Mechanically defined skills should be kept to just those things which are beyond the capabilities of your average adventurer. Anybody can climb, or balance, or jump. It’s pretty easy to adjudicate the difference between something that can be done given a reasonable level of competence, and something can’t.
Furthermore, mechanically defined skills should never replace actual play. If a situation can be resolved by having the player describe their actions, and having the referee describe the way the environment reacts, then that’s how the situation should be resolved. Replacing the actual play of the game with rolling a die is a stupid thing to do.
Finally, mechanically defined skills should have some reasonable likelihood of being used. The average adventurer cannot play the cello, nor can the act of attempting to play the cello be resolved through play. Despite that, my game doesn’t include a ‘cello’ skill, because I don’t think it’s worth my time to write a skill that none of my players will use. But if someone, for some reason, decided they wanted to become a cello player, I would totally write a cello skill for them.
Well, someone in my game has decided they want to play the cello.
Not, like, for real. That was a metaphor. The actual thing my player wants is for me to create a Torture skill. Apparently, Umquat the 14 year old girl just really needs to be better at hurting people.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “Torture is neither beyond the capabilities of your average adventurer, nor is it impossible to resolve through actual play!” And you are correct. In fact, because I tend to turn my players into psychopaths, I’ve already had to make a ruling on torture in my game.
If the players have a helpless opponent, they can damage them with a weapon. Unlike in combat, where damage must be rolled randomly, players who are torturing someone may choose a number within their weapon’s damage range. The victim must make a morale check, with a penalty of 1 for every 3 points of damage the players deal.
If their morale check succeeds, they resist the torture, and refuse to give up the information the players are asking for. If the check fails, they break under the pressure and start talking. If the questions probe too closely to information that is particularly sensitive, the victim may clam up and need to be tortured further.
Notably, I do not allow the players to know how many hit points their victim has. So each torture attempt is a gamble. The more damage they do, the more likely their victim will break. But that’s not helpful if the victim also dies.
It’s a functional system, for something I came up with on the spot while running a game. But one of my players wants to get better at it. They want to improve as a torturer, and who am I to deny a player who wants to engage with the game in some way? And yet, as mentioned above, torture fails two of my tests for when it is appropriate to make a skill. How can I engage with my player, but also maintain the integrity of my ruleset?
Make torture a superpower.
This is something I touched on with “How I Use the Skills I Hate.” At the time, I was in a situation where I was obligated to use skills which failed one or more of my 3 rules. This left me with a few options.
One, I could remove the skills from the game. I didn’t want to do that, because players tend to get understandably frustrated when you take away their cookies. Two, I could run a game which didn’t meet my own standards for player agency. Which…no. Running a game is too much of a time investment. I’m not going to do something I can’t be proud of. Which left me with only one choice: rewrite bad skills to be good skills.
I did this by turning some of them into what I’m now calling Superpower Skills. Skills which do not model anything within the realm of possible human ability. The Search skill, for example, does not measure the player’s ability to search their environment. It literally determines what exists within that environment.
My players recently found a confusing device while they were raiding a magical laboratory. They couldn’t figure out how it worked, so they decided to look for some kind of journal describing its function. My notes didn’t indicate that any such journal existed, but their roll succeeded, so they found a journal and figured out what to do with the device. Of course, I still retain my ability to say “Yes you find that,” or “No, that’s not here.” This variation of search is just a handy way of resolving everything in between.
Since stumbling onto them, Superpower skills have become my new favorite thing. They allow me to create these totally gonzo resolution mechanics for all the things my players want to do. I can make a successful check powerful, but I don’t have to worry about it upending my game because there’s only a base 1-in-6 chance of success. That chance can be improved by raising your skill level, but players have a very limited number of skill points. If they’re putting them into one thing, then they’re not putting them into something else. It all more or less balances out.
You might worry that there’s danger in this thinking leading to Pathfinder style choice bloat, and that’s valid. But I think there’s an essential difference here. In a bloated game, the designer presents the players with an overabundance of choice from the get-go. I’m talking about responding to player desires within your own game. I will probably not include a torture skill in future games that I run, because the players in those games have not asked for one yet. I’ll just present them with a standard array of choices, and let them show me what crazy stuff they want to do.
So without any further blathering, here’s how I wrote the Torture skill for my player:
Torture is used to extract information which an NPC might not normally be able to offer you (similar to how the search skill is used to find things in an environment which may or may not be there) It can also be used to restrain a character’s lethal force, allowing them to merely wound when they would have otherwise killed.
If a character delivers a finishing blow to an enemy, they may attempt a torture roll to leave that foe barely alive. If successful, their foe is automatically considered helpless. In this, and any other situation where a foe is considered helpless, a successful torture skill can be used to extract the answer to one question, assuming there is any kind of possible chance the victim knows that information. (If the referee determines that it’s not possible for this character to know the information the player wants, the player may ask a different question instead.)
A failed torture check, (in either instance), causes the victim to die.
I want to note that this skill does not necessarily replace my previous ruling. Because of the high chance of death, it’s actually much safer to just torture someone the old fashioned way. That method also has the possibility to give you more information, since once an attempt is successful, the victim will talk until they are asked about something particularly sensitive. The torture skill, on the other hand, allows you to extract only a single piece of information per check; but it allows you to extract information the victim may never have offered otherwise.