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Representation of how likely diegetic agents are to succeed with a type of activity that can be improved through experience.

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 attributes).

Using the pattern

Skills are typically used in games to provide ranges in competence regarding Abilities, 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. Skills can either be used directly to see if actions are successful or not but typically Dice are used to create possibilities of success and failure depending on Skill levels; when diegetic Agents use Skills that influence each other this is most often solved through determining the success and failure of each and letting the relative different determine the overall effect. Additional unpredictability regarding results can be achieved through Open-Ended Die Rolls or Critical Results whenever Dice are used.

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 let 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 is used in the game Borderlands. 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). For games with Variable Accuracy, Skills can improve this to make players more likely to hit where they aim. Other examples of how Skills can affect gameplay is to allow Crafting, permit the use of specific Controllers or Tools, and affect how well Health can be restored through healing.

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 do this 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. Freedom of Choice can affect Skills if players have several different Skills they can select from when raising them, and this can make players set up Gain Competence goals in advance as well as lets them have Player-Planned Development. If the Skills as represented as numerical values, this makes it easy to 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. Sometimes these require the presences of Non-Player Characters or Self-Service Kiosks that represent teachers. Skill increase can be modulated by Diminishing Returns, either by requiring more Investments to be done (e.g. GURPS or by making the chances of improving Skills lower the higher the Skills gets (e.g. Basic Roleplaying and its decedents Hârnmaster and Mutant). The complexity of improving Skills can be increased by requiring prerequisites, typically related to other Skills or Attributes or progressing through Development Trees but is 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. Roleplaying Games striving for realism quite often give Decreased Abilities to Skills for those that make use of powerful Armor.

Interface Aspects

As a minor point, Board Games making use of Skills may require Bookkeeping Tokens to keep track of their numerical values.

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 Narration Structures. In cases where the outcome of Skill tests would be problematic for the game narration, e.g. causing Player Killing, games with Game Masters can avoid this by the Game Masters resorting to Feigned Die Rolls.


Skills are a form of Characteristics (often Attributes) describing how well one can perform activities that at least diegetically can be improved through training. This provides one way of differentiating Avatars and Characters and thereby giving players Competence Areas. It also gives players a solid foundation for having a Determinable Chance to Succeed with the activities linked to the specific Skills. When Skills are used to create Privileged Abilities, it promotes Varied Gameplay and being able to choose what Skills to improve in a game 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, Characteristics, Competence Areas, Complex Gameplay, Crafting, Determinable Chance to Succeed, 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

Abilities, Aim & Shoot, Avatars, Character Development, Characters, Combat, Companions, Controllers, Crafting, Critical Hits, Enemies, Game World Navigation, Health, Mules, Predictable Consequences, Tools, Variable Accuracy

Can Be Instantiated By


Can Be Modulated By

Bookkeeping Tokens, Budgeted Action Points, Buffs, Character Development, Character Levels, Critical Results, Damage, Debuffs, Dice, Open-Ended Die Rolls, Decreased Abilities, Development Trees, Diminishing Returns, Experience Points, Feigned Die Rolls, Freedom of Choice, Gain Competence, Handicap Systems, Improved Abilities, New Abilities, Non-Player Characters, 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.