Sunday, December 27, 2020

DF Felltower and skill levels

On the topic of skill levels, skill caps, feint limitation, and whatnot in GURPS and general and in DF in specific, let's look at DF Felltower. Let's get hyper-specific - the rules for the characters in our game.

Where is everyone now?

Basically, at DX+6. Almost every single fighter-type has DX+6 in their primary weapon.

The PCs generally don't up their main skill by upping their main skill, but by upping DX via potions and other boosts.

They have mostly been expanding out their combat abilities with advantages and raising DX (rarely) and ST (very often for knights and barbarians.) Reducing penalties so skill can be applied without penalty in broader circumstances is a popular approach, too - Slayer Training, for example, or Extra Attack, or Two-Weapon Fighting.

But they'll get there.

The earlier delvers did, after all - Vryce had DX+13 in Two-Handed Sword (skill 27) when he died. Galen has DX+12 (skill 27) in Bow. Borriz Borrizman has Axe/Mace-28 with DX+14 (Pickaxe Penchant 4 helps there) and the player was aiming for 30 before real life ended Borriz's involvement in Felltower. Hjalmarr had DX+9 for a 23, and certainly was aiming higher.

If you've every wondered why I never created a "Master of Feints" power-up, that's why. Did Vryce need to roll against a 31 for Feint? Borriz against a 32? Or Wyatt a 25? Probably not. Will it make our game better if they do? Unlikely. Would they pay points for it? Certainly. People are already asking about feints stacking onto other feints for a cumulative penalty.

Skill levels like that are also why I categorically rejected using multiple Rapid Strikes from Martial Arts, p. 127. They're not canonically part of DF or DFRPG - nothing in Martial Arts is, unless called out by a Power-Up - but Wyatt's player explicitly asked after them. No way. With a history of skill-27/28 people, is it really wise to allow someone 5 attacks for -12 when that puts the person to a 16 for all of them? And also has Extra Attack 1 so he can Feint, then launch 5 attacks at -12 for a net 16 to the eyes thanks to Peerless Slayer Training every single combat turn?

Surely, though, with the enemies they face, they need that skill?

Perhaps. It's sure helpful. Some enemies have very good defenses. Some have high skills. Some have both. Few are at the level of the PCs. Other than a few like Valmarr the Sword-Spirit and Baron Sterick himself, most of the very high skill enemies have been only around skill 20-22. The vast majority are in the 16-18 range or below. Most of the 16-18 range are at 16. And still more are skill 12-15. The critters and folks who mostly prey on the utterly unskilled or only by surprise sometimes clock in at 10 skill.

The PCs? The lowest skill in melee weapons of any starting template is around a 16, and it's uncommon to be at that level. 18+ is more common. So even the starting PCs are up near the apex in Felltower. Those whose templates give them 20-22 skill, like most of the DFRPG combatant templates, put them at the apex, ranked only a tiny handful of foes easily outnumbered by even a small group of PCs.

That's not to say monsters are only as dangerous as their skill. But when it comes to using Feint and Deceptive Attack, or building up defenses, you don't need much of an edge in skill to regularly win by a much larger margin. Make that edge more like 3-4+ points, and "regularly win" changes to "always win, unless your morale breaks first." Especially when you consider skill 20 in a melee weapon gives you a 13 parry, 14 with Combat Reflexes, before retreat (+1 or +3), Shield spells, and DB. You already start out very hard to (effectively) hit.

The Arms Race occurs when the PCs want to, basically, completely overwhelm the skill levels of the opposition. If no one is satisfied until their PC is better than every single enemy they ever face, how is the GM to make "boss" foes who fight on like terms threatening? If the PCs will generally outdo even a skilled foe by 2-3 points of skill before buffing, and generally buff to +1 to +6 (and demonstrably use multiple potions until they get a 5 or 6) on top of that, then it's routine for foes to give up 3-9 points of defense. If the GM gives the foes enough skill or defense to offset that, the PCs feel like they need more as their high skill isn't high enough. It becomes an arms race that neither side can "win." The PCs can't outdo the GM. And the more the GM scales up to keep the challenge up, the more the game just becomes a battle of numbers well about the standard die rolls. Even as challenges are put up before the PCs, they simply don't matter yet drive up the investment of the PCs in their skills.

Am I opposed to high skill?

No. I like the way the PCs can absorb penalties and fight big battles with a solid chance of success.

What concerns me are three things:

- lacking effective maxima means you don't ever real feel like you are good enough . . . yet maxima tend to quickly get established as targets;

- it's tempting to use points to buy skills high enough to make the maximum difficulty situations routine;

- game mechanically, it's always more rewarding to specialize. The more specialized, the more reward.

All of those lead to the arms race, above, as I as the GM struggle to make a fight anything but a slog - because "glass cannon" foes can't hit, and thus are no threat, so foes need to be ones you need to grind down so they'll survive to have a chance to roll a critical or three and be a threat . . . or totally bypass attacks and defenses, which when done too often feels like I'm devaluing the main thing your characters are good at.

The lack of an effectively useful maximum is also concerning as players tend to look at maxima as something to reach with a PC. Barbarians can have ST 25 and potentially 50 HP, so they should all aspire to ST 25 and HP 50. Knights, ST 20 and Striking ST 2. Swashbucklers, Extra Attack 2 and Enhanced Parry 3 (and it would be 3 and 4 if that was allowed.) It's possible to get there, therefore it must be really important to get there, and if it's important do it ASAP. Add that to the tendency to overpatch to try and make characters invulnerable to anything (we've got multiple guys with a net 16+ to resist death or knockout who, nonetheless, want to raise HT and Hard to Subdue.) If skills are open on top of this, and it's unrewarding to generalize and seen as important to maximize, guess what happens?

DF penalties are often staggeringly high - characters who are in partial darkness (-3), while using Rapid Strike (-3/-3 for a Weapon Master), and aiming at the Neck (-5), standing on bad footing (-2) . . . and that -13 still leaves a 10 or less for the skill 21 guy taking the swing with a Balanced, Accuracy +1 sword. It's a lot of fun. So people try to get enough skill to absorb all of that and still end up with a net 16 skill, as if penalties were to be bought off instead of adding challenge to combat. So that's where it stands, now, and why I'm thinking of a framework of limitations to basically bound the levels of useful skill even while keeping them high.

And as always, with flat cost point buy, it's cheaper and more effective to specialize, and then try to make everything you do about the thing you specialized in. Buy a hammer, and treat the world like it's full of nails.

Ideally, then, the PCs should be able to specialize, but not punished for not doing so (even better, rewarded for doing so.) They should be able to feel the value of their skills, but not feel that sky-high skills are a necessity of entry (and thus effectively punish those without for lacking them.) They should be able to eye the cost and benefits of skill and see where they need to end up to be the way they want, without having an arms race waiting for them if they overshoot. And finally they should benefit from boosts, buffs, and situational and supernatural aid without it effectively being seen as required, again, because of the arms race. It should retain the awesomeness of high-skill play without making it just a question of stacking bonuses forever.

That's what I am after, ultimately. I think it's doable, and can be fun for the GM and for the players.

So that's where we are now.


  1. Is it part of the problem that your group has a propensity for melee fighters, so they are all competing to be the best at that? Felltower doesn't seem to support extensive parkour or challenges for a Stealth 27 thief, although maybe that's just PCs not going where they aren't skilled?

    1. It's not really competing to be the best, but the expectation of being able to hang with the others. If your swordsman has skill-21 and ST 13 and some else's barbarian has skill-20 and ST 22 and another's knight has ST 18 and skill-24, you feel like you need to improve either or both of damage and skill to be more than just a second-rater in the group.

      As for the other, I think it's the latter more than the former. Combat is critical to Felltower, but so are puzzle-solving, trap-disarming, and non-combat-skill using. There aren't a lot of "parkour" challenges - I don't really even have an idea of how I'd make them except as totally contrived obstacle courses that also happen to negate magic so the wizards can't just solve them for you. And the challenges the PCs don't have the abilities to usefully solve sit unsolved. And even ones that need a combat solution sometimes sit unsolved, because the PCs don't want to solve it by means other than melee (the draugr, for example.)

      So the blog summaries make it look like combat heaven, because you're watching the exploits of a group that relies heavily on murder-by-melee as their primary way of extracting treasure.

  2. I've always been concerned that the DF default 250+ pt characters would have growing pains this way. I think this is a good argument for a lower starting total.

    That said, yeah, players will build PCs against what they perceive as the main threat to the PC's existence. I think that blurring the niche protection boundaries at higher levels of play can help with this - let the martial PCs spend points on becoming divine acolytes to broaden their defenses, etc.

    1. A lower point total would work, but it just pushes the problem until later. The issue I perceive will come about eventually. So I'm seeking to address it differently.

      Actually, I feel the opposite about niche protection - it's more critical as people gain points because it's too easy for everyone to blur into one - the maxed-Luck maxed-ST high-skill maxed-defenses guy with lots of HT and resistance. You don't feel as compelled to keep up with the others if what you do can't really be replicated by the others.

  3. Huh, DX+6 is around out the gate starting scrub level . . . . So to much skill issue has been occurring through people using means other than buying skill

    So if they get around to actually buying skill it may get worse.

    My experience has been people treat being forced to buy skill almost like a tax and they really want juicy advantages and stats

    1. If you define 250-point guys as scrubs, I guess, sure. Like I said, they haven't moved up in skill, but they're going that way. And it'll end up ugly once everyone goes from DX+6 to everyone being around DX+10 or so.

      They're largely been using buffs to push skill up - Dex potions are so routinely purchased that everyone knows them off the top of their heads - +1d DX, 1 hour, $700, and I bought all of the available ones if anyone needs one. It's part of why PCs are poor - if you fight every "big" fight with $1K plus of potions (speed, DX, ST) quaffed, even without other costs you need at least $6-8K of net loot to break even with such a large group.

      And honestly, I'd rather see them branch out, but I'll accept people buying advantages in DF instead. They tend to create have/have not splits which are useful for PC differentiation. Wyatt's Peerless Slayer Training makes him the eye strike master, while Ahenobarbus's focus on Every One's A Critical has made him more of a showy fighter who gets more than his fair share of shots right in. I'm really okay with that. Thinking 20 points in a combat advantage is a good deal and 1 point in a non-combat adventuring skill is plenty to cover that niche for the whole group is where we don't see eye to eye. Heh.

    2. I definitely get the delicious to housecats starting scrub feel when I'm playing a 250pt DF character in a 250pt DF game

      The reliance on consumables is really alien to me, I've always had the mindset 'there is finite loot, loot we burn as consumables won't become better gear and we will roll into the final boss badly underequipped and die'

    3. I used some DF2 monsters and future DFM1 monsters against my 150+40+5 base PCs back in my old campaign. Trolls, Golem-armor Swordsmen, Dinomen (re-skinned), and Toxifers gave them serious trouble. All four were much more easily wiped out in DF. So 250 never felt wimpy to me.

      The inability to buy better and better permanent magic on demand really pushes up the value of consumables.

    4. "The reliance on consumables is really alien to me..."

      Ditto. It's been a long, looooooooooooong time since I've played in a fantasy game where enchanting was hard to come by.

      "The inability to buy better and better permanent magic on demand..."

      I thought you had guys with stuff on commission. Are there no enchanters in Stericksburg? Is that why they occasionally check to see if Janus the Black is in town?

      Is so, then yeah, I can see how consumables are popular... but who is making the non-potion consumables? Or are spellstones not an 'enchanted' thing, not "real enchantment" anyway?

    5. We basically got rid of all but low-level permanent enchantments a while back. You can get some stuff - Fortify +1, Accuracy +1, Puissance +1, and a few other things - in town, by comission only. Otherwise, it's just consumables, and only a few are in unlimited supply. Before we did so, people were generally all flat broke and scraping by but had magic items on order. Resurrection was impossible to afford, even as a group, but yet all treasure was converted to permanently enchanted items. And items found, even powerful ones (like the shortsword "The Razor," in DFT3) were sold because they could be replaced with something more exactly suited to a PC. That ended.

      Spellstones are like scrolls or potions, yeah. They're being made and sold, but permanent stuff had become hard to come by. And no one is willing to pay double to get it from Black Jans (although that comes with very quick completion, too.)


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