This week’s Legends and Lore column from Monte Cook deals with how rules complexity and detail affects the play experience. Actually, it really does nothing more than describe the basic concepts and then then asks the community to think about it and give their opinion. This is a refreshing change of pace from the previous articles (both his and Mearls’) because it feels like a genuine discussion rather than an overture to an agenda.
He describes three tiers of complexity:
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing.
I think there’s a fairly obvious problem with this: it’s not heroic. Part of the excitement of being an adventurer is being capable of amazing, almost superhuman things, but not knowing if they’re going to work. As a mechanic, this is dry and sterile, reducing climbing to the level of difficult terrain.
My other concern is that this excludes simple mechanics that improve on a character’s ability to climb.
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing. You must make a Climb check to ascend a vertical surface, with a Difficulty Class based on the difficulty of the climb. A Climb check is a skill check based on a character’s Strength score plus the number of skill ranks he has devoted to the Climb skill, if any. If you fail the check, you make no progress. If you fail the check by more than 5, you fall. You can make a check to catch yourself again before you take falling damage, the DC of which is equal to the Climb DC of the surface plus 5.
The difficulty class of the climb is based on the incline of the surface, the number of handholds, and the slickness of the surface. See the chart below.
Climbing counts as movement.
A climber’s kit adds to the climber’s check, as do various magical items such as a potion of climbing or a ring of climbing and so on.
You grant combat advantage to opponents while you climb. If you suffer damage while climbing, you must make an immediate check or fall.
You can attempt to climb faster, using your normal speed, but your check is made with a -5 penalty.
Creatures with a natural climb speed do not need to make Climb checks and ignore difficult terrain while climbing.
Typical Climb DCs include:
Oi, that’s complicated. Cook explains that this is “sort of a weird collision of 3rd edition and 4th edition rules” and that is has the strength of not requiring the GM to make judgement calls. I think that’s a little misleading, as complex mechanics like this invite a rules lawyer to argue over the definition rather than the judgement, i.e. “It’s a rough wall, not a slippery wall.” This brings up a point about perspective on DCs and game mechanics that I will discuss later.
Climb: Characters move at half speed when climbing. You must make a Climb check to ascend a vertical surface, with a Difficulty Class based on the difficulty of the climb. You grant combat advantage to opponents while you climb.
As usual, I prefer the middle of the road option because it grants me authority over encounter design while empowering the players.
Looking at it backwards
I think Cook is coming at this from the wrong perspective. He’s talking about designing skill rules that do what the GM wants them to do. I think he should create a system like Option 2, above and teach GMs how to make that system work they way they want. Encounter design is always easier when you understand the purpose behind the mechanics.
Let’s look at the proposed option 3 for a moment. If you don’t analyze it too closely, it looks as though it should save the GM time and effort, especially when a player wants to climb in a place where climbing wasn’t part of the original encounter design. This comes up sometimes when a character wants to go up a tree, but most often it happens in street fights. The GM noodles over the charts for a second and spits out a DC. The problem with this, beyond wasting time with charts and tables, is that simulationism has taken precedence over play. He could have just as easily said “medium DC” and been done with it.
My belief is that almost all mechanical realism is a waste of effort. Yeah, the rules should have a passing relationship with reality, but fun and excitement are far more important than verisimilitude. Note that I specified mechanical realism. It’s one thing to be obsessing over the fact that the longbow ranges don’t reflect the real world (huge waste of time, that), but quite something else to say that scaling the prison tower to rescue your friend isn’t something just anyone can do.
The latter example demonstrates what I mean about skill systems and how GMs approach them. If the GM expects the characters to infiltrate the prison, he should look at the party’s espionage skills and tailor the DCs accordingly. That is, the numbers should reflect the best fit between realism and probability. Even then, there should be some wriggle room for creativity, heroics and risk taking.
Skills exist for five purposes:
- To determine the success of non-combat activities.
- To determine the success of non-standard actions or contested actions in combat.
- To gate access to information or amounts of information.
- To provide a framework for universal actions.
- To provide a mechanic for (potentially) exceeding normal limits.
A healthy skill system should have the following characteristics:
- Characters should have access to most, if not all, skills without compromising combat abilities.
- The system should accomodate people who want to specialize in or master something.
- Characters with natural talent should perform better than the average person, but not as well as someone trained in that area of expertise.
- Trained characters should be able to perform mundane tasks with that skill without having to make a check.
If you were paying attention, you should have noticed that “trained characters should be capable of feats that are beyond an untrained character” does not appear in this list. That’s because I think that’s usually a bad idea. Outside of things such as performing rituals and the like where training is required, everyone should have at least a slim chance of success.
As GMs, we regularly insist that players do their best to not act on information that their character lacks. In consideration, we agree to not have access to essential information be determined by die rolls. I’m always irritated when I see something like “If the characters search the desk, they find a map to the dungeon.” Really? Crap like that is why players work so hard to job skill systems.
Like Frankie says, “Relax, don’t do it.”