Freeform skills and/or backgrounds thoughts?


Hello! I have been thinking of a way for players to be more specialized or have a set of foci for their characters.

I like the approaches on both 13th Age and Cypher System.

For reference, in 13th Age, you have freeform backgrounds that could be as simple as Soldier, Acolyte, and so, but you’re encouraged to be more creative with it such as Quartermaster on the Keelcutter or Veteran of the Third War. And in what ever situation you could argue that your background might apply, you could add your background bonus to it.

In Cypher System, it essentially gives you a bonus of +3 on roll where your skills are relevant. The skills also range from pretty straight forward, such as skilled in Mathematics, Speed Defenses, Initiative, to more broad ones like Pleasant Social Interactions or Using Special Abilities that Influence Minds.

I very much enjoy these freeform approaches instead of a list of skills, it helps players to tie their roleplaying elements to their characters, and lets the GM put characters in situations where they might shine.

I however haven’t figured out a cool approach for this in ICRPG. I would really like for this to play with the Effort System instead of giving flat bonuses to checks like most other systems do. I’d appreciate any suggestions! Maybe letting them roll ULTIMATE if they’re skilled in a task?


Honestly, I would just let the player decide if they apply +3 to their check or their effort. It’s more fun that way and, if they forget to apply the bonus to their check, they can easily apply it to their effort after the fact.

As for freeform background compared to precise skills: one leans too much into the good will of the players vs the generosity of the DM while the other can vary between getting too or not enough precise at times. My suggestion would be to create a little web from the following elements: upbringing, profession, passion (hobby in English?), fear, and flaw so to help the player and the GM to better figure out when a bonus could and should apply to that character’s roll!

What do you think?


Could you give each PC 3 backgrounds, wheelhouses, or whatever assigning each a D4, D6, or D8 to each respectively?


Yeah I know what you mean! There are types and types of players though - the friends I play with would generally play well with a freeform system without trying to milk it too much or abuse it.

But I’ve seen my fair share of players that would beg and twist things to get those bonuses! I like the approach of the elements you’ve listed, thanks for the ideas


Oh good idea, too! I’ll try it out and see how it feels!


I worked on that idea for a while. I called them “skillsets”, a broad area of study like “guardsman”, “flipping burgers”, “LARPing”, “Ninja”.

You would gain an experience point at arbitrary milestones at DM’s discretion, or whenever you rolled a nat 1.

During downtime, players spend 1 XP to roll a d8 vs their current bonus in that skillset. If they beat it, they level up.

This created more questions. “Aren’t some people more apt to learn one talent over another?” So the idea of Aptitude was born. Take all relevant attributes (like dex or str or wis) and average them out. It could yield a positive or negative result. You add this number when you roll to level up a skillset.

There also could be arbitrarily assigned level up difficulties to certain skillset’s at the DM’s discretion. After all, learning to tame the arcane isn’t a task learned as easily as cooking.

Then that implies there should be boons, too, to help level up skillsets. Like tutoring from a trainer in a town, or finding an ancient tomb in a dank crypt somewhere.

At the time, I felt that the skillset use was just a bit too broad. So I borrowed the idea of “expertise” from DnD. You list a specific activity (like a ninja: acrobatics) and you get to double your skillset’s bonus for that specific skill.

I threw all this out.

What I learned is that it doesn’t matter. The DM makes up the difficulty of the tasks anyways. So all this bean counting was meaningless. Trying to stuff things we understand intuitively into a pot and boiling it down into numbers seems to me to be a fools errand.

Think of a friend of yours who is good at a job. Let’s say, he’s a police officer. Not great at it, but pretty good. How likely do you think it is that he can square up with an untrained street punk and put him in a submission hold? I bet you, the DM, can spit out a number.
“Roll me an 8!”
If he says, “but wait, I’m gonna use my taser”
“…make that a 5!”

I now aim to keep my players character’s abilities and backstory in my head, and use my gut to assign difficulties on the fly. No math. No crunch. I believe every layer of crunch detracts from the narrative.

But hey man, if seeing numbers go up is your jam more power to ya.


Hey, thanks for the input!

My point of view in this is: a player’s character sheet is a letter to the DM. It’s them communicating that they envision the character a certain way and want chances to engage in the game in that manner.

For me, as a DM, managing all the crunch and figuring out appropriate target numbers for every skill test or roll is much more exhausting than what IC proposes; having a visible and common among the players target number for that scene is much more free flowing than me having to considering every players’ actions according to the narrative, their backgrounds, characters, etc.

So, in the end, if they all see the difficulty of a scene is 15, and they feel a skill they have is appropriate for their actions, it’s easier/faster for me to go ahead and say ‘yeah that skill makes sense here’ and they get to apply whatever bonus a skill grants.

It’s less about numbers going up and more about giving player characters more identity, players being rewarded for investing and playing out to their characters, and me an idea of what the players want to do and what they wanna shine on.


I like broad backgrounds rather than skill lists. When I was looking into fate RPG, I grew to like their tag system. I would suggest using tags on everything, kind of like how icrpg uses hearts for everything. You then during a scene invoke a tag to gain a benefit or a negative. So characters can invoke their tags but so can enemies. Make it a plus two bonus or make easy and hard stacking at plus 3 for the first and plus one for each additional. Each tag can only be invoked once per round.


I’ve been tinkering with some EFFORT modifier tags, BIG and SMALL.

BIG=roll EFFORT twice and take the highest
SMALL= roll EFFORT twice and take the lowest

So you could say if they have an applicable background to the challenge, then the EFFORT is BIG.

“Because of your Acolyte background, you can roll BIG MAGIC for the ritual”

It’s basically advantage/disadvantage for EFFORT. Simple, fast and no math.


Hey that’s a pretty cool idea! And easy to understand as well, great approach


I don’t know if this fits exactly with what you’re looking for, but the game Frontier Scum has a skill system built on narrative prompts, in which you toll on a table, and get a prompt of a situation in which your PC learned a skill - the player being invited to determine what the PC learned. I made a set of tables based on Shadowdark classes that I made here: