course of a game (via roll bonuses, etc.). The notion I present here that abilities are abstract lends some perspective to this schema since we can now characterize either category of ability as being, to some extent, systematized particular use-cases for otherwise abstract abilities. It is as though we can read 1981 D&D as saying “Your character is measured according to their Strength, and we anticipate that you will apply this measure to the following situations. Here are our procedures to do so.”

Thus the particular use-cases of an ability does not inform its structural role in play as an abstraction meant for interpretation, whether this interpretation is done by the book or by the table. Furthermore, I consider the difference between abilities and skills to be one with respect to how they structure a game as an open or closed system, whereas whether an ability is kinetic or potential describes how players apply that ability during play. The former difference is basically structural, whereas the latter difference is content-wise since it describes use-cases.

There's also a certain utility in skill rolls being able to abstract player input, since (e.g.) I don't know how to pick locks. This, to me, is an essential thing and requires nuance, but I see it as a different thing than a skill system whose purpose is to capture the totality of possible game interactions.

The Difference in Practice

Games that think of themselves as old-school rarely use skill bonuses because they limit the set of interactions which should be treated as open (at least in cases where a set of skills totalizes all possible interactions, rather than there being an open set of skills). Even an open set of skills, however, runs the risk of generating characters without useful applications. Previously, I wrote a blog post that looks at how the board game Pandemic defines player roles as representing key exceptions to the rules of the game [3]. In that same post, I applied that sort of thinking to a dungeon crawler scenario where it would be easy to imagine one character who's exceptionally good at combat, one exceptionally good at detecting hidden things, one exceptionally good at magic, whatever.

The issue is that were you to throw those characters out of the dungeon and into the wilderness, for example, their roles would become useless in that foreign set of interactions. This is not necessarily undesirable if you wanted to focus on one interactive system over another, but I think you ought be confident that whatever specific concrete bonuses you introduce into a game handle the particular use-cases you anticipate. Or, of course, you can get silly with it like Troika does.

One possible solution would be to determine categories of ability (and scoring characters according to them) on the fly. For example, when a character tries to open a jar, the players might deliberate and decide that that character would have to use their strength to do so. In the future, that same strength score might be applied to other situations, or it might be renamed to encompass more situations if the players decide that they can wrap up strength into bodily functions, or it might be split into two distinct abilities if the players decide that jar-opening requires a different kind of strength than wall-climbing. This experimental solution would probably be a hassle, but it might be fun to try.

The best solution, I think, is to just roll ahead of time because it helps knowing what your character is like. At the same time, the traditional 6 abilities have their own baggage and common associations that are a hassle to deal with. So, whatever.



[1] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/06/critique-2-old-school.html

[2] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/10/kinetic-and-potential-abilities-across.html

[3] https://chiquitafajita.blogspot.com/2021/06/pandemic-roles.html

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