Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Playing with Skills

I’ve got my character classes for my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack nailed down. Assuming I leave out the halflings, that leaves me with: fighters, magic-users, clerics, rogues, elves, dwarves, and gnomes. Maybe someday I’ll throw in some half-orcs or half-ogres, but for now that looks like a solid foundation I can build on.

The next topic I want to tackle is skills.

And I got nothin’.

Ok, that’s not entirely true. I’ve actually got too much.

Through most of Moldvay/Cook, if you want to try something, you roll a d6. A 1 almost always succeeds, and a 6 almost always fails. Sometimes, you can get bonuses. For instance, an elf succeeds at finding a secret door on a 1 or 2, while forcing a stuck door is adjusted by Strength.

It’s not very granular, but this system clearly works and can be adapted to anything. And, with the standard stat bonuses listed in the book, your character’s stats can be used to adjudicate anything from swinging from a chandelier to unscrambling the Dark Lord’s cipher.

It’s got two issues, though. First if we assume a 6 always fails, that means failure is pretty common. Clearly, this system was devised to handle tasks of extreme difficulty, things even heroes are not likely to succeed at.

Second, it ignores a character’s level. You never get better at these things no matter what level you rise to. On the one hand, this is very fitting for Moldvay/Cook/LL, since level has a very minimal effect on your character, especially in comparison with other iterations of D&D. And that does keep your character from becoming insanely good at everything. (I was going to say, “does keep your character from becoming a superhero”, but in Moldvay/Cook, a superhero is an eighth-level fighter. ;) )

In some areas, percentages are used, but these are extremely rare. We see them, most famously, in thief abilities. We also see them in the chance of others to detect a hiding halfling. These are a lot more granular, but where we see them, they don’t reference stats at all, and outside of the thief’s abilities, don’t apply levels either.

Finally, there’s the roll-under-a-stat method on a d20. It’s actually called saving-vs-abilities in the back of the Expert book, and suggests modifiers up of to + or – 4 for situation with 1 always succeeding and 20 always failing.

I’m tempted to modify that one with my favorite probability tool, the bell curve. A simple task would require a roll of a single d10; anyone but those of sub-par ability should expect to succeed. A challenging task would require rolling a 2d10. Success would be common, but not guaranteed. A difficult task would be 3d10 while a daunting task would be 4d10. With such a range of possibilities, maybe I could add your character’s level to their stat to get our roll-under target? Eh, probably not; things would get really crazy as characters approached 10th level and beyond.

That last method is still my favorite, but the d6 method is already such a strong part of the D&D DNA that it’s got a lot of tradition on its side.

And then there’s how skills are acquired. One thing that constantly bugs me about most point-buy systems is how impossible it is to make a reasonably competent character. At 16 I could fire a muzzle loader (though with admittedly questionable accuracy), swim, drive a car, pilot a motorboat, program in BASIC and PASCAL, tie any number of knots, read a map, use a compass, calculate the volume of all sorts of shapes, balance a checkbook, read the stock pages, lead certain liturgical rites of the Episcopal Church, build a working radio from a kit, change the oil in a car, identify edible plants, light a fire with a single match, find a half-dozen constellations in the night sky…

Yeah, ok, you get the point. You probably had a large number of skills you could rely on as well. In our games, however, you had to be at least 3rd level or somesuch to come even close to something like that. It’s unusual to find a 3e D&D character who can swim at any level. This sort of thing is silly.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was playing Moldvay/Cook (I think, though it might have started after we added in the 1e AD&D PHB to our Moldvay/Cook games) we added backgrounds to our characters. This started with the title for 1st level fighters: the veteran. That implied that the veteran had been in a war. Which war? What did our veteran learn? Where were his war buddies?

So we added one line (sometimes one word) histories to our characters. Our veteran had fought in the Goblin Wars. Or maybe the Sorcerer Wars. Our thief had been a pick-pocket urchin. Or a pirate. That sort of thing. These dictated what sort of skills your character could draw on. The veteran of the Goblin Wars might be able to speak goblin, or recognize different tribes by their ornaments. The ex-pirate knew how to handle sailing ships, how to navigate by the sun and stars, and how to tie knots.

Now, we didn’t worry about rolling dice back then. Either your character knew how to do something or didn’t, and if you could convince the DM that it made sense for your character to be conversant in elvish wines or ancient theology, you would be successful in whatever you attempted with those skills.

For the most part, I want to add that to my Moldvay/Cook/LL hack. In most situations, having the skill will give you success. Only in unusual or extreme circumstances should you need to roll. And instead of picking skills individually, you instead describe your character’s background and that dictates what sorts of things your character is skillful at.

I want to add a bit more structure to it this time, however. I’m dividing a character’s youth into stages. First is childhood, which in humans covers birth to seven years old. Childhood is when you learn your first language(s) and the culture of your family and surroundings. The next stage, which I’m calling youth, begins at seven and ends around 14 or 16. This is when you begin to enter the adult world. Urban children would be sent to apprenticeships, noble children would be fostered as pages or ladies-in-waiting to other noble families, and peasant children would join their parents in the fields or among the livestock. This would cover basic education. Adolescence refines these skills. Pages become squires, apprentices become journeymen, peasants might become husbands and wives and parents, with their own fields and flocks.

Describing ever so briefly what your character was doing during these three stages towards adulthood, not more than a single sentence for each, dictates what sort of skills your character has outside of their class abilities. So if your knight (fighter class) was squired to a northern noble, he would know the courtly etiquette from that part of the world, as well as the heraldry of the noble families up there. Your bandit from the Eastern Steppes would know all about horses, the spice trade and how to appraise silks. And yes, your former street urchin probably knows how to pick a pocket and fence the goods.

So, here’s where I am: I have a nicely vague system for figuring out what skills the PCs have. But I’m not certain how I want to adjudicate uncertainty in the use of those skills. Or, to put it simply, how should we roll for success or failure?

Also, should spending more or less time in a “profession” have an affect on skill use? Should spending both your youth and adolescence as a street urchin improve your skills as a pick-pocket? What about older characters? Should there be a penalty for starting a PC at 28 or 35 years old, to counter the greater or broader skill mastery? Exactly how important do I want such skills to be in my campaigns?

I’m not certain yet. Right now, I’m leaning towards rolling d10’s and succeeding if you roll under the appropriate stat +1 per life period spent honing that skill. But I’m not in love with that yet, and it’d be just as easy to apply that +1 to the d6 method.

I’m going to roll this around in my head and search the chat boards to see what others have done.

11 comments:

Sham aka Dave said...

This is a great article, Brian. There's a lot to comment on here, and plenty of questions are posed.

if you want to try something, you roll a d6. A 1 almost always succeeds, and a 6 almost always fails.

That's how I resolve mundane tasks, and for me, a 6 is always failure (otherwise why roll).


works and can be adapted to anything.

Pretty much, except once you enter the realm of 'knowledge'.


it ignores a character’s level.

One of the keys to mundane tasks and knowledge.


A simple task would require a roll of a single d10; anyone but those of sub-par ability should expect to succeed. A challenging task would require rolling a 2d10. Success would be common, but not guaranteed. A difficult task would be 3d10 while a daunting task would be 4d10.

So the question is what level of detail and control do you desire for the mundane? Would the mundane continue to use a d6, and when would the more in depth xd10 method come into play?


the d6 method is already such a strong part of the D&D DNA that it’s got a lot of tradition on its side.

Indeed, and it's easy to adjust on the fly.


Either your character knew how to do something or didn’t, and if you could convince the DM that it made sense for your character to be conversant in elvish wines or ancient theology, you would be successful in whatever you attempted with those skills.

Now this is where knowledge takes over versus the mundane. This approach demands some sort of character background, or at the least players must accept that actual play will end up defining that background.


In most situations, having the skill will give you success. Only in unusual or extreme circumstances should you need to roll. And instead of picking skills individually, you instead describe your character’s background and that dictates what sorts of things your character is skillful at.

I like this for knowledge, I'm not sure I'd worry to much about defining actual skills. Perhaps a system that simply relies on that background, and allows the player to explain why or how he might succeed at such a task.


how should we roll for success or failure?

If the GM determines that there is a chance for failure, I use the default method of judging the odds on the fly. I know you're looking to make a more defined system, though.


should spending more or less time in a “profession” have an affect on skill use?

It depends upon which way you decide to go with this.


just as easy to apply that +1 to the d6 method.

It certainly would be. But the dice you use is the important aspect.


OK, so a lot of questions, which I really left unanswered for the most part.

I like your idea of backgrounds, and possibly allowing three schools of knowledge based upon a character's 'previous' life. +1 to the roll for such knowledge seems logical. Up to +3 if that character was very single-minded in the past makes sense too.

I think the best approach is to not get mired in the exercise of defining each and every possible skill or school of knowledge. I'd define the basics; the three stages of background, and how you are going to roll to determine success/failure. This encourages player - GM interaction and role-playing, but, could also lead to needless debates. It depends upon the players.

I need to comment on this more later, as it's a topic I find very interesting!

~Sham

trollsmyth said...

Sham,

Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment.

Yeah, I don't intend on getting bogged down in defining any list of skills or anything. If my players want it to spark ideas, I'll be happy to offer suggestions based on their chosen background, but I want to preserve that fast and loose, tell-me-why-you-know-that style I enjoyed way back when.

The real question for me is the dice. d10's? Or stick with the d6?

If I'm understanding you (and I'm a bit groggy as I write this, so I might not be) you seem to be saying that for everday activities like kicking down doors, finding hidden latches, or negotiating narrow ledges, you'd suggest sticking with the d6. But for checking to see if the PC knows something, like goblin social customs or calculating latitude by the stars, I should maybe use the d10 method?

I could probably go with something like that. After all, a lack of universal system is one of the older versions' charms.

I look forward to reading what else you have to say on this topic.

- Brian

Philotomy said...

Two quick comments:

First, I favor your old approach of class + background as a broad guideline, rather than a more structured approach. That's just me.

Second, for the die, I suggest a d12 rather than a d10, since this would allow easy compatibility and integration with existing d6-based mechanics.

Robert Fisher said...

First if we assume a 6 always fails, that means failure is pretty common. Clearly, this system was devised to handle tasks of extreme difficulty, things even heroes are not likely to succeed at.

Yep. So...

In most situations, having the skill will give you success.

Right. If you rate the chance of failure at less than 1 in 6 for something ad hoc, just let them succeed automatically.

I like “TFT style ability checks”:

Roll ability score or less. The number of dice to roll depends upon the difficulty.

Easy: 2d6
Moderate: 3d6
Hard: 4d6
Very hard: 5d6

(Which is buried among many other options on my classic D&D house rules page.)

It’s fun when the difficulty for a task rises over time. Like when a PC was trying to keep a monster trapped in a coffin they’d poored some oil into and lit. Every few rounds I upped the difficulty as the monster got more and more frantic to escape.

trollsmyth said...

It’s fun when the difficulty for a task rises over time. Like when a PC was trying to keep a monster trapped in a coffin they’d poored some oil into and lit. Every few rounds I upped the difficulty as the monster got more and more frantic to escape.

That is nifty! Ok, gotta incorporate that somehow.

I wonder if it's your escalating d6s that inspired my escalating d10s. Your page and Philotomy's inspired a lot of what I'm doing here. A version of your injury table, for instance, is going to make an appearance when I discuss combat in more detail.

- Brian

Robert Fisher said...

Check out the B4 campaign log and search for “14 August 2006” for that combat.

There was also a pun-filled parody of a Beach Boys song—Catch a Grave—but I didn’t write it down at the time.

As for Nd6, I just stole it from Steve Jackson. (^_^)

Yeah, I was pleased and proud when you referenced the injury table in a previous post. For some reason, while I really like the idea, I didn’t like it at the table. Maybe I’m just a “-10” guy. (^_^) I’m still thinkin’ about that one. I look forward to reading about how it works for you.

trollsmyth said...

Check out the B4 campaign log and search for “14 August 2006” for that combat.

*goes to read it and finds...*

It was a blackened wight.

*facepalms* ;D

- Brian

Brian Murphy said...

Nice work Trollsmyth. While I like all of the older versions of D&D, we all have our favorites, and like you I seem to gravitate towards Moldvay/Cook B/X. Still the cleanest and most elegant presentation of the rules, IMO, and it also possesses some indefinable quality that just makes just me want to play it, more so than any other iteration of the rules.

My one complaint with B/X is that at times it can seem too simple, but you've presented some great, easy-to-implement options here. I'd seriously consider submitting this stuff to the Fight On! folks.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks, Brian. Yeah, I feel the same way exactly about Moldvay/Cook. It's eminently playable, yet in need of personal seasoning to get it just right.

This probably will be offered to the folks at Fight On! when I finally settle down on a final version. I've sent them the maybe-final play version of my shield rules for issue #2.

- Brian

Sham aka Dave said...

Brian, yes sorry I was not more concise earlier, I started copying and pasting, and commenting, and then realized I really needed to get ready for work! ;-)

For mundane tasks, aka standard physical endeavors, I prefer the d6, adjust on the fly approach.

For determing if someone knows how to do something, that's explained or determined by their background (and I like your three stage approach).

For exercising that knowledge, I do like your escalating d10 model. I'd consider just using d6 for this as well. Either way works, and Philotomy's d12 suggestion is also a logical one.

~Sham

trollsmyth said...

Ok, thanks, Sham.

Looking at it, I think I have to decide first what goes into these tests. If it's just straight stat, I need to roll d6s to keep the bell curves in sync. The peak of the curve of 3d6 is 10.5. The peak of 2d10 is 11, which isn't too far off, but the peak of 2d12 is 13, which skews things a bit towards being more difficult. That's fine, however, if I also add in the character's level to the roll.

- Brian