Sunday, 21 August 2016

House rule insanity

I really like reading other people's house rules and I love it when people put their collected house rules together and post 'em on the net. Even if their take on things are minimalist tweaks that do little more than satisfy their anal retentive vision, no-shit-sherlock insights that occurred to everyone else years ago, or unplaytested  ridiculosity that clearly won't work, I still love 'em. The more detailed, the heartbreakier, the mashed up I-can't-even-remember-where-this-came-from hackier the better. Hell, I've bought numerous retroclones just to pick at what their house rules to standard D&D were (I have a dream where every clone also has a summary of house rules and hacks that make it different to the edition/s it riffs off - however I'm not holding out for this as "yeah this is 96.5% the same apart from these few rules" is not a great selling point).

In the spirit of this love, and the share and share alike ethos of OSR / DIY D&D here's the house rules document for my upcoming game. Basically it's B/X D&D hacked to have the spirit of Rolemaster... by way of untold bits stolen and inspired from other games (mainly with D&D DNA, and then mainly OSR stuff)... massaged slightly for play with the setting from the Symbaroum RPG.... and is likely anal retentive, insightless and ridiculous. 

Except for a few odd weirdos like me who eat up this stuff this post aught to be roundly ignored.

Game on.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

"Old schoolifying" Rolemaster

In my last post I reflected on my experiences playing Rolemaster over the years. In particular I noted that playing in a Rolemaster Classic campaign over the last couple of years showed me that there is scope for running Rolemaster as an "old school" game - if you use an older edition, ignore the Companion books, and intentionally play in an old school style. However, it's gotten me thinking that there are a number of ways that this could be taken further, and I'm going to suggest some fairly radical changes to select parts of Rolemaster to see if it could be made even more suited to old school play. 

Rolemaster has copped a fair bit of stick over the years for being unnecessarily complex, attracting labels such as "Rollmaster", "Chartmaster" and "Rulesmonster". Whilst I don't think these are unwarranted, complaints in the vein of, "but oh! the tables..." generate an internal response from me that the person probably hasn't really played Rolemaster, because the tables are definitively the best part. Are the tables overwhelming in number? yes; do they all need to be regularly consulted during play? no; do they make the game funner? fuck yes.

Ok, I'll concede it is possible that dislike of Rolemaster is a reflection of taste rather than ignorance.

However the Angus McBride covers for RM2 are incontrovertible proof that Rolemaster is still worth playing for folks with good taste...
Without doubt for me the worst part of Rolemaster is the skill system, particularly as it relates to character creation. Wat? isn't the whole thing with Rolemaster that it's a skill-based system? I should clarify. Whilst Rolemaster's resolution mechanics are more formalised than in old school D&D (and use tables of course!), they add a lot of depth and flavour, and aren't especially complex. The big issue with Rolemaster is the sheer number of skills, and the fact that it relies on the use of skills and dice for the resolution of most every situation. I'm going to suggest it doesn't have to be this way - and wasn't always. 

Rolemaster first appeared as a supplement for use with existing published games called Arms Law, which presented the highly detailed and deadly combat system that Rolemaster is well known for. Arms Law was released in 1980 and was followed up by the magic supplement Spell Law in 1982. Later that year a book containing rules for making characters compatible with the early supplements (Character Law) was published and then all three books were released together as the first boxed set of Rolemaster. The character creation rules in Character Law remained largely unchanged throughout the first and second editions of the game and it wasn't until the release of a string of Companion books and the later "Standard System" edition that the initial steps down the skill based path really spiraled out of control. As I suggested in my last post, playing Rolemaster 1st ed / 2nd ed / Classic (hereafter just Classic) still leaves some room for an old school style of play. Whilst Rolemaster Classic does retain a high level of complexity and detail relative to old school D&D, a great deal of this is restricted to areas that are the most rule bound in D&D anyway, namely combat and magic. Even though there are many elements that are extremely clunky, overall there are just way less moving parts than later edition Rolemaster, and the infamous skill bloat hadn't set in yet. However, I'm going to advocate more than just playing early edition Rolemaster, and instead suggest that the ur-Rolemaster of Arms Law and Spell Law, could be used as the base of a game that is considerably less complex and more amenable to old school play. 

Ok, some design goals in no particular order, just so you know where I'm trying to take this:
  • Make Rolemaster more fun rather than just a different kind of fun (include scope for both player skill & character ability as playstyles)
  • Significantly reduce the number of skills used and broaden their scope
  • Create more options for how in-game situations can be resolved
  • Make character creation significantly easier and quicker
  • Use Arms Law and Spell Law pretty much as is, and retain the functionality of the many useful resolution tables within Character Law such as Resistance Rolls, Static and Moving Manuver tables
  • Use Rolemaster Unified (RMU) as the foundation rule set - many aspects have been streamlined, and whilst there are still too many skills, the calculation of things such as Body Development, Power Points and Spell Acquisition are no longer needlessly arcane.

1) Reduce the use of skills and dice as a resolution method

What I’m trying to do here is shift the play style of Rolemaster away from being reliant on rolling dice for everything, so before I tinker with the mechanics of skills I want to suggest a framework for how in-game situations that would normally just be handled by a moving or static maneuver roll could get resolved. A good starting point for this is looking at what Rolemaster actually says... and it ain't pretty. The sections on skills and maneuvers are 90% the same across editions and explicitly state that success or failure at any meaningful action is based off the character's skill at the task and a dice roll. The most open ended guidelines I could find were those for Maneuvers in RMU:

Maneuvers are actions that have a chance of failing and entail an element of risk. Thus, normal movement and activities such as walking, climbing stairs, drawing a weapon, etc. are not maneuvers under normal circumstances. However, unusual activities or those performed under stress are maneuvers and require rolls (e.g., climbing a cliff, running over rough terrain, opening a locked chest). The GM is the final judge as to what is a maneuver and requires a roll, and what is normal activity and does not require a roll

Whilst this has potential if you define "normal activity" generously, it's still a binary approach, with automatic success (no need to roll) for mundane tasks and a maneuver roll as the only options.  It doesn't consider resolving situations through player skill, or even that skilled and creative play could influence a subsequent roll. I reckon there's plenty of scope for broadening what falls under normal activity and space between normal activity and maneuver rolls that can be cracked open for player skill as a resolution method.

Ok, a few guidelines for what approach to use when resolving tasks:

a) Is the task normal activity or a maneuver? (i.e. can we just assume the character succeeds at the task and get on with the game?)

I think we could interpret this much more liberally than in the quote above. Some points to consider:
  • What counts as normal activity? - i.e. what actions fall under the assumed baseline of competence allowing automatic success for PC's, especially around things they should reliably be able to do based on their abilities (level, Profession, stats, race, & background).
  • Assuming a fairly high standard for what PC's can do without breaking a sweat makes the game quicker and more fun (in my opinion anyway, and I've never seen someone enjoy having their character fail at basic, consequence-less stuff just because of a poor roll on an arbitrary check)
  • It may help to consider / discuss this at the start of a campaign to establish some guidelines
  • Is failure likely / is the task actually difficult? (could most people succeed at it? What about for someone with the character’s abilities?)
  • Does the task contain significant risks (likelihood of a bad outcome) or significant consequences (severity of bad outcome) if failed? - i.e. does it really matter if they fail?
  • What will be the impact at the table of having to resolve the task? (how long will it take? will it make the game more fun?)
  • What’s stopping you from just saying "yes" or "no"?

Here's a new take on the above quote:

Maneuvers are actions that have a significant chance of failing based on their difficulty relative to the character's abilities and entail a significant likelihood or severity of consequences if failed. Thus, normal movement and activities which do not meet the above criteria are not maneuvers under normal circumstances and can be assumed to succeedHowever, unusual activities or those performed under stress are maneuvers and require some form of in-game resolution [ ]. The GM is the final judge as to what is a maneuver [ ] and what is normal activity [ ] and should consider what will maximize enjoyment (how long will formally resolving the action take? what will move the game forward in the most interesting way; saying yes, saying no, or spending time to resolve the action?)

E.g. A 4th level Ranger is scouting the perimeter of an enemy encampment, keeping to the treeline at a distance of at least 100'. The enemy is not on a particularly high state of alert, and the GM decides the worst thing that failure would do is result in a guard watching the area more closely for a few minutes. 

- The chance of failure relative to the character's ability is low, and whilst the risk attached is moderate to high the likely consequence is fairly low. This could be classified as normal activity and handwaved.

- A maneuver might be warranted if the character were equipped in heavy armour or in a group of three (significant likelihood of failure), or if the encampment were on high alert due to a previous attack (high likelihood and severity of consequence for failure). 

- The GM could also decide to ramp up the stakes unexpectedly, deeming that something occurs in the camp whilst the Ranger is mid reconnaissance, turning normal activity into a maneuver, or even something that will fail unless alternative actions are taken (e.g. a guard patrol with dogs sweeps the area)  

b) If an action being attempted is a maneuver what is the most appropriate method to resolve it? (i.e. if the task needs to be resolved in some way, should you be using dice?)

Determining success or failure at a task in Rolemaster defaults to a skill roll, however this isn't the only possible approach. In the earliest editions of D&D there were no mechanics to cover many adventuring situations and players relied on description and problem solving to overcome challenges. 

Ben Milton has a nice little rubric which I'll borrow (again):

Whenever possible, players should overcome challenges by simply describing what their characters do. [Dice rolls] are only used to resolve risky situations that would be too time-consuming to describe, or involve immediate danger. 

 e.g. Disarming a trap doesn't involve immediate danger, so as long as it is fairly simple, you have to describe how you do it.  e.g. Picking a lock doesn't involve immediate danger, but describing the process would be tedious and hard to visualise, so you [roll].  e.g. Dodging dragon's breath is easy to describe, but it involves immediate danger, so a [roll] is required.

Following these guidelines a maneuver would only require a roll against a skill if describing the appropriate action would be too difficult, time consuming or inappropriate due to a high level of immediate risk and consequences. Also, when weighing whether to call for a maneuver roll or resolution through description and problem solving, the decision doesn't need to be binary one:
  • The considerations in point a) above may influence how good a description you expect from a player (e.g. in the example above the Ranger might only need to describe a sensible distance to observe from, or taking an irregular path to make detection harder, or willingness to wait if they suspect they have been spotted. Specifics of sneaking could be hand waved.)
  • If you decide a dice roll is needed, player skill may (I'd even say should) influence the roll needed (i.e. allow the difficulty of the maneuver roll to be modified up or down based on the cleverness and detail (or lack thereof!) in how the players describe what they are doing.)
  • Even when the dice are adjudged to be the only valid resolution approach, it's still helps engagement in the game if you ask for a description! (and if your players are used to just rolling for everything asking for a description as standard will help shift the play style away from this) 

If a maneuver roll is called for the normal Rolemaster approach would be to roll, add the bonus from the relevant skill and lookup the result on the static or moving maneuver table. The tables and basic mechanics for resolving a maneuver roll are sound and are not something I'm looking to change. However this approach is dependant on having a skill to cover every situation (of note Rolemaster contains no guidelines for basic ability checks). Given one of my aims is to drastically cull the skill list, this will mean broadening the scope of skills significantly (more on this below) however they would still be used in the same way if a roll is called for.

Ok, Imma try put all of this into one simplified text block as a guide to resolving actions

When a character attempts an action with an uncertain result consider:

  • Is it a challenge? (is there a significant chance of failure based on the difficulty of the action relative to the character's abilities?)
  • Is it risky? (is there a significant likelihood of consequences or a significant severity of consequences for failing the action?)
Actions which are not a challenge or risky are considered normal activity and automatically succeed - get on with it!

Actions which are bothchallenge and risky are considered a maneuver and must be resolved in play. The player[s] should describe what their characters do to overcome the challenges and risks. If describing the maneuver would be too difficult or time consuming, or the maneuver involves immediate danger a roll is made. If an action can only be partially resolved through description a maneuver roll is made, modifying the difficulty of the maneuver according to the quality of the description.

Actions which are either a challenge or risky should be considered normal activity unless spending time to resolve a maneuver will result in engaging play (the key here is that the players should be laughing or sweating, not yawning). Sometimes the GM may require a cost or add a complication to make an action normal activity e.g. resources spent (time, gold, equipment used up), favour owed, wandering monster check etc. 

2) Reduce the number of skills

In Rolemaster the primary purpose of skills are to give you a better chance of succeeding at maneuvers. However given the changes I've suggested above there are a whole bunch of situations that will no longer require a roll (and therefore a skill) to resolve them. This means a lot of skills may see less use or no longer even be necessary (who'd ever imagine superfluous skills in Rolemaster eh?) but how to decide which ones? That could involve a drawn out process of weighing up the merits of each skill and whether or not a roll for that particular task might ever be needed - which would be pointless, as the guidelines I've given don't categorically rule out the possibility of ever needing to check against a certain skill. So rather than looking to sort and cull skills one by one, I instead looked for which skills would always need to be used in their current form. The list turned out to be pretty short: weapon skills, body development, power points and spell lists. All other skills are potentially handwavable as normal activity or resolvable through description (obviously some skills will still lean heavily towards resolution by dice, but bear with me) so to retain their usefulness it makes sense to condense the skill list significantly by grouping multiple related skills together under individual supra-skills with a broader scope. Again this could be a complex process, trying to work out which skills should go together (see: the similar skills tables in RoCo2 and the skill/category split in RMSS). I think the key here is leaning towards abstraction rather than the usual Rolemaster predilection for obsessive detail. I've kept the new supra-skills broad and loose in both scope and concept, and have harnessed the concept of Professions (making a quite radical change to what they represent).

In Rolemaster Professions are intended to represent the varying degree of ease a character can learn different skills. In practice a Profession is a set of skills that any character taking that Profession will usually purchase, e.g. "Fighter" represents a package of primarily combat skills and an additional smattering of athletic, outdoor and subterfuge skills. Sure, there will be small variations from character to character, the occasional expensive skill and a few secondary skills for colour, but in general the better a Profession fits to the character you are wanting to play, the more your skill choices will fit amongst those that are cheaper to purchase (this is the reason for Profession proliferation in Rolemaster - and spell lists!). Frankly, Rolemaster would work fine with no Professions, simply spending a budget of development points on the skills important to a particular character, without adjusting costs by Profession (see GURPS). The primary value of a Profession is as an archetype. When you choose a Profession it tells you what sort of character you want to play and what you expect they should be able to do - and that's what I want to draw upon.

The obvious solution to how to group skills (to me anyway!) then is simply to get rid of Professions as a "class" and instead make them a "skill" - instead of developing the bundle of individual skills that would normally match up with a Profession, you simply buy ranks in the Profession. Professions as skills will be quite broad and abstract, covering a large variety of actions relevant to a field of study or expertise, and also the very archetype of the Profession itself. The skill rank in a Profession can be applied to any maneuver roll related to that Profession (both primary and secondary skills, I’m not going to worry about making the distinction, and also actions that might fall outside the normal skill lst). You may wish to simply use existing Rolemaster Professions as handles (e.g. Thief, Ranger, Mystic, Magician - in fact RMSS Training Packages would work quite well for this too) or the GM can introduce setting specific ones or players just create their own (e.g. Witch Hunter, Apothecary, Circus Strongman, Runegraven). Whilst Professions determine what skills you know, there is no need to write down a list of specific skills contained within them, simply make a judgment at the time you need to make a skill check (essentially you are buying ranks in the archetype itself - the whole idea is to get rid of tracking extensive lists of skills). There’s room for discovery and negotiation in play about what the Profession actually covers (which I’m viewing as a strength) and the Profession could be renamed later to reflect how it actually plays (e.g. a Thief might end up being renamed as Scout or Unauthorised Entry Specialist or even Assassin). The degree of specificity in a Profession (e.g. Fighter vs. Soldier vs. Pit Fighter) will yield different skills and level of relevance of the Profession to a situation. A character could develop multiple narrowly focused Professions or just one broader one (or hell, one narrow one and simply leave gaps in what they are capable of doing well). Importantly, the Profession can also provide guidance about when skill checks aren’t needed and when an action can instead be considered normal activity (see 1a above). 

(Also, credit where it's due, Joe Nutall's Explore (which is basically a mashup of Basic D&D and Rolemaster) uses a similar idea, which is what inspired this for me)

Ok, so how is all of this likely to look in play? 

  • First determine if the action needs resolving, and if so that rolling against a skill is the most appropriate method
  • Identify skill/s that are a good fit for resolving the task and negotiate which one is to be used. (These may be drawn from the existing skills list or you could just make a suitable one up on the fly and assign relevant stat bonuses. You may not even need to identify a specific skill, simply that the task fits well with a Profession)
  • Identify the most relevant Profession the character has which could contain the skill (players will likely preempt this by the skill they are suggesting should be used)
  • Partially relevant Professions could be applied with a penalty - I've mocked up a table below based on RMU’s similar skills rules

Very Relevant (no penalty): Profession contains relevant techniques as well as a relevant focus.
e.g. using the Ranger skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
Somewhat Relevant (-25 penalty): Profession contains either relevant techniques or a relevant focus.
e.g. using the Rogue skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment
Slightly Relevant (-50 penalty): Profession contains a partially relevant techniques or focus.
e.g. using the Illusionist skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment

Not Relevant (-75 penalty): Profession does not contain any relevant techniques or focus.
e.g. using the Magician skill to lay an ambush in a wilderness environment

  • Make the skill check as per normal methods

In addition to Professions the four remaining skill types (Weapon skills, Body Development, Power Points, Spell lists) are able to be applied more generally in much the same way (e.g. Body Development could be used to cover Endurance type checks, Power Points could be used for Power Perception or Power Projection if you use those types of skills in your game). 
There are a couple of other skills that I debated also keeping distinct from Professions, however I decided to embrace the philosophy I was going for and discovered on reflection that most of these could easily be covered by Professions or linked to one of the four other skills (one of the goals of this whole hack is to get away from highly specific skills):
  • A lot of Combat expertise skills could be eliminated for simplicity or could be linked to a martially themed Profession or even to the weapon skill being used (for example, if a 20th level Fighter never developed the Disarm skill is it really helpful or fun to insist that they wouldn't be able to do so?)
  • Maneuvering in Armour could simply be ignored or based off body development or a relevant Profession. (MiA is mostly used to preserve class balance in Rolemaster, minimum maneuver and Quickness penalties could still be applied and they provide enough of a balance against stealthy and spell using characters wearing armour anyway)
  • Directed Spells and Spell Mastery could simply use ranks in the related spell list
  • Adrenal moves could easily fit with a Profession, as relevant. Adrenal Defence is more significant, however shunting it off to Talents as has been done in RMU would fix this (as an aside, Background Options / Talents are a fun part of Rolemaster, so I'm a bit loathe to cull them too. If using a RMU method where Talents are purchased with Development Points you could grant a pool at 1st level just for this. The option to pump a large bonus into a specialised hobby skill [such as artistic, vocational and esoteric lore skills] rather than having to develop a whole Profession would also be a good gap fill use of Background / Talents) )
  • Attunement, Runes, Channeling etc could just be based off a relevant Profession
  • Languages are a tricky one (and could easily be included as a 6th skill type) however I'm inclined to go with make a check to see if you know it, with the majority of Professions having a penalty depending on the circumstances (e.g. Rolling against the "Thief" Profession might normally have a -50 penalty to know a language, but when visiting a new city has no penalty to see if they know the local cant). 

3) Simplifying character creation

The decision to abandon Professions in their traditional sense and condense the skill list is already a big step forward in simplifying character creation. Getting rid of Professions as class also means not needing to worry about lists of skill costs varying by Profession. In fact the easiest thing to do is to completely jettison development points and just provide a pool of skill ranks each level and you allocate them completely as you wish (allowing overspecialisation if desired, if folks want to max-min that’s their prerogative, and leaving yawning gaps in what you can otherwise do tends to lead to lead to a bunch of balancing weaknesses). Rather than budgeting DP's this would simply rely on opportunity cost as the balancing factor (i.e. if you allocate ranks to skill x that's ranks you can't allocate to skill y). I'll suggest how this might look in practice below. Getting rid of Professions as class also leaves "level"/"category"/"profession" bonuses without a home, and frankly I'm inclined to just get rid of them too, which is another level of complexity for minimal gain removed (wow, watch out Character Law, who knows where the axe may fall next!). To compensate for this it would require changing the skill rank bonus progression per 10 ranks to 6/4/3/2/1.
pew pew pew take THAT Character Law

You may have noticed above that whilst Body Development and Power Points are obviously individual skills (although able to be applied more broadly as suggested in my examples), and Professions are now a catchall for a bucket of skills, I haven't really specified how Weapon Skills and Spell Lists might look (I'm assuming RMU as the baseline for this here hack, which uses individual spell development rather than needing to develop lists in blocks of 5-10 levels, which is definitely one of the greatest simplifications to later editions of Rolemaster). At present both Weapon Skills and Spell Lists are categories containing sub categories which then contain individual skills (Weapon skills>weapon groups>weapon skills and Spell lists>Open/Closed/Base>individual lists). I've to'ed and fro'ed about how many levels to cut from these, and am just gonna hedge my bets and present both:

a) Brutally condensed
  • Weapon Skills become a single skill which determines your OB with all weapons (a slightly less condensed version would be to divide Weapon Skill into Hand to Hand Combat and Ranged Combat).
  • Spell Lists would become three skills - Open lists, Closed Lists and Base Lists. There would be no need to develop individual lists, every rank in a Open, Closed or Base gives a rank in all lists of that type. Whilst this greatly simplifies things it removes all specialisation, and also meaningful choice about which weapons or spells you choose to learn - the only choices become which weapons you happen to wear and your favourite spells to cast. This isn't necessarily a problem, in old school D&D all weapons a class has access to can be wielded equally well and for Clerics all spells are available for memorization. It also makes spells pretty damn easy to learn, especially if I'm not putting weighted costs on the purchase of ranks.
As much as these fit with my aim to trim down complexity, I'm leaning away from this option.

b) Moderately condensed
  • Weapon Skills do not need to be individually developed, just the weapon category (1HE, 1HC, 2H, Pole, Thrown, Missile, Martial Arts - I'm not going with RMU's inclusion of Siege Weapons or Shields). Combat is more about general principles than the specifics of a single weapon and skill at arms should be generally applicable (without needing to resort to Rolemaster's traditional kludges for this like level bonuses or similar skills). I'm also suggesting alternate weapon categories based on the range they are used at (close [unarmed martial arts, armoured fist, cestus, tiger claw, dagger, blackjack, garrote, etc], melee [most side arms and one handed weapons - swords, axes, mace, 1H spear], reach [2H weapons and pole arms], thrown, missile) but you can take these or leave 'em.
  • Spell Lists would still need to be developed individually (remembering though that with individual spell development each rank = 1 spell known). Unfortunately this isn't really condensed at all from standard RMU, however I'm not sure how to do so without losing all individuation between spellcasters of the same type (hell even all casters of the same realm will be quite similar in the Brutal method).
Whilst I'm leaning towards this approach, it means that Weapon Skill is now 7 skills (or 5 with my alternate categories) and Spell Lists contains as many as 26 skills within each realm. However I'm thinking most folks are happy to tolerate (or even seek) a bit more crunch when it comes to combat and magic.

Ok, so how will spending ranks for a level's worth of development look in practice?

This will depend on which approach to Weapons and Spells that is taken... 

Using the brutally condensed approach, just eyeballing it 6 ranks per level seems about right - a generalist could put one rank in weapon skill, body development, power points, one spell list type and a Profession  with a leftover rank to double up somewhere, whilst a more focused character might dump all their ranks into 1-3 skills. If you wanted to force a little more commitment to a character type you could group the skills that survived the cut into five broad categories: Arms (weapon skill and body development), Essence (power points and spell lists), Channeling (power points and spell lists), Mentalism (power points and spell lists) and Professions (um.. Professions). Every level a character gets a major spend (put 4 ranks into skills in one group as they wish) and a minor spend (2 ranks into another). By having to choose two categories to place ranks in (or one, there's nothing stopping major & minor spend going into the same category) it supports a certain level of commitment being needed to advance in skills and further reinforces the opportunity cost paradigm. I think I actually prefer this approach to just allocating ranks anywhere.

Using the moderately condensed approach the difficulty is that due to the much greater number of weapon categories and spell lists compared to the other skills (over 30 versus Body Development, Power Points and however many Professions developed, which I can't ever imagine being more than you could count on one hand for a character) means that providing enough ranks to develop weapons and spells meaningfully, could allow the other skills to get overdeveloped. However I'm loathe to use increasing costs for further ranks in a level, and would rather trust that people are able to balance what is most fun for them with what works for the group they play with.  I reckon you would need to up the number of ranks per level to 12, or if using packages of ranks a major spend of 6 ranks, a moderate spend of 4 ranks and a minor spend of 2 ranks. 

Allocation of base spell lists could be tricky but I’ve considered a couple of ways this could be done. One is to allocate them based on ranks in a relevant Profession - e.g. two rank allows access to open lists, 4 ranks allows access to closed lists, and ranks 5-10 would each allow access to a base list (note that this just allows access, the spells still need to be purchased). Base lists could be chosen creatively, allowing created Professions to mix & match spell list access as appropriate (e.g. a "Sunlord" might have access to Fire Law and Light Law but also Repulsions, Inspiring Ways and Inner Walls). Alternatively, using the major/minor spend option above, access to base lists could be tied to how major and minor spends are allocated (e.g. a minor spend on a realm gives access to open lists, a major (or two minor) spend gives access to closed lists, and two major spends allows access to a base list). You may wish to place limits on the number of base spell lists that  can be accessed in this way as dabbling across several could be quite overpowered (or maybe not, maybe someone can give it a go and get back to me!)

Note: I’d suggest that on 1stlevel a character get develop 3 levels worth of ranks.

By now I'm sure you get the picture, and are either deeply curious or think I'm mad (no, I don't want to hear about your vague disinterest!). The whole idea is that every corner case doesn’t need to be covered, and "gaps" can be seen as an opportunity to negotiate or make an at-the-table ruling (or even just leave it in the realm of description rather than rules (e.g. want to fight with two weapons? sure, just say you do!, but don't worry about getting any additional bonus from it until you get disarmed!). I’m definitely going for less is more, and abstract over concrete with this. For some folks this will seem pointless and ridiculous. Hell, until it gets playtested I cant say for sure that I will like it, but I think playing around with some of the more fundamental assumptions about how Rolemaster plays is something that hasn’t been done enough.

  • character creation becomes quick and intuitive (everything except body devlopment, weapons, power points and spells known are contained in Professions, don't have to tally dp's 
  • flexibility, can play any character
  • focuses play on interesting resolution


  • may spend much more time adjudicating the appropriate skill and Profession for a situation and having to calculate stat bonuses and skill totals on the fly
  • unfamiliarity, the level of abstractness may not mesh with a skill-based system

...or you could just ignore this whole post and play RMX or HARP or track down an old copy of MERP and play that (but not in Middle Earth, fun game but it's a shitty adaptation of the feel of Tolkein)

Monday, 11 April 2016

Drifting away from and returning to old school play courtesy of Rolemaster

Just a heads up before you read on, there's nothing really gameable here, and I'm not paying a Joesky - this is just me musing on my experiences drinking the skill-based kool aid with Rolemaster, and then rediscovering old school play and the part Rolemaster played in that.

I cut my gaming teeth on B/X and it remained my primary game well into the time of AD&D 2E (curiously I've never played 1st edition AD&D, unless the old SSI games count, and could count the sessions of 2E I've played on both hands). Our group's play style for many years contained many elements that would today be considered "old school". However over the course of time we followed the path of many gamers, moving towards complexity and "realism", at first through MERP, until we entered the dungeon of detail - Rolemaster. 

For many years Rolemaster was my game of choice, and I have had countless hours of fun with it. However, looking back it's clear for me to see that not only did the rule set we played change, but we also slowly shifted the way we played. Over time we moved away from typical aspects of old school play like player skill over character ability and rulings before rules (not that we didn't still heavily house rule). In fact the only classically old school part of play we kept was the deadliness (in fact we amped this up if anything!). As the Rolemaster Companion books (and later on RMSS) came out we continued to add options, rules and complexity. However, the biggest change over time was the amount of skills we used and relied on to move play forward.  By the end of our time playing together we were using well over 200 skills, dumping only the most egregious offenders of redundancy from RMSS, and at the time we considered this a strength of Rolemaster as a system! The thing I remember loving about this was it gave a really clear picture of who and what my character was, defining them by what they could (and couldn't) do - a picture painted in hyperrealism rather than abstract strokes. My tastes have come full circle in recent years, and I find it fascinating that this appeal was so strong that we made significant changes to how we played as a result. 

'cos ya never know when you'll need a conceptions chart handy..

Whilst Rolemaster sold itself with the notion that anyone can attempt anything, due to the fact that all classes can develop all skills, in practice the skills that our characters were good or bad at shaped how we played and what we even attempted. We moved so far from player skill as a playstyle that if we couldn't conceptualise our character doing or succeeding at an action then we wouldn't pursue it it any further. I think our solution to this was through an unspoken agreement on the genre and style of adventures we played and building characters that were successful at that style of game (and also an almost inevitable level of power creep), i.e. we got better at dealing with situations resolved through character ability by building more "effective" characters. I think the other thing that happened was the game shifted more and more to being around combat (which interestingly is where I think the greatest elements of player skill still reside in Rolemaster, if you don't fight tactically you die, in fact often you just die anyway). The fun from playing shifted towards "beat the game", and I think the compulsive gambling streak in some of the friends I played with manifested in this. We still role played, however resolution of adventuring activities tended to be almost entirely through dice rolls. I don't think any of this is intrinsically a bad thing (we were having fun) but it's interesting when considered through the lens of my current taste for OSR D&D. 

Rolemaster character sheets - we needed to fill the whole back page with extra lines for skills to fit 'em all in!

I had the chance to play in a Rolemaster campaign over the last couple of years using Rolemaster Classic (which is just a cleaned up republish of Rolemaster 2nd edition) with no additional rules (or skills!) with a group of gamers I'd never met before who were all either returnees to the game after an extended period of Real Life (TM) or completely new to Rolemaster. At first this was quite a culture shock (different player dynamics, the lack of character options, the significantly smaller amount of skills, and an overall lower power level), however it made me completely reevaluate the way I had been playing Rolemaster in the preceding decade. In the absence of skills to cover every situation we instead relied on description and problem solving, engaged in extended planning and plotting and were generally more creative in how we played. Whilst the game retained what for me are the classic elements of Rolemaster, namely the combat and magic systems, the surrounding play felt like the old days of B/X. After a dry spell of a few years with no gaming, getting to play in this campaign spurred my interest in the then recently released beta play test of Rolemaster Unified. However the level of detail in the new edition (despite being much consolidated and better organised than the previous edition) combined with my growing interest in the OSR (due to both the sheer level of amazing creative content being generated and my reawakening interest in old school play - courtesy of Rolemaster Classic) meant that I quickly started to lose interest in the new edition. Instead my focus shifted back towards B/X, and adding elements I liked from Rolemaster to it.

One of the things that musing on my history with B/X and Rolemaster has suggested to me is that the enjoyment derived from each games' style of play is different. A game focused on character ability supports a fantasy of being someone greater than yourself, doing things you will never get to do in real life, and helps immersion in-character. A player skill focused game leads to solving challenges through your own ability, which supports the fantasy that maybe just this could be you and creates a deeper personal immersion in the game. I'm wary of saying it but I wonder if a focus on resolution through character ability also promotes lazy play - that when challenges can be quickly resolved through a dice roll it incentivises doing so, allowing the play to get back to the "exciting" bits (which I guess is different to laziness, more like "gratification" play - that said, gaming is meant to be about fun and I'm wary to label one type of fun as superior to another). Whilst these are half baked and personal observations, I suspect there are common themes to what people enjoy in either player skill or character ability driven games. Given I've at various points in my gaming life enjoyed play focused on both player skill and character ability, I wonder if there isn't a holy grail somewhere in the middle that contains elements of both, that playing a style of game that is focused on only one misses out on opportunities for even more fun. There's an inevitable tension (almost to the point of mutual exclusivity) between play styles focused on either character ability or player skill, however I think it's possible to combine both styles by clearly delineating what situations are best suited to resolution through each approach (which is more a case of having two distinct approaches that swap in & out as needed rather than a truly blended approach). This could be partially achieved through a transparent agreement between GM and players but would also need to be reflected in the rules (enough depth of rules to support character ability driven play and rules light and incomplete enough to support player skill and rulings at the table - In many ways D&D 5E hits this line very well in its depth of rules, particularly player facing ones, and in what it leaves open to rulings, however it needs to do more to articulate when and how to use player skill to resolve situations). Curiously the Rolemaster Classic campaign I played in very much struck this balance without any particular need to spell things out. Given the version of Rolemaster we were using is essentially the same as first edition Rolemaster, and most of the guys playing were harking back to how they used to play, I suspect that our game looked very much like an early 80's one where old school play still informed many aspects of how Rolemaster played, before the creep of rules (and skills!) shifted it inexorably towards a character ability driven game. This has fired my interest now in how much Rolemaster can be pushed towards being an old school game, whether through the use of Rolemaster Classic, or stripping back things even further. 

This ramble started off in my brain as a result of the GM of the above mentioned Rolemaster Classic campaign recently emailing me his work in progress game (which melds many elements of Rolemaster with D&D 3E and an Ars Magica style magic system) combined with my last post about skills in OSR D&D. This sparked off a chain of thinking about how I would change Rolemaster if I were to radically remake it (sorry Dave, I'm meant to be giving you detailed feedback but have instead gone off on my own game design tinkering!), but that's for my next post... 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

OSR Skill System Fight Club

The first rule of OSR Skill System is there is no OSR Skill System…

One of the defining tenets of old school play (as much as there actually is such a thing as a unified “old school”, or defining tents of it) is player skill over character skill, specifically that description, role play, creativity, and problem solving should be looked to before game mechanics and character sheets when resolving in-game challenges. It's also often taken to mean rules-light, however it’s possible to have quite complex situational rules within an old-school game. I think a more helpful distinction is around the attitude a game takes to rules. The commonly used maxim rulings not rules, suggests that flexibility, judgement and at-the-table decision making should take precedence over codified rules, or at the least not be excluded by the existence of rules covering a situation. I find personally, (and for many other folks in the OSR if the amount of blog and G+ posts are any indication) that one of the murkiest areas of this in practice is around resolving non-combat situations and the use of “skills”.  

This picture evokes a whole lot of things that might be resolvable through either player skill or character skill, but basically its a chance to put in some Russ

The existence of a awholebuncharules in D&D around combat and magic suggests that it isn't just a storytelling game and that game mechanics are warranted for situations where uncertainty, risk and consequences are present. Combat is both hard to resolve purely through description, and involves high levels of danger. Magic lends itself much more to creative description, however without rules it’s open to abuse and disagreements at the table.  As a result most folks don’t tend to object to there being fairly codified rules for them (certainly combat & spells tend to gain the largest chunk of the rules in most fantasy games, whether old or new school!). At the other extreme there are non-combat situations that lend themselves to describable or contain little immediate risk or uncertainty. These are situations where a quick GM judgement call or player skill can be used to move the game forward without ever needing to look at rules and character sheets or pick up dice. However, it’s commonplace in my experience of RPG's (including OSR gaming) that players will try to have their characters do things that are beyond their ability to resolve purely through description, roleplay and problem solving:

"I want to try climbing that mossy wall, I could drive spikes into the rock for handholds but it might alert the Orcs in the next room, what are my chances of free-climbing?"

"I want to open the door without anyone knowing we've been here, can I pick the lock?"

"Can I decipher the writings on the tomb walls?"

"I look for signs of the Elf's tracks and try to follow his trail" 

I also don't see it as an unreasonable thing that players will sometimes want their characters to do (or have a chance at least of doing) cool and crazy things, rather than being a zero at 1st level. Just because a starting PC is undistinguished as a combatant doesn't mean they need be a complete novice at EVERY SINGLE THING. (Of course some folks totally love this thing, the DCC 0-level funnel wouldn’t exist without it). Often these situations just come down to GM judgement or negotiation at the table, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However as a GM it's helpful to have answers to player requests other than yes and no, especially if they are risky or outlandishI think it’s this ground in between the obviously resolvable by rules or through player skill that most discussion around “skills” tends to fall. 

I'm going to suggest a resolution method for these situations, however before addressing this I think it's helpful to couch it in a broader set of guidelines around when to roll. In addition to the usual suspects on this (Matt Finch’s primer, Philotomy’s musings) I found this post over at Against the Wicked City and Ben Milton’s advice from his Sellsword two-page game really useful in gathering my thoughts. 

1) Does the task being attempted even warrant more than hand waving it and getting on with the game?

  • Is the task actually difficult / complex / technical and are there significant consequences attached to failing at it?
  • Should someone with the character’s class, level, ability scores and background / shit they just made up to justify being able to do it, be able to just do it?
(It’s  worth considering at the start of play what the baseline of PC competence in your game will be: what can anyone do?; what can members of a specific class do?)
  • What will be the impact on play of spending time resolving the task? (e.g. how long will it take, will it make the game more fun?)
  • As a GM what is stopping me from simply saying "yes" or "no"? ...and if "no" why not "yes"?
Personally, I prefer to assume that anyone who has grown up in a quasi-medieval society and assumed the lifestyle of an adventurer is capable of doing most tasks of average difficulty e.g. climb a tree/rope/craggy rock slope, be sneaky in suitable circumstances, basic manual handling and labouring tasks etc.  Assuming a basic level of competence and automatic success for PC's, especially around things they should reliably be able to do, makes the game quicker and more fun (in my opinion anyway, and I've never seen someone enjoy having their character fail at basic, consequence-less stuff just because of a poor roll on an arbitrary check). You can go a step further with this angle and assume anyone who becomes an adventurer is competent enough to hold the right end of any weapon and wear armour.

More Russ... just because

 2) If the task needs to be resolved in some way, should you be using dice?

Unfortunately "resolution" has become synonymous with dice and game mechanics in many modern RPG's and I think the focus on player skill as the default method of resolution is a really important thing that the OSR continues to point to. However, player skill isn't always the most appropriate method for resolving in game situations and having multiple tools in the kit can only improve the play experience.

I like Ben Milton’s simple rubric for deciding when the dice should be used:

Whenever possible, players should overcome challenges by simply describing what their characters do. [Dice rolls] are only used to resolve risky situations that would be too time-consuming to describe, or involve immediate danger. 
 e.g. Disarming a trap doesn't involve immediate danger, so as long as it is fairly simple, you have to describe how you do it. 
  e.g. Picking a lock doesn't involve immediate danger, but describing the process would be tedious and hard to visualise, so you [roll]. 
 e.g. Dodging dragon's breath is easy to describe, but it involves immediate danger, so a [roll] is required.

When weighing player skill against character skill the decision to resolve a situation through description, role play and problem solving doesn't need to be binary one:
  • The considerations in point 1) may influence how good a description you expect from a player.
  • Even f you decide a dice roll is needed, player skill may (I'd even say should) influence the roll needed.

3) If the final decision is that rollin’ dem bones is the best way to proceed, what’s the best approach?

Lots of OSR D&D-a-likes fall back on some form of simple ability check or extrapolate existing mechanics (e.g. chance to detect secret doors for other search based tasks) to cover situations where there aren't rules. However I'm looking for something a little more structured, yet still retaining flexibility and an old school feel. There's a few things I look for (and have not found yet to my satisfaction - hence this post) in a task resolution system for old school D&D, specifically:
  • Ideally a “skill system” will provide guidance for the other two points above, not just a dice mechanic
  • Anyone should be able to attempt anything
  • For tasks that are "hard" there should be a distinction between whether the task is technical or difficult (i.e. is the limiting factor for a PC a lack of training or of talent - my personal preference is that a character with experience and training relevant to a technical task should be more likely to succeed than a novice with high ability scores).
  • The existence of a resolution mechanic shouldn't replace or override skilled and creative play or GM judgement (e.g. no use of "search" or "disarm" checks to circumvent description and problem solving

  • The situation at the table should determine the task/skill to be checked, not skills written on character sheets
  • No lists of skills (this is probably implicit in the last point, but anyways). Whilst I think there are some really well implemented systems based on skill lists (such as LotFP) the moment you start codifying discrete skills you open a door to the need for more (Rolemaster, I'm looking at you... *)
  • If you are going to rely on dice to resolve a situation, characters should have an average chance of succeeding at tasks.  I'd much prefer a 50% base chance of success for an average task than the 1 in 6 for many activities in B/X (secret doors I'm looking at you:  pixel bitching + 17% chance of success ≠ fun)
  • Ability in non-combat skills should not directly tie to character level. D&D levels represent combat power, and shouldn't necessarily increase capability in all things (a number of retroclones have basic skill systems tied to character level, either directly, or indirectly through saving throw and I'm not a fan of this approach)
  • Should be equally valid as a system for detailing a character before play or emergent during play
  • Advancement should be possible through a number of possible expenditures of resources - character level only being one of them

 Enter first combatant to OSR Skill System Fightclub: Whitehack

I'm a big fan of Whitehack. It's a wonderful mesh of Swords & Wizardry Whitebox with a number of narrative and free-form elements, and manages to feel rules light yet complete (it clocks in at 64 A5 size pages, including a setting and a couple of adventures). I'd like to think it will see play in the future, for now though I'm paying Whitehack my ultimate compliment...  of killing it and taking its stuff. (If you are interested in Whitehack check out Sophia Brandt 's excellent multipart review which goes into a lot of detail).

 In Whitehack when a character is attempting an action which requires a determination of success involving a dice roll, the standard method is the good ol' roll under ability score on a d20. If the GM decides that the action being attempted would require some form of training or specialised knowledge (e.g. tracking, picking a lock, decoding an ancient text) the ability check is made with 2d20, take the worse result (just like D&D 5E Disadvantage). However if the character has broadly relevant training and experience they may negate the Disadvantage and roll the check normally. If the character has specialist training and knowledge pertaining to the task the roll is made using 2d20 take the better result (read: Advantage). The way that Whitehack determines whether the character has the requisite level of skill to avoid rolling with Disadvantage, or to gain Advantage is through Groups and focuses (however this could easily be based off character class)

Groups are player generated labels which describe broad areas of familiarity and expertise the character might have. These are similar to Risus' cliches or Fudge/Fate's aspects, however they aren't as abstract or baked into the whole game system. Whitehack divides Groups into three types: VocationsAffiliations and SpeciesVocations cover a character's skills and experience relating to an occupation, hobby or role, such as Woodsman, Street Thief, Duellist, Alchemist, or Necromancer. They kind of look like a sub-class, only they need have no connection to the character's class. Affiliations refer to memberships and social connections and could be such things as an alignment, membership in a church or guild hierarchy, or a patron. Species are essentially a fantasy race, however these can be player created and need not be the usual suspects. In addition, for each Group you can nominate one ability score to be a focus. Having a Group relevant to a technical task allows you to avoid making the roll with Disadvantage, and if the the ability score being checked is nominated as a focus, you can instead roll with Advantage.

The choices for Groups are only really limited by player imagination and what is suitable for the genre and tone of the game. During character creation in Whitehack you start with two Groups, only one of which may be a Vocation.  The choice of focus can make characters with a similar Group play quite differently - for example taking "Knight" as a Vocation with Dexterity as focus might suggest skill at physical activities such as riding and lancing, Intelligence might suggest skilled administration of an estate and knowledge of the law, whilst Charisma might be for a Knight who displays courtly graces or military leadership. Likewise a character with Elf as Species with a focus in Strength will be quite different to one with focus in Wisdom. Whitehack gives examples of combining class and Group in interesting ways: 

A Deft (Whitehack's skills specialist class) character with the Vocation of "Wizard", who has no spellcasting ability but has book learning about magic and can use scrolls;

a Wise (spell casting class) character with the "Alchemist" Vocation who uses reagents and potions to create their spell effects; 

a Strong (Martial class) character with a "Paladin" Group who is a purely martial character with the knowledge and authority of a religious hierarchy; 

and a Wise character with the "Paladin" Group who is not as powerful a combatant as other Strong class characters but has spell casting capacity.

Groups and focuses provide a simple and intuitive way of giving an outline for the characters background and what things they can do. Anyone can attempt a task, but for tasks of a technical nature relevant training matters, yet there's no need to manage lists of skills.  Given that Groups are simple descriptors of one to a few words there is plenty of room for negotiation about what the character actually knows, and this very much supports emergent discovery of what the Group covers during play (I'll also discuss below how you could add Groups and focuses during play rather than at character creation).
Consider Groups and focuses yoinked pretty much as is, although I'm leaning towards tweaking the categories of Groups

Enter next combatant in OSR Skill System Fightclub: Godbound

I was reading through the beta rules of Kevin Crawford's Godbound (man that guy is a content generating machine) and he has come up with a very similar concept to Groups (he uses the term Facts) or has been inspired by Whitehack (or another game, linking mechanics to descriptive tags is nothing new). Check this:
A Fact is simply a sentence or short phrase that indicates something important about your hero. When you attempt attribute checks for which a Fact is relevant, you gain a +4 bonus on the roll. Alternatively, some Facts might allow you to do things or call on contacts automatically that other heroes could accomplish only with difficulty, if at all. Some things that others might have to roll a check to accomplish could be automatic for your Godbound, given their background.

In Godbound characters start with three Facts, one for Origin (covering such things as their background society & culture, a specific nation or city of origin), Profession (pretty much the same as Vocation, but specifically what the character did in the past, before becoming a Godbound) and the third is "a relationship your hero has with some organization, religion, or other group" which sounds just like Whitehack Affiliations.  I had been thinking that the Whitehack Affiliation group had enough flexibility to include relationship to a place, such as a ranger or barbarian who knows a region intimately, but I think I prefer Kevin's take of expanding Species to Origin, and leaving it open to anything from species, ethnicity, culture, nation, region or city.

I also think the term Group is a bit vague and will probably change it, at present I'm leaning towards Familiarity as it covers both familiar knowledge (due to both accumulated life experience and formal training) and familiar people & places. My hacked blurb for Groups Familiarities looks like this:
A new character may start with up to three Familiarities, which are broad groupings of knowledge, skills, contacts and loyalties. The character may start with one Familiarity for each of the three categories below. Simply create a short phrase or sentence which describes that aspect of the character. You may elect to choose Familiarities during play rather than at character creation. Having a relevant Familiarity when attempting a technical task that requires training or special knowledge allows the character to avoid making the check with Disadvantage. Some Familiarities might allow you to do things or call on contacts automatically that other characters could accomplish only with difficulty, if at all. Some things that others might have to roll a check to accomplish could be automatic for your character, given their background. For each of your character's Familiarity categories nominate one ability score as a focus. When the Familiarity applies, a check made for the focus ability score may be made with Advantage. 
Origin: What is your character's species/race? What society shaped their attitudes and choices in life? Where is your home turf? You might choose a specific nation, region or city as your place of origin. Your character will naturally be familiar with the land of their birth, speaking the native language and aware of the figures of power and influence there. 
Vocation: What did your character do prior to becoming an adventurer? This may be a mundane profession, an adventurous calling, or simply the hobby of a dilettante. Your vocation need not align with your character class, and may be something they are still actively pursuing rather than a previous role. 
Affiliations: What connections does your character have to organisations or social structures. This may be membership of a guild, company, secret society, school, religion, or a bond of loyalty or blood. The character's Affiliation may provide allies, special knowledge, languages, equipment, refuge and aid, but may also come with enemies or responsibilities  

My current thinking is that Familiarities would fit really well with something similar to Daniel Sell's Everyone's an Adventurer allowing class to be jettisoned altogether. Familiarities would take on a more defining role, and advancement in power would be shunted off into a choice to grow in either martial or magical power (or in skill - see later down in this post for some options to expand Groups and focuses).

Crunchy bits...

Whitehack uses roll under ability score on a d20, which is an easy and familiar resolution method, however I'm gonna tinker with it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, whilst I don't need a universal resolution mechanic, consistency in terms of how you are wanting to roll on the dice is helpful thing. For most every other situation in D&D rolling high is preferred. This one is an easy fix, roll under ability score on a d20 can simply change to roll plus ability score (d20 + ability score >20 for success). Same maths just reordered  (of curious note, Godbound also uses a roll plus ability score formula of roll target number on D20 equal to 21 - ability score).

However using ability scores (rather than modifiers) creates issues, when combined with the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic. Adding an extra d20 works really well for ability scores around the mid range (providing the equivalent of a +5 modifier), however the equivalent modifier you get from the second roll differs depending on the target number, and reduces for ability scores at the extremes. I've attached a table below showing the equivalent modifier from Advantage / Disadvantage on the roll depending on the target number needed. 

As you can see, only ability scores in the 7 to 13 range (requiring a roll between 14 and 8) are modified by the equivalent of +/-5. However, an ability score of 18 (requiring a roll of 3 to succeed) only incurs an equivalent penalty from Disadvantage of 2 (still succeeding 81% of the time), whilst an ability score of 3 (requiring an 18) only gains an equivalent bonus of 3 from Advantage (only succeeding 28% of the time). This could potentially be seen as a feature, however one of my ideal elements in a skill system is that for situations where training should matter, it counts for more than ability score.

Enter next combatant in OSR Skill System Fightclub: Target 20

Having already changed to roll plus ability score, the idea of using Delta's Target 20 formula seemed like an even better fix. The Target 20 formula for combat looks like this:

d20 roll + modifiers + level + descending AC >=20 for success

The difficulty level of the task could replace descending AC (with a base of 9 for most tasks) and the modifier for level removed completely. This would look like:

d20 roll + 9 + ability score modifier >=20 for success

Revising the formula this way means that a successful total of 20 requires rolling for a target number ranging from 8 -  14 (based on B/X ability score modifiers ranging from +3 to - 3). This happily brings the target numbers exactly into the sweet spot for Advantage / Disadvantage. I quite like how the numbers work out:
  • For an average character (no ability score modifier) success is a straight 50%, rising to 75% from Advantage and dropping to 25% from Disadvantage
  • For standard ability checks not modified by Advantage / Disadvantage the chance of success ranges from 35% to 65% from ability score modifier
  • The best possible chance of success (Advantage with a +3 ability score bonus) is 88% and the lowest chance of success (Disadvantage and a -3 penalty) is 12% - enough to make success highly likely / unlikely in each respective case but not totally reducing the role of chance.
  • The chance of success with Advantage and a -3 ability score penalty becomes 58% versus a chance of success with Disadvantage and a +3 bonus of 42% - ability score still contributes significantly, but training really matters (for technical tasks where Familiarity applies).

To adjust based on the difficulty of the task simply reduce the +9 in the formula. If a character is attempting a physical activity that would be significantly compromised by armour (stealth, climbing etc) this is really simple, just use the character's base AC (descending) as the difficulty. If you are familiar with descending AC you could just use the standard armours as handles for difficulty levels (I've borrowed difficulty nomenclature from Rolemaster):

  • No armour (Hard) = +9
  • Leather (Very hard) = +7
  • Chainmail (Extremely hard) = +5 
  • Platemail (Sheer folly) = +3
  • As a hat tip to nerd-dom I'd add in an "Inconceivable" difficulty at +0.
  • If the difficulty level is less than "hard" you probably should be questioning why you are getting the player to roll, but you could add an extra +2 if you really feel the need to go to the dice. 

When considering assigning a greater difficulty than 'Hard" its important to distinguish between difficulty and technicality. If what the character is attempting would probably require some sort of training or previous knowledge to have a reasonable chance of success you should be assigning Disadvantage unless the character has relevant Familiarities or focuses. Some things are simple but very difficult (e.g. a great feat of brute strength), whilst a highly technical task might be quite mundane in difficulty, automatically successful to the initiated but nigh impossible to those without relevant knowledge (turning on a computer and launching an application for a modern person versus a person from 50 years in the past or earlier is a good example). This is where Familiarities and focuses should speed up play, if the PC knows their stuff about the task they are attempting, assume success without rolling unless the task is really damn difficult, or there's really significant consequences for failure. There's also something to be said for not fiddling around with difficulty levels - if we assume a reasonable level of competence for PC's many things can be hand waved and dice are only needed for genuinely challenging tasks, and the base difficulty of 9 would be all you would ever have to worry about.  

Enter next combatant in OSR Skill System Fightclub: The Challenges System

A while back I combined the Target 20 formula with a few ideas from Tom Moldvay's Challenges System to create a combat table with results for attack totals ranging from 10 to 30 which I was quite happy with.  Years of playing Rolemaster have given me a great love for its manoeuvre tables with graded levels of failure and success, so my next turn of thought was adapting my so-called "Challenges20"  table to task resolution.  A generic table for resolving any task is presented below.  Consult the table with your total from the same formula as above.

d20 + difficulty number (base 9) + ability score modifier (d20 roll may be at advantage/disadvantage depending on nature of task and relevant Familiarity & focus)

Whilst at first glance it seems like this is a whole bunch of extra numbers to keep track of its important to remember that these target numbers remain static, 20 remains the target number for success, increased success or failure occur at 5 & 10 more or less than 20, and there are two near miss results for 18 & 19.

A couple of things you may have noticed if you are still with me. Using the Target 20 formula (with a base difficulty of 9) the range of results before adding (B/X) ability score modifiers is between 10 and 29. This means Epic failure is only possible on a roll of "1" and the absence of an ability score bonus.  Further an Epic success can only occur on a roll of "20" with at least a +1 ability modifier. For an unmodified roll the chance of a great success or failure will be about 25% each, which becomes 44% and 6% with Advantage and 9% and 40% with Disadvantage. That looks nice to me.

Below I've posted a more fleshed out example of the table for a specific situation - learning new spells (I'll likely use this alongside Wonder & Wickedness, where learning new spells is a significant event)  

When rolling you would be at Disadvantage if not a spellcaster, roll normally if you have something suitably spellcastery for a Familiarity, and would roll at Advantage if you also have a focus in Intelligence. (W&W contains the option to specialise in a specific school of sorcery, allowing you to roll on your school for spell gain at level up, rather than the whole spell list, and also are not required to roll to learn a spell from their school. This could be represented by taking the specialty as a Vocation)


Whilst Familiarities make quite a robust skill system, they are fairly static. I don't think it's unreasonable that some players will want to advance their character's ability to succeed at adventuring tasks (and hell, even non adventuring tasks) as opposed to combat or magic ability.  Whitehack gives the Deft class Specialisation in their chosen Vocation, which grants focus on every ability score.  Specialisation also allows Advantage to be applied to relevant combat situations e.g. a Ranger bushwhacking someone, an Assassin striking from the shadows or a Duellist engaging in a formal duel, with the option of swapping the Advantage on a d20 roll for double damage.  Whitehack also grants additional Groups as character level progresses (every third level, or every second for Deft characters).  Acquiring extra Familiarities and focuses (and granting the benefits of Whitehack specialisation once all ability scores are a focus) seems to be a reasonable way of allowing improvement.  In Whitehack characters are only allowed to choose a Species at first level (which seems pretty common sense) and are limited to a single Vocation.  Rather than a hard cap I'd rather place limits through in-game time, resources and circumstances to acquire new Familiarities. If a player wants to pick up a Vocation which would take an extended period to acquire (months or even years) then require the character to spend the time and money to do so, or provide the option to take a lesser level of the Vocation, such as an apprentice role, or a more narrowly focused version of the Vocation (e.g. Pickpocket rather than Thief). There's no reason why in-game resources alone couldn't be used to add Familiarities, perhaps with level or xp being a way to shortcut these costs. Ok so here's a few suggestions:

Take a level in Specialist / Jack of Trades / Personal Growth or whatever class name suits and gain either a) a new Familiarity  b) 2 (maybe 3?) extra focuses added to existing Familiarities (if all 6 ability scores gain a focus from this you are considered to have Specialisation in the Familiarity).
Gain a new Origin: probably not normally relevant unless the character gets polymorphed or reincarnated or spends an extremely long time acculturating to a new society. For a change of species the unlocking of certain benefits could be linked to investment of xp (e.g. acquired lycanthropy will be uncontrolled unless the PC takes a level in the relevant were-creature}

 Gain a new Vocation: as long as a player is willing to spend the resources I don't see why any Vocation should be unavailable. The Vocation may be gained by spending an appropriate amount of downtime and in-game resources, or they may spend a level to go through a training montage scene and rapidly acquire the Vocation.  Even if a player pays an xp / level cost for acquiring a Vocation there still may be hoops to jump through to acquire a teacher, especially for skill sets normally passed on in a master & apprentice fashion. 

Gain a new Affiliation: this is probably the trickiest to adjudicate. Normally you would expect PC's to forge connections through the course of their adventuring, and I'd be loathe to suggest that any benefits from this require the expenditure of xp. However spending a level to gain an Affiliation might allow a character to "unlock" additional benefits, e.g. that favour you did for the local lord might allow you to collect a favour in return at some point, but making it an Affiliation might mean that you form a personal friendship with them, or perhaps you spend xp to get a romantic Affiliation with the lord's unmarried firstborn. 

Choosing initial  Familiarities and focuses after the start of play

Whilst allocating Familiarities during character creation would seem the most obvious way to use them, there's no reason why they couldn't be assigned during play. When making a check where having Familiarity is beneficial the player simply announces they have a relevant Famiiarity and notes the nature of the task they checked, and the reason they gave for having Familiarity on their character sheet. They continue to do this until some sort of theme emerges from the tasks and reasons for having Familiarity the player gives, at which point the player records the Familiarity. I would imagine this could only be done up to 5 times at most for each category of Familiarity before the player would be starting to take advantage of playing things fast and loose. The same could be done for choosing a focus, but I'd suggest that a focus not be allocated until after the Familiarity has been decided on.

OK, so does what I've detailed actually meet the aims I listed?

1) Does the task being attempted even warrant more than hand waving it and getting on with the game?

suggest broad areas where the character has expertise and experience, and this should facilitate greater opportunities for simply moving the game forward.

2) If the task needs to be resolved in some way, should you be using dice?

I don't think the methods I've suggested above particularly aid this - in fact the risk with having a formal dice resolution system, especially when it becomes a bit mechanically crunchy, is that it can encourage rolling rather than describing. The fact that Familiarities are quite broad and open ended should support player's coming up with creative interpretations of what they cover, however this is not the same as creative problem solving.  Hmm, not sure what can be done to address this, there's probably an inevitable tension between player skill and character skill. I think the GM carries a lot of the weight on this, their preferred ways of resolving situations will set the tone for the game, perhaps making the when to roll guidelines more formalised and available to all players would help. I'm feeling a bit cautious now about posting this to the 'nets as an "old school" compatible skill system, if it may in fact work against an old school approach. I think there's a lot that is still valid here, however I just need to be clear that if you are considering adopting / adapting any of this take caution that "dice creep" can be insidious (maybe the GM can keep their dice in a closed box with a warning sign on it!)

3) If the final decision is that rollin’ dem bones is the best way to proceed, what’s the best approach?

I'm quite happy with how this system addresses both my mechanical dislikes in existing approaches and the personal predilections and criteria I listed . There's also a lot left to at the table judgement, such as whether a task is technical and whether Familiarities fit  a situation, which I would consider a strength.

Looking at this it also stands out that the Challenge20 table would work quite well for saving throws, particylarly if based off ability scores like in 5E, but that's for another post...

* for many years Rolemaster was my preferred dose of fantasy gaming, and it still holds a place in my gaming heart. It most assuredly leans towards character skill over player skill, especially as the Companion books and later editions went the path of maximumskilloverload. However, that isn't to say that Rolemaster is wholly incompatible with an old school style of play, but the edition (particularly the number of skills used in it) certainly plays a role.  But that's for another blog post too.....