Created By: Koveras on January 31, 2013 Last Edited By: Koveras on February 7, 2013

Skill Scores and Perks

How RPG characters' skills work.

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In Real Life, human brain acquires new knowledge and puts it to use via a spectacular cascade of electrochemical reactions taking place across a heavily networked biological cell grid. Learning and improving one's skills is a continuous, life-long process, while expertise in one field often proves unexpectedly useful in others, seemingly unrelated domains. But complex neuroscience has no place in video games, because a) it violates the Rule of Fun, and b) it runs a high risk of spawning a murderous AI on your computer.

Instead, tabletop and video games--particularly Role Playing Games and games with RPG Elements--narrow down the areas of human knowledge to a handful of quantifiable "skills" that are relevant to the plot and whose advancement and effects can be defined in terms of gameplay mechanics. At the start of the game, the players are handed a list of these skills and a few "skill points" to assign to their characters, with more skills rewarded later on for completing the game's objectives.

There are two common ways to define character skills in the Game System terms: skill scores (a.k.a. "skill levels") and perks (a.k.a. "feats" and "traits"). Following table outlines their main differences:

Skill Scores Perks
Improve basic in-game actions Unlock new moves and unique bonuses
Can be leveled up multiple times (between 3 and 100) Usually cannot be leveled up, although other perks may confer bonuses
Skill levels have index numbers or generic labels (novice, trained, master) Each perk or upgrade has a unique identifying name
No skill levels are technically needed to use basic actions Active perks must be learned before using them
Follow a linear improvement progression Often form branching "skill trees"
Higher skill levels may cost more than the lower ones More advanced perks may cost more than the basic ones
Unlocked level-by-level; may be capped by a character stat May have prerequisite perks, character levels, skill and stat scores

Skill scores and perks often coexist side-by-side, mixed-and-matched in a myriad of ways, and many games (especially contemporary RPGs) even blur the line between the two.

See also The Six Stats, Skill Point Reset.

Tabletop game examples:

  • Dungeons & Dragons is likely the Trope Codifier, if not the outright Trope Maker. The specifics vary a little by edition, but D&D uses both skill scores, purchased points that act as a modifier on skill rolls, and "feats," purchased perks that may do everything from modifying rolls further to allowing the character to perform special actions or be immune to certain things (and that's just the tip of the iceberg, especially with the vast expanses of 3.X Edition). D&D-based video games usually use some or all of these mechanics.
  • Both the Storyteller and the Storytelling System are based around "traits", which are basically a hybrid mash-up of stats ("attributes"), skill scores ("abilities" in oWoD, "skills" in nWoD), and upgradable perks ("advantages"). The latter include both storyline perks (like background) and active abilities (like the vampiric Disciplines). Attribute scores range from 1 to 5, abilities/skills and advantages from 0 to 5. Occasionally, levels up to 10 may be allowed. Trait levels are acquired by spending character points.

Video game examples:

RPG -- Action
  • Diablo II featured a hybrid skill score/perk system, wherein each class had three unique skill trees consisting of several tiers of perks. Individual tiers were unlocked one by one at certain character levels, after which any number of skill points (gained at each level and from some quests) could be invested into any unlocked perk, increasing its efficiency and often giving bonuses to more advanced perks derived from it. On a side note, Diablo II had one of the first popular implementations of the aura-type perks (with its Paladin class).
  • Mass Effect had a hybrid skill score/perk system wherein "talents" encompassed both passive (armor, weapon) and active (biotic attacks) skills. Talents could be leveled up multiple times, increasing their efficiency and unlocking additional perks and even further upgradeable talents at certain levels (forming an implicit skill tree). Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 replaced them with "powers"--active combat skills, which were essentially perks with up to five (mutually exclusive at level 4+) upgrade perks available for each of them. Which talents and powers were available depended on the character's class and although most were so from the start, some were only unlocked after certain story events.
  • The original Deus Ex featured both skill scores and perks (dubbed "augmentations"). Skill scores were upgraded using skill points acquired by completing missions, had four levels (Untrained, Trained, Advanced, Master), and improved your performance with different types of weapons, or non-combat actions (lock-picking, electronics, medicine, etc.). Augmentations were picked up as items on missions and implanted into Denton's body slots, giving him new abilities. They also could be upgraded. Deus Ex: Human Revolution did away with skill scores and instead translates experience points into Praxis Points, which in turn can be invested into any augmentation unlocked in the perk tree (justified by that all augs are already built into Jensen and only need to be activated).
  • Path of Exile has an enormous perk tree consisting of 1300 nodes available to each class, although all nodes are passive bonuses (active skills are instead imbued into items). Furthermore, a majority of nodes are unspectacular permanent bonuses to one of the character attributes (strength, dexterity, intelligence), but buying them is required to get to the juicy, named perks that provide significant combat advantages.

RPG -- Eastern
  • Uncharted Waters: New Horizons features a combination of seven skill scores (ranging from Leadership, through Knowledge, to Swordsmanship) which increase your performance as a fleet captain, and five perks: Celestial Navigation lets you auto-sail to any known port, Cartography allows you to sell maps, Gunnery drastically improves combat performance, Accounting tells you best places to sell your goods, and Negotiation lets you haggle for better prices.
  • The Crystarium system Final Fantasy XIII consisted of class-and-character-specific (mostly linear with minor sideways branching) perk trees, whose nodes had increasing "crystogen point" costs. Most nodes provided bonuses to either Strength, Magic, or Health, but some unlocked class/role-specific moves. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, each character has only one linear "perk tree", but its nodes are technically empty slots where the player can place perks (bonuses or abilities) of any of the six available classes (up to 99 per class) by investing crystogen points.

RPG -- Western
  • The underlying game system of The Elder Scrolls series is based mainly around skill scores, which are increased by using them (which also indirectly increases their governing character stats), but Oblivion added a number perks, which were unlocked by reaching certain levels in skills: e.g. a Power Attack at Blade 25, no shield wear-out at Shield 50, jumping off water surface at Acrobatics 100, etc. Skyrim expanded the available perks to an entire tree (one per skill score); perks now have prerequisite perks and corresponding skill score levels and can be bought and upgraded with perk points (gained with every level up) once unlocked.
  • In Dragon Age: Origins skill scores ("skills") and perks ("talents" and spells) existed in parallel, although the latter were much more prevalent. Eight (11 in Awakening) skills could be leveled up four times, providing passive bonuses to anything from persuasiveness, through pickpocketing, to combat efficiency. Talents, meanwhile, were distinct moves, auras, passives, and upgrades grouped into "trees" of three (four in Awakening) linear four item-long branches (mages got spells instead of talents but they worked the same way). There were also class- and specialization-specific perk trees. In addition to being part of a skill tree, new perks had stat and (in case of weapon talents) skill level requirements. Talent points were gained at every level, and skill points, every three (two for rogues) levels. Dragon Age II did away with the skills but expanded the talent trees to branch out more.
  • Alpha Protocol uses a system similar to Mass Effect in that your skill points both improve your proficiency directly and, at predefined points along the tree, grant access to special actions such as Bullet Time or HUD indicators as to enemies' location, disposition, and facing.

Stealth-Based Games
  • No One Lives Forever 2 included a skill score system that represented various aspects of being a super-spy (stealth, marksmanship, gadgets, etc.). Each skill score could be upgraded four times, giving various passive bonuses to the respective basic action (hiding, shooting, breaking codes, etc.). Each level cost progressively more skill points, which were obtained from completing missions and finding manuals scattered throughout the game.

Will go under Older Than the NES, Role-Playing Game. Also gonna create redirects from Skill Score, Perk, and Skill Tree.
Community Feedback Replies: 8
  • January 31, 2013
    Gonna post additional skill classifications for the Analysis tab in the next few comments.

    By field of application

    Since RP Gs Equal Combat, there is a pretty clear line to be drawn between combat skills and non-combat skills. Combat skills can be further divided into:

    • Weapon skills: Usually further subdivided by weapon type
    • Armor skills: Usually further subdivided by armor weight
    • (Tactical) magic skills: Usually further subdivided into magic schools

    Non-combat skills can be divided into:

    • Exploration skills: Relevant during peaceful travel across the game world
      • Athletics and acrobatics: Ability to move faster and leap further and higher
      • Swimming: Ability to move faster across and under the water surface
      • Trap spotting and disarming: Ability to detect traps and remove them more reliably
    • Stealth skills: Relevant mostly during stealth sections
      • Sneaking: Ability to remain undetected by enemies
      • Lock-picking: Ability to open locked containers and doors without having to find a key
      • Pickpocketing: Ability to remove valuables from NPCs without killing them first
      • Hacking: Ability to extract necessary information from digital systems
    • Diplomacy skills: Relevant during interactive dialogue
      • Haggling: Ability to buy items from NPC vendors cheaper while selling loot at higher prices
      • Persuasion: Ability to convince NPCs to help you via friendly dialogue
      • Intimidation: Ability to convince NPCs to help you via aggressive dialogue
      • Seduction: Ability to convince NPCs to help you via amorous dialogue (and occasionally more)
    • Crafting skills: Used for Item Crafting and Design It Yourself Equipment
      • Smithing: Ability to create weapons and armor from gathered resources and repair existing gear
      • Alchemy: Ability to create potions and poisons of any kind from collected ingredients
      • Engineering: Ability to create, repair, and upgrade machinery of any kind
  • January 31, 2013

    By the manner of use

    The following classification mainly concerns perks, since skill scores by definition have passive effects on actively triggered basic actions.

    • Activated perks allow the character to perform a specific action at the player's command (launch an attack, cast a spell, pick a lock, etc.), either consuming a portion of their mana or stamina to do so, or inducing a Cooldown before it can be used again (or both).
    • Sustained perks, a.k.a. auras, likewise require manual activation by the player but remain in effect for a certain time (followed by a cooldown) or until they either have drained the character of mana/stamina or are deactivated. Their effects can vary from passive bonuses, through dealing continuous damage to surrounding enemies, to enabling the usage of otherwise restricted active perks (e.g. certain sword techniques only available from a certain combat stance).
    • Passive perks provide constant bonuses after they are learned. Said bonuses are usually an order of magnitude larger than the ones provided by regular stat or skill score increases. For instance, if each Wisdom stat point gives the character 2% to hostile magic resistance, the Magebane perk can give up to 50%.
    • Story perks unlock hidden sidequests and conversation options, i.e. affecting the story instead of the gameplay. They are distinct from regular Event Flags in that they can be acquired at any point in the game by spending skill points.

    Obviously, perks are only usable when the characters are equipped with proper gear and are in the appropriate gameplay mode (exploration, combat, dialogue, stealth).

    By prerequisite

    To prevent the Player Character from getting too powerful too fast, most game systems put artificial limits on skill progression.

    • Skill scores are often dynamically capped by either the overall Character Level, or their governing primary attributes. For instance, the War Axe skill score cannot exceed the Strength stat score, which has to be improved before taking the next level in War Axe.
    • Perks usually have to be "unlocked" for a character before she can learn them. Unlocking a perk often entails one or more of following:

    Furthermore, some skills (usually perks) may be restricted to a certain Character Class or even a particular character (in case of Signature Moves).
  • January 31, 2013

    By manner of acquisition

    Skill scores are not so much "acquired" as "improved", since most characters start off with at least minimal scores in them and then decide which ones to improve by:

    • Arbitrarily investing "skill points" into them, which are gained after Level Ups (in Character Level systems) or quests (in the Point Build System)
    • Repeatedly applying the corresponding basic action (in the so-called Training System)

    Perks can be acquired (and optionally upgraded) by:

    • Arbitrarily spending "skill points" on them, gained by leveling up or completing quests
    • Buying them from trainers with regular in-game currency
    • Learning them from items, such as manuals, spell scrolls, etc.
    • Combining existing effects into new moves, specifically, magic spells and combos

    If the player doesn't need to visit a trainer to upgrade their skills, the game may instead require the Player Character to rest before allowing to spend skill points.
    That's it for the Analysis tab right now.
  • February 3, 2013
    Good stuff, good stuff. Hatted.

    Tabletop Games:
    • Dungeons And Dragons is likely the Trope Codifier, if not the outright Trope Maker. The specifics vary a little by edition, but D&D uses both skill scores, purchased points that act as a modifier on skill rolls, and "feats," purchased perks that may do everything from modifying rolls further to allowing the character to perform special actions or be immune to certain things (and that's just the tip of the iceberg, especially with the vast expanses of 3.X Edition). D&D-based video games usually use some or all of these mechanics.

    Western RPG:
    • Alpha Protocol uses a system similar to Mass Effect 1 in that your skill points both improve your proficiency directly and, at predefined points along the tree, grant access to special actions such as Bullet Time or HUD indicators as to enemies' location, disposition, and facing.
  • February 3, 2013
    Sub-example for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim further modified the system by turning each skill into a full tree of selectable perks.
  • February 3, 2013
    Added an index to the list (D&D makes it Older Than The NES)
  • February 4, 2013
    Added a table to better outline the difference between skill scores and perks.
  • February 5, 2013
    Just one more hat and I am launching this baby...