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Author Topic: New Design: Skills get tooled up  (Read 576 times)


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New Design: Skills get tooled up
« on: September 28, 2006, 12:39:09 AM »
When discussing skills I find myself supremely bored by the banality of the task. Listing all the various things that people can do in a game and making them into ‘skills’ is boring work.  

The real task is to decide how skills will actually work, both in creation and in play. This isn’t to ignore the importance of providing a good listing, but really your skill list is hardly the heart of the matter.

There has been some question as to what sort of expirence system I plan to use, or what level of ‘game play’ I intend to use as a default.   This is a meta-design question, predicated on existing games and existing systems.  Asking if I will use X or Y eliminates the possibility that I will use 23.

However, understanding the default ‘power level’ is important, and in the skills we truly will establish the degree of competence of the average character.  Working on a default assumption that any given character should be able to act as the stereotypical ‘ship captain’, one who is capable of running any portion of the ship to some degree of competence, I estimated that a character should be at least competent in five skills, or capable of it. Of course, I had already decided that I was going to use a very broad brush for skills, and ignore those skills that are not generally part of adventuring.  As an estimate there are 25-30 skills in total. Upon counting my potential skills I thought I either had too many or two few ‘competent’ skills as a baseline. Of course, given the hard scaling to mastery of a skill I realized that I must have too few.

Recall if you  will that in my system that competency is a Zero Level, the default level of expertise. It is also the very middle step in our five degrees of skill; rated from -2 to +2. Unskilled/Untrained, Novice, Competent, Expert, Master.  

My initial thought was to have a points cost spread of 0, 1, 2, 4, 8. This would perforce mean that to gain mastery of even a single skill would reduce the typical character to bare competence in only one other skill. On the other hand, I don’t want characters running around with multiple masteries (though multiple experts is possibly to be encouraged..) Furthermore, that point spread, while simple, does not allow much room for specialized skills.  As I have pondered my own intentions I have realized that specialization is a core component of the skill system, and it needs to be addressed in the design process.

My intent with Specialized skills is that they would function as the Broad Skill at two levels lower, for slightly more cost. Of course, I also intend to allow for buying up Broad and General skills. If you were competent in Pistols, you would act as unskilled in Guns that were not Pistols. You could buy up Guns at a discount to Novice and Competent, you could buy Guns first and Specialize in Pistols later (buying the additional skill at the Specialized cost, rather than the Broad Cost).

Let us continue with the point spread from before, for specialized skills you would start with competent for a single point (eliminating at this point the idea of a Specialized Novice), Expertise for 2 points and mastery for 4 points. Within a narrow speciality mastery is much more reasonably achievable given our default assumption.

On the other hand I no longer feel I have maintained my core concept of ‘fully functional characters from the start’.  Consider the idea of ‘swat cop’ or ‘Army Ranger’, you have a ‘character’ who will be essentially an expert in Guns Close Combat, and competent in things like ‘stealth’ and Leadership, and a host of other skills. Obviously I am still shorting players on starting skills if I keep to my oringinal idea.  Instead of five ‘competent’ skills, we raise it to eight, thus 16 points, enough to achieve two mastery skills, something I had wanted to avoid (15 points is the quick answer, or raise Mastery’s cost by one).  This allows for a ‘jack of all trades’ type to be competent at most skills, while still allowing for well rounded ‘experts’ and even “masters’’.

To avoid confusion about what I mean by various levels of skills I will explain here:
Unskilled/Untrained: The character has no training or expirence with the skill, or only very minimal. We will assume that heroic characters will be at least capable of performing any task that comes up. Non-Characters (NPC’s) might not be able to perform some tasks at this level of skill.

Novice; The character has a minimal level of expirence or training with the equipment, but not on a regular basis or on a wide scale. Weekend marksmenship classes, basic self defence courses and the like qualify as novice level training.

Competent: The character is not only fully trained but has had numerous chances to apply that training on a regular basis. This is a professional level of skill, and the default assumption of any NPC working in a given field to function at. It is also referred to as Zero Level, as this degree of skill does not alter the dice rolls to perform most tasks.

Expert: The character has a great deal of knowledge in the skill, being recognized by those in his field, and is likely to be called upon to teach or lecture on the skill in question.  Those who work in the same field will acknowledge, typically, the character’s ability as a given.

Mastery: This is the peak of a skill, the true difference between an expert and a master is not one of knowledge, but innovation. An expert Physicist can hold a conversation with Stephen Hawking without being lost, but he still can’t do what Hawking does when he reworks the way we think about the universe. Hawking is, in our model, a Master, an innovator.  Masters are often recognized even by those with absolutely no interest in their career field, and in some cultures can be celebrities.

Now we have to turn to the sciences. It is a given assumption that a broad ‘science’ skill is inappropriate for anything other than operatic stories. Thus we have a skill, or a small group of skills, that virtually require some degree of specialization. This may even be frustrating from a ‘realism’ standpoint when you think that a ‘competent’ scientist has spent years in college, while a ‘competent’ soldier spends six months in training and perhaps a year on the job to reach that category, but as the scientist must specialize in his skill, his is lower point cost.  

I could point out that colleges are hardly the most time efficient teachers, but really, for adventurer types scientific skills are more sidelines than primary. Even in fiction this tends to be true. Consider Doc Savage, or DR. Indiana Jones, both trained scientists of some repute, but far better known for their adventurous exploits, many of which were only loosely related to their academic credentials.

Now, I have previously suggested that having high attributes could give a point’s break to skills related to that attribute, and I still hold that to be a good idea. However, given the points level we are working at, I must conceed that it will not work as conceived. I could, naturally, expand the points cost significantly to allow for more points to be used, and more granularity across the spectrum. However, I would trade away speed and simplicity for a marginal tidbit of utility. In keeping with my original intent, I can compromise and suggest instead bonus points for this attribute category or that. Thus, a discipline of +2 would give 2 bonus skill points for discipline skills (Leadership, for example), thus giving charaters a bit more ‘competence’ than their initial points might suggest.

Now: this later concept adds an interesting shade to character creation. Essentially, we can suggest that a characters attributes are directly the result of things they have learned over their lifetime, you don’t develop your Discipline without at some point studying a skill that requires Discipline. An athletic person naturally will have learned things that directly require his body, a cerebral person would have studied academic skills, even informally.  I could go further, expirement by making attributes directly the result of the skills taken, rather than computed separately. If you have X number of your points in a given category your attribute will be Y.  This eliminates the ‘natural potential’ angle, however, unless we expand this idea into a multi-spectrum concept, that points spent on Qualities in the next chapter also affect starting attributes. We could reduce starting attributes to a bare minium, to suggest natural potentials, then expand them in skills and qualities as well. Of course, these ideas each make the core game more complex, but should not be discarded off hand.  As long as the character creation can be summarized in a page or two (allowing for lists) then we haven’t gone off the deep end...

Skills do not open up options to characters. Recall that we are going to assume that all characters have the potential to pick up a gun and nail that impossible shot, or otherwise discover some aspect of themselves they knew nothing about. They are heroes and can do anything, if not well.  What skills do is give you an Advantage (familiar word that, if you’ve been reading my threads).  The Competent gunman has an advantage over the Novice gunman. The Pistol Specialist has an advantage over the non-specialist gunman. A Pistol Specialist does Not have an advantage over the Rifle Specialist (unless his skill is higher), and in fact at longer ranges gives the rifleman a distinct Advantage over him.

To put it plainly. To comptent people are equal in skill in all ways. They would have to roll off to determine who was better at any given task. A specialist, at least within his field, would be assumed to be better, and rolling would only occur under ‘stress’. Likewise, if our two competent characters had different attributes the higher attribute character again is assumed to succeed more often due to his Advantage.

Let us say Joe and Bob enter a science fair contest. Joe is competent in Science. Bob is competent at Biology. Both are of average intelligence. Now, if the Fair is a Biology Fair, and unimportant to the campaign, Bob wins every time, his greater grasp of Biology gives him the edge, and Joe can only win by forcing a roll (and winning it despite Bob’s Advantage). If the Fair is a general sciences competetion Joe has a more level playing field, but will still be hard pressed to win. If it is a Physics Phair, then Joe will beat Bob every time (as Bob technically is unskilled at Physics at all…). Bob may not even be able to force a roll without resorting to cheating (by, say, hiring a Physist to help him with his project) as he lacks any meaningful knowledge to apply, unlike Joe in the Biology Fair.

Forcing a Roll: Typically characters only roll skills under Stress. Combat, for example, or any contest that is important to the ‘adventure’. If the loser of the science fair was to be sacrificed to the Gods then there would be a roll automatically, it’s a Stressful situation. A player could ask for a roll when they would automatically be assumed to lose, but they must present a case for why, or what they are doing to overcome their disadvantage. In Joe’s case, he might focus on something completely opposite of Biology, and spend extra hours on his project.  If Bob chose to match him (in this case he could only match the hours, not the focus, his is assumed due to specialization) the GM could allow them to roll, understanding that Bob still has a mechanical Advantage he can apply, not that Joe can’t find a way to gain Advantages for himself. The GM is the final arbiter of when to Roll. Typically, if it is a win/lose contest then the Roll is assumed anyway.  If both sides have advantages then a the one with ‘MORE’ is the default winner. (two smart bonuses, or a smart bonus and a skill bonus overwhelm a specialized bonus, for example)

I expect that Forceing a Roll is not a common occurrence. Most skill rolls will be opposed. This may be hard to keep to. How does one roll an opposed check against a balky engine?  The easiest way to describe it is to treat any ‘situation’ much as you would a hostile NPC. This would be far more appropriate for a fantasy game, where you would have spirits in everything, but it can still work.  

Understand that the mechanic can eventually fix the engine some how, even if by fixing we mean ‘pull out and replace entirely’. Therefore there must be some situation that is forcing the roll, some Stress. Impending death (by asteroid impact, pirate fleet incoming, what have you) becomes the opposed party. If the Mechanic wins the roll over the opposition the ship is up and running in time to avoid a certain death, though not necessarily out of hot water yet. The more the mechanic wins by, the easier the Pilot will have it, for example.  The Mechanic will have his Advantages, while the situation will have its. (lack of adequate repair parts, really fast ships, whatever)
Rest assured, I will return to the resolution mechanics at some future point, probably after we have finished exploring character creation.

One last note: Social skills, such as they are, have very limited utility on other characters. Let us suggest that there is a ‘lying’ skill. You could successfully lie all day long to another character. He, according to the rules, will believe your story.  Of course, he doesn’t have to act upon that belief at all. Extending our example out, the character (or even NPC) might be a security guard you are trying to get past, and while he might belive your story, he can not be forced to decide to let you pass.  It is beholden to the Liar to come up with a story that will not only be believable, but also one that reduces the choices of the guard. If the guard was told to let ‘No One Pass but ME’, he might believe that the liar was given permission by the ‘me’ in that statement, but that his instructions still do not allow for the exception.  This is more true of characters than NPC’s, but the GM is understood to have some leaway here. Social skills are not mind control, nor should they be played that way.

Leadership is used to provide advantages to others. Those advantages come from the Leader’s personal pool, and are lost if the receiver chooses to disobey orders. As the Leader is providing the Advantages, he is the one who chooses how to spend them.  If there is no enemy leader opposing, then the Leader rolls a simple competency check (against a 7) for each point spent, failure means that no Advantage was spent (thus is retained).  If there is an opposing Leader, each round they roll against each other, with the winner able to spend a number of points equal to his success that round freely. Note that he must still give the orders and they must still be obeyed.  Leaders with NPC’s they wish to spend points on roll against the NPC’s Discipline (more disciplined NPC’s giving an advantage to the leader, less disciplined giving the advantage to the NPC’s) in an opposed check.  Advantages are given to the appropriate side for communication and teamwork.  Some characters (and NPC’s) might have qualities that make them difficult to lead (like Maverick, or Berserker), though recall that all Qualities are advantageous most of the time.

I’ve said quite a bit, some of it concrete, some of it ‘expirimental’ ideas that I’ve pondered. Feedback, particularly on the more expiremental stuff is greatly appreciated.
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