Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Traps, Cheap Skills, and Specialization

Eric brings up some incredibly interesting points (based on the post-apocalypse dungeon game we're playing right now as well as on a variety of theoretical discussions). I'm going to try to re-phrase / paraphrase his points here:

  1. If skills like Traps are relatively cheap, what is their role in the game? How do you address a player wanting to be "the traps guy" (or "the lawyer guy?" or whatever). Is that a valid role? How much should it cost?
  2. If you want to have more than one "traps guy" (or "lawyer guy" ... or "lawn care guy") and there's just one skill for that how do you handle that?
JAGS Philosophy on Stereotypes
One of the things I really like about what we've done with JAGS and are trying to continue is that within the spectrum of a single "stereotype" (I would say "archetype" but that word has a specific technical meaning in JAGS) there is, where the rules can address it, a broad spectrum of approaches. Let's take an example:

Imagine a Martial Arts game where you have four players, all of them combat specialists. You might have a Karate guy, a Kung fu guy, a boxer, etc. Now, let's narrow it down: the game is set in early mythical China: all anyone gets is Kung Fu. At this point, how do you differentiate it? Well, you get the strong guy, the fast guy, the hard to hurt guy, the smooth-talking Kung Fu con-artist. And so on. But what if there were different schools of Kung Fu? Well, there are: we have a big and rich special moves list (and that's not counting mythical Chi abilities) that would allow relatively low-point characters to distinguish types of Kung Fu. We also have different skill levels: you could be the ultra-rare L4 Kung Fu super-master or an L3 bad-ass. You could be L2 and be "just okay" but maybe stronger or something (the 4 CP necessary to be L3 will go a good way towards a pretty exceptional stat on standard point levels.) The Martial Arts system shows this explicitly but we're doing the same thing in a sometimes run Esper Psychic Detectives game where the ESP rules allow for various types of Psychic Investigator even though everyone basically has "the same power."
The problem is that you can't keep this up indefinitely: how do we handle the "everyone is a lawyer" game when the rules do not, and will not, list special "lawyer moves?"

In our current game, one player removed some of his traps skills as another player's Traps roll was simply much higher and he realized he likely wouldn't use them.

JAGS Philosophy on Difficulty
It's fairly ensconced in the rules that negative modifiers run from -1 to (around) -6 with rare exceptions going higher. Since a (very rare) L4 skill ignores -6pts of negative modifier it's clear that a -10 Trap (or law-problem or whatever) will be trying even for a world-class master and will pretty much ruin anyone else's chance to handle it easily (although a very good 16- L2 character would have a chance to make a -10 roll and a L3 guy would be rolling on a 40% 9- which isn't bad at all--it's just not the kind of roll you want to stake your life on).

The Standard JAGS Solution: DRAMA ROLLS!
We have a solution to all these things: it's the Drama Rolls system. If you are playing a game where every PC runs a Lawn-Care service then you would create Lawn Care Dramas and use the general skills system to provide skills that aren't in the book ... and then you'd work out how the heck that works. Maybe you have rules for smooth-talking customers (I know my last lawn-care guy tried to smooth talk me). There could be rules for recruiting the right guys (instead of people who are casing the neighborhood in the guise of doing lawn-care ... something that allegedly also happened around here). Maybe the specialist business owner with great leadership skills could get a morale boost. Maybe the person with artistic skill could do prettier lawns than the other guys?

We even have a relatively extensive chapter that would help  group put this together. But while we think that's a great answer, it doesn't fully address a couple of questions raised above and, to be honest, if the group isn't really skilled at building good dramas then it's not going to be all that great anyway (although, to be fair, if you are trying something as absurd as the Lawn-Care game you might want to do a lot of work making that drama-game before starting to play--if the group just "isn't all that good at " there's going to be problems somewhere along the spectrum of trying a game).

The bottom line is that building a good drama, even with help and examples, takes work and if you base your game around it and you blow it it hurts the game a lot. Having something that's lighter-weight and built in wouldn't be bad.

Generic Difficulty Levels or Specializations?
Eric posits a generic specialization or difficulty system where players choose one of four specialties (he uses the card suits as stand-ins for specific specializations) and if you don't have the right suit you get an additional negative.

This isn't on the face of it a bad idea in some ways. It's generic which means it has a flavor issue if you don't do the work to flesh out the specialties and I have questions about the "spread:" Do we assume that 75% of the attempts are "Clubs" while 25% are split somehow between the other suits? Or do we assume (by default) an even-spread so someone with only one specialty will suffer 75% of the time? Is it different for different games/skills? How do you know? It's also another level of decision for the GM. If I know you only have one specialty and I know what it is, when I load my encounters with things, do I randomly assign the "suit" or do I plan it to work for or against you? There's no right answer for this--but it's another decision point for the GM.

On the other hand, it does build in a way for there to be several "Traps guys" or whatever without just having the distinction be skill level and skill roll ... and it doesn't force the creation of a complex drama.

So Where Does This Leave Us?
Well, it leaves us with this: I think that the specialization system is primitive right now--too much so to just drop in. We'd need to play-test it and play around with it and figure out just how much it hurts the L2 guy with just one area. On the other hand, have some really good dramas for things like Traps--which are a staple of certain kinds of gaming--would be a good step in the right direction to help shore up specific weaknesses.

I also think that some solid rules for having help would be good: if the guy with a lower Traps skill could still assist, that would be useful.

Something Hero-System did that I really liked was they allowed you to buy helper-skills that could be anything. If you bought a skill that was "Knows streets of Baltimore" or whatever and you wound up in Baltimore and were trying to make a Streetwise roll--HEY!? My Knowledge Skill applies! That sort of thing was actually quite nice.

Maybe we could learn from that? Instead of having the four suits, have the player come up with specializations and then the GM could determine where or if they fit (so you'd have the Electronic Traps guy and the Mechanical Traps guy, and so on)?

I'm still thinking on this--but I wanted to get a response out.



  1. Just wanted to note that the Drama creation section is actually my favorite part of the book, and one of the things that attracted me to it, since I often want to have aspects of the game that are getting more focus than most games do--research processes, construction projects, and so on.

  2. I think the drama system is the cornerstone of the solution -- however, if every use of Traps (or any other skill) becomes a drama then dramas become less... dramatic.

    In the dungeon-crawl game we're running now, dramas are used when rolls fail and the character is in danger of setting off the trap.

    Dramas also take time -- especially if there are moves and counter-moves and so-on. It's been noted that the dungeon-crawling trope of "checking for traps" gets old after awhile. I assert that the longer it takes to execute the faster it gets and the "older" it gets.

    My feeling is that it would be useful to have dramas for traps and such, but also a streamlined approach for a single-role resolution, hence the specialization suggestion.

    Clearly the specialization subsystem would -- like dramas -- require some customization on the part of the players. But maybe not so much. If there was a list of common specializations with each skill, you could provide a working default framework that pointed out where we felt specializations would be particularly useful.

    I also think allowing the character to make up specialization categories is good for most skills and most situations, but for a dunegon crawl, where there's supposed to be an almost tactical element to resource allocation, I'd want some fixed points -- again, like dramas, these could be established on a game-by-game basis and wouldn't have to be part of the rules.


  3. I have to agree with both points: (1) over-use of the drama system will degrade it (I think the Drama-when-you-fail is an excellent idea) and (2) that you want some hard-and-fast objective rules for specialization in a resource based game.

    I'm not sure how to actually implement that though in terms of the current skill system. I'm not sure if it'd be optional or a standard rule (or advanced). I'm not sure if it hurts or helps scientific characters (who might simply wind up being even /more/ expensive if they wanted to cover a broad basis and did not have a good clue as to what needed to be covered for a given game).

    Something to talk about.


  4. Well, my feeling is that I want a Drama for anything that's a cornerstone of a scenario. As I said, for my Morrow game, I'm thinking I want one for construction/repair tasks (where the big issue is how long its going to take, but in a few cases whether it can be done at all matters), an intrusion Drama (I'm not sure of this one, since a lot of that can be done with just regular use of multiple skills) and a negotiation drama (where the players are trying to work out a deal with a community or between two communities).

    In fact, if you ever feel like doing an elaboration on Dramas and use that latter one as an example of how you'd do it, feel free as I'm not quite certain how I'd approach it. :)