Monday, January 24, 2011


A while back I talked about Brown M&Ms, small things that you can look for that reveal that there might be problems with the larger system. I was doing chargen for something this weekend when I spotted something that was very much a brown M&M for me: the driving skill.

You can tell a lot about a modern game by how it handles driving. As a fairly ubiquitous skill (at least among adults in a modern American setting) it is actually an anomaly to find a character who can't drive, but such characters do exist, so it's necessary to account for them. At the same time, you will have characters for whom driving is their thing, and they need to be effectively distinguishable from people who are just basic-competency drivers.

That's a tricky problem, and most of the solutions for it are pretty awkward. For example, one option is to make it mandatory that everyone buy the driving skill to whatever the system considers competence(assuming that the descriptions match the reality of the dice) but that kind of sucks for players who are usually already a little squeezed for points.

You can address that by giving basic competence level in driving for free, but what about the guy who can't drive? Does he get to use those points somewhere else? Plus, have you just made it much cheaper to make Driving Guy than Shooting Guy?

Then there's the classic "Everyone can drive, but you only need to roll the dice when doing something dramatic, like a chase or the like". Now, I love this sentiment, so why is it a brown M&M for me? Because if this approach is the exception rather than the rule in a game, then there's a problem. Are you rolling for boring things with other skills? Have you thought about what other skills can do without rolling? I think this is a great approach if it's the approach for all skills, but otherwise, it's a lazy solution.

Now, for all that this is a sticky problem, there have been games that have handled it well. Over The Edge had a default competency level of 2d6 for things that common sense said you should be able to do (run, drive, jump and so on). The nWoD system makes you buy it, but makes it cheap to do so because (unlike many other systems) the first rank of a skill conveys fair competence, mechanically. Systems that let you default to using just stats for such rolls offer a somewhat half-assed solution, but it's better than nothing.

While driving is really iconic for me, it's not the only skill that runs into this problem. Pick any game with a skill list and consider which of these anyone could do. The whole athletics category jumps to mind, but there can be other fun things like reading and writing which can also get a little weird.

This can seem like a very small thing, but it's exactly the sort of detail work that makes up the hard 20% of making a game sing. Just something to bear in mind.


  1. Driving is always tricky because you run into the Pilot Principle - they guys who is really good at operating the vehicle wants to stick around the vehicle. Except that means he does a lot of rolls and is awesome, and the rest of the players are along for the ride.

  2. One of my Brown M&M things is a bit unfair, since everyone muffs it: Languages. Because, in-game, you are never (or less than one session in 20, say) going to run into a situation where you can't communicate with the people necessary to talk to, because that means the plot is out of the reach of the PCs. So while it sounds cool to be a master linguist who can blend in/disappear, it's in fact just a way to waste points that could be doing something cool that would actually get rolled and thus get you some system credit for being cool.


  3. Driving was a big problem for me when designing Synapse because I wanted to have rules for really intense driving situations, but I wanted it to be simple too (the constant balance, right?)

    In the end, I found a way to make a single maneuver mechanic that would work for a variety of chase concepts; from the car chase to Ships of the Line to Mech combat. That way, I wasnt committing myself to a mechanic ONLY for driving.

    I actually have some problems with the way I wrote it and I intend to change it when I go back to finalize the beta, but I am sure I will keep a unified mechanic for a variety of things rather than simply driving.

  4. @zdashamber My little Russian American engineer in the Cold War game is a linguist (and actually, come to think of it, the driver). She speaks Russian and American English and drives like, uhm, well, like you're not going to give her the keys unless it's not likely you'd get there otherwise. I've had to roll Technician for truly absurd driving stunts, but I can't recall having to roll for language. I think the language was covered under her Petroyshka Aspect (Russian nested dolls) and a note in her official file (as a good american spy) that she has dual citizenship and is a fluent linguist.

    The couple times we've spent quality time with Russians who weren't Anna's relatives and/or spies, they were often shooting at us, but the language was handy to figure out /why/, admittedly rephrased through Anna. Beyond the usual reactionary behaviour, I mean.

  5. I should note the game Deborah is referencing is probably the first one I I ran that I can recall where language was really import (and tellingly, it's a "real world" game).

  6. I prefer systems where skills represent professional competency, rather than being a straight measure of ability. For casual competency I generally base it on the raw characteristic. This philosophy is probably best summed up in that casual use you roll to do something, but is skilled use you roll to get out of difficulty.

    One of the best ways of doing this is to vary the die size of tests. FASA's Star Trek used a d10 to use a skill, but a d100 to test a skill (if you grokk the difference).

    I find it useful to alter the dice size rather than add bonuses because you don't artificially inflate or deflate skills. What's interesting is where you allow the protagonists to choose the die size (eg d10, d20, d30, d40, d60, d80, d100, d120, d200 etc assuming a basically percentile system) they are going to use to resolve the conflict and then use the largest one chosen for both people. The dice they choose indicates how far they are actually pushing the envelope in whatever they are doing. Of course, the penalties for failure tend to magnify as the die is increased, but if your opponent is unwilling to match your die then you have beaten them (provided you survive whatever thing you are trying).

    Has the nice touch that you can challenge the opponent to up the risks by increasing the die size (showing you are taking a greater risk), and daring them to respond. If they are unwilling to match you, you get a "bump" in the stakes of the contest. If you succeed. Or they get the bump if you fail. So, play it safe or take the risk?

  7. This is a really good question. I think the simplest solution in my mind is a "General Culture" skill. That's a combination of the Culture skill in Spycraft and the General Knowledge skill used in quite a few of the older-school games.

    To clarify: "Driving" is the skill of the Driver. But it is also just a means of getting around, and getting around is something that in all-but exceptional situations, the character knows how to do.

    For example: I am exceptional at driving on icy roads. It's what I do for a living and I take great pride in it. I go through tricky mountain passes in blizzards as a matter of routine. However, I've never driven a performance car in my life and I can count the number of times I've driven in heavy city traffic on one hand.

    Recently my company employed a doctor from Pakistan. He is a very smart gentleman and also a motor-head. I've had great conversations about driving with him and I can tell he knows his stuff. Yet the first 5 times we gave him directions to a field site, he got lost, and in a recent snowstorm he ran his truck into the ditch.

    Both of us can "Drive" we're of similar ages so I can assume we've had equivelant amounts of time on the road. We both take interest in our skills as motorists. The difference is that I've been driving in MY environment for 10 years while he came to Canada less than 6 months ago.

    So convert that quick and easy to a game system. You can have General Culture - US Cities, US Rural, or go as specialized as you want, but I figure that's unnecessary. If you made a Doctor character with the Medicine skill it should be a given that your character would understand the ins and outs of the health care system that employs him.

    Thus, a character has the capability to function in his environment without being forced to consider each and every skill he must take to do so. A new-yorker shouldn't need a specialized knowledge of the subway system or how to hail a cab effectively or have the Computer Operations skill to be able to check his iphone. You just include that degree of competence as a package according to the character concept. It can be a "Class Feat" even.

  8. I'm surprised you think so few systems deal with the “everyone usually has this skill but sometimes it might matter to be especially incompetent or competent” issue.

    I would say FUDGE, and therefore FATE, also does this well. Any skill that everyone can be expected to have but that isn't specifically mentioned is at Mediocre level.

    Heck even GURPS does it fine: for basic stuff, no roll is required unless something interesting might go wrong; for showing off Mad-Skills-Driver-Girl, just have her attempt tasks with a high difficulty; and if you want Especially-Bad-Driver-Guy, he can take an Incompetence (Driving) as a disadvantage like any other.

    What am I missing in your application of this test?

  9. @Ben More precisely, I suppose, I would say that few systems handle it well. The GURPs example is a good one of ways to address it _outside_ the skill system, but that tends to require a bottomless supply of one-offs, which is not structurally sound over the long run.


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