Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Why Skills?

In response to my recent meditation on skills in RPGs (especially in modern and sci-fi settings), Anzon asked the very pertinent question: Why skills? To answer that question I need to quote another question from John 18:38. Prior to sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilot asks Christ, "What is truth?"

In his Gospel, St. John uses a lot of contrasts (Light v. Dark, Life v. Death, the World v. the Kingdom, etc.). This question is no exception. Pilot, representing the non-Christian world view, cannot see the fact that Truth is right in front of him:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life." — John 14:6

In other words, Pilot asks the wrong question. Truth is not a "what." Truth is a "who." While this has a bunch of connotations, I want to concentrate on how this distinction affects the way we understand ourselves.

When truth is a who, we tend to define ourselves by what we do — what Orthodox Christianity sometimes calls praxis. For a practical example, take surnames. Widespread use of surnames did not exist in Europe prior to the mid-to-late medieval ages — a world very much Christian in its world-view. A quick glance at European surnames will reveal a plethora of names that describe what people do for a living: Baker, Cook, Smith, Wright to name just a few.

Beginning in the Late Renaissance, Pilate's version of the question began a comeback in the Western world. Indeed, in our own post-christian world asking the question, "Who is truth?" sounds strange. With this shift, people began to define themselves by what they know, not what they do. As technology got more complicated and essential for daily living, this view of ourselves became normative. College degrees became a basic qualification to get most jobs. Indeed, the types of jobs suggested by the surnames Baker, Cook, Smith, and Wright began to be known as "menial," because they didn't require the type of knowledge necessary to qualify for "better" jobs.

The term "Doctor" is an example of this shift. While colloquially it still refers to a medical doctor, the term isn't exclusive to the medical field. For instance, if I were to continue my education, I could a get Doctorate in Theology. In other words, doctor does not refer to what a person does, but rather what they know.

This distinction also manifests in the mechanics of RPGs. D&D, especially the earlier editions, mechanically reflect the medieval mind quite well. PCs are defined by their Class — what they do. As one moves into games that try to emulate modern and sci-fi genres, the mechanics shift away from Classes to Skills — what a character knows. Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, and the Hero System are examples of games that make this mechanical choice.

Thus, when meditating on how to use the B/X chassis to emulate a sci-fi setting, I am almost compelled to use a skill system of some kind. This is especially true of any setting that is 40k adjacent. The Grimdark is an extreme materialist dystopia where what passes for acceptable religion has its adherents worshiping material things such as the Emperor or the Machine. Factions who acknowledge beings in the Immaterium (aka the Warp) are classified as Chaos and are understood to be among the worst antagonists in a setting that has no real good guys.

If I am to emulate such a setting, I feel that a strictly class-based system doesn't do the setting or the mind-set of those who live in that setting enough justice. Some kind of skill system better represents the presuppositions of a culture that asks Pilate's question, "what is truth?"

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Christ is Risen!


Your resurrection, O Christ our Savior, has illumined the entire earth, and has recalled your creation. O almighty Lord, glory to you. — Aposticha from the Agape Service  

Friday, April 15, 2022

Gamer ADD: A Meditation on Skill Systems

This time of year (Great Lent & Holy Week) are always very busy for me, so I haven't been able to keep up with the various Cruthanarc battle reports or even put miniatures on the table. Thus, my Gamer ADD brain has been contemplating what Cruthanarc might look like if it were a D&D campaign. Of course, my system of choice is B/X because of its flexibility and built-in sci-fi elements; however, sci-fi always seems to imply a need for a skill system in order to emulate all the technology that exists in these kinds settings.

Those familiar with this blog will understand that I am very wary of skill systems because they tend to tell players what they cannot do rather than what they can do. Thus, when meditating on modern and sci-fi settings I have been trying to reconcile the mechanical need with the mechanical drawback of skill systems. 

My recent musings have seized upon an already extant skill within B/X — Open Doors. It is tied to an ability score (STR) and is a simple d6 roll. There are two implications here that I really appreciate about this nascent skill system:

  1. No matter how low an ability score a character has, there is always at least a 1 in 6 chance at success.
  2. There is a benchmark for when a skill check is necessary. If something is not as difficult as opening a heavy locked door, no dice need to be rolled.

There is one more implication here that I can derive from how I handle Opening Doors in my own campaigns. I got sick and tired of seeing players roll d6 after d6 trying to open a door they saw as necessary to their progress in an adventure. Thus, the way I rule the Open Door roll is not to see whether or not the PC can physically open the door, but rather whether they can open the door and still surprise any monsters that are behind that door. Thus, the roll isn't success vs. failure, but rather success without complication vs. success with complication.

Should I ever write out a skill system, I would be sore temped to use the Open Door mechanic as the basis for that system. It does not encourage players to think their character cannot do something, rather it encourages players to think in terms of risk/reward for doing things. "Am I willing to accept complications for trying this?"

Regardless, here is some advice I have for Referees/GMs/DMs/etc. on how to use skill systems:

Before asking a player to roll the dice, go through the following steps:

  1. If you are unwilling to accept the consequences of a bad roll, don't have the player roll any dice. Rather, simply arbitrate an outcome that you see as fair.
  2. If the task at hand is easier than opening a heavy locked door, simply rule that the PC automatically succeeds.
  3. If the task at hand is necessary for the PCs progress in their chosen adventure, the roll should not be success vs. failure. Rather, it should be success without complications vs. success with complications.

Are there any ways that you arbitrate skill systems that encourage players to experiment and try things rather than seeing skills as a barrier that tells them what they cannot do?