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Making Use of "Useless" Skills


Alex Greene

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Skills are important to a Mythras game. Yet there is an opinion that some skills are less useful than others. Skills such as Acting, Bureaucracy, Customs, Ride, Swim, Seduction, and even Teach are regarded by some as being unnecessary, and only a handful of skills - Athletics, Brawn, Combat Styles, Evade, Endurance, Willpower - are essential for play. Even Unarmed has sometimes been neglected in the rush to make Adventurers as skilled as possible in an exceptionally narrow range of skills, suited for combat and dungeon delving.

And yet there is more to adventuring than dungeon delving.

Useful Skills

Players want their characters to excel at their fields. And that means building their adventuring skills, preferably to at least 50%, preferably higher.

For the most part, some players believe that this just means Combat Styles - and Athletics, Stealth and the resistance skills of Brawn, Endurance, Evade, and Willpower. The next most important are Perception and Unarmed. Skills such as Sing, Dance, Acting, Boating, Swim, Crafts, Musicianship, Seduction, Lore, Language, and Teach are practically ignored.

What makes the "useful" skills useful?

Survival Skills

Of course, these skills are useful if the stories are all set in some sort of labyrinth through which the player characters must delve, for whatever reason. Each member of the party needs Athletics, Stealth, a healthy mixture of Combat Styles, and the resistance skills of Brawn, Endurance, Evade, and Willpower.

Specialists within the party will also need their particular skills: locksmiths and engineers to use Engineering, Mechanisms and Lockpicking to defuse traps and open locked doors; First Aid and Healing, for the party's healer (why do they only have one?) and of course magic skills for whoever the party's magician is. Even out in the wilderness, specialists can be called on for their expertise in Locale, Navigation, and of course Survival, and Track; not to mention Craft (survival cooking).

Skills such as Bureaucracy, Courtesy, Boating, Navigation, and Musicianship never seem to come into settings, and even Swim and Unarmed are not seen to be as being that popular among players, as compared to the Dungeon Survival Skills above.

So let's look at some of these clusters of the more obscure skills, and see how they can come in handy.

Entertainment Skills

The entertainment skills are Acrobatics, Dance, Disguise, Gambling, Sing, Musicianship, Oratory, Sleight, and even Seduction if you want to go down that road. Characters who develop these skills are immensely popular in the community. They can provide a distraction, boost morale, and make people forget their woes, even if only for a little time. Townspeople are easily bored, and will pay handsomely for someone who can put on a fine show of juggling, a bit of street theatre, or recite some amusing poem or sing bawdy songs to get the crowd dancing.

Stories centered around entertainers will naturally focus on their ability to entertain, which can provide a different style of adventure - one which can be as cutthroat as any courtly setting in the hallowed halls of power. But whether a character is an actor, an opera singer, a bawdy ecdysiast, an after-dinner orator, or a circus performer, the show must go on.

Paper Skills

How can Bureaucracy, Commerce, and Influence be useful in an adventure? Perhaps the Adventurers might need something from somewhere, and either have to haggle for it in a marketplace, bid for it at auction, or requisition it from a complex system of obscure and arcane rules. An adventure can drag the Adventurers into a place no player characters have ever been to before - a terrible nest of vipers, a den of iniquity and corruption, a bastion of treachery and betrayal simply known as ... City Hall.

These skills can also come in handy if the character is helping somebody else. If they have really good Bureaucracy skills, for instance, they might get to reach the parts of City Hall that their Connections might not - and such influence can only lead to people owing the characters a favour down the road.

People Skills

Courtesy, Culture, Customs, Deceit, Oratory, and Influence are so useful for Adventurers in many aspects of the adventure. Adventurers can open up trade with travellers they meet; break bread with fellow travellers at night, and establish trust and good relations; they can make a good impression at court (Courtesy, Culture, and Customs can include knowledge of how to dress as much as how to act), Influence is always useful in swaying opinions, and Deceit can be useful for everything from harmless little white lies to defuse an overenthusiastic courtier's aggressive and clumsy attempt at a seduction ("Sir, I really shouldn't. I am spoken for, and my lover is both jealous and insanely violent") to outrageous swindles ("Give me money, and I shall set to work building a moat to protect this town!").

Communication Skills

Language and Literacy are the primary skills, though Deceit, Sing, and Seduction have their uses here, too. In the Mythras Core Rulebook, Literacy is separate from Language because of the assumption that the default fantasy milieu is some sort of Dark Ages, where literacy rates are low - as if low literacy rates were common to cultures which were not Civilised.

They don't have to be.

In the historical Middle Ages, literacy began to decline when the Romans retreated and civilisation declined in their absence. In the fantasy settings of your world, as Games Master, your world's history does not have to parallel this development. Perhaps the tendency of your pre-Iron Age civilisation is to develop the oral tradition to a fine art, meaning that Literacy is as much a verbal and mnemonic skill as a written one, and alphabets of symbols could serve as mnemonic keys to remembering huge amounts of information in memory palaces.

In your setting, everybody might have access to the written world. Counting, calculation, arithmetic, higher mathematics, might not be the jealously-guarded province of the church and magicians, and the printing press might have made its way from the East a thousand years before it would have been "invented" in the West.

In a world of a hundred nations, there might be a hundred or more languages; and for each, there could be a Culture, a Language, a Literacy, and a Lore.

Perception Skills

The two main perception skills are Insight and Perception. Insight is an undeservedly underused and undervalued skill, because it can be used to sense if a person is lying (Deceit), using wiles (Influence, Seduction) or they are genuinely trying to communicate with the character. Insight can disclose a gambler's intent to cheat, or gather that violence is about to break out, from examining people's changing expressions, tone of voice, and body language; Perception can spot the subtle movement of a hand to undo the peace knot on a sheathed sword, or to spot someone palm a card before dealing it. If the characters are conducting a discreet surveillance of a target, Perception can spot other spies in the crowd and determine that they might have been made; and Insight can tell them if the person they are surveilling has made them and is about to bolt.

Creative and Artistic Skills

There are a cluster of these - Art, Craft, Engineering, Mechanisms, and Lockpicking. For the most part, the skills a lot of Adventurers go for are Engineering, Mechanisms, and Lockpicking, for the purpose of spotting and defusing traps, finding secret rooms, and so on. However, these skills can be used for a far greater purpose in down time; they can provide the characters with a living.

A character who is an artist, engineer, jewelsmith, and so on is likely to ply their trade and earn money during down time from a stream of steady customers seeking the products of their crafts. Even Craft (cookery) can find a use in a court, working in the kitchens - and who knows what juicy gossip might float about in the dining halls of power, and come to the ears of a humble servant providing the great and the good with their daily breakfast.

A creative type can be called upon to create some sort of wonder, whether it be an intricate figurine carved from a rare wood, a statue carefully sculpted from a block of marble, a city monument or an entire building. The possibilities are endless, as are the adventuring opportunities as the creative sort travels far and wide in search of inspiration, or markets to buy building materials or expensive fabrics or dyes.

Knowledge Skills

Lore is the main knowledge skill - but Locale is often overlooked, even though it is about a very specific, practical kind of knowledge. Knowledge is power, whether it be Mathematics, Astronomy, Astrology, or Tactics & Strategy. Many a puzzle has been solved by a player who simply declared to their Games Master "I'm useless at puzzles, but my character Trinisca is a master of puzzles with Lore (Puzzles) 90%, so I roll to see if she works out what that gibberish on the door is supposed to mean."

Transportation Skills

Boating, Drive, Ride, and Seamanship might not have much use in dark, narrow dungeon corridors, but outside of those cramped environs they can be essential. Campaigns set in a Nomadic culture, for instance, can involve the characters travelling hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres over land and/or water to get to the next destination. They can face many different kinds of hazards, and not just hostile people. Landslides, natural disasters such as wildfires, mudslides, hard weather such as storms, snow, and tornadoes, and even earthquakes, volcanoes and floods, might take their toll on travellers, and characters' mastery of the appropriate transportation skills might be tested to the limit under such harsh environments.

Physical Skills

Acrobatics, Athletics, Dance, Ride, Seduction, Swim, and Unarmed, not to mention Combat Styles, are the last category to be covered here. These are the most immediate skills, they are physical, they generally require little mental effort, and they can all be useful for the most obscure reasons. A Master of Swim, for example, might be called upon to brave a treacherous strait to make their way across to an island on the other side in order to secure a rope for the rest of the party to use; an athletic character could be the only person able to climb up three storeys to get to an open window in an otherwise locked building.

Useful Skills

In the final analysis, every skill is potentially useful, either in an adventure or as a source of income during down time. As the saying goes, "Jack of All Trades, Master of None - but better that than a Master of One."

Spread those Skill Development Points around. The more your characters come over as Renaissance people, the more they will be in demand, and the more likely they are to survive to a ripe old age (i.e. until their retirement at the end of the chronicle or campaign).

Edited by Alex Greene

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I have never seen any skill as being useless.

All skills are useful in some way.

Putting Adventurers into a mile-high Ivory Tower and asking them to find a certain book will be challenging, unless they have the right skills. In that situation, those skills tend to be not useless at all.

 

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