Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Skills in My Game

Over at "The Retired Adventurer" is a wonderful post about character backstory for an OSR type game where the characters explicitly don't have backstory: "The Pack of Lies: Backstory as Equipment and Resource" (with the opening counterpart being a 3.5 game with a great deal of backstory).

The basic idea is that there are several items a character could have in one's inventory that imply backstory (a diary, a published personal memoir, ingredients for s'mores that inspire campfireside stories, or a lucky charm), and that a player-character could invoke one of these items by telling those at the table an anecdote about their backstory (true or not) to justify why they're "Good At ..." something. This trait for being Good At ... lasts for but a session with most of these items/invocations, which is an elegant mechanic for allowing otherwise skill-less OSR characters to take on some kind of mechanical skill while still keeping their character sheets and home rules uncluttered with miscellaneous entries.

I'm tempted to nab this idea entirely for use in my games (especially the 5e Jungles of Chult game, given that 5e explicitly includes a random table of weird charms/things a character can start with--a perfect random lucky charm table).

Still, I'll have to think it over; my game already has a homebrewed rule for character "skills" and their acquisition. It was formed in the rough-hewn origins when I was trying to navigate the space between player skills and game mechanics ... especially for certain situations that would have used an opposed roll in 3.5, which we were used to, but which I didn't want to fall back to.

For example, say the party has captured an orc and want to tie him up securely (while I, nefarious referee, planned secretly for the orc to attempt escape to warn his fellows deeper in the dungeon). In 3e I would have asked for a Use Rope skill from the players, and compared their roll against the orc's Escape Artist roll; but this is B/X! I don't want to have to enumerate all the potential skills and have players select from among them, that would defeat the purpose of playing B/X to escape the rules. Still, I wanted a means of random adjudication ...

So the new skill rule was instituted. "We tie up the orc!" the players say. "Roll a d6," I answer. "On a 1, your character is skilled with ropes, the orc is firmly secured, and you can note your skill with ropes on your character sheet. In the future, you may invoke that note for any plan involving ropes, and I'll give you better odds for it working or just adjudicate success."

This followed from two sources, 1) Jeff Rients' general rule that any action may be attempted with a roll of a d6, with a 1 being definite success and a 6 being definite failure (and with further gradations according to referee consideration); and 2) adapted from the 1e Dungeon Master's Guide page 60, "LISTENING AT DOORS ... Keen-eared individuals will gain a bonus [to their "hear-noise" roll] ... Use the chance of hearing a noise to determine if a character is keen-eared the first time he or she listens at a door, and if it is indicated, tell the player to note the fact for his or her character. ..." (modified to use the B/X rules rather than 1e, so a keen-eared demi-human "hears-noise" on a 1-3 on a d6 rather than a 1-2, while a keen-eared human "hears" on a 1-2 rather than a 1)

At any time in the game, a player may ask if they can invoke a kind of "skill" regarding a task or plan in which they're engaged. On a 1 on the die, they may note that their character is skilled in whatever task it was. This has resulted in some great "skills"--a friend of mine has a fighting-man who is an Art Critic, who can judge the value of obscure art; another has a character who is a Religious Scholar, who can identify various details about obscure cults, their symbols, and theological minutiae. There are, of course, a number of characters who are skilled rope-users, appraisers of treasure, or other more usefully banal skills, but the openness of the rule allows for surprising and strange skill-sets that make a character just that much richer.

I don't have a hard limit on the number of "skills" a character can have noted on their sheet, but three seems like a good boundary beyond which something more would be required than just a d6 roll (like maybe going to a sage/expert and paying them to teach you over the course of several months/years ...). Plus, the rule doesn't usually get invoked often enough for characters in my game to have more than one or two skills yet.

As a final note, a further de facto rule that has arisen is that characters don't roll for the same skill twice ... except I don't have players note that on their character sheet because I've never actually ruled against it. Players just assume that they can't and leave it at that. I mean, I probably would rule that within a single session, only one roll per "skill" would be allowed, but other than that I'm open. Maybe the character learned it during downtime?

Well, those are my rules for "skills". I really do like the item => background => "good at" idea, though, so I'm considering adding it to my repertoire of home rules. Maybe even just as an alternative to my own skills-rule.

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