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Representation of how likely diegetic agents are to succeed with a type of activity.

Not everyone is equally good at everything, and this can be explicit represented in games through the use of Skills. These may be simple labels to indicate who can perform the activity and who cannot, but it is quite common to uses numerical values to Skill levels and thereby indicate how good characters or units are compared to other diegetic agents. These Skill values can be used directly to determine success or failure - very often through comparing it to a random number - but can also give players strong hints on the likelihood of success or failure before the actions associated with the skills are actually done.


Many Tabletop Roleplaying Games, including Basic Roleplaying, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and the World of Darkness series make use of Skills in some cases extensively so with more than hundred different Skills available. This is echoed in Computer-based Roleplaying Games such as the Elder Scrolls series, the Fallout series, and World of Warcraft. In some cases, including more action-oriented games, the skills are represented as development trees; examples of this can be found in Borderlands, Dead Island, the Dragon Age series, and Torchlight.

Bloodbowl and Talisman are examples of Board Games that make use of Skills as well (even if the values in Talisman could be considered pure Attributes).

Using the pattern

Skills are typically used in games to allow Competence Areas, explain Privileged Abilities, and create Orthogonal Differentiation for diegetic entities such as Characters and Units. Areas which need to be considered when designing Skills for use in games include: which Skills exist and how do they concretely influence gameplay, do they contain additional information specific to each diegetic agent possessing the Skills, and can they be acquired or their Skill levels can change during gameplay.

The number of Skills that make sense in a game naturally depends on the scope of the game and the level of detail wanted. Some games, e.g. Talisman, make due with very few Skills but other games, e.g. GURPS have hundreds of skills (especially when they instantiate Crafting) and this can create Complex Gameplay. Skill-based actions can either have dynamic or static evaluation. Static evaluation promotes Predictable Consequences but may ruin the Exaggerated Perception of Influence if players can notice exactly what is possible and what is not. Dynamic evaluation usually contains some form of Randomness and thereby gives players the chance to have Luck. Real-Time Games usually let the success or failure depend on how players performs action but lets Skill levels affect the difficulty (i.e. by creating Player/Character Skill Composites) or by allowing Privileged Abilities. Supporting Aim & Shoot actions is an example of the former, and used in Borderland. For Turn-Based Games it is more common for success or failure to depend entirely on Skills, although Game Masters of Tabletop Roleplaying Games often modify the difficulty depending on how the players have planned to perform the actions.

The simplest forms of Skills, e.g. used in Bloodbowl are labels that signify access to Privileged Abilities or Performance Modifiers such as numerical bonuses. Slightly more complex is providing numerical attributes to how good or bad one is with each Skill, something that can be an Attribute in itself (e.g. Call of Cthulhu or Fallen Reich) or be a relative value linked to other Attributes (e.g. GURPS). Additional details (basically Performance Modifiers) can be added by providing bonuses within specialties and giving penalties if one does not have the appropriate familiarities with specific contexts (both these exist in GURPS); quite naturally, including such details make for Complex Gameplay. Regardless, Skills quite often affect Combat if both patterns are present in a game and likewise the chance of Critical Hits if these exist are typically affected by Skill levels (e.g. Hârnmaster).

Being able to choose which Skills one should have and what levels one should have in these is a common feature for systems that support Player-Created Characters. Games supporting this often due it through some form of Budgeted Action Points, which may be used also for Attributes, Advantages, Disadvantages, Powers, and Equipment.

Being able to raise or get Skills during gameplay is a common form of Character Development which might also include New Abilities, and provides players with Gain Competence goals (and in turn lets them have Player-Planned Development). If the Skills as represented as numerical values, this makes it easto implement both Improved and Decreased Abilities by simply adjusting the values. The causes of Skill increased as simply be Rewards, advances in Character Levels, or the result of Investments of Experience Points. The complexity of improving Skills can be increased by requiring prerequisites, typically related to other Skills or Attributes or progressing through Development Trees but sometimes also linked to what Social Organizations one belongs to. Complexity can also be added by allowing for the above mentioned specialties and familiarities.

In addition to making permanent changes, Buffs, Debuffs, Damage, and Tools can all be used to create temporary Performance Modifiers for Skills.

If players can affect which Skills can be raised, this allows for Planned Character Development.

Budgeted Action Points can be used to control the amount of Skill increases in games with many Skills, and may ensure Player Balance in Multiplayer Games. Another way to limit Skill increases is to use Diminishing Returns, either by requiring more Investments to be done to increase the Skills or by making the chances of improving the Skills lower as the Skill gets higher.

Can Modulate

Controllers, Freedom of Choice, Game World Navigation, Health, Tools

Can Be Modulated By

Bookkeeping Tokens, Character Development,

Handicap Systems, Performance Modifiers, Self-Service Kiosks,

Armor together with Decreased Abilities

Narrative Aspects

Skills do not in themselves relate to narrative aspects of games, but the Character Development increases in Skills can represent can be seen as a form of Narrative Structures.


Skills are a form of Attributes describing how well one can perform activities. This provides one way of differentiating Avatars and Characters and thereby giving players Competence Areas. When this is used to create Privileged Abilities, it promotes Varied Gameplay and choosing what Skills to raise in games supporting this can be seen as a form of Character Defining Actions. Given that Skills represent chances of succeeding with activities, the use of them can affect how well players can perceive Predictable Consequences from their intended actions. The possibility to increase Skills is one way in which games can provide players with Gain Competence goals. Skills can naturally also be used to create differences in Companions and Enemies in addition to doing so in player-controlled entities, and limit the usefulness of Mules.

Skills that directly affect how well players can perform physical actions, e.g. aiming in Aim & Shoot activities, give rise to Player/Character Skill Composites. In Multiplayer Games, difference in Skill levels can both encourage Team Combos but create problems with Player Balance.


Can Instantiate

Attributes, Character Defining Actions, Competence Areas, Complex Gameplay, Crafting, Gain Competence, Orthogonal Differentiation, Performance Modifiers, Player-Created Characters, Player/Character Skill Composites, Privileged Abilities, Varied Gameplay

with Multiplayer Games

Team Combos

with Randomness


Can Modulate

Aim & Shoot, Avatars, Character Development, Characters, Combat, Companions, Controllers, Crafting, Critical Hits, Enemies, Freedom of Choice, Game World Navigation, Health, Mules, Predictable Consequences, Tools

Can Be Instantiated By


Can Be Modulated By

Bookkeeping Tokens, Budgeted Action Points, Buffs, Character Development, Character Levels, Damage, Debuffs, Decreased Abilities, Development Trees, Experience Points, Gain Competence, Handicap Systems, Improved Abilities, New Abilities, Performance Modifiers, Player-Created Characters, Randomness, Self-Service Kiosks, Tools

Armor together with Decreased Abilities

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Exaggerated Perception of Influence

with Multiplayer Games

Player Balance


An updated version of the pattern Skills that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.