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Organic Skill Trees


Baconjurer

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So an idea for my current game is in its fetal stages inside my head. I was inspired by another thread on the forums about a skill list and I thought about the following:

  • How to define a skill, i.e. how broad or narrow is its reach?
  • How to avoid derivative skill discrepancies, e.g. where someone who is knowledgeable in physics isn't knowledgeable in math because they didn't put points in that?

I know BRP has symbiotic skills, where you can add 1/5 of a related skill to your skill roll, but that doesn't solve the first problem. Some skills are super broad like "Athletics" and some are super narrow like Craft (blacksmithing). Due to the variance in scope, a point put into Athletics is more valuable than a point put into Craft (blacksmithing).

So I went to search out what other systems do, but I haven't found one that strikes the right balance of realism and playability for me. So I started thinking about what I'm calling "organic skill trees".

The idea is that all skills begin with a player attempting some action. If the referee and player agree that it's an action any member of the characters species should be able to do without any special training they can use characteristic or "root skill". A root skill is simply two characteristics that fits with the desired action. For example, if a player wants to climb a tree he could use several different characteristics. He could say he uses his intelligence to plan a carefully selected route up the tree and uses his strength to pull him up, or maybe he uses his dexterity to jump between branches and intelligence to know which ones can support his weight. As long as the referee and the player both agree to the reason of this choice it would work. It also creates interesting variants in game description. It would also be more realistic because a character would tend to lean on their strongest characteristics to complete actions. The skill level in this case would simply be the combine characteristic score, usually between 20-30% for the average adventuring human.

But suppose the player expects to be climbing a lot. In this case, they can choose to specialize. To make a skill, they take the verb of what they were doing and that's the skill name. In my example of climbing a tree, the verb is "climb". Specialized skill would be limited to skill levels of root skill x 2, putting a cap at somewhere between 40-60%. If they want to be even better they could further specialize by adding a noun, eg "trees". Specializing again would raise the skill level limit 3 x the root skill, putting the cap somewhere between 60-90% for the average adventuring human. You could continue to specialize, unlocking higher and higher skill caps by adding more nouns. So the characters skill list might look like this at this point:

- Climb (STR+INT): 15%

- Climb (trees): 40%

- Climb (oak trees): 41%

More details on how I'm envisioning this working:

  • Specialized skills have a base score equal to the previous specialization, e.g. if you specialize in Climb (trees) when your Climb skill is at 15%, Climb (trees) starts at 15%.
  • Skill checks are still based on which skill you used, e.g. if you choose to use Climb you get a skill check in Climb, if you choose to use Climb (oak trees) you get a skill check in Climb (oak Trees)
  • Acquiring a new specialization requires a teacher or research, i.e money and time
  • There are a limited number of skill slots, tentatively 20. A player could choose to be able to have a few really high skill levels, e.g. Climb (oak trees), which is specialized 3 times (climb+oak+tree), is capped at 4 x root skill, putting the cap somewhere between 80-120% for the average adventuring human. Or they could choose to have lots of more generic skills, with limited growth potential. 
  • Logic would naturally limit how far you could specialize, but in the end it will be down to the agreement between the ref and the player
  • Actions that couldn't be done without training, e.g. couldn't be attempted with just a root skill (i.e just the attribute scores), but the base skill level once trained or researched would still be based on 2 attributes
  • Certain actions might require multiple specializations to attempt, e.g. in my setting you have to learn a school of magic, before learning a specific magic spell so someone with the ability to magically heal might have to have
    • Cast Spells (INT+WILL): 21%
    • Cast Holy Spells: 24%
    • Cast Holy Spells (Heal): 32%
  • Combat Example:
    • Attack (STR+DEX): 25%
    • Attack (Spear): 43%
    • Attack (Spear - Halberd): 78%
Edited by Baconjurer
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While getting derivative skills in character creation is a single huge act of computation, how does skill advancement reach through in these considerations?

Getting a skill check when climbing not a tree, but a cliffside - will experience reach through to climbing trees? Will you split your experience gain between cliff and climb? Or do you note when you get your check whether it was a success at general climb skill or only thanks to the specialisation?

If you increase your botanic knowledge, will that affect your climb (trees)? (And vice versa?) Or just your plant lore (trees)?

How and why do you start the specialisation? Is it because you want to carry over some other skill like Plant Lore, Plant Lore (trees)?

When your Craft (wood) affects your Plant Lore (trees), does anything of this carry over?

(And yes, these cross-influences are not part of a hierarchic tree. They may be quite relevant, though.)

Having these specialisations does reflect real life. Using a specific piece of equipment, or one one has spent time attuning to. As an archer, I need familiarity with the bow I take into my hand before being able to be as good as I am with the material I am used to. Same thing whenever I switch to a different set of arrows. When using a stick-like weapon, a slight variation in length and balance affects the ability to hit with the optimal zone or your reaction speed for parries.

Weapon maintenance is a craft that doesn't appear on the character sheet, but one that willl alter one's craft ability on related issues (craft metal, wood, leather, gun-powder, energy cell) and helps with unconventional uses of that material (e.g. in traps).

Learning languages may create a meta-skill in linguistics that raises the entry level of learning a new language as well as increasing the speed with which a new language is learned.

Telling how it is excessive verbis

 

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What you might want to look at is Greg Porter's family of RPGs (Timelords. CORPS, EABA). They seem to do pretty much the same thing you are shooting for: there are main skills, sub-skills and specialties. Basically the latter two add to the main skill, but only when applicable. The secondary skills and specialties are limited in how far they can be raised based on the main skill (either equal to or half of, depending on the RPG). The specialty is really narrow, and usually just applies to one make or model of something, or one very limited application of the skill.. For example something like Driving/Automotbiles/Maserati GT or Firearms/Handguns/Walther PPK

In game terms the main advantage of the subskills are that they are improved separately from the main skill, and so are easier to increase (i.e. having 1H Sword at 40%, and Shortsword at 20% makes it much easier to raise Shortsword than if you just had it at 60%), and allow for multiple increases (the main and the subskills could both get check)..

 

I've used something like these rules in a BRP varaint and they do work. The will let your player get to higher skill scores fairly quickly, and also make things a little slower, since everybody has to add in the secondary skills. IMO what might work better would be to just add the skills together, and only separate them when rolling for improvement. So rather than 1H Sword 40%/Shortsword 20% it would be 1H Sword 40%/Shortsword 60%.

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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Two ways I've seen this idea addressed.

#1 general skills and specialized skills. General skills can only rise to a certain level, say 50% (as BRP is d100), specialized skills are more focused and add to the base. So you could have a firearms skill of 35% which applies to all firearms, then you have pistol 15%, rifle, 25% and shotgun 0%. In combat the character would effectively have a skill of 50% with pistols, 60% with rifles, but only 35% with shotguns. You would have families of skills, Social sciences - Anthropology, Archaeology, Psychology etc as there is a fair amount of overlap at the lower levels.

One can have a higher specialty skill than the base, as they just don't have the general skills. This could represent somebody who is self taught, perhaps they have studied physics on their own, read a lot of books, watches a lot of youtube physics lectures etc. They understand a lot of the big concepts but don't have the mathematics foundation a formal physics education would have provided.

I like this in theory but it does make things more complicated. Although for jack of all trades types it does help to keep the skill lists shorter vs the everything is a separate skill thing. The dabbler can get a lot of general skills, they just aren't really good at many of them.

 

#2 allows the player to make their own skills, the more specific the greater the effect of a success / penalties are applied more generously. So a PC finds a "frog" and wants to know more about it. Their only applicable skill is biology, if they succeed they know it is a tree frog, perhaps even that it is Spring Peeper, and is common in the US. Now if they instead had Herpetology (on the more extreme end), they not only would be able to rattle off loads of fine details about the critter, but would also be alarmed by its call of Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn  which is not characteristic of the species....  ;)

 

#2 is used by HERO and GURPS 4th ed optional Science! skill.    

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1 hour ago, Mugen said:

As for myself, I would not'go further than a 2 level tree, with skills and specialties.

Revolution D100 gives a good example of the root skills I'd use.

Revolution D100 has an elegant way of doing this.

You have core skills and than gain traits. So, you might have Stealth as a core skill but have the Traits of Move Quietly, Hide in Cover or Forest, giving you a bonus to your Strealtyh if you are trying to Move Silently or Hide in Cover, with a double bonus if doing so in a Forest. It works really well and immediately removes the need for multiple skill trees for different genres.

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Simon Phipp - Caldmore Chameleon - Wallowing in my elitism since 1982. Many Systems, One Family. Just a fanboy. 

www.soltakss.com/index.html

Jonstown Compendium author. Find my contributions here

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3 hours ago, soltakss said:

Revolution D100 has an elegant way of doing this.

You have core skills and than gain traits. So, you might have Stealth as a core skill but have the Traits of Move Quietly, Hide in Cover or Forest, giving you a bonus to your Strealtyh if you are trying to Move Silently or Hide in Cover, with a double bonus if doing so in a Forest. It works really well and immediately removes the need for multiple skill trees for different genres.

Yes, that would be my solution, except "traits" would have variable values instead of a flat +30%.

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On 6/4/2017 at 5:18 PM, Mugen said:

Yes, that would be my solution, except "traits" would have variable values instead of a flat +30%.

That's a mixed blessing. On the one hand it allows for more customization, but on the other it can get somewhat tedious with the math. I'd suggest keeping the trait bonus in increments of 10% to keep the math easy.

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Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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I'm thinking I'll do it as a bring-your-own-skill-list type thing. The trick is that all skills must be verb.  I'll limit the verbs by saying that skills can't be what you intend to do, i.e. "kill", "murder" "win", "solve" etc. The check is that the skill has to be grammatically correct when I plug it into the sentence "I [skill] very well" and I should also be able to clearly visualize your character on the holodeck using that skill "very well" without clarification. Skills are capped. Specialized skills have a higher cap. Further specialized skills have a still higher cap. In order to specialize, you add a noun to the verb. The more nouns you can add that grammatically make sense, the higher your skill cap. Examples I can think of are "Swing bastard swords", "Fire longbows*" , "Punch rat men", "Climb castle walls", "Drive Dodge Vipers". If you already have a skill, any further specialization starts at the root skill. E.G I already have "Swing Swords" at 50%. If I add the skill "Swing Bastard Swords" that would start at 50% as well, but would have a higher skill cap. Each are treated as separate skills. Some skills would face an Impossible modifier (-100) if used without any training. Every skill takes up a skill slot, and skill slots are limited by your intelligence score. You don't need a root skill before you get a specialized skill, e.g. you don't need "Swing swords" before you take "Swing bastard swords" if that's how you choose. If you remove skills, you must remove the furthest specialized skill first, eg if you have "swing swords" and "swing bastard swords" you must remove "swing bastard swords" before you can remove "swing swords".

Can anyone spot any game breaking problems with this? 

 

*I might allow the skill "fire longbow bows" if the player argued, because "fire recurve bows" would increase the skill cap twice, whereas fire longbows can only increase the cap once, and I think it still grammatically correct to say "I fire longbow bows very well", even though it is a bit awkward sounding.

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1 hour ago, Baconjurer said:

I'm thinking I'll do it as a bring-your-own-skill-list type thing. The trick is that all skills must be verb.  I'll limit the verbs by saying that skills can't be what you intend to do, i.e. "kill", "murder" "win", "solve" etc. The check is that the skill has to be grammatically correct when I plug it into the sentence "I [skill] very well" and I should also be able to clearly visualize your character on the holodeck using that skill "very well" without clarification. Skills are capped. Specialized skills have a higher cap. Further specialized skills have a still higher cap. In order to specialize, you add a noun to the verb. The more nouns you can add that grammatically make sense, the higher your skill cap. Examples I can think of are "Swing bastard swords", "Fire longbows*" , "Punch rat men", "Climb castle walls", "Drive Dodge Vipers". If you already have a skill, any further specialization starts at the root skill. E.G I already have "Swing Swords" at 50%. If I add the skill "Swing Bastard Swords" that would start at 50% as well, but would have a higher skill cap. Each are treated as separate skills. Some skills would face an Impossible modifier (-100) if used without any training. Every skill takes up a skill slot, and skill slots are limited by your intelligence score. You don't need a root skill before you get a specialized skill, e.g. you don't need "Swing swords" before you take "Swing bastard swords" if that's how you choose. If you remove skills, you must remove the furthest specialized skill first, eg if you have "swing swords" and "swing bastard swords" you must remove "swing bastard swords" before you can remove "swing swords".

Can anyone spot any game breaking problems with this? 

 

*I might allow the skill "fire longbow bows" if the player argued, because "fire recurve bows" would increase the skill cap twice, whereas fire longbows can only increase the cap once, and I think it still grammatically correct to say "I fire longbow bows very well", even though it is a bit awkward sounding.

Iwouldn't bother with both Swing Swords and Swing Bastard Sword, as skills, to be honest. Sure, have Swing Swords as a skill and Bastard Sword as a Speciality, to give a bonues, but having both is redundant. What happens if I start Swing bastard Sword at 50% and then increase Swing Swords to 60%? Does my Swing Bastard Sword stay at 50%, meaning I am worse with it than other swords, or does it rise to 60%? Sounds like a bookkeeping nightmare to me.

Simon Phipp - Caldmore Chameleon - Wallowing in my elitism since 1982. Many Systems, One Family. Just a fanboy. 

www.soltakss.com/index.html

Jonstown Compendium author. Find my contributions here

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14 hours ago, soltakss said:

Iwouldn't bother with both Swing Swords and Swing Bastard Sword, as skills, to be honest. Sure, have Swing Swords as a skill and Bastard Sword as a Speciality, to give a bonues, but having both is redundant. What happens if I start Swing bastard Sword at 50% and then increase Swing Swords to 60%? Does my Swing Bastard Sword stay at 50%, meaning I am worse with it than other swords, or does it rise to 60%? Sounds like a bookkeeping nightmare to me.

Yeah players certainly wouldn't need both. The advantage of "swing sword" over "swing bastard sword" is that you can use "swing sword" if you find a nice short sword or long sword or rapier or saber. The advantage of "swing bastard sword" is that the skill cap is higher. I'm still not set on what I'm going to have the skill caps at, but I think it will be primary characteristic x 2 x number of words. So "swing sword" would be limited to 40% for someone with a primary characteristic of 10, while "swing bastard sword" would be limited to 60% for that character.

They don't have to have the more general skill "swing sword", they could just take "swing bastard sword" directly and start building up their skill. However, having the more general "swing sword" does make their character more flexible AND if they build that skill up first, they don't have to spend the time leveling up it's derivative skills. It's a trade off of flexibility for skill. Jack of all trades or master of some. The choices are up to the player and how they envision their character.

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It seems like it would be cleaner to have more specific skills add rather than simply have a higher cap.

Verb max 60%

Verb + Noun adds up to 30%

Verb + Proper Noun adds up to 10%

So swords would max at 60% but a player could also have broad sword bringing the total to a max of 90%, and they could have broadswords made by Max the swordsmith adding up to 10% more. Or some such. I don't think weapons skills work quite as cleanly as knowledge type skills where you could easily have very broad (biology) to extremely specific (anatomy of Raquel Welch).

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21 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

 Or some such. I don't think weapons skills work quite as cleanly as knowledge type skills where you could easily have very broad (biology) to extremely specific (anatomy of Raquel Welch).

I think they do, but only once you reach the point where weapons technology become as specialized as the sciences. For instance something like Handgun/Pistol/Walther PPK. The problem with attemtping this with lower tech weapons is that the distinctions between various weapons on the same "family" are not as clear, and there is a lot more overlap. 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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55 minutes ago, Atgxtg said:

I think they do, but only once you reach the point where weapons technology become as specialized as the sciences. For instance something like Handgun/Pistol/Walther PPK. The problem with attemtping this with lower tech weapons is that the distinctions between various weapons on the same "family" are not as clear, and there is a lot more overlap. 

You are correct, the real issue with older weapons is based in the terminology. What one person calls a long sword, another will call a bastard sword or a two handed sword. I suppose this is avoided by just going with the game descriptions and hoping any historical minded players don't geek out too much on the finer points.

 

 

Going back to the OP I'm thinking it may make more sense to allow more growth for more specialized skills rather than capping them. So a broad skill advances in 1% increments, medium specialized skill in 2.5% (alternating 3% and 2% would avoid keeping track of the 1/2%) and highly specialized advance in 5% blocks. 

That would allow for a generalist who can use any weapon equally well, but it takes them far longer to master all of those weapons, while an Olympic marksman who has only fired one of those weird .22 caliber single shot target pistols will be able to start the game with an awesome amount of skill, but he will essentially be a novice when somebody tosses him a Beretta M92. 

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4 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

You are correct, the real issue with older weapons is based in the terminology. What one person calls a long sword, another will call a bastard sword or a two handed sword. I suppose this is avoided by just going with the game descriptions and hoping any historical minded players don't geek out too much on the finer points.

Exactly. Plus back then weapons were not standardized. So you might have a 38" broadsword, but some other guy might have a 40" broadsword, and so on.

4 hours ago, Toadmaster said:

 

 

Going back to the OP I'm thinking it may make more sense to allow more growth for more specialized skills rather than capping them. So a broad skill advances in 1% increments, medium specialized skill in 2.5% (alternating 3% and 2% would avoid keeping track of the 1/2%) and highly specialized advance in 5% blocks. 

I wouldn't make the blocks too fine. I've found in another RPG that did this that it tends to bog the game down when somebody has to do the math of Handgun 42% + Pistol 17% + Walther PPK 7%, or any other combat skill, all the time. 

I'd suggest using 10% increments for medium and highly specialized (secondary and tertiary?)  skills, but make them a little harder to improve than normal to balance off for the big boost. It will be much easier and faster in play. 

Chaos stalks my world, but she's a big girl and can take of herself.

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Alternatively, you can reduce the difficulty of the skill test by one grade for each level of specialisation the character possesses. If an adventurer with Handguns 47% is making a skill roll against an average difficulty, there is no modification to the roll. But if they have a specialisation with the Walther PPK, the roll is made against an Easy difficulty. The beauty of this approach is that there is no need to keep track of separate skill ratings for each specialisation - specialisations become mere descriptors that reduce the Difficulty Grade when they are applicable. 

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I've abandoned the grammar (verb noun) approach. English just isn't a good language for that. So I've decided to rely on player and ref judgement. The skill tree starts with your base stats. Then you add specialization based on what actions you want to attempt. You can further specialize as long as the player and ref both agree that it really is a subcategory (eg. most refs would agree that "Jump" is a subcategory of "Athletics"). You can also grow the tree in the reverse direction. Say you took STR-->JUMP. You could add STR-->ATHLETICS-->JUMP. You just would need to shift things. Then each level is capped at previous level + base stat. The minimum skill of a further specialization is equal to the previous step. The number of total skills on your tree is capped at 2x INT score. Attached is a rough draft I drew up for a James Bond character. Skills presented in this way tell a character background story, more so than the line by line approach. For example, you can see that James Bond tends to draw on his DEX and Martial Arts training for his combat skills.

 

SkillTree.jpg

Edited by Baconjurer
Note: The First Aid skill in the picture should be 45/45 to denote the maximum attainable skill level at that level of specialization. I've also decided to add the rule that the skill level of a specialization can't exceed until the parent skill is maxed.
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On 19/06/2017 at 5:28 AM, Baconjurer said:

ISkillTree.jpg

I guess the link between Martial Arts and Stealth is a typo, right ?

I'm not really fond on the maximum you put on skills, I would add 1 to the multipliers you use for your blue skills, and perhaps 1 also to the light red ones.

Edited by Mugen
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25 minutes ago, Mugen said:

I guess the link between Martial Arts and Stealth is a typo, right ?

I'm not really fond on the maximum you put on skills, I would add 1 to the multipliers you use for your blue skills, and perhaps 1 also to the light red ones.

Nope, not a typo. I was imagining for this incarnation of James Bond he got training in stealth when he was studying with ninjas in Japan. Of course this is just for this character and with me as ref. Other characters might not choose to derive their stealth capabilities in that way (might be argued to be a subcategory of DEX, Athletics, Combat, Perception, etc), or other refs may not agree that stealth is a subcategory of Martial Arts. It's very flexible, and up to player and ref interpretation. 

I'm actually pretty happy with the way the numbers worked out. Taking 90+ skill rank to be absolute top of the field, peak of human capabilities, and limiting the number of skills to INT x 2, you wind up with a character that's a master of a few things, good at lots of things, and just so-so for the rest. This is what I'd aim for in most campaign settings, because that reflects reality well. James Bond's skill set is very diverse, so he has a lot more quite good skills, and less absolute master skills. If you wanted more of a superhuman campaign setting you could start the multiplier by x3 or x4 rather than x2.

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7 hours ago, Baconjurer said:

Nope, not a typo. I was imagining for this incarnation of James Bond he got training in stealth when he was studying with ninjas in Japan. Of course this is just for this character and with me as ref. Other characters might not choose to derive their stealth capabilities in that way (might be argued to be a subcategory of DEX, Athletics, Combat, Perception, etc), or other refs may not agree that stealth is a subcategory of Martial Arts. It's very flexible, and up to player and ref interpretation. 

Count me among the "stealth isn't combat" group.

"Stealth" skills are a skill-set that *CAN* occur in conjunction with combat-skills, but isn't PART of them; most of the component-skills are different.  Just as some stealthy thief/rogue types CAN have hard-core combat skills, but it isn't PART of those.  "Stealth" is a crossover skill, NOT derived from combat... even though it sometimes occurs WITH combat skills.

I know some artists, for example (in real life).  Some of them understand their art in a way that is primarily experiential & artistic.  Others have a pretty deep understanding of the materials-science behind their art.  The "science" part gives them other options as artists... but it isn't part of the "art" they do.  It's a crossover skill.

===

That said, I'm interested to note you suggest, "... Other characters might not choose to derive their stealth capabilities in that way (might be argued to be a subcategory of DEX, Athletics, Combat, Perception, etc)".  So you're saying that many skills may go one way or another; there may be a "strength" grouping of combat-skills; bows might be sub-grouped under "perception" &c.  It's kind of a granular skills-list implementation of the "approaches" method I've seen in other games.

 

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11 hours ago, g33k said:

That said, I'm interested to note you suggest, "... Other characters might not choose to derive their stealth capabilities in that way (might be argued to be a subcategory of DEX, Athletics, Combat, Perception, etc)".  So you're saying that many skills may go one way or another; there may be a "strength" grouping of combat-skills; bows might be sub-grouped under "perception" &c.  It's kind of a granular skills-list implementation of the "approaches" method I've seen in other games.

 

Not only can they go one way or the other, that is they could be developed from different parent abilities, but skills can vary in it's depth in the tree based on how it was developed. It might be a first tier skill or it might be a fifth tier skill. As long as the ref agrees that it is a subcategory of your proposed parent skill. I think this can lead to some really exciting variations in characters (bring your own skill list), avoid the inconsistencies that pop up with static skills (why are you good at perception but can't spot anything?), automatically separates more general from more specialized skills, and creates realistic limits to character development, thus creating meaningful choices.

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Hate to say it, hope not to sound rude or condescending, and I'll probably piss off everyone in this thread, but I think you're taking something simple and elegant and making it a hundred times more complicated.  A Climb is a Climb.  If you're using the BRP Big Gold Book, you can say its a more difficult, or easier, based on any number of factors.  But its still a Climb.

I suppose it may just come down to style of play, and if you and your players really want to drill down into it like that, and that's fun for you - well, more power to ya. 

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