17 March, 2015

Wide and Narrow Skills

I've got a few games I go back to time and again. Games that did something interesting, sometimes they are games that are recognised by the wider gamingg community, but just as often they are games that never really took off.

Chill 2nd Edition, by Mayfair Games in the mid 90s, is one of those games that I regularly go back to. There are heaps of clunky bits in it, but there are some great concepts hidden in it's pages.

It held my favourite system of magic in an RPG, until I really got into the minutiae of Ars Magica and then Mage: the Ascension (which still has, hands down, the best system of magic ever). I've mentioned it many times here on the blog, but something else has me writing about it this time. 

The magic system appears in the Chill Companion, so do a number of other features designed to adapt the game to a variety of subgenres within the wider realm of "horror". This was one of the first games I saw to do this, I'd encountered GURPS, but that stayed pretty much generic no matter what setting it was applied to...it did the same stuff regardless of what setting you wanted to play in. One of the ways of tailouring the game to various genres came in the form of "wide" and "narrow" skills. 

Let's consider three skill areas and three subgenres of horror.

The skills..."science", "athletics", and "investigation".

The genres...
"sci-fi horror" (as seen in the "Alien" films, the TV show "Helix", "Event Horizon"),
"action horror" (perhaps represented by the original "Predator", "28 Days Later", or "The Human Race")
"unveiled horror" (a typical Lovecraftian story, or maybe True Detective)

In "sci-fi horror" everyone seems to have a different area of technical expertise, but they aren't necessarily as nuanced with regard to their physical skills and definitely don't seem to have any occult knowledge...when it comes to investigation, either the character can investigate a wide range of sources, or they don't investigate anything at all. (Narrow science, wide athletics, wide investigation)

In a game of "action horror", you might find science doesn't really matter, but suddenly characters are nuanced according to the physical feats they can perform, one might be a "flat-out runner", another might be a nimble "parkour specialist", while another might have great endurance. Investigation is less important than survival. (Wide science, narrow athletics, wide investigation)

In "unveiled horror", science might be a means to an end, so might pursuit of a suspect, but the methods of researching the truth become more nuanced and important. One character might specialise in reading books, another might be an internet wizard, and one might literally be a wizard communing with otherworldly forces to get their information. (Wide science, wide athletics, narrow investigation)

When starting a game, you'd decide what is going to be important in the story (and use the "narrow" skill set for these), while allowing other areas of the game to be vaguely brushed in (with "wide" skill categories).

I've been thinking about this today with regard to 'System 4', especially as it applies to the verb/adverb structure of 'Other Strangeness'.

I've been trying to apply a narrow set of skills across the entire system...dozens of verbs that might describe all the possible actions that might be undertaken be charracters. But maybe it's simpler to categorise a few wide sweeping action types, then offer a range of specific verbs for players who want their character to focus on a specific type of action. 

A general verb might be "move", with specific verbs branching off from it... "run", "skulk", "charge", "climb", "leap".

Anyone can do the general verb at any time, but if the character has a specific verb (and is in the right frame of mind), they might engage in one of these. 

For the purposes of 'System 4', I'm thinking that you might roll a d6 when engaging a general verb action. When you try to engage a specific action you possess, you roll a d8 if you're in the right frame of mind (62.5% chance of success, and a 12.5% chance of a double success) , or a d4 if you're not (25% chance of success). If you don't have the specific verb, you might attempt it with a d4 if you're in the right frame of mind, but can't do it at all if you're not. (Note that difficult actions might require 2 or more successes to achieve).

Why attempt something specific when you aren't in the right frame of mind at d4 level (25% chance of success), when you could just perform a general action with a d6 (50% chance of success)? That's where my ideas have hit the next wall.

Maybe you can only apply bonuses successes from adverbs, onto actions where you possess the specialised narrow verb. 

The main thing to take away from this post is the idea that there are general verb actions that anyone can undertake, and there are specific narrow verbs subordinate to these that might produce more spectacular results, but you've got to be well trained (and often in the right frame of mind) to use them. 
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