This is the second in a series of posts discussing the design objectives of the authors of WFRP first edition. The first post in the series can be found here.
From an early stage we were presented with the choice of a percentage-based skill system, as in the RuneQuest family of games, or once-and-for-all skills, which was the system we chose. We made this choice for the sake of simplicity and ease of play; rather than keeping track of individual scores in dozens of skills, a player needs only to list the skills and tell the GM when the character has a skill which will modify one of the characteristic tests on which the game is based.
– WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87
WFB first edition used one-off skills, but I have struggled to identify any other precedent for WFRP‘s use of them. As far as I can recall, every major role-playing game before WFRP that used skills expressed them in terms of different levels. Such an approach seems entirely natural, as characters’ levels of expertise should be expected to vary. WFRP‘s once-and-for-all skills were, even at the time, a quite eccentric mechanism.
One-off skills in WFB first edition
It certainly had the very real advantage of simplicity. It is vastly quicker and easier to prepare NPCs with WFRP‘s first edition rules than with RuneQuest‘s third. The pairing of characteristic tests and skill bonuses was in theory an elegant simplification. It also enabled a colourful variety of skills that was unparallelled at the time
But it also created a whole range of problems. Some skills conferred a once-and-for-all ability. Others just offered a modest bonus to certain tests. There was even the oddity that Pick Lock was not, in fact, once and for all: it could be taken multiple times to gain cumulative bonuses.
Moreover, skills encompassed an odd range of attributes. Some were innate abilities, such as Night Vision. Others, like Very Strong, simply modified characteristics and added very little that could not have been expressed by characteristics.
Overall, the system was a mess, and the designers surely understood this. White Dwarf 89 published an article to repair some of the problems, but a true fix required a much more radical approach: for example, separating innate abilities from learned skills, distinguishing between technical and non-technical tasks, adding different levels of competence. There evidently wasn’t time to effect such changes in 1986, when Phil Gallagher, Jim Bambra and Graeme Davis came on board, but it is surprising that WFRP had not dealt with these issues earlier in the development process.
Anyway, I’d arrived thinking I was going to be part of creating “a better D&D”, only to discover the rules were mostly written. I felt like the Irishman in that joke where he gets asked by the tourist how to get to Dublin. “Well, I wouldn’t start from here,” he replies.
– Phil Gallagher, Realm of Chaos 80s
WFRP‘s skill system was certainly different. Just not in a good way.
The next post in the series will cover combat.