A Minimum of Skill (Or Something!)

Yesterday’s Generic Villain riff on minion work skills got me thinking about the idea of minimum acceptable skills or knowledge (or other traits) for a job, social context, or similar set of surroundings. Minima aren’t just practically ubiquitous in the real world (and thus realistic in other worlds), but also dramatically useful for writer and roleplayer alike. How are they useful?

Minimum knowledge can provide a way to tell the experienced member of a group from the ones who are only pretending. Did you know that at the height of the use of venereal nouns, to be in hunting company and not to use the correct ones led to being deemed a churl? (I have a character concept in part influenced by that little tidbit somewhere.) This leads to “To be able to fit in, you must be able to do x, y, and z,” leading to ways to locate impostors or newcomers, challenges for characters trying not to be caught as such, potential sources of culture shock, and ways of characterizing particular subcultures.

Similarly, positions or situations requiring minimum knowledge, skill or other qualities are a good way to give a character a path for improvement and a reason to try to improve. I don’t know about other people, but I have an easier time believing a character going out of her way to improve in order to qualify for something rather than for improvement’s own sake. These also allow a way to demonstrate another character’s abilities without showing or even telling them: they made it into such and such a subculture or position, therefore they must be able to do this, this and this. (One can, of course, subvert it later.)

Heck, it doesn’t even have to be under the character’s control. Think about minimum heights, the bane of every rollercoaster-fan child—or conversely, maximum weights (annoying enough for the person who’s actually over, but worse for the one who’s under but is being denied to spare the feelings of someone else who is actually over).

For the game designer and the GM, the skill minimum can serve as a way to limit access to certain mechanics. In some cases, it’s just an item that requires certain traits to wield, or a feat/power/what-have-you only accessible through getting other numbers up to a certain level. Other times, it’s a whole chain of things, like prestige classes in D&D 3.5.

On the other hand, designers often use a skill minimum (or more often, a set of skill minima) to encourage that people branch out into abilities that aren’t necessarily optimal (or at least, that not all GMs can handle) as well as to suggest the norms and requirements of the societies that they’re part of. One example that comes to mind is Exalted, where at least two different groups have more dots of abilities to play with but have to have certain minima in skills they might not otherwise invest in.

Motivation tool, balance enhancer, power limiter, subculture characterization element, source of realism—the minimum skill (or other thing) is a versatile tool for the savvy worldbuilder. Have you ever gotten use out of it?


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  1. Minimum Skill Example: MCRD Library | Exchange of Realities
  2. Character and World: But You Do This Wrong…. | Exchange of Realities

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