Category Archives: Skill Checks

When a Skill is Justified, Superpower Skills, and Torture in ORWA

Torture Toy

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.

How I Use the Skills I Hate

I really fuckin' hate this movie. When I started running my most recent campaign, I wanted to keep things simple. “It uses LotFP, rules as written.” I said. Naturally, my players rolled up their characters according to the written rules of LotFP. This, predictably, means that they have skill points in skills which I don’t really like. And now that the campaign seems to be sticking, I find myself in the frustrating position of running a game with a search skill. A fucking search skill. Blerg.

It would be easy to simply never call for the players to roll these skills. But that would be a shitty thing to do. The skill points spent on Search could have been spent on anything–like sneak attack or stealth. The player put them in search because its presence next to those options explicitly implied its usefulness. If the skill is secretly useless, that makes me a liar.

Alternatively I could tell my players that the search skill has been removed, and that they can redistribute those skill points as they wish. While this is appealing from my perspective, players don’t like it. I know, because I’ve done it before, and it kinda bums them out. Nobody likes it when the referee tells them to just erase part of their character sheet because that bit has been retroactively removed from the game. The rules start to feel completely arbitrary when the referee just tosses them out like that.

So what should a myopic referee do when he forgot to disallow the skills he hates? Rewrite the skills he hates!

Climb

Why I don’t Like it: In terms of pure mechanics, I love the LotFP climb skill. Particularly the bit about rolling percentile dice to determine how far along the intended climb the character was when they fell. Unfortunately, climbing doesn’t actually happen that often in my games. So while the skill is mechanically solid, it just sorta sits there gathering dust, which isn’t good.
Fortunately, there are several other niche activities which I think should be resolved by a skill roll, and aren’t in the RAW version of the game.
What I’m doing about it: The skill is renamed “Athletics,” which is suitable, if not very original. It is still used to climb, and when climbing it functions exactly as originally written. It’s only used to climb sheer surfaces without obvious handholds, everybody but specialists have to be unencumbered to attempt it, and on fail you roll d% to determine how far along the character was when they fell.
In addition, Athletics is rolled to move through space that is occupied by another person. If you fail while trying to pass an ally, you make it to your destination, but your ally is knocked to the ground. If failed while attempting to move past an enemy, the enemy may choose either to attack you as you pass, or grapple you and stop you in your tracks.
Athletics is checked when a character is swimming in disadvantageous conditions, such as during a storm or while encumbered. It is checked when attempting to balance in any situation in which that would be difficult (though it cannot be used to counter knockdown effects). Finally, it is checked when a character is attempting to leap forward more than 10′, allowing them to leap up to 30′.

Bushcraft

Why I don’t like it: I imagine Bushcraft would make a ton of sense in a game with a lot of hex crawling. One where civilization is sparse, and settlements are far apart. I’d be really interested to run a game like that, but I never actually have. In fact, the last two campaigns I’ve run were set in a post apocalypse. Neither Dungeon Moon, nor On A Red World Alone had much use for the Bushcraft skill as it is intended to be used.
I have no problem letting the skill work the way it was originally written, but since that’s so unlikely to come up, it needs some additional utility.
What I’m doing with it: In addition to its function as a means of foraging for food and recovering from getting lost, Bushcraft can be used to gain animal companions. If the players have an encounter with a natural animal with a neutral or better reaction, a successful Bushcraft check will allow that animal to be tamed. A tamed animal will follow the character around, and perform simple, safe tasks for its master. If the character wishes to send their animal companion into combat, it must first be trained. This requires 1 month, and 200sp per hit dice of the animal.
When encountering a creature, a Bushcraft check can also be used to learn some basic information about that monster. It is up to the referee to determine if such information would be available, and the information provided may or may not be considered useful by the players.

Architecture

Why I don’t like it: There are two reasons I really don’t like the architecture skill at all. First, if my players are walking down a slight slope, I don’t see any reason not to tell them that. Nor do I see any reason not to simply tell them about any of the information this skill is meant to reveal if they ask me about it.
This gets into my problem with search a bit. From my perspective, part of the challenge of D&D is figuring out what to look for in your environment. So if a player has correctly figured out what to look for–has succeeded in one of the game’s primary challenges–I fail to see the benefit in denying them that success based on a failed die roll.
Second, I don’t like the architecture skill because it seems to imply that I should know a lot more about buildings in my game than I typically know. Do you know what culture built your dungeon? Do you know what specific method they used to build it? Because I don’t know those things.
What I’m doing with it: First off, I’m changing the name to Engineering. It’s a skill less about the art of creating a building, and more about the science of creating a structure.
A successful roll can be used to direct the swift construction of basic structures. While any player can throw together a barricade, an Engineer can throw together a wall. (Or a bridge, or seige equipment). This may be particularly useful when setting camp at night. The reverse is also true; the skill can be used to quickly assess how to demolish a structure.
As a specific consideration for my ORWA campaign, Engineering is also used to move through dilapidated buildings safely. A successful roll indicates that you reached your destination safely; whereas a failed check may indicate that you’ve fallen through the floor, had a bit of ceiling fall on you, disturbed some vermin living in the walls, or had some other misfortune befall you.

Search

Why I don’t like it: My distaste for the search skill is already long standing and well documented. The whole process of it feels deeply wrong to me. When a player asks me if a thing exists, and I tell them that it doesn’t because of a bad roll, I am betraying my position as referee. It makes me a liar, and I hate that.
I’ve read all the various ways of thinking about this, I’ve tried all the techniques, and I’ve only become more assured in the fundamental failure of this skill to provide anything but ruin to the game. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen players search for secret doors. Why, when the event is already so infrequent, would I lie to the players in the rare event that their search actually does coincide with the location of a secret door? I worked hard on the cool things behind that door, I want them to see it. Like hell am I going to let a die roll stop them when they’ve actually earned seeing all that cool stuff!
And then, of course, there are traps. “Haha, you were smart enough to ask me if there were traps, but you were stupid enough to believe me when I said no! Now you’re dead!”
Fuck that noise.
Knowing where to look for a secret door or a trap should be the challenge. Not whether or not to trust the die roll. And once a secret door or trap is located, it’s no guarantee of discovering the means by which that door can be opened, or that trap bypassed. There’s plenty of interesting challenge to be had here without muddying the waters with the hated search roll.
What I’m doing with it:Search rolls are not made with respect to a character’s ability to find something. Rather, the search roll is oracular. It is used in cases where the thing being searched for may or may not exist.
For example, a search check might be made to find clues of recent activity (or lack thereof). Success might indicate that the players find the spoor of a wandering monster. If another character came through recently, success might indicate that they left something behind which the players now find.

Search is also used when players are attempting to pursue someone by tracking signs of their passing. Each successful roll allows the players to follow 1 day worth of travel by their quarry.

Sleight of Hand

Why I don’t like it: I don’t even get this skill. It’s like…mini stealth? Really there’s no reason that any of this couldn’t be handled by the stealth skill, except for the fact that Stealth is already a very powerful skill. There’s some logic in wanting to break it up, I do get that.

Except nobody actually does any of the stuff that gets dumped into Sleight of Hand. I don’t think I’ve ever once seen a character pickpocket anybody. Maybe I need to start putting some maguffins in people’s pockets?

What I’m doing with it: Unfortunately, I have no idea how to make Sleight of Hand good. There’s no problem with allowing it to cover what it already covers: picking pockets, hiding small objects, readying a weapon stealthily, etc. To that list you could add cheating at gambling, performing simple magic tricks, and essentially any kind of stealth that is done with the hands rather than the feet.
But even thusly expanded, I actually don’t forsee people putting points into this skill. If I think of anything better, I’ll letcha know.
Edit: I originally finished writing this post on March 11th, and I haven’t really thought about it since then. But now as I’m re-reading it in preparation for it going live on the site tomorrow, I realize I came upon a good use for the Sleight of Hand skill just the other day!
Taking weapons from an enemy’s hands during combat can be accomplished with a successful sleight of hand check. If need be, the character may suffer a penalty to their check equal to the difference in hit dice between themselves and their target. However, I don’t think I’d use that penalty myself. I’m fine with my players being able to take the sword out of a big bad guy’s hand. If he’s really that big of a bad guy, he won’t be helpless without his sword. Not to mention all of the monsters who use natural weapons, and would thus be immune to having their weapons stolen.

Skills: Mastery Versus Uncertainty

OR YOUR MANIES BACKSkills have been my buggaboo for nearly as long as I’ve been writing about RPGs. Every time I look at a skill system I see some new problems that I want to fix. I don’t know whether I’m working towards some platonic ideal, or if I’m just fickle. Either way I can’t help myself. There’s always something that can be done better.

For the last few years, most of the referees I play with and learn from have been using some variation on Skills: The Middle Road. If you’re unfamiliar, the breakdown is pretty simple. When you check a skill, a roll of 5 or greater indicates success. For untrained characters, each skill check is rolled with a d6. As a character advances in a given skill (either through class features or training), the die they’re allowed to roll increases from 1d6, to 1d8, to 1d10, and ultimately to 1d12. The elegance of the system has always appealed to me. As recently as last year I was planning to integrate it into my games, and a variation of the system was originally going to be described in my LotFP house rules. But then I sat down and did something I almost never do: math.

I love math, but I’m shockingly bad at it. It was never my strong suit to begin with, and being homeschooled from the 3rd grade up didn’t help. As such, obvious mathematical realities sometimes escape me. Using AnyDice, I tried to work out the functional difference between The Middle Road, and the way skills work in Rules-As-Written LotFP. (Skills start at a 1-in-6 chance of success, improving to 2-in-6, then 3-in-6, etc).

While The Middle Road gives players a higher success rate at lower levels, RAW LotFP quickly outpaces it. The very highest level of ability in Middle Road only gives a 7-in-12 chance of success, or 66.67%. In RAW LotFP, a character with a 6-in-6 skill rolls 2d6, and the check fails only in the event of double sixes. That’s a 35 in 36 chance of success, or 97.22%.

Now when I first figured this out, it convinced me that I wanted to stick with RAW LotFP. At the time, my reasoning was that players ought to be able to truly master a skill if they choose to devote themselves to it. After all, choosing to master a skill completely leaves other skills underdeveloped. There’s a natural balance there.

More recently, my thinking has changed. A system which allows total mastery of a skill is a system which allows certain challenges to become completely trivialized. If the players can always unlock a locked door, why even place locked doors at all? As a means of justifying the player’s investment? Even players seem unenthusiastic about rolling dice when they feel certain of success. And in the rare events that they fail one of these nearly-certain rolls, they seem more upset by it than usual. As if the dice just told them they’d failed a “walking” check.

When failure doesn’t seem like a possibility, it’s a lot more frustrating when it happens. It might be better to allow players to reach a level of mastery that no longer called for a roll at all. One where locked doors simply no longer existed for a master locksmith. It’s not the sort of system I want, but I think it would be better than a 2.78% chance of failure.

It could be argued that if players have reached such a high level of mastery, they ought to be adventuring in areas with locks that require checks made at -1 or -2. This is a possibility described in the LotFP rules, and is entirely legitimate. But I don’t like it.

Part of the reason oldschool skill systems appeal to me is the lack of any need for the referee to determine the difficulty of a task. Getting rid of Difficulty Checks was one of the best things about quitting Pathfinder. DCs are the fuckin’ worst. They add a ton of boring, yet necessary preparatory work to the referee’s job. They encourage the referee to reduce player agency by saying “Well, this door allows the players to skip half the dungeon. So it’ll have a REALLY high DC.” Furthermore, when a DC has to be improvised, it’s difficult to choose a good DC off the top of your head. And finally, if the referee is placing ever-increasing DCs in the game, at the same pace that the player’s ability to surpass those DCs is growing, then why have any advancement at all?

If I place a lock that requires a check at -2 in my adventure because of the fact that my players are really good at opening locks, then why did I allow them to waste skill points that I was just going to invalidate through future dungeon design?

The Middle Road has none of these problems. Furthermore, it has two great benefits.

First, it enables the referee to include weirder skills in the game. Consider the problem of the Law skill that I mentioned when I drafted the Lawyer class a few months ago. I think the law skill is super neat and fun, but it’s also powerful. If a player were able to master it, they’d be unstoppable. But so long as they still have a decent chance to fail any given check, they won’t be able to push their luck too far.

Second, and more importantly, it preserves the low level experience. It’s almost universally agreed, at least within the OSR, that low level play is the best play. The most challenging, the most engaging, the most fun. People prefer low level play so much that many campaigns (much to my frustration) are terminated just as the PCs start to reach mid levels.

The reason low level play is so treasured is that the game fundamentally changes as it goes on.  As PCs reach higher levels, more and more challenges become trivial for them. They don’t need to worry about torches once the magic user learns Light, they don’t need to worry about rations once the cleric learns Create Food and Water, and they don’t need to worry about locked doors once the thief has an almost certain chance of opening them easily.

Keeping skill checks uncertain, even at the highest levels of mastery, maintains that low level play that we all enjoy.

And as an aside, Skills: The Middle Road could easily be expanded using a d14 and d16. Not all Zocchi dice are reliably random, but those two are. I’d love to see them come into more common usage, since they so nicely fill in a lot of the gap between the d12 and the d20. And even with a d16, a player would only have a 75% chance of hitting 5 or higher. Which is still a respectable failure rate.

Crafting as Jury Rigged Equipment

MacGyber Title cardGuys, guys guys, I’ve got an idea.

Crafting is cool, otherwise it wouldn’t be as persistent in gaming as it is. But cool as it is in theory, pretty much every implementation of it that I’ve ever encountered sucks. It seems like all of them are either an overpowered, overcomplicated mess, or they’re bland. This has literally been bothering me for almost 4 years now,  and my attempts to solve the problem represent some of the most rigorous game design I’ve attempted. But despite my best efforts, I’ve been stymied as to how to make crafting work in a way I could be happy with.

But this might be kinda cool:

Crafting is a skill, with advancement, and success/failure determined like any other skill. A player who wishes to use the craft skill must first determine the type of crafting they are trained in. Options include (but are not limited to): Blacksmith, Leatherworker, Clothier, Painter, Sculptor, Glassblower, Cook, Silver/Goldsmith, Carpenter, Stonemason, Toolmaker.

Characters who intend to use their skill should also add some amount of nondescript “raw materials” to their equipment list. Raw materials take up as much or as little encumbrance as the player wishes. The more they have on hand, the more use they will be able to get out of the skill. Materials should also cost some amount of money. Perhaps 100sp per point of encumbrance.

Whenever the player wants, they can declare that they’re attempting to create some item that falls within the purview of their chosen craft.  The referee then tells them how much encumbrance that item would take to carry. If they have an equal amount of raw materials, then they can make a skill check to attempt to craft the item they described. Succeed or fail, the attempt takes 3 turns, and the raw materials are used up.

Essentially, the craft skill becomes a sort of equipment “wildcard.” Lets say your profession is glassblower. You don’t need to bring a magnifying glass, and a lens, and a mirror, and a jar into the dungeon. You can just take a lump of raw materials, and create whatever you end up needing whenever you realize that you need it.

Obviously this system is an abstraction. Something perhaps better suited to a board or video game. On the other hand, the really neat thing about the system is the tactical infinity of it. Something that can really only exist in a TRPG.

If a character turning a lump of steel into a dagger without a forge or an anvil to work with bothers you, I totes get it. It kinda bothers me too. But consider: if the character DID have a forge and an anvil, that probably means they’re safe in town. And towns have shops, where daggers can easily be bought.

I’d still like to see a crafting system that works the way I’ve always imagined. Something that allows players to express their creativity, and provides real benefits without requiring an encyclopedia of rules. Maybe it’s about time I took another crack at writing a system like that. But as an option, this “Equipment Wildcard” system intrigues me.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess House Rules, Part 2 of 2

Jan2015_LeapofFaithSkills are a tricky business. They can be a valuable mechanic. But if the GM doesn’t call for a particular skill, then any players who advanced that skill gets fucked over. Case in point: architecture. I do not understand this skill. I’m supposed to ask for an architecture roll if players want to know the age of a wall relative to the rest of the building. Or if they think some bit of floor is unstable. But, if the players are clever enough to ask those questions, I prefer to give them the information outright, without a chance of failure. Which is fine, different GMing styles work for different folks. Except now the player who put a bunch of points into his architecture skill has wasted all those points.

The skill system and the GM need to be in agreement. But you can’t trash skills willy-nilly. There are 9 skills in the base Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. And a Specialist character gains 2 skill points at each level. If the number of available skills is reduced too much, then the Specialist will lack for options. Since there are a lot of skills in Rules-As-Written LotFP that I don’t use (4 out of the 9), I need a better solution than just dropping the skills I don’t like.  I’ve made an effort to rehabilitate some of the skills I don’t like, and to create some new ones which fit my play style better.

I should note that I’m also working on implementing a way for any character, not just specialists, to improve their skills. That’s why I’ve noted two of the skills below as “Specialist Only.” I’ll go into more detail with that system in a later post. (Spoiler: it’s mostly stolen from better GMs than me.)

Note also that skills listed with a parenthetical ability are modified by that ability’s modifier (if any). If two are listed, the skill is modified by whichever of the two are better.

-Mostly Unchanged Skills-
(You can probably skip this entirely)

Sneak Attack (SPECIALIST ONLY): Characters with no points in this skill have their damage multiplied by 1 when they attack from hiding, or while flanking an enemy. For each point a specialist puts into Sneak Attack, their multiplier is improved by one. (x2 for 1 point, x3 for 2 points, etc.)

Languages (Int): Whenever a new language is encountered, characters roll their language skill to determine if they already know it. The check is made at a -1 penalty if the language is monstrous or exotic, a -2 if the language is exotically monstrous, and -3 if the language is an ancient, dead tongue. Magical languages, or the languages of outsiders, cannot be known using this method. Players must record both the languages they do know, and the languages they do not know, on their character sheet.

Tinker: Tinker allows characters to manipulate mechanical devices. This includes opening mechanical locks, disarming traps, or activating unfamiliar machines. Locks or traps of particular difficulty may have a penalty to tinkering rolls made with them. Non-specialists who fail a tinkering roll may not attempt it again until they gain a level, or improve their tinkering skill. Specialists may make as many attempts as they wish, but after the first check, each subsequent check takes 1 hr. Characters using this skill must have a tinkering kit, which is an encumbering item.

-Rehabilitated Skills-

Stealth: Stealth is used to move silently through a corridor, to sidle up against a door and listen without alerting those inside, to hide a small item on your person, to pick-pocket a foe, or to ready a weapon without observers noticing. When used to move silently, characters should first describe a move roughly within their current line of sight. If they fail, the GM should roll a percentile die to determine how far along their path they were when they were noticed.

Athletics (Str/Dex): Not mere brazen acts of strength or dexterity, but skillful applications of such. Notably, climbing sheer surfaces without obvious handholds is covered by this skill. Characters (except specialists) must be unencumbered to make such a climb. On failure, roll d% to determine where in the climb the character was when they fell. Other applications of Athletics are: moving past a monster without provoking an opportunity attack, unusually challenging swimming conditions, balancing on a rope, and jumping more than 15 feet (up to 30 feet).

Bushcraft: When traveling through the wilderness, a Bushcraft roll is used to forage or hunt for food, as described on page 34 of the Rules and Magic book. A bushcraft check also allows characters to identify natural plants or animals. Additionally, when encountering a natural animal, a successful bushcraft check will allow the player to take the animal as a companion so long as the animal has 2 fewer hit dice than the player.

-New Skills-

Prayer (Wis): As a free action, players may beseech their god for aid with a specific task. The referee may adjudicate small bonuses or penalties for tasks in keeping or out of keeping with the player’s faith. Referees may also rule an auto failure if the task directly contravenes the player’s faith. On a successful check, the player may roll the die for that task twice, and take the better result. At the end of the session the character must make a sacrifice to their god. The value must be either 20% of their total treasure haul from this session. Or, the difference in the two die rolls they made, multiplied by 100sp. Whichever is more. If this sacrifice is not made, then during the next game, the player must roll all their dice twice, taking the lower result each time.

Appraisal: A successful appraisal allows characters to know the value of a given piece of treasure, and whether there is anyone who might pay extra for it. Appraisal will also identify fake treasures, such as copper coins painted gold.

Healing: Once after each combat, characters may spend 3 turns attempting to heal themselves or an ally. If the check is successful, the attempt restores 1d4 HP for each point by which the check succeed. (Ex. success chance is 1-in-6, a 1 is rolled, heal 1d4. Success chance is 4-in-6, a 2 is rolled, heal 3d4). Characters using this skill must carry a healing kit, which is an encumbering item.

Vanish: (SPECIALIST ONLY): A vanish check has two uses. First, a specialist may attempt to hide by blending in with their surroundings, using only shadows and foliage to remain hidden. If successful, they cannot be seen until they move, speak, or attack, at which point the effect ends. Second, a vanish check can be used to stealthily disengage from combat without being noticed. This check is made at a -1 penalty for each attack directed against the vanishing character during this round (whether they hit or not). If successful, the vanished specialist can choose to re enter the battle with a sneak attack on their next turn, or skulk away to safety.

NOT Skills-
I know not including a search or listen skill is unusual, and even controversial, so I may as well address why I’m not using either of them.

The listen skill is already missing from the base LotFP game, but even ignoring that, it never made any sense to me. It’s usually used when a character is pressing their ear to a door to hear what’s going on inside. Failure baffles me. Common doors are hardly soundproof. It could be argued that the roll isn’t a test of hearing, but rather, a test to see whether the creatures inside the room are making any noise. But I find that unsatisfying. If there’s anything beyond the door, I’d prefer to tell players outright, rather than arbitrate it with dice.

The real challenge of listening at doors is doing it without alerting the people on the other side. It’s hard to press your head against a door without causing it to move audibly. That’s why I’ve replaced the listen check, with a stealth check. Not only does it make more logical sense, but failure creates a more interesting situation. The bad guys know something is outside their door, but they don’t know what.

My reasoning for dropping search is similar to my reason for dropping Architecture. I’ve run a lot of dungeons for a lot of players, and I don’t think any of them have yet found a single secret door which wasn’t somehow revealed to them in advance. So why in the world would I want to create a situation where the players have correctly identified an area with a secret door in it, and I’m forced to tell them there isn’t one? I want them to find at least some of my secret doors. There are cool things behind those doors that I want people to experience.

The same goes for traps. If players must roll a check when they’re looking for traps, then they might fail that check. Then the GM has created a situation where a player is killed by a trap immediately after being told that there is no trap. I’ve done this before and it feels wrong to me. I don’t like it.

In previous discussions on this subject, I’ve encountered a common objection: what’s to stop players from just checking everything? There are two good reasons that players won’t search everything they encounter. Both of which are both better than the bad reason of “they won’t check everything because the results would be unreliable anyway.”

  1. Players aren’t that diligent. Diligence is boring. A game where the primary challenge is diligence is a dull game that I don’t want to play. Players will search when they think there is something to find.
  1. Searching takes time. Searching a 10 x 10 segment of wall for a secret door takes 1 turn. Searching a larger area takes a commensurately longer amount of time. The number of encounter checks a group of players would earn by searching every single room would not be worth the damage inflicted on them by so many wandering monsters. There should always be wandering monsters.

-Dwarfs and Elves-

By removing the Architecture and Search skills for my games, I’ve crippled the Dwarf and Elf classes, which use those skills as part of their level advancement. This can be solved either by awarding players skill points equivalent to their lost skill’s progression (So for dwarfs, two at level 1, and one more at levels 4, 7, and 10). Alternatively, the GM can select a skill to progress along the same advancement track. I would recommend appraisal for dwarfs, and healing or bushcraft for elves.

A Defense of Knowledge Skills

Statue of Episteme, Greecian personification of Knowledge
Statue of Episteme

While my recent posts on skills have focused on crafting skills, I haven’t forgotten that my stated intent was not just to rebuild Pathfinder’s crafting from the ground up, but also to rebuild Pathfinder’s knowledge skill. Knowledge, however, is a much more controversial type of skill than crafting is. And even crafting had to be defended against the argument that it should not be included in the game!

In this post I will make the argument that knowledge skills have their place. I don’t think they belong in a retroclone, or in a rules light game, but that doesn’t mean they are completely without value. Their presence in the Pathfinder ruleset is justified, even if I think it ought to be implemented better. I also hope that through this attempt to articulate a logical support of knowledge skills, I can gain a clearer picture of what is important and what is not for when I move on to designing my own version of this mechanic.

I’m familiar with two important arguments against the existence of Knowledge Skills:

  1. By forcing players to make a successful knowledge check before receiving information, knowledge skills create an environment where the GM often fails to communicate information which the players should be given freely. Players may not be given knowledge that their character should have.
  2. A game where knowledge is a mechanical ability of the character, rather than something possessed by the player, creates a gaming environment where the importance of the player’s skill is reduced. The player is not allowed to use knowledge which their character “wouldn’t have.”

Taken together, these arguments might seem like a case of wanting to have your cake, and eat it to. If the players don’t know something and the GM is supposed to tell them what their character would know; why then also should the player be able to turn around and use information their character wouldn’t know? The answer is quite simple, if somewhat flippant: because we’re playing a game. Our primary goal is not to embark upon a profound exploration of the characters we’re playing. D&D and Pathfinder are not, as -C has put it, an activity for those with thespian aspirations.  Perhaps that’s what you’re doing, and if so I truly hope you enjoy it. But that’s not something I’m interested in writing about.

In a game, the player is expected to play to the best of their ability. They bring their experience and their knowledge to the table, and they’re also provided with information about the games rules, and how it functions.

But I’ve diverged from the point of this post. The fact is, depending on how Pathfinder’s knowledge rules are interpreted, both of the potential problems mentioned above can appear. But they do not have to.

In his analysis of the knowledge skill, Courtney listed three possible types of information, and posits that none of these should ever be hidden behind a successful roll of the dice.

  1. Trivial and of no importance.
  2. Non-vital, but interesting and providing some depth and background to the game.
  3. Crucial.

In reviewing Courtney’s analysis in preparation for writing this post, it occurred to me that there is a fourth type of information. Imagine, for example, that my players have entered a room. It would be trivial of me to mention that the cobblestone floors have cracks in a few of the stones. I could mention to the players that the room smells so bad they can taste the pungent air on their tongues. It’s not vital for me to do so, since the smell does not affect the game, but it does help the players to imagine their environment, which is fun, so why not. It is crucial that I tell the players there are two exits on the north wall, and that there’s a large pile of stones in the corner.

4.  Hidden information.

I should probably not tell the players that there’s a pile of gold under the stones. If they want to learn about that, then they’re going to need to do some work. Like maybe digging through the pile of stones.

 There are two types of hidden information. The kind which can be modeled at the table, and the kind which cannot. The example above of the gold hidden under the pile of stones can easily be modeled at the table. If the players say “I knock over the pile of stones,” then voila, they’ve revealed the hidden information about the gold. However, this room also contains a hidden door on the south wall. The players haven’t seen it, but they’re pretty sure it’s there, because they saw a monster run into this room. There’s no sign of the monster now, and the only other exit from the room is barred from the other side. So they players would like to start searching the walls for hidden doors. At this point, we bring out the dice, because there’s no way for the players to describe how they look at a blank wall for a secret switch.

Based on this, I would say that there are three types of information which might be included in a game.

Player Knowledge is what the player themselves knows. When a black dragon appears, the player knows to ask the wizard if he can borrow that potion of acid resistance, because the player knows that black dragons have acid breath.

Character Knowledge is information the GM freely gives to the player, because the PC would obviously know it. If the player is in their home town and says they want to go to the local pub, the GM can simply tell them that it’s called the Pig and Whistle. When the player decides he wants to become more religious, the GM can identify a few religions the character would be familiar with. There’s no reason to hide that kind of information.

For Skill Check Knowledge, three things should be true. First, it should not be trivial. Second, the game should be equally interesting whether the players know it or not. Third, there should be more than one route to obtaining it. When a fighter encounters magic runes on the door of a crypt, it would not be trivial for that fighter to know whether the runes were arcane or divine. Even if they can’t read it, the type of writing on the outside of the door could provide valuable clues to what’s inside. If they fail to determine the type of writing it is, or even get it wrong, the game will be interesting because they’ll be less prepared for what they encounter within. Whereas if they succeed in determining the rune’s type,  the game will be interesting because the player will have an opportunity to prepare for what they think is within. And, of course, if all else fails they could just go find a wizard or priest and ask them.

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