Thursday, September 15, 2016

More thoughts Hidden Lore and Recognition rolls

"Can [the forvalaka] be killed?"
"They're almost invincible, Captain.
"Can they be killed?" The Captain put a hard edge on his voice.
[. . . ]
"Yes," One-Eye confessed. [. . .] "Nothing is invulnerable [. . . ] But this is strong, fast, and smart. Weapons are of little avail. Sorcery is better, even that isn't much use."

- Glen Cook, The Black Company, p. 32

See, even in fiction, knowing is half the battle . . . but not necessarily the half that actually helps you win the battle.

So, I have some issues dealing with monster recognition and knowledge skills in play. I've written about this before.


Let's start by looking at the actual written rules.

Recognition (Dungeon Fantasy 2: Dungeons, p. 9) spells out how it's done.

- The GM makes the roll in secret;

- you need the correct skill;

- success identifies the target and gives one "tidbit" - examples include favorite weapon, special powers, weakness, etc.,;

- every 2 points you succeed by gets you another. The GM decides, and if you fail, the GM lies.

And that's about it.

My Game

I do hate getting put on the spot for handing out information. This is especially true when players are flailing about for better tactics or "some way to beat this thing" and arguing among themselves about what's a good tactic. It's strongly tempting to hand the question over to the dice and the GM, and say, please tell us what to do here.

I think you can lose a lot of game interest when it's just a skill roll to figure out puzzles and how to deal with dangerous monsters. Then it's just meet, greet, fight, roll for the answer, apply the answer. On the other hand, I also tend to be a little too reticent when asked in play because I don't want to give out the answer, just hints. My players respond by not depending on Hidden Lore too heavily.

So there is clearly a GM personality and game-approach issue here, combined with the rules and the needs of the players.

As the GM, it's tough knowing what to hand out. It's tougher when the "obvious" stuff is also situationally wrong (mummies aren't good with fire, but this is an alchemist's fire-packed suicide bomb mummy or a mummy who uses Resist Fire). Or when the not-obvious stuff is really what the PCs want to know (we're going to try and suffocate it, does it breathe?).

Leaving the questions up to the PC, in Mark Langsdorf's words, might lead to 20 questions. Well, it really won't, because you'd need to make your roll by 38 points for that, and that's pretty unlikely. But I get the point - players might end up in the "Divination death spiral." That's when you have one divination, one wish, one yes-no question, etc. and spend a good chunk of real-world time debating how to use it. Then you eventually wordsmith the question down to something so specific the GM can't avoid answering specifically, but there is a near-certainty you've wordsmithed out any flexibility for the GM to give you the actual hints you need. You know, "In this world, are vampires or these vampire-like things vulnerable - that is, able to be harmed significantly or killed - by stabbing in a specific vital organ which may or may not be called the heart, with a wooden or wooden-shafted weapon whether or not it's a magical weapon?" "Yes." "Okay, we still don't know what to do." Or the too-vague, "How do we kill vampires?" when there are a dozen ways to do it. It's worse when you've got a bunch, because then you just tick off each question off the list hoping to eventually hit the right one by methodical application.

And one special thing worth noting - it's always much sweeter to the GM, and probably to the players, when the players hit on the weakness of a monster. Not because they rolled it, or put points in a skill, but because the players figured out something. The mummy in my last DF session was like that. Quenton Gale ("That's Mr. Gale to you!") didn't roll Hidden Lore (Undead) and find out the funereal amulet was the key to the mummy's unlife, Quenton Gale's player figured that out, and risked a lot to try for it. The PCs later used Hidden Lore to verify that it was worth trying, but his attempt was all the better as a game event - and a story to tell in the future - because the player did that.

How to deal with that dilemma? Make the skills useful, make the character matter, and have a way to pass in-game information to the PCs who should have it . . . but leave the main decisions and the drama resulting from the ones made up to the player?

Possible Approaches

Keeping with my preference to give out hints, clues, and details, this approach may work, if my players equally buy in:

- Success on the appropriate skill tells you what the monster is, and one piece of information.

- You can either get a grab bag of information picked by the GM (that is, as listed on DF2, p. 9) or you can ask after a specific type of information (weaknesses, vulnerabilities, efficacy of a specific attack form, etc.), or answer a specific question, but only one of the three. The first is one hint for every two points of success; the latter two, just one. You need to Evaluate, Move, or Do Nothing to get this roll or just be out of combat. If multiple PCs have the skill, you can use complementary skill rolls to get one better roll. You can't have everyone roll and hope for a critical.

- Information is going to be just game information, not tactical suggestions, answers to very vague questions ("How do we kill these things?" Yeah, that's the question I'm already answering by giving you anything), etc. Hyper-specific questions are just a mistake, don't ask those.

Knowing a monster's psychological flaws or approaches (Does it go berserk? Do they take prisoners? Are they bribeable?) is Psychology, and knowing where any vital area is takes Physiology. No, Holy Warriors aren't just wasting points on those two skills, you need them. Gamers in general tend to assume it's "obvious" where weak points are, if you can name them. "I shoot it in the heart!" - Really, where is that exactly? What's a good angle to get to it? Does it even have one?

When the PCs ask is also important. If you wait until bad stuff happens and the fight is going wrong, you're basically asking the GM to bail you out. That's not necessarily going to end well. Also, you're expending resources and time and effort before you attempt to recognize something - doesn't that mean you probably didn't recognize it? It's probably better for me, the GM, to have people say, "I have Hidden Lore (Undead)-14 and (Elementals)-13, do recognize it?" right away, then to wait until they've exhausted their player knowledge and then tried to roll away the difficulty.

Anyway, that's pretty much where I am with these right now. It's a tough skill to compromise in my "worst of both schools" approach. But I think it potentially deals with three issues:

- the players can get random, possibly not-specifically-helpful information with a Hidden Lore roll.

- the players can preempt the random information with specific informational goals, encouraging the players to think ahead and guess based on observation.

- the fun of players making decisions and acting on them is preserved.

We'll see how my players receive these, and if this works when we try it out at the table. I have another idea for a more mechanical approach, which I'll try to post tomorrow.

Optional Detail: If you like rolls, have PCs make a Per-based Hidden Lore skill for recognition, and an IQ-based one for knowledge about how to deal with it. You could even allow Complementary Skill rolls against related skills, such as Tactics ("Those are definitely wraiths. Professor Aragorn just would not stop talking about wraiths during Tactics class!")

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