Thursday, May 26, 2011

Great design; bad rules

Third edition introduced the modern skill system with the thought that a range of dynamic skills and the ability to spend points freely would lead to interesting and diverse characters. Great design. Some weaknesses were discovered in that not all skills were equally good and it could get a little cumbersome to assign all those points, but much of that was polished in the 3.5 revision. Fourth edition built on that foundation and further condensed the skill list so that each skill could fuel even more actions and be more valuable. They even refigured how modifiers were calculated to make it easier to decide what types of actions defined your character. Again, great design.

Both systems are also, in my opinion, bad rules. The problem goes back to the concept of alignment. For the purposes of this article, alignment can be summarized as “the degree to which the rules provide proper reward structures to achieve their stated goals.” The skill systems were ostensibly intended to help players figure out how their characters act but instead ended up determining what actions a character would take.

Let’s focus on the 4e skill system to flesh this point out. The rules embed actions into skills and then put all relevant mechanics under the umbrella of that skill. As a result, skills become balanced by what they allow you to do, not by how well they allow you to do something. It is a subtle but important distinction. It is true that most skills can be used untrained, but here it is also important to think about human psychology. When faced with limitless options (i.e. “What does your character do?”) we immediately look for help in whittling our decision set down to a manageable size. The first place we look is at the character sheet to see what we are good at. This isn’t gamist; this is just human nature trying to find a way out of being overwhelmed to better make an informed decision. Since actions are embedded into skills, being “not good” at a skill is tantamount to a signal that you can’t take a particular action.

We can see this in the occasional absurdity that arises during skill challenges when a player tries to explain how a completely unrelated skill might be useful in this challenge. (Note, I’m not talking about those creative moments that are fun). The player isn’t trying to determine how his character would act; the player is trying to figure out what actions his character might succeed at. But it is a skill challenge after all and succeeding is more fun than failing so you can’t really hold it against the player for following the cues the rules put in front of him.

So how do we realign incentives to turn this great design into great rules?
Well, the design goal was for skills to inform how a character acted and instead we got what actions a character takes. The first step seems to be to decouple skills and actions. If I don’t have Athletics, instead of being untrained at jumping, I just shouldn’t be able to jump very athletically. Under the right circumstances maybe I could jump acrobatically or even something weird like jump [adverbial form of Nature]. Who knows?

This opens up a can of worms, but with a handful of guidelines it evolves into a very workable system that encourages characters to take “appropriate actions in a manner conducive to success” instead of taking any old action likely to succeed. As a bonus, it really wouldn’t take much to implement the system in a 4e game in place of skills. Let’s call them affinities.

  • All actions are now ability checks (ability mod + ½ level) with no change to how DCs are calculated. Select a single ability for an action that best encapsulates the essence of the action. For example, if strength goes to the essence of jumping, jumping is a strength check. If two or more abilities seem to go to the essence of the action, pick one and be consistent.
  • Characters receive a number of affinities equal to how many skills they would normally receive. Affinities begin at +5 and may be increased by feats, races, or other sources.
  • Affinities may often add to an ability check. If the affinity goes to the essence of the action, add the affinity in full. If the affinity is related to the action (but doesn’t go to the essence), add half the affinity (round down).
  • The player announces the action and the manner in which it is achieved. The GM then determines if the affinity goes to the essence of the action (full bonus), is related to the action (half bonus), or is unrelated to the action (no bonus). The GM is encouraged to give greater deference to creative or new descriptions. Use existing sources, like the PHB, as a guide in determining affinity applicability.

This really doesn’t change much. No one gets more affinities than they did skills, we can use all the same racial bonuses and feats, and even the DCs are the same. Nothing was made obsolete. If a character with Athletics wants to climb a tree, they can say, “I athletically climb the tree” and it is pretty clear to everyone that this is a strength check in which athletics applies. No change. But the character without athletics can say, “I use my knowledge of nature to find a Bumblebranch Tree which are known for their short stout branches” and try to use Nature. The GM then decides to what degree that affinity applies and the game moves on. The player didn’t have to ask for permission, they just did it.

The obvious rebuttal is that nothing is keeping people from doing this under the current system. Technically true, except for the discussion about human psychology a few paragraphs back. The current system funnels creative thinking into channels by subordinating actions to skills. Affinities reverse the relationship. These are small changes but they have a substantive impact on how players make decisions.  

There is an ancillary benefit to this system as well. In the current system, because actions are embedded in skills, skills become a resource to access actions. So any new skill added to the game either must subsume some of those actions (diluting the power of other skills) or must fuel actions powerful enough to draw players away from other skills (raising the overall power level of the game). Decoupling actions from skills removes this tradeoff. New affinities can be added freely so long as they are not so broad that they would fully apply too often. For example, if a player desperately felt they needed a Sailor affinity for a character, it could be easily added. It would apply fully whenever dealing with sailor activities, but might be related (i.e. half bonus) to things like balance, climbing, reading the stars, finding a good bar, swimming, etc. The character can invest in Sailor and it will contribute to defining how his character acts across a range of actions.

Undoubtedly there are some kinks but a lot of issues could be resolved just by putting a little more structure and guidance around how affinity applicability is determined. In time I think it would become more second nature than the current system while also encouraging creative and character appropriate actions.

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