I am not a fan of skill-based systems in Role Playing Games (RPG) often. But I love some skill heavy RPGs. The earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons did not have skills as a core rule, but often introduced skills as alternative options. When third edition came out the skill system was added as a core mechanic of the game. Prior to the release of third edition, I played a lot of skill heavy RPG systems. I played a lot of Palladium RPGs which are very skill focused. In Heroes Unlimited you get skill packages that could be based on your level of education. This could be a PhD, Masters, Military training and much more. With this comes lots of skills and tons of skill options. That I have noticed tends to be one of the big hurdles in getting into Palladium, not as much using the skills in game, but how long it takes to select and calculate skills in character creation just to start playing or in leveling up a character. I have started using house rules in Palladium when it comes to skill advancement to try and make skill advancement easier, I will get to that later in this post.
I want to emphasize why I do not like skills in Dungeons & Dragons or other variations and clones of the classic fantasy RPG. I ran a 3rd edition campaign in 2000 when the books first came out. I also ran a couple of pathfinder campaigns, and both use that basic mechanic of skills introduced in 3rd edition and have become a core of the game ever since following into the 5th edition. I have found that in skill-based editions of the game players tend to look at their character sheets for things they can do in a situation as opposed to coming up with ideas themselves. In older editions I have seen less looking on the paper for a solution and more trying to think of unique things they can do. I have found that playing a skill-based system the game becomes a roll playing game as opposed to a role-playing game. The tendency is to look for a skill, feat and ability to find a modifier to roll dice with instead of coming up with unique things for the character to try. It encourages roll play as in rolling dice over role play as in trying to think of what my character would do. I find skills limiting.
While I have issues with skills in a game, I can also love a skill-based system, especially when it comes to Sci-Fi and modern setting games. I like a game where character can lean into other things besides combat. That is also why I love a lethal game. I like to see players choose to play characters who are not going to fight when they encounter something, but instead use skills and cunning to get out of situations. I like the encounters to be more than monsters and violence. I am known for running many dice free combat free sessions of games. I like the role play over the roll play often.
Having actions tied to a skill system can limit what players try to do by the players limiting themselves to what the do by only looking to the sheet for options, but also it creates a mechanic that will make the action limiting. Having a vast option of skills is how this becomes less limiting. As I said before, Palladium gives a character a lot of skills and therefor a lot of options besides combat, but that also makes the game more complex and difficult with character creation. The character creation process being that long and in depth could be good as it gives you a great deal to think about in developing who the character is and how they managed to learn all these skills. Then again, turning character creation into such a long task becomes homework and you will lose a lot of players in the process. In my mind this makes it a game for only a select few who will get into that.
Our house rules skill system for Rifts here that we are trying out is one that I have used in AD&D and other games in the past. We use the Call of Cthulhu skill advancement system. The reason I chose this is because upon character advancement when players have well over 20 or 30 skills they must go through and erase and calculate each percentage when they level up along with all the other bonuses and added stuff at each level. Leveling up becomes quite a task. Instead, we do not advance skills at each level, we only advance skills that are used or practiced in that day’s game at the end of the game. The way it works is each skill gets a percentage. If you go to use that skill two ten-sided dice are rolled to represent 1 – 100 as a percentage. If the roll is under the skill percent, you succeed at that skill check. After game you do the opposite. You roll percentage to see if you roll over the percentage. If that succeeds you then roll a six-sided die (D6) and that number is added to the skill percentage of the skill which improves your chances at success. This lets player improve weekly and as you get better at a skill it also makes it more difficult to continue quick advancement. This avoids having to calculate each skill every level and it makes one better with the skills they use most often. Now, with a D20 system like 3rd edition through 5th edition you simply get a bonus to the skill and the calculations at advancement are not there, so this is not really a direction I would suggest going with those.
Now when I play a SciFi game or a modern setting game often a skill system can suit the play better. When running certain games that go heavier into dungeon crawls and with more of a classic style of play I avoid skill systems. Most of those class based systems while not as complex and detailed of systems do end up being very rich and complex systems that work as a game to a certain style of play that encourages creativity and imagination in ways that a more complex system that stands on rigid rules does not.