Friday, September 14, 2012

Skills, Classes and Background, a rational approach, part one

My working group is already adapting a skills system for DnDNext, in part because we're finding the class, specialty, background schemae of DnDNext more limiting than anything else. The problem is two-fold, in that these backgrounds don't really provide the DM much assistance on what a player can do. They provide more information that (for example) can help the DM make a ruling on something, which is great, but they are vague enough that a DM is forced to make many judgement calls that might not work from DM to DM, or worse, from the same DM in session to session.

Before I go much further, I am often considered old-school to the point of being a Luddite. I want to make it clear that a rigorous skills system proposal includes the fact that computer-assisted-gaming is here to stay. That is, the creation of a character with the assistance of a computer, data management with a computer, etc. Even those gamers who are in abject poverty usually have at least some access to a computer (or even a phone) with the ability to run aps that are this simple. It can be done hard copy with books, or easier to work with digital copy with hypertext.

The adapted skills system works with bonus skills, chosen skills and grouped skills. You can call this grouped skills set by a lot of names. Pods, kits, backgrounds, etc. Instead of giving the DM a generalized 'you know some stuff' view, these kits, backgrounds, etc., come down to specific numbers and concepts.  If writing/reading huge numbers of books with profiles and kits is something you're into, you can provide this material constantly. What it does best, however, is allow a player to use their own background and understanding of their character if having someone pick their skills for them is boring or limiting.

The first, and most basic, set of skills, are free skills given as a result of your race and background, in UAD&D we do this with the social status roll. Acknowledging the randomness of this, a player can take the default of serf (or the equivalent) or roll, understanding that choosing to go random means that you can get a benefit (more skills, more money) or you can get a penalty (less skills, less money.)

A serf, in our system, basically gets a skill that they may or may not ever use in such a thing as turnip farming, goat herding, raising chickens, etc. A clever party member may be able to use these in game play. These are essentially flavor. If a player wants to use this stuff, he can. If he plays the guy who got off the turnip truck and never looked back, he can do that, too. This skill is essentially the skill your character can fall back on if the adventuring thing doesn't work out for him. To give an idea of what it might look like in a character background, here are three racial equivalents of it. I've left off numbers to make it easier to understand. Note that in the perfect world, the background information would probably be in a different file than the character sheet, it's only important if you wanted it:

Human. Social Class: Serf. Information: You were raised on a farm growing carrots for a powerful landholder, and allowed to farm a twelfth of that land for your family. It was a hard living, but most of the people you know have the same background. You or your parents saved up for years for your starting funds, in the hopes that you could escape the carrot growing lifestyle. This background makes you an authority on growing carrots. [Bonus skills: Agriculture, general (proficient). Agriculture: Carrots(expert)]

Elf. Social Class: Serf. Information: You were raised in a lush hardwood forest which your family maintained for a powerful elf-lord. You were allowed to use a fraction of that forest for your own needs. It was a hard living, but most of the elves you know came from the same background. You got your starting funds by winning an hunting contest in the past fall. This background makes you an authority on forestry, especially the temperate forest you grew up in. [Bonus skills: Forestry (proficient), Wilderness Survival:Temperate Forest (expert)] 

Halfling. Social Class: Serf Information: You were raised in a large and fairly well off halfling village, where your family has served the well-off Underhill family since the village was founded. Your dad was a gardener, your grandad was a gardener, and by Yondalla, you are a gardener, too, and you are the best darn gardener in the town. You got your starting funds when your boss's house won the Best Posies in the Shrire contest this spring and he gave the whole reward to you because you deserve it. This background makes you an authority on landscaping, and no one knows more about posies than you. [Bonus skills: Gardening (proficient); Knowledge:Flowers (expert)]

There is a distinct chance that you don't use any of these skills for the rest of your character's life, but in a paragraph, you've been given a template that gets you started. Instead of getting "you are a serf, you have serf skills" you know what your character knows and why. If you want to create your own serf background, you can choose any two related skills that makes sense for your background. The general choice should always be Random or Choice, and computer assisted gaming makes that easier. Here are two other scenarios for your human, above:

Your Race is Human: Background: Your DM has chosen "Serf" as the default social class for this campaign. You can accept serf or roll for a random social class. You may make this choice for this character once.  [Roll? Accept Serf?]
Background: You have rolled Yeoman.

Yeomen have it nice. Small-time landlords, these people own the land that the serfs farm and are ruled in turn by the chivalric class. The character stands to inherit little or nothing, as most Yeoman are in debt to their lords, either due to low crop production, unruly serfs or tyranny. The character's starting funds are normal. The character gains the following skills: Accountancy, Read/Write regional language, Maths, Riding, Land based: Horse, and selects one of the following: Agriculture, Animal handling: Shepherd, Animal handling: Swineherd, Animal handling: Goatherd, Animal handling: Poultrer, or Animal handling: Fowler. 
Do you want to roll these bonus skills randomly or select?
Human. Social Class: Yeoman Your family owned the land that was farmed by a large group of serfs, and your land was protected by a local lord. While you don't stand to inherit anything, you can always go to work for the lord of your family's land if adventuring doesn't work out. You had a couple of servants growing up, and a small amount of formal education.  Part of your duties, growing up, was making sure the serfs treated the sheep properly and riding between farms to collect taxes and goods. [Bonus skills: Accountancy (proficient), Read/Write language: Common (proficient), Maths (proficient), Riding Land based: Horse (proficient), Animal handling: Shepherd (expert.)]


[Roll? Accept Serf?]

Background: You have rolled Poverty.

The character grew up with nothing. If the character has a large family (s)he may want to send money to them. Half starting funds. The character does gain the bonus skills of brawling and begging, however. 
Human. Social Class: Poverty You grew up on the back streets of a large city. I won't ask you how you came up with your starting funds, but I do wonder where my belt pouch has gone. [Bonus skills: Brawling (proficient); Begging (Expert)]

It's probably fairly unlikely you'll use many of these skills in combat. What this provides is a background that gives the DM something to roll when you say your background is as a farmer, or a beggar. The other option is that I have to choose what you know. As a DM, I don't have a problem choosing what you know, but players often can feel a disconnect with a character, not understanding why so-and-so can get this, and so-and so can't.

In the next installment of this I'll demonstrate how you use it to determine the abilities of your classes. The general understanding should be that rather than have a "pick a group of this, pick a group of that" the player has the option of going for a default option or specific option. This allows the player to have the customization that they deserve or prefer. It also generates a background for the character if the character does not want to do so themselves. I'm using skills here to get people used to the idea of picking from a group of skills, because they are easy, but when I go over to class, it will be a little harder to understand if you're not familiar with this idea.

I like the idea of doing this with a simple program that uses "DM Space" and "Player Space" so that players can roll characters, have them approved (or not) by the DM, and print them out outside of game time. There are many things that the DM really should not have to be there for in a perfect gaming world, and character creation should be part of it. I really like the idea of having a character sheet and a background/information sheet, so that a player can have as big or as small a pile of papers as s/he is comfortable with.

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