Swing and a Miss

Another CORE20 RPG preview! This one builds on the previous skills preview, as it explores another way that the d20 rolls at the heart of the game can drive story in a robust fashion, rather than simply generating a string of pass/fail results.

Chapter 9 Excerpt — Attacks

The idea of turning skill checks into kind of continuum from failure to success, with degrees of partial success and failure in between, has pretty much always been part of the way I’ve played D&D from 3e on. And to be clear, that’s not a particularly novel idea. Lots of DMs grew quickly tired of the pass/fail monotony that can arise from 3e skill checks, and house-ruled the idea of partial success on a not-quite-good-enough roll. Lots of people (including me) have talked forever online about adopting the idea of a failed skill check not necessarily representing a failed action, but of representing succeeding on the action in an imperfect way.

Though 5e D&D’s skills system is quite different than 3e’s, 5e picked up 3e-style pass/fail checks largely wholesale for its rules — though one of the many oft-overlooked sections of the Dungeon Master’s Guide actually talks about a process for treating marginal success (1 or 2 lower than the target number) as a success at a cost. And of course there are other games that take a more nuanced approach to skill checks, even if they’re called something different in those games.

As you’d probably suspect, I like the current CORE20 approach to skill checks driving story more than I like other approaches. And as said above, I’d been informally playing that way for years, with previous versions of CORE20 using the usual pass/fail system, and me just processing skill check results in my head, deciding on the fly what degree of success any particular check felt like in the moment, and figuring out how the story changed as a result. 

Then at some point, I decided I should probably actually write up my process and incorporate it into the rules for skill checks. And I did, and it worked really well.

And then at some point after that, a thought suddenly popped into my head in the middle of a game: 

“If this system works so well for skill checks, how it would work for combat…?”

The answer, as I discovered when I tried it, is “Really, really well.”

So. This preview shows off the “Attacks” section in the combat chapter, which tells you everything you need to know about how your character can deal with those occasional moments in a fantasy game when other creatures insist on fisticuffs as a means of settling differences. Among the rules presented therein, this section sets up attack rolls using the same system seen in skill checks — embracing the idea that an attack can produce a continuum of effects between a clear miss and full contact, and rebuilding the foundation of the static hit/miss setup that’s been the default for d20-based fantasy combat since the beginning. 

As with the skill setup, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this isn’t a brand new concept by any stretch. Lots of games have long embraced the idea of hitting for partial effect when an attack roll comes up short, from 4e D&D to Dungeon World and many more. But I like to think that what CORE20 does is just a little bit different. 

Because as with the original setup for skills, the point of partial success with an attack roll isn’t just the mechanical effect of dealing a lesser amount of damage, or allowing a foe to counterattack, or hindering an opponent’s defense (though you can do any and all of those things with a low attack roll if you like). Rather, it’s about the idea that thinking about how a less-than-perfect attack looks and manifests is a really great tool for keeping players engaged in what their attack-centric characters are doing in combat, giving them something to focus on beyond the baseline of “I need to roll high.” As with everything in CORE20, it’s about creating a framework where player and GM can work on and shape narrative together, transforming the mechanics of combat from a straight-up mathematical exercise into something better.

(Art by Jackie Musto — http://www.jackiemustoart.com)