Tuesday, 3 December 2013

First Impressions: skills, part one

Dan recently reminded me that a while ago I was thinking about skills, and about what they can tell you quite a bit about a game. I brought this up in passing when discussing skills in Monitors:

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 for performing different manoeuvres, 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 somewhat different.

In particular, I think a well-considered skills list (on a broad definition of "skills") can be a useful way to establish expectations for the game. They can help indicate the kinds of activities that are important to the game, and the crunchiness of the system. Expanding our scope slightly, they can also help to convey information about the relative competence of PCs, the degree of specialisation of characters, how much PCs fall into distinct niches, and how generous the system is about assigning ability. While I'm not saying any of these are independently crucial, taking these clues as a whole can give you a fair amount of information about the genre and tone of the game, the mechanics and the content you can expect.

Let's have a look at a few game examples and see whether I'm talking complete nonsense, or just exaggerating.

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu has one of the longest skill lists you tend to see. This is because, fundamentally, everything you do in Cthulhu is done with skills. Stats really only become relevant when you're calculating damage. You can guess from this that skills are reasonably important (because there's no reason to define so many if they aren't), and the wide selection also suggests that a wide range of characters are possible. Skills are an important way to define and differentiate characters, and perhaps the most important. In my experience, only POW tends to influence a character's nature to the same extent as their skills.

It's immediately noticeable that the skills are (relatively) modern and everyday ones. The very first skill is Accounting. Law makes an appearance, and so does Photography, neither of which seem relevant to exploring a dungeon. The major sciences all feature, as do a number of skills based on social interaction. These give the idea that this isn't a game of high adventure, but one where quite ordinary activities are relevant and useful. Although a player might not consciously consider it, they should register in the back of their mind that they’re not being offered skills in wilderness survival, spaceship operation, jetpack use or necromancy.

Knowledge skills are the most numerous group, covering most academic and scientific fields of the 1920s, though the humanities arguably get short shrift. We can correctly deduce that understanding and interpreting information is likely to be a significant part of the game. We can also deduce that the game is expecting the kind of characters who might have skills in history, foreign languages, physics, law or the occult - in other words, relatively educated, respectable characters. Of course, it's also possible to make characters based on more physical skills, but the skillset does tend to discourage barbarians and assassins. Perhaps less obviously, it’s also not that easy to make characters who are lower-middle or working class, because there’s not that many suitable skills, though with some generous interpretation it’s entirely possible.

The way the skills are distributed also offers some insight. While scholarly abilities are clearly considered relevant enough to make up a dozen different skills, we can be reasonably sure that Physics isn't considered a core part of the game, because there's a Physics skill. We can guess that stealth mechanics are probably more relevant, because there are five distinct skills based on concealment or detection. While the substantial list of weapon skills suggests combat may be a significant part of the game, a little bit of thought also suggests that we're not going to encounter detailed tactical combat because of the Skill Paradox. We have a set of very general combat skills that basically boil down to two things: Dodge and Use Weapon XZY. This is precisely the sort of skill you use for things you don't think are important enough to model in detail. A combat-heavy game that consisted of repeatedly rolling the same two skills (and you're not likely to have more than two) would be extremely dull - and with the BRP percentile skill system, you're going to be rolling on the same numbers. On the other hand, there's no sign of a big set of skills for doing particular kinds of things in combat, which might indicate a crunchy tactical game. So the fact that there's a list of skills for all kinds of weapons can be taken to mean that the rules want to be adaptable for a variety of characters and settings - and perhaps to be quite "realistic" about them. In contrast, there are at least four skills for dealing with social situations (Credit Rating, Fast Talk, Persuade and Psychology), and a dozen or so relating to specific areas of knowledge or research. What we don't have, as the Paradox predicts, is a skill for Investigate, because investigation - the key feature of the game - consists of using all the other skills and all kinds of non-skill activities in suitable ways. While the skills list isn't enough by itself to tell us that this is a game of investigation, I think it reinforces that nicely.

The other major thing that you can guess (correctly) from the skill list is that Cthulhu characters are generally mediocre. Initial skills are largely in the 1% to 5% range, with a few everyday ones closer to 20%. Of course, you assign additional skill points to the things you're actually interested in, but starting with a very low chance of doing anything - and this being true of anything you don't specialise in - informs the players that you aren't going to be dashing heroes who thrive in every situation, but actually will fail quite often even at things that you might be relatively good at.

Finally, in this system specialisation is very much as you make it. The fairly unconstrained allocation of points means you can choose to be expert at a few things, or okay at quite a lot. Because there are a lot of skills, characters are likely to develop different skill sets. However, they won't necessarily fall into distinct niches, because the game can't rely on even a single person having any specific skill above base, and because some skills are obviously more likely to come up than others and are likely to be taken by multiple characters.

Hellcats & Hockeysticks

Skills are less important to H&H than some other games. That's partly because you're okay at most things unskilled - as good as a trained Call of Cthulhu character, in fact - and partly because the style of the game can vary quite a bit. If you go heavily into the more Mean Girls or even The Craft end of things, the social mechanics and general unruled roleplaying are likely to be more important than skills. You also get a hefty dose of character definition from your clique, which unlike the more traditional "class", explicitly says things about the kind of person you are; it also gives you a special signature ability. I’m adding this explanation here, but it isn’t completely apparent to a new player.

The most obvious thing about the Hellcats skills list is that it's silly. The skills are almost all common subjects in British schools, used for mischief by the girls. This immediately gives the impression of a jokey, irreverent game that isn't taking itself seriously. It also, of course, reinforces the point that this really is supposed to be a game about schoolgirls - you'd really struggle to hack it for barbarian adventurers or police drama.

The descriptions make it clear that while the skills are technically based on school subjects, their primary purpose is getting up to no good. Thus, we have Needlework used for lockpicking, Team Sports used for GBH, and Chemistry used for making gin and explosives. If the players are familiar with the St. Trinian’s works* then they will already have a decent idea of what’s expected**.

* And if not, I’m not sure why they’re playing this game.

** Although, as we have discovered, this is actually somewhat misleading.

This game does include skills for occult shennanigans and mad science, which marks them as possible options. Again, with a bit of thought, we can guess (correctly) that they aren't really core gameplay, because having a skill to roll for each one doesn't exactly establish a foundation for fascinating play - and indeed, these are optional extra rules bolted on to the main game. However, the existence of so many skills for doing disreputable, secretive and illegal things – just about every skill highlights these uses – reinforces the nature of the game as one of mischief.* It's notable that sneaking is different from lockpicking, which is different from lying, which is different from cheating at cards, whereas the sneaking skill also covers all forms of athletic activity.

* You could take this as a cue to run a serious and nasty game (and I'm sure it'd be possible) of being plain old juvenile delinquents, but the tone of the entire rulebook strongly pushes you the opposite way.

There are some skills that cover basic survival and construction skills, which would allow you to run desert island scenarios, and in fact I think you’d manage that fairly well, but that’s easily within the scope of this kind of game. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, there really isn't much in the way of skills for research, or any other nitty-gritty stuff (in fact, from the descriptions in the rulebook, there's no reason to think having points in a skill makes you any good at the subject it's named after). Lacking anything in the way of research skills, you're not likely to be piecing together complex mysteries. There's even less detail in terms of combat skills, giving the sense that this is a game with a fairly loose combat system - there's not even a Dodge, let alone specific weapon skills.*

* That being said, the absence of weapon skills doesn't necessarily indicate that combat isn't important, as we'll see later - it could have meant quite the reverse.

These omissions are quite interesting, because there are a lot of skills here: 26 in all. That's only slightly fewer than 3rd edition D&D, though half the number in Call of Cthulhu, and it's mostly down to the sheer range of activities they cover for a relatively rules-light game. The range of the skills, coupled with the broad scope of most of them, could indicate a couple of things: either it's a wide-ranging game needing a broad ruleset to cover all manner of chaos, or it's designed to cover a range of different genres with a subset of skills used each time. In this case, it's a bit of both but more of the latter.

The final thing to note about these rules is that the skills scale from 1-5, which translates into extra D6s for your dicepool. You can tell fairly easily from these two bits of info that you've got a reasonable chance to do most things (generally 4+), and a very good chance if you put even one point into them. Because each clique encourages players to pick particular skills, you're likely to end up with characters falling into distinct niches, but because they always get to roll at least one die with decent odds, they can't specialise into uselessness outside that niche. It also encourages you to just have a go at things, which fits the free-flowing type of game Cubicle 7 seem to be aiming for.

Unfortunately, though it conveys the general tone of the game and the loose nature of the mechanics, I don't think the skills list in Hellcats and Hockeysticks is that great. As that article points out, in practice it's often difficult to match up skill names and their mechanical use. There are wild variations in how broad and useful some skills are, and the existence of a skill doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’ll engage in that sort of activity. The length of the list, and the breadth of activities it covers, also rather muddies the waters in terms of what the game is about: if you read through and spot rules that specifically cover falconry (Animal Husbandry), stock markets (Maths), torture (Leadership), legal skills (History), bomb timers (Electronics) and melee combat (Team Sports), I think you can be forgiven for some confusion over what the focus of the game is. In fairness, this is partly because the game itself is trying to cover all possible genres where girls at school behave badly, which is arguably either an advantage or a burden for it. It’s also, I suspect, aiming to suggest what skill you’d use to do X, rather than what you use Skill X to do. Finally, you absolutely need to read the descriptions of each skill in order to have any idea of what it does, which means the skill list in and of itself is of limited use.

The game is also quite keen to play up its social dynamics rules, which aren't represented in skills at all – or rather, are completely separate from skills, though you might use skills to resolve situations. I can't really comment on this, as they saw no use whatsoever in our play, and I've yet to find a review where they did feature. So I don't know whether the lack of clues in the skill list is leaving you oblivious to one of the core mechanics, or giving a realistic impression of the likely importance of those rules in play. As we’d expect, the absence of rules for resolving social dynamics in your group indicates that either a) this is irrelevant to the game itself, or b) this is so important that it can’t be handled by anything as simple as a couple of skills. In the case of this game, I’d say it’s either/or, depending on what genre you want to run.

More to come in future posts, but this one's already longish and trying to pin this stuff down in words is pretty hard work.

No comments:

Post a Comment