RPG system: Implicit or explicit skills?

I’m working on an IF RPG engine and I’d like opinions on how the skill system should be handled. Specifically, should the player always have to make an explicit skill check (eg, “use handle animal on mustang”), or should checks be made automatically when the player attempts to do something that would logically require a skill check (eg, “ride mustang”)?

The first pretty much forces you into a keyword interface since a huge amount of the game would be “use X on Y;” the latter has the potential to make skill checks the player wasn’t intending to make. Nobody wants to fail a bluff check when they weren’t intending to tell a lie.

Also, would you expect an RPG system to allow straight ability checks (eg, “use strength on door”), or would it be fine to reduce all checks to skills and items (eg, “use sledgehammer on door”)? Most systems allow ability checks, but I find that I never use them.

The former is pretty horrible as interface goes. Is there a reason that you can’t make the skill match the common verb? (Or if multiple verbs are likely to lead to the use of the skill, call the skill some annoying composite like Jump/Climb/Run rather than Athletics). That way, the player knows that whenever they use the verb, they’re liable for a skill check. And if you ever need to use that verb and it doesn’t require a check, say that it’s still a check and make it an automatic success, or whatever.

I think that, in general, base abilities (strength, charisma) are there as a default for the GM to fall back on when they don’t know what skill to use, or when the player hasn’t invested points in a specialised skill, or whatnot. This means that in an IF-like context, where the GM knows about all possible skill checks, there’s a lot less reason to make ability scores a separate category from skills.

The other useful thing ability scores do is to help group related skills (so that a high Dexterity character will generally be good at a bunch of dexterity-related skills, get combat bonuses for dexterity-reliant things, etc.) How useful that is will depend on aspects of your system that I don’t know about. (If the game comes with pre-generated characters, for instance, that function ceases to be a big deal.)

I think it’s safe to hide most ability checks from the player unless they involve actions that risk serious injury or death; is it necessary to tell Og, the fighter, that he will need to check STR before opening the dungeon door? No. However, if Rupan tries to swing across a cliff, definitely check his DEX. The only other case I’d do this is if someone does an action that conflicts with their alignment/class, or always for inherently risky actions (like say, stealing).

Take blowgun.

[You have a 44% chance of success of stealing. Do it anyways (Y/N)?]


I’d really hate to play a game where I as the player had to type “USE X on Y” a bazillion times.

Though on the other hand, it can be cool to know that you managed to open the door because your character is so strong, and that a weaker character would have failed. A part of the fun of this type of RPG is enjoying your character’s strengths, and sometimes explicit skill checks can help with that.

If you are going to tell players explicitly about their skills, I think doing so qualitatively works better than quantitatively. To me, it just more “realistic” for somebody to know generally that he’s quite strong but somewhat clumsy than to know that he has a 57% chance of successfully completing a particular operation.

Robert Rothman

Victor is on the right track here. The most important part is not really whether the skill check is implicit or explicit but whether it is clearly flagged so that I know that my past practice with something is what gave me the ability to better succeed on this check. As long as I can still distinguish which elements preserve the effects of my past choices from the “background radiation”, the mental circuit is closed. Fail to close that circuit and it would turn out poorly, IMO, even if it were explicit.

One way to fail to close that circuit, despite using explicit ability checks, is if there were no detectable relationship between ability checks and learning. If I am not told explicitly how/when I got the points that improved my ability checks, for example. That would be the worst of both worlds, because there would be mathematics interposed between myself and the story, without adding to my sense of control over those figures.

So I vote for gracefully implicit effects but with a clear sense of control over outcomes based on my implicitly perceived skill level based on past events in which I explicitly learned and improved as the result of some chosen actions. 8)

If my ability scores/hitpoints are chosen randomly but never revealed to me (like in… Zork? I think? Whichever one had secretly randomised combat) or are revealed to me with no mechanism for improving them, then there is really no point in making the ability checks explicit b/c I’ll just perceive them as random numbers causing random events: might as well go straight to the action, in that case.


I always like games where the mechanics are mostly hidden from me.

Here’s how I would picture the perfect system:

Stats would be described in words. The words would be related to numbers and levels in the background, but I don’t need to see them. An example of words to use from the Fudge RPG: “terrible”, “poor”, “mediocre”, “fair”, “good”, “great” and “superb”

The parser would map my actions to skills without my intervention. If I entered “open door”, the parser would pick my best skill and use that on the door.

The parse would let me know what skill I used. The feedback would make it clear what I used.

I would be able to override the default choice. I could enter “open door with strength” to specify what skill to use.

Putting it all together:

x me
Strength: fair
Dexterity: fair

lift weights
Your Strength has gone from fair to good

open door
You break the door down with your Strength.

[Oooops! I didn’t mean that!]

Appropriate undo report.

open door with dexterity
You pick the lock on the door with your Dexterity

[… more adventuring…]

open iron door
Your Strength of good is insufficient to break down the iron door.


Would it be an option to make the dice rolls and stats behind the scenes, but make it possible to toggle this information on and off should the player need or choose to see it?

This is an apposite time for me to repeat the first rule of game design:

If you offer players a choice between using feature X and playing the game without feature X, the ones who want feature X will play without it, and the ones who think it’s a terrible idea will leave it turned on. Then both groups will complain.

(This is not uniformly true – but the correlation between “enjoys the game more with X” and “uses X” is never the nice tidy +1 that you were expecting.)

On top of that, if you implement feature X, those who don’t like it will complain and if you don’t implement feature X, those who would prefer it will complain.

By the law of the excluded fourth, you are obliged to choose between one of these. Therefore, you can’t satisfy everyone.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum.