Friday, February 6, 2015

You Are What You Can't

I've been musing a little bit about one of my main issues with Skill Lists that have been inserted into D&D and the various clones over the years. I understand that defining the chances of success at a given task was an important driving factor behind this, but I chafe under the limitations it tends to impose. If a Skill List is provided, players have a tendency to use it as a guide what their character is capable of and this is a little anti-ethical to a certain style of Old School Play. Conversely, extensive skill lists also do tend to inform play by reminding a player of options that might not be readily apparent.

There seem to be many approaches to handle this issue:

One is to keep the skills and capabilities of character's relatively unbound/undefined, at least initially, and explore or flesh them out through play or background. “My father was a blacksmith. Can I shoe this horse?” or “Have I ever encountered the language of Lizard Men before?” This approach relies on a lot of inspiration from Players, and a fair amount of negotiation with the DM. It works over time. There is usually very little interaction with the standardized hidden skill subsystems (like finding Secret Doors, or being surprised), and most rolls can be resolved by a myriad of variations on the venerable Ability Check.

Another quickly devolves into more comprehensive lists of skills and options. Players look in askance at their Character Sheet when confronted with a problem, and dare not attempt things they do not perceive themselves as “good at” for fear of the wrath of the Random Number Generator. They know their strengths, but still fear failure. Usually these systems divorce the chance of success from ability scores to a degree, or become more level dependent.

In each case the character ends up defined and differentiated by what they're good at, but they all have distinct pros and cons.

I'm wrestling with a very different approach.

What if characters were actually defined or differentiated by what they were “bad at” or “incapable of doing” rather than what they are “good at” or “capable of doing.” In a way, flaws are essential for interesting choices and characters, but other than the occasional low ability score (increasingly rare in more modern systems with standard arrays, cracked and subverted bell curves, and point buys) limitations above something broad (“No Edged Weapons”) or vague (“I'm Lawful, I wouldn't do that”) are still conspicuously absent from most D&D games.

They may develop through play or be informed a little by Alignment choice, and the classics always crop up: “My Dwarf is Greedy,” “My Fighter cannot tell a lie” “My Thief is a Kleptomaniac” but there's nothing up front to encourage or direct players to behave in this fashion, other than this wonderful spontaneous development during play or occasionally a seed of an idea on the Player's part (informed by fiction or the prior imagining of something that “seems like it would be fun or interesting to try to play,”) or maybe even as a rationalization of low Ability Scores (I've messed with this a bit before with my previous post on Ability Score Tags).

So instead of a comprehensive skill list, or waiting for skills to develop through play and negotiation, what if part of character generation spelled out some of the character's flaws and deficiencies with a specific eye toward “You can't do this?”

I smell a table, Roll or Choose Three. Optionally, you can roll or choose one less (minimum of 1) for each ability score penalty you possess (these already go a long way to informing play):

I am fairly capable at most things I dare to attempt, but...
Roll Or Choose
I Always Cheat or Favor Short Cuts
I Always Donate 10% Of My Wealth to The Church or Charity
I Always Overestimate My Capabilities
I Always Manage To Disappoint My Family and Friends
I Am A Buzz-Kill
I Am A Compulsive Gambler
I Am A Coward
I Am A Glutton
I Am A Vegetarian
I Am A Very Heavy Sleeper
I Am Addicted to A Drug or Other Unhealthy Substance
I Am Always Right
I Am Inconveniently Bad With Names
I Am Bloodthirsty
I Am Bowlegged
I Am Exceptionally Callous
I Am Color Blind
I Am Completely Tone Deaf
I Am Cursed
I Am Distrustful of Magic
I Am Dyslexic
I Am Easily Distracted
I Am Easily Startled
I Am Excessively Impatient
I Am Greedy
I Am Hated by The Gods
I Am Honest To A Fault
I Am Inconveniently Careful
I Am Inconveniently Old
I Am Inconveniently Overweight
I Am Inconveniently Short
I Am Inconveniently Tall
I Am Inconveniently Thin
I Am Inconveniently Young
I Am Miserly
I Am Nosy
I Am Slow To React
I Am Startled By Loud Noises
I Am Terrible At Math
I Am Terrible At Riding
I Am Ugly/Unattractive
I Am Untrustworthy
I Am Very Bad With Money
I Am Very Gullible/I Was Born Yesterday
I Am Very Quick To Anger
I Am Very Shy
I Am Very Superstitious
I Am Very Unlucky
I Bully The Weak
I Can't Lift Heavy Things
I Can't Read
I Can't Remember My Past
I Can't Swim
I Cannot Appreciate Art or Beauty
I Cannot Be Stealthy, or am Very Noisy
I Cannot Climb
I Cannot Handle Strong Drink
I Cannot Not Tolerate Torture or Cruelty
I Cannot Operate Under Pressure
I Drop Things
I Experience Flashbacks
I Frighten Animals
I Get Lost Easily
I Get Winded if I Run
I Had A Very Poor Education
I Have A Bad Back
I Have A Bad Reputation
I Have A Sensitive Stomach
I Have A Terrible Temper
I Have A Very Distinctive Appearance
I Have A Weak Grip
I Have A Weak Heart
I Have a Weak Immune System
I Have Difficulty Finding Clothes That Fit Properly
I Have Difficulty Telling Right From Wrong
I Have Horrible Hangovers
I Have Missing Fingers
I Have No Sense Of Humor
I Have Severe Allergies
I Have Shaky Hands
I Have Trouble With Learning Languages
I Have Troubling Nightmares
I Lack Faith
I Never Bathe
I Never Forgive A Slight
I Never Retreat or Surrender
I Often Misread The Intentions Of Others
I Require A Lot Of Sleep
I Smell Bad
I Stutter
I Suffer From A Crippling Phobia
I Suffer from Arthritis
I Suffer From Delusions
I Suffer from Migraines
I Suffer from Motion Sickness/Vertigo/Seasickness
I Swear A Lot
I Walk With A Limp
I Will Never Turn Down A Drink
My Eyesight Is Very Poor
My Hearing Is Very Poor

The object here initially was to highlight “anti-skills” or “incapability” more so than “flaws” or GURPS-style “Disadvantages” but that's what it morphed into as I started trying to brainstorm and fill out d100 table.

Entries like “I Can't Swim” are much more in tune with the original intention, this limits a Player's options very succinctly and concretely and could lead to interesting situations, back-story expansion, and tough choices. Binary characteristics like this have a more obvious impact, but naturally it's difficult to come up with a negation for every potential skill.

I can't shake the feeling that beginning play with a few examples of INCOMPETENCE or INEPTITUDE would immediately and directly inform play in a pretty different way. Instead of “I Can't Sneak Around because I'm Not A Thief” this option remains open or on the table (unless you choose or roll I Cannot Be Stealthy, or am Very Noisy” of course).

A careful reading or additional exposition about the nature of the flaw itself in some (or most) cases leads to the deficiency skill-wise if it's not otherwise obvious: Why would the vegetarian know how to cook this steak or butcher this doe? How does this dietary restriction impact reactions from the chiefly carnivorous Barbarians of the Frozen Wastes? Some are definitely more obvious than others, but looking at things side-ways or thinking on what the converse of the limitation represents can help here.

Need to resolve or determine if a character can do something that isn't clearly contravened by their limitations? In the spirit of fun and freedom, I suggest “Say Yes, but...” or “Tell me how...” to close the gap. If all else fails, state consequences and chances and have them decide if the risk is worth it and roll something. The intent here isn't to model what the character is capable of, or how to determine success of an action, but to automatically determine a few points of failure and try to highlight that anything not precluded is possible.

Some results or choices create interesting collisions with Ability Scores (“Why can't my Strength 18 Fighter Lift Heavy things?”) and Alignment (“Why is my Lawful Character Untrustworthy?”). I feel this is a feature. Generous DMs could supply commensurate/commiserative Ability Score adjustments or other bonuses to compensate for spectacularly limiting flaws. I don't think I'd do this, if the flaw is too far against type or doesn't seem fun, just pick another one.

I'm sure a system could be worked out to allow the character to overcome their flaws through play, but I've always had a soft spot for the hapless hero and protagonists with this kind of dimension. A tiny subsystem like this might go a long way to insure that each and every character has an interesting (or exploitable) weakness of some sort from the start, and at the very least inform role-play a little more broadly than your standard skill list.

I'm interested in hearing thoughts about this, or if anything similar has been attempted elsewhere for inspiration. I know it sort of flies in the face of “fun” to a degree (heroes are capable, not "bad at things"), but we all have different definitions of what is “fun.”



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