Token Proficiency System

My character got killed by some harpies the other day. I'm pissed. So I'm going to think about game mechanics for a bit to calm down. 

Proficiencies still rub a raw nerve for me. I want to obliterate them. The question is, how do you represent specialized skill without forcing characters to choose from amongst pre-generated skills? 

General skill systems can be a problem because they the curious habit of ‘bland-izing’ characters--for some reason the more general your skill system is, the more similar characters seem to become. I have been a big fan of skill systems in the past because I found them more uniform than feats or proficiencies and more versatile. At one point, I thought an interesting way to handle skills in Oe might be to port over the skills from 4e. Those skills were simple, generic, and easily customizable; but when I tried it in practice I found the whole setup pretty boring. I settled on a stopgap that worked out OK; just have the players write down a one-word to one-sentence 'background' for their character, like 'Viking' or 'third son of an impoverished noble' or 'raised in a monastery'. That gave me a sense of a PC's abilities, and from there it was up to the player to be really convincing at the table to determine what else he can do.

But the eternal problem remains: how do we make mechanics that reflect our character's particularities? Should we try to do this?

There is a subtle shift that occurs when you stop seeing your character sheet as a reflection of your character and begin to see it as the foundation of your character. When you see the character sheet as a foundation you have the unconscious assumption that whatever your character does must in some way be founded upon information on the sheet. Randomization then becomes an obstacle to achieving your vision for your character. You desire more specific and flexible tools with which to paint your character. But despite this desire for individuality, you start choosing from options rather than inventing for yourself. Characters seem to become more alike the more possibility they get for mechanical distinction. I can point to 3e games where this has and hasn't been true, but 4e is built around allowing you to choose from options and being guaranteed safety in doing so. 

I want to view the character sheet as a reflection. Then, my stats become randomly determined lines within which I may draw whatever I like. But perhaps I have it backward. Maybe if everyone were given a sheet of paper and told just to draw, most drawings would turn out to be of the same things: a tree, a bird, etc. But then again, maybe most of those people don't play a whole lot of D&D. Besides, the character sheet is not where you draw your character. You create your character at the table when you're playing. Therefore, I created this little system to handle skills not based around flexibility or specificity on the sheet, but the way I know players like to play. I've seen something like this before, but I can't remember where. 

Token Proficiency System: Give the players a set of tokens for each level gained. They get a number of tokens equal to their INT modifier at first level (minimum 1) and 1 for each succeeding level. Each token can be turned in to the DM mid-play to declare a language or skill or bit of lore that the character knows how to do.

DM: ‘You cannot tell which mushrooms look poisonous. They are very unusual.’
Player tosses in a token. ‘Not to me. I majored in Mushroom Studies.’
DM: ‘You sure did. The greenish-capped ones are poisonous.’

This system is intended to function specifically rather than generally; in other words, we want to avoid generic words like ‘Appraisal’ and instead use things like ‘Atlantean Artifact Expertise’. Also, I would like for it to enable non-knowledge-related abilities—for instance, a token could be spent to design a weapon that only a PC knew how to use. Highly obscure information or knowledge might mean that a character has a chance of being mistaken. Otherwise, 3d6 ability checks work fine.


  1. I am in favor of any mechanic that supports backloading complexity (and thus simplifying character generation).

    Have you seen the Lamentations of the Flame Princess language rules? (Free download HERE.) Basically, you have a max number of languages determined by your intelligence score, and any time you come upon a situation in the game where you need to know if you speak another language, you roll for it and then record the language as either known or not known on your character sheet. You keep doing this throughout the game until all your language slots are filled.

    I do something similar in my Nalfeshnee hack game: I allow people to hold off on picking skills and feats until the time that the player finds them useful in play.

    The token idea is a nice prop. It would act as a reminder to the players that the option is available, and also highlight the fact that the token is a resource which can be spent. I may need to try that.

  2. Thats a great twist to the old way of just making up a background! To me though, I think it would make more sense to hand out all tokens at once. Leveling up shouldn't really reflect your background knowledge. Maybe I'd just give the player one token per intelligence point and let them choose when to use them. No doubt some players would burn through them quickly, others would hoard the things.

    1. Thanks! My experience is: too many knobs lead to tweaking and tampering. When players think that the 'essence' of the character is on the sheet, then they tend to stop thinking of how to develop their character's role/persona 'in play', and start manipulating abstract variables to get what they want. This way, the guy who wants a 'ranger' type can focus on using his tokens for wilderness-stuff, and the guy who just wants a 'win button' here and there gets one also. While some may argue that the latter is to be discouraged, I find that skills and feats tend to function like that for some players anyway--a way to guarantee success in a given scenario. That also explains why they are given out per level: they can represent experience and education, but also aren't a big pile o' Deus Ex Machina Points.