Mechanics Musings – As Tiers Go By

The feet of a tightrope walker.

Fudging funambulation - CC Attribution-Sharealike - photo by Wiros (on flickr)

Mechanics Musings will (potentially) be a new, infrequent series of posts where I throw around a few thoughts on various game mechanics and see where they go.  Today’s post was mostly inspired by the articles discussing skills hosted on the Wizards of the Coast’s site and written by Mike Mearls and Monte Cook.  They’re interesting articles and I encourage you to go and have a read if you have not already, but to boil their suggestions down to the relevant crux here, they propose a skill system that employs tiers of aptitude, allowing auto-success for tests less complex than the character’s ability and auto failure for those above.  Circumstantial modifiers in the proposed system serve to raise or lower the “difficulty tier” of the task.

I must admit I like a number of the ideas put forward by Mearls and Cook, but while I do appreciate reduced dependence on the remarkably “swingy” d20, I’m not completely sold on the prospect of eliminating randomness from skill checks altogether: there’s a certain drama to having some details lie in the hands of fate.

And then my eyes alighted upon the box of FUDGE dice on my desk…

FUDGEing Skills

For those unfamiliar with FUDGE dice or the assortment of excellent FATE games that utilise them: they are six-sided dice, but in place of the standard numbering, two sides are marked +, two sides marked -, and two remain blank.  The design of the dice means that a pool of them rolled together (the standard in FATE games being a set of four) creates a bell curve centred on zero as the most probable outcome.  It then becomes very intuitive to know that attempting a task with a “difficulty” of 3 is most likely to fall in favour of the player if they have a skill rank of 4.  (If you aren’t able to find or afford FUDGE dice sets, I recommend the article Baby’s First FUDGE Dice as a way of converting a standard spotted die to FUDGE.)

So, turning to the Legends & Lore articles with their proficiency ranks of Novice, Journeyman, Expert, Master, and Grandmaster, we could add a number of FUDGE dice with each plus and minus representing a movement up and down a tier.  For instance, with a single die, we could have a Journeyman trained character succeeding at an Expert level task one-third of the time, an Expert trained character succeeding two-thirds of the time, and a Master and upwards automatically succeeding.

Adding more dice allows for a greater range of variance.  It also leads to the system rather starting to resemble FATE.

Twists of FATE

What if, instead of using the dice to represent the variance in skill, we used the number of dice to model the circumstantial modifiers surrounding the task?  To take the example from Mike’s article of the tightrope walker: rather than shift the difficulty of the check up during an earthquake, we add a number of FUDGE dice representational of how much effect it has on the task.  If we decided that the earthquake was worth two dice, the Master-level tightrope walker now has a slim chance of failing at an Expert-level challenge.

Of course, there’s a chance of the two dice both coming up with positive, meaning that in an earthquake, a Novice at tightrope walking has as much chance of succeeding at the Expert-level task as the Master does at failing.  You could argue that there’s a wild chance that the earthquake could shake the character in the right direction at the right moment to keep them balanced (and, let’s face it, most of us that would term ourselves “gamers” might consider that “rationalisation” if it were our PC attempting it), but as an explanation that is rather weak.

Restricting and Complimenting

Some versions of FATE also have a mechanic where skills have a potential to modify the rating of another in tasks where both could come into play.  Lifting weights is something that would rely on a Strength or a Might skill, but lifting weights for several hours is also going to require some Endurance.  Sometimes, it makes sense for a second skill to modify the main check in only one direction, and in these cases the skills are said to Restrict (if not having ranks in the second skill is a detriment, but having them doesn’t help) or Compliment (if having the second skill is helpful, but doesn’t reduce the chances by not possessing it).

Bringing a similar idea to our “circumstantial modifier dice,” negative circumstances add penalty dice that we will only take note of if they come up showing “-“, while positive circumstances add bonus dice which are only read when they roll “+”.

Returning to our tightrope walker stuck in the middle of a “two dice” tremor, she could help normalise her odds by using a balance pole for one bonus die, and going barefoot or wearing more appropriate footwear to add another.  Attributes themselves could act in this way, letting you roll one die per modifier rank, so that an Agility 18 character would get four complimentary fudge dice for their +4 skill modifier.

Fallout Tactics

Another thought on using tiered skill competence is that it can give a rule of thumb on how much fallout you could take after a failed check in order to still succeed, or how much extra benefit can be gleaned from an abundant success.  For every way in which players choose to penalise themselves, the end result shifts up one tier; perhaps our funambulist adventurer, theoretically being one tier shy of success, chooses to dropp her sword down to the streets below?  Or a Master-level rock-climber facing a Grandmaster cliff face makes it to the top, but is somewhat beaten and bruised (losing one healing surge worth of hit points)?  Meanwhile, if the character’s skill is higher than the required rank, they could gain the extra benefits of being able to perform the task faster, more quietly, or perhaps have enough skill to give a fellow adventure some pointers, effectively raising their colleague’s competence tier.

Give it a Gamble

The idea of earning extra reward for excessive success could also be quite easily combined with the FUDGE dice options. Alternatively a new option could allow players to “gamble” with a certain number of fudge dice (perhaps a value up to their attribute’s modifier?) giving them a chance to raise their competence high enough to succeed, balanced by an equal chance to lead them into greater misfortunes.

Over to You…

So, what are your thoughts on the ideas here?  This series in particular will thrive on feedback, questions, and suggestions from others.  Are there ideas here you would like to see fleshed out further or explored in more depth?  Let us know with a comment.

About Craig Payne

Despite being born tone deaf in one ear, Craig has risen above his disadvantage to achieve the lofty position of spending most of his free time mucking around on the Internet, tinkering with RPG rules, and failing on at least seven occasions to finish writing a novel.