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.....