Common Knowledge

Common Knowledge: Competent Characters

This is the first in a series entitled “Common Knowledge” that I’d like to write, identifying common advice and themes that appear repeatedly across different games.1The intent is that the assemblage becomes something more than a series of quotes, as that would be a cheap trick!

The question to be answered in this first post: what are ways to make characters feel like they are good at what they do, as well as individuating them from other characters?

Of course, there are games where the driving theme is the incompetence of the player characters (Goblin Quest (2015), for one), or the inability of the characters to succeed in the face of an unfair world, but in the vast majority of TTRPGs, characters are expected to be at least as competent as a standard member of their profession, if not more.

Enabling Success

One method is to permit characters to simply do what they are good at, instead of making them perform checks where they may fail (even if these checks are supposedly ‘easy’). Kevin Crawford’s WWNWWN Worlds Without Number (2021), a ruleset (and more) by Kevin Crawford has some on-point advice (my emphasis):

The GM calls for skill checks, but they should only be called for challenges that fall outside the PC’s background and common experience. A PC with the background of a sailor should not be rolling skill checks to dock a ship or navigate to a commonly-known destination. As a general rule of thumb, if failure at a particular task would make the PC seem notably incompetent at their role in life, then they shouldn’t have to roll a skill check for it. In addition, if failure or success at a check really doesn’t matter in the game, if it won’t produce some interesting result either way, then a check shouldn’t be made.

Even concept-related feats might require a skill check, however, if the situation is especially bad or the circumstances particularly hostile. The sailor might have to make a Sail skill check to dock a ship if they attempt it in the middle of a gale wind, and a noble might have to make a Connect skill check to find shelter with an aristocratic relation if they’re currently wanted by the Witch-King’s inquisitors.

Worlds Without Number (p. 41, “When to call for a check”), Kevin Crawford

The question of “When to call for a check” is also a subject to be covered in a future instalment.

Mechanics for Broad Competence

One way to provide mechanical support for competence (above and beyond “let them do it”), and to also play into a character’s history, is the method employed by aspect-style systems. This terminology is taken from the Fate series of systems, and denotes systems where characters have free-form labels attached to them which describe their background, personality, abilities, etc. The idea possibly first comes from Theatrix (1995), where free-form traits are called Descriptors.

As the exemplar, in Fate Core (2013), characters have several undifferentiated Aspects attached to them. Some examples taken from the Fate SRD are the background “Cybernetic Street Thief”, the feature “Sharp Eyed Veteran”, or the personality trait “Sucker for a Pretty Face”. When a test needs to be made, invoking an appropriate Aspect allows you to add +2 to a roll2your own, someone you’re helping, or in opposition to another roll or to re-roll a check. (A notable feature of Aspects is that they are double-edged: a ‘good’ Aspect — according to the SRD — should be able to be used by the GM against the player, in certain situations.)

The difference between this and skill-based systems is that the bonus can be applied to any action that would be related to the aspect in play, and not just actions that would fall under one category.

A similar but more liberal mechanic is used in The One Ring (2011), where being able to apply an appropriate character Trait or Virtue either turns a check into an automatic success or permits a check where it would not normally be allowed.

Another approach is that taken by 13th Age (2013) which explicitly codifies bonuses via Backgrounds: at creation, characters receive a number of Background Points3Usually 8. which can be spread amongst any number of free-from Backgrounds. These then provide a +x modifier (equivalent to the number of points assigned) to any rolls where that Background could apply.

These aspect-based methods can easily be used as inspiration or adapted to other rulesets: for example, if we wanted to use a similar rule in D&D (2014) we could lift the mechanic from The One Ring and rule that a character’s Background may allow either an automatic success or Advantage on a check. Alternately we could allow characters to distribute Background Points like in 13th Age for straight +x bonuses.

Mitigating Failure

Blades in the Dark (2017) has advice for the converse situation: what happens when a character fails at something they should have suceeded at?

When a PC rolls a 1-3, things go badly, but it’s because the circumstances are dangerous or troublesome—not because the character is a buffoon. Even a PC with zero rating in an action isn’t a bumbling fool. Here’s a trick for this: start your description of the failure with a cool move by the PC, followed by “but,” and then the element in the situation that made things so challenging. “You aim a fierce right hook at his chin, but he’s quicker than he looked! He ducks under the blow and wrestles you up against the wall.”

On failure, talk about what went wrong. “Ah, maybe you missed something while you’re climbing through the jeweler’s broken window?” “Yeah, they probably have tripwires or something huh?” “Yep! You feel the wire snap against your arm.” You can also lean on features the player has already portrayed about the character. How are their vice or traumas a problem? What is it about their heritage or background that gives them trouble or gets in the way?

Blades in the Dark (p. 197, “Don’t make the PCs look incompetent”), John Harper

Earlier advice along these lines comes from Sorcerer & Sword (2001), a supplement for the Sorcerer game (also 2001):

The dice system in Sorcerer is intended to resolve conflicts, not tasks. This means that a failed roll does not have to be interpreted in-game as a “whiffed” attempt. The task being attempted by the character may actually be successful, but the outcome of that task – based on what was at stake in the larger, story sense – will be disadvantageous, either immediately or in the future.

[examples elided]

Since protagonists in the sword-and-sorcery genre are rarely foolish or inept, the classic role-playing “miss” result has little place in their adventures. The GM and players are urged to interpret failed rolls in ways that do not reflect badly on the characters’ abilities.

Sorcerer & Sword (p. 67, “Failed rolls”), Ron Edwards