I got to thinking the other day, just about the various games I've been playing over the last few years, and how they deal with character skills, knowledge, and abilities. The games I've been thinking about are Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader, Warhammer Fantasy RPG (2nd ed.), Stars Without Number, Zounds!, and Dungeon Crawl Classics (naturally). I think I can say without too much hesitation that that list is pretty in order of most to least granular, mechanically.
With Dark Heresy/Rogue Trader, you get skill mechanics that are based on thoroughly defined areas including basic and advanced skills, knowlege, and talents (like D&D "feats"). Characters must spend XP to "buy" them, and they can sometimes buy them more than once, reflecting relative level of expertise. Each skill/area of knowledge is attached to a character trait (e.g., Intelligence, Agility, etc.), and the player much roll under the total on percentile dice. If the skill is a basic skill, then the player may roll, but must get under one half of the requisite characteristic. He may not test against advanced skills if he doesn't have them. This is a pretty solid system. It represents about everything a character can do, and has some flexibility, especially in the area of character knowledge (culture, lore, etc.). However, one can only learn those skills by advancing in a particular character class, and may not do so outside of it except by GM fiat. That's a bit frustrating to me, as it makes character design fairly rote and mechanical. That's not to say that other systems don't have the same problem, but it seems amplified in DH/RT by the way character creation/advances are handled.
Warhammer Fantasy RPG (2nd ed.) works about the same way, but the skills are assembled in packages. One chooses "careers" and as one advances it's possible to shift from one career to another with some degree of flexibility. This creates a situation somewhat more flexible than DH/RT, in that the player can make the choice of careers (either during or after chargen) that best reflects his or her character concept. Frankly, though, I've not had enough play time in that system to get very far in advances, and never got to choose an advanced career package. It looks fun, though, and I think it could work pretty well.
With Stars Without Number, you (again) have skills associated with particular character classes, and some degree of flexibility in which ones you can choose, especially with the Expert class, which has more skill points to work with as it advances in levels (3 versus 2) compared to other classes. It also uses a 2d6 mechanic for skill rolls, so those advances have a lot of effect on one's ability to succeed. I've only played a few sessions with it, but it seems to work pretty well. It also is somewhat less granular than DH/RT, in that the skill lists are somewhat more general in nature (but not very). For example, one can have skill in Energy Weapons (all of them) in SWN, but in DH you have to specify which one. In RT, you may have the option of choosing a "universal" option which includes all of them. It's a decent system, and I've liked playing it the few times that I have. It's also free to download.
Zounds! is quite interesting in how it approaches skills. It treats them as "Powers" and "Shticks," something I'd not seen before, but like a lot. Far from having a defined list of skills/powers, it leaves to the player the option to tell the GM what kinds of things the character can do or should know. The system (SFX!) provides a mechanical framework based on skill levels with that particular action/area of knowledge. Generally, you have your starting powers/shticks at 6 or 4, and those you learn later (via XP buy) at 4 or 5. I don't want to go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that this systems gives the player a LOT of flexibility to realize just about any character concept he or she might want. It also allows for interesting and flexible character development. +Joshua Macy also has written a variety of variations on this mechanic, with fantasy, sci-fi, supers, etc., a very, very nice array of things from which to choose. All of these are free to download. Also, there's no reason to assume that the SFX! skill mechanic couldn't be tweaked to allow the equivalent of basic background knowledge that wouldn't necessitate a check to accomplish.
That brings us to Dungeon Crawl Classics. Unlike these other systems, DCC doesn't predefine character skills in any areas other than would you might call "class powers," things like fighting, spellcasting, larcenous abilities, and so forth. It suggests using character background to begin. You rolled an urchin? Okay, so an urchin might know the streets in general, and a neighborhood in particular. He or she would have skill in surival in this environment, including knowledge of common resources, challenges, and (of course) threats of annihilation. He or she would have little real knowledge of the operations of empires and kingdoms, but will have opinions about them. He or she would, however, have understanding of how the culture of the streets is organized, who has the clout, who is kin to whom (real or imagined), and the variousl relationships between those and a variety other factors. Mechanically, it's "figure out the character concept based on a loose "career" system."
It's not game-changing, mind you, and it assumes a lot of player and GM skill to get the best results. Of course, what mechanic doesn't? Nonetheless, I like it because it pushes Narrative. That's going to make it more fun for most folks, I think. I like the Storytime thing just about as much as anyone, but where's the crunch? It's just the d20 system, but opened up to include more GM/Player rules diplomacy and character narrative creation. I think it could further be developed to include some development of knowledge over time, not just competence with blade, mace, or spell. If they characters go through some shit, then they deserve a chance to learn something from it. Give the characters a bonus for knowing stuff based on what they should know. This includes character background knowledge and character history. This promotes character development (in both the mechanical and narrative senses). This is important, at least to me. What's equally important is that the characters "own" their past, as it were. The GM needs to use campaign play to give characters resources for their development.
Certainly, GMs can easily use character background and history as adventure hooks. That's assumed. This is more about providing a mechanic whereby we can use that history as part of gameplay. In the frame of DCC's way of doing this is that what happens in the adventuring is also a huge part of the narrative, but it doesn't tie one to any particular or comprehensive way of addressing "skills," as such, but instead provides a mechanic (d20 DC checks) to allow GMs to do what they (should) do: Make this interesting to the players. Make it about *them*. Make it about their interaction with your story (both at the adventure and campaign levels). Make it possible to tell the story that you, the GM, want to tell. All of this is the ideal situation. How do we get there?
Have a story. Let character actions drive the story. Use the d20 mechanic to resolve challenges, but also allow players who try to get better at particular things to actually get better at them. Easy answer to "how?" is that at the end of every adventure arc (in campaign play), ask each player to name something they learned. Remember, this does not affect combat or other character-specific mechanics (though it could, and that's a story for another day), but it could influence, for example, a knowledge of magic as technology. In game example: My party encountered some kind of weird old tech in a "fantasy" setting. Willl we be able to figure out some things just a little better having had a brush with it before? I think so. Give them a +1 bonus for what specific thing they learned. Use it if they encounter it again. Simple, easy, nonrepeatable bonus. If you write it on the character sheet, then you can use it later. If you don't... well... that's between you and your GM.
What do you think?