THE ATROPHICATION OF SKILLS OVER TIME
A huge problem with most game systems - whether they are class-based systems or skill-based systems - is that they treat the acquisition of skills like a commodity one can buy. Well, actually buying the skills in and of itself is not really the problem, so much as safely storing them away for later use. What I mean by that is, unlike a commodity you really can safely put somewhere and take out any time you need it, skills are not like that. They tend to atrophy and degrade over periods of time when they are not used or practiced, and this is a fact poorly reflected in most roleplaying games.
From real life, if you think about it, most of us can well appreciate the fact skills we don't use regularly tend to get fuzzy. Names of people we haven't seen in a long while, places, events long past, facts learned in school (elementary school, high school, college, on the job, etc.) languages not spoken in years, pass words not used in a while, procedures to use a rare function on one's watch, and most anything and everything we don't use regularly will atrophy over time. Just like a disused muscle, it shrinks.
Sure, we may have reminders to keep things in our mind's eye - photographs, letters, and keepsakes - but this is a sort of practice.
For example, though we haven't practiced calculus in many years (Math Rank 6) we may still occasionally use trigonometry and geometry (Ranks 4 and 5), and even far more frequently use other mathematical skills of lesser sophistication - like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, etc. (Ranks 1 to 3) - but if a problem requiring a real working knowledge of calculus appeared before us, despite the fact at one time we easily knew how to do such things, we can barely remember how to do them now, if at all.
NOTE: These mathematical ranks are not meant to be correct - i.e. I don't really think Calculus must be Rank 6, for example, but as an example, you can see what I mean by learning in progressive steps (ranks) for any one skill, assuming "math," in general, is one skill well depicted by ranks, which it might not be. But I digress.
Though I suspect it's virtually impossible to totally forget everything about a certain skill, I feel it can never be totally wiped clean, so there should also be limits on how far a skill might degrade - but more on that, later.
My point is that most game systems just allow one's character to "purchase" skills, and then subsequently assumes those skills will be at the ready and in razor sharp and pristine condition whenever the need arises to use them, no matter how long it's been since one has actually used, let alone thought about using, that skill. It's pretty much like it's just sitting around under wraps in some box and you can take it out whenever the occasion arises and expect it to work just as well now as it did years or even decades ago. Alas, this is a problem.
Thankfully, for most roleplaying games, we aren't expected to live our characters' lives 24/7. Thus, our characters may easily practice these skills or use these skills in those hours and days where we don't actually roleplay that time. This would assume, of course, our PCs are busy people and are often practicing their skills to keep them sharp and ready at a moment's notice.
Unfortunately, too many players seem to forget this fact, and often mistakenly feel their character is doing nothing of importance just then - like in between going up levels while sitting around in town waiting for his/her comrades - so why can't they do this, or that, or most importantly, why can't they use that "free time" to learn even more skills?
I often hear them lament how unrealistic it is their PC cannot learn a new skill in town just because they haven't gone up a level and don't have skill points to spend just then. After all, they aren't doing anything else with their time, right? They can still think and learn, can't they? Their brains aren't somehow damaged and incapable of new experiences, are they? So how is it realistic they can't learn a skill then if they want to?
Quite simply, the solution to this problem lies in the fact their PC doesn't always have as much free time as the player seems to imagine. Doubtless, their PC is engaged in some pretty elaborate practice sessions to keep their level skills honed, their class skills sharp, and their other skills fresh in their mind and ready to go. If they did otherwise, just when they needed a skill or feat or power the most, they'd come up short and probably die, or worse, get their traveling companions killed. These professional adventurers cannot afford to do this, and so they don't. Instead, the vast majority of their "non-roleplayed time" is likely spent in hours and hours of grueling practice each week. While this isn't particularly fun to roleplay these practice sessions - and no one is asking anyone to do that - it is extremely important that players realize their characters are often so engaged and must take this time to stay sharp.
These non-roleplayed practice times are VERY realistic, and probably quite common. You wouldn't, for example, find a professional athlete of quality, an Olympic athlete, a martial artist, or a host of other highly skilled individuals never practicing their craft, and if you did, odds are it would show. So one might imagine either each PC has a local group of friends or sparing partners, teachers or mentors, or the social system that supports the profession of adventuring also included relatively easy means to obtain (or find) temporary ones in town settings where similarly skilled individuals could congregate, swap stories, and keep their skills up. This may take the form of fighters in the ring or an arena or the like, rogues having in-house guild contests, mages plying their craft to impress their cohorts and mentors as to what they know, or even clerics arguing religious dogma and philosophies in their conclaves. Actually, those examples barely scratch the number of possibilities, but providing complete lists of how characters practice their skills in non-roleplaying times is not my intent - just use your imagination.
Of course, this explains why one's PC isn't always free with bags of time on their hands to learn new skills. In fact, the higher their level, the more classes they have, and the more feats or skills they already posses, and therefore the less time they have to do things that require more time, like learning new skills or things that require actual roleplaying.
It also helps explain why it's apparently harder for a higher-level person to learn a brand new skill at rank one than it is for a lower-level person to learn that same skill at that same rank. That is, it explains why the higher-level person needs to acquire more experience points (fill a bigger xp gap) to get skill points to spend to learn the same skill. Why else would a 16th level character have a harder time to learn Appraisal Rank 1 than a 2nd level person does to learn that skill at that same rank? It's not because the skill is harder to learn when you're a higher-level character, is it? Not at all. It's because you have less time. And to reiterate, why do you have less time? It's because you have so many more skills that these eat up one's limited time in practice that you can barely afford to take time to learn a new skill, lest your other skills suffer.
As you may guess, there may eventually come a time when one has so many skills and feats and powers that ALL free time would be consumed in practice. There are only so many hours in a day, a week, a month, or a year, and eventually, if we quantified the amount of time each skill of each rank took for practice, one might reach a theoretical limit where 100% of all useful free time needed to be spent keeping one's skills sharp such that no time would be available to learn new skills.
To a first approximation, this might be what old level limits were. It certainly has the advantage of explaining why long-lived races - like elves and dwarves - don't have rank 20 in each and every skill in the book, as well as why they aren't 20th level in each class. After all, one can accomplish a great deal in several centuries of adventuring, yet apparently they don't. Why not? This helps answer that question.
However, for a human or for an elf there is the same number of hours in a year available for practice, and nothing in our game assumes elves have better memories. So while humans have a handful of decades to forget things, elves, by contrast, have centuries to forget things. This is easily missed or overlooked or glossed over. Thus, many players may erroneously feel elves could eventually learn all skills at rank 20 or more, as well as all classes at level 20 or higher, long before they succumbed to old age, while a human can't get anywhere near that before their bones start to creak so badly they have to give up such active lives of adventuring. You don't see a lot of older professional athletes now, do you?
Just because PC elves don't play the game long enough to do that doesn't mean NPC elves shouldn't theoretically do just that and be nigh on godlike - which is a problem, but I won't go into that here - so each DM ought to fix that 3e problem in some manner, lest the elves rule their world by sheer power, since easily 2/3rds of the adventuring worthy elven population would be old enough to be staggeringly powerful beyond any PC. Most "good" games, IMHO, aren't populated with godlings on every other street corner, but they would logically have to be if elves never forgot anything they learned over the centuries. Clearly, they DO forget.
This bit of extra realism, as well as any added level of realism, may have consequences on your game. For realism's sake, though, the main question is whether or not it's worth the extra effort. For example, if it takes a few extra hours to resolve combat - now that you've made it more realistic with some house rule fix of yours - while your "fix" may be more realistic, in actual practice it may have made battles no longer any fun for many of your players. Instead, they find them, particularly the random and pointless ones, tediously long, no matter how more realistic they may be. So added realism is not always good.
Fortunately for us here, these considerations on how skills may atrophy over time probably won't affect PCs too much, though they will have a profound affect on the NPC populations, particularly the long-lived races. Without going into detail at this time, most NPC elves allow their skills to atrophy as they engage in what they probably then consider more meaningful pursuits - like family, social concerns, their local community, or what have you, instead of constantly risking their lives by adventuring. This would be likened to the old level limits of 1e or 2e for elves, for example. It wasn't that they couldn't get higher in levels, but was most often the case their skills, through disuse, would atrophy TO those level limits, and that's one reason why most adventuring worthy NPC elves would hang around those level limits. But I digress.
For our purposes here, we may easily assume PCs that actively are adventuring do practice their entire repertoire of skills - even if these are not always roleplayed. But if, at any time, they retire, or give up adventuring as a way of life, take another time consuming job - (like sheriff, or mayor, or they run a side business) - or even just cut back a bit on their adventuring, their skills may begin to deteriorate, and we need rules to cover this eventuality.
Of course, many will tell you that they hate the level system, or feel it is too unrealistic, or too confining, or too something. I think, however, they are missing the larger picture. Besides, many of their proposed fixes just add smaller steps, and their arguments against these quantum level leaps apply equally as well for their smaller leaps - that is, they essentially propose smaller, more numerous increments, since they are offended by the seeming inability to do anything in a non-continuous manner. But no matter how small the incremental jumps, they are still not a smooth and continuous function, though, realistically, they probably should be, so arguments against quantum jumps in general often fall short when the proposed change isn't to a continuous system, but merely to one of smaller quantum jumps. After all, I'm confident some player will come along who feels the smaller gaps should be even smaller. But let's not dwell on this issue here. Suffice it to say, since many use the d20 system, they are kind of stuck on 5% increments no matter what, so such fixes often don't really solve the problem, anyway, since any increment that would produce a change less than 5% isn't measurable on those dice.
Now, when a character actually obtains enough experience points to go up a level, this doesn't create more hours in a day, but simply allows the character greater insight into how to better integrate existing skills with new ones. What does this mean? I'm glad you asked.
In this system, it is assumed each skill takes time to practice in order to keep it at its current rank - whether you roleplay that time or not is unimportant. But once enlightenment has been achieved, once it finally dawns upon one the hidden secrets of the craft - i.e. once one has enough xp to go up a level - they finally understand how to incorporate their old skills into new ones, and thus the time formally used to practice those old skills can now be used to practice the new ones, and the old ones (the lower ranks) do not atrophy since they are then being used while practicing or using the new higher ranks.
It often becomes easier to define how much free time one has left - after eating, sleeping, shopping, cleaning, etc. and living one's normal life, and after engaging in the required amount of time to practice their entire repertoire of skills - than it does to quantify how much time each skill or each rank actually takes to practice. After all, it changes from skill to skill, rank to rank, and level to level.
Most players can see already that it's unrealistic in the first place to think each skill point can equally as well buy any skill or any rank - since some skills are obviously harder than others, and higher ranks are obviously harder to learn than lower ones - but the system only allows for this linear and simplified approach. That is, the same skill point can buy a rank 1, or a rank 20 skill, and this may seem wrong.
We must keep in mind, though, that a character isn't just buying a skill like a commodity, but they have to incorporate it into their own skill set and weekly schedule. So it's wrong to think, for example, the 20th level wizard buying a rank 1 appraisal skill is buying the same skill that a 1st level cleric buys. This is not a box of apples, you understand. The higher-level wizard is incorporating this rank 1 skill into his practice schedule, which is very full now, and they have far less time to learn and practice that one skill since they have to practice all their other skills, too, while the lower-level cleric has (and needs to take) much more time to learn the skill, practice it, and does not yet have nearly as many other skills to practice to make demands on their time. So they are NOT buying the same thing - not by a long shot.
Fortunately, all this doesn't matter too much. I think it would be a mistake to try to completely quantify how much time is actually spent in practice for each skill.
But there are a few problems and/or consequences of this line of thinking. For example, it should be possible (for the player) to swap out existing skills for new skills. In actual practice, on the IC (In Character) level, this would mean a character wouldn't decide to swap skills, but since they simply stopped using and practicing a particular skill - perhaps even for years - that practice time would now be freed up to learn new skills, yes?
And, of course, this is probably correct. However, one cannot instantly forget a skill and one certainly can't instantly learn a new one in its stead. This takes time - and more than time, it probably takes money, and a tutor, trainer, or teacher, for the new skill.
DMs can play with how much time this might take - but to help prevent abuse, it should take a sufficient degree of time to avoid sudden development or obvious convenient OOC (Out Of Character) reasoning to swap skills. Just as a suggestion, it might take more than a year of game time, or perhaps 10 sessions, or 3 levels' notice - (a nebulous quantity, I agree, but if a character hasn't used a skill - or any skill that depended upon that skill - for 10 sessions, or 3 levels' advanced notice, or whatever, they clearly aren't using it and maybe then the DM may allow the player to drop 1 rank of it).
AFTER such a time, the character may - for the normal amount of time and money, and if the proper teachers are available, learn a new skill or improve a rank of an existing skill just as if they had acquired this skill point through normal means.
Optionally, in addition to the above suggestions, the DM may tack on a surcharge of 500 experience points to help prevent abuse - if they feel a player is abusing the privilege.
Additionally, for some games - particularly ones that do not advance quickly between levels - the DM might also allow the acquisition of extra skill points or feats for a straight payment of experience points. As an example, maybe 500 xp/character's total level for each skill point, and maybe 1000 xp/character's level for each feat. A 4th level character, for example, would have to sacrifice 2000 xp to out right buy an extra skill point. The DM can play test and adjust these numbers. Such an option would have the benefit of mitigating some of the nastier quantum affects of the level system.
Be warned, if the DM does allow the purchase of skill points or feats for xp/level of the character, then it's reasonable to assume - for any character who acquires more skill points and/or feats than one's level would normally allow - that they'd have less and less free time, and eventually, if they kept buying extra skill points, they'd have absolutely NO free time at all to acquire more skill/feats/powers, etc. Obviously, this is not a good roleplaying option since PCs must have time to interact and roleplay. Therefore, tight rein must be maintained on how often one can gain extra skill points or feats.
With a little thought we might assume, after eating and sleeping, etc. there are only about 60 or so free hours in a week, and easily 50 of those would be consumed in practice (unless adventuring, researching, or in other ways using one's skills), so only 10 or so free hours remain for these additional skills. That's about 1/5th again the normal compliment, so you can glean about how many skill points a character of that level and those classes would normally have, then multiply that figure by 0.2, and that's the absolute limit on how many extra skill points one may acquire above and beyond a normal compliment before they simply can't practice all their skills anymore - not without going up a level and understanding better how to integrate them more efficiently.
The last problem remains, though, inasmuch that if levels may increase without end, so may one's total skill points, and thus long-lived races could and should become godlike by the end of their second century, and with 4 more centuries to go, too, under current 3e elven longevity. This is unacceptable to me. To fix this problem, unfortunately, is not so easy, and it's even worse that many fail to even grasp the fact it is a major problem of general realism. Earlier additions simply had level limits - and rightly so - and though it took some imagination to see how they might work on the IC level, they could and did make sense. Most who hated them were often revealed to be naught much more than power gamers who felt they should have nothing but bonuses for those races and none of their drawbacks - power, power, and more power, without end, for me. Ugghh. Well, that's another issue.
DMs may simply limit xp, or reintroduce a more severe exponential nature to the xp table past 20th level. If they did it right, even if a human could reach 20th level or so in a single human lifetime, at most an elf might only reach 25th to 30th level, and that isn't too bad.
On the other hand, there should come a time when one's repertoire of skills would take more time to practice than there were free hours in a week/month, year, or whatever, and that should also limit the elf (or anybody) to a finite number of skills and ranks.
It may be the case that, past 20th level, one no longer may acquire any more skill points. They could continue to gain hit dice, BAB, better saves, etc., if the DM wishes, but shut down skill points.
The option of swapping out old, disused skill points for preferred ones, however, would becoming even more important. So it wouldn't ever be as if they no longer could learn, but only that they no longer had the time to keep all those skills as sharp as they might like, and the most disused ones would suffer and their ranks would dwindle. At such a point, wise characters begin to rely more heavily on NPC professionals to supplement one's own skills, such are hiring an alchemist rather than acquiring more ranks in that craft. In truth, really wise characters probably have already been doing that for years, and many non-adventuring skills wouldn't have been learned in the first place since there are far better field worthy skills to learn that would more likely come in handy and tend to keep one alive. But I digress again.
In the instance of reaching one's limit on skill points, many skills might eventually atrophy, but they should never be allowed to degrade lower than rank 1. That is, a rank 10 skill, for example, might go to rank 9, then rank 8, then rank 7, etc. and if not practiced long enough it might even degrade to rank 1, but never lower than that. Therefore, players should never have their PC acquire skills they'd like to totally forget someday since this won't be allowed.
It's also possible to lose skill points through disuse, and NOT bother to replace them just then, but I think it would be prudent to leave it optional to replace them at some later time. Regardless of when they are replaced or even relearned, it will still cost the normal time and money and other requirements to acquire skills. That is, if, through atrophy, you lost N skill points or the ranks they had purchased, you'd essentially have those points to spend again. But like before when you first gained those skill points, when you spend those skill points to buy ranks, that will once again cost time (weeks or perhaps even months) and money (many gold pieces per skill) and require an instructor for the skill, or even an instructor to refresh an old skill one had let degrade since they no longer quite recall the finer points and details for those skills.
Another option might be to have xp atrophy if one doesn't adventure for more than year of game time. As the xp falls, so might their level, and the skill points and feats that came with that level would degrade as well. Naturally, the higher ranked skills would fade first (unless used or practiced, of course).
Sadly, I don't have any definitive answers, tables, graphs, or quantities of time the DM should employ as to the atrophication of skills. Quite frankly, I don't think it can be done in this system since its simplistic, linear nature already imposes a certain level of haze upon the system such that any finer refinements to it would be lost in the wash. I might, one day, concoct a better system and have more definite quantities as to the rapidity and degree of skill atrophication, but it's likely I'd only do that for a nonlinear system, like 2d10, and a skill-based game - or at least one where skill acquisition was independent of level acquisition. And I'd certainly never bother to degrade skills as long as a character remains active and adventuring. These considerations, once again, will apply mostly to NPCs, and as such, though their understanding, will add a great deal of realism to one's world.
For now, however, I think I've made my point insofar as you, the reader, might now see more realism in the current level and class-based system, just through the realization that most characters must spend inordinate amounts of time practicing their current skills to keep them sharp, and the apparent "free time" one might think they have is, in fact, an illusion. This, thankfully, addresses some of the common complaints about the system, so now you can tell your players why their PCs can't do this or do that or learn more skills just then, despite the apparent lull in their PC's schedules. Does it address all concerns in this matter perfectly? No, but it's food for thought, and it should satisfy most players - I hope.
© January of 2006