13 November 2016

Secondary Skills

My favorite skill system from any roleplaying game is secondary skills from 1e AD&D. A player character receives a secondary skill or skills as follows:
Assign a skill randomly, or select according to the background of your campaign. To determine if a second skill is known, roll on the table, and if the dice indicate a result of TWO SKILLS, then assign a second, appropriate one. (1e AD&D DMG, p. 12)
And here's how secondary skill usage is resolved in the game:
When secondary skills are used, it is up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character. (ibid)
Got that? Pick a skill, or roll for one, and roll to see if you have a second, then make something up in the game when the skills could be useful.

I can hear gamer heads exploding even as I type. 'That's not a system! That's barely even a rule!' Yeah, I know, and that's why I love it so - it takes all the number-crunching and member-measuring out of skill usage.

Here's an example I wrote on Big Purple about using secondary skills in actual play:
When I ran 1e AD&D, secondary skills served as a sort of catch-all description of things the character knows about or can perform outside of the character's adventuring class. Frex, if your character's secondary skill is forester, she can cruise a stand of timber, fall a tree where she wants it with an axe or saw, rig a rope hoist, balance on a floating log, climb a tree using a rope, maintain a faller's tools, perhaps know a few elvish or gnomish words and phrases, if appropriate to the campaign, and other shit like that.
As I noted in the previous post describing my Boot Hill character, BH is conspicuously short on character attributes beyond basics related to combat: how fast is my character? how good a shot? how steady in a fight? how tough? how much fighting experience? The rules provide a tiny handful of bonuses or 'abilities' to player characters. If your character is a gambler, you receive a Gambler Rating. If your character is a scout or a detective, you gain a bonus to tracking rolls. If your character is or was an artillerist, then you can crew a cannon without the chance of blowing yourself up. If your character is a sharpshooter, you can call your shots.

The interesting thing here is, the only 'ability' for which the game requires a pre-requisite is sharpshooting - your character must have a Gun or Throwing Accuracy rating of 'Crack Shot' or 'Deadeye' to, frex, attempt to shoot a man in his gun-hand. There are zero rules in BH for determining who gets to be a gambler or a tracker or an artillerist. You simply say, 'My character is a gambler,' and roll for your Gambler Rating, or, 'My character is an Army scout,' and take the bonus each time you track. In my earlier post on character creation, I noted that a player could opt to take all three, and when one of the players in our game figured that out, as I alluded in the earlier post, he did exactly that: his character, Murdo Cunningham, is a former Union Army officer who learned to play cards with the other soldiers around the caissons as a member of the Horse Artillery during the Civil War - he then joined the Pinkertons after he left the service, 'shooting Chinamen for the railroads.'

Can you hear the heads popping again, amid keening wails of 'But . . . BALANCE?!' These few abilities in Boot Hill are perfectly balanced, by the highly expedient system of consensus around the table: 'Yeah, okay,' or 'Nah, not happening, dude.'

And that brings me to 2e Boot Hill's skill system: there isn't one.

Really, the only things in BH that even resemble 'skills' are gambling or sharpshooting: characters with a Gambler Rating can cheat, and sharpshooters can call their shots. But every character can track - characters who are scouts or detectives can do it just a little better. Every character can crew a cannon - characters who are artillerists can do it with no chance of the cannon exploding. There are no restrictions on dynamiting, or bronco busting - any character can attempt these without penalty. And there are no skills for all the picayune nonsense which pads the page count of so many roleplaying games, like Accounting or Assaying or Bartending or Saddlemaking - yeah, 3e Boot Hill, I'm looking right into your beady little snake eyes.

Now, there is a school of game design out there which argues that what the game covers in its rules is what the game is about, also known as 'gamers who never played Diplomacy, or didn't get it if they did.' The absence of rules for skills, or backgrounds, or careers - beyond a list of wages for varying Old West jobs - is not proof that the game is nothing more than tabletop skirmish rules - I'm inclined to think gamers who argue that point are, in fact, demonstrating their own lack of roleplaying skill or a terminal failure of imagination, but I admit I'm more than a little uncharitable in this. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

So, how do we decide what a character knows, and is good at, beyond the basic attributes and minimal abilities defined by the rules of the game? We each decide what our characters know, by background, vocation, or avocation, and "adjudicate situations in which these . . . are used or useful to the player character." My character is a cowboy so he can herd cattle: cut out a steer, rope it, hog-tie it and brand it or ear clip it. He can spot diseased cows, or turn a herd in to stop a stampede. He knows brands and a bit of husbandry, can free-trail a string of ponies, treat a lame horse, and can cook and sing, after a fashion. He can fix a broken cinch or build a fence or a cattle pond, though he's loathe to admit doing any sort of labor out of the saddle.

My character also enjoys hunting, so he can set a trap, recognize spoor, field dress a kill, then skin it and salt the hide. He grew up with a Pawnee wrangler on the ranch in Nebraska, so he speaks a little of that language and brags he breaks horses 'the Indian way,' without saddle or bridle.

And while he can build a corral with a gate, he can't build a house with straight lines or a roof that won't leak when it rains. He can cape an elk hide but not mount the head for his wall. He can keep the books for a cattle drive but he's not a banker. He's a skilled rider but not a circus acrobat. There are common-sense limits to what he knows, adjudicated by determining ". . . the extent of knowledge in question . . . and determin[ing] what could be done with this knowledge" (1e AD&D DMG, p. 12).

So how good is my character at cowboying or hunting? Let's take another look at 1e AD&D secondary skills:
However, some minor knowledge of certain mundane skills might belong to the player character - information and training from early years or incidentally picked up while the individual was in apprenticeship learning his or her primary professional skills of clericism, fighting, etc. . . . As a general rule, having a skill will give the character the ability to determine the general worth and soundness of an item, the ability to find food, make small repairs, or actually construct (crude) items, For example, an individual with armorer skill could tell the quality of normal armor, repair chain links, or perhaps fashion certain weapons (ibid)
The presumed competence of player characters' secondary skills in 1e AD&D is fairly low - the focus of the characters is on their class skills, with secondary skills meant mostly as flavor, not alternate career choices.

For our Boot Hill campaign, the presumed competence of the player characters is higher. If you describe cowboying or bartending or saddlemaking as your primary vocation, then you can do things a person experienced in that job can do competently - you don't need to roll against your saddlemaking skill to see ". . . whether the work was performed properly and to the customer’s satisfaction" (3e Boot Hill, p. 17).

In my experience, when you start worrying about stuff like who can make a better saddle, or worse, making a rule, assigning a value, and then rolling to determine who's more successful at making a saddle, then the experience of playing the game becomes one of seeing who has the longest numerical genitalia. In Flashing Blades - you knew I'd find a way to work in a FB reference, right? - characters who are Masters or Masters Superior of a skill no longer roll for routine skill usage - they are presumed competent enough that ". . . a character will automatically make most rolls to use that skill. Only in very difficult situations should he be required to roll against an attribute, and then, with a +3 bonus. Masters Superior need roll even less often; and, when they do, they receive a +6 bonus" (FB, p. 6). The game tells you that once your character achieves a level of presumed competence, that rolling isn't worthwhile anymore, except in the most challenging situations. For 2e Boot Hill, we've taken that as our baseline.

Since our characters' skills are constituted ad hoc, they're presumed competent, and there is no specific rule for adjudicating results, then how are points of failure, those 'difficult situations,' addressed in our campaign? Let's look at one of the scenarios in BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine, a wildfire that has the potential to trap the adventurers as they search for the mine. The scenario assigns a 50% chance of a horse to panic and bolt until they run themselves to exhaustion; if the adventurers attempt to gallop away from the fire, then there's a 40% choice of a horse breaking a leg or going lame and a thrown character suffering a wound. It's not, 'My character has +40 Horsemanship so I'm better at avoiding this hazard than the rest of the party' - it's, 'While your characters are skilled riders, you're each exposed to this hazard at this chance.'

This approach used to be very common in roleplaying games, before designers added more and more rules to differentiate the ability of characters from one another. At the time I started playing roleplaying games, your character was an archer because she primarily used a bow and looked for ways to maximize her advantage on the tabletop, not because she took the Archer class, an archery feat tree, and dipped into two different bow-related prestige classes. Despite nearly no rules-delineated differences between our characters outside of combat, we each have a good sense of what our characters can do well, in relation to one another and to the game-world generally. We're creative in interpreting what our characters know, and when questions arise, we resort once again to our highly expedient system of consensus around the table, sometimes making up an ad hoc roll, most of the time just waving it off, because our characters are good enough to walk and chew gum without rolling dice for success.


  1. Wish I had a copy of 2nd; I only have 3rd with the huge skill list.

  2. Located and acquired an affordable copy of 2nd edition and love that the book is only 36 pages including covers and the actual rules are under 20 pages. So much meat to what there is, and no fat bloating the page count. Can't wait to try it out.