More Skills

So many good comments on the last post that I really can’t process them, except to note that they resulted in my digesting them, and lead to this.

Ok, let’s start from a premise:  If you roll the dice, you’ll succeed.

The idea behind this is pretty simple – if your character is one who is capable of doing something, then that’s reflected in their skills.  Fighter-guy does not get to roll to pick locks and hope he rolls a 20, and mage guy does not get to try to break down a door and hope the same[1].   So this makes the foundational decision into one of whether or not the player gets to roll.

So, why might you not be able to roll?

First and foremost, you might not have the appropriate skill.  Simple enough.

Second, you might not have enough skill.  Even before we get into the details of what a roll means, there may be some rough tiering of skill levels that says “basic lockpicking is not enough to crack open Loki’s security system – you need Epic lockpicking.”  This could be its own topic, but for the moment, just file away that the possibility exists.

Third, you may be missing a key element.  It might be a physical limitation, like trying to hack a computer you can’t physically access,  or it might be some piece of information, like the language you need to speak.

Fourth, because it might be too trivial to merit a roll.  Sometimes success just happens.

Now, given all that, what does a skill roll mean?  Now that success is not at question, it’s now all about all the other things we talk about that make skill rolls interesting.  These are potentially different for any roll, but a few of the big categories include:

Time – Can this be done quickly or slowly? (QUICKLY/SLOWLY)
Quality – Will this be a well-crafted job, or held together with duct tape and spit? (WELL/POORLY)
Style – How good do you look doing it? (STYLISH/MESSY)[2]
Durability – Is this built to last, or is it just barely going to hold together? (DURABLE/FRAGILE)
Consequences – Situationally, what else might go wrong (or right)?[3]

All of these gain some meaning when you have a clear expectation of how things are going to go – all else being equal, that lock is going to take a few minutes to pick, for example.[4]  And they gain extra meaning from the context – a few minutes may be too long if the guards are on regular patrol.

Now, if we were going pure diceless, then we could view this as a currency swap.  Imagine each of those categories as a switch that could be -, 0 or +.  0 means it’s as expected, + means it does well in that category, – means its less good.  In this case, the  the problem is that the lock needs to be picked QUICKLY, so the player offers a tradeoff, that it will be MESSY (that is to say, it will be obvious upon inspection that the lock has been picked).  That brings things to a net 0 (+1 for QUICKLY, -1 for AWKWARD) which is what the character needs to succeed.

When you add dice into the equation, then the dice become the currency – you need to roll well enough to improve on your base success.

Ok, this is getting abstract, so let me ground this: Let’s take a basic success-counting system like the Storytelling System.  Core mechanic is simple: Roll a bunch of d10s, if any of them shows a success (7+), the roll is a success, with the number of successes coloring the outcome. We’re cheating a bit because this system does have the option of failure, but we can handle that.

In this case, we assume that one success is effectively a “0 point” success, goign exactly as expected.  Extra successes can be “cashed in” to improve the quality and nature of the roll – so, if you roll 3 successes, you might opt to succeed QUICKLY and STYLISHLY.

This gives players a chance to be awesome a lot, but it also introduces an interesting tool into the GM’s arsenal, since the same thinking can be applied to difficulties.  That is, the GM can set a few things at their negative values at the outset – a very fragile lock, for example, is going to be MESSY work, and if the player gets only one success, it’s going to be MESSY.  A second success will be needed to cancel out that (but, importantly, there’s no obligation to do so – if the player is ok with it being MESSY, he might use his successes to be QUICK).[5]

Obviously, this leaves a lot of territory uncovered (conflicts and contests jump to mind, though  I really like the prospect of contests where opponents push on different axes depending on their priorities) but hopefully the idea is reasonably clear.

1 – Is that a skill?  Sure, the same way running or climbing is.  There are a range of tasks that don’t need the skill, but the skill represents that it’s your thing.  You break down doors (or run or talk or whatever) 

2 – This may be the most mechanically toothless category, but humans are vain, and we like looking like we know what we’re doing.

3 – Though, really, EVERYTHING is just a flavor of consequence

4 – Yes, the setting of expectations is powerful mojo, and we’ll be getting to some of the mechanical hooks into that. 

5 – Did I just suggest that something might be double or triple QUICK? Why yes, yes I did, though what that means is a whole other topic.

16 thoughts on “More Skills

  1. John LeBoeuf-Little

    This reminds me a bit of Otherkind, in a good way. I think choosing the ways you can ‘spend’ successes is where things get tricky. Of these I’m most interested in Consequences/Complications.

  2. tenebrius

    It would be interesting to see how certain success buy-ins inter-operate. Let me demonstrate – If you punch someone you can do so QUICKLY/PRECISELY/FORCEFULLY/GRACEFULLY vs CLUMSILY/OFF CENTER/WEAKLY/UNBALANCED. Now if you also have a skill in pickpocketing (UNNOTICED/NOTICED/QUICK) you could spend a shift/plus/success to also pickpocket. Alternately you could simply say that when you land a QUICK/GRACEFUL/PRECISE hit you can also lift something.

    Moreover, I’m interested if you’d use axes of success/failure (pickpocket NOTICED/UNNOTICED) vs the more AW style mixed choices (UNNOTICED/QUICK) where not having the Unnoticed bonus lets you do the action (pickpocket) but have a drawback.

    Sidenote: I believe well crafted and duct-taped (category 2 vs category 4) is the same as DURABLE/FRAGILE but that’s nitpicking.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      The categories are, I fully cop, the weakest part of this model right now. I think they need ot be kicked around a bit more to see if they split and refine, partly for things like you note about duct tape.

      THat said, yeah, playing around with sliders is pretty curious stuff.

  3. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions)

    Ah, so you’re going to try to pick this lock!

    Barrier: To make the attempt, you need to be at least an Expert lockpicker. Journeyman and below will have to find another way around the lock. Master lockpickers roll one less die, and get a free Benefit.

    Effort: This is a three-die lock. That is to say, you’ll roll three Fudge dice. For each + you roll, pick a Benefit. For each – you roll, pick a Compromise.

    Available benefits: With time to spare; without a trace; stealthily.

    Available compromises: At the last possible moment; leaving evidence; hopelessly broken; discovered.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Yes, though the other thought i had is you really can just use Fudge Dice directly in this model as “THings that go well” and “Things that go poorly” (this is a whole post sometime) which has the interesting effect of making an aspect invocation about reversing a situation rather than the numerical bonus.

  4. Nick Pilon

    I think this is a really astute breakdown, and it’s far more usable in terms of advice than most of the other “make failure interesting” admonishments, as it provides a natural direction for making failure interesting. Even in a roll-pass-fail system like Dresden/SotC-FATE, in any given situation, it should be relatively obvious which of these categories failure should make worse. As you point out on Twitter, some systems (IE, Mouse Guard) make this very explicit.

    It also, I think, mixes nicely with the Consequences-on-any-roll stuff from the FATE Core blog posts.

  5. Jim

    I love bringing pushing on the door into this orbit. One thing that’s really struck me over my year-plus of fitful pursuit of weightlifting is that “strength” is a skill. This is especially true for technical lifts like the snatch and the clean & jerk, but it’s even true of basic powerlifts and strongman feats. You get better at not letting oppositional muscles fight your immediate effort. You also train your central nervous system to recruit more of your existing muscle fibers – an unconscious process that is nevertheless literal learning. So you can totally get better at pushing on a door along an axis orthogonal to adding muscle mass; you can know better, consciously and unconsciously, how to shove those suckers around.

  6. Professor Coldheart

    Even before we get into the details of what a roll means, there may be some rough tiering of skill levels that says “basic lockpicking is not enough to crack open Loki’s security system – you need Epic lockpicking.”

    The orphaned system Secret of Zir’an had a skill system like this: your Skill was a function of both your natural aptitude and your level of training. Certain maneuvers were only available to people with a certain amount of training.

    Let’s take a basic success-counting system like the Storytelling System. Core mechanic is simple: Roll a bunch of d10s, if any of them shows a success (7+), the roll is a success, with the number of successes coloring the outcome. We’re cheating a bit because this system does have the option of failure, but we can handle that.

    This is fine – with enough d10s, there’s very little chance of getting absolutely zero successes, but not much chance of getting an unreasonable number (like 6 or 7). Plus, if you care about that sort of thing, this solves the longstanding problem of how to handle Botches in Storyteller. Now a Botch is when you get absolutely no successes on a roll.

    These are potentially different for any roll, but a few of the big categories include:

    Many years ago, I sketched out raw notions of a system where the axes of success were the infamous “choose two” of design philosophy: Fast, Cheap and Good. I like your evolution, though: more choices make the players sweat more.

    Also: take a look at Levi Kornelsen’s Ouroboros system ( which does something similar. I keep coming back to it because it blends crunchy choices with versatility.

  7. Christian Hollnbuchner

    I have to be a bit critical of one of your first statements this time. While I like your idea of skill rolls not determining success/failure but how something succeeds I’m not so fond of the idea of making some skills exclusive to a stereotype.

    While the rogue probably has an easier time learning to pick locks the warrior should be able to acquire the skill as well, maybe at a higher cost. Thus I wouldn’t entirely forbid the “long shot” skilltest. While the rogue with “advanced lockpicking” would be able to bypass a lock easily the warrior with “basic lockpicking” should still be granted a chance.

    I’d discourage casual rolls on skills with very low chances of success in other ways. While succeess for the rogue with the appropriate skill would be granted, it would not be for the fighter. If he fails he might even invite disaster instead of just not succeeding (lockpick breaks and jams the lock, etc. …).

    Isay this, because I think a skill system should not be about saying “no, you can’t” in my opinion. I’d rather avoid too many casual skill rolls by doing away with casual failure. Make your players think about the consequences, good or bad.

  8. shermanthegoose

    I haven’t read all the replies, but the post reminds me of a mechanic I’ve been playing with using somehow for years.

    Long story short, when working at Kinko’s back in 1999, I got handed a business card once with this on the back:

    So for years now, I’ve toyed with using a skill system that utilized that idea at its core.

    Rob essentially covered Quality. I’ve lumped Rob’s Quality, Style and Durability under that one umbrella, each coming to the fore depending on the situation at hand.

    Fast, well, yeah, pretty straight forward.

    Now for the Cheap axis? This has always been more difficult for me to mentally work with. It’s easy with “magic” or “powers” that have a cost – the successful skill roll can actually make the “spell” cheaper to cast. Pretty cool! But how does that translate to regular skill rolls? Do certain difficulty levels have cost? Is that how difficulty is built into the system, through the Cheap axis rather than a traditional DC? You spend successes to buy down the expense of the skill roll difficulty?

    Any way, you can see that this discussion is right up my alley. Now back to reading everyone else’s responses…

  9. shermanthegoose

    are the 3 axis of a skill roll’s description, breaking it down, then:
    FAST – how quickly does your character accomplish the task at hand? Does he do it in time? In an opposed roll, who ever spends the most is the quickest
    CHEAP – bringing the difficulty of the task at hand within reach. If the difficulty is more than the number of dice you have, is it even possible without a special rule or power? With spells or powers, a more successful roll spends less “power” stat
    QUALITY – these are the variety of descriptors for the type of roll at hand listing benefits and compromises

    Just the further thoughts I had after reading the responses.

    Good fodder, thank you, helped get some thoughts flowing on this mechanic that has been lying around for years.

    1. shermanthegoose

      Wow, it is funny how sometimes trying to look at something in a new light can have you describe something old in a new way.

      The first part of my descriptor for CHEAP is essentially rolling successes to beat a difficulty…
      Maybe I’m adjusting my awareness though a bit as I look at the problem from different angles.


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