Thursday, February 11, 2010

Expert Pilots Don't Have Pilot

A few weeks ago, Morgan, Colin, and I were emailing about Morgan's upcoming "Sky Pirates of the South China Seas" game at OrcCon (I look forward to hearing Morgan's stentorian recitation of that title: "The Sky Pirates... of the South China Seas!"). Specifically, he was looking for ways to spice up dogfighting, since he planned to have it figure prominently in the game. He didn't want it to devolve into a series of opposed Pilot rolls, which would be pretty boring.

Some good ideas came out of that exchange, but one that stuck with me was my own. Whaddya know?

Anyway, it's like this: I suggested that if these PCs were all primarily identified as pilots (and they are), then it should just be assumed that they're all experts when it comes to flying airplanes. Therefore, take Pilot out of the equation. Realistically, they should all have it as their apex skill, but that makes it harder to really differentiate between them in a meaningful way. Or, put another way, if they're all equally good at the main thing they have in common, they don't feel unique enough.

Instead, in a dogfight, reframe all of their other skills as dogfight skills. Stealth becomes the skill you roll when you hide in a cloudbank, Might is what you roll to force an enemy to land (or into a mountainside), Deceit can be used to trick another pilot into an unfavorable maneuver or position, Athletics lets you pour on the speed, and so on. (And Guns is still your shooting skill.) Basically, just pretend the plane isn't there, or that it's merely an extension of the pilot.

This means the big burly pilot is as "strong" in the air as he is on his own two feet, the silver-tongued charlatan is an equally crafty pilot, etc. It's great for making really iconic, almost Saturday-morning-cartoonish characters who are all part of a team. It's also a lot like the Advantage rules I use for swashbuckling, so this isn't exactly a new concept.

I'm pretty sure Morgan isn't going with that solution -- and fair enough, because it'd likely require a fairly significant overhaul of the skill list to really make it work. But the basic idea behind it still interests me, and as I thought on it further I hit on something else that might have legs for somebody somewhere.

This variation requires something akin to defined classes -- we can just call it a "Profession," and treat it as an aspect for the most part. It has an additional benefit, though. Every Profession is associated with a general area of expertise. (Let's use typical fantasy archetypes just to facilitate things.) The Fighter profession would be an expert at combat, the Wizard an expert in magic, the Thief an expert in deception, and so on.

Just like those expert pilots without Pilot, you don't have a skill that covers your area of expertise. Instead, when you're in your element, every skill you have can be brought to bear. For example, the Fighter doesn't have a Weapons skill. If he's swinging a big two-handed axe, he attacks with Might; if it's a rapier, he'll use Sleight of Hand instead. Likewise, when the Wizard uses magic, all of his skills are potentially applicable, depending on the nature of the magic. Unlike the Fighter, the Wizard can take the Weapons skill -- but whenever he uses a weapon, that's the only skill he can use. He lacks the versatility of the Fighter when it comes to armed combat, but neither can the Fighter with a Magic skill match the Wizard's facility and flexibility with spellcasting.

It's an odd little idea, and it'd obviously need a heck of a lot more before it could even be deemed playable (if all of a Wizard's skills are magic, then what's the Fighter's Magic skill do?), but I think there's potential there. It's definitely in the pulp vein, though, what with different character types essentially epitomizing their areas of expertise, so I have no doubt it could work.


Dusty said...

That is a really interesting idea, however I do think that it works better when ever character would have the same apex skill (Like the pilots example).

Having it work in a mixed group of characters feels a bit weird to me. One idea I though of is that if two characters with the same apex skill go at each other then maybe you were start invoking this rule to keep it interesting.

The wizard doesn't roll stealth to cast invisibility, unless he is going up against an equally skilled wizard. A fighter would only use Might in a fight when his opponent is as good with a sword as him and then his brute strength is an advantage.

Morgan said...

Yeah I really like this as a concept, but I really ran into a time crunch for this game and the other one I'm running and just don't have the time to work up the characters and have this much of a drastic rules tweak as well.

So I think my quicky solution will be to give all the players Pilot +4 and then let their Apex +5 skill define their flying style with stunts.

Maybe if I run this game again sometime when I have less of a deadline to work it out.

Unknown said...

I kinda side with the Apex skill idea.

However, could you achieve the desired differentiation by having players combine Pilot with other skills?

If a Pilot was looking to lose someone in the clouds, say as a way to either avoid detection or try to counter an manuevered aspect of "In my sights!"

So if the hiding Pilot could "combine" with the Stealth skill to tag an Aspect of "cumulonimbus", he might have a better chance of success of shaking that tail?

Similarly, you might also consider combining Pilot with the Resources skill, by way of having bought a plane with better performance characteristics (tighter turning, better able to resist coming out of a steep dive, etc).

...Or is the combining effect of +1 / -1 not enough differentiation?

Anonymous said...

To my mind the issue with using pilot as a secondary skill is that it's too good, not that it doesn't provide enough differentiation. If most of the action in the campaign involves flying in a plane, there's no reason to have any skill as your apex skill except pilot, since it means you get +1 to every other skill most of the time.

This seems like another example of the general rpg principle of "if everyone has to buy something, don't make anyone buy it", and also an expansion of the stunt "use X skill in place of Y when doing Z".

Another interesting variant of this for the all-pilots campaign would be to give everyone two separate skill pyramids, one you use in the air and one you use everywhere else. This lets you have the guy who's a big clumsy ox on the ground but a graceful bird in his plane (or the other way around).

Anonymous said...

You have hit on another one of my niggles, skills.

I love the idea of the skill pyramid but sometimes I think the whole thing is broken. The problem, I think, lies in the skill list itself. Every genre needs to tweak the skill list to some extent - this is probably inevitable, Guns in a Fantasy campaign becomes Archery or Missile Weapon. Sometimes a thing like Ride is a trapping of Survival and sometimes it is full fledged skill. Also, the Survival skill has always bothered me because as written it is inherently a wilderness skill. I have always thought that Survival could apply equally well to a courtly setting or an urban (street smart) setting. It just needs to be focused at a particular environment. Wandering back to the topic at hand, if Pilot is so pervasive in the setting that it becomes a mundane skill (for named characters at least), is it still worth taking as a skill?

I have always thought that PDQ might hold part of the solution, replacing Skills with Qualities. When you are doing something that can be narrated under multiple Qualities it increases your die pool, but that requires messing with 4dF which I would rather not do. It is similar to the Ability + Skill overlap you get in D&D.

Diaspora may also hold part of the answer, but they failed to capitalize on a good idea. Taking the Military Grade stuns essential moves your combat skills to a new area - this is the good idea. Then the screwed up by adding a bunch of Skills - turning SotC's 28 skill list into 37 skill list - when they could have just added a Spaceship stunt that let you apply your existing skills to Space. (I want to use the term Scope here but Diaspora has already made excellent use of that term)

I think this last bit is essentially the same thing Mike is saying about Pilot. You could take Pilot as a Skill, but taking Pilot as a stunt lets you use your existing skills in new ways with regard to piloting.

Dresden may be doing something similar with their "High Concept" Aspect, but there is too little information about the significance of a "High Concept" to say for sure.

And last but not least, I like the what sucks skill idea from Soft Horizon. Essentially the idea is that only the top 3 tiers of the pyramid are interesting - the six skills at Superb, Great and Good. It is tedious and "not fun" to pick 9 skills below Good, so don't pick them. Instead, pick the one skill that you suck at. The problem is that they have reduced their skill list to 7 skills that are very much tied to their setting. This concept may not work with a larger skill list.

Thus ends my thoughts on skills.

Mike Olson said...

You have hit on another one of my niggles, skills.

Just so we're clear, that brings your tally of problems you have with FATE to "Weapons, armour, equipment and magic" and skills.

You must really love aspects.

Did you happen to see this post from a while back? It brings FATE a little closer to PDQ.

Anonymous said...

"You must really love aspects."

I absolutely love aspects, and consequences.

I had read Aspects-as-Skills FATE but I didn't like it, sorry. Messing with the 4dF is always a last resort for me; and I think Aspects are too awesome to be wasted on skills.

Ideally I would like to bring the flexibility of naming your Aspects to choosing your Skills. However, a set skill list makes it easier to work out Skill v. Skill at the table (i.e. this is Melee v. Athletics or Deceit v. Resolve). With free-form Skills it may not be obvious what defence to use against an attack. It also runs the risk mentioned in one of your Supers posts, what if your hero forgets to buy up mental defence and gets clobbered by a psi attack.

Anonymous said...

Brad Murray has a post that touches on your pilot observations. You should also check out the comments on the previous post.