Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Knowing it all

A belated follow-up to this earlier post.

Basically, I started wondering what other ways there are of modelling skills, that might lead to less of a discrepancy between combat skill and just about everything else.

Games don't usually have skills for fighting orks, fighting ratmen, fighting elves and fighting giants. They don't have skills for fighting lumbering golems and skills for fighting agile displacer beasts. They have skills for fighting with a small variety of alternative combat styles, based around very broad weapon categories, of which you normally pick one. In some cases they have only a couple of skills, like "attack" and "defence", or "ranged", "melée" and "dodge".

Games also avoid letting choice of combat skills cut off your options. Things like melée range, mobility and niche use that should probably make some weapons essentially useless in some situations are usually ignored. If you want to fight the giant with a dagger, the bear with a spiked chain or the wasp with a greataxe, those are all legitimate mechanical options rather than laughably doomed.

This is very different from social, physical or knowledge skills. Manipulating someone with suggestions of violence is often different from manipulating them with a hard sell which differs from stirring them up with rousing praise, and you can't use one to do the other. Climbing and swimming and balancing and squeezing are usually different and not interchangeable, so if a problem calls for you to climb a wall it doesn't matter how many swimming badges you own. Your vast knowledge of biology will not enable you to identify this Latin manuscript.

One aspect of the difference is that usually, some characters are supposed to be Good at Combat and others not, so limiting combat characters' abilities to specific situations seems like it's hampering them, and also dooming the party. Another is that to some extent, weapon and style may be reflected mechanically such that fighting a giant with a dagger is difficult - although giant and dagger is usually about the only combination that is modelled in this way (mostly through the slowness of inflicting damage) while other implausibilities are handwaved.

I'm just going to peek at a couple of other options, and don't make any claim to originality. Oh, also: I won't claim that any of this would necessarily make a game better. I'm just interested in exploring this space a bit.

Universal Handwavery

One obvious trick, used by a number of games, is to simplify everything right down. If you have only Fighting and Non-Fighting skills, or the more common Mind Body Spirit sort of split, then combat is no more handwaved than knowledge is. Nevertheless, combat will still tend to be modelled as an interactive multi-roll challenge whereas everything else is usually handled with a single roll.

Fungible Knowledge

Another tack is to pull the same trick as combat, and pretend that all education is fungible.

Who cares that the metallurgy of bronze, the sonnets of Shakespeare and festival practices amongst the Ndau are completely different spheres of knowledge? They're all basically knowing stuff. We cheerfully accept that you can fight any combat equally effectively with a dagger, longpike or whip, despite this being utter nonsense, so why quibble over the equivalent problem in education? If someone's combat proficiency can be evaluated simply on a numerical scale, why not their education? Yes, someone who studied metallurgy might not know about the Ndau - but someone who knows about fighting manticores with a halberd might not know about fighting kobolds with a mace, and that never bothered anyone.

The key point here is to agree that our Knowledge Skill (KS) doesn't represent any specific knowledge at all, but a purely abstract ability to Know Stuff that equates roughly to the purely abstract ability to Fight Stuff that Weapon Skill, Base Attack Bonus and so on tend to model.

This allows for a relatively simple setup. Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill (if you want), Knowledge Skill, Social Skill, even Physical Skill if you want. Oh hey, this is starting to look a lot like Warhammer 40K...

You possibly could achieve this with a hack of the 40K system, but I had a brief look at it, and it'd call for a substantial reworking of many things, so let's not do that today. The core difficulty is that combat uses attributes, whereas everything else uses derived skills; and if you wanted to introduce derived skills for combat, they need to be activity-related, not weapon-related; and then you're getting into Talent territory.

The reason that weapon-related skills don't work is that it just returns us to our starting point. Most characters use one, or possibly two, weapons, and need only to excel in that chosen weapon. Whether they do so from an attribute that coincidentally makes them good at all weapons, or from a skill that makes them good at only one weapon, they will still be equally good every time they engage in combat.

As FATE puts it: If the stunt skill effectively takes over all of the skill’s attribute's base actions, it’s not limited enough. You don’t want a stunt skill replacing the skill attribute it modifies derives from.

Knowledge skills are only useful when solving problems related to a specific type of knowledge. Combat skills should only be useful when solving problems related to a specific type of combat. Making this true would, however, probably mean rewriting the combat system.

Angles of approach

Another option would be to change the knowledge skills. Don't have skills for particular types of information, because we don't have skills for particular types of fighting. Have skills for particular approaches.

Let's assume that we're proposing a modern or futuristic setting. In many parts of the world (and specifically, the familiar parts where games usually get set) you can effectively access near-unlimited stores of information at a moment's notice. There's also quite a strong tendency for people to know random bits of trivia, sometimes quite complex, because it's so easy to go wandering on Wikipedia and TV Tropes, pick up half-understood (or half-accurate) facts from forensics shows, and so on. This is an important game feature, because it means that we can decide to completely ignore "ability to cite information from memory" in our knowledge mechanics. We're no longer concerned about what sets of facts our Sage has chosen to memorise, which is the primary way knowledge is modelled in many RPGs, where knowledge skill is bundled into topical packages.

Instead, just as with combat, we want to consider "how good is this character at knowledge?" and, potentially, "which of these equally-valid approaches does the character prefer?".

But... what skills would we use instead? One of the reasons why knowledge skills in RPGs tend to be subject-based is that this is usually a pretty intuitive way to approach things. We're used to ideas being packaged into subjects, because that's what the education system does, what bookshops and libraries do, what TV programming does, and so on. Is there a good alternative?

Trying to build skills around types of problem solving (analysis, recall, recognition, research) seems difficult because they aren't really fungible. You can't just decide to use analysis to find out the past history of a haunted house. It might also be difficult in play to establish what kind of problem something is.

Skills as tools

Thinking about combat skills again, you can argue that what they tend to do is work as a tool-using skill: you are good at doing stuff with a shotgun, or a sword, or a laser mortar, and the precise details of what you're doing tend not to matter. Some systems model specific kinds of combat manoeuvres, but it's most common for combat to consist of one task (inflicting hit point damage or its equivalent) with very rare use of these special abilities. Typically one weapon will be better than another in a particular task (and often, one is better overall) but you can attempt most things with most weapons.

For example, some versions of D&D model disarming, pushing, tripping and so on. Specific abilities or even weapons may grant a bonus on these kinds of attacks. A problem is that if they're good, then it quickly becomes optimal to specialise in them and always use them to quickly render an enemy ineffective before killing them. Few systems are fine-grained enough to recognise that disarming an opponent is almost always useful, but is made difficult partly by limit opportunity, risk, and the fact that a canny opponent will recognise your attempts and start resisting them. The attacker doesn't simply create opportunities for a disarm at will, as most systems permit.

These manoeuvres are basically not an alternative to combat, or even a different kind of task that needs to be accomplished, in the same way that different spheres of knowledge are.

If the system models many different weapons skills, then each may represent a different approach to combat. Other skills (such as stealth, negotiation or deception) may also represent solutions to problems that would otherwise be resolved by combat.

Knowledge skills tend to be task-based, and fairly broad. You may use the same skill to recall a useful fact about an enemy, object or task you're attempting; to recognise a name, sign or place from a clue; to understand a notebook dealing with such matters; to smooth social interaction with an expert; to bluff being an expert; to do your actual day-to-day job; and so on and so forth.

What if we look for ways to make knowledge skills more "tool-based"?

  • Using a library or datastore (Research)
  • Recalling facts (Memory)
  • Processing information, such as a notebook or overheard conversation (Analysis)

Or even more tool-like:

  • Computer - solve problems using a computer or equivalent device
  • Laboratory - solve problems using scientific equipment, the scientific method, testing and analysis
  • Library - solve problems using information resources, references and stores of data
  • Manipulation - solve problems by altering the behaviour of other people
  • Cameraderie - solve problems by earning the trust or tolerance of other people

In this system, convincing someone that you are an expert physicist wouldn't require a Physics ability, because we aren't using knowledge spheres. Instead, it would be based on a social interaction skill. A successful set of rolls indicates that you did in fact know enough physics to convincingly bluff, just as a successful set of rolls to kill a manticore with your spear indicates that you know enough about manticore anatomy and combat against flying quadrupedal predators.

I'm going to call this one done and post, any further thoughts can be another post.

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