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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 158 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: Focus: Step On Up Topic: Skills  (Read 6093 times)
deadpanbob
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« on: October 02, 2003, 06:27:40 PM »

All:

Once again, my search-kwon-do has failed me here at the Forge.  I swear I don't have this much problem at other sites...

In any case, I'm hoping that someone has already raised this topic and there are some relevant threads I can read to see if they address my question.

I did a search and came up with a lot of Indie Game Design threads - which is okay, and I'm reading them to see if anything comes out of it.  The only theory threads I saw address this issue in general, or only tangentially.

The situation: I'm designing a game with a Step On Up focus - that is to say specifically that the game's primary reward mechanic tends to reinforce the use of the supported techniques in ways that tend to facilitate Gamist play.

I'm trying to decide whether or not character's skills can effectively be general, palyer defined sets of skills like Cover is in Sorcerer (general, and applicible in lots of different situations) or do the skills have to come from a proscribed list with all of the associated definitional language and supporting text that define when a given skill can and can't be used.

The issue is this: in a game that tends to value the Step On Up, will that support be devalued by player definible skills?

So, are there any threads (preferably outside of specific game designs, since I'd prefer to hear arguments at the theory level rather than in the specific) that have addressed this topic?  I suspect that there are, but I just can't find them.

Thanks in advance for any help you can give.

Cheers,


Jason
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #1 on: October 02, 2003, 11:00:33 PM »

Jason, I'm not sure about threads, but I think you can probably do what you want with general skills, assuming that they'll be handled well that way.

The difficult part to avoid is the possibility that a player would be able to so define one skill that it could be useful for absolutely everything, and then run up its power significantly. This becomes a mechanics advantage as against players who are trying to cover all the bases with several skills, and against players who are specializing.

As an example, I had a Multiverser player tell me not so long ago that he wanted his character to develop a martial arts style. Sure, I said; write up what you're thinking and I'll take a look at it (Multiverser has player-defined skills as a big part of the design). Next thing I know, I'm looking at a modern ninja skill set that includes the ability to kill with bare hands, to use any firearm, to dodge bullets, to use half a dozen stealth skills, overcome security systems and locks, recognize opponent weaknesses--I forget what else. I responded that that was much more than a martial arts style, really, and would take a very long time to learn; one of the other players voiced support, suggesting that what the player wanted his character to develop in a rather short period of time would take a lifetime to really be able to do. Now, Multiverser has ways of handling that--I was quite willing to go through the process of ferreting out all the different kinds of skills that involved, and letting him learn and gradually improve each of them. However, without some kind of controls, I could see a player saying that his character had "modern ninja skill", and then using it to do absolutely everything in the game.

So what you need is some sort of system or framework by which the referee can recognize what is an appropriate skill--how effective is it, how much does it cover, that sort of thing.

Otherwise, there's really nothing wrong with a gamist system that doesn't define skills. Several have been designed (none leap to mind at the moment) in which characters have three to five attributes, and whatever they want to do requires a roll against the attribute, with no skills at all. So it certainly can be done.

Hope that helps.

--M. J. Young
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contracycle
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« Reply #2 on: October 02, 2003, 11:39:40 PM »

Quote from: deadpanbob

I'm trying to decide whether or not character's skills can effectively be general, palyer defined sets of skills like Cover is in Sorcerer (general, and applicible in lots of different situations) or do the skills have to come from a proscribed list with all of the associated definitional language and supporting text that define when a given skill can and can't be used.


Well, apart from the fact that must definately not come from a proscribed list, but from a prescribed list, I think this is a good expression of what needs to be done, IMO.  I do think that for gamist play, crunchiness is good and that this requires the players to have distinctly different choices and have information about what those choices mean in detail.  This allows decisions to be considred, analysed, and hopefully implemented.  I think freeform systems tend to suffer in this area becuase the abilities are rather vague and few confident estimates of how things will interact can be made ahead of time.  Broadly generalised abilities often contain too many variables for serious planning, or for planning to bear much likelihood to roll results.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #3 on: October 03, 2003, 01:54:26 AM »

Hmm, thinkning about this and looking across at HQ (the one true love of my gaming life), initially I didn't see a problem: we've got player defined abilities, each with a well defined mechanical level and effect...

Except it's not, is it? Because of the old improvisational modifier. Now, you definitely get some gamist rivalry going on in HQ to come up with the best application of abilities to augment actions, or avoid impro modifiers, but any argument over application of the penalties can only be settled by appeals to the other players / narrator, not the rules (yes, I know, Lumpley principle and all that). Most gamists I know tend towards playing to the mechanics, not the narrator. But they may be odd (er, for that, not, you know).

Then again, what was is Rebecca Sean Armstrong said about Exalted feats? "Exalted doesn't promote power creep, it promotes coolness creep." When the system rewards creative description mechanically (as HQ and Exalted do), then gamists get creative. sometimes terrifyingly so...

So the question is: do you want your system to reward tactical play based on a known set of variables and emergent interactions form them (limited skill set with mechanically defined effects) or more freeform improvised application of generically described abilities (open skill set with player /GM adjudicated effects)?

What sort of gamism do you want?
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Pete Darby
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« Reply #4 on: October 03, 2003, 05:18:50 AM »

Quote from: M. J. Young
The difficult part to avoid is the possibility that a player would be able to so define one skill that it could be useful for absolutely everything, and then run up its power significantly. This becomes a mechanics advantage as against players who are trying to cover all the bases with several skills, and against players who are specializing.


This is an issue I've had to deal with in my own design lately, but I suggest looking at it a bit differently. The problem isn't a comprehensive skill that lets the character do anything - it's a skill that lets the character do anything the player wants him to do. In games where skills mechanically act the same (see HeroQuest, where a guitar-riff-off can be as deadly as combat), it can be a bit tricky to let players define their own skills. With two or three good ideas, a player can make a character skill set that allows him to be very proficient at everything the player's interested in.
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Clinton R. Nixon
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kalyptein
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« Reply #5 on: October 03, 2003, 05:22:08 AM »

Donjon has player defined skills, but avoids the "modern ninja skill" problem by setting simple bounds on what a skill can be.  Your primary skill, of which you'll only ever have one, can be applied to one entire set of rolls, such as all attack rolls, all damage rolls, all damage resistance rolls, etc.  Secondary skills apply to subsets of those categories: all attack rolls with a longsword, all rolls to resist damage from fire, etc.

Alex
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #6 on: October 03, 2003, 06:28:54 AM »

I was just curious...  Why do you ask about the feasability of using player defined skills as opposed to system defined skills?  I would say that both are equally feasible, each with advantages/disadvantages.

System Defined:
Pros: clear delineations of what can and can't be done, clear choices must be made (you must work within the system to generate effects that a single skill you created on your own would suffice for), the aforementioned "crunchiness", little character generation supervision required (no one can create an "overpowered" characer that the system doesn't allow for)
Cons: ineffecient (to achieve and effect you may need three seperate skills instead of one), restrictive (it is very difficult to create a character that doesn't fit within the defined archetypes)

User Defined: pretty much the inverse of the above.  Effecien and flexible, but requiring a lot of oversight and there's less of that feeling of accomplishment when you combine a skillset so that it does what you want it to.

That said, i think that some sort of hybrid system might be interesting.  Something with system defined effects that can be built into skills.  In fact, that might be very cool.

Thomas
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deadpanbob
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« Reply #7 on: October 03, 2003, 07:14:57 AM »

Quote from: pete_darby


So the question is: do you want your system to reward tactical play based on a known set of variables and emergent interactions form them (limited skill set with mechanically defined effects) or more freeform improvised application of generically described abilities (open skill set with player /GM adjudicated effects)?

What sort of gamism do you want?


Good question.  I want the latter type of Gamism, most definitely.  So you seem to be arguing that for a Step On Up facilitating game that wants to have improvised (dare I say "creative") applications of skill, using general player defined skills wouldn't nec. ruin coherency?

All:

Is it possible to have the kind of creativity focused Step On Up that Pete is talking about here with a defined list of skills?  I'm not sure...

Quote from: M.J. Young


The difficult part to avoid is the possibility that a player would be able to so define one skill that it could be useful for absolutely everything, and then run up its power significantly. This becomes a mechanics advantage as against players who are trying to cover all the bases with several skills, and against players who are specializing.



M.J. - That's the rub - figuring out a way within the context of the rules to help prevent this from happening.  I guess I may yet have to plunk down the $$$ to get a copy of Multiverser...

LordSmerf:

I appreciate the comparison of system defined vs. player defined skills - it will help focus the discussion.

Do you have any thoughts about which of the two (or your proposed hybrid) would best support a game that's being designed from the ground up to facilitate Step On Up play?

Thanks to all for the contributions.

Cheers,


Jason
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #8 on: October 03, 2003, 08:20:13 AM »

Check me to see if i properly understand you when you say "Step on Up" play.  I interpret you as saying that you want a reward mechanic that encourages players to use skills creatively to "win," such as dropping a chandelier on your enemies instead of trying to take on 10 guys at once.  If i'm wrong what i'm about to say may still hold true, then again, maybe not.

I would tend to think that a hybrid of some sort would best serve your purposes.  You want to encourage original ideas, so some sort of player input on skillset is probably a good idea.  However, you also want to have a defined set of things that you can do in the gameworld in order to facilitate Gamist play.  A delineation of abilities is almost nessecary for Gamist play because you need to have some way of objectively comparing characters.

Hopefully, that helps.  As to exactly how to execute such a hybrid, it would depend on how Gamist you want the game to be...

Thomas
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #9 on: October 03, 2003, 08:42:32 AM »

Starting with skills is, IMO, backwards.

First define what the arenas of competition will be. What do the players compete about? Against what?

Once you have that defined, then you'll have a better idea of how to make character creation and development more interesting vis a vis those arenas.

For discussion sake, if the answer is "everything", then you have some definite problems. That being that the actual arenas that arise in play will be subsets that you can't predict. As such, you'll never have an idea up front of how narrow or broad to make abilities, or how to monitor that. (PS, I've seen postulated before "modular" arenas that retroactively affect the abilities, but it's a complex spec to say the least).

See what I'm getting at? If you don't know the parameters of "the game", then it's hard to make it a fair and challenging game.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: October 03, 2003, 08:56:27 AM »

Hey,

Quick "Step On Up" clarification: it's not about the fictional situation the characters are in. It's about the real people's demonstration of their cognitive skills, their willingness and accuracy in assessing risks, and their ability to work with tricky constraints. "Guts" are a big deal.

The in-game situation provides imaginative meat for this real-person priority.

Best,
Ron
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Christopher Weeks
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« Reply #11 on: October 03, 2003, 09:22:28 AM »

I'm still not clear enough on the complex of GNS issues to know how these shape what you're trying to do, but I have a thought.  In a game where the players get to define their own skills, what if the other players get to modify them?  

So you're running the game and we're in chargen and you tell us to write down three skills -- anything.  So I, thinking this a simple assignment, write down 'running' and 'bargaining' and 'shooting.'  Then you tell us to pass our characters to the right and modify each of the skills we find by adding a line in the form of "this includes the ability to ..." or "this does not include the ability to ..."  To my shock, I find that my buddy Betsy, selected the skills: 'powerful psychic' and 'combat expert' and 'regeneration!'  So, thinking this is totally out of line, I can add "this doesn't include the ability to affect humans" and "excluding firearms" and "this includes very slow tissue regrowth."  And we pass again to the right untill we get our charsheet back.

And I'm not sure that "slow regeneration including limbs but not brain damage" is any more or less interesting than "running including marathon and sprinting with no need for hydration?"  

I think something similar to this would naturally buffer the 'power' level of the skill toward the group's local average while making for a richly defined consensual character pool with unique skills and abilities.


Chris
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #12 on: October 03, 2003, 09:37:26 AM »

Let's look at this from a really focussed Step On Up standpoint.

Actually using a character skill (once its use has been decided upon) usually don't require or demonstrate any particular player skill. There's little Step On Up in the act of saying, "my character uses his ancient languages skill to read the cryptic runes." It's not as if the player is showing off his own linguistic accomplishments in the process. The Step On Up lies elsewhere.

So, what, exactly, is the Step On Up relevance of having and using a set of character skills? The following isn't a complete list, but it hits some of the highlights.

1. Skills as scorekeeping of past Step On Up. Skills earned and/or built up in effectiveness score by means of rewards (e.g. EXP) from past play are trophies of having survived and earned those rewards. The social payoff is when someone looks at the character sheet and says "Wow!" or when the GM winces when told what the character's skill level is during resolution. The higher the numbers, the more impressive.

2. The Be Prepared Game. The challenge is having the right skills for the situations that arise. Being prepared exhibits foresight and the quality of being well-adapted. The social payoff is being able to say "I can handle that." The more urgent the need and the more unusual the applicable skill, the more impressive (up to a point). The Be Prepared game can be a dominant concern at character creation (especially in e.g. superpowers) and it can also apply to shorter-term issues like equipment selection. The old daily spell selection-memorization rules for AD&D magic-users is the Be Prepared Game purified and elevated.

3. The Set-Up Game. This is the flip side of the Be Prepared Game. The challenge is manipulating the situation to make one's character's skills usable. The less applicable-seeming the skill at the outset, the more impressive. (Using your sneaking skill to get past guards at the city gate, ho-hum. Using your cooking skill to waft irresistable aromas in their direction, drawing them off station for a snack, after having convinced them you're a group of harmless travellers camping nearby for the night -- cool!) The social payoff is "I can't believe you pulled that off."

4. The Resource Management Game. This is the less-specific cousin of the Be Prepared Game. It applies in game systems where using some or all skills effectively requires an expendable resource, such as stamina or luck points. The challenge is in having the resources to make a skill (or power, or weapon) work at a crucial time, despite previous drains (or temptations for drains) on those resources. The more sacrifices had to be made to obtain or conserve those resources, the more impressive. (For an ultra-purified version of this aspect of game play, try Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings board game.) The social payoff is being the one to pull the fat out of the fire, e.g.: "I can give you one shot with the ship's phasers at full power, Captain. It's not much but it just might be enough!"

5. The Modifiers Game. This is the less-specific cousin of the Set-Up Game. The challenge is to manipulate the situation so that skill resolutions get the benefit of favorable modifiers. Most of what's generally called 'tactics' falls into this category, including combat tactics (using terrain, exploiting weaknesses, etc). The more the oddds are shifted in the player's favor, the more impressive (as long as success does ultimately result). The social payoff is bragging rights for squeezing success out of an initially unfavorable situation and/or a mediocre fortune roll.

6. Luck. Let's not forget that there is Step On Up in rolling the dice. Even though there's no skill in it, there's still a social payoff in getting a favorable roll. The more improbably "high" the roll, the more impressive (even if the situation doesn't require it for success), and the steeper the odds, the more impressive if the roll actually succeeds.

So, the question is, which of these forms of Step On Up are undermined or jeopardized by having player-defined skills of uncontrolled breadth? Primarily, #2 and #3.

The Be Prepared Game is directly undermined because sufficiently broad skills will mean the player-characters are pretty much always prepared. (Good for character protagonism, bad for this particular flavor of Step On Up.) If the Be Prepared Game is an arena for competition between players, then the game will be seen as tilted in favor of those players with broader character skills, or all players will be forced to take very broad character skills to compete effectively, strongly trending toward wiping the Be Prepared Game out completely. If it's an arena for competition between players and the GM, it could force the GM to go fairly far afield with fish-out-of-water scenarios or outrageous adversity to challenge the players with situations not easily covered by the character skills.

Broad skills benefit the Set-Up Game up to a point, because broader skills offer more ways to creatively apply them. No amout of Set-Up will allow my "rock climbing" skill to help keep me from drowning after I fall overboard, but if the skill is "mountaineering" I might be able to make a case that my ability to survive the thin air at high altitudes means that I should be able to hold my breath for a long time without passing out. However, as with the Be Prepared Game, the challenge depends on not having an obviously directly applicable skill for the situation, so too many too-broad skills will wipe out the Set-Up Game, whether for inter-player or player-GM arenas of competition.

On the other hand, the scorekeeping function of skills (#1) is not very much affected by their relative breadth. Nor are the Resource Management Game, the Modifers Game, or the actual luck of the roll.

So if the system requires skill uses to be paid for with resources, such that the resources become the effective constraint on character effectiveness via skills, broad skills offer little competitive advantage over specific ones. A broad skill, used more frequently, drains the resources all the faster. (However, care must be taken that the advancement system doesn't make advancing a broad skill more efficient than advancing several narrower ones, leaving the players with broader character skills able to afford a larger resource pool.)

If the system makes skill success highly contingent on fortune and favorable modifiers more often than on having the right skill in the first place (for instance, when every player-character has similar types of skill), then the breadth of a skill matters less than the player's ability to perceive and exploit tactical opportunities. (However, care must be taken that the advancement system doesn't allow players with broader character skills, needing fewer skills to advance, to boost the skill levels high enough to make tactics superfluous.)

If fortune dominates the skill-resolution system no matter the players' resource use or tactics, then the breadth of character skills matters less than how well the player rolls the dice.

In any of these cases, player-defined skills with relatively little control over breadth of skill will not raise major problems.

One thing I'm surprised I haven't seen more of is systematic modifiers in play to adjust for breadth of skills. It should be possible to have modifiers for how well and how thoroughly an application of the skill matches the skill used. For instance, if A has a "rock climbing" skill and B has a "mountaineering" skill at equal levels, then A will have an advantage in climbing a cliff because A's skill is more specifically applicable, but B will have an advantage in leading Hannibal's army through the Alps because B's skill covers more of the scope of the problem. If A has "longsword fighting" and B has "sharp weapons" at equal levels, A will be better than B using a longsword, and B will be better than A using a spear. With daggers, A's penalty for partial skill mismatch to the task at hand would be about equal to B's penalty for skill generality relative to the task at hand, and they'd be about even.

- Walt
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #13 on: October 03, 2003, 11:26:30 AM »

Excellent comments per usual, Walt.

Quote
One thing I'm surprised I haven't seen more of is systematic modifiers in play to adjust for breadth of skills. It should be possible to have modifiers for how well and how thoroughly an application of the skill matches the skill used.

You do see these freqently in different forms. There's a lot of discussion on using Improvisational Use Modifiers in Hero Quest. You'll see some systems that have classifications of breadth built in, often in terms of cost of the ability, but also occasionally in terms of "defaulting" penalties and the like.

The problem with things like Improv Mods is that they require the ref to be subjective. If he makes a mistake, or expresses a bias this way, then the player has a legitimate gripe in this situation. Chalk that up as another problem for free choice of ability names.

There's a solution, however, from another perspective that we've not discussed. That's limiters on scope. The assumption has been that if you allow a player to make up any ability that it may be too broad. And without guidelines, that's true. But it's possible to have guidelines, and still have the precise definitions tailorable by characters.

Yeah, I'm talking Hero Quest again. In that game, there's so many examples that, even if a player is making his own Keywords that the ref can step in with relatively little subjectivity (and all pre-play), and decide what's appropriate and what's not. There's an intuitive sense that you get about the breadth of Abilities in HQ that makes this simple. I highly recommend this sort of method.

HQ does one more good thing this way. All Abilities are pretty narrow. Those that aren't cost more to represent that. It seems to me that keeping abilities narrow is the best way to go for this purpose as that prevents any from trumping the "Be Prepared" arena. But this requires something like the HQ Keyword method of chargen to keep straight.

I guess I'm saying that if you want free naming, having HQ limits seems to be the best way to go to me.

BTW, while Step-On-Up is all about player challenge, character challenge isn't unimportant. That is, if the in-game somehow specifies that the challenge will be about combat, as a classic example, then combat abilities will be more valueable in terms of all the Step-On-Up arenas. So when I talk about arenas, I mean both player and character challenges. That is, the Be Prepared arena is all about anticipating the character challenge arenas. If you limit the character challenge arenas, you can limite what the players have to address. And that can actually be balancing.

Mike
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deadpanbob
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« Reply #14 on: October 03, 2003, 02:16:21 PM »

Mike, Walt and Christopher W:

All very excellent comments that give me a lot to work with - Thanks!

Mike:

Yes, I agree that starting with skills is backwards.  I'm not starting with skills - but I'm also trying to avoid the Indie Game Design forums for now because I don't beleive that I'm committed enough to publishing a game in the near future.

That being the case, I'm trying to ask my questions in a way that are broad enough to be applicible to general RPG theory - but still get some use out of the answers and thoughts to help my game design.

In addition to M.J.'s Multiverser, looks like I also need to pick up a copy of HeroQuest.

I really liked both Christopher's and Mikes thoughts on how to make player defined skills work in play - and I really appreicate the very insightful comments that Walt made - that really helped me to put the question in clear focus.

Thanks a lot guys - as usual this is easily five of the most helpful online disucssion forums out there all by itself.

Unless someone has a totally different perspective to offer, I consider this thread to be closed.

Cheers,


Jason

P.S. Ron - thanks also for the quick "Step On Up" clarifier...
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