Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Skill Checks, Degrees of Success, and Savage Worlds

Since skill systems became a near-universal thing in RPG's, most of them have been pass/fail. From Runequest, Star Trek,  and Hero through GURPS on into the d20 games, most games are only concerned with whether you succeeded or not. Some have a critical success or failure element, but most of the time that's tied more to combat than typical skill checks. A lot of the time, that's enough.

There are outliers.
  • The One-Roll engine covers both the "height" and "width" of each roll and those mean different things depending on the circumstances.  
  • FFG's Star Wars game adds various other factors in with their own dice so that interpreting a dice pool for that game is something of an art all on its own. The knock on it is that it's sometimes more information than you need on the routine stuff.  
  • Dice pool games form White Wolf to Shadowrun often include rules for multiple successes that indicate relative success or failure. This is definitely something to build on.
  • The old TSR Marvel Super Heroes had one of the cleanest systems: One roll gave you a white (failure) green, yellow, or red to indicate increasing levels of success. 
My interest in this springs from my current immersion in getting the Deadlands game off of the ground. Savage Worlds task rolls are dice vs. a target number of 4, and for every increment of 4 over that it's a "raise".  Now this most directly applies in combat but the mechanic is the same for everything.  In reading through the published adventures though there are a lot of handy notes like "on a success the characters find X, with a raise they also find Y".  

Given that you have, effectively, 3 levels of result from a skill or stat check: Failure, Success, Raise. Because of this I've been trying to think of results in terms of these three levels. Some typical examples where this comes in:
  • Perception Checks - probably the most overused skill in every game I've played, most of the time it's "you see the bad guys" or "you don't see the bad guys/trap/etc."   So what does a raise or an extra success get me here? 
    • Maybe a normal success is "you hear something" while a raise is "you see something". Especially in a night encounter or inside a dark cave. Maybe some kind of nightvision makes that "see" result possible with just a normal success.
    • Maybe a normal is "you see 5-6 guys standing around the campfire" while a raise is "let me put their miniatures out on the map in their exact positions. 
    • A lot of times these are opposed rolls vs. someone else's Stealth type skill so sometimes a higher result is its own reward. 
    • If the idea is to make it more interesting maybe a success is "you see these guys" while a raise is "you hear them talking about x". It might give your players a reason to listen a little longer before the inevitable gunfire or charge.
    • My 3 degrees here go like this (typical sneaking up on a camp scenario)
      • Failure = smells a campfire and that they're cooking something, maybe hear some voices
      • Success = There are several guys around the fire talking about how bad the food is and how they can't wait to get back to a real town
      • Raise = There are 4 guys around the fire, all wearing gunbelts and a 5th guy standing over by the horses with a shotgun

  • Knowledge checks - this is where I've seen some effort made in a lot of different games. 
    • Pathfinder sometimes has a little table: DC10 = some minimal knowledge about a topic, DC15=  more, and DC20 = all that plus more even more details. That's a toally playable system. 
    • This is an area where even failure should probably yield some knowledge. If nothing else I like to give the party a name of someone or something that could help. It's kind of a sideways local knowledge check too - "no, you can't recall anything in particular but you do recall there's a local mage/ranger/dog groomer who's supposed to know all about elven magic swords/the red eye orcs/ dire poodles. it's more interesting than a dead end and might give other characters a chance to contribute too. This could also be an organization or a location (like a temple) or an object, say a book.
    • My 3 degrees here go like this: 
      • Failure = don't know myself but I know how we can find out
      • Success = know enough to be useful, could go ask someone else given time and enough concern
      • Raise = know all that's useful or relevant to our situation, all someone else is going to do is confirm what we already know. 
  • Crafting checks - this doesn't come up as often as the others but when it does it's relatively easy to adjudicate
    • Failure = you're not done yet - needs more time. Critical failure  = you are done, you just broke it/ruined it/have to start over
    • Success = you made the bare minimum quality and/or amount that is supposed to come from the check. 
    • Raise/additional successes = it took less time or you made more of it than expected (or it has more charges if that's how it works)
    • Another option: A lot of computer games use quality levels for gear, typically something like White for basic, then Green, then Blue, then Purple, then Gold for increasing levels of quality. That's fairly simple to incorporate if you think it's worth the trouble. For something like a D&D potion, maybe it lasts one additional round for each quality level, or bumps the die type up for say a healing potion. Permanent gear gets a little trickier but there's usually some way to account for a really good roll. 
  • Physical checks - Sometimes these are the hardest to judge as far as extra success. "I want to leap from this balcony to that chandelier" is a fairly straightforward task.
    • Failure - A simple "you fell" on a failure isn't all that exciting. For a game like Savage Worlds I'd say this means you do it but you're hanging on by one arm, dangling in space and off balance. A critical failure or botch type result  = "you fell and looked clumsy doing it". 
    • Success = you made it, looked like you knew what you were doing, and it only took your normal move - what else are you doing this round?
    • Raise - you made it and swung it just enough to be in reach of the object you want to handle in a single impressive move. That might be a stab, a grab, or a drop to a slab.

Now I did not do nearly enough of this with Pathfinder, so I feel good that the new game is spurring me to pay more attention to this. I also am a big believer in that not everything needs a roll, and one roll should be enough. You shouldn't need a perception check to see non-invisible creatures moving around a well-lit area, and I don't care what the movement rules say you don't need 5 stealth checks to sneak up on the guards at the front door. Make one roll and get on with it!

Wrapping up - as a DM it's good to have something in mind/up your sleeve/in your notes beyond simple success or failure. I tend to prefer the "failure  = partial success" option, with a critical failure meaning no success and a negative impact as well, to the traditional pass/fail result. I'll try to point out some more examples as we play our way through The Flood. 

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