Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One
Rule #5: Differentiate Approaches, Because Success Needs Consequences.
Now we come down to the most difficult rule to explain and the most difficult rule to follow. Sadly, it is also the most important. And it could be an entire article by itself. In fact, it probably will be.
Suppose the party is running away from something and they come to a locked door. They could double back and try to find a different route through the dungeon. They could bash down the door. Or they could pick the lock. Which they actually do is a fairly simple decision. Which skill is their highest: Dungeon Navigation, Door Bashing, or Lock Picking. A simple mathematical puzzle.
Now, suppose the party is evading something and they come to a locked door. They have the same basic set of options. But…
The thing is behind them but they don’t know where or how far. If they double back, they might wander right into it. Especially if they fiddle with the door for a little while and then decided to double back. And they might not be able to find another route to the surface before they get eaten. And…
The lock is a fairly simple lock. Its not hard to pick (easy check), but lock picking is complex and time consuming. So it will take three successful checks to pick the lock. Each die roll (success or fail) will use up a minute of time during which the thing in the dungeon is getting closer. Of course, the door can be relocked behind the party, slowing the thing down. And…
The door is stout and reinforced. It will be hard to kick open or bash down (hard check), but once it’s broken, it’s broken. The party only needs one success. And each failure might injure the basher. Of course, if they do bash the door open, the party won’t be able to lock it behind them and slow the thing down. And…
The lock is delicate. Once the party attempts to smash the door open, the lock will probably (definitely) be damaged and be impossible to pick.
Assuming you know all of this, which solution is best? Not such an easy thing to say, is it.
Most game systems treat all skills equally. Whatever skill you roll, the basic mechanics are the same. Even the games with fancy narrative dice and degrees of success and lucky or unlucky breaks. The dice are focused on the outcome of the action. That’s what they are there for. There is this belief that non-binary rules and degrees of success somehow change that. But they don’t.
What makes the game interesting, what makes the game a role-playing game, is the decisions the players make. What actions they take. But to focus on that, you have to treat different actions differently. And to do that, you have to make sure that the PCs actions have consequences, regardless of success or failure.
When writing a complex skill-based encounter, the first thing you do is come up with the problem or obstacle. Then, you need to come up with the different approaches (the different methods of solving the problem) the PCs might attempt. After you list the approaches, you need to answer two questions for every approach: (1) Why would the party take this approach over the others? (2) Why wouldn’t the party take this approach over the others? If you can come up with more than one for each, good for you. If you can’t come up with one pro and one con, you need to rework your situation.
For example: the guard won’t let the party pass. What are the likely approaches and the pros and cons?
- Plead/Persuade. Pro: No real risk. The guard just says no. Con: Not likely to work.
- Bribe. Pro: Likely to succeed. Con: Expensive.
- Intimidate/Threaten. Pro: Doesn’t cost anything. Con: If it fails, guard may call other guards to fight.
- Bluff/Deceive. Pro: Doesn’t cost anything (again). Con: If the guard figures it out, he won’t listen to the PCs again. Might report PCs.
- Sneak In. Pro: No interaction with guard needed. Con: If the PCs get caught inside, they will be in big trouble.
Notice, I can’t come up with a good pro for Bluff/Deceive other than “doesn’t cost anything” which means it is no better or worse than Intimidate/Threaten. So, when I write my adventure, I might put in some ‘fraudulent papers’ that the party can stumble over that give the bearer permission to pass the guard if they can convince the guard they are real. That gives them a reason to choose that option because, with the fraudulent papers, it becomes ‘likely to succeed.’ Also, that actually becomes a pretty favorable approach, but it only works if the party finds the fraudulent papers, so that’s okay.
Corollary to Rule #5: Approaches Are Actions, Not Skills
Notice also, I haven’t broken down this list by skills because SKILLS ARE JUST TOOLS TO RESOLVE ACTIONS. I’ve come up with approaches. Sure, some of them might mirror some skills. But if the PCs try to sneak in by hiding in the back of a merchant’s cart instead of rolling a Sneaky Skill check, I can go with it.
As a general rule, I always prefer to have to figure out which skill or ability check to roll to suit a particular action. I want to be able to wiggle on skills and abilities. If my list of guard approaches looked like this:
- Diplomacy Skill
- Stealth Skill
- Intimidate Skill
- Bluff Skill
When the PCs describe their action as “rolling in on the back of the merchant’s cart,” I’d have to try and cram that into one of those four skills to figure out how it should work and what the consequences are. On the previous list, its pretty obvious where it falls. It must be “Sneaking In” because that is the one that avoids all interaction with the guard and leaves the PCs wandering around inside with no authorization and the potential for big trouble. That works even if I decide that “riding in the back of the cart” doesn’t require a skill roll. It just works. And I might decide that because now they have to stay hidden once they are inside, so they will have plenty of dramatic rolls to make in a few minutes.
As a rule, I tend to set skills, abilities, and difficulties at the table except for a few vague notes (like: difficult check or not likely to work to remember me to set the difficulty high). That list of approaches for the guard at the gate is actually pretty close to the sum total of the notes I would bring to the table for that encounter.