Saturday, May 18, 2013

How I run skills in a skill-based game

How I play skills in my GURPS game.

Skill rolls tell you how well your character executes your actions, not what actions your character takes.

The player tells me what the character is doing, the skills and skill rolls tell me how well you do it.

The player announces an action, the character executes it

An action must be a discrete thing you're doing, stated in a way that describes what you do. It can't be a goal or aspiration. It can't be a simple statement of rolls made.

So "I roll Perception!" isn't allowed, any more than "I roll Broadsword!" or "I roll 'to hit'!" - none of those tell me anything about what you are doing. It's not an action, it's a description of the mechanics.

So how to state an action?

"I disarm the trap" or "I look for secret doors" or "I use Physician" are about as valid of an action as "I slay the monster" or "I kill the bad guy" is. That tells me nothing, really, about what you're doing. That's a statement of intent or a goal; a mission statement not a description of how you're getting there. This is especially true in GURPS, in my games, where "I slay the monster" doesn't tell me what weapon, what hit location, what attack mode (thrusting? swinging? Swinging the head or the peen? Doing something else?), and any other positioning, movement, or options you're taking.

"I step up and swing at the guy in front of me, at his neck" is better. Same with "I'm trying to bend back or otherwise break the poison needle in the lock" or "I tap along the walls to hear if they sound thinner in one spot" or "I'll bandages up his arm wound with my Physician skill and try to clean it out." Even something basics like "I look at the ceiling" is okay. All of those can end with "and I have a XX in skill Y." The mechanics come in once I know what you're doing. They'll end with rolling Broadsword, or Traps, or Search, or First Aid, or Perception, but they start with a statement of action.

You describe the action in real-world terms as well as game terms, to let me know what you're doing and how. Then we let the dice (or GM judgement, sometimes) decide how that all works out.

Why this way?

- it preserves the importance of "being there" and playing the character. Your decisions matter, and your ideas help or hinder you.

- it preserves the value of skills. They let you play someone better or worse than you at the action. The character's ability to execute means that there is a real benefit to being an agile, light-fingered thief or a frighteningly skilled brute of a warrior. And a cost to being bad at things. Just because you say "I bend back the poison needle" doesn't mean you succeed. Just because you say "I swing my sword at his neck" doesn't mean you hit.

- it preserves the differentiation of "player" from "character." Just because you, the player, know what you want to do doesn't mean this particular character/playing piece/paper man can do it. It makes the character on the paper both more and less than what you're capable of.

What about what my guy knows?

It's harder to do this.

Knowledge skills are a little trickier, because it's often a valid question, "What does my character know about this?" Maybe having Hidden Lord (Elementals) means you know something about fighting elementals. Maybe have Physician tells you stuff about doctoring that you don't know but your character might - "Is it normal for that to happen, does my guy know that?" Even knowledge-based used of a non-knowledge skill (say, Boating or Swimming) might be valid - you want to know what kind of make the boat is, or how swimmable the water looks.

In those cases, you still need to specify what you're after, not just say "I roll Swimming to see if the water is okay." It's too vague and hands over the real fun of roleplaying - being someone else in a shitty situation you wouldn't want to be in - to a simple roll.

Generally, though, if your question boils down to "Hey GM, tell me what to do!" or "Hey GM, tell me the answer!" it's not going to work.

If it boils down to "Hey GM, does my guy know the answer to my question?" or "Hey GM, do I know this is really stupid and shouldn't do it?", it's okay.

And of course, so is any question of "I try [some action], how well do I do it?" like "I go to the library and read up on elementals, can I roll Research?"

And that's basically how I run skills.


  1. I also like to get the player to solve problems but leave it to the character to determine whether it works. I will often adjust up or down the difficulty of a check based on how sound is the attempt, or how appropriate the skill is for the task.

    1. Honestly, it's how all roll-based stuff in RPGs works anyway. Combat is just "state an action, and then roll to see how well you execute that action" even if it's just "Morgan Ironwolf fires her bow at lead hobgoblin."

      It's just that it's easy to get lazy and say "I roll Traps" instead of describing your action; skills get a bad rap for this kind of thing. An undeserved rap, in my opinion.

  2. Its good to have books about traps and dungeon architecture so that theives and PCs using skills can have interesting things to use their skills on like statues that swivel or have false bases etc. The PCs can say what they are going to do with the statue while you make skill rolls.

    1. I have a post on traps coming up soon, actually.

    2. I have found that traps that have many skill rolls and descriptions of what happens when things are tried are more fun than the simple one skill roll detect traps stuff. Thieves being weaker in combat need a chance to solve a puzzle when disarming the traps. Sure it is simpler to just roll once and be done with it but from a fun standpoint complex descriptive traps are better.

  3. "- it preserves the differentiation of "player" from "character." Just because you, the player, know what you want to do doesn't mean this particular character/playing piece/paper man can do it."

    I'm not really sure this approach preserves the differentiation. Yes, it's helpful this way - keeping players knowledge aside from character - but there's one more way - it impairs a character if the player has no idea about character's skills.
    I'm doing my best to play it like that - to the point that I used to carry to each session a book about herbs a little bit bigger then the whole Basic Set together just because I played a herbalist (and, uhm, let's say that I like long walks) - but I can't imagine requiring it from my players. I know people who find mechanic a kind of real world magic. Their brains would boil before they'd came up with the idea of bending the needle. Should they never get a possibility of playing a thief? I know people that would cause me nausea if I asked them "You want to cook something special? What and how?" Should they never play cooks?
    It's a really fun way to play, but really hard if you want to try something unknown.

    1. I disagree, for two reasons:

      First, I don't mean to imply it's the only way to preserve a split between "player" and "character." But, it helps. If one of my players is a doctor or an architect, they can't transfer what they know to their characters for a bonus. No matter how much Dr. Player knows, his character has First Aid-10 and isn't going to pull off anything clever. I'll give bonuses for good descriptions of what you do, but only up to a point - and that point is when "player knowledge" bleeds into "character capabilities." I know one of my players must know how to mix gunpowder, but his character doesn't have Chemistry and isn't going to pull it off no matter how well he describes trying.

      Second, who said you need to bring a book? It's nice that you want to go that far. But you don't need to, and I'm not saying you have to. If you know nothing of cooking, you can't say "I roll Cooking" but you can easily say "I try to whip up something from our rations and the deer the Barbarian killed." And you'd get a roll at Cooking. The first is a description of a mechanic, the second is a statement of action, and that's all I am asking for.

      But you have to try. If they can't think of bending the needle, and in fact can't think of anything else, well, it's a role-playing game. You have to try to play that role. If you sit there and say "I disarm the trap" and that's it, you're not playing the role, I'm doing it for you, and you'll directing me. That's not participating in the game I am running. If you can't be bothered to try, to imagine things that might work, or propose an action that isn't "Can I roll these dice to see if you can tell me I succeeded and how?" it's beyond me how that's fun. It's not fun for me, anyway, and I'm playing too.

      Extra effort is welcome, but "Tell me what you're doing in real world terms and the dice tell us how it works out" is a pretty low bar to step over.

  4. A thing I think is slightly missing from this formulation is the idea that the character may have skills the player doesn't. I'd certainly encourage a player to say "I see what I can find out about Evil Chemical Co" rather than "I do Research on ECCo", but I wouldn't necessarily expect him to say "I'll check the registration at Companies House, pull their last year's financial statements, and do a web search for rebellious shareholders". If he does have the real-world skill to do that (and I as GM have the real-world skill to evaluate it), great, but it's not something I insist on.

    Have you considered this problem in the context of something like the GUMSHOE system, where one major interaction is something like the GM saying "do you want to spend a point of Forensics here", the player saying "yes", and the GM saying "OK, you discover that..."?

    1. I think I'm clearly not explaining myself well. If I'm allowing "I go to the library and read up on elementals, can I roll Research?" then why wouldn't I allow "I do research on ECCo." I'd still want to know what they want to find out, of coure, so I'd ask followup questions - what about elementals concerns you? What about ECCo are you trying to find out? I'd allow, say "I want to find out if they're doing anything that seems illegal" or "I want to find out if their income seems fishy" or anything like that. That's sufficient, just like "I'll do a broadsword swing to the neck, Deceptive -3!" is good enough and I don't require "Using my timing to get between his swing and the parry I expect, I slice down at his neck with the top 6" of my blade" kind of stuff.

      So I think you're proposing a level of detail from the player that I'm not suggesting at all. If I'm saying something above in my article that sounds that way, it's not intended to. The idea is, you have to know what you're trying to do and how you're doing it and state that clearly, or you're not going to accomplish anything.

      I've never played, or read, GUMSHOE, which sounds like it has a different way to approach this.

    2. It may be that I'm misinterpreting you - to me, "push the needle aside" is way more detail than I'd expect a player to come up with, and if he says "right, I've found the trap, I want to disarm it" that would be good enough for me. (I might ask "do you want to make it possible to re-set later" to get a vague idea of what sort of approach he's taking.)

    3. The reason that's not sufficient to me is that it doesn't tell me what you're doing.

      "I disarm the trap" is too vague. I don't know what you're doing. I don't know where your character is standing, what his hands are doing, or anything. If there is, say, a second trap or a spell or something else, how you act may not

      It's a dangerous situation and an interesting one.

      I ask for sufficient detail in combat - where do you stand, where do you face, what is your attack like, where is it aimed, what do you do after - precisely because it makes it more interesting and it's a potentially dangerous circumstance. So I do that with other dangerous circumstances. "I bend back the needle" is just an example, and not an exhaustive list of the kind of detail you need. I'd accept other statements of action as long as I know what you're doing, not just your goal. Honestly, you can choose a fairly poor approach and roll well and succeed, because the dice tell us how it worked out. So maybe you say "I break the needle" or "I bend the needle" or "I smash it with my dagger pommel" and make your Traps roll and it all works out.

      But I find "I disarm it" to be entirely too vague, and what's more it bores me as the GM, and it makes me tell you what you did. I don't really want to role-play your guy for you. If I don't have to tell you, the game can possibly degrade to "I roll Perception." "You see a trap." "I disarm it." "It's disarmed." at some extreme case. I want a ground floor that is above that level. I want to ensure that cannot happen by simply not accepting "I roll [whatever]" or some variation of "I hit him" or "I disarm the trap" or "I do Research, give me some clues." That's below what I will accept.

      I think it's a case of setting reasonable expectations, too. I don't think it's asking too much of people interested in RPGs to also get interesting in using their imagination. And I'm not asking for deep knowledge or detail. Superficial knowledge of what you're trying to do, imagining the situation and reacting to it, and willingness to put real-world description ahead of game mechanics is all I'm asking for. I think that's a low bar. If it's too high for some people, I'm willing to accept that they probably aren't really suited to my style of gaming. I just find it hard to believe that this is too much to ask. My experience is that it isn't.


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