Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Monitors: stripping down

Handily, the estimable Dan has written some feedback on my skills system, and it's fairly critical. In particular, he suggested that the extensive skills system, as well as Skills + Stats, are too crunchy for the kind of game he think it's supposed to be. He may be right.

The main suggestion he makes is this:

...looking at the current design notes, it feels to me like the most important things about Monitors characters will be:

  • What kind of reptile you are.
  • Whether you are more of a warlock, more of a cyborg, or more of a ninja.
  • ...and that's more or less it.

I'd be strongly inclined to suggest stripping it right back, folding Stats and Skills together to produce characters with similar, broad competences.

As it happens, I was thinking about that. So how about that stripped-down alternative?

Attribute-based model

Attribute Summary Uses
Agility Avoiding physical dangers Avoid falling rocks, dodge attacks, jump over chasm, roll under closing bulkhead, squeeze through vent, intercept frisbee, ride hoverboard, drive a boat through rapids
Bureaucracy Accounting, bureaucratic procedures, filing, loopholes, organisations, office politics, paperwork, law Spot corruption, exploit procedures, identify appropriate contacts, play officers against each other, apply for grants, forge permits, guess where documentation is kept, interpret jargon, conduct legal case, draw up contracts
Combat Hand-to-hand fighting, with or without weapons Punch, wrestle, kick, headbutt, bite, restrain, stab, bludgeon, disarm
Fettle Evaluate, fix, patch or sabotage structures or physical machinery Reroute plumbing, fix motor, repair fence, fettle engines, cannibalise machinery, patch hulls, reinforce viewports, pick locks, plan demolition, use explosives
Guns Shooting, maintenance, identification Shoot an enemy, repair weapon, fit enhancements, remove sand, identify weapons fire
Knowledge Knowledge of current events and historical past, archaeology, anthropology Identify obsolete technology, recognise historical figures, identify heraldry, recall political scandal, evaluate ancient sites, identify artefacts, remember cultural taboo, memorise
Medicine Injury, illness, accident, epidemiology, disease, poisons, parasites, drugs Treat poison, treat disease, give vaccinations, stop bleeding, splint a limb, administer painkillers, diagnose insanity, identify medication
Occult Myths, artefacts, magical practices, tomes, sorcerers, spirits Recognise names, perform rituals, identify artefacts, identify a practitioner's traditions, guess intentions
Parley Befriend, bully, startle, bargain, overawe, disdain, bluster, fob off, charm, distress, bluff, empathise, psychoanalyse, impersonate Excuse trespass, impress a crowd, make friends in a pub, bluff past a guard, get a signature, obtain an invitation, avoid a fine, borrow a car, strike bargain, intimidate a thug, detect deceit
Perception See, hear, smell, taste, feel Find spots of blood, recognise repainted car, spot feet under bulging curtain, trace gas leak, detect alien, anticipate chloroform, notice drugged coffee, appreciate wine, detect an intruder, locate a songbird, pick out password, sense vibration, orient yourself
Science Biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, maths... Develop vaccine, identify creature, plot orbit, identify star system, predict volcanic eruption, find secret mine, synthesise chemical, crack code
Stealth Avoidance, discretion and surveillance Lurk in bushes, evade CCTV, disappear into a crowd, walk silently past guard, remove wheels from car full of mobsters without being heard, carry a weapon undetected, hide a vehicle, apply camo makeup, place a bug, make a hidden cache, stash incriminating evidence away from the cleaners, follow a car
Strength Climb, swim, lift, push, drag, wrestle, throw, run Climb a tree, shin along a beam, pull someone back to safety, bend bars, lift gates, escape from sharks
Tech Assembly, software, data, security, theory, personalities, equipment Build server, write program, follow data flows, track hacking attempt, hack system, manipulate photo, use robotic surgery bay, synch with battlecruiser, identify blogger, pilot mech, hotwire vehicle, disable droid

I've rolled together most of the skills in various ways, creating a more streamlined list. Some things I've removed from the skills list altogether and will handle differently: languages is a notable one, which I'll probably handle in a more D&D-esque way by having characters pick languages they know, possibly at two different levels of competence. I've removed Disguise entirely because I would like Monitors PCs to be infiltrating and impersonating away cheerfully, and decided in the end that having a disguise skill is counterproductive. If they want to wear disguises and impersonate people, that deserves screen time, not a roll.

Also worth noting is that my blurb for Athletics originally said "Bend bards, lift gates", which, um...

Obviously I could roll things together even further - Mind Body Spirit is a perfectly good set of stats, and of course you can do entirely without stats by having fixed success rolls - but I tend to subscribe to the view that the skills list helps to define a game. It highlights the sort of things you're expected to do, and the way in which things are combined or isolated shapes expectations. If there are fifty different combat skills, then expect detailed combat, many weapons, and (probably) choices about optimisation or use of weapons unskilled. On the other hand, if there's a Fight skill and twelve different magic skills, the game will be different.

This reminds me that I've always intended to write a game with a Fight skill that determines the entire result of a combat. One for the back burner.

So for example, there are only two combat skills (the decision not to include a Grapple skill is made on the grounds that every single grapple skill I've seen is complicated and frustrating). On the other hand, I wanted to keep Science and Tech separate because I want both of these to be substantial elements of the setting, and felt rolling them into a single skill would downplay that. In fact, it was quite a wrench compressing them down as much as I did, even though this is as much a learning exercise as an 'evolution of the draft' or anything. Similarly, I've kept Occult separate from general Knowledge because magic is serious business in Monitors.

Isn't that contravening the point I made about Disguise? I'm still not sure, but I'm inclined for now to say not really. The thing about infiltration (as in Dan's assassin game) is that it's a fundamentally interactive skill, and bringing it down to a flat skill does two things. One is, it removes the element of reactivity, creativity and challenge in responding to enemy activity; the other is it shortcuts all the fun you could have roleplaying infiltration of a base, or trailing someone through a crowd. Science and Tech are much less interactive, since you're mostly going to be trying to interpret information or make an item do what you want; while it'd be possible to make some activities (lab work, hacking, adapting vehicles) into sort of minigames, I'm not convinced it'd work in the sort of game I'm looking for, and would easily degenerate into just making multiple rolls on the same skill. Also, I can see how to break down infiltration into interesting components with their own actions or rolls (get disguises, Stealth roll here, try out fake ID on the system and see if it was a good forgery, bluff your way past employees...) whereas I can't fundamentally see how most science would break down into anything better than "Science" without introducing an array of very specific Lab Work, Cultivate Cell, Electrolyse type skills that are out of the purview of this game.

I've taken out hobby-type skills entirely, because while things like Sing are always fun, they're not likely to be core mechanics in this kind of setting. Instead, this kind of thing could be represented either by pure background, or by a trait system that represents individual quirks. As well as hobbies, this might include traits like Theoretician (a bonus on non-practical rolls), Slow, Ferocious, Suspicious, and so on to give flavour.

This system could potentially be used with a stat-degrading damage system as outlined last post, or I could just go for good old Hit Points, or some kind of simple injury chart.


I genuinely can't decide how much I like this system compared to the last, to be honest. To some extent I think folding Stats and Skills into Attributes is an improvement, especially if I am going to use a degrading damage system.* On the other hand, I feel like reducing the skills list to this extent could mean less opportunity to define characters, and I'd have to make sure that options elsewhere provide plenty of opportunity: in fairness, I am planning that.

Partly this is down to uncertainty as to exactly what kind of game I want this to be, which I think I can't answer at the moment. I suspect Dan has interpreted this:

What I'm basically thinking of when I imagine Monitors is an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. Not the slapstick kind, but something cheerfully fantastical like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, full of improbable tech, odd adversaries, and hijinks. the more cartoonish end of that genre, whereas I might be inclining to a slightly more serious version of it - less pizza and disco, for example. But also, to some extent, because I'm still torn between that and something a bit less overtly frivolous, with less acrobatic action and more emphasis on the tech, science and magic elements of the setting. Slower-paced, perhaps, and featuring some of the bureaucracy, politics and so on. It would still be fairly light, though, because when you get right down to it, this game is about cybernetically-enhanced galaxy-hopping wizard-lizards.

I think for now I'll look at other aspects of the game and rethink skill mechanics in the light of them.

*I really need a term for that that doesn't conjure up the wrong kind of images. Erosive damage? Suggestions welcome.

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