An RPG Writing Cheat

It’s Labor day, and I wan’t sure whether or not to pick up the next section of 13th Age on a holiday. I ultimately decided against it, so I’m going to riff on something that’s been bugging me.

It should be clear by now that I like 13th Age and Numenera enough that I’m willing to write a crapton about them. As I take a moment here to talk about something they both do purely from the perspective of a writer of games, I want it to be clear that this is not a criticism of either game, but rather an observation of a particular phenomena.

Both games cheat.

Specifically, both games have player defined skills (whether they call them that or not). There are many positive elements to do this, but from the perspective of writing, this vastly simplifies a lot of rules writing. Handling skills (or, more specifically, handling the things that one does with skills) is something that often ends up eating a lot of page count in RPGs, especially RPGs that aren’t entirely combat focused. By dropping skill lists, you drop a lot of that verbiage.

There is a cynical practicality to this, because there is a correlation between how contentious an action is to how many words it burns. Which is a polite way to say that if you have some weird ideas about how perception or social interaction should be handled, then they’re going to take a lot of explaining and they’re going to hit a lot of resistance. By simply not addressing those issues, the designers[1] implicitly say “use whatever conventions your table is comfortable with to address those issues.”

This is not a terrible solution. If you like Gumshoe inspired clue handling or don’t like rolling for social skills in favor of letting players talk then you can just do that thing. Rather than challenging player assumptions at every turn, the designer can focus on those core ideas that he or she considers worth pushing the player on and makes sure that those get the focus they need.

But it’s still a cheat.

Now, take this with a grain of salt. You should know by now that I’m pretty verbose, and my instincts tend towards complete explanations. The ultimate expression of this was probably Spirit of the Century’s handling of skills[2], which was as comprehensive and play-focused as I can imagine skill writeups to be and was also too damn long.

So it’s possible that the cheat is the right answer. I’m not totally convinced of that, and my instinct is that either game would benefit from at least some general guidelines on skill building (perhaps some Structured Skills in the spirit of Feng Shui and Bulldogs!, paired with some Rich Skill thinking). In fact, it was thinking about such guidelines that highlighted to me the power of the cheat. Even if I were to present some guidelines for these make-your-own skill lists, they would only be as compelling as people want them to be.

And that’s good. I’m a big fan of rules or techniques needing to be exciting enough to make you WANT to use them.

Which only leaves the question of the novice player, the one looking to learn from the game. I’ve said many times that an RPG needs to be 3 things – an instruction manual, a reference book and a good read. The problem is that it’s impossible to be all 3, so you decide where to make you’re tradeoffs. I think that 13th Age and Numenera have both jettisoned #1 in favor of #2 and #3. It’s an interesting choice that strengthens both books in many ways, but also demands that the game either be your second (or subsequent) RPG or that it will be taught personally. I think both games really feel like they’re written to be someone’s second RPG (probably after D&D/Pathfinder/D20). This definitely creates some weirdness, but the more I think about it, the more it feels like it might be a very smart play. So we’ll see.

  1. And to be clear, these are far from the first games to pull this cheat. It is one of the oldest cheats in RPG design.  ↩
  2. SOTC is a large book – offputtingly large to some – and a big part of that is the handling of skills. There are, effectively, 3 skill chapters. One is stunts, so whatever, but the other two are basically the Player and GM chapters. They’ve very extensive because each skill was written up as if this skill was the most important skill in the game, with a player section focused on all the awesome things you could do with the skill and a GM section dedicated t how you make cool adventures for a character with that particular skill. Do this for every skill on the list and it runs long.

    To this day, I still think this is a really useful approach, but the simple reality is that, based on feedback, readers don’t dig it so much. I can’t blame them. Even if it’s super useful for the one or two skills that you’re interested in, that’s offset by the apparent noise of the stuff that doesn’t grab you. The problem is that if that material doesn’t go in core rules, I’m not sure where it does go.

    Maybe on blogs.  ↩

12 thoughts on “An RPG Writing Cheat

  1. Patrick

    My biggest problem with the skill descriptions in SotC had a lot to do with the fact that I had to read two different sections of the book for each skill before I understood how its (pre-stunt) version worked. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the skill sections had buried exceptions to the generalized conflict rules built in with things like False Face Forward vs that Empathy one where if you succeeded vs an assessment it still revealed an Aspect, but an aspect of the defenders choice, etc.

    I’ll also say that I never quite got comfortable with the “trappings” orientation of skills that both SotC and DFRPG use. Which is why the skill chapter from Bulldogs!, and by extension the way Fate Core describes skills, were so wonderfully. It felt like it seperated the Mechanical and In-Fictional side to skills enough that I really felt like I could tell what the skill as written covered, and therefore what belonged to another skill or (by RAW) needed a Stunt to extend the skill.

    I think that the best version of a “pick your own skills” section ever is probably the Unknown Armies 2nd Edition one. It specifies (via free skills) what the functions you must cover are, and gives lots of examples of how you can make skills that are their own little rule exception (which is how non-magic users get rule exceptions in UA) in a way that lets a hesitant player or GM stick with the existing exceptions, but really licenses more confident players or GMs to make new ones.

    Note that where these rules exceptions are different than the ones in the Skills (rather than Stunts) of SotC is that my problem with SotC is that the Empathy skill introduced an exception for everyone but UA Skills (and Fate Stunts) give an exception for particular characters. I’d build many NPCs with none of these tricks for simplicity in play, while whem making PCs I’d feel free to use them more liberally because “my tricks” are easier to remember than “this dude’s tricks.”

  2. Cam Banks

    It was weird and slightly uncomfortable to go from Roles in Leverage to Skills in Firefly. As you well know, Roles are designed to be meta-skills that cheat in exactly the way you’re talking about above, while still holding down some basic, underlying thematic grasp on what’s possible in the game. Marvel Heroic uses Specialties, which owe a lot to Feng Shui’s rich skill concepts, but they’re still not essential elements of any action (even though a lot of people wanted them to be). For Firefly however, I went back to Skills again.

    I could say it was because Skills just made more sense in the ‘Verse, but the truth is that one of the design goals for Firefly is to allow for an easier transition for those people used to Serenity and other Att + Skill systems to Cortex Plus, and because Leverage-style Roles just seemed too hard to pin down. With a fixed Skill list and everyone getting at least a d4 in every Skill, it made a lot of other decisions easier to handle and I don’t think the eventual page count will be too long (thankfully that’s not my job.)

    I’m curious to know if you agree with me about the Roles in Leverage and whether that’s somehow an exception or if, as I think, it’s kind of the same thing.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I think things like roles or other short, broad skill lists make for something of a bridge between the two approaches. They give *something* to hook into, but are still pretty open ended. But the real trick is that finding a short list that *feels* right is a trick – Leverage had one baked into the source material. Coming up with a similar list for Firefly would be rough.

      1. Patrick

        Gonna flag again how the Unknown Armies route is another halfway trick. The UA Free Skills (+Guns and the Magic skills) cover the general assumptions about what “needs to be handled” but leaves you with free form (w/ examples) for everything else.

  3. Staffan

    One thing that helps 13th age with its “cheating” skill list is that you’re assumed to be generally competent. Even without an appropriate background, you get to roll d20+stat+level, with a background providing a boost of up to 5 points. When you compare it to games with fixed skill lists, the difference between being untrained in a skill and being good at it is usually much higher than 25 percentile points.

    Also, DCs are mainly hand-waved by tying them to environment tiers. In an adventurer-tier environment, DCs will be 15-20 with the occasional bump to 25 for really difficult things. So if you’re in an adventurer-tier dungeon and need to climb somewhere? That’s DC 15-20. Need to get a door open quick? DC 15-20. Need to negotiate with the goblins? DC 15-20. You don’t need to go “Well, it’s rough natural rock for DC 15, but the rocks are a bit slippery from the splashes from the nearby waterfall for +5, so it’s DC 20.” So you don’t need long skill descriptions to tell you how difficult various things are.

  4. Viktor Haag

    I’m of two minds about dynamic, player-defined skill systems. I like the 13th Age approach -more- than the Numenera or HeroQuest approach (on paper) actually because what burns me most about skill systems is how I have to, as the GM, hold them all in my head at the same time in order to feel like I’m effectively running the game. This means that the Over-The-Edge-Inspired background thing in 13th Age where ever character has a very small number of “skills” that are very broad actually really floats my boat, because I can stick all that done on one side of a sheet of paper for my game group, and know where the PCs want to go, what they’re liable to want to do, and what they’re sort of going to try to get away with in play.

    If I’m going to have a defined set of skills, I can live with that, as long as they’re thematically appropriate and I can fit them all more or less in my head (which basically means, can they appear all on a not-to-large list on one side of a page). My favourite games with defined sets of skills: James Bond, RuneQuest III, MouseGuard, Classic Traveller, and at the very outside, Call of Cthulhu. Much as I like the GUMSHOE games, they are just the other side of the comfort fence for me — for some odd reason D20/Pathfinder were also there just on the other side of the fence which is odd because the skill list is actually smaller than CoC… I just don’t think that either of them are as usable as CoC.

    My nightmare games: anything ICE*Master and GURPS.

    But at least those games had defined skill systems with a cap. My all time least favourite skill system in a game? Burning Wheel. By a landslide. And I don’t dislike the game. But the uncapped, hideously long skill system just screams out completely pointless to me. If you want to tie in player input, use a player-defined dynamic system a la WaRP, 13th Age, or Numenera; if you want a defined set of capabilities you can template characters on, then for pete’s sake, cap the list.

    MouseGuard just feels so much more solid – apart from anything else I can make a single US Letter page that tells me all I know need to know about the skills in the game for use at the table. All of them.

  5. M.I.K.e

    I’m not sure what the official definition of “to cheat” is, but I’d probably see it as “do something that’s against the rules”.
    The question here is, who makes the rules what skills should be like in an RPG? Sure, we’ve had skills at least since 1977 (with Traveller and RuneQuest), but D&D or T&T didn’t have skills (to name just two of the oldest RPGs). Would you consider them cheaters too?

    Don’t get me wrong, I can understand where you are coming from. I got into skills with CoC and BRP in general. And since I’ve mainly had more “traditional” RPGs until a few years ago it just didn’t occur to me there could be a different solution of having class-less characters without using a skill list.
    But over the years I’ve become more and more fed up with very long skill list, and it seems a lot of players/designers must have too, because there is a huge difference between the count of skills in D&D3 and D&D4, to name just one prominent example. (Even FATE Core has a much shorter skill list, IIRC.)

    Then I stumbled across Barbarians of Lemuria, which is using “careers” instead of skills (and it’s not the first game to do so DragonQuest did it before, maybe some other game even earlier, but I didn’t know at the time), which I see as a very elegant solution to simplify a skill list, and yes it’s practically the same thing as backgrounds in 13th Age. (Unlike 13th Age, BoL has a list of careers to choose from, but I don’t see a reason why one shouldn’t be able to create a new one, when it fits the character and the setting.)
    Simon Washbourne even openly admits that he chose careers because he was too lazy to think of an exhaustive list of skills, which mirrors your impression.
    But apart from also defining the background of the character much more directly than a skill list ever could (Take the BoL career of “slave”, what skills does that actually entail? I think one could think of countless ways to “exploit” that career in play, you couldn’t come up in years of design.).
    And think of all the little skills a career could include. Of course a sailer knows how to tie certain knots, but you wouldn’t have a skill called “Knot tying” in a game, would you? You might say, “That’s included in the seafaring or navigation skill”, but one might call that cheating too. So where does the cheating start and where does it end?

    In the end, no matter if you are using a long skill list, predefined careers, or free-form backgrounds, everything is an abstraction. It’s just a matter of how granular you like it. I’d never claim that your preference of more clearly defined skills is wrong, because it’s your play-style and that’s just personal.
    Unfortunately I haven’t read SOTC so I don’t know about the exact nature of your definition of the skills, but I find it admirable that you tried to make it as exhaustive as possible.
    The question is, though, how many players/GM actually are able to make use of your labor during play?
    My memory isn’t what it used to be, and the dozens of systems I have, combined with all the stuff from work I have to remember, I don’t see how I could keep all the details of a skill description in mind. And in the heat of the battle, so to speak, I doubt I’d consult the rule book, I’d probably just wing it.

    To an extent this reminds me of the discussion of the most realistic combat system. You could say that Hit Points is cheating and Armor Class is unrealistic (and I’d agree), but after having studied several “realistic” systems with lots of tables I realized: No matter how granular you make it, it’ll always be an abstraction and with those charts you’ll see the errors even printed black on white paper.
    In my opinion what a “realistic” combat system needs is just the right amount of lethality, i.e. the correct ratio between life (or whatever you’d like to call the character’s stat) and damage. The only question remaining is, do you actually want that character lethality in game?

    In terms of skills this might be coined as: Whatever gets the job done, i.e. use what more or less simulates the character trying to succeed at a task. That could be selecting the right skill from a list of several hundred, or deciding if one of the character’s backgrounds includes such a skill or not. It all comes down to a matter of taste.
    I don’t think there is a right or wrong, and I don’t really see it as cheating. A better term might be laziness, when the designer doesn’t want to do the work to build a huge list of skills.
    But even with such a list in the end it comes down to GM rulings anyway. Even with a clearly defined list players will find ways to surprise you.
    These are role-playing games, after all, not board games or MMORPGs. In WoW it’s clear that you cannot climb a tree to escape from a pack of wolves, because the designers of Blizzard just didn’t think of it, or they decided against including it. But in a tabletop RPG you’d never say: “Sorry, you cannot climb that tree, your character has no ‘tree climbing’ skill!” (Of course you could say, that tree has no low-hanging branches, there’s no way you are able to climb that. But most of the time it probably comes down to the nowadays well-know rule: Either say yes or roll dice.)

    To reiterate (I’m probably sounding like a broken record by now), it’s a matter of taste and I think cheating is a bit of a strong word for that. You obviously like more clearly defined skill lists, while I tend to prefer more freely defined ones nowadays.

    But don’t get me started on spell lists! There are few things that are more garlic to my RPG-blood sucking vampire than quips like “Over 500 spells!” (well, maybe “Over 50 classes!”)…

    But even if we might no agree on this topic, I really enjoy your comments on Numenera and 13th Age, especially your insights as a game designer that highlight issues I probably wouldn’t have thought of on first read.
    But if we’d all agree on all topics there probably would be only one RPG system and life itself would be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It’s not the length of the skill list which makes it cheating. If you think it’s obvious I like exhaustive skill lists, I suggest that I may have been unclear about the point, which is not about the volume of skills, but their *role* in the presentation of game material.

      Now, this is predicated on the idea that it is the author’s responsibility to explain how to play the game. The skill list is, in “normal” games, the area where adjudication is explained, explored, and its nuance wrung out. This is not a universally held position, and it’s also situational – many games are reasonably small and do not expect to explain “how gaming works”. However, when you have a big, bookend game (like Numenera or 13th Age) then the expectation is that it’s probably self contained in this regard.

      The fact that they really don’t is absolutely a cheat from a number of perspective, but most notably it spares them wordcount and spares them any philosophical conflict over how certain things can be adjudicated. That is, you are not going to run into the problem of seeming too indie or too old school if you simply never touch upon an issue(like, say, how matters of perception should be handled) at all. It’s a dodge. A cheat.

      Now, again, it might have been the right cheat. Neither game is really well designed as a first time game for everyone, and that seems to have been an intentional choice on the designers part which allowed them to explicitly cut certain corners. And that’s fine, lots of games have done that. But the nature of these two games, in terms of their origin, their role in the market and their sheer size, makes it odd.

      Bottom line – Skills are the practical route to illustrating and explaining adjudication. You can support adjudication without skills, but doing so requires specific effort to make up for the gap, and that effort is not present.

      1. M.I.K.e

        No, you’ve been quite clear that it’s not the size but rather the definition and the explanation of the use of skills is your focus. I only mentioned long skill lists as a different extreme.

        While walking the dog I had a few more thoughts on the topic (walking works quite well for me in that aspect).
        Sometimes when I want to get a quick grasp of a system a take a peek at the character creation rules and the character sheet. For free-form systems it just doesn’t work that well. 13th Age at least has the well-known six attributes. But as a different example, and one of the earliest of the free-form ones, I wasn’t interested in Over the Edge or HeroQuest initially, because simply browsing through character creation and looking at the PC sheet doesn’t reveal any familiar sounding terms. I believe the earliest I actually understood the fully free-form concept was with PDQ.

        I concur that both 13th Age and Numenera probably aren’t suitable for beginners (I believe you already mentioned in one of your early postings on 13th Age that prior knowledge of d20 is more or less assumed).
        For beginners something like BRP is still one of the best systems, despite its age (or maybe that simply proves how good the design was back then). You have (mostly) evocative skills and the percentile system tells everyone with enough math background what their (average) chances are. I really loved the system in the 90s, and I’m still somewhat fond of it.

        But I have moved on and prefer other things now. I’m not the greatest fan of linear probability nowadays, and FATE obviously favors a bell curve as well. Also roll-over feels more natural to me. Roll-under works well for average difficulty, because the number is right there on your sheet, but other difficulties and opposing actions work better with roll-over. But that’s beside the point…

        I still have to read my copy of 13th Age, so I’m not totally sure what the authors write about the topic of backgrounds (I just got too many systems recently and don’t have enough time, but who has?)…
        Do you feel that 13th Age lacks examples of backgrounds and how to use them in play? Would that improve things for you? Or do you think that “free-form skills” is always a “cheat”?

        Where do you see the difference to Aspects in FATE?
        Yeah, I know that Aspects aren’t skills, but I’m referring more to the free-form nature of the stat.

  6. nat

    I love the way skills are handled in SotC–I found it better than Dresden Files in that regard. (I haven’t had a chance to read Fate Core yet.) The other game that I’m familiar with which basically defines the game through the skills chapter is Spycraft 2.0 and I like it there, too.

    But it only works for games that really are built on the skills–where the skills are the bulk of the rules. For a game with less detail, where the skills are simple access to doing things, putting rules there instead of in the chapter of whatever they’re for can be really frustrating. I can’t think of a direct example of this right now, but D&D3E sorta does this with “hiding” combat rules in the feats chapter.

    Anyway, yes I see what you mean. How do you feel about games like Over the Edge or the like that don’t even have “expected basic skills”?

    It seems to me that the problem with leaving out skills is, as you say, not explaining some of the [important] details of the rules–and that maybe that’s fine so long as you don’t mind raw beginners not fully understanding the game. If that’s the case, then less crunchy games, or games that are more about narrative control than about character capability, might not need skill descriptions. I think that’s what Cam is getting at with the difference between “skills” and “roles”–roles don’t need detailed descriptions precisely because they’re so broad and relatively open-ended.

    Actually, that just makes me think that roles are also a bridge between “attributes” and “skills”. That is, that roles work best in a game when they are the broad fall-back character quantifiers, as opposed to having both those and skills.

    The biggest problem I’ve noticed with define-your-own-skills is when the game lets you accidentally make a character who can’t do something important. What do you do if you get into a fight and have no fighting skills? Are you a poor fighter (because you use your Body stat)? Or can you, mechanically, not fight at all?

    1. Staffan

      I’m not quite sure what you mean with D&D3 hiding combat rules in the feats chapter… sure, there are feats affecting combat, but the way I see it the combat rules set up the “normal” rules, and feats provide ways of breaking them – just like spells do, though usually in a lesser way. For example, the combat chapter says “You can only make one AoO per round,” and the feats chapter fills that in with “… unless you have Combat Reflexes!” In many cases, the exceptions are also called out at the appropriate places in the combat chapter, e.g. “A bull rush provokes an attack of opportunity, unless you have the Improved Bull Rush feat.”

      I’m not really sure how this could be done differently, at least not if you wanted an expandable list of feats.

      Being left incompetent in 13th age because you missed something in your background selection is not really a problem, because you still have basic competence at everything. Particularly, fighting isn’t covered by skills but by your class. I’ll admit that it could be a problem in Over The Edge, though.

    2. Rob Donoghue Post author

      OTE handles the default action very strongly (Since everything defaults to 2d) so the resolution remains the same, and that’s decently robust. But what’s curious is that technically 13A does the same (since you can always roll Stat + Level) but it feels less satisfying to me. Thinking about it indicates that it’s at least somewhat irrational. There’s a little math to it (The way die steps work) but I think there’s also a psychological element of setting the baseline at 2d rather than at 0.

      I dunno. There’s a case to be made that the skills/backgrounds in 13A don’t matter that much mechanically, since the net bonus is still only so much of the actual rolled value, but I think I would like that conclusion even less. So, there’s irrationality in saying they matter, but also irrationally in saying they don’t matter, but the real irrationality is in saying both at once. I figure you pick a perspective and extrapolate from there, and I pick the perspective that they matter.


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