Cinemechanix: Full(ish) Circle

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 25 April 2019 Written by Steve

Last week I was still working on trying to figure out how to account for more or less specialized skills without making things too complicated, and had decided to possibly go with a defined list of “Big Skills” with a relatively low maximum bonus supplemented by more specific (narrower than Big Skills) but higher bonus player-defined skills that could be further narrowed down with a Shadowrun-style specialization. 

As I started working through The Big List of Standard RPG Skills to group things together, I kept running into problems with making things fit the scheme. To answer the “can you do that without a Hail Mary roll?” question (rocket surgery and stuff), it made sense for the Big Skills to have a set upper limit with a general White Wolf-style “what this number means” table somewhere (+1 Amateur…+5 Noted Authority or whatever). That works for something like Guns (+1 Barney Fife, +5 Chow Yun Fat in a John Woo movie) or Nature Lover (+1 You’ve been camping, +5 Tarzan), but it broke down for things like “Science” or “Academics” where “pick a specialization” was the logical set-up (unless you’re Tyrion Lannister, +5 at Knowing Things is probably too broad, and useless for the Hail Mary rolls thing). Aside from the trouble of trying to break down which sub-skills made sense as Big Skills (is Earth Sciences or Humanities ok or do you need to drill down to Geology and Sociology?), a specialization scheme would lock out a bunch of small skills (if History is a Big Skill, you have to specialize if you want to take it as a small skill), or at least lead to confusion between them, especially since they’re both defined by bonuses that are identical in the system math (though characters with a related Big Skill and small skill could stack bonuses for both). 

As I kept thinking about different Big Skills, I noticed that the most obvious groups resembled the Trademarks from the mechanic I’d thrown away. For those who don’t remember, Trademarks were kind of like Gimmicks: things like Daredevil or Vampire Slayer or Natural Athlete or whatever. When a Trademark applied, you rolled a d20 Free Die instead of a d12. The two main problems with Trademarks were that they were very broadly defined (coming very close to effectively being a “roll a d20 for all ‘class skills’” kind of thing) and they were very vague and subjective. Some Trademarks had slightly different rules, which, combined with the broadness of many of the Trademarks, made if feel like the list needed to be more or less “complete.” They were rules that the game gave you, not rules you created as needed. The broadness also contributed to a relatively short list of blah Gimmicks instead of a longer list of more interesting and appealing combinations and made certain Trademarks (like the combat ones) way more useful than others in a typical game.

One of the problems with the old Trademarks is that I went at them from a very “Gimmick” kind of mindset. I set them all up as essentially character traits or special abilities rather than skill sets. There was one, however, that I’d set up for the “Your Trademark is your job” type characters: A Very Particular Set of Skills. For that one, you chose a theme (like “Covert Ops” or “Beach Bum”) and then picked a number of specific skills equal to Hero Factor (Stealth, Lockpicking, and Surveillance or Surfing, SCUBA diving, and Driftwood Art). You only got the Trademark bonus of those specific skills. 

I realized that setting all of the Big Skill groups up similar to the Very Particular Set of Skills Trademark just might work, so now I’ve got several Trademarks (Nature Lover, Burglar, Scholar, etc), each with a list of skills (of the same “broadness level” of the normal Edges/Skills that players can choose a la carte). The Trademark gives you a +1 bonus for any roll that fits the Trademark theme, but you also pick a number of specific skills equal to Hero Factor. For those, you roll the d20 (in light of this addition, I’m rolling back the “d20 is the default roll for your action” thing), or one die type higher if your die is limited due to injury or whatever (so if you’re hurt and can’t roll higher than a d10, you roll a d12 for Trademark Skills). You can also buy your Trademark skills as regular skills to increase your bonus above +1.

I think this scheme will have a number of advantages:

  • You get a “Job” type bonus for a big range of subjective rolls, but it’s a small bonus. The big bonus is well-defined and only applies to a set number of specific skills. A Hero Factor 4 Warrior rolls a d20 for 4 weapons or fighting styles, but just gets a +1 for other weapons. Likewise, a Hero 4 Scholar is still a polymath (expertise/d20 in 4 academic fields), but isn’t a super-genius with 9 PhDs (until you get to the Super Hero Hero Factor range, where it makes perfect sense).
  • Biology or History are normal skills that you can take as Trademarks Skills if you’ve got the appropriate Trademark. They’re not a Trademark on their own, so they don’t prevent characters without the Scholar/Scientist Trademark from taking them. There’s still a little wonkiness in that you can take them as both a Trademark Skill (+1 bonus and d20) and a regular skill (which adds to the bonus), but it’s not nearly as wonky as some other possibilities. 
  • The Hail Mary question can be answered by “Is it a Trademark Skill?” (and if not, maybe, “Is the Bonus +X or higher?”).  
  • The skill list for the Trademarks give a ton of good examples of what sorts standard skills are acceptable (and can be extrapolated into specializations). 
  • The Trademarks can be defined in a number of ways: natural talent (Athletics), skill set (Wheelman), interests (Nature Lover), or whatever and the GM can “balance” them with the mix of allowed skills. “Warrior” allows you to take any fighting skill, but is basically just fighting. You could also create a “Knight” skill with a more limited selection of combat skills but additions like Court Etiquette, Horsemanship, and Heraldry. 
  • Since there are so many options, the sample Trademarks list feels more incomplete and since it’s basically just a themed list of skills, players and GMs are practically given an engraved invitation to build their own Trademarks tailored to specific settings and characters: Bounty Hunter, Ninja, Hufflepuff, Pin Pal, whatever. 
  • Trademarks can easily be used for things like factions, cultures, character classes, and even races (though some may require additional Special Effects). The ease of creating custom Trademarks allows characters who need more mechanical definition for things like backstory or social standing a way to do it without requiring backstory, social class, or whatever to be a stat that every character has to define. 

I could change my mind completely before next week, but after writing up a very brief list of Trademarks, I think it’s going to work. The new Trademarks seem like a nice synthesis of a lot of old ideas that fell apart somewhere along the line, and I feel like the customization options invite game-specific Trademarks that provide strong points of contact between the rules and setting without increasing complexity. I realize I’ve said this before, but I think I might have finally cracked the case.

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Cinemechanix: Full(ish) Circle.
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