In the ramshackle of numbers we call a character sheet there is usually a place for skills. Skills are usually learned or honed abilities or knowledges. A bootlegger might have some really good driving skills. A mediator will have something like diplomacy. Of course, they are virtually worthless without the gamemaster (GM) presenting a challenge. There are many ways to incorporate a skill in to the story, and I am going to look at a few tools a GM can use to enliven a game with skills.
Climbing checks have become legendary in my gaming group. We were in some sort of badlands, and we needed to climb some cliff faces. The problem was that none of us were great climbers, or if we had some inkling the dice hated us.
So we rolled our dice, and the GM decided that the cliff was so high two! climb checks were necessary. Naturally this meant that a few of us got halfway up the cliff and then fell. Falling damage in Earthdawn is horrendously realistic. It caused possibly the most damaging encounter we had ever faced, and if I recall correctly there were a few near-death experiences. Today climbing checks are used as a joke and a reminder in our group of what skill checks shouldn’t be.
A skill check is usually a single encounter requiring a skill to overcome. Picking a lock is a great example because it’s either pass or fail. Rules can get more complicated. If I fail, can I try again? What about trying to pick the lock before the guard walks past? What if the lock is a magical creature opposing me? Distilled to its base it retains the one-shot encounter feeling.
Aspects as Skills
In the beautiful character-centric game system FATE, the main player stat is an Aspect. An Aspect is a way of defining the skills and knowledges a character will have in a storylike way. In one of my games, ‘A Knight Out of Time’ had time-travelled to 1933 via a curse, and he had ‘Extreme Chivalry’. There were more Aspects to that character, but we can extrapolate the abilities of the character through those two Aspects. FATE is great because it also shows where a character might have poor ability. The knight might be amazing at riding horses and unable to ride a bicycle. The knight may have perfect etiquette at a dinner party, and he may also be unable to be rude to a lady villain.
This is the reason I like 13th Age a lot too because its skills (a.k.a. backgrounds) are more like Aspects than a list detailing climbing, lock-picking, and the rest. Players can narrate a skill they believe they have from a background. The player who ran the “Knight Out of Time” now runs a pirate sorcerer who created the most potent alcohol in the world, Neverfear. Lots of fun storytelling comes from that character’s skill checks.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (D&D4e) hard-coded a storytelling mechanic using skills. I do have to note that D&D4e uses skill lists such as climbing, lock-picking, and the rest as opposed to more the hand-wavey skill attributes of 13th Age or FATE. Still the discussion that arose from D&D4e’s headlining this mechanic has pushed the idea of skill checks far forward.
Skill challenges are a chapter of a story, or a scene, told through skill checks. In one published skill challenge (The Slaying Stone), players have to sneak through a goblin town. As a simple skill check a GM could just have the players roll Stealth and be done with it. Of course that wizened cleric in the group probably will not be as stealthy as the thief.
The skill challenge allows for players to push through with some of their favored skills. A character with diplomacy might be able to bribe some goblins. A character with streetwise might have allies within a faction in the town. A character with history understands the town’s layout. The goal is to get a number of successes to get to where the party wants to go. If the party gets a number of failures they lose the skill challenge, and in this case the town is alerted to the party’s presence.
Last 13th Age session, I ran our first skill challenge. I had the players get through a crudely built maze in some mongrelmen caverns. Oh yeah, there were demons roaming the mazes. I could have made this a combat (kill the dretches), or I could have made this a straight skill check. Instead I had players try and get 4 successes via their skills. I also allow attacks and spells as part of the narrative way to overcome skill-like checks.
The players had a blast. A barbarian started throwing boulders (sized to his liking) around to block off portions of the maze to corral the dretch demons. The sorcerer, armed with his endless flask of Neverfear, decided to help out by lighting the maze and some dretch on fire. The bard decided to reverberate the area with a rock ballad. Some failed rolls involved getting bit by dretches or falling down off the top of the maze. My favorite roll, where I had one of the barbarians fail forward. The barbarian tried to lasso two of the dretch from atop the maze, and he did lasso them but their strength running along the maze (being frenzied by the ballad) pulled him face forward off the maze wall. Then they pulled him through the maze before they were dealt with.
The less mechanical way of running a skill challenge is a montage, which is a feature espoused by 13th Age. Montages are a great creative break for the GM because the players are the ones to come up with the skill challenges. In the 13th Age way there is no roll involved for beating the proposed challenge, but I am considering running it with dice rolls in the future. More tools, ya know.
With a montage, the goal is to push forward with prolonged challenges such as sneaking through a town, but do it in a narrative way that shines the light on the characters. I usually go around the table. The first player creates a challenge for the next player. The next player narrates how their character awesomely achieved success. Then go around the table in orderly fashion.
This is a great tool to use, but I’ve found that the structure given by using the game’s rules for skills helps to focus the narration a lot. I also sometimes take control of the montage challenges as well since I try and keep each character’s strengths and weaknesses in mind.
A goal of every GM should be to explain why the character is there. In a movie it is rare when the screen is filled with wasted characters. If a computer geek survived the monster, there is going to be a reason for his computer skills later on… even if it is just a passing of coding knowledge to the heroine before a tragic death. It can be very hard for a GM to make sure that each character has something to do each session (outside of combat).
Skill checks make it harder since the GM has to single out a challenge. Skill challenges and montages make it easier for the player to utilize the strengths of the character. It’s all about sharing control, which admittedly some GM’s are loathe to do. In my opinion, I’d rather have a better story where a barbarian tries to lasso some demons in a maze than one where I’m telling the barbarian he doesn’t find rope to his liking.