Chad Perrin: SOB

18 October 2009

Two Tricks for Characterization

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , — apotheon @ 10:07

(TL;DR Summary: I have a Ruby script that generates random NPC information. It's far from perfect, and very superficial. I'm working on ideas to add randomized inspiring personalia tidbits for helping develop NPCs with more depth on the fly.)

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

Creating NPCs with a sense of depth can be a difficult challenge for a GM sometimes. Even those of us who are good at it when we feel inspired can — and do — easily run afoul of dry spells. Little bags of tricks can collect in the dusty corners of three ring binders, hard drives, and our twisted minds, to help manufacture that depth. Questionnaires that one can fill out to get a sense of an NPC's youth and family life, perusing newspaper headlines for ideas about formative experiences, drawing on the experiences and personalities of the people around us, and (unfortunately) trite cliches can all be counted among the tools in many GMs' toolboxes when it comes to building an NPC that is more interesting than a set of stats, a physical description, and a facial tick or funny accent.

I've written a stupid little script (in Ruby, natch) that generates character stats, simple physical descriptions, and a couple other ephemera, for when I know I want an NPC but don't necessarily know what I want. It's handy for populating taverns and the like, sometimes. Sometimes, it gives me results that are less than strictly wonderful. It really is random, because I haven't yet come up with a very good algorithm for getting things to fit together in a reasonable manner. Black women with blonde hair, green and violet eyes, and other (should-be) rarities come up all too commonly. Of course, I can always run it half a dozen times and pick out a bit or two from each result to create a whole NPC, if I want to change some details without having to think too hard.

There isn't a hell of a lot of depth in most of the information, though. It's superficial stuff, for the most part. Something like this doesn't lend itself to rich characterization:

Male Dwarf Fighter
with cornrows of silver hair,
intense hazel eyes,
a sallow complexion,
a lean build,
and a vulgar demeanor

  ST  17
  DX  12
  CN  15
  IN  9
  WS  6
  CH  9

That's exactly how the output looks. The best I've got going here is some naive stat prioritization for classes so you don't end up with this Dwarf Fighter's Strength being the 6 and his Wisdom being the 17. Other than that, it's mostly just random, and worse yet it's all superficial. I've been meaning to incorporate some more stuff, and work on a less naive stats-for-classes prioritization, but haven't gotten around to it.

It's difficult to come up with something I can produce with a random concept generating script that lends real depth to NPCs, though. I mean, sure, I could come up with a few character concepts with depth, but if I do that I might as well just use them rather than put them all in a database and end up with every eighth character having exactly the same background and motivations.

A couple of interesting possibilities for character depth inspiration that have occurred to me, though, are important objects and motivating emotions. Almost every character should probably have at least one object that's important to him or her (even if he or she doesn't physically have it at the moment), and almost every character should have one deep-seated value that motivates at least some of the character's actions, with some kind of deep emotional underpinning. Perhaps a letter from one's lost love holds a special place in one's belongings, tucked between the pages of one's spellbook, or perhaps it's a four-leave clover found while playing with other children in childhood during happier days that is pressed between those pages. Maybe regret for having failed to reconcile with one's father before he passed away taints one's view of the world, or maybe a desire to prove oneself better than one's origins makes one driven to excel — or to harass and demean those who remind one of unhappier times.

If someone doesn't have any valued objects or deeply rooted emotional influences, that in itself should be a remarkable, powerful indicator of that character's personality. What desolation is it that drives one to view the world so numbly? What did the NPC flee to pursue a path of renunciation of all worldly attachments? A distinct lack of such an object or emotional influence should perhaps come up very rarely — or maybe I should just settle on that when the script absolutely can't come up with an object or emotional influence that I like for the NPC.

I think inspiration for these characteristics of an NPC's personalia can be kick-started by randomly selecting from broad categories of generic objects and emotions — especially if one branches out from the obvious and boring. "Love" and "hate" are kind of lifeless, because they're so overused, but shame and worry can be much more evocative. A letter or preserved plant, as I indicated above in my examples, is much less common and trite than a locket or a father's sword. Sure, I'll include the love, the hate, the locket, and the sword in my options, but such overused tropes will be heavily outnumbered by the less worn-thin alternatives.

I just need to remember to work on coming up with good lists of objects and motivating emotions some day soon. Wish me luck.

7 October 2009

There aren't enough skill points.

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , — apotheon @ 01:31

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

NOTE: I have not edited the text of this entry to reflect the addition
of the APG to the lineup of PRPG base class options.  I have, however,
added them to the lists of skill point progressions per class as shown
for each of the alternate skill progression systems below.

I like the skills in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG. They help flesh out a character, granting more life to the concept and more closely tying the character sheet to the character's background. I don't think the skill system is perfect, though, by any means.

Leaving aside for the moment the problems of attributes assigned to specific skills and the selection of available skills, the big problem from D&D 3.5 that PRPG solved was the way skill points were handled as a generic game mechanic. There was simply too much arithmetic involved in spending skill points — starting with the 6x4 (for example) at first level and continuing with the broken-ass way class skill and cross-class skill maximums are figured over the course of a character's advancement to 20th level. The math wasn't difficult in D&D 3.5, of course, but it was certainly annoying and inelegant.

One other major pain in my tuckus from D&D 3.5 survived the translation to PRPG, though: there simply aren't enough skill points for many characters. The worst, and most unforgivable, case is that of classes that only get two points per level. Rogues get a veritable plague of skill points by comparison, and the Rangers are doing pretty well for themselves, with plenty of potential for fleshing out the non-combat interests and experiences of the character in terms of the what the character has learned to do.

Fighters and Paladins, meanwhile, definitely get the short end of the stick. Not only do they suffer the indignity of being forced into a much more narrow focus than Rogues or even Rangers, with only two points per level as a base, but they also require attention to more attributes other than Intelligence to ensure effectiveness at the specialties of the class. Intelligence often ends up being the dump stat, which also affects skill points per level. Paladins, especially, tend to end up being rock-stupid, because in addition to needing all three physical stats to be higher than average to excel, but they also need Wisdom and Charisma. Intelligence is the red-headed stepchild of the Paladin class. At least Fighters get to choose Wisdom or Charisma as the primary dump stat instead, if they prefer.

I've kicked around a number of ideas in my head for a while. One very minor fix I've employed was to create a replacement for the Wizard class, in the form of the Mage class (I'm currently procrastinating on finishing the process of updating it for PRPG). This class helps deal with the problem of Wizards, who are supposed to be learned scholars, having only two points per level as their base skill progression. Only the aid of high Intelligence as the primary attribute for the class has mitigated this problem in D&D 3.5, and I tend to feel they should have a lot more skill points than that if they want to start gobbling up Knowledge skills (for instance); otherwise, they're nearly as narrow as Fighters. To grant them more skills without eclipsing the skill-monkey specialty of Rogues, I gave Mages lots of skill points, but also required them to use some of their skill points to buy spells they know.

This doesn't solve the problem of the rest of the 2-point classes having very dull and boring personal lives as reflected in their skills, though. I've considered a few options for a while now to mitigate or eliminate the problem, involving just giving some classes more skill points. I've been hesitant to actually use any of those options, unfortunately, because I don't want to overload the game with skills or cut into the benefits some classes gain by being more skill-oriented than others.

I've finally pretty much reached the breaking point, in terms of my tolerance for skill point distribution. Something needs to be done in my games. I just need to decide which solution to use as a house rule. The examples I have in mind follow, each of them raising the minimum possible base skill advancement no lower than four.

Minimum 4

The simplest fix would be to take the Minimum 4 approach. All M4 does is give any class with fewer base skill points per level than four enough additional skill points to bring them up to a base of four skill points per level. The new skill progression landscape for core classes in the PRPG CRB looks like this:

Alchemist   4
Barbarian   4
Bard        6
Cavalier    4
Cleric      4
Druid       4
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        4
Oracle      4
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

Perhaps surprisingly, I rather like the way the vast majority of classes end up with the same number of skill points, with only definite outliers ending up varying from the baseline of four points per level. It assumes a default capacity for learning new skills as embodied in the skill selection for people in general, with exceptions made for those who have chosen life pursuits that require a great deal of flexibility.

Plus 2

Another simple fix is the Plus 2 approach. With P2, just add two skill points per level to the base skill advancement for each of the core classes:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      4
Druid       6
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     4
Ranger      8
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

My primary concern here is that Barbarians, Druids, Rangers, and Rogues may be getting a bit more out of this modification of the canonical system than is appropriate, though in PRPG at least the elimination of the multiplier for first level skill points does help keep things under control a bit.

5 Plus

Another relatively simple modification of the system, in case four points isn't enough for the lowest point totals, is the 5 Plus system. With 5P, just take the various categories of skill emphasis for different classes — 2, 4, 6, and 8 — and assign them new numbers only one point apart, starting at five:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        7
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  7
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      7
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

This has the advantages of keeping the upper bound the same (eight for a Rogue), unlike P2, while keeping the classes categorized the same so that the classes canonically stuck with a pathetic two per level don't just get shoved up into the same category as the classes that normally get four per level. The downside, of course, is that the difference between categories has been cut in half, yielding only a one-point difference between adjacent categories, which might kind of eat into the specialness of the more-skilled classes such as Bard and Rogue.

4 Plus

The 4 Plus option is achieved by raising the minimum from two to four, then increasing each category's base skill point advancement by as little as possible to keep it from being overtaken by the previous category. Thus, any two becomes a four, and any four becomes a five to avoid getting overtaken by the twos that climbed to become fours:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        6
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

As long as you think four is high enough a minimum, I think 4P gives everyone enough skill points without running the risk of giving the more skilled classes too many points, all without cutting into the skill-monkey niche of the Rogue class. It does not, however, deal well with the notion that Bards and Rangers might be dependent on notably higher skill point totals than the less-skilled classes.

Constrained Acceleration

The Constrained Acceleration option gives the top half of the four categories double the "velocity" change in their improvement over previous categories. Thus, with CA, the lower two only differ from each other by one point, but the upper two categories each differ from previous categories by two points:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        7
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  7
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      7
Rogue       9
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

Unconstrained Acceleration

Unconstrained Acceleration is the same as Constrained Acceleration, except that it accelerates by one point for each higher category, rather than only accelerating once beyond the second category. This results in the second category being one higher than the first, the third being two higher than the second, and the fourth being three higher than the third:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   5
Bard        7
Cavalier    5
Cleric      4
Druid       5
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  7
Monk        5
Oracle      5
Paladin     4
Ranger      7
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    4
Witch       4
Wizard      4

UA is clearly not for those who think that increasing the number of skill points available to a Rogue is playing with fire. Not only do Rogues get two more points per level in UA, but they also get three more per level than Bards and Rangers. Otherwise, its benefits and detriments are the same as those of Constrained Acceleration.

Constrained Plus

The Constrained Plus system is identical to CA, except that it starts at five instead of four:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      8
Rogue       10
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

For those who like the way CA works, but believe a minimum of five is more appropriate than a minimum of four, and aren't worried about Rogues getting into double-digit range, CP might be a suitable choice. Many, I'm sure, would balk at giving any of the core classes double digit base skill advancement, however.

Unconstrained Plus

As UA is to CA, so Unconstrained Plus is to CP. The only difference from CP is that in UP the Rogue is not limited to a two point improvement over the next lowest category:

Alchemist   6
Barbarian   6
Bard        8
Cavalier    6
Cleric      5
Druid       6
Fighter     5
Inquisitor  8
Monk        6
Oracle      6
Paladin     5
Ranger      8
Rogue       11
Sorcerer    5
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

If the Rogue's base skill progression having two digits in previous systems made you uneasy, UP should give you a definite case of the willies and an outbreak of goose bumps, at the very least.

4 Refactored

The 4 Refactored system starts with a minimum of four, and changes the way the various classes fit into differing categories. After all, the fact that some classes get extra skill points need not mean that all of them do. Perhaps some classes are exactly where they should be, while others need more skill points to escape the arbitrary limits placed on them in the PHB and CRB:

Alchemist   5
Barbarian   4
Bard        6
Cavalier    5
Cleric      5
Druid       4
Fighter     4
Inquisitor  6
Monk        4
Oracle      4
Paladin     4
Ranger      6
Rogue       8
Sorcerer    4
Summoner    5
Witch       5
Wizard      5

4R brings the minimums up to four, but it also keeps the maximums down to 8. Clerics and Wizards, as classes likely to benefit from some amount of scholarly background, get more of a boost than other classes with a canonical two point base skill progression rate. Of course, you may choose to do things differently; this is just a suggestion. As long as I'm not using a systematic modification to the already extant system, it would be difficult for me to claim you shouldn't make any changes you like, but if you like my version that should make things pretty easy for you.

5 Homogenized

I suppose I could be a dick about it, and just say everyone gets five skill points as base skill progression. In some respects, this seems to have the greatest sense of verisimilitude of all the options I've considered, but I'm distinctly hesitant to even seriously consider this option without changing a lot of the rest of the game system.

Making a Decision

I haven't settled on what I'm going to do, yet, but I'm definitely going to do something by the next time I have anyone make characters for a PRPG campaign where I'm the GM. I will almost certainly apply such modifications to any ongoing campaigns I have right now, too — an easy thing to get the players to accept, since all it involves is handing out a few more skill points to at least some of the characters. If there is any difficulty in that regard, it would probably result from choosing a system that would grant extra points to only some of the classes in a campaign, leaving others perhaps feeling like they got ignored a little.

Regardless of the potential social issues of changing rules midstream in an ongoing campaign, I'm thinking long and hard about what skill advancement system I will adopt for the next PRPG campaign I start running. Any constructive suggestions, critiques, questions, or additional options are welcome, of course. What do you think I should do? What do you think you'll do — if anything — to change the base skill progression numbers in your own games?

NOTE: I've started using the 4P system, as have some friends.
It seems to work quite well for all of our campaigns.  YMMV.

27 September 2009

Passive Skill Checks, Consistency, and Taking 10

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: , , , , — apotheon @ 09:51

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

The night before last, I had a dream that was, I swear, just an excellent Pathfinder RPG session in which the PCs were being pursued by evil NPCs. The imagery of it was as though I was watching the events actually unfold, but the understanding I had in my (unconscious) mind was of player decisions and dice rolls being made, while I was thinking through how to develop the plot. Apparently, I was the GM.

The way things developed was great. It was entertaining, suspenseful, and pretty darned original. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it in literature, film, or RPGs. There's one weird detail that crept in there — as weird as things ever get in dreams — that I'll surely leave out, but that didn't really affect the way the game progressed. It's good enough that I think I'm going to mine it heavily for use in some later campaign, so I'm not going to go into too much detail about what happened here. I don't want potential future players reading this then, later, getting ideas about what's going to happen and ruining the suspense.

Passive Checks

What prompted me to write about this here is something that just kinda came naturally in the course of the "game session"; a way to handle passive skill checks that seems strikingly obvious now, but didn't really seem that way in the past.

In this dream game session, there was a moment when the PCs were on one side of a small structure of sorts, talking to someone at the front of this structure. The person talking to them seemed helpful and friendly enough, and allayed their concerns fairly readily, at least as pertains to himself. Because of this, there was really no reason to focus any attention on him as a potential source of danger. Their attention was focused more down the road, in the direction whence they had come, and from which they expected pursuers.

Meanwhile, a couple of people who posed a threat exited the other side of the structure and readied themselves to jump the PCs. This structure was small enough that these aggressors' movements should be subject to an opposed skill check, Stealth vs. Perception. Of course, in cases like this, where the players have no immediate reason to believe they need to make a Perception check, asking them to do so may alert them to impending danger and change the way they have their characters behave. They might start searching things more, ask for Sense Motive checks they wouldn't otherwise have made, and so on.

Without any sense of having just decided on a "new" way of doing things, I just assumed all the players would Take 10 (assume a roll of 10 and add skill modifiers) on their rolls, since they were not actively using their Perception skills. This essentially turned every PC's skill into a DC, rather than a roll to oppose the aggressors' Stealth skills. The aggressors, then, needed Stealth rolls to beat the PCs' Perception rolls.

The Books Discourage Us

I think the main reason this isn't something I have been using all along is the fact that, in the D&D 3.0 and 3.5 books, the times you aren't supposed to use the Take 10 mechanic are much more emphasized than the times you are. The discouragement against using Take 10 at times other than when the suspenseful progression of the story is not at all at stake tends, at least in my case, to influence my natural proclivities so that any time there's any question, I "disallow" use of the Take 10 rule. I'm gradually coming to realize that this has done me a disservice.

In general, I think the assumption should be to allow it and, beyond that, even to assume it in cases where the players shouldn't even have a choice in the matter (such as when they might not be aware rolls are even needed). One should really only disallow a Take 10 skill check when one has specific reason to disallow it. This isn't a question of computer security; it is perfectly acceptable in this case to take a "default allow" approach with exceptions for extraordinary cases, rather than a "default deny" approach with exceptions only when one feels they are quite thoroughly warranted.

Consistency

I think, in fact, that the Take 10 mechanic is probably woefully underutilized by gamers in general. It should not be used more just for passive checks, where the PCs aren't actively using a skill, but also for many more instances where an action is "routine".

For instance, Bards (and other PC performers) almost always end up performing based on a roll, even when they're just playing for a few coins at the inn — but, in reality, they should almost always be doing things that for them are well within their skill levels' comfort zones, things that are "routine" for them. If a performer is sufficiently certain of his skill that he believes he can one-up another performer in a contest of skill (think The Pit Fiend Went Down To Ganelonne or something like that), he should just be able to Take 10 on his Perform: Mandolin roll and expect that the other performer with a skill five ranks lower than his own will have to really exert herself and take chances to beat him, thus necessitating a roll that is as likely to result in fumbling the fingering and reducing the overall quality of her results as to have a moment of sublime excellence. Even if she outdoes herself, she may only match his own skill — and how likely is that to happen twice in a row, when it comes time for a rematch?

The Take 10 mechanic is an excellent rule, and I will definitely endeavor to use (and encourage its use) more in the future. It even matches the presumed realities that the rules are meant to capture fairly well, better than just requiring a roll all the time. If you take the "safe" approach, and just Take 10, you know that your performance will be consistently within the range of your general level of skill. That's really the point of the Take 10 rule, anyway; to actually be competent at something, you have to be able to consistently perform to a given level. Meanwhile, if you take chances you may do exceedingly well, but you may also make mistakes — as in the case of overreaching yourself when playing the mandolin against the kingdom's Minstrel Laureate in a musical competition, and fumbling the fingering, producing discordant error where you hoped for impressively nimble playing to shame that champion's legendary excellence.

Keep Things Moving

A nice side-effect is the reduction in rolls to slow down the game. Sometimes, rolling dice heightens the suspense and excitement of the game. At other times, it just slows things down. Don't be afraid to let it play through without pausing to make a roll for every single thing that happens. Don't relegate the Take 10 rule to the status of a second-class citizen in your games.

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License