Four Realms: Introduction to Skills


Alright, I thought that I’d do things in a logical order and move from theory to the math of attributes. What is their normal range? What are the maxima and minima to be used in play? Given that I intend for attribute values to have an impact on skill checks, how great should that impact be? But instead I found myself running around in circles.

The basic idea is this: I had been planning on an absolute minimum of 0, a normal minimum of 4, an average of 10ish, a normal maximum of 16, and no absolute maximum. Attribute checks would be made by rolling a 20-sided die, a “d20.” But how realistic is it to effectively declare from the outset that just over half of all attribute checks would fail?

The answer to this was to use smaller dice – the d12, d10, d8, d6 and d4 – to simulate varying levels of difficulty. But in that case, it doesn’t make sense to me to have some rolls be impossible to fail, while the hardest difficulty remains, on average, at about half. So do I reduce the normal values for attributes? I’m still turning that over in my head for the time being.

But in the meantime, I don’t want things to come to a dead stop. So without further ado (the preamble above was only a couple hundred words, right?) let me introduce the meat of the system: skills.

  Skill Checks

Do you want to make a bookshelf? Hunt a deer? Win a boxing match? Compose a poem? Anything that people learn how to do is a skill. Each skill will have a number value indicating proficiency. To attempt an action, you roll 2d10 and add:

A. The value of the relevant skill,
B. A relevant attribute modifier (that is, a measure of the impact of an attribute on the task), and
C. Any situational bonuses or penalties that may apply.

Simple enough. To me the interesting part starts here: you have a number, but what does it mean? To find out, you need to compare it to some other number. If an active force is opposing you, then it also makes a roll, and the higher result wins (ties are allowed!) Otherwise, there should be a static target number to beat based on the situation in which the skill check is being made.

Keep in mind that the result is going to be the sum of A, B, and C above (all likely to be positive numbers) on top of a randomly generated value between 2 and 20 – inclusive and weighted toward an average of 11. This means that the vast majority of results are going to be above 10, and results in the 20s or higher will be relatively commonplace. So a static target of 10 would correspond to a simple task, the equivalent of writing one’s own name in one’s native language. A target of 20 would be a moderate challenge, within reach of anybody who cares to try but not guaranteed to succeed – assembling a ship-in-a-bottle, perhaps. 30 and higher would indicate specialist tasks that require training to succeed at, such as flying a plane in rough weather.

One note about attribute modifiers (element B above): the same skill can be used in conjunction with varying attributes according to the nature of the task. A Swim check to cross a rushing river would call on Strength, while a check using the same Swim skill to appraise a student’s form during lessons would demand analytical thought, and call on Wit. The only demands placed on players in choosing which attribute to use are first, that the combination makes sense, and second, that it be used consistently. There’s no meaning if each player just uses their best attribute modifier arbitrarily for all checks.

Special Situations: Passive and Extended Skill Use

It occurs to me that there may be some cases when an opposed check is made without one party actively taking part in it. Any given skill can (theoretically) generate a value that functions when the skill is not being actively used. This passive value can then be compared to static targets, or used as a static target for other characters’ rolls. For example, a Sight check would be used actively when searching for something, but still has a passive value when the character is just walking down the street, allowing the character to spot interesting things by the roadside or potentially detect someone following them, etc.

Mathematically, a passive skill value is the same as an active check, except that the die result is replaced with 10. On the one hand, this can mean a guaranteed success at certain tasks; on the other, the average result for 2d10 is actually 11, meaning that on average the passive value will be lower than an active check result. The range of situations in which passive checks are allowed, of course, is subject to the same common-sense rules as the application of attribute modifiers: it should make sense in context, and it should be applied consistently within a group’s gaming.

In some cases, I think it would be appropriate to call for extended tasks – skill checks that demand multiple rolls. Climbing a rope ladder into a child’s tree-house may only need one Climb check, but scaling the Cliffs of Insanity would be a grueling ordeal of many checks, where failing any one of them meant a fatal fall. Fun!

Incidentally, I mean to come back to this later in further detail after considering the matter more: how exactly will extended checks work? Does a given task demand a certain number of successes to be completed, and a certain number of failures, or degree of failure, end the task without it succeeding? Wait, what do I mean by “degree”?

Six Degrees of Success or Failure  (Disclaimer: due to settling during transit, number of degrees may be different from six)

One more aspect of comparing the result and the target (or opposing roll) that I’d like to touch on: it feels natural to me that if the result of the skill check – if the efficacy of the character’s actions – far outstrip the difficulty of the action, or catastrophically fail to match it, then the result in-world of the action itself will be far more dramatic than if the check is a marginal success or failure. So for each five points by which a check exceeds, or fails to match, its target, there is a greater degree of success or failure.

If there’s no difference between the two numbers, that’s a tie; and a tie is a victory for the status quo as a general rule. A difference of five points or less is a normal success or failure, and so on:

0: Tie
1-5: Normal
6-10: Solid
11-15: Significant
16-20: Dramatic
21+: Overwhelming

Greater degrees of success can, at times, bring greater benefits; greater degrees of failure can pile on additional detriments. Exactly what these are can be outlined later.

Example Numbers

Example 1: Andrew wants to whittle a likeness of a fish out of a piece of wood. It’s not a daunting task; let’s say the basic difficulty level for “fish” is 15. Andrew is a novice whittler with a skill level of 3, a Sense bonus (he’s playing it by eye) of +2, and a further +1 circumstantial bonus for, say, a nice set of tools to work with.

His player rolls 2d10, getting a 5 and a 10 (I’m making actual dice-rolls here to get our results), for a total of 10+5+3+2+1=21. He’s beaten the (static) target by 6 points, for a solid success. He’s managed to whittle a rather nice fish. Maybe next time he’ll try something more complicated.

Example 2: For a prank, Beth wants to sneak up behind Andrew and pop a balloon without him hearing her approach. She has to make a Stealth check that beats his passive Hearing score. The room is quiet but cluttered, so Andrew has no modifiers to his passive value, while Beth has a -1 penalty: if she’s not careful, she’ll trip and make a noise.

Andrew’s Hearing skill level is a moderate 4, so his passive value is 10+4+2 (Sense again) = 16. Beth’s Stealth skill level is 6 (she’s been doing this for a while) and her Agility attribute gives her a +1 bonus. Her player’s roll gives a 5 and a 7, for a total of 5+7+6+1-1=18. Her stealth is greater than his hearing, so she succeeds in startling him.

Example 3: Andrew and Beth are play-fighting with cardboard tubes. In a given exchange they compare their Cardboard Tube Fencing skill checks. Their skills are of equal level at 1; this isn’t a skill they spend a lot of time honing. Beth has a positional advantage on the sofa, giving her a +2 to the opposed check. His Agility, on the other hand, gives him a +1 bonus while her Agility modifier is 0.

Andrew rolls a 5 and a 1 for a total of 5+1+1+1=8. Beth rolls an 8 and a 4 for a total of 8+4+1+2=15. She’s beaten his check by 7, a solid success, and scores a very palpable hit with her cardboard tube.

That’s it for the skill introduction! I don’t know what order things will get done in, but here are some upcoming elements: a return to attributes, for the math of it all; a rule for extended skill checks; a detailed look at what skills will actually come into play; and another core element of the system, experience accumulation and the accompanying skill improvement. Later on, perks!

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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