Thursday, July 30, 2009

Old School Skills

At times I hear the dislike of skills and less commonly the Thieves, a skill based class, among the Old School community. A recent example is a post at Grognardia here.

I understand the sentiment. I played in games where a players looked down a corridor and the exchange went something like this.

John Doe: I look down the corridor
GM: It 40 fee long and othewise empty except for a door at the end
John Doe: I check for traps.
GM: What your find trap skill
John Doe: 40%
GM: You see an outline of a pit trap 20' down the corridor.
John Doe: I walk and and disarm it.
GM: OK you roll this on.
John Doe: I have a 45% chance here. 15!
GM: You wedged the pit trap so it doesn't open.

This exchange is not the style advocated by many Old School fans.

But it is a fallacy that skills are incompatible with the Old School Approach. Even with the Old School approach there come a moment of truth. The moment when you have done all you can and you just have to take a chance. Where a slip of a finger means you die in agony rather than sleep in the lap of luxury.

Most D&D games I been in a DEX roll or other suitable attribute would be called for. With my GURPS Group, we have to describe what we do in detail. Then only at the moment of truth do we get to make that roll. Instead of a saving throw or characteristic roll we roll vs a skill.

The main reason for skills among my group is that we want to fine tune our characters. That we trade off some things to be very good at other things. More than what the coarse numbers of our characteristics and/or level allow. Skills allows us to do that.

In the project I been working on I struggled with this issue. To create some of the classes I wanted to use a skill system. As much as I like GURPS the skill system does increase the time needed to make a character. This lesson was reinforcing during my playing around with Hackmaster Basic (a review will be coming) which has a Skill based system. If I went overboard then I lose the ability of D&D to quickly make a character.

I decided that like Traveller I would rate skill in levels. 0,1,2,3,4,5 and so on. This has the added advantage of being readily used in a idea I have for applying Traveller careers to D&D.

Basic System
In order to succeed on a task you have to roll 3D6. You add your attribute, plus your skill level and any modifiers. If you roll equal to or higher than a 24 you succeed. If you wish to use critical successes and failures then use the following. If you roll a 34 or higher you critically succeed, if you roll a 14 or lower you critically fail.

This system is designed so that an attribute of 10 with a skill level of 4 will succeed 50% of the time on a difficult task.

Using Tasks.
In general the character describes what he wishes to do and the referee decides which tasks roll are needed if any. Task rolls are not meant to replace the player’s description but rather represent the random element. Given enough time a skilled character will succeed at a task. However the heat of combat or potential combat may cause the character to attempt the task as fast as possible. Under pressure attributes and skill have a directly bearing on whether a character succeeds or not.

Legerdemain (DEX)
This aids in performing tasks involving manual dexterity including manipulation of small mechanical objects.

A successful roll will allow a character to pickpocket a mark that is in the midst of a crowd.
A successful roll will allow a character to perform a sleight of hand trick or concealment when you are 5’ feet or more away from an audience
A successful roll at a -4 modifier will allow a character to pickpocket a mark that is alone.
A successful roll at a -4 modifier will allow a character to perform a sleight of hand trick or concealment when you are closer than 5’ feet to an audience.

A successful roll will allow a character to disable a known trap mechanism.
A successful roll will allow a character to pick a lock open with thieves picks.
A successful roll at a -4 modifier will allow a character to pick open a trapped lock or a trapped chest with a lock without triggering the trap mechanism.
A successful roll at a -2 modifier will allow a character to pick a lock open with inadequate tools.
Note: These rolls should only be made after the players adequately describe how he disabling a trap mechanism. The referee should add or subtract modifiers.

Locution (CHA)

A successful roll at a -4 modifier will allow a character to rally a broken unit in mass combat

In the initial round of a combat a character may engage in a repartee with the enemy. The roll is successful will halt everybody in earshot for 1 round that understands the speaker’s language. The enemy may counter with a repartee of their own. It is stressed that character should role-play this before making the roll. A repartee may not be done in if the character is surprised.

In the initial round of combat, a character may attempt a Witticism on a single individual that understand his language. This has a -4 modifier and if successful the character will gain the initiative due the target laughing or being angered. It is stressed that character should role-play this before making the roll. A witticism may not be done in if the character is surprised.

A character may use his Locution skills to haggle a better deal for an individual item based on the Trade Deal Table under accounting.

A successful roll will allow a character to please a crowd with a performance. Use the selling price column of the Trade Deal table to see how much the character earned in tip. Multiply the resulting selling modifier by 1 silver piece time the number of people in his audience. In addition to performance this task can be used by barmaids to solicit tips and beggars.


Timeshadows said...

I am eager to read more of this.

I also find your milestones/benchmarks interesting, and I think I understand why you set them at those values.

Best, :D

Robert Conley said...

GURPS is the skill system I have the most experience with. I didn't want to copy them directly so came up with a method that is mathematically similar.

The process I went through achieved several goals

1) I wanted people to roll high not low.
2) I wanted a Bell Curve not a straight linear roll.
3) I wanted to rate skills in levels for a traveller lifepath idea I have.

DMWieg said...

Yes, do post more. I am constantly searching for a better way to handle skills, though I am close to abandoning them entirely. (Well, just for D&D/AD&D)

For my current AD&D game, I bolted on a modified version of the Hackmaster skill system. However, I find myself fairly dissatisfied with it. I think next time I might just use sort of an "implied skill" mechanic based on character class, liberally stealing from the mechanic used in Castles & Crusades.

Matthew Slepin said...

I think that real issue with Old-School and Skills is whether or not the existence of any particular skill means that a character lacking said skill cannot attempt it.

In the development of D&D, that's essentially what happened. Thieves have a blah-blah chance to hide in shadows. What chance to others have? Nobody knows, there are no rules for that, therefore (so the logic went) no one else can try.

If, on the other hand, skills aren't limited to those possessing them but rather give the possessor a better chance, then what you end up doing is implementing a universal task resolution mechanic. Which some old-schoolers seem to object to for reasons that I can't quite work out entirely.

The biggest legitimate concern here is whether or not the resolution system is totally mechanical or is influenced by player input. The former is entirely antithetical to the old-school approach; but the latter works just fine IMO.

I actually just posted some thoughts about this at the old blog [].

DMWieg said...

@Matthew: Your comments bring to mind a rule from GURPS and In Nomine: defaults

In case anyone isn't familiar with these games, it goes a little something like this: if you don't have a skill, you can roll against a related skill or a stat at a penalty. If you don't know how to pick a lock but you are a mechanical engineer, you can roll that with a -3 or something. (Don't quote me on that actual number; just an example) If you don't have that, it's Dex -5 or something.
Some skills, particularly very esoterica ones like Yin/Yang Medicine, have no default. These are the things you cannot try if you don't know how to do them. I can get behind this in certain cases... in D&D specifically, trying to read a scroll or pick a lock or mix a magic potion.

One quick and dirty solution: let anybody try a thief skill (except maybe pick locks) at half the chance of a thief of equivalent level, and only if they are not wearing armor/gear that would spoil the attempt. (Trying to sneak in plate mail, etc.)

Word verification: cheda- what some people might call you if you try to have your fighter move silently.

Pulp Herb said...

@Matthew: the secret is to view anything not class specific as "what you're good at" not "what you can do". It's a subtle but very real difference.

That's why very generic skill systems for D&D like C&C leave me cold. What is Ulric good at versus Horsa even though they're both fighters.

Robert Conley said...

@Matthew you make good points. I hope I can address some of them.

If you notice all the tasks are roll+attribute+skill level. You can choose to roll them without the required skill. You can even add the character level if you want.

As for being a universal mechanic. Sure it has elements of that. However the reason I created a skill system is not for itself.

I want classes that sacrifice the ability to fight and/or cast magic in favor of doing non-combat activities well.

Most of the skills I created are somewhat basic. The interesting thing comes when they are combined with one of these classes.

Plus I am working on two detailed subsystems that will use skills levels as modifiers.

I will explain this in more detail in a upcoming post.

However I created a skill system