Skills and Story

A dwarf alchemist at work

This update shows off a bit of the CORE20 skills chapter, and the place that skills and skill checks occupy at the center of the game. 

Chapter 6 Excerpt — Skills Intro

But to get the full gist of why skills work the way they do in CORE20, I need to ramble on for a bit about story.

For me, over forty-two years off-and-on of playing fantasy RPGs, story is everything.

I love story, first and foremost above all other aspects of the game. The sensation of being alive inside a story in a way I’d never felt before was what hooked me the very first time I played D&D. The urge to create and shape story with my closest friends was what fueled my long-term love of D&D and Traveller, and my later forays into Champions and MechWarrior and many more. 

Working in RPGs for nineteen years (as of this very week, in fact), everything I’ve ever written, every editing assignment I’ve taken on, has been filtered through a lens of understanding that everything in a game — general rules, hard mechanics, lore — is like an iceberg. The 10 percent we see is the words on the page, and that 10 percent is important. But there’s another 90 percent we don’t see, and that’s the potential for those words on the page to let players and GMs shape and create story from the foundations that the rules, the mechanics, and the lore provide.

Yes, I love combat. I love the mechanics of games and the way those mechanics work with and play against each other. I love monster mechanics and design. I love magic items to a degree that’s probably illegal in several states.

But in the end, for me, all of those things serve story. Story is what happens in the space between the GM asking “What do you want to do?” and the player’s response — with the coolest stories generally arising when the response is something the GM has absolutely no warning of and no way to predict.

Since 3rd edition, D&D has focused a significant amount of its “What do you want to do?” mechanic in the form of skill checks. Building on the combat engine that had always been the heart of the game, 3e skill checks were established along the same mechanical lines as combat — a die roll fueling a simple binary outcome. You make an attack roll; you either hit or miss. You make a skill check; you either succeed or fail. 

The problem is, binary outcomes are generally a lousy way to tell a story.

So CORE20 does things a bit differently.

Even as it’ll be eminently recognizable to anyone who’s ever played a fantasy RPG, the skills system in CORE20 allows a lot of customization. For a start, individual skills are set up within skill groups, giving players the choice of a straightforward focus on a broad range of things characters can do, or of drilling down to get really good at very specific tasks. Every skill group has two default ability scores it ties to, creating a baseline that says there’s more than one way to get good at something. Every skill check can also be made using a completely different ability score if the situation warrants.

Beyond that, though, skill checks aren’t a binary pass/fail in CORE20. Rather, every time your character makes a check, there’s a chance you’ll succeed perfectly, a chance you’ll fail badly — and an even wider range of chances for you to succeed, but not quite in the way you’d intended. The rules call this a success with complications, and it fuels the idea of the GM and the players working together to turn every skill check into a potential unexpected story beat. To try to make sure that everyone is constantly working within that space of having to deal with an unexpected outcome, knowing that that’s where the best story so often comes from.

(Art by Dean Spencer)

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