Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System

My love of the FASA Star Trek RPG gave me an idea on how to handle certain situations that I’ve seen before and believe to be handled less-than-ideally by DMs. I ran a quick Google check to see if anyone had already written about this topic, and apparently they haven’t. This surprises me, so perhaps I just couldn’t find it, but I propose using composite skill bonuses to handle an individual task that simultaneously requires multiple skills.

An Example from FASA Star Trek RPG

FASA Star Trek RPG is a d100, skill-based system so that each character would have a skill rating from 0-99 in each of the skills. To determine the success of an action, a player would roll a d100 against the relevant PC skill rating. Roll less than the skill rating, and it’s a success. For complicated tasks requiring multiple simultaneous skills, however, your target wasn’t a single skill rating, but rather an average of all of the relevant skills.

You’ve just boarded your enemy’s starship. It’s a Klingon scout ship with a crew of 8, so it’s no surprise that the entire enemy crew is dead. Unfortunately, the crew activated the self-destruct sequence and severely damaged the only computer that could be used to deactivate the sequence. Time’s running out. There’s no time to fix the computer, then consult a Klingon-to-English dictionary. What do you do?

You roll against your skill in Computer Technology (i.e., repair of computers), Computer Operations (i.e., use of computer interfaces), and Language: Klingon (i.e., your ability to translate what’s on the screen). So, if your skills are Computer Technology 60, Computer Operation 70, and Language: Klingon 20, your target number is (60 + 70 + 20)/3 = 50. If you never learned a word of Klingon (skill rating 0), you’d be at a severe disadvantage, but your general knowledge of computers could still make for a reasonable chance of success (60 + 70 + 0)/3 = 43. Therefore, not knowing Klingon doesn’t automatically make you useless if you beam over to the ship. You’re still contributing on your own merits.

An Example from 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine some examples of how this would work in the d20 system. Let’s use 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons as an example.

There’s a group of ogres sitting around a campfire playing the Orc dice game, Rotting Toes. They’re unfamiliar with the game and downright stupid, but they’re also tough combatants that technically are standing watch. If disturbed, they might sound an alarm.

Hat tip to Erik Nowak for creating Rotting Toes.

The party decides that the best way to handle this encounter is to avoid it. Needless to say, the 3rd-level Rogue rolls a Stealth check (+12), succeeds with flying colors, and passes right on by. Unfortunately, the Paladin is in full plate mail armor. Stealth isn’t much of an option.

The accepted solution is a group Stealth check. Everyone rolls their dice, and as long as half of the group makes the check, the party as a whole succeeds. I’m not a fan of this. I know this is a game of magic and monsters, but at times, this solution defies logic. If, for example, due to the surrounding environment, each character must move one at a time across a long distance, the Rogue isn’t going to be able to help the Paladin stay silent. Any way you slice it, the Paladin is on his own, yet the group Stealth check inappropriately allows the Rogue to help.

More importantly, however, is that this is also a game of creativity and imagination, and the group Stealth check stifles that. Even if the Paladin could enlist the help of his friends, that doesn’t me he should. If I were playing the Paladin, I’d want my actions to count. I don’t want someone else to dictate my success in a situation where a little thinking outside the box will keep my fate in my own hands. There are enough opportunities for teamwork elsewhere in the game. Here, I want to be on my own.

Instead, let’s say the Paladin decides to throw a stick to create a distraction. Is this an Athletics check? Is it a Bluff check? How about both? It’s a single action, so if both skills are in play, both should affect the outcome.

The 3rd-level Goliath Avenging Paladin’s relevant skills are Athletics +5, Bluff +3, and Stealth -1. He should have no problem dealing with Ogre psychology (Bluff), but he also has to toss the stick accurately to place it exactly where he wants it to go (Athletics). So, it looks like his bonus to the skill roll for the composite skill bonus is (5+3)/2 = +4. That’s certainly better than a -1. However, this is a Goliath we’re talking about. He’s got a +2 to Wisdom, and his Widsom score is a respectable 14 because it’s his tertiary stat. Moreover, his background includes a strange parentage; he was raised by wolves (Background: Parentage-Raised by Wolves), giving him a +2 background bonus to Nature checks. As a result, his Nature score is a whopping +8.

The Paladin knows that lemurs are the ogres favorite food, and he also knows that this area has plenty of lemurs in it. Instead of throwing the stick simply to get the ogres to look the other way, he chooses to throw it into a lemon tree where Comyrean lemurs are known to play. This way, the ogres not only will look the other way, but also will keep looking, possibly sending one off to grab some lemurs. In order to reflect this mechanically, the Paladin now gets to add his Nature bonus into the mix. His composite skill bonus is now (5+3+8)/3 = +5, which is appropriate for a single action using each of his three relevant skills.

If the DM rewards the creativity with the typical +2, the Paladin has a bonus to his roll of +7, and he deserves it based on his own ingenuity and character build. In fact, the rest of the party might thank him if one of the ogres leaves to investigate — such a ruling is more appropriate for a Bluff check than a Stealth check — as that means one less ogre remains to spot the remaining PCs during their checks.

The +7 is a far cry from the +12 to Stealth that the 3rd-level Halfling Rogue might have, but it’s still pretty good, and it’s his.

It’s Not All About the PCs

This isn’t just a means to inspire creativity. As my FASA Star Trek RPG example demonstrates, sometimes the DM should require the use of a skill (in that case, Language: Klingon) because it’s logical. I’m sure the character with a skill rating of 0 in Language: Klingon wouldn’t want to have to include it, but it makes sense to require it. In the D&D example, perhaps all of the PCs should be required to include their Nature bonus to their checks due to some natural hazard present in the area. There’s a logic to the composite skill bonus that I find hard to ignore. (Yes, I know; magic and monsters….) In any case, a composite skill is appropriate only where a single d20 roll must simultaneously include knowledge or ability covered by multiple skills, such as where there isn’t enough time to take multiple actions.

What Do You Think?

As DM, you could certainly decide that there were no such lemurs present that night, but why would you? This is a system that allows each character to be judged on his or her own merits, and it encourages creative thinking. I can’t imagine any drawbacks, but if you have any, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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3 responses to “Composite Skill Bonuses in the d20 System

  1. It’s been a long while since I’ve played 4th ed., and even longer since I’ve DM’d (not since 3.0), but based on my prior gaming groups one potential issue that I could see rearing its head is a slowing down of the game due to players arguing for the inclusion of a skill in the composite skill check that you as DM would otherwise think inappropriate. Given a savvy enough player, they could convincingly argue for the inclusion of just about any skill to suit them.

    • I agree that’s a danger — it always is — and sometimes it’s not so easy to say, “If your group argues too much, find another group.” Some people don’t have many options because of the size of the local gaming community. Still, if composite skill bonuses are part of the game, they eventually blend in nicely. I never had a problem with them within the context of FASA Star Trek RPG. YMMV.

  2. Pingback: Remembering FASA’s StarTrek RPG | Frylock's Fantabulous Fantasyland

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