What can skill advancement tell us?

edited March 2016 in Story Games
In the thread Skill Wedges: An RPG Subsystem, commenter @Paul_T just said:
I'm thinking of novels where a country bumpkin challenges the local jousting champion because he's in love with the princess... except he's never been on a horse! He has a month to learn, and he doesn't know anyone in the city. What will he do? Can he prepare in time for the duel/tournament/concert/Hunger Games?

Or perhaps a ship full of marines is heading on a sleeper ship to a dangerous alien planet. You must deal with politics, drama, romance, and the hints of a traitor on board in the last few months of the trip. How prepared will you be for the challenges of the alien planet when you finally land, and what will it cost you?
We were discussing the possibility of tying the resources used in skill advancement into a character's overall budget of time, energy, discipline, ongoing pursuits, etc. These were basically strategy game concerns, though of a very different type than the solo character-optimization challenges of D&D3 or Pathfinder's hunts for rule synergies.

At the same time, we were pondering whether and when realism matters, and how much realistic skill advancement really adds to play.

Paul's examples with bumpkin jousters and feuding space marines ask about the incentives or even themes available for sculpting, instead of or in addition to strategic or simulation concerns. Should a skill advancement path resemble or enforce certain story dynamics? What sorts of characters, on what sorts of paths, does it need to be relevant to?

Is there something about his ample free time, deep love for the princess, untapped natural abilities, or other factors that will allow our bumpkin abnormally quick progress? Or will the rules enforce that a month's study has no hope at all of preparing him to fight a decade-trained opponent, and so he needs to seek ways to cheat as his only hope?

Does a space marine who manages to survive heavy on-ship intrigue arrive on the alien world hardened and stoked or drained and despondent?

"Advancement is good!" never tells the full story of a reward system. As part of a reward system, any good skill advancement system needs to connect the right behaviors to the right changes. So what are our options here, beyond the old tried and true "go on fun adventures to get better at adventuring so you can eventually go on bigger and badder fun adventures!"?

Sorry that this first post is kinda half-baked. I mainly wanted to raise the topic before I forgot. Hopefully I'll have more to say later... or someone will beat me to it. :)

Comments

  • Good topic, Dave! Excellent.

    Next time, I'd like to be referred to as "esteemed commenter Paul T.", however, just for the record.
  • On this matter I'm still insisting on making Skill Advancement part of the roleplaying instead of just using a training montage scene while the players recalculate the math for their characters. I've tried this on the table with my group and in non-adversarial games it has always been more exciting than interrupting the game or doing it after/before the session, or between sessions.

    I specified in non-adversarial games because when part of the fun is that the GM plays it a bit against the players looking to surprise them, it's more fun when the players still use the regular skill advancement rules but don't reveal their choices until it becomes relevant at the table. In that case is like, everyone went to their secret training and when the GM throws at them something that should be a good challenge, they suddenly bring out a new skill, weapon, item or class feature that nullifies the threat in a nice turn of events.

    So, here you have two different atmospheres I like. Not that montage and math are bad per se, but I can't deal with math too much so never learned to have fun with it. I do respect people who do, a few of my friends are a lot into that sort of fun.

    About making skill advancement part of the story, so far it requires some more prep from my side, though I believe if I could turn it into some kind of procedure I would definitely apply it more often. Prep so far goes through the process of asking myself what kind of skill the players would acquire, what would that imply, what kind of training and props would be neccessary for it, who would impart it and what would ask in return or why would he give it for free.

    For example, in a homebrew game players were young mages getting into the world of magic. They had no idea about how many things and skills worked, so a good part of the game was about the feeling of wonder discovering and exploring this world in many levels. Some of the PCs got to know a healer, a huge old man equally able to deal with enemies barehanded and heal with magic. They fought by his side a couple of times and seeing how an invasion of demons was coming, he agreed to train anyone who wanted to try the healer's path.

    The players who chose this training went with him to the magic forest, a sort of Never Land inhabited by fae. The training was basically fighting with him and his bear everyday, which at first meant taking a beating and hoping for high rolls to make at least some scratch on them. When anyone was inconscious and beaten to a pulp, the old man threw him on a pound which had the property to quickly heal wounds and bruises, so they woke up gasping but at full health. And then it was time to fight again.

    Between fights or in a bad day when nobody rolled high, instead of throwing someone into the pool, he waited a little and teached another pc how to transfer part of his health to his unconscious partner. Here rolling high meant the process worked and the PC got the gist of the skill, while rolling low meant he needed still more time and practice. Only then I described part of the training montage, as PCs became HP tanks because of the beating, while having them roll for the healing skill. Those who rolled high got access to an additional test, a fight against a poisonous monster in which again they rolled to learn how to heal a poisoned wound and shake off the effects quickly. Everyone advanced their unarmed combat skill and those who didn't did too good on the healing training raised it a bit more, along with some of their resistances, so everyone got on somewhat equal terms.

    All this gave us great opportunities to have fun through the training, made it part of the story and definitely the players felt the difference once they were back to the human realm and had to fend of the demons. The other players (who had a different separate training and also had their deal of fun) were surprisd at how the healing path had changed their partners. Probably they thought they would just become supporters instead of health tanks...
  • the players still use the regular skill advancement rules but don't reveal their choices until it becomes relevant at the table. In that case is like, everyone went to their secret training and when the GM throws at them something that should be a good challenge, they suddenly bring out a new skill, weapon, item or class feature that nullifies the threat in a nice turn of events.
    I have never seen that done before! That's really neat. I've seen the occasional secret skill, like the "Gotcha!" slot in the player-vs-player Super Action Now, but never a full advancement system used that way. I'm now imagining some game premises whee this makes it into the fiction, so beyond player vs GM, it's also characters vs NPCs or other characters, like everyone wants to train in secret for their next gladiatorial bout, so their opponent's report and plan for them will be outdated.
    For example, in a homebrew game players were young mages getting into the world of magic . . . Some of the PCs got to know a healer . . . They fought by his side a couple of times . . . he agreed to train anyone who wanted to try the healer's path . . . All this gave us great opportunities to have fun through the training, made it part of the story . . . The other players (who had a different separate training and also had their deal of fun) were surprised at how the healing path had changed their partners. Probably they thought they would just become supporters instead of health tanks...
    Whoa! I've had some fictional detours to justify or pursue whatever the mechanics required for advancement, but I've never devoted that much of play specifically to advancement-supporting stories! Now that you mention it, it seems like a great way for a GM to organize their creativity. I can imagine a system where it's official that one of the GM's primary jobs is to invent scenarios which will train the player characters!
  • Most of my own "think about advancement in fiction" play has used a system where skill ranks are added to die rolls. Eventually we realized that "increased probability of success" was a very poor match for the way we played through situations. Usually when you look at a situation close enough and ask, "can I achieve what I want or not?" the answer is either yes or no, not "maybe" modified by skill rank.

    Tracking, for example, is rarely a matter of "am I advanced enough for my eyes to spot a telltale sign?" Instead, it's more often a matter of conditions, with a lot of the skill relating to knowledge. So the player gets payoff for their "skilled" ranking by the GM sharing stuff like, "you know to start looking for tracks by the water" and whatnot, rather than by rolling at advantage.

    As GM, I tried to make a point of calling out the relevant ranks when arbitrating such efforts, to reward the players for their earned and chosen advances. "For a regular person, this would be nearly impossible, but because you're an Expert, you notice..." etc. That largely became our system.

    Unfortunately, I'm not an expert on everything, so there were times when we were stumped on what an extra rank should yield. At those times, I asked the players, "What do you want to do that you can't already do?" Then, if they had an answer, we'd discuss how that might be achieved.
  • One of my favourite parts of The Warren is where it explicitly states that a new move is chosen during play. We would usually do this in other PbtA games, but the flow of xp ticks dictates when that happens. I've found that in The Warren at least half the time someone uses their advancement for the session, it's during or creates a dramatic "Oh damn!" moment in the fiction.
  • Indeed: "choose advancements in play" leads to some great surprising moments, and can be used to "outsmart" the opposition.

    In theory, choosing your advancement ahead of time (without telling the others) would be more satisfying, but this depends on a great deal of clarity about the challenges presented in the game and how they will be adjudicated. Outside very limited genres (or a boardgame-like approach, perhaps in D&D4E, for instance), this can be difficult to achieve.
  • I have never seen that done before! That's really neat. I've seen the occasional secret skill, like the "Gotcha!" slot in the player-vs-player Super Action Now, but never a full advancement system used that way. I'm now imagining some game premises whee this makes it into the fiction, so beyond player vs GM, it's also characters vs NPCs or other characters, like everyone wants to train in secret for their next gladiatorial bout, so their opponent's report and plan for them will be outdated.
    Shinobigami sort of works like this! Though the game is often said to work best as a vessel for one-shots, if you play the same character across sessions, even if you don't spend any experience points on "advancement," the game still allows you the option to almost totally re-spec your character's skills and powers between games. Its fictional justification is explicitly rooted in the game's often adversarial nature, saying effectively that, if you don't change up your modus operandi, your enemies will likely be able to get the drop on you, so it's in your best interests to do so (the author of the game references Saint Seiya's "the same attack never works twice" principle). It synergizes well with the mechanics too; since you use the same skill that a character attacks with to defend against the attack, so if you know a potential opponent favors fire attacks, you'd consider training in pyromancy (or something close to it) to give you a leg up on them. Of course they might also change up completely, expecting you to try to counter them directly. It can be very cat and mouse. This also has the fictionally interesting effect of making you "dip" into an enemy's specialty if you really want to effectively counter them.

    There are points in some of the game's published actual plays where the players banter about this, talking about the trade off between staying true to their characters' themes without hamstringing themselves by being too predictable, or even explicitly choosing builds that would put them in opposition to other characters for whom they may bear some kind of enmity.
  • Very interesting! I've never seen that kind of thing in action.

    The closest I've seen is in OSR-style games, where the players are trying to overcome certain enemies or challenges. However, there the GM is a referee, not trying as hard as possible to win. (Although, now that I think of it, in my OSR-ish homebrew, I have a monster generator which pops out descriptions like "monsters learn quickly and are organized in combat". And when those pop up, then I'll play them pretty hard against the PCs. Still, there's always a slight sense of keeping yourself at a remove and "keeping it fair", as opposed to out-and-out competition.)
  • edited March 2016
    I've only played a one-shot of Shinobigami. @yukamichi, does the switching you describe require XP or some other sort of earned advancement points? Do characters get "overall better" over time? That point you mention about balancing tactical advantage with thematic coherence is pretty interesting! If someone puts tactics first, I wonder, does the result look like some sort of coherent arc or character evolution, or is it purely opportunistic and thematically random?

    With specialty-switching being a thing, I can easily imagine character facets which constrain this, like you have one or more types of skills you'll always be good at for cheap, and others that'll always be hard/costly to improve; or maybe you can spend XP on flexibility, to make it easier to shift stuff in the future. All sorts of possibilities! Maybe Shinobigami even includes some of these? I don't think my one-shot bothered with "here's what'd happen for next session," so I really have no idea! (And I also don't remember character creation; it was a while ago.)

    One possibly relevant aside: Contenders gives you the option to spend some of your earned resources on improving your fighting skills. To me, this looks very satisfying and relevant strategically, and very easy to work into the character's story, but at the same time is pretty irrelevant to the primary arc and character evolution of play, which is more about hope and relationships. So, y'know, not all games with a lot of fights integrate the fights into the reward system in similar ways. I'm guessing that "optimize to win fights" is more core to Shinobigami, but that's just a guess.
  • I've also only played the game as a one-shot so far, but I happen to know the rules off hand. Every certain number of XP you go up another ninja rank, which will give you 1 more skill, one more ninpo, or one more ohgi (actually secret technique) each level. But no, the re-speccing your character between sessions is totally free, regardless of your level.

    Besides practicality, I think there's an effort to play to genre there as much as anything; the way that villains might get defeated and then come back even stronger, with new powers, or something to that effect. Maybe the character's "dead" body was possessed by an evil spirit and has a whole new move set, and a new costume with a mask and flames coming out of it.

    But also I feel like part of character creation involves an aspect of deciding beforehand how you might use the skills you have in the main bond-building/secret-learning part of the game, and how you can shape scenes that fit your character using them. So when you choose Cooking because some ability uses it, you also think, "How can I use Cooking in my scenes?" They kinda run double-duty, being used as a combat ability and as a scene prompt, in a way.

    If you choose a major combat build, that would overall affect your attitude and your roleplay outside of combat. You're overly aggressive and serious this time. Maybe your Blades skill is used to intimidate someone into forming a bond with you, or impressing them by how fancily you dispatch some enemies. I think it's possible to keep your character's core personality completely separate from their skills and abilities, or even to use changes in build to showcase different sides of your character through roleplay that may have gone unseen in a previous adventure. You don't have to think of switching around your character as a change in personality, as much as a change in tactics to suit a new mission.
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