I'm Probably Overthinking This (Cinemechanix Skills)

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 19 April 2019 Written by Steve

I’ve been working on the core doc for the new version of the rules. It’s going slowly, in part because I’m still trying to find out exactly how to find the balance between structure and open-endedness, particularly for the skill system. Part of this is because I still haven’t quite internalized how things work, part of it is because I want to simplify implementation, and partially because there are still a few problems I need to work out to make sure everything fits together correctly. I think I’m getting closer, though.

As I talked about a few weeks ago, we’re starting out with five broad core abilities that work kind of like attributes but cover specific kinds of rolls characters make in typical RPGs. I’m currently calling these “Basic Abilities” and there are five of them: Fighting, Stunts (formerly Thrilling Heroics), Presence (previously Persuasion), Brains, and Know-How. The name changes are for clarity, theme, and practicality.* 

The first goblin that kept me from getting the skill section written in a timely fashion was “balance” thing about broad and narrow skills. A while back I’d decided to go with having three broad categories based on how broad a skill (broad/average/narrow) and giving them different costs. One problem was trying to come up with solid rules of thumb for categorizing a skill. For example, which of the following fits the broad/average/narrow pattern: Academics/Humanities/History, Humanities/History/American History, or History/American History/Civil War History? Would “Law Enforcement/Police Training/Firearms” be acceptable? If so, the guy who set up his character on the assumption that the correct grouping was “Guns/Handguns/Revolvers” is getting screwed. The other (bigger) problem that kept coming back to me is the idea that even with definite rules of thumb and examples a that keep everything at the right broadness/narrowness, every skill that isn’t explicitly defined into its category still has to be vetted at best, debated at worst. On top of that, you’d have to keep track of what category each skill fell into for character improvement, which would be a pain. 

Another goblin was the “non-default/training required” kind of skills. For a long time, I thought I could solve that with a simple rule like “If your non-doctor character wants to do brain surgery, you don’t get a free dice (Brain surgery is very hard, with a DN of 15 for even simple operations).” And that would in make the system math effectively rule out success in the extreme cases like amateur brain surgery or trying to hack into the alien computer based on that Visual Basic class you took in high school.  The problem is that things that require a stupid level of training aren’t the only things that are almost impossible to do without training. Forget the alien computer; the chances of a person with limited computer knowledge hacking into any computer (in anything more complex than the “I hacked Ed when he forgot to sign out of Facebook” sense) would be all but impossible, especially under the conditions under which a hacking roll would be made in a typical RPG situation. Another example is carrying on a conversation in a foreign language. Without at least some training, you can’t do it (and with enough training, you probably don’t even need to roll). So basically, you need some way of deciding whether a character has enough knowledge and training to even attempt certain kinds of rolls, which the abstract Basic Abilities do not tell us. 

One path I went down was the idea of Backgrounds, which would be very broad “skills” framed as statements about the character’s background. Things like “Has a History Degree from State U” or “Grew up on a Farm” or “Lived in Germany for 3 years when his father was stationed there when he was a teenager.” These would be broad and subjective, but would allow the GM a baseline for ruling out certain rolls (“Did you learn how to rebuild an engine at Harvard Law, during your summers at Martha’s Vineyard, or while you interned at National Review?”). To keep them from being secret super-skills, they would also have little or no game effect beyond the “can you roll for it?” question--maybe +1 or +2 and the number of them would be limited (possibly by Hero Factor, possibly by character age). It was kind of a neat system, and I could see it working in a certain kind of game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for this game, because it completely undermines the Basic Abilities, which are the abstract sum total of the things not on your character sheet. Computer Programming and Foreign Languages are Brains, rebuilding an Engine is Know-How. Adding another kind of trait that kind of does the same thing is sloppy. 

The Backgrounds idea was also part of a thought about getting around unlikable Broad/Average/Narrow categories by making them different kinds of traits, which would at least mean more interesting names. So Backgrounds were the Very Broad traits that were vague and subjective and could apply to a lot of different types of activity. Skills would have to all revolve around a certain type of activity (so Law Enforcement, which includes a broad range of skills, is out, but it still doesn’t help with the “Academics vs. Humanities vs. History” question). Then there’d be something else, but I never really got there because I was just coming up with more complicated ways to come up with schemes that still had the same problems. 

My current thinking is that I’m going to need the top level of skills to be a set or mostly-set skill list. This solves the “broad/narrow” problem by defining “narrow” (the player-generated) skills as “narrower than the defined ones” and can solve the “can you do this?” problem by including a White Wolf-style explanation of what various skill levels mean (“Computers +1 means you’re an amateur; you can’t hack GlobalCorp). This would ideally be a fairly short list of broad skill categories that could potentially pair with most or all of the Basic Abilities (Computers + Fighting for activating the deflector shields, Computers + Stunts for drone piloting, Computers + Presence for internet trolling, Computers + Brains for writing a program, and Computers + Know-How for installing a hard drive) and would have a definite maximum rating. The main level of Skills would be anything narrower, but players would have the option of doing a Shadowrun-style specialization for any skill at this level. So you could have a skill in “Drone Piloting +2 (Camera Work)” or “Computer Programming +3 (C++) or whatever. 

It’s very likely that I’m overthinking this. After all, for QAGS we just said “make some shit up” and we’ve written like 50 games for it. Actually, QAGS is the reason I’m overthinking it. QAGS is great if you completely ignore what the rules say and do what Leighton and I meant for you to do, but it’s very broken when it’s run by a GM who hasn’t had our shining example and just runs the game as written. The good news is that if I ever decide to get into the “every precious game has its own precious little system” school of game design, I’ve got dozens of little systems that might be great somewhere else but don’t quite work here. 

*While I love the Firefly reference, “Thrilling Heroics” has a little too much flavor. In addition to standing out in the list of less exciting words, it’s not as readily apparent that Thrilling Heroics would be the Basic Skill to use for a pick-up basketball game or a dance-off. “Stunts” fits the movie/TV theme a bit better and is a little clearer since you can think of it as “anything that in a movie production would likely require a stunt person/body double/person with actual talent who can pass for the actor.” This would also make a lot of sex scenes stunts, but in game system terms that actually kind of works. Persuasion had a few strikes against it. The big one is that it’s also too loaded toward a certain interpretation; most people aren’t going to intuitively connect it with unfriendly persuasion like intimidation or non-interpersonal persuasion like performance or command. Also, “Persuasion” is a very handy name for a broad skill in influencing people (which will be important later). Presence is more versatile, and fits the movie-making theme (since most of the kinds of scenes where you’d roll Presence work or don’t based on the actor’s screen presence). [Back]

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