Saturday 9 March 2013

Tiny Competences

It started when the Band of Iron tried to snap the bard's ghost off the path of regret by singing one of his songs to him.

So the question came up for each of the characters - can they sing?

From twistedtwee
Singing, dancing, playing an instrument, riding, swimming, whistling ... Let's call these kinds of abilities competences. I find them tricky to handle because ...
  • They don't easily fit into a given ability score or skill. Someone who's a great athlete could still have never learned how to swim. Someone who's a great singer may not know how to whistle.
  • They don't work as skills that the characters can invest in, because many if not most people in the setting can do these things at some basic level; some people are hopeless at it, or never learned; and some people are naturally great at it. The distribution is two-tailed with a fat middle; it's not something like lockpicking where most people are bad and only a few are trained.
A comprehensive game system would have a list of several dozen skills already on each character sheet, with each of these competences represented. It's not likely any of these characters would put "points" into singing, so they would all be treated as fairly inept at the task. But this is not really satisfactory, even if we were playing that kind of complicated game. Some people are just naturally good at singing, others are not.

Another kind of solution, more compatible with the rules-light old-school ethos, is to key singing ability to the closest available stat, in this case Charisma, and roll an off-the-cuff check. But something about this solution also doesn't satisfy. It assumes that someone who is a great singer will also be a great leader and vice versa, but these things don't always go together.

In play, when the party's singing ability was called for, I just had them each roll d6 and note the result on their sheet:

1 = hopeless at it
2 = not good
3-4 = average
5 = good at it
6 = great at it

This system then got used in actual play to determine further uses of competences such as whistling (don't ask) and riding.

More recently, I've produced a character sheet with a list of short words, using an even simpler system. For each competence, you roll the die, circle the word if you got a "6" - meaning you're especially good - and X it out if you got a "1" - meaning you're especially bad.

So far, the list is: Ride, Swim, Sing, Dance, Play (instrument), Gamble. In practice, some of the competences do relate to ability scores if people are trying to do something exceptional or contested, but mostly it's a case of whether or not people can do the activity at a basic level.

Any more ideas for the list?


  1. This is exactly what I do as well -- the d6 roll to see how good characters are at minor competencies like this when the question arises.

    I got the idea from LotFP's Weird Fantasy RPG, which basically uses that system for languages -- roll to see if you can speak a language when it becomes relevant.

  2. One can be judged a successful swimmer if you don't drown (so it's you against the water), but things like 'singing' rely on the audience's perception of your performance... so Charisma might just help, right?
    One of the ideas that I find entertaining is to have some abilities (like singing) based on the player's own performance. So if an adventure requires singing, the players get to do some karoke. I have no idea how successful this would be, but if a D&D game requires the players solve a word puzzle or similar, I like to just hand it over to the players and say, 'solve this.'

  3. Nice and simple, love it.

  4. Great post. I'm loving this blog more and more. I wish I had found it sooner.

  5. I would think this system would work well for any sort of activity that isn't a prime focus for the game system: whittling, scrimshaw, improvisational comedy, and so on.

  6. I'm doing something similar, but I want to give them the list and let them associate a number with it. So, say it's a list of 7 different items, they put 1-7, and they get to pick what they are good at and what they are bad at. This way you don't get lucky people who are good at everything and unlucky people who are terrible at everything. Also, since it's a fantasy character of someone you are playing, you want them to be able to decide that they are good at singing, you don't want a random roll determining that for them. At the same time they don't get to be great at everything.