Saturday, September 7, 2019

RPG Dreamin': Re-thinking 5e Skills

Have you ever had a dream where you are in a game shop and you find a really interesting game that you want to buy but then wake up and realize that the game actually doesn’t exist? I have.

Recently, I had this very vivd dream of seeing a stack of RPG supplements in the form of cheap comic books printed on newspaper quality stock. Each supplement promised invaluable information on how to add various cheesy 80s cartoon characters and worlds to the RPG experience: He-Man, Space Ghost, Thunder the Barbarian, etc. They cost two bucks each and I was really interested. When I found the actual ruleset, it was also a comic book, also two dollars, but someone had ripped pages out of it. Then I woke up.

In my half-awake haze of coming out of a dream state, it occurred to me that what I had dreamt about was not something all that new: Basic Roleplaying, Fudge, and GURPS have gone down this path for decades now. The big difference is that while the main rule-books of these three games are tomes of hundreds of pages, my dream envisioned a comic-book sized rulebook of maybe 32-64 pages. While I don’t think this is practical or even possible, I can’t help but think someone could get close.

Then my hazy brain started to have a conversation with itself that went along these lines:

You know, I just finished up a pretty good game that is under 64 pages…

Yeah, but that’s a fantasy RPG what about modern stuff like guns? Or superhero stuff?

Yeah, a lot of those 80s cartoons were riffs off of superhero concepts.

So, if this comic-book sized game could do superheroes, it could do exactly what you wanted in your dream, right?


So let’s see if the 5e SRD could do superheroes!

Yeah! This could work!

Back when I was playing RPGs with my high school buddies, those words, “This could work” were dreaded words. It meant that our party was about to push the limits of both our characters and the DMs ability to accommodate whatever outlandish idea we had come up with. It either broke the campaign or it was awesome.

So, in order to test these dangerous waters, I decided to start with my least favorite part of any universal system: skills. I dislike them because they are rules-heavy and tend to tell players what they cannot do rather than what they can. Unfortunately, they come with the territory with RPG settings like cyber-punk, space, and even superheroes.

Since I have had the idea of stripping down the SRD to its mechanical core, I remembered something rather interesting about Champions: it has a bunch of skills that are not tied to any ability. In other words, it doesn’t matter how smart, dumb, strong or weak you are, this skill is going to work or not work because of skill. While interesting, this still informs players that they can’t do stuff unless they have that skill on their character sheet. So, what if I took the spirit of this idea — skills are not tied to a specific ability score — and went the opposite direction. What if a player could use any ability score with a skill?

Here is the basic premise: Skills should be cinematic rather than mechanical. In other words, rather than having dice rolling being the primary reason why a character succeeds or not, have the player’s creativity be the primary mover in any given situation. Let me illustrate by taking a few skills from the SRD and applying non-traditional ability scores to them:


Strength: Use the angles of the ceiling to hang from an otherwise impossible place where no one would think to look.

Constitution: Hold really still in a small place until no one is looking.

Intelligence: Analyze the position of the surveillance cameras and/or guards to determine where all the blindspots are.

Wisdom: Read the guards and determine what kind of distraction would create the most confusion.

Charisma: Walk through like I’m supposed to be there.


Strength: Intimidate the librarian until she tells you the information you need.

Constitution: Find a place where people talk and hold-out until I overhear something important.

Dexterity: Climb that tree/lamp post/building that will get me the vantage point to figure out who is in that painting.

Wisdom: Who is the most likely person to know the information I need?

Charisma: Charm the information out of the professor over a coffee.

Not every situation is going to allow for every ability score to be used. I can’t think of a way Wisdom or Charisma could help to climb a sheer wall when running away from some monsters, for example. What I love about this idea, though, is that it gives players the freedom to try. What I also love about this idea is that it frees up the Referee to simply allow the PCs to succeed when they come up with good cinematic ways to use skills, or to levy what they see as reasonable DCs for ideas that are just outside the box.

I will also grant that some of the above descriptions better fit other skills; however, that is an exercise in telling players what they can't do, and that is exactly what I don't want a skill system to do.

Proficiency then, rather than being simply a bonus to a roll, is permission to be truly heroic in the ways that that skill gets used. Think Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day. There is no way anyone should be able to write a virus that crashes the alien’s computer system. Yet, he does and we go along for the ride because it is so much fun.


Scott Anderson said...

Mythical Journeys players book is 62 pages including covers, table of contents and OGL. Totally possible to do.

Michael Bugg said...

Microlite D20, or at least some versions of it, take that approach. IIRC, there are three abilities (Str, Agil, Mind) and 4-5 skills. You simulate a larger skill set by pairing different abilities with different skills, and it's not set in stone which you can use - it depends on what makes sense and/or what you can talk the GM into.

Pulpatooner said...

I assumed this was how skills worked on my first read of 5e. I even played a session or two, this way. It's perfectly workable, but slows the game down, because there's more sheet referencing and adding.

Ifryt said...

Yes, Pulpatooner, you are right. In 5th Edition skills/abilities connection is only default.

Freeing skills from this default slows play a bit (you have to find right numbers and add them), but what I find bigger problem, it leads to players to only use one, their highest ability all the time (if you don't have random abilities, then also players will maximize one ability). For first few times it could be colorful, as FrDave writes, but quite quickly characters become one-trick-ponies, and it would be boring.

FrDave said...

This is where the Referee has to step in. Reward creativity and punish one-trick ponies. If you are creative, you don't even have to roll a die. If you keep using the same trick, enemies catch on and the die roll not only becomes necessary, but harder every time you use it.