About my Old School D&D skill system

The recent activity on the board has inspired me to write a little bit about our D&D adventures, again. I'm generally quite lazy about doing this, which is a shame, as the Internet really does a lot for the rpg hobby - even if I might not get that much personally from writing long actual play reports, other people do. (I know this to be the case because I've myself learned the craft primarily not from rulebooks, but rather from specific essays of the Internet age.) Besides, I often find it useful to have an old essay somewhere to point to when a topic comes up again.

I'm inspired to write about my current skill system, because I think it's pretty unique and clever. I think that this sort of mechanical stuff is very contextual, so I don't expect others to be able to use this as is, but there are certain insights here about percent-based skill systems and such that may be useful to somebody. This is going to be hardcore traditional task resolution logic throughout, but perhaps you'll find some saving grace in the fact that I stand on the shoulders of giants and may therefore have a better handle on this than some '80s writers wrestling with the same issues.

The following treatment has been in use for 49 sessions of play at this writing, so it's seen some actual play. It's the biggest change I've made to my homebrew rules since 2011 or so.

How we resolve tasks

All characters have the same matrix of Ability scores:

STAMINA - a generic measure of physical competence
WITS - how quick-thinking and alert the character is, generally speaking
KNOWLEDGE - how much lore and skill the character has
WILL - how in tune with himself the character is
CHARISMA - social intelligence, pretty much

Abilities are initially rolled 3d6 in order, but they have various ways to fluctuate during the campaign, they're not nearly as static as is normal for D&D. For instance, they have a chance to go up at the end of every session, and every time a character is injured there's a chance for them to go down.

When a task is in need of resolution, the GM determines a target number (DC, as one might as well call it - this is all very similar to 3rd edition D&D) and the Ability used to resolve the situation. The player rolls, adds their Ability score to the result, and compares to the DC. The DC for Ability checks is usually 20, but it is determined in realistic terms, so can go up and down depending on the situation.

OK, so that is stupid simple so far. Here's some nuances:
* A natural '20' explodes, so you roll and add again.
* A natural '1' is a "fumble", which is treated as an "extra degree of failure" in terms of creative interpretation of the dice. The result of the roll is calculated normally, which may, depending on the target number, mean that you get a success despite the fumble (which is basically a "yes, but" result), or you may fail as well as fumble ("double failure", sort of).
* Every 5 points of difference between the DC and the result of the roll is treated as an extra degree of success or failure, so +5 difference is a "2nd degree success", +10 is "3rd degree" and so on. These excess degrees of success or failure are used to essentially "purchase effectiveness" in a semi-formal way for various tasks.

The reader can see how this is relatively math-intensive when you come down to it; many rpg systems recoil from rapid addition and substraction of two-digit numbers. My only defense is that I'm pretty much designing for our local use, and math-aversion is apparently not as common in Finland as it is in some parts of the world. The success degree calculations ("I rolled 27 and the DC is 35, what's the degree of success?") are quick to become a second nature, I've found, and we don't really need to think about it in practice.

The success-counting is the most heterodox part in the system compared to traditional D&D, which generally rolls on pure pass/fail. It's also the most formalistic bit that ties the task resolution into greater concerns of success and failure, because the "degree of success" naturally defines a currency of sorts for measuring various procedural concerns: one degree equals one useful fact discovered; one more enemy caught in the blast radius; one less check needed later on; one more die of damage; one point of damage avoided; one day less of crafting; one more henchman mustered. The list goes on and on, but it's important to understand that although there are many procedural rules of thumb for converting and interpreting success degrees into concrete events in the fiction, there is no formal guarantee of their value; it is very important for an organic task resolution system like this that an easy success in a meaningless task may well produce a bunch of "degrees", but that does not mean that you can outright trade them for something useful in an unrelated matter. All this is merely semi-formalistic, not a closed formal system by any means.


  • Then come the skills

    The above basic Ability check system has at this writing been in play for let's say 200 sessions or so, with several GMs at the helm - it's pretty good, and does some very clever tricks. (I've basically got my own weird solutions to every D&D issue ranging from the treatment of longbows to improvised magic.) However, I grew interested in adding a skill aspect to the system for various reasons.

    I should note for context that the system as it used to stand does have various means to emulate skill systems, means that are probably familiar to anybody who's played skill-less D&D. You could give impromptu modifiers to characters who may informally be considered to have the "right background" while doing something, for instance, or the character could have a class-based feat that outright gives them bonuses for doing this or that. These types of solutions are not, however, genuine skill systems; we want something where the players can have skills listed in their character spec.

    My design considerations for the skill system were as follows:
    * I was interested in fiddling about with "percentage-based" skill systems, like those in WFRPG and BRP. I am very dissatisfied with the basic math on both of those games, and consider them essentially broken in their current form. However, the ideal of expressing a skill in percentage terms is compelling; could I make that work somehow? In part this has to do with a little project I have underway for creating a Glorantha-based D&D campaign, which obviously draws various inspirations from Runequest and its BRP stylings. There's something fun about having those little numbers slowly towards the ceiling.
    * I absolutely did not want to make character generation any slower; quick chargen and just-in-time development are at the heart of this sort of challengeful, brutal D&D.
    * Having a pre-determined skill list was out of question; the rulings-based organic iteration of the campaign's mechanical space chokes out with that kind of top-down thinking. Examples of skills, yes; authoritative lists, no.
    * I wanted skills to be absolutely fiction-emergent and flawlessly emulative, meaning that "to have a skill, you need to have the skill": no point-buys, no artificially balanced scoping. Something would only be on the skill list if it is actually a skill that a human being performs, and it would only be useful in terms of what that skill does. Not unlike e.g. Traveller and WFRPG and similar games that have completely organic skill lists, with nary a whiff of higher-order concern. The opposite of the Exalted skill list, if that clarifies anything.
    * I wanted skills to be something that characters have in parallel with their character class (not that different from e.g. Backgrounds in the most recent official edition of D&D), and something that non-classed NPCs could also have and be excellent in. My thinking about the significance of class/level in D&D is that ordinary people do not and should not have either a class or a level in D&D, which means that skills could make for a nice way to differentiate between them a bit.
    * Adding skills should not cause any of the traditional problems of introducing skills into D&D. Skills should not pigeon-hole characters; skills should not become a mathematically necessary part of success; we should not have to pay any more attention to skills than we want, case by case. I wanted a skill system that complements character color, but is ultimately not as significant for who and what the character is as their class and level are; skills should be fun details that we can use to the extent we need to, and not the entire basis of the resolution system as they've become in almost all skill-based systems.
    * Finally: it would be nice if the skill system would contribute to differentiating between 1st-level adventurers a bit. This is totally a non-issue for e.g. 3rd level characters, who have had plenty of time to develop personality and commitments and positioning and mechanical depth that makes them quite different from each other. However, the majority of play in our D&D occurs at 1st level (50 sessions and like two characters at 2nd level at this writing, for example), so having something for those low-level characters could be nice. It should be something that pales into insignificance at higher levels, though, as characters gain class-based crunch that should be the focus of attention for the players.

    The point of writing up this list is to show how intricate the design problem had become by the point I decided to add skills: it had to be done just right, or it shouldn't be done at all. Let's see what I came up with...
  • Adding skills to D&D

    Skills are ancillary detail about your character, recorded with the same style and care as you record known spells, known languages and such - in fact, we retroactively define all this ephemera to belong in the same conceptual class of character detail. A player does not have a subjective responsibility to track this stuff, but they may wish to, and they have the right to do so on a case-by-case basis. When we need to know and you don't have adequate records, we decide on the basis of the fictional gestalt:
    "Does your character know French? You don't know? Well, where are they from?"
    "What's your climbing score? Don't have one? Well, the default is 50% so let's go with that."

    Thus: the skill system is entirely optional, and may be ignored or utilized as needed.

    Skills themselves are always concrete skills in fictional terms, so if you can't conceptualize some task or talent or whatever as a human "skill" in the normal sense of the word, then we should be using some different game mechanics for depicting that feature of your character. Skills can be wide or narrow, that's all OK, because we don't "buy" them in any sense; saying that you have a "knightly weapon training" skill is exactly the same as listing out every individual facet of that training. Go as detailed as you need to.

    Skills are expressed numerically as percentage points. These are not primarily target numbers or bonuses for dice rolls or anything like that; rather, the percentage score is an attempt at qualifying how complete and thorough the character's training in the skill is. A score of 0% (or '-' as we often write it) indicates that the character is positively clueless about this skill, and might not even know that it is something that people do; a score of 100% (or '+') means that you're fully competent, know everything that is generally considered part of the skill, and have had sufficient practice to perform within the scope of the skill up to the limits of your natural abilities.

    Different skills are easier or harder to master in real terms, so the skill lists on your character sheet are in no way equal or balanced against each other. Somebody can master "three-ball juggling" in an afternoon depending on their inclinations, while "reading Latin" generally takes several years to master thoroughly. We understand that the notion of a closed range of expression grows somewhat vague for some skills, but it's generally possible to understand it even for more open-ended skills. For example, a perfect 100% for "Poetry" does not mean that you're somehow the world's best poet; it merely means that you know all the forms (for your culture), understand the goals and means of poetry and are ready to advance the art at the level of a master. For comparison's sake, you are probably at 100% as a roleplayer.

    We don't have formalistic rules for learning new skills or anything like that because of how the game of old school D&D is in general - gauging the concrete fictional situation and making rulings generally suffices, and it's easy enough to develop more rules for it if the campaign starts to revolve around running a school or something. Because skills aren't bought with some sort of abstract resource, there's no reason why somebody can't just take a year off adventuring to learn a new skill - the only costs are the real costs of time investment, and perhaps the slight decrease your other skills may suffer as you concentrate on something new.

    Starting characters get skills as per their background. If you say that your character is a fisherman, you get fishing skills. Generally the player sets the skill percentage for their character. Here's some benchmarks:
    0% - you positively do not know this skill at all. This is usually the case for skills that are not known in the character's culture or social situation at all, or that are secret. You generally don't have any reason to write these down, unless your character specifically is exceptionally ignorant about something.
    20% - The default beginner score for difficult and unintuitive skills. You'd get this in e.g. "Lockpicking" if you were trying it for the first time.
    50% - The default beginner score for simple everyman skills such as "Climbing".
    70% - A professional score in a difficult skill, or the starting default for a common skill in a culture that prizes the skill. Ski'ing, for example, in cultures where everybody skis.
    100% - your mastery of this skill is complete. If there is yet more to learn, it's not in terms of technical performance of the skill, but rather some deeper aspect. Experienced professionals generally get here in their professional skills; talented and motivated ones get here quickly.

    There are some formal assumptions about skills that come from character class and other mechanical powers. The most important of these is the "Fighter's privilege": we assume without discussion that anybody in the Fighter class will have all culture-appropriate combat skills a 100% to start with; either they're a veteran combatant (a notion supported by old school D&D, as we well know), or they're precocious and a natural talent in it.

    (The fighter's privilege applies in our Swedish campaign most importantly to the "Combat Experience" that is a determinant for initiative, and for various melee combat skills one might speculate about. What it basically means is that fighters don't have to care about skills most of the time, because they already have what they need. The big exception is "Archery", which comes up now and then, but which I do not consider a Fighter default skill - you need to establish your background and declare it at whatever score you feel appropriate if you think that your character's an archer.)
  • How skills are used

    There is no mandatory default way to use skills - we can roll BRP skill checks even, if we want, with a d100 against the skill rating. I personally find that a moronic way to resolve tasks in almost all situations, but sometimes it can be appropriate.

    The default idea, though, is thus: a given Ability check situation may be one that requires a character to know a specific skill to perform effectively. When this is the case, the GM names the skill (alongside the Ability used), and the player making the check multiplies their Ability value with the fractional factor of the skill.

    For example, say you were climbing up a cliff, and the GM decided that the difficulty is 20, the basic difficulty. You have the average Stamina of 10 and the default Climbing skill of 50% (everybody gets a relatively high default for climbing because even an untrained climber can climb pretty well - better than an untrained Latinist can speak Latin, certainly!). Your roll, therefore, is like so:

    0.5*10 +d20 vs. DC 20

    I imagine that this is where a math-averse gamer starts shaking their head - you generally only see multiplication and division in games of let's say marginal interest. However, as I mentioned in relation to success degree counting - this does not seem to be a problem for us. A big key to doing fractional division on the flight at the game table (aside from paying attention at school) is doing some realistic and friendly rounding: players almost never need to calculate anything more detailed than multiples of halfs, thirds, fourths and fifths, which should be trivial to anybody over the age of 13 or something, particularly when we don't really care about rounding - just pinpoint some number and roll, it's all easily precise enough for D&D purposes even if you miscalculated it by one or two points.

    Of course the only reason I break the math taboo like this is that the math really works for my purposes! I get exactly what I want out of the skill system with this math: skills are expressed in percentage form, characters untrained in the skill default elegantly, and characters fully trained in the skill can just ignore it (a fully trained character just rolls their full Ability score). The actual dicing results are very logical, and the character's natural potential (as expressed by Ability) influences the proceedings in a suitable way, as does the skill factor.

    On the GM side the skill thing doesn't really cause any particular changes to anything. Certain old specialty difficulty scales that I've used before can be discarded, in fact, because the skill system gives the GM a better tool for expressing the idea that some things are rather difficult to succeed at. For example, instead of setting the Knowledge check difficulties for esoteric information through the roof, I can just call for the "Draconic Lore" skill and set the default difficulty of 20. It'll be potentially trivial for a master of the skill (who rolls at their full Knowledge Ability score), and almost impossible for the complete neophyte (who rolls at effective Ability score of zero).

    Practical applications

    Consider these cases:

    Initiative: it used to be that everybody rolled WITS + d20 for Initiative, resulting in an average Initiative score of 20 and a practical range between 10 and 35 or so. Now that there is a skill component to it (the players tend to call it the "Initiative skill", but I like to call it "Combat Experience"), the non-combat adventurers have a WITS/2 for their Initiative bonus, for an average of -5 compared to the Fighter with the same WITS score. (-6 really, as Fighters add their level to all combat checks, including Initiative) This is substantial, which I like; Fighters should have an edge in this, and more of one than the paltry +1 you get at 1st level from the class.

    First Aid: it used to be a Knowledge check to perform successful first aid, which tended to make the party sages and wizards and clerics and bards and such the go-to guys for first-aid and field medicine. I've struggled a bit with expressing the idea that a character could also specialize in medicine and chirurgy, and thus be more useful with it. Now with the skill system, as "Wound Treatment" defaults to 20%, your average clueless character will get a paltry +2 skill bonus, while a sage with a medicinal background can have e.g. +14. Much better in terms of differentiating characters over this sort of colorful task. There are players who enjoy this specific idea, in fact, that their character is an accomplished healer.

    Tracking: a classical example of one of those obsessive Gygaxian special skill cases; apparently late '70s gamers found the idea so fascinating that the Ranger class needed an entire subsystem for doing this. For me "Tracking" is a skill, of course, but furthermore it is also a sub-skill of "Wilderness Craft", which may be something you'd rather write down on your character sheet. You can default your Tracking to your Wilderness Craft -20% at any time or something, I don't really care. Or halve it, maybe.

    Magic: here we get to the funky stuff. Each spell is, obviously, a skill - you have your "Magic Missile 100%" or whatever. And of course a fully-learned spell behaves precisely as they've always done. But, now you can also try to use a spell you've merely skimmed. Just roll that flat %-check for an extra botch chance. (This is an example of a situation where the BRP "skill check" makes sense, by the way.)

    Magical modalities: even weirder stuff. How do you do things like "Alchemy", "Song Magic", "Ritual Magic"? Why, they're all rare and difficult skills. I call these "modalities of magical practice", and the general idea is that you the player of a magician can combine spells with modalities pretty freely in customizing what your magician knows how to do. So to make an alchemical potion, combine your skill with the appropriate spell with your alchemy skill, and if you succeed in the check, there's your magical potion. (The math-inclined will realize that combined skill checks are outright trivial here: just multiply all the factors, and that's your final skill rating.) Very robust, very elegant.

    Kungfu: special combat techniques can also be skills. Uncommon skills that require special class features to access, but still under the same theoretical framework. You put the time in and learn to execute some fancy moves. You'll want to train the ones you use often up to 100% so they don't deduct from your check bonus, of course.
  • Learning skills

    This part is totally wacky if you're used to the obsessive way skill-based games tend to treat these little numbers. My campaign isn't like that at all! For one, the players generally only write down unusual highlight skills for their character; the ones they don't care about are derived on the spot during play. It is very satisfying to be able to derive these little Ability check penalty factors (that's what skills amount to in this system - deductions from Ability checks unless you've perfected the skill) on the spot on the basis of common sense.

    Generally the player decides what scores their character has on skills. I don't care as the GM because this whole skill rigamarole has been carefully designed to stay within bounds - it is impossible to break the actual key activities of D&D by giving your character unrealistic skills, so nobody's really that interested in doing that. If you want to play an experienced, world-weary guy who's got a lot of high skill ratings, be my guest - for some character concepts that's totally what you should do, and I'd never want to force anybody to play the BRP "distribute 400% between these 20 skills" bullshit if they don't want to.

    The GM provides setting information of course, and generally listens to the players giving their reasonings, which seems to suffice in keeping them on track. Things like "yeah, you may assume that every rural Swede has about 50% in their combat skills - it's a rough time period" help the players gauge the correct numbers, because they are definitely the primary expert on whether their character is a "typical rural Swede" or something more or less dangerous when it comes to combat.

    Anyway, that's for starting skill scores. These can be improved by simply putting in the downtime - the players generally like to give their skills some little improvements when there's a few weeks of downtime and the character doesn't have anything else to do. I just give them some arbitrary numbers like "add 2d6 to that skill" or "add 10%" or whatever. The number isn't really so important as the idea that yeah, skills can be slowly hiked upwards by training.

    The more dramatic way to improve skills is with the "experience advantage" which is something special to this rules-set: it used to be that every player got to make some improvement rolls for their characters' Ability scores at the end of each session of play, to represent the real experience (as opposed to the dramatic notion of "experience points", a totally different concept) accruing to them from adventuring. So your character might start with e.g. average physical capabilities, but over several sessions of play they could improve themselves and become somebody of more heroic stature (albeit still 1st level, likely enough).

    (The Ability improvement is taken by a simple d20 roll - roll over the Ability and you get to add +1 to its value. Roll under or equal, and the improvement failed, but you get to pick a different Ability and try again.)

    Now, with skills, there's an additional option: if you want to give a skill you used in this session a quick boost, you can try to improve it instead of the Ability improvement check. The skill improvement check is made with the d% against the skill's current value, as it should be for anybody with BRP brain damage; a roll over the current skill value immediately becomes the new skill value, while a roll under the current value merely adds [character level] points to the skill (and you get to try to improve something else, too).

    This improvement scheme is obviously totally frivolous, but that's exactly the kind of game D&D is: the player characters are exceptional individuals in exceptional circumstances, jumping from "Swordplay 10%" to "Swordplay 90%" after a single traumatic experience is no stranger than the other stuff that happens to player characters. Particularly, I refuse to make this skill thing a big character optimization subgame: I like it that there's a moderate amount of effort involved in learning a new skill, but if you really want your character to be a master tracker, you go ahead and be whatever you want - you're going to die all the same in the next dungeon, life's too short to be accruing skills point by point.

    Practical experience tends to indicate that this system works precisely as I want a skill system for D&D to work: skills are a lower-order concern compared to class, level, hit points and such. They are there to fill in the holes and provide flavour, not as a life-and-death matter. Generally your character has all the skills that the concept calls for at 100%, so you don't need to care about skills except when you're operating outside your competency. Character development can be dramatic and punchy skill-wise; skill learning produces little stories that last for a couple of sessions as a character first gains a starter score, then expends an experience advantage or two to hike it up, and very possibly perfects the skill over ~5 sessions of play or so. You get really fun and dynamic "becoming a 1st level adventurer" arcs out of character who go into their first battle with low default combat skills, but quickly improve and catch up with the veterans. It's sort of like a cute little parallel experience system on the side.

    I've yet to see how the system functions in mid- and high level play (because, you know, nobody seems to get to those levels with us - we just recently killed our only 3rd level guy), but my plan is to get similar sort of heat out of it as classical Runequest gets out of special exotic skills like Illumination and Lunar Philosophy and such - difficult skills to improve, with drastic consequences for learning them, and so on. Like Cthulhu Mythos in CoC, too.
  • Eero, lots to digest. Will respond in detail when I can.
  • Eero,

    I'm always really happy to see these threads. I will also digest and respond when I get a chance!
  • edited May 2017
    Interesting that don't have strength, dexterity, or agility as an ability. Social, mental, and spiritual (as in resolve, fortitude, or toughness) are covered.
  • Yeah, I just stopped seeing the point in the STR/DEX/CON split about a decade back. I mean, I get that there's some realism and such to it, but mostly I feel like splitting it up like that gets more in the way than it does any good. You end up focusing in these wacky stereotypes about physical activity when those activities are split into "strength activities" and "dexterity activities" (and rarely "constitution activities"). Of course all ability splits are vulnerable to creating artificial straddle issues, but I felt those to be more pressing than most; the majority of the time my stat array avoids having simple atomic task resolution fall into an ambivalent niche between two stats.

    If I remember correctly, the idea that convinced me to amalgamate the physical stats was ultimately that I lost any conviction in their being fundamentally independent aspects of the human condition. In the real world physical well-being - physical cultivation of man - is a rather holistic affair. I would rather have one stat that is very clear about how physical a character is: do they have a long history of a training regimen or physical work; are they used to pushing their boundaries; do they like being active; are they mentally and physically prepared for heroic exertions? I feel that a single score gets to the core of this issue better, and ultimately that's what matters, because in most actual task resolution situations the physical stats work in tandem, realistically speaking. Combat, for example.

    All this does not mean that the system refuses to differentiate between body types and physical specialties, it's just that I move those concerns up to the feat level, where it's wholly optional - give your character a "Great Strength" feat that gives them a +4 to feats of strength if you want to play a character who is specifically strong, for instance; that's pretty much like if you had a separate Strength score 4 points higher than your Dex and Con.

    And of course now that I have a skill system, that can be used as well: the default skill rating for "Athletics" (running, climbing, swimming, etc. common physical activities) is 50% and for "Acrobatics" 20% at most, so there's room to give your character a specialized niche if you want to. Make them a "Long-Distance Runner", and they'll probably be up by about +5 against somebody with the same STAMINA score when it comes to winning a marathon. Whatever you like, there's room to have physical variety.
  • I've done similiar things as well for some of my designs. One I simply eliminated abilities altogether and went with Moves. No skills either, just Tools (not always literal tools). Worked somewhat like Lady Blackbird, where the tools were tags for the moves.

    In another, I went with How and Why rather than abilities and skills.

    So for yours I like that there is just Stamina.

    How many skills does a character in this design have?
  • I've always liked the idea that we can effectively combine rigidly defined abilities and player-defined abilities.

    For example, if our game actions include Pray, Heal, and Occult Knowledge, one player can choose "Pray + Heal" and call it "Priestly Magic", while another might choose "Pray + Knowledge" and call it "Demon Summoner".

    If you set things up right, you can get the best of both worlds.
  • Seems to depend on player tastes. Some players like to develop and maintain pretty long skill lists - like 10-20 skills - while others only mark down the exceptional ones.

    The system intentionally works in a way where "skill defaults" are intended to be realistic rather than minimal, meaning that you don't technically speaking lose anything by not writing down your skills. We'll just have to figure them out when we need them, but because we use the same method for figuring them out either way, it's presumably the same number we'll end up with whether you do it at chargen or in between sessions or in the middle of a dicing procedure.
  • Thanks for sharing this, Eero. I really appreciate these long-form essays that break down your design coherently and convincingly. Still some of my favourite conversations on S-G.

    I hope one day you find the time to pull these together into a little play-primer, or find a worthy and willing deputy to do it for you.
  • I've finally caught up on this thread. Like many of your other ideas, Eero, this one is not particularly elegant, from the perspective of traditional game design, but makes an incredible deal of sense. I can really see the logic and the appeal here. Very interesting!

    Unfortunately, I'm not sure how it could be applied to a D&D-set which doesn't add one's entire ability score to the d20 check, but I'm sure that if I think about it hard enough, something will show itself.

    Great stuff, in short! Very thought-provoking.

    I'm curious about two things:

    1. The post-session "experience advantage" system. It's pretty interesting how, in your game, "experience points" seem to apply to the somewhat meta-fictional "character level" and various "unrealistic" D&D-isms which go along with increased hit points, new spells, and so forth. Meanwhile, the "experience advantage" system, operating underneath, is more emulative, more simulationist, perhaps (though still pretty volatile and unpredictable!) - it's more about what the character is doing and what we learn about them.

    What does the "end-of-session" procedure look like, then? Is there any way to earn more of these "experience advantages"? How many do you get? Do you have to justify spending them in any way?

    Do you have these rules summarized anywhere?

    2. How do ability scores go up and down in your game (since that seems to be the more "game"-oriented part of character skill effectiveness)?

    Do you always get to roll to increase an ability score after a game session, or does it cost an "experience advantage" or some such?

    Under what kinds of circumstances do the ability scores go down, and by how much?
  • Unfortunately, I'm not sure how it could be applied to a D&D-set which doesn't add one's entire ability score to the d20 check, but I'm sure that if I think about it hard enough, something will show itself.
    Note that this whole concept is a superset of the more general D&D math solution of the "ability bonus". The famous linear 3rd edition Ability bonus is calculated with a factor of 50%, for instance. Mathematically this skill system is sort of like if instead of fixing the Ability bonus to always be 50% of the Ability score (plus a trivial correction factor to make the numbers look smaller), we were to let that modifier range freely from a negligible fraction to a full 100% of the Ability score.

    1. The post-session "experience advantage" system. It's pretty interesting how, in your game, "experience points" seem to apply to the somewhat meta-fictional "character level" and various "unrealistic" D&D-isms which go along with increased hit points, new spells, and so forth. Meanwhile, the "experience advantage" system, operating underneath, is more emulative, more simulationist, perhaps (though still pretty volatile and unpredictable!) - it's more about what the character is doing and what we learn about them.
    That is precisely the "emulative logic" I've adopted for D&D: the way I think about its rules system as a whole is that there exist two factorial elements in the whole rules system.

    One factor is the "realistic" one, where the game attempts to provide a simple, robust, powerfully upscaling simulation of how realistic people do stuff like e.g. hit each other with swords. All the basic combat and ability resolution rules in the game basically concern themselves with this: when you input a 0th level everyman into the equations of the game you're supposed to get realistic answers out of it.

    The second factorial, however, concerns itself with unrealistic, romantic notions of fantasy adventure derringdo. These two systems, two emulative goals, really are separate in D&D in the sense that you can play the realistic part just fine without all the class and level stuff; it's sort of like a personal-level Chainmail at that point, one could say.

    I think that the "riddle of D&D" in the greater sense - what the game actually does as a specific game in the genre of fantasy adventure wargaming - is to give you those essentially 0th level "realistic" fantasy Vietnam combatants and let you play through their careers as they slowly mix in more and more of stuff from that "other pot" of influence: at the beginning of a campaign you just barely have your romantic notion of a "character class", but it doesn't really affect anything much yet, so it's still easy to see how you're really just another 0th level grunt underneath. This, however, starts quickly changing, and the more and more of level-based bonus factors you pile on, the less the player character adventurer is concerned with those "realistic" concerns of the ordinary man. The interesting answers the game provides when played legitimately (no fudging of any sort, I mean) concern the way the math influences the wargaming answers; things like, which level of Fighter do you need to be to enact the role of a hero as conceived by viking sagas? Which level do you need to be for the game logic to turn into pure wuxia? Superheroes? Let's play to find out!

    (Seems to be about 3rd level for historical romances and 6th level for wuxia, by the way; I presume a 9th level character would be a legit superhero, but I've not gotten that far yet.)

    So yeah, from my own personal viewpoint what you say is precisely what is going on here: I have two overlying "experience systems", where one is intended as a platform for realistic (perhaps not very precise, but realistic in inclination and setting logic nevertheless) changes to character, while the other is literally a literary conceit: while things like "skills" and "training stamina by weeks of intensive conditioning" are something anybody can do no matter their class/level status (or lack of the same), and it's all simply a matter of real expenditure of time and money and whatever inside the setting, the same way anybody improves themselves in the real world (or the unreal world, if you find some sort of a fountain of youth or whatever), the other system with its "class" and "level" and "experience points" and "hit points" does not even describe anything real in the setting at all. Although we call them "experience points", I do not believe that D&D XP does or should simulate anything in the setting per se - it's all formalistic narrative rules, just like in Heroquest or whatever.

    Having precise conceptual distinction between the two facets of the D&D rules is immensely helpful for me as a theoretical tool, in so many ways that it's difficult to describe in full. Consider, if you will, the eternal confusion that official editions of D&D has about the way the class/level scheme should be used to model the wider setting of the game. Are town guards Fighters? What level? Where does their XP come from, why can't a player character get to 4th level the same way? Why, if town guards are 4th level, does anybody think that a 10-feet deep hole in the ground is a relevant trap in this setting - it's not going to kill even an ordinary town guard. The game simply makes little sense this way, and one cannot really say that the 3rd edition bubblegum solution of "NPC classes" helps much.

    From this perspective my new skill rules are strictly a realistic conceit - they simply produce a little bit more distinction to how non-leveled people live their lives, and how their skill check modifiers differ from each other. It's an answer to the "a civilian and a soldier should have different stats" conundrum, if you will, within my own specific game crunch context. It obviously needs to be compatible with the "romantic" half of the rules, the same as everything from armor class on is, so you can take that non-leveled character chassis and pile on level-up bonuses, the way D&D's always worked.
  • What does the "end-of-session" procedure look like, then? Is there any way to earn more of these "experience advantages"? How many do you get? Do you have to justify spending them in any way?
    There are a few ways to earn more "experience advantages", but in general it's rare because the experience advantage is such a meta-game rule in itself: you get them for simply participating in the game! It's very much a high-order abstraction of many complex issues, glossed over to streamline stuff - I definitely would not like to do some bullshit procedure like Runequest has with its skill experience checks, as that would give undue weight to something that's fundamentally unrealistic anyway. It's also very much a fun-based rule in that while it does have a real simulative function (it satisfies my personal desire for characters to be able to "learn by doing"), it's also something fun and hopeful that the players get to do at the end of each session, even when they haven't been successful for 20 sessions in actual adventuring.

    The primary means of gaining more than just one experience advantage per session that I can think of right now is one of the class talents of the "Servant" class - this is a fifth "base character class" that I've introduced to the rules system last year, in the spirit of the various henchman, mook, "loser classes" that've been floating around in the OSR scene over the last few years. The basic idea of the class is that it's something you pick for your character when you've rolled sucky ability scores, and it helps ameliorate those difficulties in various ways. One possible way is this character talent:

    "I want to be a real adventurer!": You get a bonus experience advantage at the end of each session, but the extra advantage needs to be something another adventurer in the group could've taught yours - so skill or Ability, theirs needs to be better than yours to begin with.

    So a Servant with this talent will improve with double-speed in this one facet of play, one could say.

    But yeah, normally every character that adventured in a game session gets one "experience advantage" at the end (so if several of a single player's characters were used for some reason, they all get it). As I described earlier, each advantage basically guarantees you a +1 to a single Ability or a random increase to a single skill, it's just that you can't really choose which one it'll be - you can only prioritize the order in which you "test" the skills and abilities, and hope to catch something you actually want.

    The players do not need to justify their choice of how to expend the experience advantage, although they are instructed to "pick something that your character used in this session, or that you think they learned from these events". Because the rule has so many different interests behind it (dynamic balancing of initially random stat loadout, fun factor, "learn by doing" simulation, etc.) there's really no sense to policing its use in any way. Sometimes the player wants to improve the specific skill they used earlier, because it was such a learning experience, and sometimes they want to improve something their character needs and cares about. And most of the time they don't quite get their first pick.
    Do you have these rules summarized anywhere?
    Nope, unless you count the random essays I wrote about it in 2012 here when you started asking me about it. Like I described then, it's pretty much an oral tradition, barring some spell lists, skill lists, feat lists, and such. We have various random rules overview papers at the game table, but those are produced rather organically - like, I notice at one session that the player base has an unnecessarily vague understanding of the combat initiative rules or the spell-casting rules or how things are priced in the marketplace, so I write up a few sheets of summary of how the rules currently stand, and after I introduce them and explain their contents, those sheets end up disappearing in the bowels of the folders the players use to organize their campaign stuff.

    One of the long-time players, who turned into a GM and has been running this system for a few years now in their own campaign, has been twittering about writing the system up as a game book at some point. We'll see if he gets around to it any more than I do [grin].
  • 2. How do ability scores go up and down in your game (since that seems to be the more "game"-oriented part of character skill effectiveness)?
    The theoretical goal of my scheme is to make Ability scores semi-fluid and self-correcting: this means that they're not "fluid" in the sense of being constantly all over the place, but neither are they "fixed" (the normal way D&D tradition tends to deal with Ability scores - God and Dice gave you STR 11, and that's what it's going to be until the day you die or expend 10 Wish spells in a row to improve it by +1), and the changes they undergo should reflect the events of the game with "learn by doing" logic. Essentially, Abilities should transcend the "nature or nurture" dictotomy and be convincing about expressing both.

    The main game mechanics that pursue this ideal are the "experience advantage" and "critical injury" mechanics: the former works to slowly improve the Ability scores of long-term adventurers, favouring particularly the scores the player finds most important for the character. The latter works to cause sudden crashes in the long-term upward trend of Ability score change, as a character undergoes serious injury that causes drastic drops to their Ability scores.

    I've described how the "experience advantage" mechanic works, so that should be pretty clear: at the end of every game session your character has a subjective right to have a little bit of improvement to their stat line. It used to be that you could only improve the Abilities, but now that I have a skill system, you can expend the advantage on skills, too. The Ability improvement is, as I've described, a simple d20 roll vs. the desired Ability, and if you roll over its current value, you get a +1 to it. (If you fail, you get to name a different Ability/skill to try to improve, until you hit one that succeeds.)

    So even if you start out with mediocre Abilities, characters tend to improve, so that a veteran character of several dozen game sessions tends to have their important scores up in the ~15 range. (As you can see, the system obviously makes it slower to improve high scores - you try every session, but most of the time the d20 roll fails because the score is already so high.) If this was all there is to it, all characters would slowly approach an all-20s stat line over time.

    However, the way critical injury rules work is that depending on the nature of the injury, the GM imposes a series of Ability score penalties to the poor recipient of the serious injury. The issue of how much and which Abilities has lived for a long time, but I've recently pretty much settled on "halve all scores" approach: when you take a critical injury (or "major wound" as it tends to be termed in rules-speak), in addition to possible specific complications, you lose half of all of your Ability scores. Critical injuries are generally intended to be real, realistic, major trauma, that would take months or years of recuperation in the real world (and in fact take that in the game as well, barring some healing magic or such); people generally come out of that kind of experience as shadows of their former selves.

    A math-inclined reader will probably notice that the long-term effect of these two rules is that veteran adventurer Ability scores tend to swing between the 5-10 range (just after suffering a serious injury) and the 13-18 range (after many sessions of play without serious injury). I find this mathematical situation generally pleasant, the game works just fine for both recent bed patients and successful veteran adventurers.

    I've got a Glorantha-based variant of these rules simmering in my desk drawer. Those rules also feature downtime Ability score adjustments, mainly because I have some more regulated downtime procedures in planning for that campaign - week-by-week consideration of what characters do between adventures, that sort of thing. In that kind of context I seem to be happy to define that high Ability scores have a tendency to come down when they sit unused for a long time (easy living makes you soft, in other words), and that old age tends to quicken this decay. Of course particularly low characteristics can also improve over time, if the character's lifestyle allows it. So conceptually I seem to favour the idea that Abilities can also come down due to lack of practice, it's just that this usually doesn't really come up, because it tends to be rare for characters to simply sit on their hands for months and years at a time in the more ordinary sort of campaign.
  • Very interesting, thanks, Eero!

    I assume that if you roll all your Abilities and still fail to come up with a "miss" (rolling above the score in order to improve it one step), you just start over again? (So you're always guaranteed to improve an ability score by 1 at the end of each session, right?)

    What qualifies as a traumatic injury? Is it a question of falling to 0 HP and then missing a saving throw?
  • I assume that if you roll all your Abilities and still fail to come up with a "miss" (rolling above the score in order to improve it one step), you just start over again? (So you're always guaranteed to improve an ability score by 1 at the end of each session, right?)
    Before I adopted the skill system it used to be that if you rolled all the Abilities and failed to improve them all, you'd get a "pity prize", which was pretty much up to the GM - a new talent for the character, or a weird personalized adventure hook, or whatever. Players would generally favour the pity prize over the Ability score bump (and it is of course more exciting, being relatively rare - you need to have quite good scores to fail to improve on all five).

    Now with the skill system it's impossible to run out of things to check for, because characters have an undefined number of skills to test for. I don't remember that anybody would have even checked their every Ability score over the last 51 sessions; usually it's maybe one or two Abilities they care about, and then if those don't catch they'll try for whatever skills they're focusing on.
    What qualifies as a traumatic injury? Is it a question of falling to 0 HP and then missing a saving throw?
    This being D&D, the combat system is obviously quite regular - the injuries we're discussing here are a specific game-mechanical class of event that can be triggered by loss of HP or any "HP-ignoring attacks" (local rules-speak for things like poison and magic that seemingly ignore your HP to cause direct injury instead).

    The simple basic case is that say your character gets hit by a sword, for d6 points of damage, and you take 5 points of damage but only have 2 hit points left, so you drop to zero, plus the fact that there's a damage overflow triggers an "injury save". (Merely falling to exactly zero HP does nothing in these rules, except ensures that you have no protection against further assaults.)

    An injury save is something we do when a character is hit and their HP fail to protect them for whatever reason. So you got hit by a sword, didn't have enough HP, there were three points of damage left over - you roll your injury saves against DC 23 (it's 20 for this being a sword + 3 for the overflow damage, to be specific). There's two relevant saves you can choose to make:

    Constitution save: You make this to find out how badly the attack injured you. If you succeed, it's a "minor wound", if you fail it's a "major wound". Minor wounds are generally non-disabling injuries like bruises, shallow cuts and such; they cause circumstance penalties and can fester and kill you that way, but for now you're theoretically combat-capable. Major wounds are things like broken bones, serious bleeding and so on - you're very likely out of combat, and may die unless you get cared for.

    Will save: You make this one only if you still want to continue combat - probably a smart move if you're surrounded by enemies and can't afford to "go down" willingly. If you succeed, you're on your feet for now, despite the injury (that you're probably making worse with this stunt). If you fail, your wounds are a bit worse, but you still pass out due to pain and fatigue.

    So the most common case for a major wound, the sort that messes up your Ability scores, is to run out of HP and fail the constitution save. I call this "taking a cross" due to the fact that every major wound you take gets tracked as little crosses on the character sheet, and when you take more than your level, you die outright, even if you'd have otherwise survived. (So a 1st level character can survive at most one major wound, and 0th level characters die when they suffer one.) While taking too many crosses is technically the only way to die in the system, characters usually die of abandonment - you take a sword to the gut, go down, and nobody is there to revive you, so you just take that second cross 1-10 minutes later and perish quietly. Reasonably realistic, but generally there's no need to explicitly simulate that once we've established that somebody went down, and no, the party's not going to try to drag them out of there.

    Another somewhat common way to take a major wound is when an enemy gets really lucky and "bypasses the HP" with their attack. This is a 4th level stunt on an attack roll, meaning that somebody needs to roll 20 points over your AC - rare, but doable with the exploding natural 20s. These cases are treated exactly like if the character didn't have HPs left for tha one hit, even though they still have some.

    And then, of course, there are strange special attacks like magic and poison and whatever that, for this or that traditional reason, do not cause HP damage, but rather go directly for the jugular. Those are all treated mechanically as "major wounds". For example, the lead character of the campaign spent half a year (both real and game time) incapacitated in a cloister after being bitten by a poisonous spider in an adventure last fall.

    The general philosophy behind this system treatment is that I personally think that the traditional D&D strategy in dealing with character death is too simple and straightforward. While I do not have a problem with the deadliness of it, I do have a problem with the starkly unrealistic way that a character can be completely fine as long as they have any hitpoints, but be completely dead the moment they drop to zero points. In my experience this tends towards unrealistic military practices: characters are too fragile to do certain things that people reasonably risk in real life; injuries and treatment are ignored; adventurers have absolute certainty of who's dead and who's not at all times. My system treatment attempts to retain the good things about the D&D system like the abstract HP resource mechanics, while still making room for a grim injury element; the fact that it also makes low level characters just a little bit less fragile (one extra saving throw less fragile in most circumstances) is something I do not mind.
  • Sounds great, Eero.

    "Major wounds" are the ones which might halve your stats, is that right?

    Are "minor wounds" handled narratively, or is there a mechanical level to them, as well?

  • Yeah, the "major wounds" - or critical wounds, big wounds (oral rules tradition, plus I'm translating into English here, so the terminology is not very firmly affixed) - are pretty harsh; there explicitly is no requirement of them leaving a character "viable" for further play. The character is alive, but they migh lose a limb or whatnot, in addition to the stat damage.

    Minor wounds are handled in the organic way that old school D&D uses for many things, which is not quite "narrative" or "mechanical" in the modern sense, but in a halfway point in between: the nature of the injury is established, and the consequences of the injury depend on what its fictional nature is. There is a loose formal element to what's appropriate as a minor wound, but it's more of a scale guideline than any help in determining the nature of the injury - the guideline is basically that the wound has to be a real injury (as opposed to the superficial color descriptions that accompany HP loss), but it's not as serious as major wounds, and the character will probably remain upright and combat capable once they get a short rest.

    My default go-to minor wound, when the fictional situation and my imagination don't suggest anything else, is something like "you took a shallow cut from the enemy's blade; it stops bleeding after a while, but there's danger of infection, it can get worse if you aggravate it, and you're at -2 to do heavy physical stuff until you get a long rest; probably a good idea to treat and protect it as soon as you can".

    The blunt weapon version strikes a limb or the ribs - anywhere else and it's not minor anymore - and often has a bigger immediate penalty, but less of an infection chance. There's no fixed list of these or anything, though - it's all rulings based on the particulars of the situation.

    Minor wounds alongside fatigue are an important pacing mechanism for the dungeon delving in this D&D treatment, as characters can regain their hit points with a short rest (one exploration turn, 10 minutes). The "work day" is generally not limited by HP healing so much as the fatigue and injury mechanics. Because you get a chance to stabilize a minor wound with a long rest (overnight), characters generally want to call it quits once they take one or two minor wounds - the penalties stack up, there's always the danger of worsening the injuries, and so on.
  • I did a double take at "halve all stats."

    For a starting character (3d6 for five stats), that means losing 25 stat points on average! Which means 25 game sessions to get back to where you were before you got injured!

    Is this... really playable? Like, do people actually happily play a broken, crippled character for half a year of real time, in the hopes of maybe getting back to where they used to be before the campaign ends? Why would they do that, in a paradigm with so much emphasis on balancing risk versus reward, when they could just roll up a new character? Or am I missing something entirely?
  • Oh, nobody said that you have to continue playing a character who faces such injuries! It's totally the player's call, and many grievously injured characters do indeed retire from adventuring.

    The main reason for somebody keeping a character going is that the character has been positioned in a way that makes them worthwhile to build back up - they have unique adventuring opportunities or other interests, or they have experience levels, or whatever. For example, if this particular character happens to be the "elf-friend", the only character in the party who's got face cred with the otherwise hostile elves, it's quite understandable that the players may decide to take him along on an elf-specific adventure even if he's not quite what he used to be.

    One thing that players can do, depending on the nature of the injury, is to send the character on extended downtime to recover themselves at least a bit. For example, when Sir John Hawkwood, a central character in the campaign, got bitten by a poisonous spider and survived the ordeal, he retired into a monastery for six months or so (both real and game time as it happened). Making patient recovery in the monastery, he regained roughly half of what he'd lost in the first place, so you could say that the final tally for his injury was 25% ability loss and half a year of enforced downtime.

    Finally, note that it is somewhat rare for a character to survive alive after a major wound - being wounded in the first place often occurs in a situation that makes it likely for the character to perish as well, for which reason it is ultimately more common for characters to die than to survive with crippling injuries. It does happen, but dying is more common.

    I used to do lesser penalties as well - things like merely halving one ability, or just shaving 2 points off every ability - but I've ultimately found this to not really be worth the trouble. I want ability loss to be a major feature in critical injuries to off-set the rising tendency in character attributes, but ultimately you're fooling yourself if you believe that it's possible to be realistic about factoring appropriate losses for various types of injuries; it's always going to be more inclined towards physical stats, and there are too many imponderables in trying to figure out how much a character's constitution suffers from a bout of smallpox or whatever. More elegant to just say that major injury always causes drastic overall deterioration compared to peak condition, and perhaps tag on some specific mechanical effects on top of that if I want to model some specific feature of the injury. Formalistic thinking, essentially.
  • Unfortunately, I'm not sure how it could be applied to a D&D-set which doesn't add one's entire ability score to the d20 check, but I'm sure that if I think about it hard enough, something will show itself.
    Note that this whole concept is a superset of the more general D&D math solution of the "ability bonus". The famous linear 3rd edition Ability bonus is calculated with a factor of 50%, for instance. Mathematically this skill system is sort of like if instead of fixing the Ability bonus to always be 50% of the Ability score (plus a trivial correction factor to make the numbers look smaller), we were to let that modifier range freely from a negligible fraction to a full 100% of the Ability score.
    Paul, if you wish to adopt Eero's skill system as is, while playing with the D20 System range of bonuses and penalties (I assume penalties are the real issue here) and guidelines for target numbers, do as follows...

    Draw a matrix, attribute scores across and skill percentages down, in increments of 10%. Say you pick the cross between 10-11 attribute score and 50% skill as your center cell, then fill that row with the standard attribute bonus/penalties since 3E: -5 for a score of 1 up to +5 for a 20, or higher if you wish. In other words, 50% of (attribute score minus 10). Replicate that row in the middle column. Fill in opposing corners with -10 and +10, 0 and 0. Extrapolate from there. At a glance, here's all the maths you need to make it work, no other changes required.

  • Yeah, if you wanted to use this skill system with ability check math that considered 10 to be "zero", then the "bottom" of the range (the bonus you give to any character with absolutely no skill) correspondingly would be -10; the top (what you give to a character with 100% skill) would be the character's ability score-10.

    Although the math would be the same, it'd be brutally ugly this way, though [grin]. A perfect excuse to bring back the old D&D to-hit matrix, precisely as Rafu suggests. As you all probably know, D&D used to have this funky way to carry its combat math where you'd check a class-specific table that cross-correlated your character's level with the enemy's AC to find out what number you needed to roll to hit them. The practical way Basic D&D used this was by having the player copy the relevant line from the table for their current level onto their character sheet. You could do the same here to make the system really ugly in use...
  • Eero,

    Interesting! So you also negotiate stat increases through "downtime" and healing? Any particular benchmarks for this, or is it case-by-case?

    For instance, was it a negotiation with the player which concluded that six months of recovery time would account for 25% of his stats, or was it a surprise to one of both of you?

    I suppose a fun way to do it would be a roll of some sort, so you can leave a character in "downtime" for a few months, then check in on them to see how they're doing. Maybe they've made a miraculous recovery, or maybe you decide to leave them in the Houses of Healing for good...

    As for the skill system, the first thing that comes to mind is simply changing the way skills work. For instance, maybe your ability score determines a die type (d4, d6, etc). With a skill at 100% percent, you roll 5 (or 10?) of these dice, and keep the best one (or two - depending on the range you want). For smaller percentages, you use fewer dice, as appropriate. With five dice, a skill at 20% means you only roll one; that kind of thing. If you use this regularly enough, you don't even need to think in terms of percentages.

    Then all you would need is a master ability score -> die type table, which fits into existing D&D ability score tables anyway.
  • Interesting! So you also negotiate stat increases through "downtime" and healing? Any particular benchmarks for this, or is it case-by-case?

    For instance, was it a negotiation with the player which concluded that six months of recovery time would account for 25% of his stats, or was it a surprise to one of both of you?
    It's been case rulings so far. The nature of the game (based on common law rulings with an underlying constitution) is such that these types of rare fringe situations tend to not gain a clear and regularly exercised mechanical process before a long time has passed.

    Lacking any more specific rules, the decision-making criteria is the generic "what makes sense, what is realistic" framework. We may also assume that all Abilities operate under roughly similar dynamics to each other, for simplicity's sake and to make it easier to benchmark how Abilities change. Under these considerations we can say e.g. that it takes months or years to condition a human being towards their physical peak, and that recuperating from serious injuries often takes similarly long amounts of time. Therefore it is not unreasonable to say that a recovering character, or one in training, gets e.g. one Ability score improvement in month. Maybe it's +1 per stat per month when you're recuperating (up to a maximum of 10 so as to reach normal human average, or up to a maximum of 50% above the starting point, or whatever), or one experience advantage per month when in training. Something like that.

    In case you're wondering, the reasons for why player characters don't "train" all their Abilities and skills up to maximums instead of dungeon adventuring are the same as they are in our world: there's no time for it, endless training is a luxury of the elite anyway, and even then most people don't feel the need to live a spartan existence for the sake of the abstract goal of being the bestest. Conceptually it's possible, though: just save up money from your adventures for the expenses, go on extended downtime and succeed in those Will checks so your character doesn't decide to quit halfway, and I don't have any particular problem with you transforming your character into whatever they can become with a training regimen. Probably at least some Abilities up around ~15, and whatever skills you're training up to 100%. Why not, it's not like starting characters with those kinds of stats don't happen.

    (I am hesitant to pin down some sort of RAW on this kind of thing because real training is such a complex phenomenon, and the game's chassis is not intended for in-depth simulation of such. To account for how roughly D&D simulates real human learning patterns, the system has to involve large random and circumstance factors, just like it does in many other situations. Pretending that a simple system can somehow be relied upon as a firm and universal rule just ends up with weird min-maxing scenarios.)
    For instance, was it a negotiation with the player which concluded that six months of recovery time would account for 25% of his stats, or was it a surprise to one of both of you?
    It was negotiation, yes - with the understanding that "negotiation" in the context of this game means specifically declaring and proposing fictional maneuvers, and not something where the players bicker directly about the numbers of the character sheet.

    As I remember it, the player declared their intent to get the character into a monastery to recover in peace. I felt bad for how down the player was (his first big character in a rpg, and the player was clearly committed emotionally to the game), so it occurred to me to suggest that such a long recovery period would probably enable them to regain some of their vigour, provided they found a suitable place for it. The 25% thing was simply a halfway point between the character's original stat line and the reduced line.

    (When I say I "felt sorry", I do not mean that I fudged a game rule to make the player feel better - I merely mean that I remembered to discuss a game rule because of it. The ruling would have been the same had anybody asked about it, and it is very possible that the player was implicitly expecting me to offer something like that when they started establishing the character's recovery strategy. Mechanical solutions often emerge in this game fiction first, as the players determine fictional maneuvers and query the referee about how those maneuvers would be resolved in practice.)
    I suppose a fun way to do it would be a roll of some sort, so you can leave a character in "downtime" for a few months, then check in on them to see how they're doing. Maybe they've made a miraculous recovery, or maybe you decide to leave them in the Houses of Healing for good...
    Yes, that's roughly how it goes in practice. We've got another character in a sanitarium right now after they went mad from using a magical helmet. The basic procedural presumption is that they're going to be mad indefinitely unless the player of the character gets interested and wants to check what's going on, in which case we'll establish the situation a bit, roll some dice, and see if the character is going to recuperate or not.

    My suggestion to anybody wanting to run a character stable game is that you should let the players decide how much or how little they care about each individual character in their stable. It is entirely natural that some characters are quick throwaways created merely for the evening's entertainment, while others prove ill-suited to the player's style. Some characters are apples in the eyes of their creators, and others grow into exciting and exceptional individuals. The procedures for downtime need to support the idea that we let a character go now, and then check back on them later to see what they were up to, rather than having to program the characters in advance; advance programming is appropriate for characters who are important and doing important things, but it's entirely too involved when we don't particularly know if the character is ever going to make another appearance in the game.
  • That, indeed, seems like an excellent principle for handling this kind of play.

    Thank you for the thorough answers, Eero! Always interesting to hear about your D&D game. These threads are always pretty fascinating, thanks!
  • This is a fascinating little system, and it is ripe for idea mining. Eero, let us suppose for a moment that a character has Orc Lore at 100% but Sword at 10%. He goes to fight off some orcs with a sword. Does he gain any benefit from his Orc Lore in tests that would otherwise be covered by his Sword skill?
  • "Orc Lore" sounds like one of the creature lore skills that belong in a special initiatory category in this particular campaign - meaning that I assume that nobody can have that skill without having one of a few possible special talents ("Ranger" being most prominent) that enable access. This is significant because - as a matter of system structuration - I try to only have initiatory skills come with special rule riders. (It's like it's the talent that actually has the special rules complexity attached to it, the skill's just there to specify how that talent exists for this particular character.)

    So going with that interpretation - that "Orc Lore" is a ranger or monster hunter or monster tamer special skill - then a character with 100% in Orc Lore and 10% in Swords would end up rolling with their sucky 10% (probably about +1 or at most +2 to hit), but they have a good chance to gain situational lore bonuses for their attack rolls from the monster lore. There's a bunch of possibilities, and you're totally expected to suggest your own to help establish "how things work", but for starters stuff like this:
    * A monster lore check pre-combat may gain a bonus die to initiative, representing your character's overall improved ability to gauge monster intentions and capabilities.
    * A monster lore check in lieu of attacking may establish an useful tactical fact about the encounter, allowing the character to e.g. predict what the monster is going to do next, or provide an advantage for somebody else.
    * Monster lore in conjunction with an attack (no extra penalties for somebody at 100%) allows monster-specific combat stunts - so basically more powerful critical hits. Hit the orc where it hurts, basically.
    * Last, least and most boring: tell me you're a boring person and just want a "normal" ranger advantage with no tactical sense or creativity involved, and you'll get a +2 to attack rolls against your favoured enemy, no questions asked, instead of any of the above.

    All in all, a high monster lore alone does not make up for an utter lack of combat skill (which makes sense to me), but it's a valuable addition for a specialist member of a party to have, and an otherwise competent fighter with monster lore on the opponent has a definite edge (essentially the same edge that trained assassins have against human opponents, one might say). In the past it's been at its most valuable on the operational level: characters with monster lore have much greater chances of recognizing signs of monster presence, estimating their numbers, choosing diplomatic solutions, and so on.
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