Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Gordian Knot of Old Style Gaming: Skills.

Head, a city on the north coast of Xäl


The Zen of Freight:

As a freight handler, the job I had before returning to the eternal womb of academia, I possessed but one rule: never touch the box. Now, my job was to move boxes from place to place, but my goal was to never ever touch them, ever, ever, ever- impossible, yes, but also sensible.

Every time you move a box, you risk hurting yourself, or damaging the freight. Therefore, you must strive to never touch the box. Every time you are forced to break the rule and touch the box, you must strive to break contact as soon as possible; furthermore, you must engineer things so as you never touch the box again.

I try to approach rules tinkering the same way.

I try never to change the rules, but unfortunately as a referee engaged in the act of bending a game to my world, it’s my job. Therefore, whenever I do touch a rule, or group of rules, I try to minimize my contact, whilst simultaneously achieving my goal.

All that brings us to skills. I do not want to use them; they are fiddly and full of suck, but I want to have a system for overcoming certain kinds of obstacles and executing certain actions. Beyond that, I want a system that recognizes that different characters have different capacities in regards to different activities.

At first glance, that would seem to leave me at an impasse.

However, looking at S&W I see a preexisting mechanic that can be used without changing much of anything at all- the saving throw.

Every character has already has a ST. (See that, I’m not touching the box, and already I’ve gotten somewhere).

What I’m about to say is so simple that I’m (no joke) really not sure if I can express it clearly- let me know, please.

If a character wants to climb a cliff, pick a lock, navigate a ship, figure out how to recharge an energy weapon, or, really, do whatever, they (at the ref's discretion) must make a saving throw. This saving throw may or may not be subject to modification by the referee. This modification may be based on one or at most two, of several factors, including but not limited to- character background, an attribute score, the difficulty of the task, wind speed, relative flatulence, breast size or whatever.

[Note- some tasks (e.g. getting drunk, blowing your nose, walking down the street) are so easy that they should not require a ST- but hopefully you knew that; otherwise, lay off the glue, man; your habit demeans us both.]

Back to the ST.

An example:

After riding all day through the Jungle of Nool, Kronarg The Cannibal comes to a sheer cliff blocking further progress. He decides to climb the cliff and keep going. The referee frowns, ingests some (possibly illegal) chemicals, and considers the factors in play.

Kronarg’s strength is 15; he is a level 4 Fighter, which makes his base saving throw a 13; he grew up in the southern wasteland of Skeeme and never saw a hill until after his 20th birthday.

To determine Kronarg's base modifier, the ref divides his strength by 6 and rounds down (I’m touching the box, now; be cool, it was bound to happen) this gives Kronarg a modifier of +2.

However, it is windy and near dark; furthermore, Kronarg hasn’t had much experience climbing sheer cliffs. The refereee decides it’s a wash and tells the player to make a saving throw with no modifiers. If Kronarg can beat a 13 he climbs the cliff without too much trouble. If he misses the Referee may grant another saving throw (perhaps based on dexterity) for Kronarg to regain his grip, or maybe he just falls and takes some damage- it’s up to the ref.

So, in summary here’s how I roll-

Divide by 6:

Decide which attribute best applies to the situation, divide it by 6, round down. This is the player’s positive mod.

Determine if the task is difficult or easy or whatever:

This is completely up to the referee. It can be a negative mod or a positive or no mod at all.

Keep it at two mods- hell, keep it at one (or none) if you can and it makes sense to you.

Okay, that's pretty much it. This can be used for just about anything the PCs might want to do.

Once more: Pick a stat; divide by six; assign a mod or two; you’re done.

Now at this point, if you’re really drunk (again), you might be thinking: wow- that’s not a bad idea, maybe this Aos guy should make up a table of common modifiers.

Maybe you should put down the wine cooler, step the fuck away from the box, and reconsider for a second, eh, Slappy? First- wine coolers? Really? This isn’t 1988, bud; show some fucking dignity.

Consistency is overrated, and has little or no place in my style of game.

You can never step in the same stream twice; you can never climb the same cliff twice; the wind may be different; the light might be better; you might be climbing below Sursha the Sexy on her “no underwear” day.

The referee should never feel compelled to be consistent in the assignation of modifiers. As I’ve said, the world isn’t consistent; furthermore, codification leads to charts. Even under the best circumstances, if you are looking something up on a chart you are slowing down play. In other words- if you’re creating a new chart, you aren’t just touching the box- you’re making love to it. Sweet, sweet love.

You sick bastard.

Note: Hypocrite that I am, I’ll be touching this box again, anyway, possibly with my tongue, when I make the new character classes.

Note 2: RE: The drawing- I do not like the drawing a the top of the post (for one thing, there isn’t a half dressed girl in it), so I’ll be doing it over when I post the detailed break down of Head, which will happen… someday.

I think next time, though, I’ll be starting on those new classes. First up The Emissary- think Taarna from Heavy Metal.


  1. I dunno, I'm always torn with skill less skills, if you use the Savings throw and a small modifier then it feels like vagreties of Ability scores are meaningless, but strait ability checks don't allow the player to feel like advancing levels even matters to ablitiy.

  2. Well, it's not a perfect system- but I do suggest using ability scores for the basis of one mod.

  3. Savage Swords of Athanor uses this mechanic, if I recall correctly. I think the author advocates the use of the standard S&W ability score mods and doesn't really go into situational modifiers, but all in all, it's the same basic system. I think it'll work out well.

    I personally use d20 + half your level + ability score modifier, against a target of 15 (average) or 20 (difficult). It's slower advancement than the saving throw mechanic, but works well with other D&D-esque systems, so it's easier for me to port from one game system to the next.

    Hope This Helps,

  4. Thanks- It's funny I hadn't seen anyone using it, but I was certain that someone else had thought of something similar.

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  7. Thanks, man.
    I make time for this stuff by neglecting my family and my school work.

  8. I've been going back and forth on the topic of skill resolution, personally. I've come to the conclusion that the question of their inclusion, and level of detail, entirely depends on the participants of the game concerned, and what they feel comfortable with.

    Personally, part of me likes the logic and coherence of a relatively light, but detailed, task resolution system. The other part of me strongly believes, like you do, Aos, that "consistency is [highly] overrated".

    Besides, I feel that S&W is mostly about the player describing to the referee how he attempts to disarm the trap, and not him rolling a die to hand-wave the action.

    I like the Saving Throw as Resolution mechanic. You are one amongst many who went this way with S&W, and it's a winner in actual play. No question about it.

    What I use in game play, as I said, will heavily depends on who I'm playing with. Whatever the players feel most comfortable with. I'd usually approach the conundrum by not using any task resolution system first, and then implementing something more appropriate to the players as their wishes and expectations warrant.

  9. I completely agree- I think I would also limit such use to purely "mechanical" pursuits- like climbing a cliff or picking a lock- and even with these, a savy player could talk me into a heavy mod, or into just letting them do it (e.g. "I fashion a grapnel hook out of arrows and that broken sword I've got, and then I weave a rope out of grass, Tarzan style." Hell if it worked for Tarzan, who the fuck am I to say no?

    And yeah, I know that I'm one of many here- I didn't know it for sure when I wrote this- but I was pretty sure anyway. It's just so simple, I knew somebody else must have come up with it first. Reinventing the wheel is kind of fun sometimes, though.

  10. Complete agreement. Sometimes, the act of trying to find that ingenious design allowing the mechanic to both remain dead simple, intuitive, and yet serve in a wide variety of situations is a rewarding process onto itself.


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