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?



pi4t said...

I've seen another piece of useful advice on this subject:

4. If the action's failure will not have any meaningful consequences, then don't roll any dice. Just assume the character tries a few times and then succeeds.

Note that "you can't try that action again" counts as a meaningful consequence in this context.

This rule 4, together with 1, actually implies rule 3. If the task is necessary for progress, then by rule 1 the consequences of failure should never be "you fail the action irrevocably". If the consequences of failure are just "you didn't manage this time, but you can just try again" then you shouldn't roll at all by rule 4. So the only situation in which rolling should be happening is when there are consequences for failing the roll, but those consequences still involve doing the necessary task.

I've also seen another piece of advice, complementary to rule 2: If you judge a task to be virtually impossible, then don't roll at all, just declare that it fails. A monkey put in front of a typewriter doesn't succeed on writing Shakespeare on his first attempt just because you rolled a 6 on a d6. Perhaps that's fairly obvious to someone who grew up with 0e, but we youngsters sometimes need to be reminded of it!

Anzon said...

Load of good points here. I guess the other question would be, why skills. They mean you need a team of PCs, each one of which is a specialist (pilot, engineer, diplomat), but D&D already has that. Arguably, Kirk is a fighter (with charisma), Spock a MU, and McCoy a cleric; the henchmen handle the ship (treat them as thieves, but fiddle the skills?)

I have spent too long with Traveller, so that doesn't feel right, but it often works out that way.

Anzon said...

Looking up the Open Doors roll took me to
Mechanically I like it, it allows stats to influence the roll, but not more than training. Depending on the level of hardness you want in the game, some tasks might require some training. Yep, in Star Wars anyone can try to make a hyperspace jump, whether they been to pilot school or not, but in Twilight 2000 you need Mechanical Repair to fix that gearbox