RPG Design – Skill Systems

   Pretty much every game has a skill system. A few games are built around them. Oddly enough, however, most skill systems get tossed in more-or-less as an afterthought. After all, skills are a familiar part of real life – and most game designers never really settle down and categorize and sort out the possibilities first. They simply throw in a selection of the skills they feel are important for their setting and have done.

   That’s the major reason why skills never seem to work quite right in most games. Ergo, I’m going to break things down a bit. Into five basic categories in fact, starting with…

   Skill Breadth:

   First up: How broad are your skills going to be?

   Some games use very broad skills indeed. For example, TORG uses skills like “Air Vehicles” – a skill that lets the user pilot everything from hot air balloons through biplanes, fighter jets, and space shuttles.

   Other games use very specific skills. For example, Ysgarth uses skills like “Net Weaving” (as opposed to other kinds of weaving, or other tasks involving tying knots in string) and “Clamming” (the specific skill of digging clams, mussels, and other shellfish from beds in ocean shallows).

   Most games try to hit a happy medium, using skills which are narrow enough to be believable, yet broad enough to be used fairly often.

   To establish some upper limits for this, lets consider one of the most common types of skills to find in a game system – perception skills.

   Now, “Perception” is probably too broad; unless the game already has specific ratings for the acuity of various senses (and some do), the skill is rating a combination of how good your senses are, how quickly you can interpret the incoming data, and how well you interpret the information you get. If you only have a “Perception” score, how do you represent such common situations as a nearsighted man with good hearing or a person with a poor sense of smell but good eyesight?

   It’s easy to go too far the other way too. I could easily break up Perception/Hearing into the ability to evaluate tones (“Perfect Pitch”), sensitivity, the ability to pick out individual voices in a crowd, a skill in locating things by the sounds they make, and a dozen other specific applications – but this will rapidly become a bookkeeping nightmare and it’s likely that quite a lot of those skills will never actually be used.

   Ergo, our “Perception” skill category is probably going to want to contain four major skills for most games: Perception/Sight, Perception/Hearing, Perception/Touch, and Perception/Scent and Taste (since they are very closely linked). Most characters probably won’t have magical or exotic senses such as the ability to sense magnetic fields, but if any do those should be separate skills as well.

   Since we have some reasonably-natural divisions here, we’ve got a base; each skill should be about as broadly applicable as our perception subdivisions.

   There are two major ways of handing this.

   First up is simply making sure that all the skills used in your game are roughly equal in terms of breadth. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to keep this realistic. You either wind up with a horde of very narrow skills or you wind up bundling loosely-related narrow skills together – for example, putting code-breaking, speaking foreign languages, forging documents, and deciphering cryptic documents, all into a “Linguistics” skill – and thus announcing that, in your world, characters can’t learn to speak Spanish without also learning to forge drivers licenses and other documents.

   Secondly, you can make broader skills more “expensive” – requiring a greater investment of character-building resources to excel in – than narrower skills, either by offering bonuses to those who invest their resources in narrower skills or by making them literally cheaper. This is probably the best available solution.

   A lot of games haven’t done very well here. For example, 3.5 d20 has the skills “Use Rope” and “Knowledge/History” available at the same cost. Now, there are indeed a lot of different knots to tie, and there’s the knowledge of how to splice rope, tie up people and animals, run pulleys, rig for descending a rock face, and how to properly strangle or hang people – but honestly, you can probably get pretty good with using rope and doing most of those things in a few months. You can study history for multiple lifetimes, and still not have even touched on many parts of the field.

   Skill Applicability:

   Next up is something that varies greatly from campaign to campaign – applicability. Take, for example, a scientific skill – knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Now, in a 1920’s Chicago gangsters game, that skill is going to have pretty limited applicability. Maybe you can use it to get in to talk to a few academics, get a job as a museum guide, or drone on at parties, but that’s going to be about it. It’s quite likely that you’ll never actually need to make a roll using it.

   In a game where the characters are time-travelers stranded in that general period, are exploring a “lost world” environment full of dinosaurs, or are visiting some alien planet or dimension inexplicably populated by creatures of those epochs, such a skill will be utterly vital, and will doubtless be used many times each session.

   It’s quite broad – after all, it covers the entire earth over a period of more than one hundred and sixty million years – but its only really useful in specialized settings and circumstances.

   No matter what the game system, if it bothers with skills at all, they’re always a limited resource. Players may be willing to spend a small portion of their budget on “flavor”, but there are definite limits to that. Few players are willing to place their character at a serious disadvantage because the concept calls for expertise in areas that aren’t commonly used in the campaign, no matter how neat the character concept is.

   There are ways around that. The old rule-of-thumb that “if the player expended character-building resources on something, they must be interested in it and want to find it in the game; either oblige them by finding ways to bring it up and to make it important or allow them to stretch the rules to make it useful” works nicely, but it’s a clumsy rules hack and a nuisance for the game master. You shouldn’t have to stretch the rules and bend over backwards to make the game system work properly; it should be well-written in the first place.

   There’s really no choice here; in such situations game systems have to be a bit unrealistic in order to work well.

   The two basic solutions are (1) giving each character a separate pool of character-building resources to spend on relatively useless background abilities and (2) rating the skills in your system according to how useful they are in your setting and varying the prices for them accordingly. The “separate pool” solution is generally easiest, but tends to lead to characters with randomly tacked-on background specialities when their character concept doesn’t call for any and doesn’t account for variations between skills that are useful in the setting. Ergo, variable prices seem to be in order.

   Skill Interactions:

   Next up is how a game system handles skill interactions. In reality, skills tend to overlap and to compliment each other. Skill with a longsword isn’t the same as skill with a cutlass – but an expert with a longsword won’t be entirely out of his or her element with almost any kind of one-handed sword. More technically, a good knowledge of radio systems is helpful in troubleshooting DSL and cable-modem systems, despite the fact that – on the surface – they’re entirely different fields of study. Of course, accounting for this kind of thing once again adds bookkeeping.

   Some systems, like Champions or Legend of the Five Rings, keep skills entirely independent. This is quick and simple, if a bit unrealistic. Of course, Champions, as a super-hero system, often uses some pretty broad skills. In Champions you can simply buy “Engineering”… Oh, if only it was really so easy.

   Ysgarth uses a complicated system of skill hierarchies and contributions. Each rank of a skill a character purchases contributes towards the purchase of several other related skills. Characters can also buy ranks in entire skill groups, which contribute a small amount towards each skill in the group but which are never used directly. A wide variety of racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as natural aptitudes, vary the cost of each skill. This is very realistic – but it’s also a bookkeeping nightmare.

   Some systems, such as Shadowrun (in at least some editions), allow the use of complimentary skills; a character can make a roll with a skill that’s related to the task to try and get bonuses on the roll with the primary skill for the task. That’s nicely flexible, but requires asking for game master approval each time and for two rolls each time. That’s a bother. There are ways to simplify it, but they pretty much amount to simply giving the characters an automatic bonus on their primary skills.

   Other systems, like d20 Modern, allow a related skill – if at a decent rating – to provide a modest bonus on a skill check. This cuts out the roll, but still involves asking for game master approval each time you want to use a skill. Still a bother.

   The basic 3.5 d20 rules use a list system; particular skills at a decent rating add bonuses to other skills. That doesn’t require any decisions, and can be handled with a simple notation on the character sheet – but it leaves many potential interactions unaccounted for and is a considerable bother every time you add a new skill to the system. What contributes to it? What does it contribute to?

   For realism, it’s a good idea to allow some sort of skill contribution. For ease of use, it should be a preset static bonus. To keep such contributions under control, such bonuses should be small, narrower skills should not be allowed to contribute to broader ones, and only a limited number of skills should be allowed to provide bonuses to any one other skill.

   Skill Acquisition:

   This brings us to actually acquiring skills. Once again, there are only a few major options.

   Like it or not, skills in a game always come in discrete levels or ranks. At the crudest end you have Skilled/Unskilled (you either have a particular skill or ability or you don’t) – an option often used to handle items such as languages. At the high end you have percentage-based systems with many fine graduations of skill. There really isn’t a way to avoid assigning a value of some sort to a skill though; you have to put some sort of rating on your character sheets if you’re going to have a skill system at all.

   Learning by Doing is typical of games such as older-edition Runequest and is an option in World Tree and other games. If you use a skill, you get some credit towards improving it. In some systems you have to have used it successfully, in others you get credit (if usually less credit) for simply trying. Classically, as in Runequest, the better you were with a skill already, the harder it was to improve.

   On the plus side, this is very realistic. On the minus side, it tends to make the characters look a lot alike after awhile – after all, they’ll all get experience in common tasks pretty much every session – and it leads to odd attempts to make sure that every skill gets at least some use, such as trading out weapons during a fight. It also tends to be slow and means that – even if a player is interested in a particular skill – he or she will only get to develop the ones that the game master tends to call for.

   Learning by Training is also very realistic, at least up until the point where the character is a world-class expert and no one else should have much to teach him or her. Unfortunately, it’s awkward to include in a game. If it isn’t very effective, there’s no point in bothering with the bookkeeping. If it is effective, you’ll find characters attempting to fill every bit of downtime with training opportunities – and when you say something like “after a three-week voyage”, you may suddenly find the characters fluent in the local language or otherwise drastically changed. It’s not especially realistic, but it’s usually best to restrict learning by training to childhood, to unusual situations, and to either acquiring basic skills only or to a limited post-childhood lifetime allowance.

   Finally, of course, we have the Abstract Learning systems, such as Palladium, Champions, and 3.0/3.5 Dungeons and Dragons, where characters gain more or less abstract “experience points” and either improve when they hit particular thresholds or simply invest their points in the abilities they want directly. This is quick and easy, since it involves only one – or, at most, a few – numbers to keep track of. It ties character advancement to actually doing things, but avoids the pitfalls of tying improving specific skills to particular activities. On the other hand, it avoids the realism of it too; you beat up a dozen monsters, and now you can learn to speak a new language. There’s often an attempt to apply a gloss of “realism” to this by adding “training requirements” to realize the benefits you’ve earned by gaining levels, spending karma, or whatever system is in use for advancing characters based on their adventures – but it’s a gloss only. If it was the training which was important, what did you need the levels, karma, or whatever-the-system uses for in the first place?

   Each of those options has two further subdivisions.

   Skill advancement can be linear – making it no easier to go from “completely untrained” or “rank zero” to “rank one” (whatever that means in the system), than to go from “rank three” to “rank four”, or – for that matter – from “rank twenty” to “rank twenty-one”. This is easy and scales well with systems that feature a linear or semi-linear increase in character power or which allow superhuman levels of skill to be achieved with relative ease – which is why so many games, including d20 systems, use some version of this system. It is, however, pretty unrealistic unless we assume that the underlying scale is non-linear. After all, you can pick up a lot of the basics of painting in a week or two. Does that mean that a year will make you Michelangelo? Presuming that “skill one” represents a major increase over “skill zero” and that “skill nineteen” represents only a tiny step over “skill eighteen” fixes that – but it’s not how most games portray actually using skills. In fact, it’s very difficult to come up with a system that actually works that way without some fairly complex math as long as you’re using dice in any form.

   Non-linear skill advancement is found in World Tree and the various White Wolf products. It’s also simple enough; each skill increment beyond the first is progressively more difficult to obtain. This is nice and realistic – but really tends to encourage generalists. Lets see now… I can either advance one skill from level 12 to level 13, going from “awesome expert” to “slightly more awesome expert” or I can pick up a dozen or so skills at level one, going from “incompetent idiot” to “tolerably effective”. Not an especially hard choice. Even if the system provides greater rewards for specialists, flexibility is it’s own reward. It works better when the skills provide actual powers though; when the difference between levels eleven and twelve is the difference between telekinetic force-bolts and telekinetic force-storms, getting to higher levels is a bit more tempting than if it’s only the difference between “he has an 8 in 20 chance to spot me” and “he has a 7 in 20 chance to spot me”.

   The best choice from among those two options depends on your games style. Non-linear skill advancement is best if the characters are supposed to stay fairly close to their baselines and not turn into hyper-specialized superheroes. On the other hand, it can make it near-impossible to do anything really spectacular. If you want the characters to develop a lot over time and to eventually be able to become epic heroes and reliably pull off spectacular stunts, you’ll want linear advancement.

   Learning-by-doing works best with a non-linear advancement scheme and in realistic systems, where characters don’t become superhumanly skilled or tough. Chaosium’s old Basic Role Playing system demonstrated this approach neatly; the characters might become really good at attacking, defending, and parrying, but there was always a chance that an opponent – no matter how inferior – would roll well, the character would hit that 5% automatic failure percentage, and he or she would wind up abruptly dead. Characters became highly skilled, but never truly superhuman.

   Learning-by-Training works well if you use a lengthy time requirement, expect the characters to be fairly static, and make improving a skill a fairly big deal. Many games assume that characters underwent lengthy periods of training before they actually began their adventures, but that they improve by some other method later on – making Learning-by-Training a flavor text point than something that actually occurs much in the game. Classic Traveler worked this way; once you had determined a characters skills and attributes – picking up 1-4 +1 bonuses during each four year term of pre-game service – they generally didn’t change much. It was possible to undertake training programs, but you could only undertake one at a time, you had to make a check to see if the character could stick with the training, each required four years to gain a +1 rank in each of two skills – and you had to successfully repeat the training program to make such increases permanent. Of course, in a 2d6 system, a +1 was fairly important – but your starting character would probably still be quite recognizable when he or she retired.

   Abstract Learning works well in games where the stress is on relatively rapidly-paced adventures, where a lot of background activity is simply assumed, and where characters are free to develop their own talents and abilities regardless of the details of their current adventures. Of course, it also breaks the connection between acquiring skills and actual experience and training and turns “Experience Points” (or Legend of the Five Rings “Karma” or Godlike’s “Will” or whatever) into a supernatural force that accumulates in adventurers until it’s expended on specific upgrades or hits a critical point and transforms them (raising their “level”). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s no reason why the reality of a game world has to conform to expectations based on how things work in our reality – but it’s always worth mentioning it in your rules system. Otherwise it leads to a lot of arguments over what such bonuses represent and how they work.

   Now that “experience as a mystical force” idea is very handy if you want to allow the characters to become inhumanly durable and to gain powerful supernormal abilities over the duration of their careers. What makes them different? What allows them to do things that no starting character – no matter how well trained – could ever match? What allows them to withstand massive amounts of injury? Why their accumulated “Experience” (or “Essence” or “Might” or whatever) of course!

   Skill Usage:

   Now that we’ve had a look at the breath, applicability, and acquisition of skills, it’s time to have a look at how they’re actually used.

   Using skills in a game normally involves rolling some dice. Whether skills add to the number of dice rolled, determine the number of dice rolled, or are added to the number rolled really isn’t important. What is important is something pretty fundamental about dice.

   One die generally produces a linear result – equal probabilities of each face. Outside of a few special dice, that usually means equal chances of each result.

   Multiple dice produce results on what’s known as a bell curve. It can be distorted by picking some dice and leaving others and by various modifiers – but the results towards the center of the bell curve are distinctly more probable than the extremes.

   Like it or not, reality runs on bell curves. A few people are very tall and a few people are very short, but most people’s heights cluster around the average. The same thing applies to an immense number of other qualities and abilities – including skills. A good cobbler doesn’t turn out his best work, his worst work, and every graduation in between with equal probability. Once in a while they may turn out a bad set of shoes, and once in awhile an exceptionally comfortable set – but the vast majority of his shoes will turn out to be about average.

   That doesn’t really work for combat, or dodging spells, or similar situations. In combat you’re dealing with active and unpredictable opposition, are subject to many random factors, and are working in a great hurry – so luck plays a much greater role. A linear distribution works just fine in combat – and, since many rolls are made in the typical fight, a single-die system will usually be much quicker and easier to deal with in play and to estimate odds on during system design.

   That is why many games use two or more differing mechanics – one for combat and one or more for other situations. Despite the craze for “unified mechanics” or “core game engines”, using the same engine for two radically different activities makes exactly the same amount of sense as trying use the same engine that powers a fighter jet to power a moped. Mechanics shouldn’t be unnecessarily multiplied – but expecting the players to remember two, or perhaps even three, different types of rolls really isn’t really asking very much of them.

   Ergo, when you’re designing a game, most skill uses should be rolled with two or more dice.

   Skills can have other benefits. Some of the most common variants here include:

   Skills provide special bonuses at various levels – most commonly a small bonus on related rolls or game values, but daily rerolls, free specialities, increased effects, incomes, being able to stretch supplies or survive without them, making higher-order benefits available, and similar effects are all possible, as can be seen in Rifts and other games. How far you go with this depends on how complicated you want to make your skill system. As an example, the skill of “Dark Evocations of Markavar” may consist of little more than special bonuses. “Mountain Climbing” might provide a few special knacks and bonuses elsewhere – but “paper making” probably doesn’t do anything too exotic.

   As a rule, it’s best to keep things relatively simple, and usually best to use some sort of template with an option list, rather than attempting to determine individualized special bonuses for each skill. That kind of system makes it very awkward to add skills later.

   A few other common options also fit in here:

  • Trained versus Untrained skills. In many systems there are things that anyone can try to do and things that can only be attempted by those with the proper training. Anyone can try to tie knots, but attempting to derive the solution to a complex equation will take training – if only to know what the symbols and operations mean. With other skills the difference is not quite so stark, but even minimal training will offer a great advantage. The difference between a few hours of instruction and complete ignorance can be quite dramatic.
  • Some systems – particularly those which include skills with supernatural effects – include various forms of fatigue systems or other limitations on their use. While this can blur the line between skills and powers, it’s really more than reasonable, even with regard to particular skills. After all, after a few hours of proofreading, it’s best to do something else for a time or rest; otherwise you start overlooking things. The same trouble pops up with woodcarving, lockpicking, and many other activities; repetition makes for fatigue, carelessness, and accidents.
  • Doing the same thing, or using the same ability, over and over again also makes for boring play. I’d recommend including some form of “Skill Fatigue” or repetition rule as an option in most skill systems.

   “This is the eighth lock! My fingers are cramping and my hands are shaking! I cannot work like this, I must take a break!”

   Skill Extents:

   The last basic element of a skill system is it’s Extent. How much of the mechanics of the game are based on it?

   At the high end, you can find games where a character sheet consists of nothing but skills – even injuries are simply assessed against the character’s “toughness” skill (or, with less purity, against some form of simple wounds track). Such games may assume that the underlying attributes exist, but are simply reflected in the character’s choice of skills, or they may not even acknowledge the idea. Games like Maelstrom or Fudge really don’t have any kind of independent “attributes”; they simply have phrases that describe a character’s strengths and weaknesses.

   Most games mix basic attributes, skills, and special traits – innate talents and flaws derived from a character’s race, prior experiences, inborn traits, and (possibly) profession. The various White Wolf games, World Tree, Deadlands, and the various d20 systems all do this.

   A few games, such as the Amber Diceless RPG or First Edition D&D really don’t use skills at all, relying entirely on raw attributes – either because skills are difficult to acquire and adjudicate in the game, because it uses a sufficiently diverse set of attributes to not need skills, or because – as in Amber – the raw power of the character’s attributes and powers dwarfs any possible skill.

   Obviously enough, this sort of decision depends on the style of the game and on the breadth of the skills you’re using for it. Is combat entirely based on relatively narrow skills? Be prepared to see a lot of extreme specialists. Very broad skills? Be prepared to have the characters effectively using anything that comes to hand as a weapon. Doesn’t really use skills? You may see warriors stumbling around with no skills at all, or – if they get skills anyway – with completely random skill selections.

   All three of the options here have merits of their own – but it’s worth noting that both skill-only and no-skill games tend to be niche productions. Most gamers find the attribute-skill-traits combination easy to understand, relatively easy to use, and familiar enough to be willing to invest their time in playing yet another variant. Unless you have an idea for carving out a speciality niche of your own, both original games and modified or house-ruled versions of older ones are usually best off sticking with the middle of the road.

   Now that we’ve broken down some skill systems, it’s time to build one back up again – but that can wait for a later post. This one is quite long enough now.

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11 Responses

  1. Very thorough, and a nice gamut of examples. I’m curious, what the purpose of this analysis is… if I were to guess I think you prefer greater detail and realism in your games, but I’m wondering if you’re working on one yourself…

    Also, your point about the Awareness skill being too broad misses one very important aspect which is how Awareness as a skill interacts with a Perception-based Attribute that represents sensory acuity. The reason I mention it, is that if you look at Awareness as simply a reverse means of how easily it is to surprise the character, and a Perception Attribute representing keenness of senses and overall ability to percieve the world around himself. Then it’s not too broad, because the perception attribute can be combined with any ability to notice things pertaining to that ability, and the Awareness skill can be combined with social, or physical reflex based attributes to gauge how quickly the character reacts to new situations.

    • Actually I’ve written a lot of games and published several; this particular article, like most of the others on RPG Design is partly philosophical, partly an aid for other game writers, and partly a source for people who are writing house rules.

      As for an awareness skill being too broad; lets see:

      There isn’t any “Awareness” skill mentioned. From context, you’re probably referring to the section on a speculative “Perception” skill – “a combination of how good your senses are, how quickly you can interpret the incoming data, and how well you interpret the information you get” – unless, as noted, “the game already has specific ratings for the acuity of various senses”. Since senses vary, a single skill that represents them all is too broad. One can have excellent hearing, be very alert to sounds, and be very good at interpreting them, and still be nearly blind. A skill that simply represented how good you were at quickly and accurately interpreting the incoming data would not be too broad – but would have to be used in conjunction with ratings for particular senses. An expert in wine-tasting is not necessarily good at picking out ambushes. If a system’s skill-and-attribute combinations can’t properly represent relatively common situations like that, then it has a problem – and it’s easier to narrow skills than it is to multiply special-purpose attributes.

      Now, taking “Awareness” as you’ve defined it, you’ve started out by having it work in conjunction with a “Perception Attribute” or “Reflex Attribute” – already drastically narrowing it in comparison to the speculative “Perception Skill” which needs no attributes.

      I suspect that yours may still be too broad however; a general rating for how easy a character is to surprise doesn’t work very well in exotic situations. If a character has no ability to sense other dimensions, an attack launched from another dimension that doesn’t create warning signs in the dimension the character is in will be a surprise – unless someone else who can detect such attacks warns the character, which has nothing to do with the characters abilties. A character who has such trans-dimensional senses might not be surprised – but the first character might be far more alert to being ambushed in the normal world, as the second one wanders about in his or her half-trance of seeing into other dimensions.

      It may be quite satisfactory in a limited game however; throwing in restrictions on the setting and types of characters can effectively limit skills without even being noticed. You don’t have creatures in alien dimensions with trans-dimensional effects? No creatures with radically different senses? No silicon metabolisms? No light-speed weaponry? Don’t spend much time under zero-gravity conditions? No blind sonar-using flying starfish people from an alien world? There are whole categories of limitations right there. You won’t even need to note that “First Aid” doesn’t apply to rock-creatures, or takes penalties versus starfish-aliens, or can’t do anything for radiation-weapon injuries, because the question will never come up in the first place.

  2. Okay… that’s verbose. I’d continue this conversation but you kinda went off into left field with bizarre hypotheticals and I’m not sure why. Thanks for your time.

    • As far as games go, there are no “bizarre hypotheticals” in those examples: Transdimensional Attacks are available in Champions and are a fairly common feature in several games revolving around psychic powers. Silicon and exotic metabolisms show up in a variety of science-fiction games and were a common feature in the original Star Trek series and the games based on it. The flying starfish-aliens are one of the many playable races in TORG. All of those are classic games, and have been around for many years.

      As for creatures with radically different senses or for whom a single composite rating doesn’t work properly, there are plenty of those in the real world.

  3. Okay… you’re out-wording me which is a feat, but I’m going to try and clarify my statement.

    When I explained the awareness skill perception stat thing I was trying to illustrate a way to have a simple mechanic plausibly cover a broad spectrum of situations, thus eliminating most of the need to delve into awkward measurements of a being’s acuity in the five senses. I only know of one game that measures the capability of multiple senses, and that’s Harn. Admittedly they do a good job, but it’s extremely difficult to model the difference between 15/20 vision and 18/20 vision and then determine how that relates to a character’s reaction to such stimuli.

    Thus my point was to offer a way of keeping things simple that you hadn’t mentioned. I was set aback by your extensive list of exceptions to detectable ways of being surprised because I didn’t think that was in any way part of the point I was trying to make. If I wasn’t clear I apologize.

    • Simplicity is good – but the only reason to have rules and mechanics beyond “you describe what your character is doing; the game master considers the situation and the discription of your character and tells you what happens” like Amber Diceless is to try and model what happens in your setting.
      If there are a lot of situations, both mundane and esoteric, where the mechanic being used for a model doesn’t yield results in accordance with the setting, it’s a poor mechanic.

      In the particular case of “Awareness” as you’ve described it, I provided quite a list of situations of both types where it doesn’t yield results in accordance with setting expectations.

      To fix a mechanic with that problem you can either discard it and create a new mechanic, split it into submechanics, add secondary modifiers (in this case a series of special traits or powers such as “Nearsighted”, “Bloodhound Nose”, and even “Dimensional Awareness” would do), or restrict the cases in which it operates to those that it does handle well.
      In this case, Submechanics would be more specialized skills, as are found in Godlike. Secondary modifiers, as are found in many White Wolf games, are also a common solution. Retricting the mechanic to the situations it models well is very common, but either calls for additional mechanics to cover the situations it didn’t cover well or for restricting the game so that those situations don’t come up – a solution commonly implemented by simply restricting the setting, types of characters, and events of the game.

      Unfortunately, all such fixes have consequences: splitting it into submechanics, adding secondary modifiers, and adding additional mechanics all increase complexity, while restricting the setting, types of characters, and events in the game limits both the players and the game masters.
      Of course, restricting the game doesn’t work with universal or semi-universal systems. It does work pretty well for games with more restricted settings, such as Space 1889, almost every White Wolf game, Asylum, Little Fears, and many others.

      I’m sorry if the list of unusual way so of being surprised was confusing: it was simply that you noted that the “Awareness skill can be combined with social, or physical reflex based attributes to gauge how quickly the character reacts to new situations.” in addition it being used with a perception attribute – and therefore examples of where this would not work properly were in also order. There’s nothing wrong with the good old “currently relevant skill + currently relevant attribute” system – it’s been around for decades, and is used in the Storyteller System, Legend of the Five Rings, World Tree, and many other game systems (and was indeed mentioned under skill usage – where “skills add to the number of dice rolled” is one of the listed options). The dice rolling mechanism, or the number of combinations of skill+attribute available, are not related to whether or not a skill is too broad. It’s too broad if it’s either (a) unbelievable, (b) bundles together unrelated functions that can have differing values, or (c) extends into situations where it fails to simulate the reality of the game universe.

  4. No offense… but aren’t you over-thinking the exceptions thing a little? Of course there will always be exceptions in gameplay that bypass traditional ability use. You use the example of trans-dimensional hopping to bypass the opportunity for an awareness roll to detect the person coming. You say this sort of thing shows the weakness of the mechanic because it doesn’t offer clear directions on how that sort of situation is resolved. So then you get into sub mechanics and revamps and all sorts of crazy complications that are pretty much unnecessary.

    Now I’ve figured out that you’re a really bright guy, and while you don’t know my credentials, I can easily see that you’ve got a lot of experience with this stuff. This is why I’m concerned that I’m misinterpreting your statements, but what you’ve said over your last 3 posts leads me to believe that you advocate revamping a core rule whenever a new exception to it arises. This to me is baffling because that as a solution was antiquated during the 80’s. It’s why I’m concerned I’m misinterpreting because I find it hard to believe that such a bright and knowledgeable game designer would consider such an approach, but you’ve said things in the past 3 posts that I’m interpreting as that so I’m going to go on the assumption of that’s what you mean. Please clarify if I’m wrong.

    So back to my original point. Exceptions are inevitable and easy to solve. You create a clearly defined core mechanic. In my first example it was Perception attribute = general sensory acuity and speed at interpreting external stimuli. And Awareness ability = the ability to notice one’s surroundings and anticipate the relevant effects of those surroundings. This is what most people would call a core foundation rule. It’s kept simple and it’s parameters are well defined. It doesn’t need to be revamped or changed whenever a new effect that bypasses the senses is introduced. It is the rule and *should* be unchanging. The effect that bypasses or negates or lowers the effectiveness of the rule is the exception and the mechanical relevance of that effect in relation to the rule should be explained in the exception’s effects, not be added to the rule to complicate things further.

    Now I’m sure your gears are turning and you’re thinking: “What about exceptions that aren’t listed and clearly defined?”
    There will always be situations where the players want to do something or go somewhere where there are exceptions to the rules that cannot all be clearly documented. Which is why I always advocate STRONG CORE FOUNDATION rules with clear parameters. If a rule is straightforward and concise then it makes it easier for a GM to determine how an undocumented exception will effect it. Revamping a core rule every time a new exception arises makes this exponentially harder. Of course nothing is ever perfect, which is why Tabletop gaming with GM’s who are people who can exercise their own judgment and discretion will always have an edge in versatility to computer games, but good core rules that are kept simple help the GM’s exercise that judgment accordingly.

    • How you label something doesn’t change what it is.

      Every time you introduce an “exception” or a special trait you are narrowing the application of a rule, adding a submechanic, and “revamping a core rule”, whether in a big way or in a small one. Labels like “Core Mechanic” “Exception” “Rule 3.2.c”, or “Modifiers” are just that – labels.

      Invoking the game masters judgement is inevitable, because no set of rules can be detailed enough to cover every situation and still be simple enough in application to be usable. That is, however, only invoking another set of rules – the ones in the game masters head. Those are still rules, although they’re often a set that hasn’t been examined and considered carefully enough to be written down or explained.

      Inevitably, there are multiple degrees of freedom in designing mechanics. The one we’re currently considering his two extremes however. For example:

      Exception-Based Design:
      Core Rule: You have pockets with stuff in them.
      Exceptions: Here is a list of things that you cannot find in your pockets.
      This can work very well. A game about boy scouts exploring a haunted house may simply apply a mechanic such as “roll 8 or under to find any cheap item from the camp store in your pockets and 5 or under if it’s more than five bucks. They don’t sell weapons other than pocket knives or anything the post office wouldn’t ship – like flammable liquids and gases”.
      At it’s best this sort of design is fast, easy, and provides a lot of freedom to the players. Sadly, it will become progressively clumsier, more awkward, filled with unintended interactions, and prone to giving nonsensical results, as the players become more creative and the setting broadens. Will this rule work well for a Klingon landing party? A party of monsters out to destroy Tokyo?

      Specific Rule Design:
      Core Rule: You have pockets which can hold small items.
      Specifics: What have you put into your pockets? Where and how did you get those items? How heavy is all this stuff and will it fit?
      This can also work well – but characters will be more difficult to set up and it can be anoyingly nit-picky about details, such as whether or not a charcter would have remembered to bring a bit of string or a few marbles. It does, however, expand well. More creative players and larger settings will not be a problem.

      In the case of Perception, the two alternatives may look something like this:

      Exception-Based Design:
      Core Rule: A character’s “Perception” attribute determines how aware of his environment he or she is. (In your example, this would often be combined with “Awareness” to determine how quickly the character can evaluate and react to the information that he or she perceives).
      Exceptions: Characters have a modified, or no, effective Perception attribute in these (presumably unusual) cases.
      Like all exception-based rules, this works quite well as long as the exceptions are uncommon. A game about gladiators fighting in an arena in Rome may only need one or two exceptions to cover – say – getting something in a character’s eyes and perhaps something for fighting in the dark or while peering though a restrictive helmet slit. In this case the application of the rule has been narrowed by default.
      If a game happens to involve many different species with differing arrays of senses, commonly involves aspects of the environment that aren’t directly apparent to a given character’s senses, and involves many different environments, the list of exceptions will soon grow unmanageable.
      Just in the real world, I would like to be able to detect radiation levels, gravitational radiation, the presence of a wide variety of toxic chemicals and chemical structures, electromagnetic fields, neutrinos, changes in air pressure, the ground swelling and vibrations which may signal a volcanic eruption, the nutritional content of foods, the presence of various disease-causing organisms, and many other things. They’re all part of my environment, and some of them are vital to my health, so Perception should cover them shouldn’t it? In a post-holocaust setting, many of those things may be very important, and those exceptions will be coming up all the time. In a more fantastic setting there may be hundreds of things beyond a characters normal range of senses and a wide array of unusual senses.

      Specific Rule Design
      Core Rule: Human characters have Sight (the ability to detect and interpret the information carried by visible-frequency photons), Smell and Taste (the ability to detect many bioactive chemicals in inhaled air or ingested materials), Hearing (the ability to detect vibrations in the air over a wide range of frequencies and to interpret the information they carry), and Touch (the ability to detect and interpret pressure, friction, and energy applied to the skin). Unless there is something unusual about a character, these are all presumed to be of roughly average acuity. Senses such as Kinesthesia and Balance exist, but come up so infrequently that we aren’t even going to bother describing them. Most game masters should understand how they work and what they detect anyway, even if they don’t know the correct name for body-position awareness.
      Specifics: Character and species-based modifiers. Temporary and Environmental modifiers. These may either be listed or ajudicated on the fly by the game master according to the general principles involved. New senses can simply be added to the list.

      This approach doesn’t have any exceptions, and will never need any. Since it’s describing how something works, it already covers situations that reduce or increase the amount of information available to be detected (darkness, smoke or mist, lack of air to carry sound, better sound conduction underwater, noseplugs) and effects (toxins, ability to detect a wider range of frequencies, damage to sensory organs, spells, flash grenades, etc) which either enhance or interfere with the characters ability to detect and interpret that information. The game master may consult a “difficulty level” chart, a list of specific values, or just run it on the fly depending on how detailed the Mechanics are – but that’s irrelevant. He or she knows how it works.

      Is it better? It takes longer to set up and more thought from the game master. If the game only covers a limited range of character types, and doesn’t often involve odd situations, it’s more complicated for no benefit. That’s bad game design.
      If a game covers a wide enough range of situations and character types for an exception-based system to become unwieldy, then the specific design is less complicated than an exception-based system – and using an exception-based system would be bad game design.
      Given that it is easier to narrow options than to expand them, most of the general design material I post is designed to cover a very wide range of options – and therefore tends towards Specific Rule Design. That also happens to fit in well with most of my games, which generally allow an extremely broad range of options. For example, the Federation-Apocalypse game allowed and allows “anything ever imagined or which the player can coherently describe in any setting or dimension which can be coherently described” with the provision that the more exotic the physics necessary to support the item or ability described, the narrower the range of dimensions in which it will operate.

      The real “Core Rules” of a game setting are it’s natural laws – it’s physics, it’s chemistry, and how everything in it functions. There are no exceptions to such things. The Mechanics are how the game system represents a characters activities within the natural laws of the setting – and the natural laws of a setting always take precedence. If you want consistent setting and a lot of player freedom (including things like doing research and trying out new species and abilities) you should give some thought to how a setting works before starting in writing the rules for character actions. If the mechanics don’t do a good job of representing the results of the characters actions and their interaction with the setting, then yes, you need to revamp them – either adding submechanics or revising the base mechanics. If you’re writing the game, saying “the game master can handle it” without describing the physics of how the setting operates is failing as a writer.

      If you’re actually advocating “STRONG CORE FOUNDATION rules with clear parameters”, then your games should have a clear set of underlying physics.

      As far as Javascript goes, as far as I know the only Javascript here should be the download box. I’ll check the tech support, but this is a wordpress blog, not something I’m hosting myself, and my control over the anything on the page except the calender, download, and archive widgets is pretty limited.

  5. As a side note… every time I visit your site there’s some sort of javascript that wants to freeze up firefox that I have to choose to abort. You might want to look into it.

  6. Nice. And I agree, strong underlying physics are the cornerstone of a strong core foundation. I’ve always admired Exalted for it’s attention to consistent fundamentals even though they diverge from conventional preconceptions in so many ways. It’s too bad that it’s so much information to assimilate.

    The game I’m working on uses the physics of modern reality as the foundation which makes for interesting difficulties from a design perspective but will hopefully make gameplay easier in the long run.

    And I screwed up on saying it was javascript, the exact error message I get whenever I load any page on your site with firefox is:

    “A script in this movie is causing Adobe Flash Player 10 to run slowly. If it continues to run, your computer may become unresponsive.

    Do you want to abort the script? [Yes] [No]”

    If I don’t abort the script it basically freezes up firefox, I’m running a macbook with OSX 10.5 if that helps.

  7. If you like a well-developed world with consistent natural laws, I’d recommend World Tree as well (there’s a link on the Other Games tab). TORG and Deadlands did pretty well too, although they’re hard to find now.

    I can’t find much on Adobe Flash Player in the support section; I suspect it’s still the Download Box though; that’s about the only thing on the main pages that uses anything more than HTML – unless it’s an ad or something; I wouldn’t see those while I’m logged in here anyway (the price of free hosting I fear). I’ll see about reporting it to technical support.

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