Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Homebrew '82: Contests of Skill

My Homebrew '82 RPG will make some use of ability score checks (i.e., skill rolls) to figure out if a character can do something or not. This is usually for things that would be difficult to role-play at the table, and which have definitive succeed-or-fail outcomes. Many other RPGs also use "opposed rolls," in which two characters use their skills directly against one another. I'm not a huge fan of opposed rolls -- mainly because I've never seen a situation for which they seem like a good fit. (Aside of combat of course -- that's a horse of a different color!)

However, there are some times when two or more characters are facing off in a non-combat situation that's a little more involved and tension-filled than a single opposed roll would allow. You know the classic examples...
You REALLY don't want to know what it has in its pocketses!
What we're talking about are Contests of Skill, in which the opponents make use of their skills in alternating, escalating moves.  The very definition of a "mini-game," perhaps...
  • Feats of strength (STR)
  • Drinking game (CON)
  • Riddle contest (INT or WIS)
  • Escalating insults -- "the dozens" (INT)
  • Torture? (CON)
  • Persuasion, bluff, intimidation, seduction (CHA vs WIS)
  • Bardic singing / improv performance (CHA or INT)
  • A logical argument or passioned debate (INT, WIS, and/or CHA)
  • Agillity-based parlor games, like darts (DEX)
  • Pain endurance (CON)
  • Dancing? (DEX)
Here's how it works.

In cases where there may be several relevant ability scores, the GM must decide whether to use the largest one, or average them, or whatever else may be appropriate. The same technique must be used for both contestants to derive a single relevant ability score for each, but it may be the case that the "attacker" and the "defender" don't use the same scores.

The contest proceeds in rounds, in which each participant "makes a move." What that means depends on the type of contest. The relevant ability scores are used to compute a kind of temporary hit points (THP) which are lost when a contestant fails at making a move. Getting down to zero or below means losing. Each contestant starts with 10 + their ability score in THP.

The first character (who is usually the one who issued the challenge) starts with a relatively easy "move." Is it a success or failure? Use an Easy skill check against the relevant ability score to find out. (See more about my take on the ESDVAN system here.) If this first move is a failure, this character loses 1 THP. If it succeeds, status quo.

The next player then goes. If the other guy's move was a failure, then this contetstant can attempt to do a move at the same difficulty/damage level as the previous move. Or, he or she can raise the stakes as described below. If the previous move was a success, then the stakes MUST be raised!

How does one raise the stakes?  There are 2 possible ways:  Either the difficulty level of the skill check is increased by one (e.g., from Easy [2d6] to Standard [3d6]), or the number of THP done in damage increases by one. The player raising the stakes chooses which. Again, a failure means the character loses the specified number of THP.

The rounds repeat as above until there somebody is reduced to zero THP. The stakes can't ever go down, so the contest will tend to grow more tense as the rounds go on. Of course, this situation is ripe for good role-playing -- it just provides a "frame" for how the contest goes. Players and GMs are encouraged to describe their ever-more-difficult feats! 

Optional addition: "Lifelines?"

Each participant begins the contest holding 3 cards. When played, a card can muck with the outcomes of the skill rolls...
  1. Plus 2 to my own relevant ability score for this round
  2. Minus 2 to my opponent's relevant ability score for this round
  3. Drop the highest die from my roll for this round
One can play a card whenever in the contest one chooses, but in a given round the cards must be played before the dice are rolled. First, the player who is about to roll has the option to play their card 1 or 3 (for his/her own benefit). Then, the opponent can play their card 2 (which hinders the current roller). Once a player plays a card, it's gone.

Anyway, that's where it stands now.  Again, completely untested as of right now! :-) I know there has been some discussion of systems like this in the OSR blogosphere -- I distinctly remember talk of temporary hit points in all the talk about "Imech" a while ago. But I think this system as a whole is a unique and fun variant.

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