Thursday, April 21, 2011

No More Skill Rolls, Dammit!

First things first...I sure hope everyone had a chance to check out my A-Z post for "R" today, 'cause I really like that one!

Okay...now back to the matter at hand.

I was checking out Grognardia's latest greatest today (doesn't everyone do this?) and while three weeks ago I would have been completely on-board with his thoughts, since play-testing my B/X Shadowrun game, and completely junking skill rolls, I've got to say:

It's not enough.

That is to say, what Mr. Maliszewski concludes (that the answer to "climactic skill roll failure" is to not have a particular climax in mind...i.e. practice non-attachment to outcomes) doesn't resolve it for me. I don't want the CHALLENGE of my game to be "how well can you roll," AKA "how lucky are you."

Or rather, I WANT that to be a part of my game...but I want to minimize it. Combat? Sure....you're fighting someone who is resistant to being hurt (as are the player characters), and the tenseness and general "cluster-f**ked-ness" of a combat situation calls for the occasional Fortunes (or MISfortunes) of War. Likewise with damage and saving throws...damage should be tense and have random elements (a lucky "scratch" versus an unlucky "hole in the head"), and saving throws are, well, Saves...your CHANCE to "get out of jail free."

But skills...no, I'm totally over "random sucking." Forget that noise.

Fortunately, in B/X D&D there is only one class that has skills with random sucking chance...the much maligned thief. The stupid jackass class that started the whole philosophy of random skill percentages in RPGs. Just for THAT I'm tempted to NOT fix it.

But no...two wrongs don't make a right.

Why should the thief have a random chance to fail at their class abilities? Does a fighter fail to wear armor? Does a magic-user fail to cast spells? Yes, clerics have a failure chance at turning undead...at low levels only. They auto-turn everything by 9th level...a level at which thieves still have a 30% chance of blowing a remove traps roll and a 35% chance of missing their hide in shadows.

Nothing like a Name level character having a better than 1 in 3 chance of being discovered by a wandering orc patrol, right? Bullshit.

So here's the deal: thieves in my game will no longer have to roll skill use in my campaign. If they have the skill, they automatically succeed, regardless of level. There are a couple of caveats to this:
  • Attempting to pick the pockets of a character/creature with more levels/hit dice than the thief automatically results in the thief getting caught. The DM is under NO compulsion to tell the thief beforehand what level the target is!
  • Attempting to climb sheer surfaces under abnormally hideous conditions (blizzards and magical wind storms, etc.) may require a climb roll at the usual skill chance as per level.
  • Attempting to open locks, hide in shadows, search for traps, or remove (small) traps requires TIME...one turn per effort (during which time wandering monsters may well be encountered). If a thief attempts to do so at a faster rate (like 1-2 rounds), THEN require the skill roll.
  • No thief may move silently when encumbered by more than 600 coins weight (i.e. the equivalent of wearing metal armor, per the B/X encumbrance rules).
  • I'm tempted to simply remove hear noise as a skill...I'm not sure why the thief's ability to hear should be any different than another character. Let demi-humans have their bone in this regard.

These new rules are going into play effective immediately.

Some may ask, doesn't this make thieves "too powerful?" To which I reply, "what the hell are you talking about?" They still only wear leather armor and (in B/X) roll only D4 for hit points. They still go down like tissue paper if they get embroiled in combat.

BUT NOW they actually have a role and purpose in the party! How many first level thieves to you see trying to disarm that poison needle trap, huh? How many times do they actually try to hide in shadows and sneak up on somebody (or attempting that how many times have they horribly failed and thus been caught and killed?)? I mean, sure...you can fudge dice rolls so that this doesn't happen...but if you're going to do that, then what the heck do you need a dice roll for? Just to hear the sound of the dice hitting the table?

Look, I want my players to think strategy and tactics...I want them to be able to count on the thief's skills the same way that they can count on the fighter to wear armor and take hits or the magic-user to use the spells in his spell book. Sure, a lucky hit can off the fighter or wizard before he gets to "do his thang"...and the same might happen to the thief. But assuming the thief gets through the gauntlet to the place where he can hide or backstab or open the lock or lift the important item off the bad guy, shouldn't you be able to rely on him in that moment?

I think so.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well my "B/X Shadowrun" game ran when I removed skill rolls completely. I can only imagine the same will hold true for real B/X. I'll let y'all know how it works after tonight's game.
; )

32 comments:

  1. Or you could dispense with Thieves entirely?

    :D

    But seriously, I empathize. I mostly handwave that dice-rolling stuff, as long as the players are being remotely cautious or thoughtful.

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  2. I was de-skilling the thief a little while ago, but didn't go as far as you did. But I think I *should*. Good idea!

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  3. Great minds are thinking alike all over the place... see this post for more about how the time spent attempting a sneaky skill can affect the outcome. In my own case, I still think I'll stick with skill-type rolls, but the time thing can make it interesting -- especially when the roll fails! :-)

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  4. To play Demogorgon's advocate for a moment, the mage's spells and even the fighter's ability to take and deal damage are finite resources, but this thing -- which isn't a house rule because you don't do house rules ;) -- seems to make the thief's abilities an infinite resource.

    For its faults, the skill system emulates the limited nature of the resource -- however clumsily -- through the simple mechanic of luck.

    Have you considered perhaps giving the thief a limited number of these automatic successes per game day, thus making them sort of like spells?

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  5. As the only thief in tonight's game, Stanley thanks you. Oh, and he picked your pocket on the way by :)

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  6. The whole thief skill business and a long line of dead thieves from failed rolls has bugged me for years. This is a fantastic and simple solution that I too am going to adopt immediately. Thanks JB.

    The only change I will make is to reduce the amount of time needed (on open locks, etc.) by 3 rounds/30 seconds for each level above 1, so that a 10th level thief would take half the time (5 minutes) to do what it would take a 1st level thief.

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  7. I've just thought of another change I'll make - automatic success at climbing only occurs if the thief is carrying no more than 60 coins per level, up to a maximum of 600 coins at level 10 and above.

    And the same goes for moving silently.

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  8. Thinking about Kelvingreen's comment, would it make sense (and make play interesting), to experiment and treat thieves abilities as a finite resource?

    The first time a thief uses an ability, it has a 100% chance. The second time it's used, it's down to 90%, etc.

    This might make players running thieves more cautious about their use...

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  9. I think you could get away with allowing most of the thief skills to become "infinite resources", since most of the skills are pretty trivial. You should probably treat picking pockets as an attack, though: let anyone who goes through training be able to do it, but only thieves are better than a 0-level pickpocket.

    You can allow thieves to always succeed at stealth, but translate that into a bonus to surprise... or, as I put it, a minimum chance to surprise.

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  10. Wow, this is something all right; I've gotta try this out!

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  11. I have done something similar in my 3.5 game except that I always require a roll which determines how long the skill use takes.

    If your roll succeeds you complete the skill use in the normally appropriate amount of time for that skill. If you fail the roll your skill use still succeeds, it just takes longer depending on how badly you failed.

    Of course these skill checks only occur when taking longer matters.

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  12. It makes sense. But, we are talking about pretty much making traps, locks, etc., into merely flavor. Which would now be the only point of including them at all.

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  13. @James - don't forget the thief has to spend the time (1 turn/10 minutes) searching for a trap to gain automatic success, and another turn disarming it, otherwise roll as usual in each case. In the meantime, torches burn down, wandering monsters may appear. Given that players tend to get impatient and skip stuff, I don't think this rule would end up turning traps, locks, etc. into mere flavour and dressing.

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  14. @ Kelvin, Austro, Scootz, and James (etc.):

    Right, I don't think this makes thieves "powerful" or "infinite" in some way, nor do I think it results in traps/locks being merely "flavor." After all, you still need a thief in your party to get the benefit.

    What it DOES do is make the thief someone that players will be interested in playing, even at 1st level. He can DO something now, and is not relegated to some back-rank, bow-shooting exercise. Without the thief, characters will have no way to deal with locks...with the thief, they will! And there's even room for a second thief in the party (in case the first gets killed).

    Remember that TIME is a resource, too...spending time to search for secret doors or traps or opening locks takes time off the life of torches and lanterns and such, and increases the chance of being encountered by monsters. Smart players are still only going to use thieves skills appropriately (i.e. "when it seems necessary") and amateurs are going to waste time with lots of useless searches.

    Remember also that thieves only have the ability to disarm SMALL traps. Finding a large one just means the party now gets a chance to figure out a way of circumventing it (challenge the PLAYERS, remember?). Plus there's also magical traps and locks one might encounter.

    Oh...and picking your party members pockets can still result in repercussions when they realize their purses are lighter than when they started.
    ; )

    Personally, I'm pretty excited to try it out.

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  15. I like this thief better than the standard one.

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  16. @austrodavicus & JB

    So, we're turning it solely into a game of the players guessing when they should or shouldn't check for traps.

    On every chest, certainly.

    On any door that looks in any way special. (more like every door, but they'll probably risk it, on occasion.)

    On any feature similar to the one where they were last mistakenly neglected to search.

    Everywhere, if they're finding a lot of traps.

    During any module made by LotFP.

    Various other instances, depending upon where they're at and how well they know the dm.

    Player to DM: "I do my thing."

    Meaning he checks for traps, removes traps, checks to see if it's locked and unlocks. Everything will be reduced to that one sentence.

    And it will be boring. Or would be, if it wasn't just swept under the rug so quickly. Which it will be, because the players will want to get on to the interesting stuff.

    It'll work ok for climbing walls and moving silently and what-not. But for the other stuff, nope.

    Ditching the rolls and going with a detailed Negotiation, with success being determined by the characters choice of actions would be a better option. Chance of failure, drama, a puzzle to solve, etc.

    It's not that I don't agree with the general complaints about the thief. I'm just not any more pleased with this fix and am coming more and more around to the idea of dumping the class, altogether.

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  17. By the by, the reason it'll work for CW and MS is because those are steps toward another action the thief has in mind. The whole trap & unlock thing is the thing, in those instances. Making it a fait accompli will drain any juice out of the act. What's the point of being able to do something special if it's going to feel like, well, nothing. A player slaying a dragon isn't going to get that Awesome feeling, if it's reduced to "I do my thing."

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  18. So, we're turning it solely into a game of the players guessing when they should or shouldn't check for traps.

    Isn't that also the case with the original thief mechanic? How is this any different James? I don't see it.

    Player to DM: "I do my thing."

    Meaning he checks for traps, removes traps, checks to see if it's locked and unlocks. Everything will be reduced to that one sentence.


    My players do that now under the original rules. Using JB's system I reckon my players would have to think a lot more about what they are doing, I think it would make them less lazy (and me too). Might even teach them some time and resource management skills.

    Anyway, this all depends on the DM I guess. My next question as a DM to such a player would be "do what specifically?" And once again don't forget that's 10 minutes for finding traps, another 10 for removing them, 10 minutes for checking the lock, another for picking it - a lot can happen in 40 minutes, especially in a populated dungeon. There's a price for being thorough.

    I honestly don't see this destroying the way I play my game. I do think it will stop the tendency of my players to use the poor thief as an expendable early warning device and snickering as they once again send the poor bugger forward. It will be nice to have players no longer acting like they're drawing the short straw to play a thief character.

    What's the point of being able to do something special if it's going to feel like, well, nothing.

    I actually see this as having the opposite effect. I think my players will be more likely to play a thief this way. Up to level 7, a LL thief has only about a 50-50 chance to succeed at anything. That can be pretty disheartening, not to mention fatal. This will keep that level of risk, but introduce the recognition that any task becomes routine and mundane after much practice.

    One final point, JB's system doesn't remove the DM's right to say "no sorry, that's a pretty complex lock, you're gonna have to roll the dice".

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  19. I mean, sure...you can fudge dice rolls so that this doesn't happen...but if you're going to do that, then what the heck do you need a dice roll for? Just to hear the sound of the dice hitting the table?

    This x100. The #1 thing holding back good game design in RPGs is suggesting to DMs that crappy rules are okay because you can always fudge the dice to make it work.

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  20. Isn't that also the case with the original thief mechanic? How is this any different James? I don't see it.

    The word Solely.

    My players do that now under the original rules.

    Exactly!!!!!!!

    Anyway, this all depends on the DM I guess. My next question as a DM to such a player would be "do what specifically?"

    Why? Will it make a difference and if so, we're not really talking about JB's system any more. Unless I missed it, he didn't mention the kind of Negotiation Matt Finch talked about in his Old School Primer. Totally different thing.

    I honestly don't see this destroying the way I play my game. I do think it will stop the tendency of my players to use the poor thief as an expendable early warning device and snickering as they once again send the poor bugger forward. It will be nice to have players no longer acting like they're drawing the short straw to play a thief character.

    I've never made a player play any class he didn't want and have always made it quite clear that no one had to play anything. Nor have I seen other players treat a pc thief that way. I have had players who liked and even preferred thieves.

    Up to level 7, a LL thief has only about a 50-50 chance to succeed at anything. That can be pretty disheartening, not to mention fatal. This will keep that level of risk, but introduce the recognition that any task becomes routine and mundane after much practice.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "keep that level of risk" as this is doing the exact opposite. The "routine and mundane" remark is kind of making my point.

    One final point, JB's system doesn't remove the DM's right to say "no sorry, that's a pretty complex lock, you're gonna have to roll the dice".

    No, but that's something I would only do in very rare circumstances. Otherwise, you're moving into the whole 3e ever increasing DC thing. Moving the goal posts. One of my least favorite things about 3e and not something I care to bring into my current games.

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  21. I should probably mention that I think a better solution would be to bump up the thief's skills at first level. As it is, I give them a saving throw, if they fail at CW. In my current game, no-ones playing a thief. It's working out just fine.

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  22. I'm not sure what you mean by "keep that level of risk" as this is doing the exact opposite. The "routine and mundane" remark is kind of making my point.

    Level of risk means that under normal circumstances the thieves abilities rolls still apply, however if they are careful and take their time...

    Otherwise, you're moving into the whole 3e ever increasing DC thing. Moving the goal posts.

    I don't think it's any different than playing 1e and saying "ok, you run across the fallen log but must save vs. death or fall because of the icy conditions".

    Anyway James I'm not trying to convert you. Each to his own. I'm looking forward to trying this system out this weekend. That'll be the true test of whether or not it plays well.

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  23. Anyway James I'm not trying to convert you. Each to his own. I'm looking forward to trying this system out this weekend. That'll be the true test of whether or not it plays well.

    Likewise. Let us know how it turns out! :)

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  25. I like this. I'm actually planning to start a PBP classic D&D game, and I think this type of conversion will help. I'll playtest this both in PBP and tabletop form, and figure out what the pros/cons are. Excellent suggestion, JB...thanks for sharing!

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  26. An interesting proposition. Probably the only thing I'd change is the "no chance vs. higher level characters" thing. There are more than a few times you had to get something from someone to complete an adventure, and sometimes a pitched battle against that person would have wiped out the party. Rather than wearing TPK badges, we decided to go the easy route. "You need his ring as proof of his death? Well, here it is!"

    In my game that I run I simply use ability checks for skills, saves, etc. Each class gets a bonus to something when doing something his class is supposed to be good at. Thieves get a bonus to any sort of act that could be used in stealing (climbing walls, being sneaky, disarming traps,etc). Sorta takes out the whole "why is my chance of success 20%" crap.

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  27. Once again you challenge my assumptions. What I really like is thief skills as a time based resource.

    I have already signed up to Robert Fisher's interpretation of thief skills, which answers many of your concerns.

    I also like Dyson Lygos 2d6 thief skills - feels more old school.

    So combining the best of the best from you, Robert and Dyson I have created
    http://jovialpriest.blogspot.com/2011/04/old-school-thief-built-using-best-rule.html

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  28. Hey, thought you might be interested in my take on the thief. I was also heavily influenced by your idea of time as the resource behind thief skills.

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  29. This is really cool and has me thinking.

    Out of curiosity, what about Demi-humans? Do Elves auto-detect Secret Doors and hear noises? What about Dwarves and stonework?

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    1. Yes for dwarves. I don't remember about the elves (it's been awhile since the last time I DM'd, but I don't usually include a lot of secret doors)...um, maybe?

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  30. The 9th level Cleric doesn't turn anything, her Gods do.

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    1. @ Eric:

      Ahhh...but without the instrument how can the gods' will manifest?

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