Sunday, July 5, 2020

DF Felltower & Hidden Lore Skills

I'm mulling over a house rule for DF Felltower.

I've long suffered ambivalence over PC knowledge skills.

I really want the players to learn about the game and the monsters, and apply that. I like skills to tell me how well you do something, not to tell me what you know or tell you what to do.

Knowledge skills, though, say that your paper man may know things you don't. Not how to do things you don't, or how to do things you know how to do but differently well, either.

This is especially true for Hidden Lore.

PCs always ask the same questions, in variations - how do we kill it, where are its vitals (more properly this is Physiology), does it take extra damage from attack type X or Y, etc. They're looking for a shortcut to killing it. Fair enough, they paid for that . . . but it's a problem in actual play.

I answer, but I'm looking at a full set of stats. If a person makes a roll by 0-2, what do I tell them? What do I choose? If they make it by 10+ with a critical, do I read off chunks of the stat block as someone else frantically writes it all down into the received, common knowledge of all PCs from now on?

Plus it means the skills take the place of player knowledge - people want to benefit from what they know, and what the PC knows, too. Or they get worried by meta-knowledge and don't want to use anything unless "my guy would know that." Those types of players tend to err on the far side of self-control, and say things like "I don't know that my guy would know trolls are vulnerable to fire." Yeah, by now everyone knows that.

On top of this, people want to use Hidden Lore every time - each time, they get more and more information. Do I feed more in, especially if the PCs learn nothing new from the previous encounter? Do I repeat the same stuff, and should I track that by PC? They don't really want old information, yet it feels like just because the players know that whatever new PC rolls shouldn't automatically add to the knowledge. If a Holy Warrior rolls and makes a good roll says you need to cripple all the arms on a Peshkali, does this mean the next time you run into Peshkali that Holy Warrior or someone else can roll, until eventually you've acquired most of the stats?

Plus, again, my approach is that you can use your meta-knowledge in this game. This is a best of both worlds - use what you know, and your PC might know more. If you memorized chunks of the monster book, okay, fine, but also your PC gets to prod me for reminders and information on monsters you've never heard of.

As you can see, I'm not in love with how it works.

Here is an alternative route.

What are we dealing with?

A Hidden Lore roll can be made as a free action to identify the creature. The GM rolls in secret. Success gives the common name and the type; critical success may provide additional information (identifying a sub-type, for example, and always giving any Vulnerability or Weakness or Achilles's Heel it has.) You suffer any Vision-based penalties, if appropriate. It's hard to I.D. what you can't see. A critical failure means you misidentify it.

To gain an immediate combat edge, take an Evaluate maneuver. You must first successfully identify the creature, as above. Failure to identify the creature means this automatically fails; a critical failure on the identification roll means you you can only or critically fail on this roll. You may do this at any range; roll against Per-based Hidden Lore, with penalties equal to range and any vision penalties. You may take extra time (p. B346) to improve your roll. On a successful roll, you gain a +1 to hit and to offset the penalties from Feints or Deceptive Attack for the rest of this particular combat. On a critical success, you gain a +2 to hit, instead. A failure means no penalty - you just don't sense a pattern or spot a weakness. Critical failure means a -2 to hit and a -2 versus feints and to defend for the same period of time - you're thrown off by mis-identifying the way the creature fights! This will not be obvious until the first time the penalty affects you. You must take the results of your roll.

You can pass along any information you gain with a free action to talk. You cannot pass along your bonus.

Such bonuses and penalties are specific to a specific type of creature - a peshkali or a wight, not against all demons or against all undead.


I haven't tried this yet, but I'd like to. It gives people a real reason to buy Hidden Lore for monster types, but eliminates a lot of my ambivalence. You still need to learn what works or doesn't work, but your character has information that can lead to direct combat bonuses.

+1 to hit and +1 to offset feints and Deceptive Attack, but it's not a bad bonus at all. Higher Purpose is still better, and surer, but using both can make for a killer combo. You can end up with +3 to all rolls, and a +4 or +5 to hit roll against a particular creature type.

It might be less effective for wizard-types. It's too much to give a bonus to spells (or inflict a penalty to resist), and might feel less useful for them to identify critters and then make it easier to hit them. I expect the wizards will squawk anyway - my experience is most people playing wizards feel they are very limited and very weak. That's not how anyone playing with, or GMing for, wizards feels.

I thought about making this bonus last the entire delve, but then I decided my players would try to game the heck out of that - "Let's go find a draugr, then leave it alone until we want to go after the whole bunch of them, let the Holy Warrior take a max-time Hidden Lore roll to get a bonus, and then we go fight them!" Ugh.

(Editing 7/6/2020 - Check the comments for Sean Punch's explanation of why the Hidden Lore skills work they way they do in DF, and my explanation of why I'm proposing a change based on a specific style of play used in DF Felltower.)


  1. Since I use Familiarity Penalties, my solution to your problem was to allow a Hidden Lore roll to offset the Familiarity penalty to Hit Locations on creatures they are unfamiliar with.

    I allow one Familiarity per character point spent into skill, so points in Hidden Lore (Demons) for instance would translate directly to Familiarities with different demon subtypes, one subtype per cp in that skill.

    I also allow Holy Warriors with a specific Higher Purpose and Scholars to freely spend unspent exp on Hidden Lores (I allow Scholars to freely spend unspent exp on a lot of IQ skills actually), so a Demon Slaying Holy Warrior might suddenly remember having "fought one of these types of demons back in the day".

    1. That's an interesting approach.

      The thing I run into in play the most is, "I shoot for where I think the vitals would be." Generally, on a critter where the PCs wouldn't have the slightest idea where the vitals would be. I admire the willingness to take a -3, but it's also a backhand fishing attempt for PC-knowledge that the player lacks, or GM generosity. It's also going to fail, for so, so many reasons.

      But I use Physiology for hit location knowledge, not Hidden Lore. Not that anyone takes it, which is yet another reason that "I should for where I thing the vitals will be" doesn't work.

    2. Yeah, I decided against having Physiology, Psychology, etc applying to creatures that require Hidden Lore to know about. How do you justify "I'm taking 1 point in Psychology (Demons)" without also requiring at least 1 point in Hidden Lore (Demons)? And yet I've had that one specifically come up, where after having gotten into a few protracted diplomatic exchanges with what turned out to be a demon, the party's Bard decided he wanted to do just that... but didn't have the points or desire for Hidden Lore.

  2. Something to understand about why I put Hidden Lore, Physiology, Psychology, etc. into GURPS Dungeon Fantasy and the DFRPG:

    Delvers start at 250 points. Some of them belong to professions that specialize in slaying unnatural things (the holy warrior, and more recently the demon-slayer and undead-slayer) or studying them (elementalist, demonologist, mentalist, necromancer, and even ordinary clerics, druids, and wizards to a great extent). It snaps willing suspension of disbelief to state, "You've become a powerful delver without ever having seen anything more exotic than orcs and giant rats," especially to someone whose template outright states, "You have studied long and hard to become an expert on these exotic monsters."

    Making it player knowledge, to be earned in play, doesn't seem right to me, given those assumptions. That's a very old-school approach that goes back to games that follow a zero-to-hero arc, with monsters becoming more exotic as the adventurers level up from people who can be killed by house cats to slayers of higher-level monsters. It's a bit strange for a game that starts in media res, as far as careers are concerned – especially a point-build game where you can just decide to be an expert at something from Day One.

    I'd be interested in hearing how your alternative approach works. But I think it's vital to let 250-point heroes jump in with the assumed knowledge of 100-125 points earned kicking monster butt prior to the start of the campaign. My personal prescription for curbing meta-game abuse is to say that Hidden Lore and similar skills work as is but cover mostly the plain-vanilla versions of things found in published works. Variants and GM creations impose penalties of arbitrary size.

    1. Thanks for the explanation. It makes perfect sense, and I think it's the best default way to set up the rules.

      My specific game is explicitly set up on that very old-school approach you mention, though:

      Playing on Player Expectations

      Playing on Player Expectations II

      It's why, say, the current group of players can rampage through the 130+ session summaries and use that knowledge for their delves even though none of the PCs in them are still in play (and most of them are long dead.) It's a player-knowledge-centered game.

      It's also a high-lethality game, with only one player who has played 10+ sessions still running his first character. So we have the very real and very frequent situation of new PCs showing up and making Hidden Lore rolls against the same monsters, and wondering if they really need it since they remember out-of-game what works/hoping for new information top of already-reveal information.

      And again, like I said, I don't always know what to say. Get a monster with sufficiently diverse defensive properties - say, No Brain, No Vitals, No Blood, Unkillable (Achilles Heel: Cold attacks), Immunity to Metabolic Hazards, and Weakness (Cold Attacks) . . . what do I give out? A true expert either knows all of that, or none of that, and a roll puts me in the weird spot of deciding which of those is most useful or most likely to be known. It happens frequently enough and I don't enjoy parsing that out. And since I do explicitly allow people to gather information in play and use that, even passing it between characters, it ends up with a best-of situation - what you know, plus what your character knows.

      Making it identification and then a straight-out in-game bonus seems like it would solve that issue for me. It puts it where I like it - you, the player, know things and learn things. Your paper man determines what, and how well, you can do with that knowledge.

      My approach is different, for sure, and we'll see when we try this rule out if it works better for that approach!

  3. I've never liked Hidden Lore and other no default knowledge skills, I really feel there should be a default for them. If you can swing a sword at a Peshkali at DX-5 you should be able to roll IQ-5 to know it's a Peshkali

    1. Agreed. I have Hidden Lore have a default of -7 (it is Hidden after all). In fact I have all skills have a default, if no default is listed it's "standard default times 1.5 rounded down". Those skills don't have a default because they aren't supposed to be 'commonly heard about or seen', but still since I allow Dabbler, it means everything needs to have a default.

  4. There's another way to do it, too, which is not a straightforward GURPS mechanic but that I have used.

    The GM just rules beforehand that a certain level of a knowledge skill is required to know some fact or other. The character knows it or she doesn't. A common creature that has never been encountered before will be familiar to someone with the right knowledge skill at, say, 11 or higher. A rare creature might require 13 or 14. Basically, the GM can rate each creature (this takes only a moment for each) with a "familiarity score." Then it's a matter of character background, not rolling.

    Another thing I sometimes do, when I know what's coming and I have prep time, is to make a little handout with player background bits. I print them out and cut them up with scissors, and keep them in an envelope. A player who successfully rolls (if they roll) gets to read the handout at the right moment. It says facts about the monster, the translation of an old inscription, whatever. Players who get those handouts *love* them. It's like a bonus for investing in knowledge, and they become authorities for the other players.

    Since you have designed the dungeon in advance, you know what things the characters can meet, and you know what the characters are supposed to know, so it's easy to make such handouts. They can be little lore essays or, more easily, a few bullet points.

    -acidic slobber destroys weapons
    -hates bright light
    -has a weakness for raw meat

    1. I like that. It turns Hidden Lore into a more Passive skill... but I use Douglas Cole's Rules of 14 for Passive Abities, so stretching it out a bit span a wider margin would work great as well.

    2. That goes against my essential, deep-rooted laziness. I'd need to do something for every monster conceivably covered by a skill, just in case people ask. I'd rather just roll each time and decide. Plus, it means having even 1 point in a Hidden Lore might just turn out to be extremely valuable, rather than automatically just the most commonly recognized creatures.


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