The Ultimate Skill
is a recent addition to Hero Games' "Ultimate" line of books for the HERO System, and while other books (including the new Ultimate Energy Projector) are based on exploring the options for a particular archetype of (super)hero fiction and adapting it to various genres, The Ultimate Skill
is no more and no less than what it implies: An overview of HERO System's Skill rules, which can be and are used by all types of characters. The process of detailing all the rules involved, including new options, makes this a rather massive and extensive tome even by HERO System standards. According to the Introduction, "The text of The Ultimate Skill
includes all the text from pages 42-77 of the HERO System 5th Edition, Revised
rulebook. Usually the text has been expanded or rewritten to the point where itís effectively new, but in places where no further elaboration was necessary or desireable,[sic] the text is reprinted as-is so that all the information about Skills in the HERO System is in one easily-refer≠enced volume."
Chapter One: Skill Rules goes over the Skill system in HERO. A "Skill Roll" is made on 3d6, and you want to roll low. A typical roll with these dice is 11 or less, written as 11-. (There's a straight 50% chance of rolling 10 or less on 3d6 and a 62.50% chance of rolling 11 or less. Page 6 has a sidebar with the percentage odds for each dice result.) Thus, the higher your Skill Roll number, the better you are with the Skill and the better your odds are with the Skill Roll. (However, a natural 18 always fails and a natural 3 always succeeds; buying your Skill Roll higher than 17 is desirable mainly for canceling Skill Roll penalties, described below.)
In HERO System 5th Edition, Skills were organized into particular categories: Agility Skills (Skills based on the DEX stat), Background Skills, Combat Skills, Intellect Skills (based on INT), and Interaction Skills (based on PRE). Background skills usually cost 2 points for a flat 11- roll with +1 to the roll costing 1 Character Point, or optionally, the Skill can be upgraded to a Characteristic-based Skill (usually based on INT) for +1 (making the base Skill cost 3 pts.) Characteristic-based Skills have a Skill Roll based on this formula: 9 + (CHAR/5), where CHAR is the relevant stat, rounded up (18 DEX/5 rounds up to 4, + 9 = a 13- roll with DEX-based Skills). Most Characteristic-based Skills cost 3 points base and 2 points to raise the Skill by +1 (the 18 DEX character buys the Agility Skill 'Stealth' for 3 points and gets a 13- roll; 2 more points cranks it up to a 14- roll for 5 pts. total). In 5th Edition, some of these Skills were differentiated so that Animal Handler (for instance) starts with a Skill costing 2 points for one category (e.g. training 'Equines') and +1 point for each extra category (Canines, Felines, etc.). In these cases, it still costs only 2 points to increase the Skill Roll by 1, which increases the roll for all categories that the Skill is bought for. There are also "miscellaneous" Skill cost categories: Combat Skills grant a certain combat ability for a set cost that does not increase- for instance, each of the Autofire Skills grants a certain ability with Autofire weapons for 5 points. There are "Skill Levels" that apply to use of multiple related Skills, cost based on their universality; technically that includes Combat Skill Levels, but those are a separate category, though the costs are similar. For example, 3 points gets either a +1 with three non-combat Skills or +1 with three Combat Maneuvers (allocated on the character's action). Finally there are "Familiarities" that cost 1 point per (e.g. Weapon Familiarity with Blades includes most dagger-to-sword sized blades for 1 point) or 2 points for an entire category (e.g. Common Melee costs 2 points to cover not only Blades but most other melee weapons). There are certain "Uncommon" Familiarities that have to be bought separately (Flails, for instance, must be bought outside Common Melee).
This section presents some options for changing the basic Skill rules (in terms of base cost, base roll and cost to improve). Steve Long acknowledges that the subdivided Skills like Animal Handler are one of the "anomalies" in the current Skill system and presents the option of giving them the basic 3-point cost. Conversely, there's the option to subdivide other skills the way some games do (for instance Security Systems allows the character to both find AND remove traps; the GM could make these separate Skills like they are in most D&D/D20 games). Another option, first introduced in The Valdorian Age, is the concept of "Normal Skill Maxima", where any Skill Roll over 13- costs double to increase (usually this means 4 points per +1); this is done mainly to combat the threat of high-rolling "Skill inflation" with characters who have better Surgeon rolls than Hawkeye Pierce and better Guitarist rolls than Jimi Hendrix. There is also the option of adjusting costs per genre- so that (for example) a high-action Dark Champions game will have the costs of Autofire Skills reduced from 5 to 3 points each.
The standard rules also include the concept of "Skill Enhancers" - for instance the Linguist enhancer subtracts 1 from the cost of every Language the character buys. A variation on this concept is the "Skill Combination" where (say) Actor Skill would include not only the Acting (Interaction) Skill and Professional Skill: Actor but certain Background Skills related to knowledge of Hollywood, the acting industry, etc. This was first introduced as the "Expert" Skill Enhancer in Dark Champions, where the Enhancer reduces Skills by 1 point for fitting a certain 'theme'; for instance a "Russian Expert" would get -1 on the cost of the Russian language and any Knowledge and Cultural Skills related to Russia. The ultimate expression of this concept is to just buy one Professional Skill, say "Spy", buy it up to ridiculous levels to account for penalties for "precision" use with a general skill, and use that instead of getting Stealth, Security Systems, Knowledge Skill: Espionage, etc.
Chapter One also goes over the obvious point that just because a Skill is on the list doesn't mean it should be available in all games (a medieval character shouldn't get to buy Computer Programming and Transport Familiarity with Motorized Vehicles). This also means that one's use of the Skill depends on background (the medieval character with Security Systems wouldn't know to use it against laser-based security systems, fingerprint locks, card swipers, etc.).
After this overview, Chapter One goes back to the concept of the Skill Roll. Again, because you roll low, bonuses and penalties are considered to add to the total Skill Roll, so that a Skill with 14- rating with a -3 penalty applied to it means you need an 11 or less on that task. This is a bit counter-intuitive compared to later games like D20 and even Fuzion that do everything with a "roll high" Difficulty Class system, but it still adds up to the same concept: bonus adds, penalty subtracts.
The GM can tweak the basic concepts of the Characteristic-based Skill (for example, someone with Acrobatics skill who wants to remember the name of a famous athlete could roll Acrobatics as INT-based instead of DEX-based). One option in the basic rules is to buy a Skill Roll as a 1-point "Familiarity", reflecting a very basic knowledge of the skill (11- is assumed to be enough to make the roll in mundane circumstances). Skill Levels that apply to Skill Rolls cannot be used with Familiarity Skills, but circumstantial bonuses and penalties may apply (e.g. spending extra time to make the Skill Roll). There are some Skills that count as "Everyman Skills" for everyone in the setting at no cost; for instance most Americans have native fluency in English and 'cyberpunk' characters may get free Familiarity with Computer Programming. The Ultimate Skill now gives a rule for "Untrained Skill Use" when a character doesn't even have Everyman Familiarity- like when you need to bribe someone and you don't have Bribery Skill. For a skill you don't have, you need to roll 6 or less (in odds, about a 10% chance of success). This is optional, but it accounts for a gap in the current Skill system.
The basic Skill rules have certain permutations. Some uses of a Skill are actually "Skill vs. Skill Contests" like two merchants using the Trading Skill against each other to strike a deal (some other games refer to these as 'opposed rolls'). Technically rolling Perception against Stealth is an example of such a roll. There is also the concept of "Complementary Skills," where a certain Skill can be assisted with a relevant Skill (say you have both Demolitions and Knowledge of Plastic Explosives; when defusing a plastic-explosive bomb, rolling the Knowledge Skill gets +1 to the Demolitions Skill Roll for every 2 points the KS is made by, minimum bonus of +1 if the secondary roll is made at all). Using complementary rolls is also how "team" Skills are done, although to speed things up the GM may just make the bonus equal to +1 for every assistant. In the 3d6 system, rolling a natural 3 is always a Critical Success, while a natural 18 is always a Critical Failure, each situation creating either benefits or setbacks. (The 'crit' rule has always been a house rule of HERO GMs, and was also in The Valdorian Age, but this is the first place where it's codified as core rules.)
Chapter One also details the in-game process of learning a Skill, who can teach it, how much time it takes, etc. (which is important, given that Martial Arts counts as a Skill) This is an option presented for more realistic games, as opposed to games where one can plug in a skillsoft program and say "I know Kung Fu." Realistic campaigns can also use the concept of skill atrophy, where a Skill Roll drops from not keeping in practice.
The Skill Modifiers section goes over Skill dice roll modifiers in extensive detail. This allows for a bit more flavor by allowing for grades of difficulty depending on circumstances, so that picking a regular lock is base Skill, but picking a magnetic lock is at a -4 penalty. Page 31 gives the main list of Skill Modifiers for circumstances by general type (for example, a penalty of -1 to -5 for 'Extremely strange or weird object to perform the Skill on'). Each of these Modifiers is elaborated on further. It's mentioned that bonuses can be gained by interesting roleplaying of the Skill, like the PC taking apart his watch to get the extra wires he needs for Lockpicking. Some modifiers are applied per category (for instance applying a penalty to Agility Skills for wearing armor, as in D20 with 'Armor Penalty' on Dex-based skills). These include actual concrete modifiers for a character's 'effective' Comeliness on Interaction Skills.
Chapter One goes over Everyman Skills, including a master list of what qualify as Everyman Skills for each genre. Skill Enhancers are reviewed, including the aforementioned "Expert" option. Another option presented in this section is based on the Universal Translator Talent; since that Talent effectively allows a character access to all Languages for a base of 20 points, it's possible for certain campaigns to allow other 20-point "Universals" like Universal Connections (make an 11- roll and you always 'know a guy who can help us out').
Finally Chapter One has a "Powers" section which in this case describes how Skills are used with certain Powers and also lists certain useful Power Modifiers. Normally one doesn't buy Power Advantages or Limitations on Skills or bonuses to Skill Rolls but in certain cases the GM may allow such; e.g. for a fine set of Lockpicking tools that adds +2 to the Skill as a Focus, or a Ranger whose Stealth specialty "In Woods" is bought as bonus to Stealth rolls with the -1 Limitation "Only in Woods." This also allows for buying Skills or Modifiers in a Power Framework (like the tool-belt Multipower whose slots are all bonuses with given Skills). It's even possible to use a Variable Power Pool for Skills, although this makes Skills far cheaper than they otherwise would be and must be bought with GM permission only. Even so, it's a valid mechanic for certain concepts like a cyber-character with a "database" of information or an amnesiac immortal who suddenly remembers how to speak Sumerian.
Chapter Two: The Skills is simply a review of each and every Skill in the HERO System. Again, in 5th Edition grouping, the Skill Categories are Agility, Background, Combat, Intellect and Interaction Skills. There are also "Skill Levels" that add to a set of Skills. With regard to Background Skills in particular, there are distinctions between Knowledge Skills (KS), Professional Skills (PS) and Science Skills (SS), with the first being a theoretical knowledge, the second being applied knowledge, and the third being the technical science of a subject; e.g. KS: Electrical Systems gives knowledge of electrical systems, PS: Electrician gives the ability to use them (even though an Electrican may not have the KS of how they work) and SS: Electronic Engineering would allow the character to design an electrical system. This introductory part of the chapter also reviews the game of effects of Interaction Skills, including the option to make PCs subject to NPC Interaction rolls (like Persuasion or Seduction). The suggestions for high Skill Roll results are fairly similar to low-level Mind Control in their ability to affect a character, and are thus optional.
After this, Chapter Two reviews each Skill in terms of its properties in the basic rules, along with any options for GM customization. This includes: the use of equipment with the Skill, its interaction with Powers, any consequences of failure, the Base Time required to use the Skill (which may cause penalties for 'hurried' use or give bonuses for taking Extra Time according to the game's Time Chart), and possibilities for unifying or dividing the Skill (as discussed above with Animal Handler and Security Systems). Long mentions that the reviews of each Skill often go into much greater detail than the basic rules ('For example, the Security Systems description in this book is 150 times as long as the one in the main rulebook'), and also mentions that while this level of detail IS necessary for this book to qualify as an "Ultimate" resource on Skills, in most cases (especially cinematic games) that level of detail isn't that necessary.
In addition to the exhaustive review of the existing Skills, The Ultimate Skill reviews new Skills: Armorsmith (self-explanatory), Divination (a Skill that assumes that supernatural forces in the game actually allow the fortune-telling to work), Feint ('tricking' someone in combat), Hoist (a lifting Skill first mentioned in The Ultimate Brick), Instructor (usable with the teaching rules in this book), Musical Instrument Familiarity (really useful for the Bards in the game), Parachuting (a highly-detailed Skill first brought up in Dark Champions), Poisoning (also self-explanatory) and Research, which represents a character's ability to gather academic data.
Chapter Three: Skills and Equipment starts by mentioning that if a character pays points for equipment (which most superheroes do) then he doesn't have to have the normal prerequisites; buying a Killing Attack (HTH) as a Sword Focus does not require that character to also have Weapon Familiarity: Sword. By the same token, however, if that character tries picking up a sword he didn't pay points for, he takes unfamiliarity penalties unless he does have WF: Sword.
The book also mentions pieces of equipment that can buy their own Skills, namely Automatons, Computers and Bases. The latter can also base "laboratories" which allow a character to use or improve a Skill- for this purpose a gymnasium counts as a "lab" for Acrobatics, for example.
This chapter also details the aforementioned tools that buy Skill Levels with particular Skills as Foci. Of course, this category has infinite applications, and the sample Foci range from GPS units to kits for letting you cheat at cards.
Chapter Four: Adventuring With Skills goes over the use of certain Skills in combat situations, as well as other game factors like the environment, primarily the use of Skills underwater.
The Ultimate Skill lives up to its name. It presents a lot of options for HERO System Skills that have been needed for a while, like 'Untrained Skill Use' and clarification on the time required to use a particular Skill, not to mention the Modifiers for particular situations. (For example, using Seduction to ask 'Wanna go out on a date?' is 1 Hour for base Skill Roll and 'Let's have weird sex right now' is 4 Hours for a -8.) As Gordon F. mentioned in his review, the book's extensive detail on real-world aspects of skill use, like equipment and procedure, makes it quite useful even for GMs who don't use HERO System, for instance in games that go into extensive dice rolling for seduction attempts but don't mention what equipment or modifiers apply to Science skill.
As such, The Ultimate Skill is a solid addition to the Hero library, well worth it as a general reference source and a perfect buy for Hero fans.
The Ultimate Skill gets a default rating for art; the new stuff is mostly pretty good, but it's not exceptional.
Like several of Steve Long's Hero books, it's hard to imagine how this could provide more information value for the price.