5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

December 3, 2012

Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System, Part One

Originally, I wrote this long, rambling introduction about picking a role-playing system to run modern-era mystery games and about arguments with people about binary skill systems and why I personally prefer the freedom binary systems afford over things with narrative dice pools and hippie-dippie drama point bulls$&%. But I realized it was just a bunch of garbage meant to forestall arguments about which game systems were superior and justify all of the great advice I am about to selflessly bestow on all of you. I got to thinking: if the advice is truly great advice, won’t that be self-evident? Shouldn’t it stand on its own?

Well, it does. And I don’t need to justify myself to any of you. I’m f$&%ing awesome and I know it. I don’t have anything to prove. But you do deserve an explanation as to what this series of feature articles is going to be about. I have a feeling none of you will buy it if I just say “they are about awesome!” So, cue the rambling introduction. I hope its not as long.

I tend to focus on mysteries, investigations, and conspiracies in my games (interspersed with a kick-ass dungeon crawl now and again) which focus on the PCs using their skills and knowledge to overcome obstacles, gather information, and figure out what is really going on so they can fix it. In discussing those games on Twitter, a few folks have brought up some common issues they’ve run into and some great discussions got started.

When you start looking at mystery gaming, most of the issues (apart from the big one about how to structure a mystery story) are really about using the game’s skill system to its fullest potential. And the same techniques you use to run a great investigation apply broadly to just about any skill-based encounter or adventure in just about any RPG system. When I decided to write about the topic of skill-based gaming, I started by listing a few topics to touch on and the list just kept growing. You could write a book.

Well, I’m not going to write a book. But I’ve never been above milking a topic until there is nothing but chalky, white dust issuing from a shriveled… this metaphor turned disgusting. I’ve always been willing to exhaustively explore the full scope and scale of a topic, splitting infinitives with reckless abandon as I go.

So, what you are reading is the first feature article about Getting the Most Out of Your Skill System. And its a great starting point. And unlike some of my previous articles, its more broadly applicable. So, whatever your genre, whatever your game system, you should be able to use this advice. My own D&D/Pathfinder/d20 roots will be on display, of course, but I am using the same skills in my Hackmaster 5E game. It’s awesome! check out the free basic game.

Wow. Now that’s an introduction.

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21 Responses to 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

  1. Andrew Asplund on December 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Where I would suggest that you only roll for a skill check if *failure* is interesting. I’m a big fan of “failing forward” myself. It’s not that you failed to accomplish the thing. It’s just that the outcome ended up being undesirable.

    Did you try to pick the lock to that door while you ran from the monster? Maybe, it’s not that you failed, but that there was something even worse on the other side.

    Sometimes, it’s as easy as saying that they’re performance was *too* good. I will use an example from the show Leverage: if you watch the episode “The Morning After Job,” there is a scene where two of the characters try to pass themselves off as police officers to get some important documents. The local prosecutor, assuming that they’re cops, gives them the paperwork but also tasks them with taking a prisoner back to county lockup. So, instead of just getting the papers they were looking for, they now have a handcuffed felon that they have to deal with. The way to think about it thematically is that they failed their “Bluff” check because they were too good at it.

    Anyway, that’s some sort of off thoughts about skills.

    • The Angry DM on December 3, 2012 at 9:20 pm

      Whereas I actively avoided bringing up the “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” bulls$&%. Hahaha. Can you tell I get a little worked up about skills?

      First of all, in essence I am saying that you should only roll when failure is interesting. That is, if failure doesn’t cost the party something or carry some consequence, you should not roll. The word interesting is kind of a useless word. Because it is utterly subjective. Telling DMs to “make failure interesting” isn’t helpful. Telling them what makes failure interesting is useful. In this case, it has to cost the party something or endanger them or kill them. Costs or consequences.

      The concept of failing forward, however, rankles me. I’m not going to lie. For a couple of reasons. First of all, its a waste of time in a focused, goal-oriented adventure. Take the “escort the prisoner” example you offered. The party is trying to accomplish something – solve a mystery, achieve a goal, what have you. If they fail at something, they have a set back and have to find an alternate route to their goal. They can’t get the documents and need to find another bluff to pull or another source of the information they need.

      But that “failure forward” means they still get what they were after, except we have to be distracted by some unrelated garbage first. I don’t want to waste time playing out the PCs escorting some felon to prison. Especially because, in order to make that interesting, I need to have an escape attempt. Its a distraction. Stop doing what you were doing.

      I want failure to require the players to find a different path forward, not force them to wander a mile out of their way then pick up where they left off.

      Moreover, failing forward is not failing. It says that no matter what, you will succeed at the adventure. Its just a matter of how much you have to put up with before we all decide its time to end the story. That’s fine if you want to tell “an interesting story,” but it is not a challenge. The players don’t accomplish something. They don’t solve something. They just either succeed forward or fail forward until they get to the end.

      Now, if you want to play that way, I won’t begrudge you. But I wouldn’t run a mystery like that. A well-crafted mystery is a complex thing and it is very hard to create a good one players can solve. I would caution any DM from rewriting reality to make failures fail forward and distracting the party with extraneous sidetracks.

      I will also reiterate that the concept of “making failure interesting” and “failing forward” is too focused on the outcome of random die rolls to be the source of what’s interesting in the story. The focus is on the choice they made. The fact that the party chose to impersonate police officers as their approach should be the focus, not the fact that they failed at it by “succeeding too well.” In the end, it comes down to whether or not you are willing to let the PCs lose: http://angrydm.com/2010/07/winning-dd/

      • Andrew Asplund on December 3, 2012 at 9:49 pm

        When I first read about failing forward, it was something that I read about in the context of collaborative story gaming. To that extent, I immediately thought of how I play Fiasco with my friends. I suppose what I mean is that my mindset had already shifted towards collaborative narrative control.

        When I first spoke to my players about failing forward, one of them came back to me with a very lengthy discussion about how, as he understood it, failing forward was no different than sophisticated planning on the part of the DM. Couldn’t every example of failing forward be just as effectively achieved by good planning on the part of the DM? It took me a while to realize where the problem in our communication was. As I saw it, failing forward was something that the table did together, not just the DM.

        If a character tries to outrun the city guard and fails some sort of skill check associated with running, there are any number of options and I would expect everybody at the table to think about it. Maybe the character got caught, but by a suspiciously corrupt lawman. Or, maybe a mysterious stranger arrived in a wagon to assist him in the escape, only to expect compensation later. Or, as it ends up, maybe getting caught by law enforcement was just as interesting as outrunning them.

        One thing I’ve learned in the past six months is that the group is much better at building an interesting narrative than I am by myself. Giving players control, such as with failing forward in skill checks, just lets them do that.

        But, that’s me. I’m a very atypical D&D DM. Perhaps I should change my name the the Hugging DM.

        • The Angry DM on December 3, 2012 at 10:12 pm

          And that is fine. But we also have to admit that collaborative story telling and building a narrative is a different form of gaming with different goals. In fact, it might not even entirely qualify as role-playing (which I know is going to get me into trouble) because the players have a degree of control over the world external to their character and the goal is to build an interesting story just to see where it goes. Therefore, the decisions they are making are on a level a bit above “playing a role.” I suppose its just a semantic distinction, but again, it is as a cross purpose to mystery gaming.

          A mystery game relies on a serious information gap between the players and the DM. It also relies on a solution to a mystery that exists as a reality to be discovered. In essence, the DM is giving the group a puzzle to solve and they have a set of skills and abilities to use.

          Again, while failing forward and collaboration are valid styles of play, they are very different styles of play to traditional role-play and they suit certain types of games and certain goals, but not others.

      • Ash on September 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm

        This is exactly what people say when they don’t understand failing forward. First of all, failing forward is BUILT ON only rolling when failure would be interesting. Failing forward is NOT always succeeding. It can be failing epically. Failing forward IS keeping the story moving. If there is a particular lock that needs opening, and it’s the only things the PC’s have to do, and they can’t do it, what happens? Without failing forward, end of campaign. If your campaign doesn’t immediately end, you’re failing forward.

  2. wlkeR on December 4, 2012 at 5:33 am

    Thanks, I needed precisely this sort of article just now! I’m working to reduce time spent on mechanics to get more out of my game, as we play once in a blue moon, and waving off most skill checks is one good way to achieve that.

    The only downside is, I’ll never again get to hear “20! I have no idea what I’m doing, but it’s awesome!”

  3. Mike on December 4, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Nice article. One thing that bothers me about the not rolling for things that they will succeed at eventually is how do you determine how much time it takes? If you are playing with random encounters, time is always a factor. Do you just assume they take 20 in every circumstance?

    Another thing, when are you going to write an article about HackMaster? HackMaster is pretty much the polar opposite of D&D 4e. It’s pretty rare to find someone who likes both.

    • TheAngryDM on December 4, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Well, if time is a factor, than you have a situation where rolling might be appropriate, but I’d probably word it differently. So, the party is picking a lock: does the party succeed before the get the attention of some random monster. Roll the lock pick check. If it fails, a monster shows up some number of minutes into the check and the party fights. Then they can try the check again. But I know we’re now wandering far into the territory of bending the nature of skill rolls over backwards.

      Alternatively, you can just roll multiple rolls and tick off time as normal. Or roll one roll for each time increment of random encounters (say, every ten minutes).

      But, at the end of the day, I generally just wing it. A lock pick attempt takes five to ten minutes. Bashing a door open takes generally a minute at most. Searching a small room with some furniture thoroughly takes fifteen minutes. Unless time is an issue, I tend to use time scales as follows: seconds, a minute, a few minutes, several minutes, a quarter hour, a half hour, an hour, a couple hours, all morning/afternoon/evening, half the day, the whole day. Lock picking takes several minutes. Punching someone is done in seconds. Researching the location of the shrine is going to take the whole day. The party spends all morning in the market trolling for rumors.

      Hackmaster 5E and D&D are thematically similar than I think people give either credit for. They are both success-oriented action-RPGs when you get down to it. I realize there are differences when you start to look at different editions and I admittedly am not a big fan of 4E. I have thought about doing a review of Hackmaster 5E, but I wouldn’t do dedicated articles to specific Hackmaster topics. I’m trying to stay more general and give folks stuff that is useful in a variety of different games.

  4. Mike on December 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I’d love to see you review HM. Even though I was an early playtester, I still waffle on whether I really want to run a campaign of it. The system can be very nit-picky (especially the skill system) and the books are pretty expensive. Kenzerco’s glacial pace of producing new material also bothers me. But there are a lot of things I do love about the new HM.

  5. DMpanu on December 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I agree with you that failing forward is not desirable. Success is only sweet when failure is sour. I do however feel that you should always try to move the story forward on success or failure.

    Looking forward to the series.

  6. Miyagi on January 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    This is great. Where are the next sections? Isn’t it January:)

  7. Jon on March 17, 2013 at 11:38 am

    Great post! I heartily agree. Your blog is a lot more practical than mine. I need to learn from you how to get my head out of the clouds. I talk big about boundaries and scaffolding, and you make it a lot more practical with your five rules.

    • Jon on March 17, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      Cross link: I liked this post so much I suggested on “tearing 4e a new one” that you consider that fights should follow these same rules. At a minimum, it addresses your 4e issue. Of course you also pointed out there that its not the dm, but the system. System matters. I agree. But the entire complaint people have about the problem of the fifteen minute workday assumes fantasy heroes should be in combat all day, which is a characteristic of d&d and d&d only. Fights should follow the same five basic rules as skill systems. And if they don’t, and players nova and rest, there isn’t really a better way to do it than a system that balances all classes for encounter 1 as well as encounter 5.

      The real problem with the fifteen minute workday is that I previous editions it made wizards really powerful for two encounters, and then the whole party would rest. The fighter and rogue, balanced to be better than the wizard late in the day, never saw that happen.

      • The Angry DM on March 17, 2013 at 9:53 pm

        Considering I am writing about D&D (and Pathfinder, to some extent), I think it is quite fair that I write about uniquely D&D problems. Though I do not quite agree with your assessment.

        That being said, part of the reason I LIKE D&D and play it is because I like a combat focus and I like a series of action encounters that wear a party down as they work toward a goal. D&D claims to be built on that assumption and the reason I criticized it as I did in that other post is because, despite that claim, the system was built to provide players with different incentives, forcing the DM to work against the in-built incentives to create the play experience the game promised. And I proposed a fix.

        I don’t find “it is not broken because the DM can fix it” to be a compelling argument and I do not find “just play a different system” to be useful advice. My goal is to actually try to provide fixes for people who run into the same isolated problems I do in systems they otherwise want to stick with for a variety of other reasons.

        • Jon on March 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm

          I think your solutions are good, but I think the problem doesn’t exist. Not really. I think it’s a problem we created.

          The fifteen minute workday is the name of a problem caused by the imbalance between casters and non-casters in original, 1st, 2nd and 3rd edition D&D. The problem, as you clearly know, was that, absent a story reason to keep going, casters could expend their most powerful spells every round until they ran out, then rest and repeat. Because casters were balanced to assume they mixed high- and (mostly) low-level spells in each encounter, having casters use only top-level spells caused them to be significantly more powerful than non-casters.

          Like many DMs, I spent over a decade (before 4e) working out ways to fix the fifteen minute workday problem — that is, the caster/non-caster imbalance that results from short adventuring days. The best strategy was to eliminate the fifteen minute workday itself, by doing some of the things you pointed out — applying time pressure from plot events, using wandering monsters, etc. Fixing the system itself was too hard.

          I think we all came to conflate the fifteen minute workday with the caster/non-caster imbalance. It was impossible to patch the system to require casters to mix in low level spells, so we all focused on eliminating the fifteen minute workday.

          So now people think that the fifteen minute workday is the problem, when in fact it’s the filler fights and the goblins that exit just to wear the party down that are the problem, because they’re a legacy of the band-aid we all used to keep casters from dominating the game. They’re not important to the plot. They’re filler. They’re usually not that tactically challenging, and they usually have the default binary outcomes, “kill or be killed.”

          But your other point, that some groups might want to play that way — with cocky, reckless bravado rewarded by the system — is valid. That’s badass “van art” fantasy, and I think it’s cool; but we have to agree that it’s its own subgenre of fantasy. The Fellowship didn’t slog through an average of four or five battles every day they had one.

          I think your solutions would work, though limiting dailies seems to go too far, to me. I proposed some more ideas on my blog as I was thinking up this response. One system-based solution was inspired by old school tournament play, so if you know any Fourthcore folks, send them the link.


  8. [...] to take an action. Now, I’ve said a lot on the subject of using the dice to resolve actions (Five Simple Rules for Dating my Teenaged Skill System), and I promised follow ups on all aspects of resolving actions. Well, here we [...]

  9. Jaist on August 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    this is spooky, I just finished writing the weekly newsletter for my gaming club and it says nearly exactly what you were saying in part 1. here’s some copy pasta from the newsletter, if you can give me any suggestions about what else to say to them to get them out of the “i roll an x” habit that’d be fantastic

    Describe your actions
    “i perception check the fountain.”
    Boring. what does that tell me about what the PC expects? nothing.
    “I run my hands along the fountain, wondering at the beauty of the craftsmanship, peering close, I try and make out what the symbols are.”
    sweet, I, as DM love this, youve just helped me realize the world in a physical, descriptive way, you are helping to tell the story, youve put yourself in there. youve listened to the description and you are reacting in a way that shows it, but it’s not all about stroking the DM’s ego.

    “I roll a check” (and now expect to do something the DM hadn’t even considered).
    A lot of the time you guys will pick up with laser focus on something that isn’t vital, you’ll miss the right clue or you’ll think of a solution that the DM hasn’t thought of. DM’s love this if you describe what you are doing. It is the bane of a DM’s existence if you just say “I roll a check”.

    Describe your intent
    for an extra bonus, add an expected outcome on the end
    PC1: “I push against the statue, hoping that it will topple onto the pressure plate below, triggering the trap without anyone getting hurt”
    DM (with a surprised eyebrow cocked, rolls a strength check) “the statue starts to topple forward”
    PC1: “I shout LOOKOUT BELOW!”

    This is role playing and this is where DnD gets fun.

    If the DM is still stumped it’s at that point you should probably suggest a check. Meta gamingly, this probably means you are barking up the wrong tree, ask for further clarifications.

    • Jaist on August 3, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      oh yeah, and I cut out this because I don’t want them to fully realize the number crunching implications behind what they are doing, i want them to role play first and then find out the in game benefits of doing it, I feel like I have to leave something behind the screen…

      a description like this means you don’t have to declare EXACTLY what check you are doing. you might think it’s a perception check and are happily surprised with it turning out to be a religion, history, arcana or thievery check. even if you fail you can meta game and ask whoever is proficient in the check to have a go.

  10. Wiatt on December 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you Angry DM!

    I started DMing about two years ago with a group of five of my best friends, and I knew nothing about DMing, breaking the game, or strange caviats and homebrew rules. I essentially improvised all my DMing until about a week ago, which lead to many campaign restarts, various broken parts of the game, and very little excitement about the game from the PCs because of lack of roleplaying and interaction with the world.

    After reading this article, I was inspired, and, after having read your article about creating awesome encounters, I set up a couple of encounters that I thought were interesting, and the players ate them up. Now we’re set on a good campaign and I’m excited to see how things turn out.

    Specifically, the idea you presented about the Pros and Cons in each encounter was particularly helpful, as was the removal of skill checks that can’t fail. Using these, I’ve really trimmed up the content that I deliver into a more comprehensive and interactive package.
    (And my improv is actually pretty useful within the framework of the larger world I’ve created.)

    Just thought I’d say how much I appreciate your blog.
    The DM Remade

  11. Tom D on March 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    First – thanks. I like this write up.

    5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System –>
    A Digression: When to Roll Knowledge Checks

    – I like (and have used before reading this) the idea of knowledge skills being passive. However, similar to your ‘don’t roll without a real failure option’ rule I have used them actively: Can they remember in time? In these cases, it is actually a INT check with a modifier based on the skill – and only available if they could have known passively in the first place. These are to be used in specific (emergency? whatever follow your rule 2) situations. For example: the party walks into some room, see summoning going on and have a timeframe before said ritual magic wipes everyone’s teeth from existence. Those who know, can panic appropriately while those who don’t just see some magic that they can presume is bad but don’t have a basis for urgency – and therefore target the sword weilding bodygaurd first since he is more immediately threatening. The roll simply allows the team to change the target (or not) appropriately.

  12. Thomas on March 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Can I request a printer friendly PDF?

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