A Guide to Attributes and Skills, or Why Investigation and Empathy Aren't as Good as Socialize
Part One: What Dot Ratings Actually Mean
It's important that you have a handle on what your dot rating actually translates to. Attribute and Skill dots mean somewhat different things, so I'll address them one at a time, beginning with Attributes:
2 = Average. As a general rule, if you don't have any special feelings about how your character performs in a given area, the Attribute is 2.
3 = Notably Above Average. This person is particularly good in one area--enough that, in daily life, they probably get compliments on the subject on a regular basis.
4 = Exceptional. If someone has an Attribute at this level, that person is probably the best, strongest example of that Attribute out of all the people you know. This person is as naturally gifted in their area as most people who make their careers out of having that quality.
5 = World-Class. This is the absolute ceiling of human potential. No human being in the world can best a person with this Attribute rating in this area.
You'll notice I've left off the 1, and that's because I'd like to make a special note of it. Lots of people take Attributes at 1 purely for the sake of putting the dots elsewhere--they're thinking more of the Attribute they want to raise rather than what leaving an Attribute at 1 actually signifies. Beware, if your character has an Attribute at 1, that one or more of the following statements about your character is unerringly true.
Intelligence: is a moron.
Wits: is slow and oblivious.
Resolve: caves under the slightest pressure.
Strength: sincerely struggles to carry in groceries.
Dexterity: is a complete klutz.
Stamina: bruises after a firm handshake.
Presence: is off-putting to hang around (ugly, rude, or weird).
Manipulation: is laughably naive, and/or has a really hard time navigating a conversation.
Composure: is on a hair-trigger, or gives in to almost any whim or impulsive desire.
If you're not comfortable with the corresponding statement about your character--and with emphasizing that fact in the general course of play, so that people notice and probably make fun of them for it--then the Attribute shouldn't be 1.
Now for Skills:
0 = Untrained. This doesn't mean your character isn't able to do basic things. You don't need any dots in Computer to write an email or perform a basic Google search. But beyond the basics, your character is clueless. Someone with Drive 0 can pass a road test and get to work just fine, but if someone swerves in front of them and their car starts to spin out of control, they'll probably crash.
1 = Basic Training. Your character does this for a hobby, or has the equivalent of a high school education in the subject.
2 = Competency. A college education, or serious interest. This is the baseline level for a person who uses this Skill to make a living.
3 = Expertise. A graduate degree, or many years of experience. Your character can not only make a living off this Skill, they can thrive off it, and those who see them in action will generally consider them to be professionals. Rarely do Skills rise above this level.
4 = Mastery. People at this level could earn serious awards and distinctions for their work, and others in the field probably consider it a privilege to watch them do their thing. If there is an Olympics event for this Skill, you could probably compete in it. You probably don't personally know someone with 4 dots in any particular Skill, even if you know a lot of people in that field.
5 = World-Class. If there is an Olympics event for this Skill, you'd probably win it. Though you may occasionally find an equal, no human being on earth is better at this Skill than you.
Part Two: What Skills Actually Do
I find that people are often laboring under misconceptions about which Skills do what, and this often leads to certain Skills being a lot more popular than others. Let me go through the Skill list with the aim of clearing these up, as well as providing some insight into some of the less obvious nuances of various Skills.
Academics represents general education. If your character is or has ever been a college student, you really should have at least 1 dot of Academics unless he or she was a total slacker or failure. This is the Skill you roll when you conduct almost any kind of research; when you need to know your history; when you're trying to solve a logic or intellectual puzzle (no, that's not Investigation); or when you're trying to decipher or interpret language. Trying to figure out the subtext of another person's words might very well be Academics (and not Empathy).
Some people confuse Academics with Computer, or don't know which to use when one is attempting to do research via a computer. Just the fact that you're using a computer does not mean you automatically use the Computer Skill. Computer covers knowledge ABOUT COMPUTERS. That means Computer is used for a search only in certain situations, namely if the primary factor in your success is how good you are at using search terms (which is a function of how much you understand about the way computers work). Stalking someone's Facebook page, or figuring out personal information about them online ("doxxing") is Computer. Any kind of research beyond that--anything that has you reading articles, poring over information online rather than doing quick lookups, or looking into the history of a person or a location, etc.--is the purview of Academics.
Crafts is a Skill about making things, ultimately, but it's also a Skill about understanding how to make things. This means that you don't only roll this Skill for boring between-scenes extended actions. Crafts is the key if you want to know something about a building's architecture, or how sturdy or well-made an item is, or whether a product is the real deal or a cheap knock-off, or whether something has been tampered with. You might use Crafts to find a hidden safe, for instance. You know what these things aren't? Investigation.
Investigation is an extremely popular Skill, and it's easy to see why. The World of Darkness is full of crime and mystery, and it stands to reason that people want to be able to put themselves on the trail of figuring out what's going on. Most people can't seem to resist taking this Skill, and feel crippled without it. But it's worth mentioning that Investigation represents specialized knowledge of the type that a police detective would have. This is the Skill you roll when you come to a crime scene and attempt to root out a lead or a clue, or when you're trying to find a particular item in a particular place. It might also apply toward trying to put disparate clues together in order to see the bigger picture. But very little else falls under its purview.
Medicine isn't just a Skill for healing people. It's also a Skill for diagnosis. If you want to know how bad the damage is to yourself or someone else, this is the Skill you need. (This is especially important in Walpurgis, where your own Health levels are not known to you.) Not only that, but Medicine also applies to knowledge of the medical field generally. Having an idea of whether someone claiming to be a doctor is lying, based on what kind of knowledge that doctor should possess, is Medicine (not Investigation, not Empathy).
Occult doesn't really represent specific supernatural knowledge unless your character is a supernatural of that type. It only helps you know about the Awakened and their spells if you yourself are Awakened (or have access to specific knowledge of their existence). Rather, Occult is a catch-all Skill for being well-versed in myths, religions, and other mysteries. While a logic or intellectual puzzle falls under Academics, often weirder or more mysterious puzzles require Occult to solve. (Not Investigation.)
Politics is the fine art of knowing who is in charge, and it isn't just about government. It's about any structure that has people in charge of it, whether that be a governmental body or the employees in a grocery store. If you want to know who to talk to in order to pursue a lead, it's Politics. If you want to know who's vulnerable to a bribe, or how to grease the gears to get things moving, it's Politics. If you want to leverage your ability to know who's who in a given situation, or just to understand how to act while operating in any type of hierarchy, it's Politics. It's not Investigation or Empathy. Seeing a trend, here?
Science is probably the best Skill to have for the Interdisciplinary Specialty Merit, because specialties in Science are often broadly applicable. A Physics specialty works great for Crafts, Drive, hell even Firearms in the right situation, for example. Science is also an important Skill to have if you're trying to work out what might be possible in a certain situation, or finding out the right method to make something. Examining a corpse at a crime scene is probably Science (it might sometimes be Medicine, but you know what it's not? Investigation.)
Drive, as mentioned above, doesn't cover the basic ability to know which pedal to press or how to use the steering wheel. It doesn't even really cover slightly more advanced things like parallel parking--unless you're particularly trying to impress someone, or there's some reason why this is a particularly difficult or stressful parallel park, such tasks don't require dice rolls. Drive is the ability to manipulate a vehicle while you are under intense pressure, in life-threatening danger, or in such a way that is not covered by the everyday use of a car. If you're trying to avoid getting into an imminent wreck, it's Drive. But this Skill has less obvious mental applications, too--for instance, if you're trying to shake someone who is tailing you, it's Drive (not Subterfuge). If you're trying to identify or follow someone's tire tracks, it may very well be Drive (in which case it wouldn't be Investigation).
Firearms and Weaponry don't merely cover the actual use of these weapons; they also cover maintenance and care. Disassembling and reassembling a gun, fixing a jammed weapon, sharpening a blade, identifying a bullet's caliber or the make and model of a knife--these are Firearms and Weaponry rolls. Additionally, these skills (and not Investigation or Subterfuge) are used to determine if a person is carrying a concealed weapon.
Larceny isn't just stealing (whether pickpocketing, lockpicking, or safe-cracking), although it obviously covers that. It also covers any type of sleight of hand, demonstration of quick fingers, and situational awareness particularly as it concerns how likely you are to be caught if you try something. Casing a building to look for security cameras isn't a general perception task (nor is it Investigation); it's Larceny.
Survival covers the obvious stuff like knowing how to camp out in the wilderness or following a trail of tracks. Knowing how to keep warm, what kind of mushrooms are poisonous, what poison ivy looks like--all this stuff is plainly Survival. But it also has less obvious applications than that. Fine-tuned use of the senses (especially smell and taste) falls under Survival, as does finding resources where they're scarce or making shelter in an urban environment. Want to know how long a camp site has been vacated? Survival (not Investigation). Want to follow the footprints leading out of the camp? Also Survival (not Investigation--although Investigation might help you notice the prints in the first place).
Animal Ken doesn't come up as much as other Skills do, admittedly. But when you do end up needing it, it's the sort of Skill that you'll be really glad you took. Persuasion and Empathy are totally useless on animals, and often such creatures are strong and scary enough that fighting them is a bad prospect; knowing how to back your way slowly out of a confrontation with an angry walrus is a life-saving trick. But Animal Ken doesn't merely cover those situations--it also helps to identify different species and animal behaviors, as well as to train animals. If you're a vampire who wants an animal ghoul (and if you are, you really should, because they're great), Animal Ken's use immediately presents itself.
Empathy is another one of those extremely popular Skills that most people seem to consider mandatory. It's a great Skill, for sure, but this is mostly because people vastly overestimate what it actually does. I'm going to devote multiple paragraphs to this Skill, because this is important.
The ONLY thing Empathy does is tell you how someone is CURRENTLY FEELING. That's it. It's a very useful thing to know, but it's not nearly as broadly applicable as most people seem to think.
So, let me clear this up for you right now: the Empathy Skill is not a lie detector. Really, it's just not. You can't roll Empathy and magically know if someone is lying to you--that's just not how life works. The best you can do, just like real life, is divine an intuitive guess based on someone's emotional state. Empathy will tell you if someone's nervous, which might be an indicator that they're lying, or at least hiding something--but it also might mean that they're scared of you, or that they're in love with you, or that they're worried about something that has nothing at all to do with the current topic of conversation. Empathy is a good first step, but it requires thought and deduction to make sense of the results. And even if you're confident that your target's emotional state is evidence of lying, it's still not proof--just like in real life, the only way to KNOW someone is lying is to find the part of their story that doesn't make sense or is demonstrably false. Empathy just can't do that.
Empathy is not a catch-all Skill for all forms of social interaction. Trying to figure out the best thing to say to make someone happy? That's Socialize, or maybe Persuasion or Expression. Trying to avoid saying the wrong thing? That's definitely Socialize. Trying to figure out what someone wants from you is Politics if they're your boss and Socialize if they're your friend.
People often confuse Expression and Persuasion, so let me address both of these at the same time. Expression is the ability to bring your thoughts across clearly and meaningfully, whether that be with words or art. Persuasion is the specific ability to convince people, with logic and debate, that you are right about something (or that they are wrong). A message that conveys a clear feeling, and calls people to action by the merits inherent in the idea--such as a rousing speech that calls people to action--is Expression. Explaining to a deadbeat dad why he needs to pay his child support payments is Persuasion. If you're addressing a group of people, or if your message is primarily intended to inspire feelings, it's more likely you're using Expression. If you're trying to convince one person to do one particular thing, it's probably Persuasion.
Socialize is the most underrated Skill by far. Many people completely skip over it, but this is a huge mistake, because it's among the best Skills you can take. Want to know the right thing to say without offending a vampire Elder? Socialize. Want to get into an exclusive nightclub? Socialize. Want to recognize someone famous, and remember their name so you don't look like an idiot when they talk to you? Socialize. Want to intuit some idea about why one person doesn't like another, or whether associating with one person will make another dislike you? Socialize. Want to track down the source of a rumor? Socialize (not Investigation, damn it). Want to glean some idea about what someone wants from you? Socialize (not Empathy!). Want to look good enough at a party that you don't totally embarrass yourself and trash your Status and all your friendships by being a barbarian? Socialize, Socialize, Socialize. 75% of the time you think you want to roll Empathy, it's actually Socialize you're thinking of. Socialize is amazing. Take Socialize.
Streetwise is pretty underrated, and most people seem to think all it does is help you find your way around the city. Actually, that's just as frequently Survival. (It depends whether you're trying to find an address, via certain streets, or whether you're trying to travel in a general direction. The first one is Streetwise; the second is Survival.) More importantly, Streetwise represents "street smarts." It's your ability to have the intuitive sense that some corner street merchant is trying to con you, or that a gang has marked the street you're on as their territory. In the same vein, decipher a gang tag or a piece of graffiti is typically Streetwise (though Expression may work as well). This is also the Skill to have if you want to know what people are saying around town about a certain thing, or if you want to know where to find contraband, or which clubs are the hottest and most active at the moment. Streetwise has lots of overlooked applications.
Finally, Subterfuge--obviously this is the skill you roll if you're lying and don't want to give it away, but as we covered with Empathy, there is no magical lie detector skill, so what you're actually masking when you roll Subterfuge is usually your emotional state. Subterfuge basically covers all manner of mental or emotional forms of deception, though. If you're having a rough night, but you want to force a smile anyway? Subterfuge. If you're feeling angry at someone but don't want them to catch on? Subterfuge. It can also be more physical too, though--you'd roll Subterfuge to conceal with your body language the fact that you're hiding something behind your back, for instance.