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Skill systems aren't always a good idea
Just last week Microlite74 was released. It's a d20 variant designed to have modern rules (based on Microlite20) that enable an old-school play experience. It manages to get character creation, task resolution, spells, and more than 80 monsters into a mere 4 pages!

But my purpose in posting is to quote this paragraph on skills in the game. It really highlights the old-school philosophy of success being a matter of thinking, rather than dicing:

Unlike most modern RPGs, there aren’t any skills. Players are intended to have their characters act like adventurers. So don’t search your character sheet for the perfect solution in Microlite74. Instead, you just tell the GM what your character is trying to do. If you need to keep a door open or shut, tell the GM your character is using a spike to keep the door open or closed. A ten foot pole is your friend for checking for traps. Searching a room means looking in and under objects, not rolling a skill check. While this may seem strange at first, you will quickly learn to appreciate the freedom it gives you. No longer are you limited to the skills and feats on your character sheet, you can try anything your character should be capable of trying. You might not succeed, but the rules generally will not stop you from trying.
I'm not completely opposed to skills in RPGs, though. Having skills in an exploration-focused RPG system is good for one thing: indicating something about the character you're playing. What they're not good for is mechanically framing a fictional interaction that is, in its basest form, a creative exercise. Heavily mechanised skills encourage players to seek the "right" answer to an in-game challenge instead of applying their imagination. And, after all, isn't the point of playing an RPG to be creative and imaginative?

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I think this is a direct result of the amount of computer based "role-playing" that is experienced by the average gamer. The "mechanized" aspects of the game have become predominant because players are used to playing in a highly structured environment that does not allow for this type of thinking.

I think that's only partly the cause. A contributor is that the game designers also expect that this is how players will think of pencil & paper games, and try to make their system more appealing to that set of players.

The other important factor is (and I think this because it's where I was coming from until recently) that earlier games had such a dearth of good guiding rules for skills (Non-weapon Proficiencies? bleh!) that it became universally accepted wisdom that modern rules needed a broad and strong skills system. Though I do think that 3e's skill rules are an improvement over 2e's Non-weapon Proficiencies, that's in large part because 2e's skill rules sucked so hard. By that metric, anything would be better.

(Tangent.) What I think would improve the 3e/4e rules for skills would be to add guidelines for creating new skills to suit particular characters, and encourage that. A Rogue with three Ranks in Animal Venom Extraction and five Ranks in Scam Artist is much more interesting than just saying "Trained in Thievery" as 4e does. With the 4e treatment of skills, we might as well go way back to broad Secondary Skills that at least invited clever player thinking and DM common sense. That'd be more flexible and interesting than the broad-but-tightly-mechanised 4e skills.

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I agree that in principle there's nothing that a rules set can do to get in the way of playing it like that. My criticism is more of the way the rules present themselves and what kind of gaming culture they're cultivating. Having enthusiastically adopted The 4e Way whole-cloth, I found it just sucked a lot of the joy of creative problem-solving out of the game.

If I were to approach the rules from the perspective I have now I would do things differently, but by the time I was done spindling things I would essentially be running 3e and might as well just run that from the outset. (I do think 3e is a good game. It leans toward a type of gaming that isn't so much my cup of tea, but it can play the way I want to play just fine without too much fighting with the rules.)

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