Introduction to ‘Everyman Skills’

As GMs develop in experience, and begin to develop their campaign worlds more extensively, they generally arrive at the idea of everyman skills. Typically, this idea will first emerge in a modern-setting campaign, or future-tech campaign, though this is becoming less true all the time. The idea is that characters, by virtue of living in the game world, have a certain level of assumed knowledge that may or may not be expressible through the existing skills structure.

In the modern day, for example, most people know the basics of how a car works. Most people know that car tires need air, and that the car uses petrol and has a battery. Most people know that newspapers come out daily with reports of the events their editors consider significant. Most people know how a telephone works, and that what uniforms a police officer wears, and have some idea of the basics of the legal system. Most people know how to signal a bus, and how to pay a fare, and whether or not to tip (and roughly how much) – and how to do it. Most people know what a TV ad is. And so on and on and on.

These skills and knowledges are known generically as “everyman” skills because everyone has them.

Differentiated Everyman Skills

Still more experienced GMs realize that their own experiences are not universal, and hence the content of an “everyman skills” bucket will vary from culture to culture and nation to nation. The knowledge and capabilities that are common to people in my country (Australia) are going to be a little different to those from a similar country (New Zealand, the USA, England), a little more different again in slightly less similar countries (Germany, Holland, France, and the rest of Western Europe); and the same progression can be observed, each successive degree of difference in culture being matched be an increase in the divergence between everyman skills. People from the most extreme differences – places like central Africa, the tribal regions of South America, and so on – may have so different a fundamental lifestyle and world experience that our everyman skills have virtually nothing in common.

Reflecting this differentiation requires some refinement to the very concept of everyman skills. There may be a number of ways of doing so, but the one I am most familiar with is based on the concept of cultural similarity, as is made evident in the preceding paragraph. Rather than a single group of “everyman skills”, there are an onion-skin of layers of everyman skills. Some are based on geographic socio-economics, some on nationalistic & cultural similarities, and some derive from a technological familiarity.

By breaking “everyman skills” up into “everyman skill packages” in this way, an appropriate skills package can be defined for any generic individual from any given culture for which a skills package has been defined.

The benefits of an “everyman skills” package approach

There are three huge benefits to be achieved by packaging everyman skills in this way.

A Common Foundation

The first is in providing a common foundation for all characters from a specific location or culture. This ensures that nothing that should be there is overlooked (unless it is overlooked for everyone equally, making it much simpler to correct). It also ensures that any divergence from that standard is a deliberate act, rather than an accidental oversight. Both these make it much faster and easier to generate new characters that derive from the origins that match the chosen set of everyman packages. Creating a new member of the military from modern Japan? Choose the military package, the modern Japan cultural package, and the modern Japanese citizen package and the only decisions relate to making the character unique and interesting; all the routine design is already incorporated.

The same approach works in Fantasy, in Science Fiction, in Pulp – in fact, in all genres of game.

The Common Man

The second big advantage that derives from everyman skills packaging is that ordinary citizens can consist of nothing BUT the appropriate everyman skills packages plus a fourth package representing their profession. That’s probably 99% of the game’s population that have just been statted out.

The Generic Man

The final advantage is one that is more subtle. Characters can start off being “The Common Man” and then be developed in-play into unique individuals. This spreads the creative burden out over a substantial period of time rather than forcing the GM to do everything up-front; and, what’s more, it means the GM never wastes time or creative juice on aspects of a character that never become significant. By allowing the GM to focus only on those aspects of the character refinement process that are directly relevant and to ignore the rest, the Generic Man approach cuts this aspect of game prep to virtually no time.

The Social Implications of Common Skills

All of this is background, and actually incidental to the real subject of this article, which is a commentary on the role that having common skills and experiences has on the society itself. Advanced GMs reflect the society in the skills; it takes an exceptional GM to take the next step on their own and start reflecting the existence of that common skill set within the society. I’ve been GMing for over 30 years and I’m only just catching the first glimmerings of this concept; but by making those glimmerings public, I hope to spread that insight around lower the required standard of expertise to something a bit more attainable – which in turn makes it easier to advance the concept.

The Absence Of An Alibi

The idea came to me while watching an episode of Columbo a little while back, when a vagrant insight wandered into my consciousness and made itself at home: “The absence of an alibi becomes less damning with increasing intellect and vice-versa.”

This is so counter-intuitive that I thought it worth exploring further, and intended to write a whole post specifically on the subject. The point, of course, is that we’ve all been conditioned by police dramas on TV and in fiction to consider an alibi vital to the proof of our innocence when a crime has been committed. It follows that if an individual plans to commit a crime, the more intelligent the individual, the more he will wish to arrange matters so that he has an alibi. Logically, then, the more intelligent the individual, the more likely of being innocent they must be thought if they have no alibi.

The entire premise of Columbo is that intelligent people will direct their intellect to the manufacture of an alibi, and it is Columbo’s role to penetrate that alibi, producing a contest of wits in which Columbo’s secret weapon is that he is able to dissemble and conceal his intellect; he furnishes an environment in which he can feed suspects enough rope until one of them hangs himself with it. That contest of wills is what makes the show interesting.

But, before the opportunity arose to actually finish the prospective article, I started to expand my thinking on the subject. Specifically, I realized the role that social environment plays in setting up this interpretation of evidence. It is purely because we are so used to police procedurals that we have reached the point of valuing an alibi, or the lack thereof, in this counter-intuitive fashion. Logical expectations of behavior have been inverted by the presence of an everyman skill.

Distilling General Statements

This is not a simple phenomenon. For all the simplicity of the original statement, as soon as you start to consider the reasons for its validity, and attempt to distill a statement describing the more general phenomenon, a scary number of complicated factors make themselves relevant. Sociology, and the interpretation of intelligence, and assumptions of behavioral and cultural norms. None of these are simple subjects.

It might be that the effect cannot be summarized in a single statement, but that a number of general statements have to be generated to describe the phenomenon, each of which can then be generalized.

  1. The Existence of Everyman Skills leads to the expectation that people will possess and utilize those everyman skills.
  2. Behavioral norms are to satisfy that expectation.
  3. The more intelligent the individual, the more they will present the appearance of a behavioral norm when one is not expected or appropriate to the circumstances.
  4. Behavioral norms when they are not appropriate are therefore a measure of intelligence applied to constructing a palatable social facade, begging the question of what lies behind the facade.
  5. A constructed facade can be used to provoke an underestimation of abilities.
  6. Failure to construct a palatable facade can make an individual appear more distinctive within their field, but can also be used to undermine their reputation.

That’s about as far as I can go. Extending and further generalizing these principles is a task for someone more able than I – or at least, more able than I am now.

How Is This Useful?

Well, let’s consider a particular character and see how these rules shape that character. I could pick “Smart Killer” to bring the whole question back to the starting source as a means of checking that these statements do indeed lead to the characteristics identified – that guilt in the intelligence requires a plausible alibi and vice-versa – but even if it succeeds, that won’t tell us anything new.

Instead, let’s go with “Honest Politician” and analyze the implications for two different characters – one who’s not especially smart, and one of high intelligence.

The Typical-intelligence Honest Politician
  1. It must be assumed that the character has all the “everyman” skills that a typical politician has, and will use them.
  2. Normal behavior for a politician is to behave in the way that people expect a politician to behave, since he has the skills to do so.
  3. The character is not especially intelligent, so his behavior in unusual circumstances will be equally unusual. His behavior is thus a guide to the normality of his circumstances.
  4. The character’s faults, whatever they may be, will be beyond his ability to hide behind a palatable facade; consequently, there will be a number of minor scandals or unfortunate occurrences in his life brought about by those faults. Since the character is presumably a politician of some experience, his faults must be relatively few and relatively innocuous; only a politician of this type who hasn’t been around very long can have a serious flaw without an accompanying career-ending scandal.
  5. It is unusual for this politician to be underestimated, though he may be overestimated. He will have few surprising victories or turnarounds on his public record.
  6. Various factions who desire a politician they can corrupt, or whose corruptibility they wish to utilize to their own ends, will oppose this politician. Since corruption logically yields a level of power and authority that is undeserved, this politician will be perpetually under siege from both within and without.

So the “dumb but honest” politician can be recognized by his having a number of minor scandals, and by the extent and diversity of those opposing him politically. What’s more, the honesty of others can be assessed by those who oppose him and those who support him: anyone supporting him may be relatively trustworthy, anyone sponsoring attempts to unseat him is relatively untrustworthy. The implication is that a spotless record after a lengthy career can only be achieved by deception and corrupt manipulation of the record.

All of that seems to make sense to me, especially the conclusions. So the logical pattern has described the circumstances and history that I would expect to find surrounding a character that met the description that I fed in at the start – and they are not at all what I would normally have done. No, if I wanted a politician of average intelligence and high honesty, I would have presented a figure without tarnish on his record who is a solid middle-ground figure, neither a party leader nor in charge of anything important, a character with no real room for individualism.

It’s the difference between a cliché and a realistic character. And it results in the same sort of logical inversion that started this whole train of thought.

The High-intelligence Honest Politician

One more, just to demonstrate (and test) the usefulness of this set of generalizations. The first steps will be exactly the same as the previous example, because they are analyzing the elements that are in common between the two characters, “honest politician”:

  1. It must be assumed that the character has all the “everyman” skills that a typical politician has, and will use them.
  2. Normal behavior for a politician is to behave in the way that people expect a politician to behave, since he has the skills to do so.
  3. This is an intelligent character, so he is going to appear to be a typical politician even in unusual or inappropriate circumstances.
  4. His outward social exposure will therefore be of a manufactured facade.
  5. Others will have underestimated the character in the past. He will have a few surprising successes under his belt, and is likely to be pushed to the forefront, professionally.
  6. Any attacks on this character will take the shape of attacks on his positions on various subjects and policies, rather than personal attacks, save only those attacks that suggest that he is “hiding something”. He will only be really vulnerable to attack when he makes a mistake (or is held responsible for a mistake), where his honesty will tend to make him fall on his sword for others, where a less honest man would find a way to deflect the blame.

So this gives us a pattern by which to identify the type of public servant we really want to elect: competent, and attacked for his role in failed policies. The latter will hold his advancement back from the absolute top of his profession, but he will still have enough competence to find his way into senior positions. The litmus test for honesty is how the character defends himself when faced with accusations relating to failed policies – if the character appears responsible for the failure, he should be reelected (but probably won’t be), if he deflects responsibility then he shouldn’t be trusted (but can probably get back into office through party politics).

Again, this seems to make sense, but is a total inversion of the expectations one would normally have. So much so that I find it necessary to reevaluate my opinions of many political figures for whom I have voted (or not voted). It’s certainly a somewhat different profile to the one I would normally apply to this sort of character in my campaigns – and explains why I have sometimes had an uphill battle convincing the players of a politician’s honesty.


Notice that it makes no difference where or when the politicians are from, provided that the basic essentials are the same as those of the modern era. If politicians did not have to face reelection, there might be some differences to take into account, but in general, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Roman Senators or Ancient Greeks or Medieval village mayors.

The same questions work with respect to policemen, or librarians, or blacksmiths. The only thing you need to decide is the basic personality of the character and what the general social expectations are of that generic character; feed those through the questions and the results will translate the combination into the set of circumstances that would typically surround the character – with perfect consistency every time.

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