Tuesday 31 January 2017

TFP DMG: How I Use Skills

Skills were brought up fairly recently in the OSR Discord channel, specifically LotFP skills and specifically why/when/how to use them.
It's an interesting question!

So here's my personal take.

How I Think of Skills

- Adventurers are competent
- Skills are bullshit

So your average adventurer spends all their time doing adventure stuff, thinking about adventure things, being an adventure person. They've got not much else to do, really, .
If they have to sneak, they're sneaky.
If they have to climb, they're climby.
They know how to shoot an arrow, wield any weapon they pick up, how to use armour to deflect blows.
They can swim, read, climb up a rope, all that "normal" adventure stuff.
Basically, they're as competent as you want them to be.

This is reflected in LotFP by everyone having at least a 1-in-6 chance to succeed at any of the skills.
Every character knows the basic ideas behind climbing or tinkering or stealth or whatever.

But skills are bullshit. They let you do stuff nobody should be able to do.
Any adventurer could climb a wall, but only some could keep going when they get shot.
Any adventurer could pick a shitty lock, but only some could pick a good one.
Any adventurer could stay hidden, but only some could stay hidden when someone's looking right at you.

I only roll for skills when someone needs to do something above and beyond the capabilities of a competent person who has a good deal of familiarity with D&D-style adventure, whether that's doing things incredibly well or incredibly quickly.

A skill monkey geddit

Broad Strokes

Roll at point of contact
Or as Arnold puts it, roll just in time. Roll Stealth when you might be seen, not when you first fade into the shadows. Roll Tinkering when first operating your scratch-built invention, not while building it.

If anyone can do it, you do it better
Generally skills are either fairly open in their usage (Sleight of Hand) or they've got a specific usage (Sneak Attack).
The defined usage ones are fine, it's the open ones where I have to stop myself from calling for them whenever something's vaguely related.
Before asking for a skill check, ask yourself the following question - is there any reason they wouldn't just succeed?
If yes, cool! Ask for a skill check to complete the task!
If no, even better! Ask for a skill check to complete the task perfectly/quickly/stealthily/etc! Add a kicker, like "you Climb it easily, but if you pass Climb you can leave ropes to make everyone else's checks easier" or "you use the key on the door, but if you pass Sleight of Hand you do it swiftly without using an action and can keep running".

Don't plan for Specialists
Don't go into writing something with the assumption that there will be a Specialist in the party. That way when someone is a Specialist, they break the game and feel awesome.
"I'm putting a locked door here to give the Specialist something to do". Wrong.
"I'm putting a locked door here to keep people out, they'll have to smash it down". Right.
Oh shit you had a Specialist with Tinkering and you went through the door?! Fuck!
NB: This is how I approach all classes. Always assume nobody entering the dungeon will have special abilities, that way they always feel game-breaking special AND you don't hamstring your game because the Cleric didn't turn up tonight or nobody rolled a Specialist.

Avoid dicking over Specialists
In a similar vein, it's easy to get into the mindset where you feel you have to call for skill checks from a Specialist so they get some ROI on their skill choice.
Avoid this by asking the question the question above - is there any reason they wouldn't just succeed? Make it a roll for an extra good success if so.

No attribute checks
I used to do these, but skills and saves cover all situations better.
The issue is that attributes don't increase with level in this game, so a first level character with 12 Strength has the same chance of passing Strength checks at tenth level. Better to use skills and saves because they can be improved.
Anything not covered by a skill or a save is down to hashing out a ruling.

No bullshit difficulty levels
Late edition D&D loves giving different DCs for different lock types or for climbing walls of differing smoothness.
That's fucking boring. "DC 22 lock" has never been an interesting obstacle, and is blatantly there just to give ROI on skill choice. This ties into "Don't plan for Specialists" above. If you're putting a DC on a lock, you're planning for Specialists. Stop it.
If you want to make a lock impassable, just give a good reason and don't even roll for it. Non-euclidean mechanism requires a four dimensional key? Magical lock? Secret button? Just barred from the other side? Otherwise let them try with the flat skill check, no modifiers.
If they can't open an old lock, maybe they failed because the inside's rusted shut. If they manage to open a Dwarven Dragon Cylinder Mighty Mk VI Multilock, maybe they succeeded because someone left it on the latch.
Same with other skills of this sort. Tracking untrackable enemies? Just say they're untrackable and why. Climbing unclimbable walls? Say it's unclimbable and why.
I give modifiers for Languages a pass, because it's in the rules and get a bonus for high Int which sort of balances out.

Group checks
Hey you know those times when the guy who's good at picking locks fails, and so everyone else says "I'll give it a go!" and everyone rolls until someone picks the lock? Dumb.
Or when there's a group of people sneaking and the one Sneaky Guy fails while Clanky McClank in his plate armour manages to clatter out of sight? Dumb.
In any situation where everyone's trying to do the same thing, it's a group check. One person rolls, usually the most highly skilled, and everyone in the group uses that result. Roll a 1? Everyone succeeds! Roll a 4? Whoever has 4 or more succeeds!
If the master lockpicker can't pick the lock, nobody can.
If the Arcana expert can't identify that potion, nobody can.
If you've got two people with high Search, they could both spot the thing coming while the others don't.
The two people who have points in Stealth can stick to the shadows while their unskilled friends get seen.
This also removes the issue where a sufficiently large group of characters always has one or two people failing a skill check no matter what, making group Stealth a pointless endeavour. This way a group of unstealthy people will probably fail, but if they succeed then everyone succeeds together.
Bear in mind that I only call for a roll when it's above and beyond the ability of a competent character.
And again, I make an exception for Languages. It would be sillier to have a group check and everyone knows French now. Plus being one of the only people who can speak to the NPCs is part of the fun!

Also fuck that "no hiding in an empty corridor" thing, you do that movie clinging-to-the-ceiling-while-they-walk-under-you manoeuvre or throw a rock to distract them or pretend to be a lamp. 

Skills in Detail

Specific usage so I just use it for the exact things it's useful for. Identifying the sort of "generic" mystery magic stuff like potions, scrolls and wands, and casting spells from same.
Group Check: For Identification. Albeit I roll that in secret in case they misidentify it.
Why it's bullshit maxed out:
You know every potion in the world on sight and you can cast spells off any scroll even though you're no kind of wizard. Bullshit.

An interesting one because it's got specific uses but sounds like it should cover a wider range of things. Specifically, it's for hunting, not getting lost, and healing overnight if you've got nowhere to stay.
You'd imagine you could use it for things like tracking and identifying animal tracks and mushrooms and things, right? I actually just tell people those things without them needing to roll. You're a competent wilderness explorer.
Group Check: For getting lost. Rolled in secret.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You can find food in any terrain and never get lost even in the deepest darkest jungle. Bullshit.

If you've got climbing stuff and as much time as you need, you just climb the wall. You're a competent wall climber.
I require a roll for climbing under stress, or for borderline-ridiculous climbing feats.
Climbing under stress is things like climbing at speed, climbing while under attack, climbing while encumbered, climbing without equipment etc etc
Climbing feats are things like firing a weapon while hanging off a ledge, or springing up a wall so quickly that you can still act when you reach the top, or climbing on a big monster. Crazy stuff that shouldn't work.
Note also that the price of failure for climbing is not always "you fall". Sometimes it's just "Ok it'll take a few rounds to climb back up, but if you roll Climb you can scamper up there in a single round" or "you've been going on about your climbing harness this whole time, if you fail you just waste your turn".
Group Check: When climbing in a group and under stress. Fairly rare.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You can climb anything at speed without a harness or ropes or anything and can swing down a reverse overhang like it's nothing. Bullshit.

Easiest skill to explain. Roll whenever you hear or see a new language for the first time, if you succeed you've always known it. Penalties as per the rules.
Group Check: No.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You know literally every language currently spoken, and many that haven't been spoken in thousands of years. Bullshit.

I use this differently to base LotFP, and will probably change the name to Surprise or Awareness or Sense Danger or something in the future.
I use Search as a just-in-time danger sense thing. So it's a counter-ambush skill (replacing Surprise chance) and a counter-trap skill (oh shit that thing just went click time to fall to my knees and roll).
A successful Search roll means you get a single action before everything goes down, so you could JUST throw yourself backwards away from the pit trap as it opens or dive into cover because you JUST saw the glint off the sniper lens before it fires.
Group Check: If a whole group gets ambushed or all walk into the fireball corridor together or whatever.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: It is impossible to sneak up on you and you sense every dangerous thing moments before it happens. Bullshit.

Sleight of Hand
In addition to the regular open stuff like picking pockets and palming objects without anyone noticing, I also have some specific uses for this skill. Specifically, it's to reload firearms quickly, to instantly retrieve items from your inventory, and to swap weapons in combat without a penalty.
Group Check: No.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You have the right tool for the right job every time, and can steal man's glasses off his nose without him realising it was you. Bullshit.

Sneak Attack
Straightforward, destroys single targets, absolutely brutal.
Group Check: No
Why it's bullshit maxed out: Six times damage multiplier what the fuuuuck!!

Potential Alternate Sneak Attack:
I haven't tested this yet.
- Roll Sneak Attack when attacking from Surprise, and if successful get a bonus to hit equal to the value on the die. That's +1 if you succeed with a 1, all the way up to +6 if you succeed with a 6.
- If you hit with an attack from Surprise, multiply damage by your whole Sneak Attack score unless the target passes a Search check.
This means it's not completely useless to have points in Sneak Attack and not Stealth. If we assume you're competent enough to stay hidden in an ambush, it's the enemy's fault if they don't notice you. Plus since they only get a Search check if you actually attack, you can stay hidden and let them pass by without giving yourself away.
It also means all characters get some small benefit from their 1-in-6 Sneak Attack value.
Group Check: No
Why it's bullshit maxed out: +1 to +6 bonus to hit from ambush, PLUS six times damage multiplier! What the fuuuucccccckkkkkk!!!

In line with the "everyone is competent" idea, generally you only need to roll Stealth if you're pushing your luck somehow. Walking at those weirdly slow dungeon movement rates means you're going as quickly as possible while remaining stealthy and keeping an eye out for danger, but sneaking through a roomful of people or hiding from people who are looking for you requires a Stealth check.
That's the main use for Stealth.
The other is Combat Stealth. If you're flanking an enemy 5e-style (aka you and a buddy are in melee range of the same enemy) you can roll a Stealth check. On a success - that enemy can't target you on their turn if there are other targets available, and if you attack them next round it counts as attacking from Surprise.
Bear in mind you're not invisible, just elusive. You're rolling behind them or fading into the swirl of combat or even just faking them out. Randomly targeted effects and area attacks can still hit you.
Group Check: If sneaking in a group.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You're so stealthy you can sneak through a cocktail party without being noticed by a single guest, and you can basically make enemies ignore you at will in combat. Bullshit.

Two big uses - locks and inventions.
Locks is obvious. Roll Tinkering and open the lock on success. A common group check because everyone's usually there together.
You're meant to use this for traps with exposed mechanisms, but I don't know if that comes up much. If there's a tripwire my players tend to step over it or set it off from a distance. Why risk a skill check when they could just player skill it?
Inventions is the fun one. This is my catch-all term for mechanical traps and the various ridiculous contrivances some players are wont to create. Snare? Grapnel gun? Chinese-style flamethrower?
Roll at point of use. Failure means it goes wrong in an entertaining fashion. If multiple people worked together to make it, it's a group check. Roll once and hope that someone's got enough Tinkering for it to work.
Group Check: Yes, for locks and inventions both.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You can open any lock ever made AND you're a mad inventor of weird inventions that somehow just work? Bullshit.

The primary example of a skill that's useless until OH NO it's suddenly REALLY USEFUL.
Anyone can operate a boat under normal conditions. You're a competent sailor.
It's abnormal conditions that require Sailing checks. Rapids! Storms! Ship combat! All sorts of stuff is covered by Sailing. It's useless until you're in a boat, at which point it's useful for pretty much everything.
As long as you're on deck and unengaged by another activity you can be involved in group Sailing checks.
Group Check: Yes.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You can pilot any vessel and survive through any storm? Bullshit.

Look ok, I added this skill mostly as a joke. Bards are stupid, and yet some players want to be Bards.
Originally just a shit way of making money on street corners, it's also a noisy way of getting +2 to Reaction Rolls.
But now there are magic instruments in my game which affect everyone who can hear them, unless you roll Music in which case you can choose who's affected. Bard instruments. This is who I am now.
Group Check: Nobody likes your band, man.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: Everyone likes your music and by busking you could earn up to 36 silver PER DAY! That's more than most people cost per day in the retainer list, so I guess that's pretty bullshit from their perspective.

First Aid
This is the non-magical healing skill and it's got defined uses so it's dead easy. Also, very good.
Out of combat - on a success you heal the target for the value of the die. So that's 1HP for succeeding on a 1, up to 6 for succeeding on a 6. Failing on a 6 deals one point of damage. This 1 point of damage has claimed three lives to date. I love it.
In combat it's maybe even more important with my Death & Dismemberment variant - on a success you remove a number of Death Dice equal to the value of the die. So remove 1 for success on a 1, all the way up to 6 for succeeding with a 6. As above, failing on a 6 deals 1 point of damage.
Group Check: No.
Why it's bullshit maxed out: You can heal people consistently, bring people back from the edge of death, and never even run out of healing juice like a Cleric would! Bullshit.


  1. Hi James, long time no see.
    I've just stumbled into this article of yours, and i find it pretty interesting. I tend to overthink about skills a lot.

    I just want to add another (hopefully interesting) point of view. (To be honest you've already covered it a bit, I just want to give more focus) A skill has to be rolled only if a failure (or a success) will create any interesting playable situation.

    The common example is: the dm wants to give a piece of information to the players, and let them roll a knowledge check. This is wrong from a gaming prospective. If the information is needed for the adventure, a failure means that the dm needs to find another (shitty) way to deliver it. If the info was not so important but interesting, a failure means the player will simply miss it. Bullshit. Just give it to the more appropriate player and that's it: everyone is happy.

    For other skills it's a bit more complex. Picking a lock for example. You fail the roll to pick it. So you don't. Boring.
    What about you fail the roll to pick, you eventually pick it but you make a lot of noise and a goblin patrol comes to see what's happening. That's more fun to me.

    The rule of thumb is: if an action can be tried multiple times, don't roll. If a failure don't follow with any cool development, don't roll. Basically roll only when a failure is fun.

    Renzo. From Italy.

    1. Hey man! Yea, great point!
      Knowledge checks are a menace, I'm glad to see the back of them. Especially things like DC 15 Nature Check to know that bears live in caves.

      Roll only if both outcomes are interesting is a great way to put it, actually.
      What I've been trying to do lately is add an extra good kicker to actions where I'd ordinarily say "yea you just do it". Makes people feel like they're extra good I guess.

      I tend to flip-flop in regards to lockpicking. Is it interesting to just say "you fail"? Not really. But I guess it leads to the need for other solutions which might be more interesting?
      Maybe they decide to kick down the door, drawing the goblin patrol. Or even just leave it which isn't so bad, locks are meant to keep people out after all.

      Hope you're having a good time in Italy, my man!

    2. >> locks are meant to keep people out after all

      Or at least, make their life harder if they decide to enter. As you said, they could just smash in. Fuck the lock.

      I suppose I'm having good time, as I ended up getting married. Jeez.

    3. Wow, congrats! Sounds like going back home was a real good idea!

  2. Interesting stuff. This made me spew out some 2000 words about skill system ruminations today (and also reminded me to push the group to play LotFP the next time we're trying a new system).