Open Ended Skills

One topic that often comes to mind is wondering how new readers receive the skills in Timeless. That’s because Timeless has a very short skill ladder, but traditional pen and paper RPGs, as well as computer RPGs, have long skill ladders. In these games players expect to start at the bottom of a skill ladder and grind their way to the top through experience. It takes a long time, and that’s become the expectation.

Video game designers have put a lot of research into this concept. Gamasutra has described this type of slow rewarding of players as Contingencies and Schedules. The idea being that people enjoy repetition within a set of rules in order to earn something much more than having it handed to them. This applies on many levels. From a bird’s eye view, if we were just told that the story resolved itself then there wouldn’t be a game to play. We have more fun this way. But the bigger application is that slow grinding through skill levels is all about carefully dolling out rewards slow enough to be fun but fast enough to keep our attention.

So where does Timeless fit into this?

It’s been mentioned in a previous post that most RPGs don’t allow players to master a skill at character creation. No matter how important being a master is to the character bio, mechanically the game will not follow suit. There is a lot to be said about game balance, but the process of leveling up high enough to master a skill is part of the game.

But the best way to think about the topic at hand is to look at how players react during the game. One thing I’ve noticed quite unanimously is that players tend to focus on learning new skills as they level. The small skill ladder works in tandem with the open ended skills. But it’s what really drives the new skills that is interesting. Players seem to rarely pick a new skill to fill a mechanical hole in their character’s abilities. Instead, they have routinely chosen a biographical element that they’ve developed in the game to add.

My, and one of my regular player’s, favorite examples is a character who died in a game of Creatures. The prologue involved the dead player turning into a hideous creature, being cured, but being left with strange mutations to his face and body. Another player used their skill points from gaining a level to become a plastic surgeon to fix the horrible deformities. Now it’s a hilarious story to tell, not an optimized game balance.

Another thing to notice is that in day to day life competency in a subject is measured by consistency. An expert in a subject will spend more time consistently handling simple tasks during their day. It’s a happy occasion when the truly challenging tasks come about. But what really measures the person’s worth is how well they handle the mundane things day to day.

This comes out in play. I’m not sure that the players have noticed it, but their decisions are often shaped by how much of a risk the next decision is. Taking big risks is fun, but they’re not often in the position to take the big risk without being confident in their abilities first. I think this description could apply to a lot of games, but it’s certainly a feature that Timeless does well. Players can find opportunities to shine in their own way simply by being consistent enough to place themselves in that position.

Combining these things makes play in the game very natural. Part of this topic as I chew it over is that if Timeless is so different it must be doing something wrong. But I’ve played the game enough to know that it’s not the case. It’s fairly unique in these things and it’s a barrel of laughs. I love the way stories get told with it, and I end the thought reassured that the next game we play will be a blast!

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