RPGaDay: Day 20

Continuing with RPGaDay, this week is all about game and dice mechanics. You can catch my other RPGaDay posts over at Renaissance Gamer.

Day 20: Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

I’ve talked about it before, but I am a huge fan of the skill mechanics in Trail of Cthulhu by Pelgrane Press. In Trail of Cthulhu, you will always succeed at an investigative check, assuming you have the right skill. If you’re a forensics expert at a crime scene, for example, you don’t check to see if you find any information. Of course you do, you’re a forensics expert. What the game uses its skill checks for is to allow you to gain extra information, a context or connection your character might not have considered.

It’s such a small thing, but it means your investigative game never gets bogged down by situations that plagued Call of Cthulhu, where the skill checks were just straight percentage rolls and you either succeeded or didn’t. And yes, the skilled game master can still keep things moving ahead, giving the players another way to find that information. But it still sets up a situation in which the character can fail at something in which they are an expert. While that might fit thematically with the nihilism of the CoC universe, it just doesn’t feel good to the player. It’s one thing if my dilettante messes up an archeology check, he was never really focused on that anyway. But the player who creates professor of archeology, Dr. Bones Digemup, with degrees in archeology, history, and anthropology, has a reason to expect that when it comes to those types of checks, they will succeed.

I’ve started to use this mechanic in other games that I run, and it has made the games go much smoother. While not focused on investigation like the various Cthulhu games, most RPGs have an element of necessary information gathering. In D&D 5e, for example, characters often have to solve puzzles, find traps, figure out who the real villain is, and so on. So I’ve started using the idea that if a player is proficient with a skill, they will automatically succeed at gaining the information. The skill check still comes into play, but now it’s to see if they are able to glean some additional information that an untrained person would not have noticed. I’ve even used it for non-investigative checks, like acrobatics and athletics. If a character is proficient in athletics, for instance, and is trying to leap from one nearby rooftop to another, they succeed. What they are rolling for is level of success. So they could roll a 2, and while the character still makes the jump, they end up clutching the edge of the building in full view of their pursuers on the ground. Or they could roll an 18, and not only clear the gap with ease, but find themselves in a great spot for an ambush.

I really do recommend making this small change to how you handle skills in your game. I think you’ll find the game moves forward much better, your players will have more fun, and your monsters and villains will become that much more frightening. Because, of course, these rules apply to them as well…