To distract myself from being ill, I’ve recently binged the entire of Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series. It started out with just casually trying Shadowrun: Hong Kong, until before I knew it I was spending 12 hours lying in bed feeling sorry for myself while blasting my way through Dragonfall.
They’re fantastic games from start to finish and have easily shot up as some of my favourite RPGs of all time, but there is one major thing I’ve taken away from my time in the shadows: bloody hell do I love skill checks in games.
Skill checks, for those who don’t play RPGs, are actions that depend upon a specific stat to be successful. Maybe you can convince an NPC to not attack you by checking your charisma, or a high enough intelligence stat will let you understand a secret lab’s intentions a bit better. They’ve been in RPGs since the genre began, both in the video game and tabletop variety, and I just can’t get enough of them.
Letting you bypass combat, gain an advantage, or just find out new information because of your character’s (or party’s) skills is a fantastic way of gaining attachment to what is otherwise just an avatar you’ve ploughed dozens of hours in to. Those experience points you earned for your hard work? They’ll make things a bit easier for you down the line if you use them wisely; maybe it’s a new Fallout: New Vegas companion, or new and exciting ways to intimidate somebody in Mass Effect.
Regardless of what it is, it’s something you made happen because of your choices. In other genres, you rarely feel that attachment to your character that you do in RPGs, and skill checks are the quickest delivery method for that satisfaction.
Checks are also the way RPGs will build up the emergent storytelling that often lies at its core. For example, a Shadowrun: Dragonfall mission pits your team against an enclave of totally-not-neo-Nazi “Human Supremacists”, who hate everything to do with the newer, more magical races in the Shadowrun world. Things progress as normal, shooting and hacking your way through the base, until you come across a particularly nervous guard.
With a bit of luck, some clever dialogue choices, and a high enough charisma stat, you can convince the guard that being a Nazi is kind of a dickish thing to do, and to instead join your team and help put an end to it. Alternatively, if you don’t want to talk them out of it, they can die just like the rest. It’s one of the smaller, less significant changes a successful skill check can make in the game, but it’s enough to highlight the flexibility these systems allow for.
But Shadowrun’s system isn’t the best way I’ve seen it used. It’s a great way of letting you own your own character, but it’s a binary system – either you have the skill and can pull it off, or you don’t and you can’t with no middle ground between the two states. At some points, it did feel more like I was playing a list of numbers rather than an actual character.
For a system that really lets the power of skill checks shine, and builds a fantastic roleplaying system because of it, look no further than Fallout 3.
In Fallout 3, some skill checks work on a percentage-based chance rather than a gated yes-or-no skill requirement. A character with a low speech skill would have less of a chance than a character with a higher one, but they’ll still have a chance, and it’s that random element that best encourages memorable, emergent storytelling. A squeaky-bum time encounter that you manage to smooth talk your way out of despite all the odds is incredibly satisfying, and not something you’re likely to forget.
Unfortunately, that system was changed to a numerical pass/fail system in New Vegas. While the game does a lot to be an overall better RPG experience in terms of worldbuilding and characters, I always missed the excitement the random elements Fallout 3’s system included.
Skill checks aren’t particularly glamorous in their most basic form. They’re a roll of the dice, a mechanical concession to reflect real-world personalities and skills. But, at their root, RPGs about you filling the boots of your character. Whether you’re smart or suave or scary or sneaky, this should, in any worthwhile role-playing experience, be reflected in the opportunities available to you. Skill checks are the catalyst that turns a purely numerical RPG system into an actual roleplaying experience, and they absolutely deserve recognition for the part they play.