I’ve been giving some serious consideration to the matter of non-combat skills in CRPGs. Of course, that was brought about by last Friday’s post on Save Me Again. Do we want them, and if so, what function do they serve?

Obviously, one thing these skills do is raise the game above the level of the typical “action/RPG”, where fighting is everything. They bring the CRPG a bit closer to the real thing, even if only marginally.

They provide at least the illusion that your character is not simply a “kill/loot machine”, but more like a “real person” with abilities that can be used in non-fighting situations.

The difficulty comes with implementation, as there are really only two methods: randomization and comparison. Rolling virtual dice, adding in various factors, and generating the “magic number” is what leads to the save/restore cycle.

This makes mockery of skills, as players just keep trying until they succeed. In this case, having skills doesn’t mean much. The only consolation is that it tends to encourage players to build up skills to avoid having to restore so often.

The comparison method is a bit cleaner. The lock is rated 10; your skill is 8. Nothing will get the lock open except raising the skill, unless some other means is at hand, such as, say, special lockpicks. Save/restore goes by the boards.

What does this mean in-game, though? In what situations are these non-combat skills going to be important? Avernum 5, for instance, uses the comparison method, and treats skills mainly as an auxiliary. With one exception, the skills of Arcane Lore, Nature Lore, First Aid, and Tool Use are not vital to finishing the game.

Conversations show more or fewer choices, depending on what the player has or hasn’t done to that point. No skills are involved here at all; the basis is simply the player’s actions.

Now suppose a game with “social skills”, such as Persuasion. You have critical information for the Grand Vizier. You try to persuade the guard to let you pass. Dice are rolled. The answer is “No”. Reload. Try again. Or, in the case of comparison, go away and sulk ;).

Here is where live gaming with a DM shines. The players retire to a quiet corner and discuss options. A charm spell on the guard? Is there someone who can get them in? Could the guard be lured away long enough for one or two to slip through the door? Maybe there’s a secret passage into the room?

The DM will certainly have some alternatives set, and can create other opportunities on the fly as needed. Hence skills can be really important, and a failure in one area doesn’t necessarily mean complete failure.

This points up the difficulties of adding non-combat skills to a CRPG. If you make them important, then – particularly with the comparison method – there must be an alternative way of getting something done. Otherwise, one might as well go with the “dice roll/save/restore cycle”.

Of course, there are only so many “other routes” that can be programmed into a game, and it takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to be done right. Even then, there will be times – perhaps many – when players think of something to try the designer hasn’t allowed for.

So I wonder if these non-combat skills are really necessary. If they are, ought they to be as in AV5, nice to have but not getting in the way, or should they have more importance? And what do they mean to us as players, aside from having more numbers to worry about?