Wednesday 20 April 2016

On Whiff: Skills as Permission, Tests as Saving Throws

Hello, is anyone still here? Here, I teach Gradma to suck eggs.

Over on my other blog, I wrote a post titled Skills as Saving Throws. A much shorter version of the post is this: 
I have, in the past, run skill based RPGs in an unsatisfactory way. Some of this is prompted by poor refereeing advice in published adventures, and some by the temptation to ask for a dice roll as if the players rolling is the game, rather than the players making choices.
Recently, I have taken to using an 'old-school' approach; treating skill tests as Saving Throws. I am no longer treating them as rolls to accomplish, but rolls made to avoid failure when failure would otherwise occur. In trad. D&D, you don't avoid traps etc. way of Saving Throw, by rolling dice. You avoid traps by clever play, good (or fortuitous) choices, and only when you have stepped on the trigger do you roll to Save.
This relates to WFRP because WFRP is exactly one of the games that I have refereed poorly in the past. I have been unable to find the blog post in which someone wrote of the mistakes that they made when running Shadows Over Bogehafen, but I'll sum it up the source of much of his dissatisfaction - asking for Fel tests for ordinary interactions and the attendant frustration and failure. WFRP is often accused of being a system in which PCs are incompetent, with starting characteristics around the 30% mark.

The way round this is not to make a whole load of Skill Tests 'Easy' or 'Mundane', applying modifiers as a matter of course. The way round this is to not roll dice at all, at least most of the time. Most actions that a Player might have their PC accomplish don't need a dice roll, if the PCs have the required skills/background and have chosen suitable courses of action. In an idealised old-school game (see Matt Finch's Primer), the play is in the talk over the table and the choices the players make on behalf of their PCs. When the dice come out, something bad is about to happen - in these kinds of gritty, lethal games, combat is the key example.

Combat is always rolling to 'save', in circumstances in which conditions are such that failure is likely. In combat, the referee is provided with mechanics for determining the consequences of failure. For most skill tests, the referee has the responsibility of determining the consequences of a failed skill test. That a trained person might 'fails' 70% of the time in such circumstances should be always borne in mind when considering the consequences as well as whether to call for a skill test at all.  

I don't see any reason why in most cases, where a player chooses a course of action that will require a skill test, the referee cannot make the (likely? possible?) consequences of failure plain before the choice is finalised. I've been trying to do this, and I feel it leads to better play, on the part of both the players and, importantly, the referee. It certainly has helped me avoid both the 'unchosen skill test' that is all too present in published scenarios, in which a passage of play is not a series of choices, but a series of dice rolls, as well as the inconsequential skill test, in which a failed skill test carries no cost, as an NPC or other referee-devised contingency steps in to fill in the gap. 

So, I prefer to think of skills (which are all or nothing affairs in WFRP) as being 'permissions' for certain actions to be taken, or to be taken without a dice roll at all, and the percentages to be the equivalent to 'saving throws' to prevent everything going very badly wrong.

Incidentally, a BECMI 'Normal Man' has Saving Throws in the 14-17 range, which roughly amounts to a 30% chance of success.

p.s. Thinking of skill tests as 'rolls to save' rather than 'rolls to accomplish' doesn't quite capture all circumstances. But I feel that most occasions in which it is difficult to conceive of the skill test as anything other than a 'roll to accomplish' - for example, when searching for information in the Library of Verena - can be dealt with by looking at skills such as Animal Training, or the Dark Heresy system, in which, roughly speaking, failed skill tests cost time. And if time is of no consequence, neither then is the skill test. These type of skill tests should be conceptualized quite differently to 'rolls to save', and one way to ensure that this is done is by being as explicit as possible about the consequences of failure.