Alternative 'Bonus Skill' Resolution

Copyright Sam Orton © 2012

Edited by Mario Butter for The Guild Companion

"Yet the more skills the character has that are related, the more cumbersome and the more risky the resolution process becomes."

A group of people I interact with regularly make a point of discussing how to improve various mechanics, specifically in HARP. I affectionately refer to them as "the piranha tank", as they are quick to rip apart any flawed ideas that come up for discussion.

One of our recent projects has been working on supplementary skills. HARP addresses this when describing ways to use the Maneuver Table (Table 9.1):

Bonus Results

This method is primarily used to resolve Maneuvers that involve complementary skills (such as "Trap Lore" and "Disarming Traps"). For these particular maneuvers, the player should make an open-ended roll, taking into account any modifiers. The result on the Bonus column is then used as a modifier to the maneuver.

So far, so good. But doesn't this mean an herbalist who applies Herbalism and Flora Lore to his Foraging roll has to make 3 rolls, and take 3 chances of fumbling? And two related skills is hardly as bad as it can get. Yet the more skills the character has that are related, the more cumbersome and the more risky the resolution process becomes. It may be good roleplaying for the Druid to have many closely related skills concerning woodcraft and wilderness survival, but it is not in the player's interest to actually put them to use in the game mechanics.

To be fair, "cumbersome" is to some extent inherent in the concept itself. It's one thing to decide how much someone's dagger skill affects their abilities the first time they pick up a short sword. It's another thing entirely to extend such thinking to every possible combination where expertise in skills X, Y and/or Z might add to (or partially make up for lack of) expertise in skill A. Obviously if you try to cover each combination individually, you'll end up with a set of rules as large or larger than your RPG's core book. Moreover, given that GMs make up their own scenarios, you will fail to account for all situations.

So in an attempt to simplify 'skill similarity' in HARP, we folks in the piranha tank came up with the following:

+1/rank for supplementary skills, with 1 skill allowable for every 7 full ranks in the primary skill, and a minimum of 1.

Thus, 7 or fewer ranks in the primary skill allows you to add a +1/rank bonus in a related skill. 8 to 14 ranks allows you to add the +1/rank bonus for 2 related skills, 15 to 21 ranks allows adding +1/rank for 3 related skills, etc.

Example:

Mel Practice the Healer has lived all his life in the metroplex of Pasha Ku. He has 30 ranks in Herbalism from doing his job, and 20 ranks in Flora Lore just from working with the same herb supplier for 10 years. However, all his Region Lore skill (10 ranks) is hearsay, based on conversations with that same supplier, and he has no skill at all in Foraging/Survival. He's a city boy, he doesn't have to care about such things.

One day Mel is traveling to a nearby town, where he has been called for an emergency case. On the way, he encounters some people with large weapons and a cash flow problem, and is beaten, robbed and left for dead. When he regains consciousness, he is badly injured and happens to be in the same area where his supplier gathers the herbs Mel uses in the normal course of his work. But of course, Mel has zero skill ranks in Foraging/Survival. What are Mel's chances of finding the herbs he needs?

With no skill in Foraging but 30 ranks in Herbalism, Mel's chances are a net +5, not counting stat bonuses and such things (+30 for Herbalism, -25 for Foraging.) If he had 8 or more skill ranks in Foraging (+40), he would be able to add in a second related skill, for a total of +90 (+40 for Foraging, +30 for Herbalism, +20 for Flora Lore.) If he had 15 or more ranks in Foraging, then (+60 for Foraging, +30 for Herbalism, +20 for Flora Lore, +10 for Region Lore) he'd have a total +120. Of course, this doesn't count stat bonuses or other miscellaneous bonuses in the primary skill, but they would apply equally to all of the above.

Yes, it's still mildly complicated, and that's a bit annoying to me. In fact, opinion is divided in the piranha tank as to whether it's simple enough to still be useful. However, that one mildly complicated rule can be applied as is to any combination of skills the player and GM consider germane to the situation in which the player finds himself. If skills are added in later editions (or by GMs who feel the need for non-standard skills specific to their scenario and/or setting), there are no other adjustments that need be made to account for the effects of related skills. Related skills operate in the same way as always, and as always the skills qualifying as "related" or "supplementary" are whatever the player and the GM agree on. More to the point, having a complex of related skills does not affect your chances of fumbling, nor the number of rolls you have to make to resolve the action. One roll, no matter how many skills apply.

Effects:

  1. Note that in most instances this rule can be safely ignored, as it will only make a real difference in areas at the core of the player's skills. If you have 22 ranks in the primary skill you can apply +1/rank for up to 3 supplementary skills, so assuming you have 22 ranks in all the skills you are applying, that's a +66 to the roll, a major difference. But if you have 22 ranks in the primary skill, that's +72 for the primary skill by itself. If the related skills are all things you have 5 ranks or so in, are you going to do the information tracking for a +15? In short, it only makes a major difference where several skills that the player considers "vital" for his character concept all apply.
  2. Where applied, it will largely discount the effects of diminishing returns at high levels. Many people have noticed over the years how there seems to be little advantage in continuing in your core skill area at extremely high levels, as the difference in effectiveness between a "master" and a mere "expert" is not worth the skill cost. This will not change that, except where several core skills all apply. In the standard +5/+2/+1 HARP progression, 30 ranks is +80 for skill, while 20 ranks is +70 for skill, not a large difference. With the use of this supplementary skill rule,
    • +70 for skill plus two related skills in which you are "competent", say 10 ranks each, is +90 vs. +80 plus four related skills at +10 each is +120.
    • +70 plus two related skills in which you are "expert" (+20 each) = +110 vs. +80 plus four related skills in which you have 30 ranks = +80+30+30+30+30=+200.
    • Thus the challenge of playing a high level character becomes controlling the situation to maximize how well your core skills can be applied. Moreover, there is now an obvious value to continuing to develop skills past the 20 rank break point. You can do some seriously improbable things with panache and aplomb if the skills you are obsessive about line up correctly.
  3. I believe this rule will also help reward players for building a believable skill set based on character concept. For example, studying anatomy will increase an assassin's effectiveness, as well as a hunter's or a healer's. The supplementary skill rule only reaches its true potential when applied to skills the character would understand so deeply that he can see how they interconnect. Hunters will use Region Lore and Fauna Lore along with their bow skill to increase their kill rate... like real hunters do.
  4. It could potentially address something that has always bothered me about the Perception skill. If a musician, a warrior, a healer and a thief all see the same battle, and all get identical totals on their Perception rolls, that does not mean they all gleaned the same information from what they perceived. But using the supplementary skill rule, the bonuses that apply vary according to what you are looking for. The warrior's skill in Sniping and Ambush tells him which side suckered the other into a trap, how it was sprung, how and why it succeeded or failed. The musician's knowledge of heraldry and history tells him much about the battle from seeing scraps of livery and banners, possibly even including what they were fighting about. The thief's knowledge of appraisal tells him whether it's worth going down and picking over the bodies. The healer's knowledge of diagnostics tells him who it's worth trying to save.
  5. In theory this rule should apply the same way to any point-buy skill system that uses a d100 resolution roll with a diminishing return. Thus I'd appreciate feedback on whether this rule works, and if so how well, from my friends who play RM as well as HARP, and for that matter any other game that uses a d100.

I will of course welcome feedback and critique on the ICE forums. If this works, it solves an issue that has irritated GMs for decades. If not, I'll dive back into the piranha tank.

Special thanks (of course) to the piranha...

The Piranha Tank:
Sam Orton
Alex X. Ulmer
Richard Buller
Marc Roels
David Orton
Meg Elliot