Yet another entry in the continuing series of posts inspired by Shannon.
The point about pushing people out of the fun is a good one. Ranking is also quite odd, on reflection. Games tend to model highly skilled PCs acquiring rank and power as they level, whereas in real life this isn't how it works. A large proportion of prestigious people either inherit a position or get there through a kind of attrition. Promotion to high rank tends to involve having, and honing, management and political skills rather than those suited to lower-rank assignments, and these high-rank skills get practiced while the others are neglected or get outdated. There's only a handful of people in an organisation who are both highly respected for their skills, and able to use that respect to exert power - usually technical specialists, in my experience. I suspect a large part of the reason is that games really don't tend to have skill atrophy.
The skill ladder
Games generally tend to feature ever-increasing skills. D&D is an interesting counterexample, because earlier iterations had no skill mechanics, but the game has aging adjustments - which means characters would get physically weaker, although their minds did sharpen, which is arguably inaccurate. Once skills came in, though, skill continues to increase with level over time, even though the base attribute may decrease.
Even Call of Cthulhu, a game that arguably plans for a spiral of decline, has relatively generous skill increases. Sanity rewards quite regularly outweigh most of the loss from a particular scenario, while the possibility of increasing any skill that came up in play means a character might readily boost a dozen skills. It does have a good capping mechanism, by requiring a failed roll to gain the bonus, which I quite like.
One reason for this is possibly the way early games worked. There wasn't much in the way of levels to gain, but getting a slight ability boost here and there might provide incentive to keep playing the same character for several scenarios. In games like Call of Cthulhu, it also offered a way for characters to actually gain a skill that started with 1% or 5%, which might expand their range of abilities in interesting ways. Skill increases also to some extent model the way that real-life skills can improve with use, especially at the lower end of the spectrum when the curve from "total ignorance" to "basic competence" is pretty steep - going from no chance to a 5% chance is a massive increase.
It's also fun to see your character getting increasingly good. Many games have a tendency towards the Bildungsroman sort of thing, where your peasants/mortals/teenagers become mighty warriors/vampires/psychics over time, and gaining a set of cool skills is very genre-appropriate. Although there are stories about heroes growing old, especially in classical literature, only a handful have them seriously declining before some tragic or epic death overtakes them, and these are not the basis for much in the way of RPGs. Some games try to model the transition from loners to leaders, including the early D&D system of gaining followers and castles, but this is again a mostly additive thing - it's assumed that you'll start spending time on court intrigues and territory management, but you can keep questing quite happily.
In real life, skills are very reliant on practice. You get better at stuff by doing it, and specifically by doing slightly more challenging things all the time. If you stick to the same old routines, you'll stagnate. And once you cut down on using a skill, it can deteriorate scarily fast. All that stuff you used to know about dinosaurs? Gone. Exhaustive knowledge of some YA series from your teenage years? Probably patchy nowadays.
A favourite of books featuring ancient characters - vampires, wizards and the like - is to have them pick up and flawlessly read a book in Sumerian, or converse in an obscure dialect of Old French to baffle observers. To be honest, unless they practice those languages regularly, they would quickly get rusty (language attrition). I can say from experience that languages not used for regular, complex communication fade quickly, with vocabulary forgotten and grammar confused, and this is true even of native languages. Other languages, more often used, will influence and corrupt the neglected one.
Neglected skills can typically be revived much more easily than learning a new one, because some memories remain. Muscle memory or subconscious prompting may help with a task even when you don't consciously remember how to do something. On the other hand, information isn't the only part of a skill, and it's easy for your physical capability to drop when you don't practice. Muscle tone, strength or flexibility can all decrease, especially if a task calls for unusual movements. You probably won't forget how to ride a bike once you learn, but if you hop back on for a ten-mile ride after a decade of driving, it will be an exhausting, painful experience and you might not make it to the end.
Another form of atrophy, and a very common one in some fields, is failure to keep up-to-date. Best practice, regulations or technology can shift dramatically over quite a short time, and you need to actively keep on top of these changes to stay relevant. Scientists and medical practitioners must follow the academic literature to make sure they aren't using outdated methods or following disproven theories. Lawyers must track changes in legislation and case law, because application of the current rules is the whole point. Programmers and IT professioners must constantly learn new software and hardware, because a switch can render a lot of their skills redundant. Teachers need to understand the current syllabus, testing regime, and a swathe of rules from child protection to equality law.
There are also qualifications to bear in mind. In some cases regular recertification is required, both to ensure people haven't got rusty and to update their knowledge. While not having the certification doesn't affect your actual ability, it may lead to practical obstacles.
You could say there's only a certain quantity of active skill you can maintain. Let's pretend we have an SSI unit of skill, the Knack. Although you may learn a huge variety of things over the course of your life, your overall capacity is generally capped at about 100 Knacks, which you reach in early adulthood. Each Knack can be maintained by one hour's investment of time and energy. It doesn't have to be willing or even conscious - a galley slave will tend to get good at rowing, and an escapee at spotting trackers.
You can choose where to dedicate your Knacks by deciding how to spend your time and energy - you might have half a dozen hobbies and a varied job (15 knacks apiece), or you might have a couple of very serious interests (40 Knacks each). That time commitment will maintain or improve existing skills, with your skill rising to meet a maximum sustainable level based on the commitment and your physical limitations. If you invest 30 time-units in ballet, you'll probably get to 30 Knacks eventually. If you take up a new hobby, you'll probably have to cut down on other time commitments, and so 5 Knacks will be redistributed from ballet to, say, ham radio as your ballet skill slowly drops to its new sustainable level of 25 Knacks.
I hope that made sense.
There's a difference between active and dormant skills. Unused skills will tend to go dormant rather than being totally forgotten, and this means it's relatively easy to revive them. You may not be able to speak functional Russian after a ten-year gap, but your passive abilities may still let you understand some. Old memories can come flooding back when something prods your memory.
Shifts of scope
For convenience, I'll pull up my comment from Shannon's blog.
Games tend to model highly skilled PCs acquiring rank and power as they level, whereas in real life this isn't how it works. A large proportion of prestigious people either inherit a position or get there through a kind of attrition. Promotion to high rank tends to involve having, and honing, management and political skills rather than those suited to lower-rank assignments, and these high-rank skills get practiced while the others are neglected or get outdated. There's only a handful of people in an organisation who are both highly respected for their skills, and able to use that respect to exert power - usually technical specialists, in my experience. I suspect a large part of the reason is that games really don't tend to have skill atrophy.
On reflection, that's more aggressive than I intended, and conflates rank, prestige, seniority and skills in an unhelpful way.
There are a few different types of rank. Social rank is often associated with personal connections or with profession, and may be formal (titles and/or authority) or informal (deference). Rank in an organisation is a formal position that doesn't necessarily correlate with experience or respect, but does generally carry authority.
In terms of organisations, there are several ways for people to rise in rank. Skill is definitely one, although the different roles of different ranks tend to mean that low-rank and high-rank skillsets are quite different: a cashier, a supervisor, a branch manager, a regional sales coordinator and a CEO require different skills. In general, the higher up the organisation you get, the more importance is laid on management skills, while unofficially your ability to manoeuvre politically, give convincing presentations and build networks is vital.
In some cases, our branch manager may be hired in on the basis of their interview performance, which centres on management skills - they may be a career manager who's never worked on the front lines. In other cases, a senior role is filled expediently by promoting someone who's been around for a while (essentially attrition), which does not necessarily indicate great competence in the lower-rank skills (or indeed in management). In most professions, there are significant differences between skill requirements over the ranks, which means getting better at the stuff required by your rank will not usually lead to an increase in rank.
Specialists are a common exception, essentially gaining extra prestige because they offer unusual skills that are essential to the organisation. Nowadays IT staff and financial officers are a good example in many organisations, able to exert influence beyond what might be expected, even affecting policies or vetoing ideas. Historically, priests or sages might have a similar influence. Technicians or scouts might wield political influence in more military organisations because of the importance of their role to the organisation as a whole. These roles do not necessarily offer formal authority, ask for the skills typically expected of senior staff, or pay at equivalent levels - however, they are understood to know things that more senior staff do not, including some law-of-nature type stuff that places hard constraints on projects. Performance fields like music or martial arts are arguably another exception.
When someone (let's call her Sam) is promoted, they typically shift focus. More of her workload will be administration, recruitment, budgeting, meeting planning and giving presentations; less time will be spent on the general work of their team. Senior staff in an organisation rarely do anything that contributes directly to the organisation's goals, their job being to coordinate and prioritise. Inevitably, Sam gets better at dealing with paperwork, budgets and presentations. At the same time, because she only spends half her time talking to customers now, she begins to lose touch with that work, and will soon be less good at it than her subordinates who do it all the time.
Next time I'll look into possible mechanics for introducing skill atrophy in games.