Cinemechanix: Core Skills

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 08 March 2019 Written by Steve

Last week I ended with the statement: “My current list of attributes-that-aren’t-quite-attributes has 6 stats: Combat, Thrilling Heroics, Tradecraft, Persuasion, Brains, and Wits. I’ll get into what they mean and how I came up with the list next time.” About 10 minutes later, I’d already changed the list. That’s part of the reason I’ve decided to hold off on trying to get a stable draft of the rules together for a few weeks. I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to get a grasp on what I want and I’m just kind of brainstorming to find the best way to do it. Besides, I’ve got until DieCon in June before I need a playable draft.  

Anyway, the plan from last week was to replace the Attributes with a set of core adventuring super-skills. These would work basically like Attributes (each point in a Core Skill boosts your Hero Die one step), but they’re more directly applicable to the sorts of things players roll for during a typical gaming session and distinct enough to keep overlap to a minimum. In most cases, there shouldn’t be a question about which Core Skill applies to a particular roll. I also want them to be general enough that they don’t say anything about the character beyond “The character is [average/good/really good] at [thing covered by Core Skill].” A high Thrilling Heroics score could be the result of natural athletic ability and years of training that allow you to do nearly impossible stunts, fearlessness that allows you to defy death without breaking a sweat, or some kind of River Tam ability to intuitively math your way around certain doom. Those details are matters of character design that may or may not be backed up with other traits. 

Here’s the (slightly revised) list:

Combat: Killing people and avoiding getting killed. 

Thrilling Heroics: Anything that’s exciting and might get you killed (other than combat). Most physical stunts fall into this category, but it can also include stupid car tricks (or horse tricks, or dog fights or whatever) and anything else that combines high pressure, low margin for error, and loads of danger. If the director calls in the stunt people and it’s not a fight scene, it goes here. 

Brains: Intelligence, intuition, resourcefulness, and perception. This sounds more like a traditional attribute, but that’s mainly because any variation on “Thinking” either sounds dumb or is too narrow for my tastes. “Brains” tells you the character’s smart without telling you how the character’s smart. The brains of the operation can be a well-educated super-genius or an intuitive dropout with a good memory. 

Persuasion: Again, this one sounds like a more typical attribute because it’s nice and broad. You can persuade someone to do something by being charming and charismatic, by offering a well-thought-out rational argument, by appealing to virtues or vices, or by threatening to break some kneecaps. The word “Persuasion” doesn’t judge. 

Know-How: Know-How is sort of applied Brains and covers actually doing things, whether it’s picking a lock, bandaging a wound, or rewiring a robot. A character with a high Brains can explain how an alternator works, but probably gets skinned knuckles if he thinks too hard about a wrench. A character with high Know-How may not know exactly how an alternator keeps your battery charged, but he can get your car running again. 

Know-How is the combination last week’s “Tradecraft” and “Wits,” which makes a nice transition into how I landed on these five stats as the Core Traits. Combat and Thrilling Heroics were set in stone from the beginning. I also knew I needed core skills for social skills, knowledge, and non-stunt actions, but getting there took some trial and error. As recently as last week, I still had “Wits” broken out as separate still. The idea was that it would represent perception and common sense/street smarts, with Brains representing more scholarly intelligence and knowledge. I cut it out because it broke the “minimal overlap” rule as well as the thing about the stat not making decisions about characterization. Also, once Tradecraft (which I’ll get to toward the end) became Know-How, it covered most of Wits with less gray area. 

The social core skill was the easiest, since it turned out to basically be a matter of coming up with a good name. Once you cut out the Willpower/Ego/Mental Fortitude aspect of it (which probably should be some other thing along the lines of Stamina, if it’s needed at all), nearly all social rolls are attempts to convince somebody of something, whether it’s to give up the combination to the safe or to believe that your character is a cool guy. As noted above, Persuasion works across the board. 

Other possible skills were mostly trying to reconcile different kinds of intelligence and skill. At one point (before I realized the need for the “don’t let the skill define the character” rule) those were combined into thematic groups that could cover knowing stuff or doing stuff. The skills were things like “Technology,” “Streetwise,” “Nature,” and “Subterfuge.” There was also going to be a “Lore” skill that basically covered “things PCs know.” So in a spy game, “Lore” would cover planting bugs, setting up dead drops, and paying attention to ensure you fully understand the mission before the message self-destructs; Hobomancer Lore would cover finding work, basic railroad knowledge, and information about songlines, so-and-sos, and what-nots; Dungeoneering Lore would cover identifying slimes and oozes, listening at doors, skulking around, and disarming traps. 

Actually, the last two (and maybe last three) items in the Dungeoneering list were iffy at first because there was also the whole “Subterfuge” (ie., Thief Skills) option on the table. Then I found a thread on some site (I’ve been reading a lot of threads and posts about game design and theory lately) that was titled something like “The Thief is the worst thing to happen to D&D.” The basic premise was that in really Old School (pre-Thief) D&D, it was assumed that all characters could skulk around, find traps, climb things, etc. When the Thief came along with those skills enumerated, most players took it to mean that only Thieves could do those things, leading to the eventual ruin of gaming by letting players use herbs or something. There were even some decent arguments that all the thief skills were intended to represent extraordinary talent in things everyone could do (anyone can hide behind a barrel, only the thief can hide in a shady corner; move silently didn’t mean “stealth” it meant “move in absolute silence,” etc.). Anyway, that reminded me of something I keep saying over and over but keep forgetting when I fall into a rules tinkering fugue: You don’t need game traits for things everyone can do. So Lore kind of morphed into the “Adventuring” Skill. 

The main problem with Lore is that most people read it as more about knowing things than doing things, which is an overlap with Brain that I didn’t like. I thought about splitting it into “knowing stuff about [whatever the PCs do]” and “doing stuff [that PCs do]” which I decided to call Tradecraft. This is an expansion of the actual definition (“stuff spies do,” more or less), but it seemed to fit. Since that caused Lore to overlap with two things, I ultimately decided to roll Lore up into Tradecraft, which is where we were last week.

Tradecraft covered a lot of “doing stuff” skills, but not quite all of them. Specifically, they wouldn’t cover something like skills from your day job in a game like M-Force. Initially I rationalized that most of the important stuff from “background” are either covered by one of the other Core Skills (combat training, etc) or shouldn’t require a roll (you can automatically fill out your TPS report). On the off-chance you did need a roll and no Core Skills applied, you could always just default to Hero Die (which, as noted last week, is still often a better die than highly-trained professional non-PCs would roll). But that’s not really true, because there are a lot of those “doing things” abilities that don’t fit another Core Skill but you’d still want the player to roll for: B.A. Baracus-style tune-ups, for instance. I could just roll job skills into Tradecraft, but that means the definition of “Tradecraft” varies from character to character depending on background. That’s when I decided to turn it into the more general “Know-How” and make it a generic “doing things in the real world” kind of skill, which means there are very few rolls that aren’t going to fall within a Core Skill. That made Wits kind overlap between Know-How and Brain, so Wits got cut. 

So that’s how we got here, and like all the darlings I’ve killed recently, I really like it right now. One big advantage that Core Skills have over Attributes that I haven’t already mentioned is that they give the player more control over the level of detail, especially if Core Skills and Edges or Trademarks or whatever the non-core skills end up being named are bought from the same pool. If you want a broad character, you can put most or all of your points into Core Skills. If you want more nuance, you can put more points into narrower skills that describe the character in better detail. For some kinds of games (pulp comes to mind), you might even be okay sticking with just Core Skills.  

Next week I’ll either revise this again or talk about some of the other new ideas I’m tossing around. Right now I’m looking at March for Brainstorming, April for planning and working out the big picture, and May for getting a workable playtest draft together. Then in June I’ll take it to DieCon and see how it breaks. 

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Cinemechanix: Core Skills.
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