Monday, 3 October 2011

S is for Skill Use


Since it seems to be a "hot topic" due to musings on the WotC site, I thought I would share some bits from the "Skill Use" section I've written for RCFG.  Later on, I intend on writing a series of "S is for Sandbox" blog posts, but for right now.....S is for Skill Use.

(Most of this will be OGC under the OGL in the upcoming RCFG ruleset.  If you want to use some part of this -- which is not already OGC due to appearing elsewhere -- in your own project, send me an email at ravencrowking at hotmail dot com.)

Without further ado:


Trying Again

Unless a consequence of failure prevents an additional attempt, it is usually possible for a character to try a skill check up to three times before success becomes impossible.

A skill check that has become impossible due to three failures can be attempted again when the character gains another rank in the relevant skill.

In some cases, the Game Master may allow additional checks, but will apply a —2 penalty to all subsequent checks for each failed skill check that has gone before.

The Game Master may allow a new check after significant time has passed, allowing the character a chance to reflect on the causes of failure, even if the character has not gained a level or increased his or her modifier. 

The Game Master determines what qualifies as “significant time”.


DESIGNER NOTE:  Three Strikes

There is a reason that characters usually only gain three chances to succeed  at a particular task — it prevents the game from becoming stale.

In some SRD-derived games, a character can keep making checks until she succeeds.  This means that, unless there is some penalty for failure, when the GM sets the DC, he automatically knows the end result.  Skills become a binary on/off switch, where either an eventual roll of “20” will succeed, or it will not.

This is the same reason that RCFG uses a variable for the Take 20 mechanic….to prevent setting the DC from dictating the outcome.

Three chances still allows characters to take a wild stab at  a task, try harder by using the Take 10 mechanic, and then make their best attempt with the Take 20 mechanic, if circumstances allow.


Taking 20

When a character has plenty of time and is faced with no threats or distractions, and there is no penalty for failure, the character can Take 20.  In general, this means that the character is well rested, at his or her peak, and can control most variables.

It is actually possible to do better under these circumstances than when performing under time limits or stress.  Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, roll 1d6 and add the results to 18; use the resultant number (from 19 to 24) as your roll.

Taking 20 does not mean that the character is simply trying until he or she gets it right, nor does it assume that the character fails many times before succeeding.  Instead, the character is making his or her best stab at a single attempt, considering as many variables as possible before proceeding.  This means that the skill attempt takes at least two minutes, and may take considerably longer (at the Game Master’s discretion).


Threshold Checks

It is also possible for the Game Master to set a threshold at which a skill check automatically succeeds.  If a character’s skill check modifier meets the threshold, the character automatically succeeds.  If it does not, either the character automatically fails, or a regular skill check is called for (see below). 

Threshold checks may be active or passive.

An active threshold check (ATC) occurs when the Game Master determines that a player character’s action triggers the skill check.  For example, the Game Master may determine that a particular wall can be climbed by anyone whose Climb skill check modifier is +7 or greater.  This would be noted as “Climb ATC +7”.

Usually, if a character fails to meet an active threshold, he or she may attempt a standard skill check.

passive threshold check (PTC) occurs when the Game Master determines that a player character need take no special action to trigger the check.  For example, the Game Master may determine that an ostler will feel loyalty to any character whose Diplomacy is +5 or higher.  This would be noted as “Diplomacy PTC +5”. 

Likewise, the Game Master may decide that a particular piece of information was available to anyone with a Knowledge (History) +4 or higher.  This would be a passive threshold check if the player did not need to ask to get the information.

In the event that a character fails to meet the threshold, the Game Master can either determine that the check itself is failed, or that a normal skill check might allow for success.  If the threshold check was a passive threshold check, any normal skill check allowed must be triggered actively by the player character in question.

The DC of the normal skill check need not relate directly to the DC of the threshold check.  This allows the Game Master to set up situations where a certain degree of competence guarantees success, but even a little less competence makes a large difference in the odds of completing a task.

For example, imagine a lock that a professional thief might easily pick, but even a slightly less competent thief might find troublesome.  The Game Master can choose to make this an active threshold check, with a threshold of +6 (the normal professional standard), that requires a DC 20 Theft check from those who fail to meet the threshold. 

This would be noted “Theft ATC +6/DC 20”.


DESIGNER NOTE:  Skill Options

Players and Game Masters have a lot of options for using skills in RCFG.  Don’t worry about which option is “right” for any particular game event.  The “right” option is the one that works….and keeps the game moving.

If one skill use option is being used, and the result of a check makes another option make more sense, the Game Master can switch to the other option.

In all cases, the Game Master has the final say as to which options are applied.


Complex Skill Tests



In some cases, resolving a problem may require a series of skill checks, using different skills, in a more complex way.  This is known as a complex skill test


A complex skill test can be devised by the Game Master as part of an encounter, or running through (and affecting!) a series of encounters.  Players can also trigger complex skill tests by switching gears during a complex skill check or a degree of success check.

In general, a complex skill test runs similar to a complex skill check or a degree of success check.  The Game Master either sets a number of checks to be completed and a DC for each (as per a complex skill check) or a Target Number that must be achieved (as per degree of success).

In the case of a complex skill test, though, the characters are not limited to any particular skill.  Rather, they choose what skill should apply narratively, and the Game Master ascribes a bonus or penalty to the check based upon the narrative explanation supplied. 

The Game Master may also apply some specific effects for failure or success based upon the skill used.  If the Game Master is designing a complex skill test as part of an adventure, he or she should also consider what skills are likely to be applied, and determine what the effects and modifiers are appropriate.

The structure of a complex skill test should never trump events within the game narrative.  If the players manage to resolve a problem with some brilliant ploy outside the structure of the complex skill test, the Game Master is encouraged to allow that resolution to stand.

Example 1:  A group of PCs is being chased through a crowded marketplace.  The Game Master is resolving the action using the multiple opposed DS mechanics using the level as modifier rule, when suddenly one of the players decides to pull down some stacked crates into their pursuers’ path. 

This changes the nature of the action from a straight chase to a more complex test.  The Game Master determines that pulling down the crates will use the level as modifier rule (character level + Strength modifier in this case), and the pursuers must make an Acrobatics check to get past the barrier (DC set by the check of the character pulling down the crates).
The character pulling down the crates makes no gains toward meeting the Target Number, but the Game Master determines that any pursuers who fail, the check loses 5 points toward reaching the Target Number each round until the check is passed.

Example 2:  While designing a dungeon adventure, the Game Master creates a room that is sealed by a sliding wall, trapping any characters who enter it.  Within, a whirling series of blades extend from the walls and floor, while the room slowly floods with water.  The characters have to find a way to cross the room to the far door and throw the lever there to reset the trap and escape.

The Game Master determines that crossing the trapped room, requires 5 checks to succeed.  Each check represents 10 feet of movement.  Two checks can be made in a single round, but the second check takes a –4 penalty.  Instead of determining a number of failed checks that causes the entire complex skill test to fail, the Game Master decides to simply apply the effects of failure:


  • Any check, such as Acrobatics, used to dodge the blades causes the character 2d6 damage if failed.  DC 12.
  • Bludgeoning weapons can attack the blades effectively (AC 15, DR 5, 20 hp); long weapons can be used to jam the blades (AC 25; weapon must be left in place).  Each blade destroyed or jammed adds a +2 to future checks.  Failure by 5 or more exposes the attacker to another blade, which strikes at a +6 bonus to hit for 2d6 damage.
  • Each round, 1 foot of water enters the room.  Each foot of water increases the DC of any physical check (except Swim checks) by +2.  Every 2 feet of water, however, decreases the damage done by the blades by 2 points. 
  • When there are 3 feet of water in the room, characters can attempt Swim checks to get past the blades.  Swim DCs start at 15, but every additional foot of water grants a +1 bonus to the check. 
  • Drowning is a real possibility.  The room is completely filled with water after 10 rounds.



Example 3:  The characters are trying to find a black market in a medium-sized city.  The Game Master has no specific ideas as to what is required, but has an idea of roughly how difficult it should be.  So the Game Master decides to set a complex skill test, where 5 successes are required before 3 failures, with a base DC of 25.  The DC is high because the Game Master determines that a black market that was easy to find would soon be located by the local government and shut down.


The Game Master also decides that, if the players are asking around, if they get three (or more) successes and two failures, they will be approached by thugs, who seek to get them to stop looking.  Obviously, these thugs also offer an opportunity to bypass the complex skill test before the final failure can occur.

The Game Master asks the players to narrate what they are attempting, and what skills they are using.  The characters gain bonuses or penalties to their checks based upon how relevant the Game Master believes their narrated attempts would be to actually accomplishing the task.



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