Many RPGs are fundamentally skill-driven, using successes in character talents to adjudicate action, create uncertainty and drive the story forward. On occasions, the story might develop in such a way that a skill takes centre stage – can the hero defuse the bomb before the City is levelled? Can he repair the damaged controls before the light aeroplane plunges into Mont Blanc?
For fighting, we have combat systems. For social interaction, we now have a number of social combat systems such as those offered by Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. But for extended skill contests, the RPG world is decidedly under-resourced. You have options like extended checks (multiple successes to complete), but this is often nothing more than rolling a single skill lots of times. Dull, dull, dull. It lacks the interesting element of good combat-type systems, which is that of tactical choices.
Going back to the Infiniverse of the 90s
Probably the best system I’ve seen is West End Games classic system Torg (recently spotted resurfacing on Bundle of Holding to the delight of fans like me).
Torg breaks dramatic skill tests into up to 4 stages: A, B, C, D, which represent 4 specific steps that have to completed in order to achieve the task (e.g. A: Open the outer casing; B: Analyse the circuits; C: Disarm the booby-trap; D: Cut the fuse wire). Torg’s custom initiative cards then set the pace for completing the task. Each round, the initiative card will list some combination of those 4 letters or state “Complication”. Each round, the player has a real tactical choice to make:
- Is there more than 1 letter that I need? In which case, should I try to complete multiple elements while I can, or play safe and just go for a single success?
- Are there no letters that I need? Should I make a check to gain a bonus to my next attempt, or try to complete a letter than isn’t there? (at substantial penalty)
- How much time is left? Should I just go for it and hope I succeed? (“Just cut the red wire!”)
- If it’s a Complication, you need to succeed at a roll, or something bad happens (“Oh no, my pliers fell down the lava-filled chasm!”) – lose a step, increase the difficulty of future steps, or require the character to switch to a new skill.
The cards also count as the timer, with the GM deciding how many card flips are available before the consequence of failing the task comes about. Communicating the reducing time to the players is tricky, but essential to build the sense of impending doom (and sometimes you can just be open about it – a little bit of transparency can sometimes add more tension not less!)
Problems with Torg’s Dramatic Skill Resolution
This is a relatively easy system to port across to other RPGs, although it works best with games that allow multiple actions in a single round – without that a key element of tactical choice is removed. One issue is the reliance on the initiative cards to generate the A, B, C, D results. A possible fix is to roll 4 different coloured dice at the start of each round, with every die that is above a certain value meaning that task can be attempted. If none of the dice reach the Threshold, it’s a Complication. This actually adds more flexibility than the Torg cards, as you as GM could control the rate at which certain tasks are possible – ramp up the tension by making that key D stage only crop up 20% of the time.
Another downside is that it can be sometimes difficult to fit the narrative to the game mechanics. The best way to resolve this is to make sure a specific task is ascribed to each letter, and then improvise why certain things aren’t possible, especially if the scene is ripe with environmental or other hazards (as should be the case for a dramatic skill check). Why can I not analyse the circuits this turn, but I could disarm the trap or cut the fuse? Well, you try to concentrate on the circuit layout but are distracted by a nearby explosion or roaring T-Rex.
A new approach – Skill Combat!
There’s another possible approach to spice up Skill Contests that as far as I’m aware no game has yet embraced. To go with Physical Combat and Social Combat, we have Skill Combat!
Each round, you try to cause damage to the task’s Difficulty Points. This is largely the same as how many RPGs treat extended skill checks at the moment – you roll against difficulty and have to accumulate a certain number of successes. You could go with fixed skill damage, or inflict the difference between the Target Number and your result. For class-based games such as D&D, I’d be inclined to go further and give each class a Skill Damage die to reflect differing ability (so a Rogue does d10 skill damage, a Fighter or Wizard only d6). Otherwise this is a relatively straight-forward idea.
However, this is the new bit. As with any combat, the task also tries to cause damage to you in return. If the game has an existing mechanic to represent narrative defeat – such as Fate or HeroWars – use that. For something like D&D you could add a new characteristic for skill hit points (e.g. “Composure”), along with another characteristic (e.g. “Cool”) that represents your Skill Armour Class. Each round as you attack the Task, the Task attacks back, trying to hit your Cool and undermine your Composure. The amount of damage done by the Task is probably a little abstracted, based on the overall stress of the situation: it’s not about how much time is left, it’s about how much pressure the PC perceives themselves to be under. Again, in a d20-style game, it’s pretty easy to come up with suitable values.
If the Difficulty Points reach zero, you succeed against the odds. If your Composure reaches zero, you run away screaming, throw your hands up in the air claiming it’s just too damn hard, or whatever. In effect, this gives you a dual timer track – will the hero repair the aeroplane controls, will the plane crash, or will the hero reach breaking point and run for a parachute in a (futile) attempt to save herself?
Because this system introduces the dual nature of attacking and being attacked, it opens up the opportunity for slightly crunchy tactical options. This changes extended skill contests by adding a critical missing element – player choice. It’s no longer just roll your skill. Do you decide to Taking Care (reduce your chance of success, but minimises your risk of losing Composure)? Do you tackle the task Recklessly (reducing your skill, but boosting the Difficulty damage you inflict)?
Conclusion of sorts
Of the two options I describe here, I think there is more utility in expanding the Torg system to other games. But I think there could be some mileage in developing a Skill Combat system as an interesting counter-point to the usual way of doing things. Consider the gauntlet thrown down