Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Roll to see if you can play the lute?

This posts is a follow on from what I said earlier about language / music / art / acting skills - skills the character has learnt how to do, and can perform to a consistent standard. This was occasioned by a character wanting to learn the lute, and I saw no sense in calculating a bonus to performance rolls. I wrote:
Character performs some skill they have learnt how to do, and can perform to a consistent standard. For example, language skills. People are usually “basic” (know a few words, basic concepts but lots of misunderstandings and lots of blank looks), “intermediate” (with effort can generally make oneself understood, can understand someone who is cooperative, lots of halting and repeating), “conversational” (can have conversations with people) or “fluent” (conversations are flowing, but accent and odd usage clear), or finally “native” (indistinguishable from native speaker). It makes little sense in an RPG world for someone to have expertise in excess of that. I’ll take this as a model for a wide swathe of skills: languages, music, acting. In these you generally do not roll dice – your skill level determines what you can do – and I won’t bother with rules for dice rolls until an issue demanding one comes up in play. Hence attributes (aptitude) should contribute mostly not to improve your chances of performing a task, but instead to make learning quicker.

What I'm looking for is how to make "attributes make learning quicker" sit naturally alongside the more standard skills (e.g. melee skills) where they improve your dice roll. To get a good fit, it is important to understand what +1 attribute bonus gives you in the standard system. How much is a +1 bonus worth?

The standard skills in Explore work as follows:
The skill is resolved by rolling 2d10 (open), plus your skill rank, plus the relevant attribute.Attributes have a bonus of between +3 and -3.
The total cost for skills at rank 1,2,3,4 etc. is 1,2,4,8 etc. (i.e. the cost for new ranks is 1,1,2,4 etc.).
10XP gives you 1 skill point to spend.

Note that in this dice system for every +3 the chance of failure is halved.

Initially it would seem that since +1 attribute is the same as +1 rank, and +1 rank costs twice as much, so +1 attribute should halve the cost.
However in combat several skills combine to improve your performance, by doubling the number of skill points spent you can afford to increase every skill by one level, which means you get a total of +3 distributed around the various rolls in combats (e.g. +1 to hit, +1 to parry) which in play combine to be as effective as if you got +3 on any individual one. From this perspective it would seem that +3 attribute should halve the cost.

Hence... we split the difference and say that +2 on an attribute will halve the cost.

So now the solution for these skills is a cost multiplier, which halves every +2:

Attribute Bonus
Cost Multiplier

The cost multiplier is made easy to apply in practice by grouping the skills under the appropriate attribute (memory or intuition) with the appropriate multiplier marked in for the whole section. You sum up the cost under each section and then apply the multiplier.

Note that standard skills already have a cost multiplier of 10, this is just a rephrasing of "10XP gives you 1 skill point to spend".

For an example of calculating costs, consider someone with -1 AG, +1 IN with skills Melee (AG) 3, Parry (REF) 2, Athletics (ST) 1, Lute (IN) 5 . Agility -1 gives them -1 on Melee, whereas Intuition +1 reduces the cost multiplier for artistic skills from 6 to 4. They've spent 4+2+1 = 7 points on standard skills, 16 points on artistic (?) ones, with cost multipliers of 10 and 4, for a total of 7*10 + 16*4 = 134 XP.

I have made these skills cheaper than the standard ones because most skills are very broad – athletics, acrobatics etc – whereas these skills are narrow. They are specific languages or specific musical instruments. Hence the cost *should* be lower.

In these skills there is a max level of 5 (as per the introductory quote above), so if you have +3 in the relevant ability you can be maxed out for 80XP - so you could have this when you start if you wished (as you start with 100XP). At the other end of the cost scale, maxing out in a spell list (10th level) is 10240XP, which is the cost of 128 different languages!

Importantly, this whole aspect can be freely ignored until the point where you have a player who wants to learn the lute!


  1. My thinking on this is that the character's total modifier (skill rank + attribute) captures the character's "level of ability." So a person with no skill ranks at all may still have a natural aptitude (e.g. at kicking a ball really far, or a gift for languages, or being "musically inclined" or whatever). I agree that in general your total level of ability is what's relevant -- can you make yourself understood well enough to buy what you need in the market, or can you play this piece of music competently? But a dice roll is probably needed when you need to adjudicate the results (or the quality) of a specific interaction. Like, I can play the lute and I have a +6 total modifier, so I'm a professional-grade performer. But if I'm trying to really dazzle someone with my performance so I can, say, wrangle an invitation to perform at the Duke's ball, then it might make sense to set a task DC and make a check to see if that particular performance was excellent enough to qualify. So I make a skill roll, and if I get an 18+, then I've impressed my audience sufficiently to achieve my objective. If I don't hit 18+, then they are thinking "well, that's nice enough, but the Duke deserves better I think."

    1. For many things (kicking a ball) natural aptitude gives you a certain level of ability, but I’m not going to be able to speak Spanish or play the violin without any training whatever my aptitude, hence the different system for these skills (often people use -5 for non-skilled or saying not allowed if no ranks).
      When you roll to resolve the outcome of attempting to dazzle someone to wrangle that invitation, the roll is 90% to see if playing that well influences your audience, and only 10% how well you performed. I might say that you’re rank 5, and this is only a backwater town so has rarely (if ever) heard anyone that good. So I’d roll with 1 they promise to get an invite but aren’t that interested in music really and forget unless prompted, 2-4 they get an invite to the ball, 5-6 they are asked to perform at the ball, but the Duke’s lutenist is really offended so attempts to spike their food to sabotage the performance. That is, I’d go with an ad-hoc roll to determine NPC behaviour if it’s in doubt.

  2. Yeah, that's reasonable enough. I probably didn't pick the best example. I was going for something more along the lines of, can you play this (very difficult) piece of music really, really well. Something that only someone of professional grade could play at all, but that is very challenging even for them, such that there's a barrier to entry (minimum skill level, which is necessary in an open-roll system like yours where anyone could conceivably roll arbitrarily high on any given check) as well as a high difficulty such that additional ability over and above the entry barrier would actually make it easier to succeed. (How useful such a test would be in an actual game is open for debate; I'm just looking for completeness.)

    1. Your comment has prompted me into completing my next post (I've been distracted by the subject of how deadly a lion should be compared to a domestic cat!). As you'll see that new post addresses that sort of issue, but for skills such as climbing or pick locks.

      It's a very good point you make about completeness of rules - there's a strong desire in me also to have rules for all situations, but against that there's the knowledge that a rule that never gets used at the table is potentially pointless and is definitely going to be under play tested. I've been considering adding in a rule to allow you to "go the extra mile" and up your game, but for now I'm going to wait and see what comes up in play, make a ruling on the spot, and see how that works out.

    2. re: lions vs. cats ... judging by the state of my arm and hands after playing with our cat, I don't want to know how much more deadly a lion would be.

      It's true that completeness is probably unattainable, and wasteful/distracting to attempt; the question is just where the line gets drawn. "Better is the enemy of good enough." I'm looking more for a general approach that you could apply when this KIND of a situation comes up (where degree of success matters, plus there's a certain entry threshold before you can even try, as in "you must be at least as tall as this sign to attack the city" [if you remember The Far Side]). Or possibly multiple approaches that you can select from as appropriate.

    3. On "Have I got News For You" tonight (a British TV show) they said to beware your cat - it's planning to kill you...

      This current series of posts is definitely the "multiple approaches" perspective. I think it's always good to be looking for what to add, or what to revise, or what to throw out. If you saw the permutations my combat resolution system went through before it arrived at the version I posted on the blog you'd be astonished! The main thing is to always be playing the game - trying out rules and ideas in the fire of real play. A lot of stuff fails the test badly, but the process is illuminating.