Skill-Based Systems and the Blank Page

Wow. It has been a good long while since my last post. Been overwhelmed at work, but I have no intentions of letting my first blog go dead just yet. So here are some thoughts about skill-based RPGs.

First, I am working on a rules-light skill-based RPG. More news on that later.

I have recently begun studying Basic Role-playing. I first began to familiarize myself with the system after I started working on my own skill-based RPG. I am rather fascinated with the original 14-page version, and wish that more people were familiar with the Goblinoid Games version, GORE. I think GORE is pretty rocking and might try to come up with some stuff for it. The problem that I can see with a lot of older skill-based games I’ve seen is that they are pretty crunchy, and rather unnecessarily so for my taste. I like to think that the BRP ‘pamphlet’ should be an exception, but even that one seems overzealous in its detail at times. 

One of the other problems of simple rules-light skill based systems is that they give little implication of the particular game they want you to play with the presented rules. A generic system always feels, well, generic.

Without a kind of setting, we tend to face the blank page problem. The blank page problem is an idea that I discovered playing old-school games with people new to roleplaying. It goes like this: imagine you are sitting a bunch of folks down to draw. You hand them a blank page and a marker and ask them to draw whatever they like. Some people will immediately begin drawing something unique and unusual, others will stare at the page for a long time before finally drawing something rather simple and basic, like a dog or a tree or a house. This is not universally the case, but I find it to be true more often than not. However, if you give the artists a rule, a theme, or an object in particular to draw, their images will become quite a bit more original as each one finds a slightly more unique take on the familiar.

Roleplaying games function in much the same way. When one is presented with a class, a certain archetype of what one could be, there is a sort of basic idea there for one to play with and twist and doodle on and invert. When one is presented with a list of possibilities, the question often winds up getting bounced to the GM or the other players—‘What should I be?’ When players are given a context, a world with factions and nations and goals and obstacles, the world of the players’ concern suddenly becomes far more visible and real, and it is possible to shape oneself according to the circumstances. But that generally requires more investment from the player at the start, and some players are more suited for this than others.



  1. I'm a big fan of Basic Role-Playing from way back. One of the nice features of BRP games like Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer is that they had Occupations with recommended skills into which you would pour your occupational skill points (in the case of the former) or Professions with designated skills that had randomly determined starting values (in the case of the latter). Both did a good job of eliminating the blank page syndrome caused by unstructured skill lists. Either method could easily be used with GORE.

    1. I think that there is a lot to be said for this method. I also like the clan system in V:tM as a way to sneak classes in to a skill system. I want to try the 'light GORE' method (which is included in the book) which drastically reduces the number of skills.

  2. The solution to the "blank page problem" in a fully classless system is templates, i.e. partially pre-generated characters corresponding to an archetype. West End did this with a lot of their systems, which were all totally class-agnostic. Have someone pick from (usually 24) templates, fill out a few details, and you're ready to roll.

    Of course, there were also rules for generating original characters, if you're an outside-the-box thinker.