Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Query-Based Reconnaisance

One of my objectives with Fantasy Traveller is to make it somewhat 'older-school' than the 3.x derivatives my group tends to play, though not to go as far as OSRIC and similar retroclones.  So far, I think I've done fairly OK - I have a more-or-less rulings-based magic system (while there are rules for specific effects, there are also a ton of things you can do that aren't well-defined, and which hopefully will never be) and a core which is more closely aligned with Combat as War than Combat as Sport.  However, the problem of Recon and Lore skills has been bothering me for some time.  For those unfamiliar, the stance of the Old School community of skills as a concept is pretty negative (example), with observation skills being a particularly favorite target, since they let the players bypass hazards without any degree of cunning at all.  From the Old School Primer:
Player Tip #5) Ask lots of questions about what you see. Look up. Ask about unusual stonework.  Test floors before stepping...  In other words, die rolls don’t provide a short cut or a crutch to discover and solve all those interesting puzzles and clues scattered throughout a dungeon. The same goes for handling traps (unless there’s a thief class).
So, that's the OSR's stance on observation skills.  Tricky.

Cut back in time to the Traveller game I played in earlier this semester.  As a player, I tend to ask a good number of questions in combat.  Things like "What're they armed with?", "Any grenade belts or sidearms?", "How are they armored?", "How many of them are there?!", "Do they have any distinguishing markings?", "Any obvious alarm systems that it looks like they might try to set off?", and so forth.  I may ask fewer questions during exploration than I should, but during combat, I feel like I go perhaps a little bit overboard.  If all of my questions are answered (and sometimes they're not), it kind of strains suspension of disbelief; sure, I had a high Int and ranks in Recon, but I was absorbing a lot of information really really quickly.  This bothered me a little.

I found a solution to both of these problems simultaneously in a most unlikely place: Grognardling's post on looting libraries for useful books.  In particular, a number of his books provide the PCs with a set number of questions on a particular topic, which they can ask and the DM shall answer.  When I read this, I was immediately reminded of Matt's character in the last Traveller campaign, who had a deal with a demon, whereby he could ask questions of the demon in exchange for radiation exposure.  This mechanic worked pretty damn well, both providing a way to get limited information into the hands of the PCs and as a good flavoring device for the campaign.  So I realized that perhaps this was the solution to Recon and Lore as well.  What I am suggesting is this:

When combat begins, the GM paints things in vague strokes; "You enter a smoky cavern.  Ahead stands a great altar on a dais, with a robed figure and a massive golden idol.  Between you and it stand a mob of filthy cultists armed with an assortment of rusty weapons."  He describes only things which are obvious to the untrained eye.  PCs may then use Recon as an action in combat (Significant by default, or minor at -2 / Difficult for time-shifting) to ask a number of questions about the environment equal to 1 plus their effect.  Particularly difficult or non-obvious questions may cost 2 or more points of effect to answer (spotting a hidden opponent might require a number of points equal to his effect on Stealth, for example).  So questions here might be "How many cultists?", "Are there any chandeliers to swing from?", "Is the robed guy wearing armor underneath the robes?", "Does the idol have gems for eyes?" (though that's kind of a waste, since of course it does), and so forth.  Naturally, this isn't the only way for PCs to gain information; if you engage in melee with someone, you obviously know what kind of weapon they're wielding, if they're wearing non-hidden armor, and similar things.  Another possibility, even, would be to allow Melee + Int as a Difficult / -2 minor action to ask questions about your opponent's skill, strength, dexterity, and fighting style.  Heck, possibly morale state too - sometimes you can see that in the way an opponent fights.

Finally, Lore / Science also clearly falls into this "skills for questions" category.  More of an out-of-combat thing, but rolling Lore and asking 1 plus effect questions about a particular topic on a success does a nice job of limiting "knowledge dump" like you'd get with 3.x Knowledge skills, but also provides some degree of data to the PCs.  As with Recon, some questions may cost multiple points of effect; you're not going to know the demon's Truename off the top of your head, period, but you might know of a few books where it might be found, or what this type of demon's weaknesses are, or what sacrifices might persuade it not to kill you.  As we can see in that example, one good point of skills for questions is that there's some degree of player skill and planning involved in selecting the questions to ask.

Other promising skills for skills as questions include Wizardry for Scrying and other divinations, letting you ask a few questions about a remote locale or person, Liturgy for oracular purposes, and pretty much any of the magic skills for diagnosing things like "Is this magical?"  and "What school of magic is this enchantment?"  Backporting this rule to Traveller, you could apply the same principle to Sensors and Computers; a really good Sensors result lets you ask many questions about the target, while a good Computers check might turn up more data than you were initially looking for.  Streetwise and Survival are promising, too, for 'number of questions to ask of your underworld contacts / number of illegal goods you can procure' and number of questions to ask about natural things ("Is this edible?"  "No."  "Is this deadly poison that we could put on our weapons?"  "Yes."  "Sweet!").

I think part of what makes this a promising 'bridge' mechanic between the Old and New Schools is that, if you give New School players a mechanic for asking questions, they'll start asking questions.  Then, if you switch to an older style, they will likely continue asking questions.  Basically, it builds a good habit on top of the "roll first and ask questions later" tendencies of modern players.


  1. I really enjoyed this post and appreciate your thought process as I start to get my head around launching a new campaign of my own and deciding what to do with skills.

    In the 4e game I presently play in, there is quite a lot of dice-based skill checks happening both in and out of combat. I dislike this for the reasons you state. At our last session, there was a little reality alteration (we had to do a 'do-over') because the DM (and we as players) were so focused on the dice-rolling and game mechanics that he (or we) missed a very important narrative description of the situation. This led me to believe that dicing for outcomes kills immersion beyond a certain point.

    The fundamental dilemma here is the need to encourage player interaction and skillful play while recognizing that the in-world character is going to be better at tasks than the player by virtue of having skills the real world player does not -- as well as the simple fact that the character is *there* in the game-world.

    Your proposed in-combat solution makes sense to me as a compromise (the character is rewarded for being skilled/perceptive, but player skill relates to the question asked), but I sincerely wonder whether it's more trouble than it's worth or if it's too mechanical. I suppose if you had a group of limits-pushing players, you could use this mechanic to manage them. Otherwise, my preference would be to dole out information as I see fit and keep things moving.

    I read somewhere (Zak's blog? I forget) that dice should only be involved where the outcome is in doubt and the stakes sufficiently meaningful. Like all maxims, it is often honored in the breach, but it's something I am going to try to keep in the forefront of my mind.

    1. What if the number of questions you got to ask was static? Like, if you have 5 ranks in Knowledge(Dungeoneering), you always get to ask a question when you encounter an aberration.

      Higher ranks = more questions.

      Die rolls would be for stuff like true names and secret weaknesses.

    2. @Gene - you know, I've heard that (that dice should only be used for conflict resolution) somewhere too, though it was before I had started reading Zak's stuff. And while it is generally a good rule, sometimes the "failure is interesting" aspect comes into play - sure, you only need a 2 on a d20 to succeed, but man, if you roll that 1, having to explain that failure suddenly becomes an interesting narrative task. And I guess that's kind of how I see Traveller playing; the PCs are mostly competent, but occasionally they goof up spectacularly on easy tasks and hilarity ensues.

      @Tim - An interesting solution... Care to test it in TB :P ? I've been thinking of switching my points out of Intimidate into Knowledge (Dragons). Specifically dragons, because I shouldn't know squat about Arcana, but I should know about those.

  2. Apocolypse World does subsets of questions for recon checks. Remind me to show it to you some time, it's pretty cool.

    1. I've heard some very interesting things about Apocalypse World; didn't know you had it! Will definitely bother you about it (though you should do items for everyone else for TB first :P )