How many skills should a RPG have?
Putting aside the thief (and weirder stuff), oD&D/AD&D had none. My sense is that this is a reason why some like to go old school and play those games. You don’t worry about being able to climb a cliff or talk to a NPC (maybe throw a Charisma check in) or know anything about anything, not even doors. Nope. Just figure out the optimal way to kill monsters or use spells to solve all mundane problems. Spider Climb or Breathe Water replace athletic skills, Charm Person solves diplomacy, Identify/Detect X/divination spells replace trivia.
I find this kind of bizarre. It’s so gamey. There are reasons to avoid getting bogged down in detail or mundane activities – I’m actually lacking in interest in either. But, it just seems so primitive. I think it was someone I came across in person who was saying how great D&D 4e was because it fixed the skill rank system of 3e by forcing skills to be binary rather than tailored. *cringe* The skill rank system is the only thing I like about d20.
Yup, I like skills. It may seem strange when I (relative to the norm) vastly prefer high fantasy and other cinematic genres, but I see skills providing the reality to contrast with the fantasy of magic/psychic powers/mecha/etc.
Before getting into greater detail, I wonder if my declining enchantment with the Hero system had anything to do with how boring and tacked on skills came across.
One thing I’ve thought about on and off again for ages, at least beginning with when we got into our Conan play, is how many skills a RPG should have. The usual problem is too many. Probably not a chicken and egg situation, but it’s fairly common for too many skills to result in skills not being that important. In one system, it might be because skills were never supposed to be a primary mechanic even if there are a bunch of them, like D&D 3e where there are plenty of skills but many classes only get 2+INT per level, such a paltry level that it’s clear that they weren’t essential to solving problems.
In another system, the needed skill set is one of breadth rather than depth to where you can’t feasibly specialize. Systems with harsh unskilled penalties but relatively easy difficulty targets are like this. Generally, stronger attributes determine effectiveness … but I’m getting off topic.
More than many, many other things, what I want out of a RPG is that every PC be unique. If everyone has the same abilities, then, sure, play first edition AD&D or whatever where you are pretty much described by level and class. Skills can be problematic in this regard when going to either extreme in volume or when certain skills are far more important than others. Let’s say a system has three skills. How likely is it that characters will differ if the three skills are important to effectiveness or, not that unlikely, two skills are important to effectiveness and the third is just for flavor? Or, let’s say you have an appropriate number of skills, whatever that might be, and have one be a primary combat skill and everything else not be all that relevant to combat – it’s not hard to imagine what players will do.
Besides being the two systems I’ve played the most in the last five years, Conan d20 and L5R (3e or 4e) are two systems where I think they aren’t far off the mark on the right number of skills. It’s because I believe they miss just a bit high that I wanted to go into depth on each.
Legend of the Five Rings (Fourth Edition)
Sleight of Hand
Did I say miss the mark by a little bit? Written out, this is just scary long. In my mind, I envision around 12-15 skills, including macros. Macros? That would be skills where you have to be more specific in what the skill is for. With both L5R and Conan, there’s no general knowledge of a macro skill – if you know Games: Go, you know nothing about Games: Shogi – no partial credit, as is the case with some games where you can roll either a similar skill at a penalty or the general skill at a penalty or whatever.
Not only are there a bunch of macros, with some being incredibly important, e.g. Weapons, but L5R also has Emphases – ways to specialize in a skill that may even end up opening up an ability not available otherwise.
Getting back to diversity of characters, a list should be varied enough as well. As long as this list is, which one of my players thinks is absurdly long, I actually find that it works decently for being able to do what you want to do while being able to do what you need to do.
Let’s go section by section, I’ve added tiers (ratings of usefulness from 1 best to 5 worst):
Artisan (macro) [3 with fast diminishing returns on additionals]
Divination [3 … if used]
Games (macro) [4-5]
Lore (macro) [2-5]
Perform (macro) [3-5]
Sincerity [1, not as common but hugely important]
Spellcraft [1 shugenja, 5 other]
Tea Ceremony 
A lot of these skills are particular to L5R’s world. The world is highly socially rooted. Some of these skills will rarely be used (unless the player forces them), but there are entire schools (aka classes) built around Acting, for instance.
Should Acting exist? No. Perform is a macro skill that clearly covers this thematically. As long as we retain macro skills, and I don’t see a good reason not to, it should be rare to extract out skills as rare as this. Calligraphy? While Calligraphy has a strong individual identity, what does it hurt if it’s an Artisan skill? “But, if you condense many of these skills into macro skills, anything that pumps all of a macro skill will pump a ton of skills.” That seems good. I find Calligraphy to be about a third tier skill … out of about five tiers. A third tier skill is something that gets rolled maybe 10-20% of the adventures. That’s something that needs help.
Courtier, Etiquette, and Sincerity (and Temptation) form the core of the courtier’s skill base. Rather than having a generic social skill that covers them all, which is a bit odd even though that’s exactly what a weapon skill is for combat, I’m good with having distinct social skills. Temptation is not one of them. Temptation is clearly just an Emphasis of Courtier. Sincerity used to be an Emphasis of Etiquette and I can see an argument for going back to that. It’s funny how 4e really screwed skills by taking away most Insight bonuses and the Free Raise at rank 5, and, then, on top of that, forced social characters to take a third social skill.
Divination is strange. It could probably be a Lore skill, but it has its own unique mechanics. It could be an Emphasis of Theology, except in 4e, Theology is a Lore skill (in name) rather than a separate skill, like in 3e. I don’t really mind it being separate due to having specific mechanics. Similarly, Medicine has specific mechanics to where some skills really do need to be separated.
Speaking of Lore skills and macro skills in general, in 3e, the most obnoxious thing to me about skills was how someone good at go knew nothing about shogi and vice versa. Games should just not work like other macro skills as individual Games skills are tier four to tier five, the ~5-10% to ~0-5% of adventures rolls. I would have Games be a skill with individual games as Emphases. Because Games would still be a distinct skill and not rolled into something like Perform, it could have skill specific mechanics to where an Emphasis gave an unusually significant bonus. This, theoretically, solves the problem of the go master being a shogi master, Fortunes & Winds master, Sadane master, Letters master, etc. at the same time; though, it wouldn’t bother me that much if skill in one meant skill in another – we are talking about a tier four skill.
The most obnoxious thing to me in 4e about skills has to do with Lore skills. Whereas, I can live with someone being good in all games simultaneously – it’s not super implausible in real life … or in Yu-Gi-Oh! (the TV series), I can’t deal with someone being a generic knowledge master. Which, by the way, is why Sage is so dumb. I’ve actually had a player roll Lore: Doors because his character had Sage. It’s not just that Sage makes buying Lore skills lame, it’s that buying Lore skills is already lame with the changes from 3e to 4e. At least, with 3e, you got extra Insight from taking these tier four skills. Not all Lore skills are tier four, though. Lore: Shadowlands is tier two based on its usefulness bumping it up from its commonality of use. Lore: Theology is tier three along with History and Heraldry. Still, there should be better rewards for both the better tier Lore skills and the obscure stuff. In terms of consolidation, there’s nothing really to do, already separate 3e skills of Lore: Shadowlands and Theology were consolidated.
Investigation is hands down the most used skill in the game. Okay, I’m sure there are campaigns where Defense (passive bonuses) and Weapon skills are far more important. Campaigns I’m involved in, it’s Investigation. What’s funny about Investigation is that’s kind of like a macro skill where you get every individual skill under it. In d20 terms, it’s Spot, Search, Listen, Gather Information, Sense Motive, and sometimes a tracking skill all in one. For HoR play, always, always take at least two ranks in this. I’m okay with this. It’s not ideal, but it’s further down on my list of things to fix.
Perform, as is the case in any game that has these sorts of tier five skills – tier five being the “Whoa, really, I have to roll a Dance skill? Come on, this is so unfair!” level of skills, should function like I described how Games should function. I’m okay with skill in one being skill in all, even if that produces some odd scenarios, and that might be fixable by having there be special Emphasis rules.
Spellcraft is, amazingly, okay. It was arguably too good in 3e, but that didn’t overly bother me, either. As long as it doesn’t define how good a shugenja is at casting spells, I can see it existing on its own, even if it is kind of a Lore skill.
Meditation and Tea Ceremony are fine as is, being necessary skills for the genre and having special mechanics.
Horsemanship [4 even for Unicorn]
Iaijutsu [hard to rate]
Jiujutsu [in 3e, 4, in 4e, 1]
Weapons (macro) 
I like that there’s only one non-weapon martial arts skill. Can anything really be removed here? Hunting could be cut with Lore: Hunting and Investigation taking over its uses, though that only makes Investigation that much better. In 4e, they specifically wanted to split Weapons: Spears from Weapons: Polearms, but I think they were crazy, as I don’t recall seeing either rolled by any 4e PC. While half the Weapon skills are useless or nearly so and the mastery abilities are way out of line with each other, I’m perfectly fine genrewise with there being some imbalances in the Weapon skills. If only more weapons were viable …
Animal Handling 
Craft (macro) [n/a]
Some oddities, here. Thematically, it’s important that Commerce not be a high skill, that Animal Handling be distinct from social people skills. I’m not sure why Engineering needs to be a separate skill, not really sure why it’s a merchant skill. While Craft is a mess in Conan, it’s okay here. Sailing is odd, really odd when you consider that in 4e it’s a two trait skill, which does make sense. I guess I can live with all of these the way they are. They are pretty obscure skills, being on average tier five, with Commerce being maybe tier three, but they have distinct identities as, well, merchant skills.
Sleight of Hand 
Temptation [4 for PCs]
Forgery, okay – it’s scuzzy and more than just a Lore or Perform. Temptation, I already talked about – should just be a Low Emphasis of Courtier. The others have similar problems. Stealth is frequently not a Low skill. By far the most common use of Stealth I find in my play is sneaking up or away from bad guys, not guys we don’t like, but Shadowlands monsters and bandits and other scum. It’s not dishonorable in such situations.
Sleight of Hand? I’m sorry, but by far the most common use of this I see is entertainers entertaining children and stuff. The idea that hiding something is insincere is so absurdly out of line with how lying besides to bolster one’s reputation is not in any way dishonorable. Check the tables. It’s inglorious to get caught lying. The only time I really see a PC use Sleight of Hand, it’s against enemies of the Empire, palming jade against Tainted dudes or the like. It’s also a good choice for making a Perform skill, with there being two reasons it likely isn’t – one, the false belief that hiding objects is dishonorable and, two, that it has distinct mechanics. Which, since it’s like a tier five skill, it doesn’t need to have distinct mechanics.
Intimidation is another social skill that shouldn’t exist by itself. It’s also another case of being a skill that is not honorable but not dishonorable in virtually any sort of normal situation. Sorry, again, but by far the most common uses of it in play are by samurai telling peasants what to do and magistrates telling criminals what to do. The idea of browbeating a courtier with it or whatever, well, that may be dishonorable, but that’s because it’s a dishonorable thing to do in the situation, where being courteous to half-people and scum is honorable, not not dishonorable.
At most, I’m looking at cutting six skills. Yikes! That leaves 27(?) without even taking into account macro skills being large groups of skills and Emphases being kind of like different skills. And, yet, … and, yet, I don’t know. I don’t feel that it’s that painful. Maybe, it’s because I typically get 4xp per session and one rank in a skill is 1xp. I tend to be bothered far more by how it isn’t worth buying up skills than by how many skills I should buy, by how tiresome it gets to raise traits or, in 4e, the Void Ring, or how kata, memorizing spells, and other random stuff take away from planned trait/ring/skill improvements. There still seems to be something wrong, like how maybe Meditation and Tea Ceremony are awfully similar in role, if not in flavor or mechanics.
There definitely are too many tier four and five skills, which is frustrating. On the other hand, a way to use a skill more often is to … use it more often. Force its use. Play shogi with every NPC. Cook like you’ve never Artisan: Cooking-ed before. There are ways, more so in home play but even in HoR, to leverage bad tier skills.
So, this ended up being far, far longer than I expected. I thought I’d run through L5R and Conan in under two grand words. Guess this is part one of a two parter. Stay tuned for the next episode of “roll what?!?”