Thursday, May 31, 2012

Got Skillz?

Skills and skill systems as they relate to OD&D.

We have ported our Labyrinth Lord game to Savage Worlds and while it works well ...very well even. Its just not D&D. Years ago, for me that would have been a plus. During my rebel years when I lauded all things not D&D.

No, though I'm a reconfirmed and born again in my original faith - that of D&D and the OSR. I'm a little dismayed at the growth of our house rule document. That is however under my control and I could had line a more traditional approach.Why should I really? I think many other games have brought some meaningful technology/Systems to the original game and making use of them is I think of benifit to the flow of the game at the table.

Key to this is skill systems. I'm yet to be convinced by advantages and disadvantages (- although I think Savage Worlds and my other favorite system Hollow Earth Expeditions "Ubiquity" do a good job of including them but minimizing the addition of complexity).

So what is a good skill system? As a DM I'm happy with the OSR skill system and the way I implement it.  Lets look at it more closely.

OSR Skill system v01. There really isn't any skills and it comes down to DM fiat as to weather or not a player can succeed. The up side is the DM has complete control over moving the story forward  by providing responses to player questions. The down side is the DM has too much narrative control. In effect the DM is controlling the player character as well as the milieu and he can manipulate the outcomes far to much. More importantly the system is dependent on the skill of only the DM and I think this is both a boon and a bane.   

OSR Skill system v0.2 Under that skill system in and our old game players could attempt an attribute check on anything that was conceivably related to their class. They could make a half attribute check for nearly anything else. This is a good quick system which gets a lot done. It favors inventive players and I think they are worth rewarding. 

Rules Encyclopedia, skill system as written in those rules. The difference between this and v0.2 is a) It has a structured skill list, b) It has a number of accrued "slots" for the structured skills c) It only uses a simple roll under stat mechanic. I find this a little too structured.

I wont go to the proficiency system of revised AD&D as I don't think its much more then the Rules Encyclopedia, skill system in different clothing,  revised AD&D  was my least favorite version of D&D. Anyway there is not a lot between the two systems with "slots" being replaced by "proficiencies"  

There have been a number of notable retro clones which have added skill systems.The ones I find noteworthy (these are others I like too but these were landmarks I think in the OSR community)

Most people seem to like LotFP's d6 skill system. It does have much to be admired a) its simple and b) its just enough of a list and c) and it opens up (the Thief) skills, at a basic level to everyone, which should have always been the case.

The Majestic Wilderlands skill system which is closer to a modified  Rules Encyclopedia, skill system and the OSR Skill system v0.2 we use.

Microlight uses an elegant system of skill "clusters" sort of mega-skills which the player has and can use and are resolved with a skill check.

Castle and Crusades SIEGE engine Primes and challenge classes also gets a respectful nod.

Stars Without Number has a fully defined skill list and a resolution mechanism using 2d6. Its not  

The critical success factors as I see it for a skill system is it should;
  • Be easy to understand
  • Support player narrative input (as opposed to supplanting it)
  • Fit with the feel and spirit of the classic rules, so it should use poly dice
  • Should only be used for those activities which have a significant importance to the story OR where success/failure is important to the simulation (depending on paradigm) 
  • give a pass/fail result when required 
  • give a more nuanced graduated result when required
Also I think the skill system should use the Target 20 model used for combat with AC being replaced by Difficulty and the mods being environmental and other factors which increase/decrease the difficulty

TARGET 20 "SKILLS" ALGORITHM: d20 + level + Dif# + mods ≥ 20

I'm also somewhat partial to using the OD&D/Chainmail Man to Man resolution system. This would call for rolling d6's based on level and looking for "hits". 

when I can be bothered I'll pick this up again. 

Technoir, Smallville, FU RPG.

So the D&D game has been great even tho its D&D powered by Savage worlds. Its just so much better in terms of useable rules for a sandbox then I found OD&D to be. Yeah I love labyrinth lord as a rule set but by the time I tack on all the house rules we do actually use -things that date back from our D&D in the 80's and other stuff we have picked up along the way the house rules were getting very large. I've talked about this before. We can play savage worlds D&D and don't need house rules. Also our observation is the combats move much faster - for a number of reasons.

But last week we had two of the players no-show so we "unboxed" Technoir. Its cyberpunk clasic 80's style and more modern stuff verging on trans-humanism and is very tool kit oriented while still being a complete game. What I really admired was the story-path mechanic. Its reminiscent of the relationship map in Smallville only its a GM only resource used to propel the narrative. It works well and I was able to kitbash a story on the fly that felt like it was preplanned. We all had fun and that was what was important.

The core mechanic is essentially an opposed dice pool roll only the 'defender' does not need to roll but just sums up the contributing traits to determine their total which speeds things up considerably. You through around adjectives and can place them on the 'target' of your action. Essentially if you 'win' the roll you get to narrate. However if you don't 'Push" your action - spend some special story point like dice on the action - then the result can only be fleeting which constrains your narration and indeed even your choice of adjective.

Its a very subtle point but the resolution guideline has a step in the procedure which says you must respect the narration - this becomes very important in the case of fleeting results. So you narrate the story and you must observe for the scene the adjective regardless of the fact that 'fleeting' adjectives will disapear at the end of the scene. This is just one way in which the game drives the story. there are lots of story driving mechanics in the games design. If you do spend your push dice you a) lose them to the target of your action and b) can then make the adjective 'sticky' you need special attention to remove or deal with the adjective, or even 'locked' which makes it last permanently. Adjectives can be positive or negative.

The interesting thing is canny player soon realise they can take non-physical types of harm get adjectives and hence push dice and make thing go their way but its cyclical - literally what goes around comes around - and hence very Noir.  Hording push dice only results in trivial results and a trivial story line. So it is up to the players to 'push' the games drama forward. 

Its a lot like the FU RPG mechanics actually which is free and you can find it on RPGnow. Go have a look. FU is good in its own right so take a look. If you like cyberpunk and story support mechanics then I highly recommend Technoir.

I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to talk about the Transmission concept in Technoir. You use these 'Modules' to craft your game session. At the core they are a list of things, People, objects etc which play into the story you will craft. Its worth noting these take exactly the concept of sandbox pre-development i.e its a required game-mechanical representation of a "thing" you will use during the game session - in Technoir parlance 'Runtime' cute huh, nice co-opting of the computer term. What this means is not only is it a list of names and role but items, organisational entities and equipment too. They are really evocative.

Interestingly you can sequence Transmissions together as your story grows and moves around the world. One minor quible I have is that the content of a transmission is very small essentially it is a 6x6 matrix and then is everything stated out all under the one Transmission and per the rules as written they represent that locale. I'd probably extend this concept and say that a single Transmission is just a setting abstraction and have a number of Transmissions which could apply to a location. But it does work as is.

Overall its a really clever design and a fun game. Its much more of a pick up game then FATE <<anything>> ever was so if you want a good, fun, easy to use pick up game I say you could do much worse then Technoir.