Thursday, August 15, 2013

Crazy RPG Idea: Skills as Cost & Handouts

    Here's a crazy idea, based off something bouncing around in my head.  I've been reading a lot of posts about skills, and how they can be a straight-jacket for creativity, stop players from engaging with the game, and make character creation take way too long.  Which I get, and I agree with (though I think a well-designed skill system is not as bad, look at Microlite20 and how you dynamically combine a short list of skills and attributes, kind of like Ars Magica's magic system - that I think (not being able to playtest it) would mitigate some of these issues).  But at the same time they do provide some benefits by being able to distinguish characters beyond class and set some objective limits and ranges on what a character is good at.  In thinking about it, I had a crazy idea that I want to run up the proverbial flagpole: what about active skills as cost and passive skills as handouts?
    For example, an active skill is Acrobatics, Climb, Swim, even Perception and Disable Device can be used this way.  You have a skill level, which we'll convert (how would depend on the system) to a die type.  Higher skill lower die type.  When you do something related to that skill you can automatically succeed, but it takes a number of turns/rounds/instert-your-timekeeping-system-here equal to what you roll on that die.  So, Bob the Barbarian has a low Perception, but he wants to search the evil necromancer's lair for loot, so he rolls his d12 and gets a 7.  It will take 7 turns/minutes to complete the search and turn up everything hidden in the room (assuming anything is there of course, if there isn't anything hidden then he just wasted the time) - now, the nice thing is the GM knows exactly how many 'wandering monster checks' to roll or if he wants to throw in a random encounter.  And if Timmie the Thief did the same thing, his higher skill would mean rolling a lower die, like a d6, for only maybe 1 or 2 minutes/checks.  That way there is an objective cost and the player can still fall back on the skill if he doesn't want to role-play the situation out.  Also, it sets something for the GM to use when the player is not the active element.  Here's an example, one of the things I wondered about a skill-less system is this: a player has upset some evil mage, said evil mage sends a thief to steal a lock of the player's hair (for casting evil spells upon the character).  With skills this is stealth-of-thief vs perception-of-character check.  Without skills this is tricky, because the character is not doing anything for the player to direct/describe - do you rail-road the player into not seeing it, or seeing it, or what?  With this system, maybe you could roll, and that is how many turn it takes to realize what happened, and thus how far back the character is for the ensuing pursuit?  I think a lot of things could work this way in a more impartial manner, while empowering characters to still do whatever they want.  I would actually say this is "off-screen" time vs role-playing which is "screen" time.  What do I mean?  Well, if you just want to roll your skill you take the time and the wandering monster checks.  But, if you role-play it out, tell me where and how you're searching, then magically no time will pass.  No wandering checks, no troubles - you'll trade your own personal effort for any additional complications.  That way if you want to dig in and really play something, great, you'll have fewer troubles.  But if you get stumped or lost, roll and take the hit of something happening (maybe goblins hear you banging around the secret door you couldn't figure out how to open and they open it to attack - now you've traded the searching you didn't want to do for the fight you may enjoy more).  This could even work with attributes.  The 18 Strength fighter needs d4 tries to break the door, while the wimpy Str 8 mage needs d12 attempts.
    The other part of the equation are the passive skills, things like Knowledge and Profession and even Survival in a way.  These are handouts.  Charles Ryan has an awesome post on his blog about "5 Things Everybody Knows" ( -don't have the exact page as I saved it to my hard drive) - basically giving your players 5 simple general things about the setting and elements in it.  Which is great, the characters live in this world after all, so they would know some things about it.  For the Knowledge skills though, what if that character got 6, 7, 10, or 15 extra things?  After all, that character knows a lot more, so why not represent that knowledge with a player handout?  This way the player gets the benefit of the skill at character creation, they can see into the world more, instead of rolling it reactivity at the table.  And if the payer took the knowledge skill then odds are they really do want to know more about the game world.  This is hampered by the fact that the books are open, and so something like "monster lore" is hard to give as a handout when your players have already memorized Monster Manuals 1-through-infinity.  You'd need to have custom monsters, or a more home-brew setting for this to work best.  You can also give ranges, another thing that might be fun.  Print off the page with a monster, but double-sided.  One side, that goes face down, has all the stats that you the GM refer too.  The other side has a bunch of blank lines.  For each point/so-many points of monster lore you fill in one line, player's choice (?), with a general descriptor.  For my Travellers Beyond game I use 5 Universal Ranks, mapped to a 1-20 system they are:
    Weak (Wk)            1-4
    Competent (Co)     5-8
    Strong (St)             9-12
    Exceptional (Ex)   13-16
    Legendary (Lg)     17-20
For Pathfinder-style ACs just subtract 10 and give the scales above (though AC inflation breaks this down pretty quick).  Attacks use the scale for the monster's BAB (since there are a ton of fiddly numbers that inflate that too).  Special attacks/abilities could just be the title/name of the ability without the mechanics.  So this way, your players see blank monsters that fill in as they adventure and you still have access to all the numbers you need (at the cost of a bunch of lose papers instead of a neatly-bound book and extra prep time).  You can also make all sorts of variant and custom monsters to mess with you player's heads.  Other passive skills like Profession could be a list of related facts.  So a Profession: Mercernary gets a list of Merc groups in the area, Soldiers get descriptions of the local armies.  Merchants might get a breakdown of what trade goods are most saught after by the neighboring cities (for planning your next trade caravan).  Even Survival could work this way, give the players a crude hand-drawn map of only the biggest things/cities in the area, and give the Survival guy an actual hex map with a few points of interest.
    Some skills are still hard to use even with these modifications.  Craft is always a tough one.  I personally always make at least one crafter, just because I hate random treasure drops and want to be able to get the items my character needs instead of having the gods of the dice drop something too weak or even too powerful.  We had a level 6 group that ended up rolling incredibly well for a staff of healing (of some kind, it did the actual Heal spell), which I felt would imbalance everything so I put it in the closet and forgot about it until level 12 (and we got by fine with potions and the clerics).  Craft lets me get the items I actually want instead of random stuff.  It takes up the focus of a whole character though, and I'm not sure how to make it more generally applicable.  Appraise is another tough one.  I'm sure I could think of lots more, and I'm just using the Pathfinder skill list, other games have way, way more skills to work on.
    Anyways, so this was my idea for how to make skills more useful.  Different systems may or may not be able to modify something like this, games like GURPS are just so dependent on skills you have to use them as-is (though those players most likely have no problems with tons of skill lists, so don't need this either).  More "old-school" D&D-styled games might benefit from this type of system as a middle-ground of player and character skill.  This idea came from several places, and I mentioned Charles Ryan above, but let me throw a few links at you.  First, the Hack & Slash blog is the ultimate source for an in-depth look at skills: the link goes to the last post in a series, which has links to the others.  Ars Ludi has a good post on "Don't Roll, Think" ( ).  And The Dragon's Flagon talks about "Why I Scrapped Skills" ( ).  All of these are great blogs to poke around, if you are a D&D-type player or not (always good to check out other systems IMHO).  As always, feel free to leave a comment below.

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