The Skill List is Dead, Long Live the Skill List

Inspired by Rob Donoghue’s twitter screed on the secret sauce of skill lists, I’ll be going through some of my old designs. I’m curious how they look to me now.


I’ve talked about my weird hack of Savage Worlds and Fate before. There’s ten traits, each with a number of specializations that let you essentially roll with advantage. The skill list was partially an attempt to solve the issue in Savage Worlds where everyone could end up with a d8 in Fighting and feel “samey” for it. I see these combat-focused traits now and realize the game really was about combat with extra stuff tacked on.

  • Might: Strength, Toughness
  • Move: Athletics, Reflexes, Stealth
  • Fight: Single Weapon, Dual Weapon, Weapon & Shield, Two-Handed, Unarmed
  • Shoot: Handgun, SMG, Rifle, Support, Gunnery, Archery
  • Drive: Driving, Boating, Pilot, Riding
  • Think: Area Knowledge, Business, Culture, Medicine, Science, Tactics
  • Talk: Entertain, Languages, Persuasion
  • Tech: Computers, Demolitions, Electronics, Repair, Systems Operation
  • Wits: Awareness, Streetwise, Survival, Tracking, B&E
  • Will: Intimidation, Leadership, Willpower

The thing I do like about this approach is that we divided things up by fighting styles for melee, and that being specialized in a skill didn’t mean you were necessarily lacking in the other areas. It also did a pretty good job of ensuring you couldn’t just min-max one trait.


This was a game that got playtested once, back when I was discovering the joy of player-facing rolls. It owes a lot to Levi Kornelsen’s Stakes. The skill list is framed as actions you can take, rather than specific areas of knowledge. I don’t remember if I knew about Blades in the Dark at the time – I probably did and was ripping off those quickstart documents as well.

I still think this is a decent list, and could fall back to it if I need a more generic list of skills, or as a placeholder for testing other mechanics.

  • Canvass
  • Charm
  • Craft
  • Drive
  • Endure
  • Fight
  • Move
  • Observe
  • Search
  • Shoot
  • Sneak
  • Threaten

Highway to Hell (Dresdenatural)

I was running a long-term campaign about monster-hunting bikers using the Dresden Files RPG when the Fate Core kickstarter dropped. DFRPG skewed a bit high-powered and crunchy for the Supernatural-meets-Sons-of-Anarchy feel I wanted, and so I relished the chance to customize the game.

I’m never going to spend this long making a character sheet again. It was an HTML form, saved your data, and had print stylesheets and everything.

I used skill modes from Atomic Robo, the info for which was only half-formed on Mike Olson’s blog at the time. This was my first time trying wordsmith things to reinforce the themes I was going for as well.

  • Badass
    • Balls
    • Brawn
    • Fighting
    • Menace
  • Outlaw
    • Burglary
    • Drive
    • Stealth
    • Streetwise
  • Hunter
    • Guns
    • Lore
    • Notice
    • Speed
  • Civvie
    • Brains
    • Contacts
    • Tools
    • Wits

The conversion to Fate Core was great, and for this specific campaign I don’t think I could’ve done better. The downside is I can’t really use these again unless I ran another monster-hunting bikers game.

And I’d probably use Monster of the Week if I did, which doesn’t even have a skill list.


My local group still plays the Marvel FASERIP game, although it’s drifted a bit. I tried my hand at running a short campaign a few years ago, excited by the revelation that the game’s color chart of results mapped nicely to the 6-/7-9/10+ used by most Powered by the Apocalypse games.

In reworking the Talent list, I hit upon the idea that what you know how to do should also say something about who you are or where you came from.

Talents Give You Permission

Like some powers, a hidden benefit to certain talents is that they grant you permission to attempt certain tasks. It might not make sense for a random person to know how to create a battlesuit, but if you have the “Inventor” talent then you can try.

Talents Tell a Story

When possible, talents should be phrased as a job or profession, not just a specific skill. “Guns” is just a numerical bonus, but “Soldier” or “Detective” or “Big Game Hunter” each tell a very different story about the kinds of weapons your hero might be familiar with and why.

Talents Protect Your Niche

Feel free to adjust talents to be broader or narrower until everyone in the group feels that they have an area where they can contribute without stepping on other heroes’ toes. “Scientist” might be too broad in a group of action scientists; you might want a “Geneticist” and a “Robotics Engineer” and a “Nuclear Physicist”.

Professional Fighter
Kung-Fu Master
Professional Wrestler
Street Fighter
Stage Magician
Petty Criminal
Made Man

With this skill list, I think I was trying to solve the same problems Rob talks about in his twitter thread. In that respect, this might be one of my favorite lists and might see new life sooner rather than later.

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