Toaster Repairman: The Strange (and Unfinished) Evolution of RPG Character Creation

Sinister Design's Craig Stern has penned an interesting editorial on character creation in RPGs and its evolution, which muses on subjects such as the origin of role-playing games, the class-based/skill-based system divide, and some potential solutions to the balance problems with skills.

The latter is what I'm going to focus on with my quote:
Three potential solutions

After all of that, you might think that I'm going to suggest eliminating so-called useless skills from wRPGs. I'm not, though that is certainly one way to avoid the problems of skill-based character creation. The original X-Com, for instance, features characters with individualized aptitudes spanning a wide variety of skills, each highly useful in relation to an emergent system. (X-Com also has its share of balance issues, but those issues stem more from the design of certain facets of the combat system than they do the use of individualized character skills.)

The problem with the X-Com approach, however, is that every single skill in the game plays into only one system: combat. There's very little in the way of non-combat approaches to different situations, which undermines much of the value of using a skill-based character creation system in the first place. There's character diversity, but no diversity in terms of broader approaches to problem-solving.

There is a second approach. Brian Fargo has said that he approaches the balance issue by giving the player a party of characters so the player can cover a lot of bases between the characters. This is smart design, but it only works well in party-based games where you have direct control over your entire party. In party-based games where you have direct control over a single main character and no one else, certain skills (e.g. dialog or stealth) provide no advantage at all when present in an AI-controlled party member.

The only skills that AI-controlled party members typically use with any proficiency in such games are combat skills, which gives the player a bit more of a buffer to focus on non-combat abilities, but otherwise accomplishes little. Meanwhile, it renders certain of your own abilities, like Stealth, borderline-useless unless the game offers you the ability to consistently leave behind most of your party. And of course, in non-party-based RPGs, giving the player a party simply isn't an option in the first place.

Recently (so recently, in fact, that I had to edit this article to include it prior to publication), Tim Cain announced a third approach for the upcoming cRPG Project Eternity. His preferred method is to separate combat and non-combat skills:

Non-combat skills are gained separately from combat skills. You shouldn't have to choose between Magic Missile and Herbalism. They should be separate types of abilities, and you should spend different points to get each one.

This is interesting (and in many ways, quite similar to what I suggest below). However, it does have the disadvantage of removing a major mode of specialization from the player. No matter what, the player is always going to be good at combat, and is always going to have non-combat alternatives to fall back on. It's a smart hedge against the eventuality that the developers can't successfully balance the usefulness of all abilities, but it comes at the cost of making character specialization less consequential.

A fourth way: the Survival/Elective Tiered Approach

Back in March, I casually suggested that Wasteland 2 segregate useless (but fun) skills from the ones that are most consistently used in the game. I'd like to take this opportunity to elaborate on that.

The thing is, so-called (useless skills) actually do have a legitimate place in RPGs: they add color to the world and can provide more role-playing opportunities for characters. Ostensibly, that's the sort of thing we want to encourage, not strip away. The problem with these (useless skills) isn't that they exist; it's that they are put into the same pool as skills that are orders of magnitude more helpful. In a zero sum character creation system, where putting points into one skill means giving up competency in another, placing skills that are used only sporadically alongside skills that are used constantly is a recipe for a lot of ruined play experiences.

So here is my humble suggestion to developers who want to create a game with skill-based character creation: don't force players into making a choice between skills of high value and skills of more dubious benefit. Instead, create two tiers of skills: survival skills and elective skills.

The survival skills tier should contain only those skills so consistently useful that at least one of them is probably necessary to complete the game in a reasonable playthrough (i.e. completing most main quests, and not exploiting special knowledge of where things are hidden in the game world). These will necessarily include skills that play into the game's core emergent systems (e.g. combat; stealth; and physical manipulation abilities suited to the setting, which might include pick-pocketing or hacking). Ideally, persuasion should feature as well, assuming that the developers take sufficient care to make the game both challenging and beatable primarily through the use of dialog options.

The elective skills tier, by contrast, should consist of what I choose to call (flavor skills) those which are useful only in specialized, uncommon scenarios (e.g. Science from Fallout 1-2 or the infamous Toaster Repair skill from Wasteland), or which provide benefits that do not directly impact the player's ability to gain survive most in-game challenges (e.g. Outdoorsman from Fallout 1-2 or Cartography from Eschalon 1-2).

The player should get two pools of points to spend: one pool of points that may only be spent on survival tier skills, and a second pool of points that may be spent on either survival tier or elective tier skills. This ensures that the player cannot create a character incapable of surviving a normal playthrough while still giving the player the flexibility to pursue unique avenues of play and opportunities for role-playing.

Superficially, this approach might sound like the approach now under consideration in Project Eternity, a tiered system with similar gameplay benefits. However, it differs in one crucial respect: it does not force all characters to be combat specialists. Using the survival/elective tiered approach, the player has the option of playing someone who is not skilled at combat and must rely on other major skills (such as Stealth or Persuasion) to survive. It is, in short, a way of removing most of the risk of (useless) characters while at the same time preserving character variety.