On the topic of skill levels, skill caps, feint limitation, and whatnot in GURPS and general and in DF in specific, let's look at DF Felltower. Let's get hyper-specific - the rules for the characters in our game.
Where is everyone now?
Basically, at DX+6. Almost every single fighter-type has DX+6 in their primary weapon.
The PCs generally don't up their main skill by upping their main skill, but by upping DX via potions and other boosts.
They have mostly been expanding out their combat abilities with advantages and raising DX (rarely) and ST (very often for knights and barbarians.) Reducing penalties so skill can be applied without penalty in broader circumstances is a popular approach, too - Slayer Training, for example, or Extra Attack, or Two-Weapon Fighting.
But they'll get there.
The earlier delvers did, after all - Vryce had DX+13 in Two-Handed Sword (skill 27) when he died. Galen has DX+12 (skill 27) in Bow. Borriz Borrizman has Axe/Mace-28 with DX+14 (Pickaxe Penchant 4 helps there) and the player was aiming for 30 before real life ended Borriz's involvement in Felltower. Hjalmarr had DX+9 for a 23, and certainly was aiming higher.
If you've every wondered why I never created a "Master of Feints" power-up, that's why. Did Vryce need to roll against a 31 for Feint? Borriz against a 32? Or Wyatt a 25? Probably not. Will it make our game better if they do? Unlikely. Would they pay points for it? Certainly. People are already asking about feints stacking onto other feints for a cumulative penalty.
Skill levels like that are also why I categorically rejected using multiple Rapid Strikes from Martial Arts, p. 127. They're not canonically part of DF or DFRPG - nothing in Martial Arts is, unless called out by a Power-Up - but Wyatt's player explicitly asked after them. No way. With a history of skill-27/28 people, is it really wise to allow someone 5 attacks for -12 when that puts the person to a 16 for all of them? And also has Extra Attack 1 so he can Feint, then launch 5 attacks at -12 for a net 16 to the eyes thanks to Peerless Slayer Training every single combat turn?
Surely, though, with the enemies they face, they need that skill?
Perhaps. It's sure helpful. Some enemies have very good defenses. Some have high skills. Some have both. Few are at the level of the PCs. Other than a few like Valmarr the Sword-Spirit and Baron Sterick himself, most of the very high skill enemies have been only around skill 20-22. The vast majority are in the 16-18 range or below. Most of the 16-18 range are at 16. And still more are skill 12-15. The critters and folks who mostly prey on the utterly unskilled or only by surprise sometimes clock in at 10 skill.
The PCs? The lowest skill in melee weapons of any starting template is around a 16, and it's uncommon to be at that level. 18+ is more common. So even the starting PCs are up near the apex in Felltower. Those whose templates give them 20-22 skill, like most of the DFRPG combatant templates, put them at the apex, ranked only a tiny handful of foes easily outnumbered by even a small group of PCs.
That's not to say monsters are only as dangerous as their skill. But when it comes to using Feint and Deceptive Attack, or building up defenses, you don't need much of an edge in skill to regularly win by a much larger margin. Make that edge more like 3-4+ points, and "regularly win" changes to "always win, unless your morale breaks first." Especially when you consider skill 20 in a melee weapon gives you a 13 parry, 14 with Combat Reflexes, before retreat (+1 or +3), Shield spells, and DB. You already start out very hard to (effectively) hit.
The Arms Race occurs when the PCs want to, basically, completely overwhelm the skill levels of the opposition. If no one is satisfied until their PC is better than every single enemy they ever face, how is the GM to make "boss" foes who fight on like terms threatening? If the PCs will generally outdo even a skilled foe by 2-3 points of skill before buffing, and generally buff to +1 to +6 (and demonstrably use multiple potions until they get a 5 or 6) on top of that, then it's routine for foes to give up 3-9 points of defense. If the GM gives the foes enough skill or defense to offset that, the PCs feel like they need more as their high skill isn't high enough. It becomes an arms race that neither side can "win." The PCs can't outdo the GM. And the more the GM scales up to keep the challenge up, the more the game just becomes a battle of numbers well about the standard die rolls. Even as challenges are put up before the PCs, they simply don't matter yet drive up the investment of the PCs in their skills.
Am I opposed to high skill?
No. I like the way the PCs can absorb penalties and fight big battles with a solid chance of success.
What concerns me are three things:
- lacking effective maxima means you don't ever real feel like you are good enough . . . yet maxima tend to quickly get established as targets;
- it's tempting to use points to buy skills high enough to make the maximum difficulty situations routine;
- game mechanically, it's always more rewarding to specialize. The more specialized, the more reward.
All of those lead to the arms race, above, as I as the GM struggle to make a fight anything but a slog - because "glass cannon" foes can't hit, and thus are no threat, so foes need to be ones you need to grind down so they'll survive to have a chance to roll a critical or three and be a threat . . . or totally bypass attacks and defenses, which when done too often feels like I'm devaluing the main thing your characters are good at.
The lack of an effectively useful maximum is also concerning as players tend to look at maxima as something to reach with a PC. Barbarians can have ST 25 and potentially 50 HP, so they should all aspire to ST 25 and HP 50. Knights, ST 20 and Striking ST 2. Swashbucklers, Extra Attack 2 and Enhanced Parry 3 (and it would be 3 and 4 if that was allowed.) It's possible to get there, therefore it must be really important to get there, and if it's important do it ASAP. Add that to the tendency to overpatch to try and make characters invulnerable to anything (we've got multiple guys with a net 16+ to resist death or knockout who, nonetheless, want to raise HT and Hard to Subdue.) If skills are open on top of this, and it's unrewarding to generalize and seen as important to maximize, guess what happens?
DF penalties are often staggeringly high - characters who are in partial darkness (-3), while using Rapid Strike (-3/-3 for a Weapon Master), and aiming at the Neck (-5), standing on bad footing (-2) . . . and that -13 still leaves a 10 or less for the skill 21 guy taking the swing with a Balanced, Accuracy +1 sword. It's a lot of fun. So people try to get enough skill to absorb all of that and still end up with a net 16 skill, as if penalties were to be bought off instead of adding challenge to combat.
So that's where it stands, now, and why I'm thinking of a framework of limitations to basically bound the levels of useful skill even while keeping them high.
And as always, with flat cost point buy, it's cheaper and more effective to specialize, and then try to make everything you do about the thing you specialized in. Buy a hammer, and treat the world like it's full of nails.
Ideally, then, the PCs should be able to specialize, but not punished for not doing so (even better, rewarded for doing so.) They should be able to feel the value of their skills, but not feel that sky-high skills are a necessity of entry (and thus effectively punish those without for lacking them.) They should be able to eye the cost and benefits of skill and see where they need to end up to be the way they want, without having an arms race waiting for them if they overshoot. And finally they should benefit from boosts, buffs, and situational and supernatural aid without it effectively being seen as required, again, because of the arms race. It should retain the awesomeness of high-skill play without making it just a question of stacking bonuses forever.
That's what I am after, ultimately. I think it's doable, and can be fun for the GM and for the players.
So that's where we are now.