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Rough Quests


by Sergio Mascarenhas
Dec 30,2005



It is time to move to the second set of descriptors that I mentioned in the seventh column of this series as being one of the ones that I looked forward to include in Rough Quests. I'm talking about skills, of course. Since RuneQuest is my first and foremost inspiration, it's useful to start by looking at the way it handles skills before considering other games that also use skills.

To a great extent the skill system is the core of RuneQuest and BRP by extension. Basically skills are different fields of action at the disposal of the character. Skills evolve independently by their usage, training or research. Skills are ratted on a faux percentile basis. I say that it's a 'faux' percentile basis because skills can improve past 100% (to allow for the improvement of special and critical successes even if normal success are stuck at 95% - if you have a skill of 200% you still fail on a roll of 96 to 100 but you get a special success on a roll of 11 to 40 and a critical on a roll of 1 to 10). Furthermore skills are grouped into categories like Stealth, Communication, Magic, Combat skills. In order to discuss skills I decided to resort to an interaction between me and Jane Williams that took place between the 12th and the 14th June. This requires some background: More than 10 years ago both I and Jane were active participants in the RuneQuest Digest list. Jane had her own homepage and there I discovered a page with her thoughts about combat in RuneQuest that really made me think. Years passed and some time ago I decided to look for it again. In the meantime Jane had moved to HeroQuest and for a different type of roleplaying. Because of that she had deleted the page from her site. After an exchange of emails she was kind enough to send it to me. It sparked a virtual conversation about skills in RuneQuest (and, by extension, any game that focuses on skills), a discussion that I edited to assemble the present column. (Needless to say, Jane authorised me to publish what she wrote in our interaction.)

While presenting our debate I start with her original thoughts. Next I present the selections from our emails by their order (Sergio 1, Sergio 2, etc.; Jane 1, Jane 2, etc.). I include in italic additions that I introduced in the column to make things easier to understand (or to cover for deletions from the stuff in the emails). Finally I added my personal remarks about the interaction within brackets, also in italic.

On complex abilities that incorporate what in RuneQuest are separate skills

JANE'S ORIGINAL THOUGHTS 'You learn to fight with a set of weapons: like "broadsword and shield". If you've learnt that, then "broadsword alone" would be a separate, but related, skill. "Broadsword two-handed" would be another.'

(For those not acquainted with RuneQuest I must remark that in this game combat skills are weapon-based and broken up into offensive and defensive skills. This means that there are skills for dagger attack and dagger parry; pique attack and pique parry; long-bow attack (but, understandable enough, not parry); and so on. In the passage above Jane questions the RuneQuest approach from the ground up.)

Sergio 1: 'Ability has 2 components (I'm not including the impact of attributes, even if it was briefly discussed with Jane):

A skill. This is a skill in the RQ sense, say, 1h sword, 2h mace, etc.'

Jane 1: 'Specific, not broad, right?'

Sergio 2: 'Yes.'

Sergio 1: 'An experience field. This is a broad ability that includes a bunch of skills. It can be Dojo Karate combat, street-fighting, Roman legionnaire warring, Mongol combat, etc.'

Jane 1: 'Like a keyword, in HQ?'

Sergio 2: 'Interestingly enough it never occurred to me that yes, it may work like a keyword in HQ until yesterday when I was writing you! I guess that yes, it works a lot like a keyword but implementation will be different.'

Sergio 1: 'The sum of the skill and the experience field gives the value of reference.'

Jane 1: 'Got you. Good idea, though I can see this being cumbersome in face-to-face role-play.'

Sergio 2: 'I suppose you mean the re-calculation of abilities, right? Well, I think that in the end most players will have some preferred abilities they will use more often. I may even have a rule - optional most likely - where if they use a combination that is not in their favoured abilities record they will suffer a penalty.'

Jane 2: 'No! Take a look at how augments get used in HQ. Yes, there are a *few* "preferred combinations". But as soon as the setting gets interesting, those combinations get altered or added to. And that's a lot of the fun. In this system, I think finding new combinations will be fun. Well, if it isn't, it means the system is inherently Not Fun :('

Sergio 3: 'Good point! You're right, I should leave it to players.'

Sergio 1: 'The idea with experience fields is that you learn how to combat in a given context, and you learn how to use a bunch of skills in that context, either together or separate. This corresponds to your idea that one does not learn sword separate from shield, for instance.'

Jane 1: 'Since then I've done a lot more re-enactment type fighting, and I'd move even more towards a generic "Close Combat" skill. Yes, knowing that weapon/combination specifically will help, but it's the overall ability to read your opponent and adjust your footwork that counts for a lot more.'

Sergio 2: 'I didn't do weapon re-enactment but I did Tae Kwon Do and my perception is the same. In martial arts one trains very specific techniques and combination of techniques, but when the moment comes to sparring the set of techniques used is very limited and the combinations are not like the ones used in forms. And the way things are done is very different. One of the consequences is that the difference between styles (Karate, TKD, Kung Fu, etc.) is minimal. Once I was having a chat with a friend that practiced a variety of Karate with marked differences to TKD. We were discussing the forms and the theory, each one of us defending our damsel. At a certain point we just started sparring, just for fun. What happens is that all the theory went away and we ended doing basically the same.'

Jane 2: 'Good - since we're coming at it from very different angles, I think that helps confirm it.'

Sergio 2: 'I have also been reading a lot on Renaissance warfare meaning a lot of combat accounts. It's very rare to find a mention where a technical skill meant a difference, and when this happens it is recorded precisely because it is exceptional. For instance, there's a XV century record of a battle where a nobleman had to wrestle his enemy down. The chronicler records how amazed his companions were because wrestling was a game for young people to prepare them for battle, not something one would do in actual battle. There are other cases like this. So, yes, I think you're right, the differences are minimal.'

Jane 2: 'Umm.. I think what I was saying was that overall "combat awareness" overrides technical differences, not that technical differences are irrelevant.'

Sergio 3: 'I get it better. Of course technical differences are important but not in the sense that they provide a clear advantage to one of the sides if the skill is good.'

On the interplay between different but related experience fields

Jane 2: 'Concepts like "I don't care what that weird weapon is, he can't move it from right to left fast enough to guard his left side from *that* position."'

Sergio 2: 'If there's one thing that makes things different are the conventions and rules (formal or informal) of combat. In martial arts these are related to what is acceptable like attacks with legs and feet, low attacks, etc.'

Jane 2: 'Good point! I hadn't thought of it that way before, but you're right.'

Sergio 2: 'In real war it relates to the degree of attrition, the weapons that can be used, etc. IMO this is one of the things that really sets things apart. The problem is, how to incorporate this into a rpg? My take is to simply incorporate into the field of experience a qualification in terms of lethality. This becomes a penalty in combat to the side that has to adjust to the level of lethality of his adversary. Say, a vicious street fighting thug is fighting a nobleman in a gymnasium. The thug wants to adapt to the softer and less brutal conventions of the gym. This is hard for him, so he suffers a penalty.'

Jane 2: 'Could work, yes. And the nobleman would suffer a penalty if it was for real, a morale problem as soon as he realised how vicious it was.'

Sergio 2: 'Second example (a real world one), the European Portuguese are fighting the Kerala Indians. Combat in Europe is a lot more vicious than in India, and the Portuguese want it that way. The Kerala Indians are disadvantaged. (Actually I faced a situation like this once in my life when I was kid practising Judo.)'

On the interplay between experience fields and skills

Sergio 1: 'Experience incorporates all the weapons or combinations of weapons common in the experience field. Say, a medieval warrior would learn 1h sw/mace/spear/ax, shield, 2h sw/mace/spear/ax, mounted weapons, brawling, etc. A XIX century gentleman would learn fencing, shouting, boxing, etc., and so on. The idea with 2. is that there are particular techniques one learns for each weapon, and these are still useful.'

Jane 1: 'Indeed - and general "Close Combat" will show you that some of the techniques one learns with greatsword, for instance, are applicable to quarterstaff. (Yes, really! I now use a staff for training, and will buy myself a greatsword once I'm ready and have the cash.)'

Sergio 2: 'I understand that (see above my martial sparring example) but I also think I should leave a space for something that may not be too realistic but that corresponds to popular perceptions based on fiction and that is fun in game terms. That's why I may leave more space for narrow techniques associated with weapons than what would be a consistent portrait of reality.'

Sergio 1: 'One example will clarify what I have in mind: Say, a Tae Kwon Do black belt is attacked in the street by a band of thugs. He has good Adroitness, the relevant attribute and he will put it to use. He knows his TKD techniques and, once more, he will use it. Yet, he is not experienced with using the same in a street-fight, so he will have to go with his low level of experience in this context. Was he sparring in a TKD championship he would rely on his experience in TKD sparring. In other words, the character learns a broad set of combat skills with his experience, and he develops particular techniques that are used with these skills.'

Facing the unknown

JANE'S ORIGINAL THOUGHTS: 'What's your opponent using? If it's a weapon combination you've never met before, you're in trouble. Half the moves you know and rely on won't work. I can't imagine how to work this into the system as yet, but it needs to be there.'

Sergio 1: 'In your file you also point to the impact of facing new situations for the first time. Now, part of this is factored to experience as detailed in the paragraph above, yet there is more to it. When fighting you have to consider your skill with your weapon (or combination of weapons), but you also have to consider the combination of weapons being used by your adversary and *your* (not your adversary's) experience with it. You pick the lowest value among both. For ex, (A) is fighting with his sword and shield, an enemy with 2h spear. As you say, it is as important for (A) both his skill with the weapons he is carrying and his skill (what he knows about) with the weapons being carried by his adversary. So, when combating we pick the lowest value of these two as the value of reference.'

Jane 1: 'Yes!'

Sergio 2: 'This is also a way of ensuring a more realistic broader set of combat skills. If you need to know not only the skills for the weapons you use but also the skills for the weapons your enemy may be using you cannot concentrate on the former only.'

Jane 2: 'Yes - unless of course you find someone who's like the Three Musketeers. Rapier, and only rapier.'

Sergio 3: 'The approach can incorporate this. In fact, it may be the major difference between warfare-oriented experience and civil-oriented experience.'

Jane 3: 'A good point, though of course not all societies make the distinction.'

Sergio 4: 'True. Let's say that there are extremes where we find people totally dedicated to war (in contemporary terms special ops-like guys and gals) and people completely devoid of combativeness (the Princess of fairy tales). Most fall in-between with different shades of aggressiveness.'

Sergio 3: 'In both cases we can have people with high levels of skill in combat, but in the first case there will be a much larger set of techniques available to the character. A medieval nobleman knows how to handle many weapons while a 18th century courtesan can only use two or three, even if at high levels of skill.'

Sergio 2: 'Another interesting aspect to the system is that it makes creatures and monsters interesting again. Yes, a Lion may not have high combat skills when compared to a human, but unless your character is a Lion hunter he will not know how to fight the Lion and he cannot rely on the skills he uses to fight humans... This is something that is important to me because it corresponds to the lore and reality about animals. After all, if we take the stats for most real world beasts as we find them in rpgs they are not a big deal, not even for an average human being. Yet, they scare us to death right here.'

Jane 2: 'Very good point - I'm scared of horses, because they're big, and to me, completely unpredictable. A friend is used to them, to her they're not unpredictable, so she's got nothing to be scared of. Trouble is, you're going to end up with a skills list a mile long :('

Sergio 3: 'Maybe. My idea is to have no list of skills at all. I will have types of damage (blunt, blade, etc.) and next include notes on particular skills with each experience field, stating which type of damage is done. Say, if it is about Roman soldiers it gives them Pillum (thrust), Gladium (cut and thrust), etc.'

Jane 3: 'Ah, a list of "keywords" instead, from the look of it. Yes, much better.'

Sergio 4: 'Yes. HQ has influenced me at some levels. The major influence was in the way I see characters. Actually the feature I like more in HQ is the freeform narrative character creation mechanic. It was the reference to my GlovE project. I like it a lot more than the keyword method, actually.

One of the reasons why I like it so much is because of the Boring NPC Creation syndrome. I realised this to its fullest when I got the old RQ booklet Rune Masters. There they were, many excellent descriptions of cool characters... marred by boring lists of skills, magic, etc. It made me sick to think that I would have to do something similar to create my own NPCs. On the other hand, I never liked the D&D approach of different stat blocks for PCs, NPCs and monsters. One of the thing I like(d) about RQ was the fact that they all where handled in a similar manner. For years I thought how I could work out the mechanical rigor and tidiness of RQ stats with the coolness of narrative character descriptions without going back to the Rune Masters paradigm. I never found a satisfactory answer. HQ provided it.

The ideas presented so far work at a middle term. They include a closed list of attributes coupled with a set of pre-defined experience fields, a lot like HQ Keywords but with less of a laundry list presentation and more of a descriptive delivery. And ... very freeform skills. They either are taken directly from the description of the experience keyword, extrapolated from it or created by the players in a way that is consistent with the character.'

On developing related skills.

JANE'S ORIGINAL THOUGHTS - Someone who's a good fighter will pick up a new skill faster than someone who isn't, no matter if they've never used a weapon like it. Maybe we should take their top combat skill, divide it by some suitable number, and let them train in any other combat skill at a faster rate until they reach the answer. So a sword master (100%) using a whip for the first time would learn faster up to (say) 50%? 33%?

To a great extent this is covered in my proposal by the fact that different skills are used with a common experience field. Because of that I think I don't need to have rules for faster development of a new skill. Going back to Jane's example, the sword master has a high skill with sword, but he likely has a high experience in combat. Both may be related since he developed both consistently through his career. If he picks the whip for the first time he will have the low whip skill but he will benefit from the high combat experience.

I have to thank Jane a lot. Not only her original writings were very inspiring, her critical reply and encouragement to my musings (despite the fact that she is no longer interested in the type of roleplaying that may come out of it) helped me settle several issues in the development of Rough Quests, as we will see in the continuation of this series of columns. Thanks once more Jane.

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