Social Simulation And Spelunking: Skill Checks
Improving On Non-Combat CRPG Gameplay
Skill checks or something like them are a core aspect of any rpg or rpg adjacent game. Of course they are an abstraction and there are various immersion and mechanical downsides but a better system hasn’t helpfully presented itself over the year. Various small and medium innovations, only some of which are improvements and many of which are quite context sensitive, have been presented but nothing has taken over from skill checks. Part of this is perhaps that so many rpgs of all mediums are DnD-likes or at least DnD adjacent.
For both the computer role playing game and social simulation strategy game sections of Axioms I have attempted to create a foundation upon which a meaningful improvement to skill checks can be based. I have combed RPG forums and post-mortems and other likely places to find the most interesting previous attempts and sorted out which of these changes is applicable to Axioms. I’ve also tried to bring something unique to the situation.
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Many systems have attempted various forms of skill check to see what feels better. Single die, multiple smaller dice for smoothing, hidden, up-front, no-dice, trait/perk only rather than skill points, etc. Lots of these decisions are based on being hand crafted narrative RPGs which Axioms is not. So they don’t really apply. I won’t argue the virtues and vices of all of these. More productive will be to discuss the specific options I’m considering for Axioms, especially the unique ones.
Everything But The Stabby Stuff
A core principle of Axioms, as I’ve probably stated ad nauseum, is that combat should be the least complex system in the game. Of course it will still be more detailed than most games currently available, but there will be more detail in adjacent systems like logistics and planning and coordination and political will than the purely military systems.
Each core non-combat system including Intrigue, Production, Politics, Diplomacy, Science, Trade, Harvesting, and as a generic class Magic, will have detail approaching or superseding core combat mechanics. Ideally I’d like each of those areas combined with their adjacent/composite systems to supersede combat plus military adjacent/composite systems, but the former is the prime directive and the latter would just be an awesome bonus.
For the purposes of this article that means that on top of previously detailed posts about specific social mechanics, which I’ll link below, I’d also like to create a sort of layered social interaction system where you have a variety of ways to invest in success and which isn’t a mini-game exactly but provides some oopmh and also some opportunity to role-play a bit, though I am more focused on mechanical improvements.
Is that a lot of posts to link? Yes. But they are all pretty relevant for what is to follow.
Skill Check Integration
So as you can see you have tons of things you can do to build up character relations for various purposes like making requests or cutting deals. All of these put you in the situation where you can engage in social skill checks.
One of the major skill-check adjacent actions you can take is that you can apply extra attention points to an action. So there is a minimal cost for an action in Attention. The amount of Attention Points you can apply for a bonus is based off of your skills and other factors relevant to that situation.
Internally you can consider this both generic pre-action prep that you did and also putting a lot of concentration into the actual moment. I’m not going to have actions for things like “memorizing a list of names and faces and personal info” before social events or other character interactions even though that is a real thing that happens in modern and to some degree pre-modern societies. Small stuff like that will be covered by raw personality/attribute/skill bonuses and also expenditures of things like Attention Points.
Additionally you can “spend” attribute and skill points on appropriate actions. This will lower your scores until those points “recover” over time. Typically 2-4 turns depending on specifics. You can spend down to half the value. This prevents heavy minmaxing as well as being stuck with 0s in tons of variables mechanically and for verisimilitude it represents the idea that you can’t literally exhaust your ability to engage with long term skills like horsemanship or w/e. Some presidents and CEOs are famous for wearing identical daily outfits to reduce “decision fatigue” and for other similar actions based on their, or their advisor’s, knowledge of psychology. But if they don’t do this they can still function at a middling level, just not the peak.
Axioms also is intended to have a robust “events/situations” system for minor things that don’t get detailed representation. Axioms won’t have dice rolls and it will always tell you what extra options you have and why, since it is likely to be a save scum friendly/heavy game anyway and nothing is gained therefore by hiding this information.
Exploration, Research, And Adventure
Exploration in the game is another thing that will make heavy use of skill checks. Exploring ruins, surveying forests and valleys, and all sorts of other things will be relatively “event/situation” heavy and there will be lots of skill checks involved. In most cases there will be 2-5 bonus options for handling situations for people with different capabilities though of course you’ll always have a chance that you, or the NPCs when they deal with this, won’t have the capabilities to take advantage of any of them.
This is another case where you can “spend” various character “currencies” to gain more favorable results. There is no DM to smooth out your adventures as there would be in a tabletop game. There are reasonable trade offs for spending your “character currencies” this way. Especially attention. If you spend deeply to save a companion or even yourself you’ll have to play safer for a few turns till you recover.
Magical and scientific study/research, as well as cultural study/research like language and history and customs, are further places where you can expend “character currencies” to improve results. Maybe you really want to master a particular sphere or magic or a specific spell and so you choose to push the envelope whenever that potential comes up.
Some might argue that you’ll always want to pay out to improve research and I suppose that is true to some degree. Characters heavily specialized in knowledge will often be able to take skill checks to get a similar effect from paying character currencies.
General exploring includes moving across unknown or little known parts of the world. Adventure will often have many more skill checks since it revolves around individuals and generally not various bureaucracies and populations/units. Here you’ll find all the normal kinds of skill checks you see in RPGs. And you’ll make various tradeoffs. You can often spend “time” in the form of Attention Points, think taking an hour to pick a difficult lock instead of using superhuman mental/physical effort. You can also pay character currencies and this is more painful in adventuring since you’ll be using personal qualities often whereas in politics or economics you are often trading on relationships and material resources.
Characters can pick up perks/traits, especially from magical sources, included procedural or player created magical systems ala LitRPGs. Some checks will be subverted through this method rather than previously discussed methods. These are pretty random and luck based. Often you’ll get a choice of perks/traits/knacks from being a natural genius or something and your choices will be based on your existing talents. In some events you may be able to spend various character currencies to get a special trait. I know many might save scum here, which is sadly hard to prevent. Personally I believe in player freedom anyways. I prefer to guide players through effective design rather than cutting off options by fiat.
In some cases there will be long fancy event chains where skill checks are common. Generally these will allow a degree of freedom by providing many options. I’d like to have a system to generate links in these chains dynamically based on player decisions. Note that due to the priorities of Axioms these will never have “dialogue” or super quality “plot” and will rarely have fancy art. I chose mechanical detail, density, and flexibility, let us call it “syntactic juice”, over “semantic sugar”.
I thought I would a provide a few more concrete examples of things because many of my design posts tend to be pretty abstract. In a situation with a character with a specific language and culture you might want to spend the “currency” of your knowledge of their environment. I don’t simulate specific knowledge of famous buildings or ballands or things like that, although perhaps in the second expansion I can look at “knowledge” about particular characters, which you could plausibly have. I may also address in that expansion some options based on your character’s concrete knowledge about the actual laws of the other character’s society. Since some laws are “real” things that impact gameplay. So if you “spend” 10 points of _________ History or Language you can gain the upper hand in that single interaction. You can also “spend” “points” from your military ability to argue in war planning for specific actions.
Many things that would be skill checks in games without a “living world”, note the difference between the “open world” of open world RPGs, have been converted to more detail social simulation actions rather than skill checks. Skill checks are typically about fun and rewards rather than limits and penalties. I should also note, since I forgot to say this earlier, that skill checks will typically not be binary one and done. So if you do fail one, you’ll have a chance to return and retry, though it will be a slightly different and potentially more difficult check each time. Social skill checks may be less amenable to this for obvious reason.
Beyond skill checks I’ve also put a lot of thought into “social combat” or perhaps better to say “social conflict” mechanics. Basically marshalling resources, building up personal capability, and then “fighting for victory”. Like combat sometimes you’ll lose. It won’t be quite what you see in Thea: The Awakening with the card system that works on combat challenges as well as magical and social challenges, or what the devs attempt in Alliance of the Sacred Suns but it will be similar to AotSS in some ways.
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