Whatever Happened to Skills?

There seems to be a trend in role playing games over the last few years to make games less complicated, and the reason I keep hearing for this is to make games more “accessible” to new players. One of the ways games are doing this is to reduce the number of skills; D&D 4th edition had 17 skills, compared to 3.5 edition’s 40+ skills; Mutants and Masterminds 3rd edition has 17 skills; Doctor Who has 12; those are just a few examples.

I’m currently looking through the rules for the newest edition of D&D and they’ve made skills secondary to abilities, and you don’t even invest in them specifically. You get a few skills in which you are proficiency, and then when you make an ability check (there are no more skill checks), if one of your proficient skills applies you get to add a generic proficiency modifier.

Here’s the thing about skills: from a mechanical standpoint, skills are how players customize characters. That’s why older games have so many of them. If, for example, my character has a high Intelligence, that means he’s very smart, but doesn’t say as much about him as his ranks in specific Intelligence based skills; having a high modifier Appraise, Disable Device and Search but being untrained in any Knowledge or Craft skills shows what kind of intelligence he has. If you take skills away (or do what the new D&D seems to be doing and making them so unimportant that you might as well take them away) you make characters more generic. Yes, at the end of the day, what really separates one character from another is how you role play him or her, but I remind you that game mechanics, while not the most important part of the game, are still really fucking important, because they represent the rules of the reality in which the game takes place. When you’re character creation rules don’t allow my character to be exceptional at one use of an ability by investing in it, that means in this world that’s impossible. The world of new D&D may contain people who are better than average at Investigation, but it has no experts, no savants, no Sherlock Holmes-esque master detectives who’ve honed their investigatory capabilities at the expense of other skills.
Well… I mean yeah, that new generic proficiency bonus increases with character level… so I guess by level 20 if you’re proficient in Investigation you’d be pretty awesome at it…
I still think that skills are getting the short end of the stick. I think games need more skills, not fewer, and deserve to be developed directly, and not simply be a specialization of abilities. But this goes back to that whole “accesibility through simplicity: thing…
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