D20 Design Journal: Abilities and Professions

Okay, so it’s not abilities and professions so much as abilities or professions.

When creating Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City for Fate Core, we went back and forth between skills, broad skills, and, what we eventually settled on, professions. One thing that never came up was using abilities as a player stat. It’s just not something we thought was important to the world of Jadepunk.

Why Jianghu Rebels Don’t Need Abilities

One could make the argument that they do (if they have zero strength then they can’t even move), but when you’re making a game, it’s not about realism, it’s about pointing out what’s important.

Common tropes in fantasy are the Big Strong Barbarian or the Agile Rogue, but in Wuxia and Western stories those don’t matter as much; it’s more about the Skillful Swordsman or the Fastest Draw. In short, skills matter more to Jadepunk inspirations than crude abilities. It’s not what you are; it’s what you can do.

Abilities have a feeling of limitation. They tell you as much about what you are as they do about what you are not. “My Con is only a 9; I’m not tough.” Limitations like that don’t make for impressive freedom fighters. In Jadepunk, you could focus on being an Aristocrat, with zero points in Fighter, and still be considered “tough” or “strong,” you’re just not that great at applying it to combat. It’s about what you can do, not about what you are.

“I’m not a good Fighter,” isn’t limiting, because you can learn that. “I never took up the Scholarly pursuits, so I’m not great a researching information,” it’s never too late to learn!

Professions as Broad Areas of Capability

If you haven’t guessed it by now, Jadepunk d20 is going to use the six Jadepunk professions instead of abilities. Here’s why: D&D 5e treats skills as “aspects of an ability,” but that concept works much better when it’s a “specialty of a profession.” (If not better than at least as good.)

In 5e, when you jump over an object in your path, you’re either rolling Strength or Dexterity, depending on how the GM interprets it. Skills come in to determine if you have proficiency in Athletics or Acrobatics to help you with that. Personally, I find that to be awesome…for D&D, where abilities help define your role, and even your skills are parenthetical to the ability; Strength (Athletics).

In Jadepunk, it’ll feel like your skills are specialties of your profession. If you need to overcome an obstacle in your path, you roll your Explorer profession. If you have specialized in a particular area of Explorer, say in Athletics, then you can add your proficiency bonus to your roll. Explorer (Athletics).

On the surface, that doesn’t look very different, but consider sailing an airship through the treacherous mountain passes of the Aerum Empire; Explorer (Pilot); or perhaps you’re trying to find your way across the Naramel Desert; Explorer (Navigation); or trying to survive that inhospitable terrain; Explorer (Survival).

Using professions give us an incredible amount of freedom in creating skills, and keep the focus on what you can do, rather than on what you are. You can learn to do new things, but you can’t often change what you are.

Next Time: We’ll discuss a new mechanic we’re introducing to the d20 system: Skill Synergies (or at least our version of such a mechanic).

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