Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 2: Skill Failure And Success

Time to learn. About skills.

As we move forward in our discussion about various dice mechanics in various Palladium Books games, our spotlight falls on a fairly large hot-button item: skills. While most elements of Palladium's system (and, in fact, the system of any publisher) have fans and detractors, skills have perhaps the widest variety of complaints. Today, I think we'll talk principally about the actual mechanics of how skill checks are performed, and save issues like the vast skill catalog or the bizarre Boxing skill for another day.

The percentile problem

One common claim against the Palladium skill system is that it uses the percentile mechanic for skill checks, while combat, saves, and most other rolls are based on a D20 mechanic. Many, many gamers feel that this extra mechanic adds unneeded complexity to the game, often described by the notably nondescript term of "clunky." It is also noted that for the game's various D20 rolls, high rolls are good, while using the percentile system makes low rolls desirable, adding to the inherent "clunkiness" of the pairing of these two mechanics.

I'm generally a defender of the percentile skill system for two reasons. First and foremost, I feel that the provided "chance to succeed" mechanic, coupled with the percentile system, is very clear and easy to grasp. When you look down at your character sheet, you immediately know the odds. Secondly, the use of the base-100 setup for skills allows the game designer to make a distinction between how one advances versus the next, whereas in a D20 skill system, all skills increase at the same rate.

Briefly, let me point out that when we talk about Palladium, we're talking about a total level-up advancement system. With the achievement of a new level of experience, all of the character's skills and abilities advance by a level, as opposed to a rank system where the player selects certain skills or abilities to advance as experience increases. For the sake of this discussion, that's the system now, and I'm assuming that it stays that way, for better or worse.

Not all skills in real life advance with the same amount of effort, I think we can all agree. Not to break down the complex functions of education and experience, but it's easier to improve at some skills than others, and core level of understandings vary as well. With practice, learning multiplication tables is certainly easier to do than to find the volumes of complex shapes using calculus. Learning to put a computer together can be achieved at a much greater rate than learning how to design processors. It makes sense that not all skills should advance at the same rate, and the percentile system allows some skills to advance at +2% per level while others can advance at three or four times the rate.

Missed opportunity

That's about the end of my defense, however, as I feel that Palladium misses real opportunities for good game design in how its skills are presented. Starting skill levels are all over the board, often seemingly at random. Basic and Advanced Mathematics start and advance at the same rate. Demolitions has a base chance of success of 60%, which is twice as pretty much every Language or Lore skill. The rate of increase, while it makes sense that it should change from skill to skill, is almost always the same monotonous +5%.

There should undoubtedly be more rhyme and reason to the way that skills are set up, but here's the flip side: you could go crazy trying to assign these. Is it easier to learn to use a computer, or to speak Spanish? Is the study of robot mechanics more or less challenging than becoming a doctor? How should advancement in a skill like Dance relate to that of Chemistry? If trying to establish a hierarchy of skill difficulties, both to learn initially and to advance, you could spend a year researching and playtesting and guess-checking, but you would never get it right.

How to fix it

Here we fall firmly into my basic rules of game design, namely that mechanics shouldn't be overwhelming. When things begin to look this complicated, simply bow out and make it easy. Why not create three tiers of skills and call them Basic, Advanced, and Elite? Assign a working base percentage and advancement rate to each of these categories, and then throw skills into each. Is that a perfect solution? No, but think of the hassle and heartache that it would save players and GMs when making up, or advancing characters.

When designing skills, I like to consider the question, "At what level should this skilled character be proficient?" That is to say, at what level should a character be at 50/50 on a skill, or enjoy an 80% success rate, or max out at 98%? If going with the Basic/Advanced/Elite model, I'd say that a character who picks up a Basic skill (Basic Electronic, Pilot Automobile, Swimming, etc.) should be successful in ideal situations most of the time from the beginning, have a very good chance of success by level 5 or 6, and max out relatively early. I feel like Advanced skills should probably max around level 12 or so, while Elite skills should probably max beyond the given range of experience, achieving 80% or so at level 15. Remember, O.C.C. skill bonuses will let characters max out earlier if the skill is part of their professional training.

So, just some top-of-the-head, non-playtested stabs at this:

Basic skills have a base of 50%, plus 7% per level. Examples might include Basic Mechanics, Basic Electronics, Cooking, Pilot Truck, Swimming, and First Aid. Common traits may be that these can be self-taught skills, or picked up with some basic instruction.

Advanced skills have a base of 40%, plus 5% per level. Examples might include Mechanical Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Pilot Helicopter, Radio Scramblers, Paramedic, Medical Doctor, SCUBA, and Analytical Chemistry. Common traits may be that there are skills requiring extensive instruction at a college, trade school, apprenticeship, or other intense study. The majority of skills important to a character would likely be Advanced skills.

Elite skills have a base of 25%, plus 4% per level. Examples would all be skills that are super-rare and known only to a very small handful of people in the world, like Robot Electronics, M.D. in Cybernetics, Cyberjacking, rare lores and languages, exotic martial arts, and other skills almost impossible to come by.

I might throw in a fourth category of the most very basic, automatic skills for most setting, like Reading and Writing a Native Language, Basic Math, Pilot Automobile, etc. at 90%+2% per level or so.

More to say

Wow, I feel like I threw a lot of numbers out there. Hopefully it wasn't too crunchy. I have more to say about skills, but that's probably enough for now. What do you think? Right track? Wrong track? What are your house rules and fixes? Let's hash it out, and be sure to check back soon as we dive back into fixing the world's gaming problems.


-Mark said...

I've done a few things with the skill system over the years (I've an article I'll post in a bit from my own very-sporadic blog). I suggested the same tier system, but prefer the idea of everything advancing at the same rate, just for simplicity's sake.

Other big suggestions I think would be easy to implement, but improve the design aspect of the game:

1) Add full attributes to skill percentages. You can either add a constant attribute (IQ always adds to Mathematics skill checks, always), or you can use variable attributes, depending on your situation (you add PP to your Prowl roll when trying to sneak through a darkened room, but use your MA when trying to remain unobtrusive in a crowd). This makes attributes count at all levels (a 10 PP is manifestly worse than a 15 PP, though not as much as the mathematics of rolling attributes would imply). It also provides a basis for easy defaulting... simply roll the attribute, with appropriate modifiers.

2) Get away from low roll = good, and switch to a "Price is Right" method. By Price is Right I mean "As close to your skill without going over", so someone with a 60% who rolls a 59% didn't "barely succeed", but succeeded awesomely. This facilitates quick and easy skill comparisons (highest successful number is always the winner), gives more skillful people a place they can succeed where others cannot (if I have a 45% and you have a 30%, I can do manifestly better than you... my 31% is better than you can achieve), and even allows for the adjucation of "extended rolls" and critical successes(if you count the number in the 10s place as "successes" or hits or whatever you want to call them, more skilled people are likely to accumulate successes faster; call an exact hit on the number a critical success and add an additional success to accumulated totals).

These do a lot to rationalize the % skill system into something that makes a degree of internal sense, and makes more character choices impactful (Who cares if I have a 2 PP? It's under 15 anyway, so it doesn't hurt anything).

Here's the link.

When we get to combat, I've got more to say on spending skills for combat abilities.

Jason Richards said...

1) Is a solid idea. You'd need to lower the base % of all skills by 10% though. I'd say you let the player try to find creative ways to add different attributes to various skill rolls.

2) Not a bad suggestion, either. It would add drama to every roll, for sure. I've always advocated a "degree of success" model where characters are rewarded for beating their skill roll by a large amount, but it can be hard to quantify.

Helmsman said...

Your tiers are pretty good game design, and simplify things and would cut down on book referencing a lot, so I approve.

The general issue I have with percentile skills paired with d20 combat is that it basically assumes that there will be no interaction between the two and offers no guidelines on how one might influence the others and in areas where the lines blur (athletics) it can get confusing and clunky. Piloting is a good example. You have a percentile skill to pilot (only boosted by IQ) but this has no bearing whatsoever on the combat capability of that same pilot. So a character flying a SAMAS could have a 56% Pilot skill but have combat bonuses in the +10 to +12 range and that's not even a particularly extreme example. In this case you basically have a guy who could do a fantastic and thrilling aerial battle with a young dragon or two, and then after dispatching them quite handily would promptly fly into a tree after failing his 50/50 chance to pilot his robot correctly.

Of course there's the opposite example. A cracker-jack pilot with mediocre combat skills could execute perfect maneuvers with precision, but still can't evade attacks. (I admit this one would make a cool and semi-compelling character example in some ways.)

Those are just the most obvious examples. I'm not saying that solutions can't be found that still use the percentile system, sometimes a separate mechanic keeps things simpler, however to my knowledge none of the games have addressed them beyond forcing the GM to make a ruling himself.

Another thing to question is the precedent that Palladium sets that the skill percentile numbers are only applicable when the character is under duress. This I'm generally ok with. A character with basic math can add subtract and multiply at a desk just fine with only a tiny percentage of errors, but that same character might be down to a 25% chance of success to count someone's pulse correctly when bullets are flying by. However sometimes a skill roll that isn't under duress effects things. Like say... a repair roll. Repairing power armor could potentially effect the combat effectiveness (bonuses and penalties) of that piece of armor. How does that work? Do we need to create a table that determines what the effects of the repair roll are? Or do we just say, Succeed: the thing is fixed - Fail: the thing isn't. Keep rolling until success is achieved.

Overall I think that issue would be solved with some standardized difficulty mods and degrees of success/failure. Why they haven't been implemented yet is sort-of baffling... but not here to gripe. Another thing to consider is time-spent per roll guidelines, though that can get clunky as it's just another factor to reference.

Another thing that I really like about Palladium's Attributes is that they're kind of perfect... except all but three are virtually pointless from a mechanical standpoint. This can be fixed by applying appropriate bonuses to skills based on certain attributes. One could do this like IQ does it already, but make it situation applicable. ME for example can represent discipline to take extra time working on an extended task... like Painting a Picture or assembling an engine block. MA could augment a streetwise roll to get a better price on some black market transaction. Hell Prowl could be a ME, MA or PP bonus depending on if the situation were a hidden ambush, blending into a social situation, or sneaking past some guards.

I could probably go on, but this comment is running long as it is. Probably exceeding the length of the original post... sorry.

-Mark said...

Generally, I think Palladium handles the dichotomy of % skills and d20 combat fairly well... in the case of piloting, there's the d20 roll to see if you succeed in dodging or whatever, then the skill-% roll to see if you lose control as a result of that. Your drek-hot pilot might not be able to dodge gunfire that well (low combat bonuses), but be able to keep control after the explosion (high %), while your combat junkie may dodge just fine (high combat bonuses), but have a tendency to dodge into solid objects or overstress the machine (i.e. stall out because he put too much stress on the engines).

Jason Richards said...

Heh, it would be tough to exceed the length of my post. :)

Lots of good points, but let me combine something from both of your comments so far. This would be a radical change, not a simple tweak like I'm trying to stick to, but your skill roll could be combined with a degree of success/failure to determine bonuses, with every 10 points of success/failure granting a +/- 1 to the next combat roll.

The SAMAS pilot with his 56% skill tried a maneuver to bring guns to bear on his target. He rolls a 35% for a success that grants him a +3 to strike. Next round he tries a quick turn to dodge an incoming missile and rolls a 99%. Ouch, that's a failure by 43, which gives a -4 to his dodge roll.

Interesting? The only reason I wouldn't implement it is that you are now rolling twice for all combat rolls: first your skill, then your action.

-Mark said...

If I were to do that, Jason, I'd probably use something like my suggested method of determining successes, and use net successes as a modifier.

So, for example, at the beginning of each round (probably round of attacks; I hate how long a 15 second combat round is to play out), you roll opposed skill checks, and whoever is higher and successful gets to apply that as a bonus or penalty to rolls as he likes.

So if I roll a 35/56, and you roll a 20/30, I get to add 1 point to a roll, or subtract 1 from one of your rolls... I have 3 successes, you have 2, so I get to penalize your dodge or add to my strike. If you'd rolled 31/20, I'd get 3 points to sling around, because you suck THAT HARD.

Mikey97D said...

Good article with some good ideas and I like some of Mark's also.

One item that seems to be dismissed is instead of always looking at negative percentage for skill rolls perhaps have bonus' for easier application of said skill. That would be completely GM dependent though.

Another thought is to instead of having all the skills go up a certain percentage is to have a point "buy" for skills and let the player apply those points as they want with a maximum percentage of maybe +8-10% to one skill per level acquired.

In my opinion, there are too many skills and could be simplified. The tier system could address this and make the system more simplified and help with game flow.

I like the skill system, but I think it needs further tweaking and needs to avoid becoming too complicated in the process.

Jason Richards said...

@Mikey97D, the "skill buy" system is a popular one for Palladium house-rule enthusiasts. I certainly think that a rank system is far superior to the total level-up system, but we're sort of stuck with what it is.

I think at lunch today I'm going to write a quick blog following up yesterday's and talk about the number of skills, and how the skill tier system can sort out that problem. I also have a mechanical reason why so many skills exist in Palladium's game.

How's that for a tease? :)

Helmsman said...

I'm thinking over your idea... using the SAMAS example - if the pilot gets into the 98% percentile skill he'd be getting some reasonably significant combat bonuses... though I'm not keen on adding another roll to combat.

Maybe a simpler solution would be to divide up the piloting skills into say... Maneuvering, Gunnery and Navigation. Maneuvering corresponding with the Dodge/Evade combat stat, Gunnery being obvious, and Navigation simply being the pilot's ability to set an efficient bearing outside of combat. These respective skills could work as 20% percentile skill directly corresponds to a +0 bonus in-combat, and every +1 combat bonus corresponds directly to a +5% skill. Skills are still capped at 98%, but d20 bonuses can still go higher. With the numbers set at that, a 98% would be the equivalent of a +15, which would be pretty reasonable for rifts numbers as I recall, but the numbers could be easily tweaked to adjust balance as desired. This would also be a reasonable way to apply PP bonuses to skills that would benefit from Physical Prowess more than they would from IQ.

Jason Richards said...

Not to get too far ahead of myself, but rather than go splitting up skills into various combat abilities, I think the solution is to shrink the number of skills/combat abilities. Drastically.

I haven't played it, but the Solar System game from Arkenstone ( ) goes so far as to have single skills for whole ranges of activities. You have, for example, a Space Combat skill that is used to fly your space fighter, perform maneuvers, use the tactical systems, fire the weapons, etc. If I were to do a from-scratch build with Palladium's system, I'd go in that direction, especially since most of their games are highly cinematic and action-oriented to begin with.

Helmsman said...

Well then the simplification of that idea would be to assign stat bonuses appropriate to the situation. Say PP for doing tight maneuvering (aka dodging) IQ for navigation (which is already an extra skill so lumping it under piloting could help right?), and maybe ME for Gunnery situations (if you prescribe to the school of thought that aiming a gun via math/a joystick requires more mental precision then Physical Prowess...

Then you have less skill-splitting and more varied uses for the various attributes.

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