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Choosing Skills

Reviewed by Eric Brad, copyright © 2002

Edited by Nicholas Caldwell for The Guild Companion

Your new characters have survived the first few sessions of a new campaign. You've probably been frustrated more than once by a low skill bonus or, worse, a negative skill bonus, when resolving an action that's part of an adventure. The first thing to consider is that your newly created characters are just that new. You can't expect to be good or even adequate at everything.

One of the most common things among experienced gamers is the practice of finding the optimum combination of statistics and skills to be the most effective character. What this most often means is the most survivable character. They seek to beef up the hit points, attack bonuses, observation and perception skills, etc., to make sure that they can handle themselves in a fight or detect an ambush in time.

Whole articles have been written by and about this type of player. Players debate endlessly about how to create the perfect character. Game Masters (GMs) (Rolemaster GMs anyway) struggle to find ways to deal with these "number crunchers". It's a perfectly understandable but terribly frustrating practice.

If we start from the beginning, your character is expected to live through dozens, perhaps hundreds, of adventures. The design of most role-playing games provides several game mechanics to provide for the improvement of the skills and abilities of characters as you play the game. So it is to be expected that your brand-new, first level characters will be relatively unskilled compared to an experienced adventurer. They will still be more skilled than 80% of the non-adventuring population.

You must also understand that it is the responsibility of the GM to create adventures that challenge but still accommodate the characters' skill levels. Most GMs will seek to keep all of the characters in a gaming group at approximately the same level for just that reason. If you had a 12th level fighter and a 3rd level fighter traveling in the same party, it would require some clever GMing to make sure the 3rd level fighter wasn't pulped almost instantly or that the 12th level fighter wasn't slaying everything in sight before anyone got a chance to help!

So where does that leave you on the subject of choosing skills? Below are some thoughts on that subject from my experience.

It's not about efficiency - My take on role-playing is that it should be fun first and the most fun is had by playing a character in the truest sense of the word. How about the 2nd level Fighter that has 8 skill ranks in Horticulture at first level? Here's a guy who probably spent several hobby ranks in character creation and probably 20 or more development points on this seemingly stupid skill. But every time he gets a chance, he helps the locals with their flowerbeds and can't resist seeing what plants are for sale in the marketplace! That's a character, not just a collection of numbers that attacks, defends, and detects orcs well. In choosing your skills, you should have a character concept in mind and you should develop skills that reinforce that character's personality. They should have some flair, some interesting quirks, in addition to some common skills like armor, weapons, and spells.

Skills are only useless if you don't use them - You have to remember that role-playing games should be a co-creative process. The GM is only one part of the equation, providing the background and basic adventure stuff. You have the opportunity to interact with the GM and other players and find situations to use your skills to your advantage. A character with a good Diplomacy skill can make it a point to seek out local officials whenever possible to try to gain information by using that skill. A character with a good juggling skill could grab three oranges from a table and entertain the patrons in a bar, while a companion sneaks off to search the back rooms of the bar unnoticed. Similarly, a character with Lie Perception should always be present during important conversations with strangers or shady people.. The point is, you have an ability to influence the direction of the game so that you get a chance to use your skills. Go to the market place, linger in the bar and talk to people, go out of your way to find the local master leather worker and strike up a friendship, play your instrument to entertain the locals on a street corner, it's all in good fun.

You are going to progress - During the first few adventures, it can be frustrating with low or negative skill bonuses. But remember, one of the reasons you are adventuring is to get to the next level and spend those development points and gain more abilities. While it isn't specifically a skill, the most important thing you do for your character, as a player, is to use your judgment to make sure the character doesn't overstep their abilities. If the GM says the action you are describing is a HARD or VERY HARD maneuver, consider if you have the skill bonus in the appropriate skill to overcome the negatives for the difficulty. At lower levels of ability, you are supposed to be doing things that are less difficult. That's why you are 1st level right now. As you progress upward, your abilities will get better and you will attempt (and succeed at) more difficult and dangerous maneuvers.

OK, the practical stuff (finally) - Rolemaster is a big system with lots of skills and categories to choose from and far too few (or so it seems) development points to get everything you need. In the context of everything else above, there are some things you can do to maximize your bonuses and not spread yourself too thin when buying skills.

  • The First Rank of any Category or Skill is the most important. Why? Because until you have at least 1 rank in a given Category or Skill, you start with a (-15) skill bonus for that skill. You need to understand that this is (-15) for both the Category and the Skill. That's a total of (-30) before you add your stat and other bonuses in. This negative represents the problems an unskilled character creates for themselves compared to a low skill character who at least knows enough not to hurt themselves. Taking 1 rank in both the Skill and its Category will immediately erase this (-30) penalty. So, if there is a skill you want to make use of, be sure to buy at least one rank in the skill AND the skill category to erase the negative for "unskilled".

  • Pick a few skills to concentrate on to establish your character's personality. Focusing on a smaller number of skills will give you a good base of skill bonus numbers to work from rather than spreading your development over a wide range of skills with relatively small bonuses. As your character progresses, you can expand into more skill areas as your character's personality develops. Who knows, you may end up being a master of cartography and make some good money selling maps from your latest adventures.

  • Categories and Skills offer different bonuses per rank for your total skill bonus. A skill rank in a Category will give you a +2 increase in every skill within the category. Of course this will not erase the (-15) for a specific skill in which you have not yet taken any ranks of development. In cases where you have several skills within the same category that you are developing and already have individual ranks in, buying category ranks can increase all of those skills very effectively. Buying a rank in an individual skill will give you a +3 to the individual skill bonus. Note that these ranks will add up much faster than buying Category ranks will. Buying ranks in an individual skill makes sense if you have taken at least 1 rank in the associated category (to remove the (-15) penalty) and you want to progress quickly with that one skill.

  • Keep your focus on what's important to your character. If you are a spell user who is focused on using your magic as your primary characteristic, you should make sure you focus not just on Spell Lists but also on Power Point Development, Power Awareness, Attunement, and Runes skills. If you fancy yourself as a character who is "in the know", be sure you are taking skills like Contacting, Bribery, Streetwise, and Mingling so that you have all of the tools you need to get information. Of course the first step is deciding what's important to your character. And remember, it's fine for that focus to change as your character advances levels.

In any event, I'm sorry to say that there really is no right or wrong way to do skill development. Everyone could always use another 10 development points to get those couple more skill ranks. And in hindsight, everyone wishes they had spent differently. Don't worry, your next level is coming and you'll still wish you had more points or spent differently after that. After all, that's part of what will keep you adventuring so that you can go up another level and spend your points and get better so you can go adventuring so you can go up another level and spend your points ...

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