Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Skills Systems in General and in Pathfinder Unchained

In this series about Pathfinder Unchained, I’ve been considering the alternate sub-systems proposed piece by piece.  But, I’m going to pass over a lot of Chapter 2, which proposes to create new sub-systems for dealing with skills.  If you’re interested in hearing a lot about each of them, I’ll refer you to Private Sanctuary Podcast Episode 261.  They talk about this stuff in a lot of depth there.  I’m going to give each sub-system a quick once-over at the end of this post, but I’m going to spend the bulk talking about skill systems in general.

As many have noted, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook spends less time talking about skills than any other section of the game (except maybe ability scores).  The skills chapter begins on page 86 (well, the content, anyway) and ends on page 109.  That’s 24 pages.  Contrast this with the entire Combat chapter (roughly the same length) and the Magic chapter, more than half of which is devoted to casting spells in combat.  This seems odd since the bulk of the game (and, in my campaigns at least) the bulk of actual playing time is spent on dealing with role-playing and associated skill checks. 

Why is this?  Because skills are completely arbitrary.  It doesn’t matter if you use the preset Pathfinder skills or make the changes that Unchained offers.  In many ways, Pathfinder’s skill system is automatically flawed because it’s based on ranks alone.  It’s infinitely simpler than Shadowrun’s arguably better system, because that “better” system achieves greater versatility through far more complexity.  It’s more spread out that 13th Age’s background point system (which I would argue is the best skills system out there right now) and allows for more specialization but less intuitiveness.  In Pathfinder, you place 2 ranks in skills and that’s it.  There’s no portability between Profession (butcher) when you need to use a Survival check to skin an animal (though, of course, there should be).  It’s certainly better than the Cypher System’s bare bones system that gives you almost no ability to have skills at first “level.”

That’s because (perfect simulationists look away!) interpreting and adjudicating skills checks will always be too complex and too arbitrary to be subject to anything more than GM fiat.  Can I use this skill in an unusual way to do that thing?  GM discretion.  RPGs attempt to simulate life, that’s why the definitive book about the genre’s history is called Playing at the World (emphasis mine).  And life is messy.  Life is complex.  Life is about judgment calls.  Combat is a highly mechanized system of adjudicating something that most of us never experience in our real lives.  But, many of the actions adjudicated by skills checks happen to us, the players and the GM, all the time. 

Some of this stuff makes sense in a dice-rolling world and some of it doesn’t.  Rolling sense motive against bluff to determine whether or not someone was fooled?  That might make sense when the player is the one rolling sense motive.  But, not when the player is the one rolling the bluff check.  Should the player get a bonus for good role-playing?  What if the player’s bluff role-play was fantastic but the character’s skills make such a performance unlikely?  Should there still be a bonus then?  On one hand, the dice seem to help keep that in check.  But, taking a dice-only approach to its logical conclusion and there’s no room for role-playing at all.  At best, GMs can ask players to create good backgrounds and play their characters within them.

There are going to be times that the skill use is just too unbelieveable.  When allowing this type of off-skill use, players should have to explain how their unconventional use of the skill would allow them to do the desired action and they should have to explain it in real terms, not game mechanics.  If that barrier can’t be crossed, no need.  But, if it can, even implausibly, let it go.

Because, here’s the other thing about skill checks, and it’s really goddamned important.  Only the GM knows what the skill check DC is.  So, when Player 1 asks if he can use a skill in an unusual way, the GM is going to be the one that determines what the chances are for success.  Does the weird use line up with the character’s background?  Does it seem right that the character’s skill set would allow something like this?  Great.  DC 10.  Hell, even DC 5 or DC 0 depending on what the player is trying to do.  Is the player’s request to use the skill in an unusual way not in line with the character’s background or the skill too different from the intended result?  Set the DC for using the different skill at +10, +20, or even +30. 

Most likely, set the DC somewhere higher, but somewhere that the player can conceivably reach.  But, rolling 20 on a skill check doesn’t guarantee success.  That means that there are some skill-related things that the character just can’t succeed at no matter how hard they try.  If that feels too harsh, set the DC at a level that could only be reached if the player rolled a 20 on her skill check and every other character in the party successfully aided. 

(c) 2009 Paizo Publishing.
Used under the community use license.
And guess what, miracles do happen.  If the players clear this hurdle, be prepared to go with it.  Maybe there’s something secret about Acrobatics that helps in picking locks?  Perhaps the character learned a specific yoga technique that’s tied into undoing the mystic lock holding fast the doors to the secret temple his monk order is sworn to keep sealed.  If the character makes the check, great creativity.  If the characters start getting too wild with their skill uses.  In this case, the character was partly right: there is a yogic secret to unlocking the doors.  But, the character didn’t learn and/or execute it correctly.  The calikangs guarding the door notice that someone is impersonating a monk of the Most Sacred and Holy Order of Improvisation and attack those who would defile the temple!

At the end of the day, skill checks are the providence of the GM.  Let the GM decide what the likelihood is that a character with a similar background and experiences can succeed at the task and set the DC.  If the task is difficult for student, maybe the Knowledge check DC is 20 or 25.  But, if it’s difficult for a master librarian, the check can be 35 or 40.  And guess what?  No matter what, the check is only possible for the player that’s put time and effort into developing skills and a good background.  And this is immaterial no matter what skill check system you are using.

Ultimately, this is as it should be.  Because the game really isn’t about rolling dice.  Pathfinder, like all RPGs that have a referee, is about trust.  Players must trust that their GM is honest about setting up challenges for them.  Players need to trust that their GM has created challenges that the challenges can be overcome (or that there’s a good story-related reason that they can’t).  Players also need to feel like they can challenge their GM with creative uses of their skills and powers, and that their GM will rise to the challenge by letting the story incorporate their success and move forward.  Trust me, your game will improve for it.

Now that you’re done reading me wax poetic about skills systems.  In return for your patience, here are some brief thoughts about the sub-systems from Pathfinder Unchained:

Bankground Skills: This is to allow characters to have more of a personality outside of the game.  First, skills are divided into adventuring skills and background skills.  Characters get their normal number of skill ranks plus or minus modifiers to spend on skills.  But, they get an extra two skill ranks per level that can be placed only in background skills.  If the background skill is a class skill, the PC still gets the extra ranks, though a player cannot invest more skill ranks in a skill than she has levels.  Two extra background skills are introduced: artistry and lore.  Artistry is a class skill for any class that has Perform or Craft as class skills.  It’s to cover characters that are working on that masterpiece not covered by the traditional crafting system, like a play.  Lore is a class skill for everyone and it functions like a super-specific knowledge skill.  Think Lore (planar fire spells) or Lore ([insert name of city from your campaign here]). 

In general, I already use something like this system: my PCs get an extra skill rank every level that they invest in the same skill every level and is related to their background.  For most characters, this works out as a Craft, Perform, or Profession skill.  Some creative players have gotten Knowledge (nobility) for being noble scions or Knowledge (notoriety) (a skill that exists only in my as-yet-non-existent Kaer Maga campaign) for growing up on the streets and being inducted into gangs.

Consolidated Skills: Reduces the number of skills from 35 to 12.  Doesn’t require changing much though it can really mess with feats.  Because of that, I’d lean against it, but, as I’ve noted above, skills are arbitrary anyway.

Grouped Skills: Skills are placed into six groups.  Characters get a number of skill groups that they automatically gain ½ their level ranks of (minimum one).  Along the way, classes pick up extra skill groups, to a total of five.  Additionally, players get to allocate half of their normal skill ranks in skills. 

Alternate Crafting and Profession Rules: The original game is called Dungeons & Dragons, not Actuaries and Accountants.  Enough said.