Arcane Game Lore

Remember player agency!

Sathar Laser Settings

The Story

I’ve been running my kids through the Volturnus modules in Star Frontiers.  We’ve been at it for years in fits and starts.  It’s not because they don’t want to play but rather that we can never find the time with all the things we’re doing (and them needing to get their chores done), but it is starting to become more regular.  In any case, they were exploring the Sathar Artifact (a complex left behind to signal if spaceflight was detected in the system) and acquired a couple of sathar designed laser pistols and a few sathar power clips to run them.

Being designed for sathar, the pistols were not easily usable by any race other than Dalasites who could mold their pseudopods to fit into the trigger assembly.  My youngest (age 8) is playing a Dralasite who happened to have a beam weapon skill so she decided to collect them and use them in future fights.  The problem was that they didn’t know how to adjust it.  All they had was a trigger and a little panel on the side of the weapon (pictured below).  It had a small control knob with five positions and four lights above it.

Control knob with five settings and a row of 4 lights above it (3 illuminated in the image)

They speculated a bit on what it could mean.  The first 4 positions (starting at lower left and going clockwise) each caused one of the lights to light up.  When moved to the 5th position, all the lights went out.  They correctly assessed that each light represented a different power level (although they don’t know what) but had mixed ideas about the fifth setting.  One of my twins (age 15) suggested that it was the off position and was close to the maximum power setting so that you could quickly get to max damage in a hurry if you needed it.  His twin suggested that that last setting was a self destruct setting and that if you pulled the trigger when in that position the gun will blow up.  The didn’t test it to see who was right but continued on the adventure.

My daughter playing the dralasite with the pistol decided to set the weapon to the 4th setting so that all lights were lit.  Shortly thereafter they ran into some cyborgs and proceeded to attack them.  She fired two shots at that setting which completely drained the power clip (there is another row of lights that had been fully lit but went completely dark after the two shots).  Her brother (age 10) was firing a standard laser pistol set at 5 power units (called SEU for standard energy units in Star Frontiers).  I told them that the blast from the sathar weapon looked brighter and more intense than his shots.  She managed to connect with one of the shots and did considerable damage to the cyborg she was shooting at.

How It Works

(If you are one of my kids reading this, stop here!)

In my game the sathar use an octal (base 8) numbering system.  Unlike standard UPF laser weapons which can be set anywhere from 1 to 10 SEU for pistols and 1 to 20 SEU for rifles, sathar weapons have 5 or 6 settings.  The first setting is 1 SEU and each successive setting doubles the amount of energy (and therefore damage) in the shot.  The only exception is the last setting which does something different.  So in the pistol you have 4 usable settings that use 1, 2, 4, or  8 energy units.  The rifle has a 5th setting that can use 16 energy units.

Also unlike the UPF power clips, which hold 20 SEU, the sathar clips only hold 16.  So my daughter who had the pistol set to use 8 SEU, drained the clip in 2 shots.  When they found it, it had been set as in the image above and would have only used 4 SEU giving 4 shots.

And that fifth setting (or 6th on a rifle), what does it do?  Well, the second twin was right.  It is a self-destruct setting that causes the weapon to short circuit, releasing all the energy left in the clip plus an additional 4 SEU (stored in the body of the weapon for that exact purpose) in a small explosion designed to destroy the weapon and hopefully kill the wielder.


Welcome to the New Year

Fireworks image by Anthony Cramp

This really should have been last week’s post but I was busy attending the American Astronomical Society Meeting last week (I was both attending talks and giving one myself, possibly more on this in future articles) and I didn’t have a chance to sit down and write it.  So the discussion of the artificial gravity trap that I had with my daughter and had already written up got posted instead.

With a new year it is somewhat traditional to make resolutions on things you want to improve on in the coming year.  I tend to be really bad at succeeding with those resolutions and so tend to shy away from them.  However, I do have one related to this blog and so I figured I should share it and you can all help hold me accountable.  And that is to post at least once a week.  So, by the end of the year, I should have at least 52 posts here on Arcane Game Lore.  So far so good, I’m 2 for 2.  We’ll see how I do at the end of the year.

In truth I actually made this resolution about two months ago.  And so I started in with the introduction my Designing Out Loud series.  The posts started out every 10 or so days but I’ve slowly worked down the interval to 7 days.  My goal is to publish one post every Tuesday as I have for the past month.  I suspect many of my posts over the coming year will be in either the Designing Out Loud series or my 3D Modeling series. I have at least 10 more 3D models to talk about and am working on others when I can.  And there are lots of topics to cover in the game design series.

However, I wear a bunch of hats (Physics and Math reference librarian at a university library, father of 7, managing editor of two fan magazines – Frontier Explorer and Star Frontiersman, plus more) and more often than not those other responsibilities take up a good chunk of my time.  Some times (like now while I’m trying to put together another issue of the Frontier Explorer), my posts will probably tend to be shorter.  When the time permits, I will dive into the longer posts on modeling and game design.

I’m excited for the new year and for getting better with my blogging.  With any luck my fellow bloggers will find more time to write as well and you’ll see several posts a week here on the blog.  But regardless, I have a bunch of ideas that I want to explore and look forward to your comments, suggestions, and encouragement.  It’s going to be a great year.


Artificial Gravity Trap

So I was talking with my daughter (18) the other day about a panel she had sat in on at the last ComicCon that featured among others Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Margaret Weis, and Tracy Hickman.  The panel talked about world building and specifically about magical effects.  The point the panel was making was that you need to think really hard about giving your characters (whether in a story or a game) a specific power or ability to allow them to solve a situation.  You have to consider the ramifications of introducing that power or ability into the world.  Because if they have it, you can pretty much be sure the bad guys have it too.  And as she pointed it, the bad guys are probably better with it or have a more powerful version.

This got us on to the general topic of ramifications of powers or technology in a setting and we started talking about artificial gravity and how often the ramifications of such technology isn’t always thought out.  I’m not going to go into that here, that’s possibly a post for another day.  What I do want to talk about is the great little artificial gravity trap/defensive measure she dreamed up.

If you want to keep someone out of an area (or trapped inside an area) and have technology that can create artificial gravity, just dial it up in the area by the entrance, say to 100g or higher.  Anyone or anything entering that area will be squished flat.  It creates an instant “no cross” zone.

This could be an anteroom that serves as the entrance to a high security area.  Present the correct credentials, the gravity is reduced to normal.  Otherwise entering the room is instant death.  A variation on this is to have the room normal until some sort of alarm goes off and then have the gravity dialed up.  If you only want to trap people and don’t want to absolutely prevent entrance no matter what or who, just set the gravity to 5 or 6 times normal.  They’ll collapse to the floor but probably won’t die.  You could get around this by blasting your way through walls but that kind of gives your intentions away.

This could also be used as a general perimeter defense as well.  Set of a ring of the gravity generating system around your complex and crank up the power.  Put as much or little warning information as you want.  Any wildlife will quickly learn to avoid the area (you might have some messy cleanups the first few weeks) and any intruders, be they on foot or in vehicles, will be stuck.  (You’ll have to use higher gravities to stop the vehicles themselves but the occupants won’t make it.)  Plus no one will get out.

If you have a setting with artificial gravity, what’s preventing this type of system from being used.  Do you understand your setting well enough to explain why or why not?  Have you even thought about it?  What other technologies or powers are in your game that could be used in ways you haven’t considered?

 

 


3D Modeling – Sathar Destroyer

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, the sathar destroyer was first model I created.  I had just finished working on the Sathar Destroyer Technical Manual and wanted a miniature of the ship.  As I have much more of an engineering/draftsman mindset and approach to things, I figured that turning the existing deck plans into a model would be the easiest way to start.

Sathar Destroyer counter from the Knight Hawks game.

Sathar Destroyer counter from the Knight Hawks game.

The design of the destroyer in both the technical manual and the final 3D model was based completely on the silhouette of the ship on the little 1/2″ counter that came with Knight Hawks game, shown on the right.  In retrospect, as Delta pointed out in his blog post on the sathar ships, this is probably more accurately a silhouette of the heavy cruiser and the picture on the heavy cruiser counter should be the one for the destroyer.  But at the time I was going with the image on the counter.  In the end, it turned out different enough (as you’ll see in my post on the heavy cruiser model) that there really isn’t any mistaking the two ships.  Maybe in the future I’ll make a different destroyer model based on the other image.

Making the Model

Final Sathar Destoyer model

Final Sathar Destroyer Model

The final model is shown in the image on the left.  This final version was arrived at after many different print iterations, sixteen all told.  This was my first model and I was learning what the printer could and couldn’t do.

The body

The first step in making this particular model was creating the body of the ship.  This is the one part of the ship that I couldn’t make with the primitive shapes available in OpenSCAD: spheres, cylinders, and cubes.  However, one functionality that it does have is to create an arbitrary polygon and then make a rotational solid from that shape.  Or you can read in the polygon stored in the proper format (a .dfx file in this case) and then rotate that.

In order to make this ship I used the ship silhouette that I had created in Inkscape for the technical manual.  I just stripped out everything that wasn’t related to the body.  Inkscape can save files as DFX format so I just exported the shape which I was then able to import into OpenSCAD.  It was completely the wrong size but OpenSCAD’s scale() command took care of that.

Model scale

This would be a good point at which to talk about scale.  Since my plans were all done in meters, and OpenSCAD works in mm, it was easy enough do make the model at 1/1000 scale.  This was too big compared to the other miniatures so in the end I applied another factor of 1/3 to the final model for printing.  Thus the sathar destroyer model ended up at 1/3000th scale.  This made it basically the same size as the sathar frigate model from the miniature sets.  I’ve decided to use this scale for all the capital ships miniatures I make.  As I’ll talk about in other posts, this makes some of the small ships too small for printing so I’ll have to make them larger

Other major sections

Adding in the spherical head and tail as well as the cylindrical sections connecting them was quite easy as those were primitive shapes available in the program.  I just had to tell it where to place them.  The laser cannon peaking out the top was also just another cylinder.

Adding in the backs of the shuttles (the spheroids peaking out around the center) was also quite easy.  One of the features of OpenSCAD is that it supports for loops.  I just made one shape and then added it to a loop that repeated 8 times, each time rotating the shape 45 degrees around the central axis.

3D printed sathar destroyer model

First completely printed Sathar Destroyer

The same was done for the engines.  In this case I created a single engine and then had it repeated 4 times each with a 90 degree rotation.  My initial engines were just the main cylinder, the sphere at the top and the strut connecting it to the main body.  I had originally had some of the other engine details but the test prints kept failing and I simplified it down to just the basics as I worked out the printing problems. The image to the right shows the first good print that I got (after about 6-7 tries).  There was one earlier print that worked but the struts were too small and broke off.

Adding in details

Once I got the basic body shape working, I added in all the details such as the extra bits on the engines, all the airlocks and bay doors, and the details around the shuttles.

In this case, it wasn’t an issue of adding in more shapes but rather of subtracting of material from the model.  OpenSCAD has a difference() command.  This basically takes a list of shapes.  The first one is the main shape that is to exist and all the others are subtracted off of it.  So to make the upper airlock (the small circular feature on the upper sphere in the model image at the beginning of the post) I simply subtracted off a cylinder from the sphere that made the head of the ship.  I simply had to position the cylinder in the right place to get the desired cutout.  Then I added back in a smaller cylinder to represent the airlock door itself.  Thus in the model, there is a small recess around the door.  This was done for all the bay doors, airlocks, and around the shuttles.

I found that I needed to make these feature about 0.2 mm in width and at least 0.1 mm deep in order for them to show up in the print.  Any smaller and they weren’t visible.  Once the details were added I started printing and tweaking things to make the model look a little better when printed and to make the print process run smoother.

A last note on the model.  In the model image at the top of the post, there is a cylindrical structure directly below the sphere at the back of the ship where the engines attach.  This is a printing support that I added in to the model because of the way the printer works.  It is not part of the final model.

Printing

As this was my first attempt to 3D print anything, I went through a lot of mistakes and miscues trying to get it to work.  For those unfamiliar with 3D printing, the basic process is that the printer lays down plastic everywhere it should exist on one layer, then either moves the build plate down or the print head up (depending on the printer) and lays down the plastic for the next layer.  This is repeated until the model is completely done.  The model is built up layer by layer.

This has some implications.  First, you can’t print on air.  There always has to be some material underneath the new material you are laying down in the current layer.  This is why there is that little support structure under the ball at the back of the ship.  It couldn’t just start printing the ball in mid air.  Now there doesn’t have to be material everywhere directly under what you are printing but it has to be within a nozzle diameter.  There has to be some overlap.

This has implications on what kind of details and angles you can print without supports.  If you look closely at the rings at the base of the engines in the model image above, you’ll notice that they are not just cylinders but rather have a slope to the top and bottom instead of being simply flat.  This was to avoid the need for supports (plus I think it looks better anyway).  If it had been flat, the software would have wanted to put supports under those little cylinders.  By angling the shape, I avoided that need.

As I said earlier, there has to be some overlap between the layers based on the nozzle diameter which is how much material is being pushed out at any one time.  In the case of the printer I’m currently using, the nozzle diameter is 0.4mm (which seems to be typical for most 3D printers I’ve looked at), so as long as the features and overhangs are less than that, I can safely print the model without needing supports.  Also, since I’m printing at 0.2mm vertical resolution, as long as my angles are greater then about 30 degrees, I can print sloped surfaces without supports as well as there is enough overlap.  I’ve pushed that limit in some cases with mixed results as you’ll see in some other posts.

Another feature of the 3D printing is that you typically don’t print fully solid pieces. While you can, it is typically not necessary and just uses more plastic making the part both heavier and more expensive.  By default, we typically print at a 10% infill using a honeycomb pattern.  What this means is that any large volume will be mostly hollow but with a hexagonal support structure inside for strength.  The printer does this by tracing the outline of the piece twice so that the wall is 0.8mm thick.  This is adjustable in the software so you can make it thicker if you want.  After that, it prints the infill pattern inside the shape for that layer.  Typically it prints three layers (for a total of 0.6mm thickness) on top or bottom surfaces.

However, this tracing of the outline has some impact if you’re printing small cylindrical parts like the engines in the ships.  A single layer wall, with a 0.4mm diameter nozzle, means that the smallest diameter you can print is 0.8mm.  With two thicknesses, that is 1.6mm.  In practice I found that if you try printing a single cylinder less than 2.6 mm the printer has problems.  I jammed the printer and had several failed print jobs trying to print stuff that small.  If you’re printing more than one part of the object (or more than one object at once) you can often get away with slightly smaller diameters.  This may be an artifact of my printer but in the end I never made a piece, especially when it was one of the necks of the sathar ships, smaller than 2.66 mm and even then I preferably printed more than one at once to keep the printer from having issues.

This was figured out completely empirically over the course of about half a dozen failed print jobs.  It would print five to six layers of the engines and then the printer would jam and stop extruding plastic.  Each time I’d make the engines a little larger until I could get it to reliably print.  I had to do the same thing on the neck of the destroyer finally settling on a 3mm diameter to get a reliable print.

The only exception to this is the laser cannon on the top of the ship.  That is only 1mm in diameter but is only 2 layers tall at the very end of the print and so the printer was able to handle it okay.  Plus it is still printing the top of the sphere at that point as well.

On the smaller models like this sathar destroyer, I found that printing more than one model at once helped in the print process, especially on the small narrow cylinders.  The reason for this is that it gave the plastic on the lower layer more time to cool slightly before printing the next layer.  This allowed it to have a little more structural strength and not flex.  On models where there is only one being printed, you can sometimes sees a bit of sagging and distortion in the print layers.  Printing multiple copies at once definitely helped out with this.

Painting

Painting the models is pretty straightforward and is done as you would any other miniature.  This is something I’m completely new at as well and absolutely zero experience so my paint jobs may not be up to the standards of other. Take that as you will.

In the case of the ships, they typically has a main color that most of the ship is painted.  Because of this I found it easier to use a spray paint as the base coat.  It’s probably not really necessary on the smaller models but it definitely helps on the larger ones.

In my case, I’m just using Testors brand model paints for the most part.  (My wife just got me some different metallic paints for Christmas that I’m going to try out on one of the other models.)  I have a wide variety of paint colors in both flat and gloss finishes.  I’m using the gloss paints on the ships to help represent the reflective hull.

Painted sathar destroyer prototype model

Painted sathar destroyer prototype

I actually haven’t finished painting any of the final destroyer models but should have one done soon.  I’ll post an update with the final one when I do.  I did finish painting the prototype model, however, and that is pictured to the right.  This one was painted with the gloss red Testors paint on a grey primer base.  The spheres on the top of the engines are painted in gold.  The gold paint was so reflective that I kept thinking that I had accidentally touched it with the red when I was doing touch-ups as I kept seeing the red reflections on the gold that looked like paint on that part of the model.

Something that the painting brings out that you don’t notice as much in the unpainted models is the layering from the printing.  It really stood out when I primed the prototype model and you can see it a little in the final painted one.  Actually handling the models makes it more noticeable.  The surface of these models is not smooth as the metal miniatures are.  There is definitely a layered surface texture.  Personally I like it as I think it gives the models some character.  As one commenter on Google+ said, it looks like hull plating.

A Colored Model

Colored version of the destroyer model.

Colored version of the model.

There are printers out there than can print in multiple colors, or in the case of a couple I’ve now seen, in full color.  OpenSCAD has the ability to add color to the parts so I thought it would be fun to make a colored version of the model.  You can see it here on the left.  This is what the final painted version of the final model will look like when done.  Unfortunately, the color information doesn’t seem to be carried on when I translate it into a printable object file so I’ll have to find a different modeling program to use if I ever want to try a full color print.

Tell me what you think

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this process and any specific things you’d like me to cover in future posts.  Feel free to leave comments below or contact me on Twitter (@dagorym).  I also post updates about the models as I’m working on them in the Star Frontiers Google+ community.

 


Starting a 3D Modeling Journey

I think it is safe to say that we can blame this upcoming series of posts on Delta from the Delta’s D&D Hotspot blog.  In 2013 he did a series of posts every Saturday that was usually about my favorite game, Star Frontiers, which got me following his blog.  Specifically, the impetus for this particular series of blog posts all started with his Forging Fighters series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) where he detailed the design and crafting of a fighter miniature for Star Frontiers, something that doesn’t exist in the miniature sets released by TSR all those years ago.  I like those articles so much that with Delta’s permission, we reprinted his blog posts as an article in issue 7 of the Frontier Explorer.

Sathar Destroyer Technical Manual coverAt the same time, I had just discovered that the library at the university where my wife is an astronomy professor had acquired a 3D printer that was available for the public to use at minimal cost.  And so I thought to myself, “I wonder if I could make 3D starship models that I could print?”  At that time I was also working on my write-up of the Sathar Destroyer that would later be published in the Sathar Destroyer Technical Manual.  So this naturally became the first miniature that I would attempt.

Fast forward about a year and now I work at the university library as the Physical and Mathematical Sciences Librarian (covering physics, astronomy, math, and computer science) in the very department that has the 3D printer.  It’s literally around the corner from my office.  That has made it very easy for me to use and test models on the printer.  I’ve been having a blast.  I’ve learned a lot along the way and thought that I should share my experiences in this series of blog posts.

The answer to the question of whether or not I could make models to print is a definite “Yes!” and I’ll be taking you through that journey.  I’m up to 10 different models and will cover one or two of them in each post showing pictures of the model, the printed miniature, and is some cases, the final painted versions (I’m in the process of painting many of them right now).

Samples of the 3D printed models

Samples of the first 8 models printed and ready for painting

The picture at the right shows some of the first models printed and ready for painting.  The one painted model is a prototype version of the Sathar Destroyer model that I printed and then painted as a test.  Also pictured on the left are a lager version of the final destroyer model, the Sathar Heavy and Light Cruisers, more destroyers and some Sathar fighters.  On the right we have a freighter, four UPF frigates, four Assault Scouts, and four pirate corvettes.  Also pictured is a not to scale version of an exploration ship from a 3D model made by Jay Thruman.  I’ll talk about all of these in future posts.

Software and Printer

As I was starting this process, I looked around for modeling software when I started this process, I was looking for something that was relatively simple to use and quick to learn.  A lot of people use Blender but I’ve tried using it in the past and while quite powerful and versatile, the learning curve was just too steep for my tastes.  In the end I settled on a program called OpenSCAD.  It works much like a programming language in that instead of drawing and placing objects on the screen, you simply write a line or two of code telling the program what shape, how big, where, and how to rotate it.  Then your code “compiles” into the 3D object.  Being a programmer by profession and not any sort of an artist, this appealed to me immensely.  There have definitely been some limitations and I think I’ll eventually have to change programs if I ever want to do anything besides the spaceships but it has served me well to date.

In addition to OpenSCAD for actually creating the models, I also use Autodesk’s Meshmixer to check the models and NetFabb’s cloud repair service to clean the models up.  I’ve also used Inkscape to create a few shapes that I’ve then imported to use as parts of models.  More about those in future articles as well.

The printer that I’ve been printing on is a Makerbot Replicator 2, printing at 200 micron (0.2mm) vertical resolution.  I tried a few prints at the smaller 100 micron resolution but the printer just kept jamming.  I’ll be talking about the joys and woes of using this printer as well.  At the library we’re in the process of getting another printer or two of different brands and so when they arrive, I’ll also be talking about the differences and my experiences with the new printers.

Stay Tuned

That’s it for this introduction.  I’ll be interspersing these modeling articles with my Designing Out Loud series in the coming weeks and months.  It might be a little light on content over the next couple of weeks as we move through the holiday season but I’ll try to get something up each week.  See you next time.


Designing Out Loud – Ability Scores – part 4

In part 3 of this series I worked through selecting a unified set of ability scores that I felt could be used in both of my visions for the skill system of my game.  What I forgot to think about, until the very end of that essay, was the scale and range of the ability scores.  That’s today’s topic.

In the first part of this series (Designing Out Loud – Ability Scores – part 1) I briefly discussed the different ranges that the ability scores could take.  In part 2, before I worked out a unified set of ability scores, I discussed my thoughts and ideas on the values of the ability scores in the two different systems I was contemplating.  After part 3, I need to revisit this and see if I can come up with a unified solution.

Ability Scores Are Tied To The Mechanics

and especially to the skill system.  I’ve talked about this in the previous parts so I’m not going to rehash it in any great detail but just give a quick overview.

In what I’m now thinking of as my “basic” game, the ability scores are much more intimately tied to the skills than in the “advanced” game.  And since the skill list is going to be smaller and more general, there will be many more checks against the ability scores in that system.  As such, and since in both cases, I’m looking at a d100 percentile based system, it makes sense for the ability scores to be on a 1-100 scale directly.  Ability scores in a smaller (say 2-20) range would need to be multiplied by some factor in order to be on the necessary scale.

The other system, however, doesn’t have the tight coupling of ability scores to skills and the ability scores only affect the skills as small modifiers.  Thus in this case, we would prefer ability scores that are relatively small so that we can give +/- 1 skill modifiers based on the value of the ability scores above or below a certain threshold.  Ability scores in the 1-100 range would require division by something (probably 5) to give the desired skill modifiers.

Is The Math Really That Bad?

The real question is how cumbersome is doing that bit of math?  Personally, I don’t think twice about basic multiplication or division, but then again, I’m a Ph.D. astronomer who’s worked as a software developer for over a decade – math just comes naturally to me.

Let’s look at the four scenarios and see when we’d be doing the math.  From here on out we’ll call the Star Frontiers style skills XP Skills, and the RuneQuest style skills, NoXP Skills.  The ability scores on the 1-100 scale will be called d100 ability scores and the smaller range ones will be called 2d10 ability scores (even though I don’t know the exact range I’ll be using, if at all).

Case 1 – XP Skills, d100 Ability Scores

This is the “native” case for this system.  The skills are based on 1/2 the ability scores which run in the same percentile range as we want for the skills.  The only math involved here is the division by 2 and then addition of 10 times the skill level and other positive or negative modifiers when a skill is used.  But those modifiers will exist regardless so they really don’t count. And when you make ability score checks, which are more important in this system, you just roll d100 against your ability score.  So this option has effectively no math happening based on the coupling of the ability scores to the skills.

Plus with the ability scores on the larger scale, you can have finer variations between characters.  Is that really necessary or even noticeable? Probably not, but it is there.

Case 2 – XP Skills, 2d10 Ability Scores

In this case, the ability scores are not on the same scale as the skill rolls (Of course we could change the skill resolution mechanic off of a d100 system but that’s not really what is wanted).  So whenever you use a skill you’d have to be multiplying the relevant ability score by some factor (probably 2 or 3) to get it on the right scale.  Is that harder than diving by 2?  Probably not.  But it’s probably not any easier either.

Plus when making ability score checks, you’d either have to not use d100 (not desired) or multiply the ability score by some factor (in this case probably 4 or 5) to get it into the d100 scale.  This would have to be done more often since these ability checks are more common with this skill system.

So this one is slight more math intensive during play as you have a few more multiplications going on.

Case 3 – NoXP Skills, 2d10 Ability Scores

This is the “native” case for this skill system.  The ability scores don’t figure directly into the skills but only with modifiers based on the skill category and ability score’s value above or below a certain threshold.  In this case the modifiers are simple +/- 1 for each point the ability score is above or below the threshold.  However, those modifiers are static and so can be computed once when the character is generated and only have to ever be recomputed if an ability score changes.

This still has the problem that ability score checks have to be multiplied by a factor to make a d100 check against them.  But cases for this are much rarer in this system since many of the situations where these would be used are often covered by skills.

Case 4 – NoXP Skills, d100 Ability Scores

In this case, you don’t want the skill modifiers to be a simple +/-1 for points of ability scores above or below threshold as you would get some really large modifiers.  You have to make it +/-1 skill point modifier for every N ability score points (where N is probably 5).  This seems like a lot of work but remember, this only has to be done once at character creation and at the odd times a character increases one of his ability scores (how often that happens is debatable but in my experience not very common with this skill system).  Plus it’s easy to provide a quick look-up table to give the appropriate modifier based on the ability score so the math is reduced to simple addition and subtraction.

And in this system, the rare ability score checks can be made directly against the scores themselves with not multiplication needed.

Modifiers

One thing I didn’t mention above is modifiers on ability score checks.  In the the 2d10 ability score systems, difficulty modifiers can be applied simply by changing the score multiplier.  So an easy check might be rolling d100 against the ability score x5 or x6 while a more difficult check could be x3 or x4 and a really hard check could be x2 or even x1.  In the d100 ability score system, the difficulty modifiers will typically be subtracted from the ability score, i.e -0 to -10 for relatively easy checks, up to -50 to -60 for really tough ones.  So the math exists regardless, it just varies in flavor.

Balancing the Scales

In the above analysis, I’ve been blithely throwing around multiplying or dividing by 5 to convert between the 2d10 and d100 ability scores but is that really the right value?  Based on the maximum value it is, but what about based on the real ranges?

In the 2d10 system, your maximum value is 20 and it is possible for you to have a character starting out at that value.  In the d100 system, however, you can’t start at the maximum ability score of 100.  In fact, the best you can do is 75.  Of course the flip side is true as well.  The 2d10 system lets you have ability scores as low as 2 but the d100 system only lets you start as low as 30.

Converting the 2d10 system to d100 by multiplying by 5 means that on the 1-100 scale you can have ability scores in the range of 10-100 while the native d100 ability score range from 30-75.  Going the other way means that the native 2d10 ability scores range from 2-20 but the converted d100 scores only range from 6-15.  Both are basically centered on an average of 11 (in the 2d10 system) but the d100 ability scores come from a much narrower distribution.  You don’t have large heroic outliers in the d100 system.

And using different multipliers don’t really help unless you start introducing more complicated formulas.  Division by 4 instead of five takes the d100 ability scores down into the range of 8-19, now centered on 13.5 and skewed high.  One solution is to allow a larger range in the d100 ability scores either via the ability score creation table or simply going crazy with the dice and rolling the full 10d10 to generate your ability score.  That latter option would actually give you the same converted 2-20 range and basically the same distribution but that’s a lot of dice to roll (80d10 total), even if you do it only once at character creation.

So which is worse, having a wider range of ability scores that could potentially give you >90% success chances at things (that require an ability score check) even as a starting character, or having a narrower ability score range that provides less benefit to your skills and increased failure probabilities?

Reaching a Decision

So there are really two things to decide.  First, what’s the scale of the ability scores, 2d10 or d100, and second do we allow the full range or a limited sub-range for starting characters?

After working through the above discussion and the previous three blog posts, I think that I’m going to move forward developing a d100 ability score system with the narrower range that I laid out back in part 2.  It’s the “native” ability score system for the “basic” game skill system and I think that it really doesn’t have many negatives if applied to the other skill system.  The main downside is the more complicated calculations that are needed to determine the skill category modifiers in that system but that can really be overcome with a small table of values.

The smaller ability score range simply means smaller skill modifiers in the NoXP skill system.  However, these are small to begin with and this means you’d only be getting +0 to +7 bonus instead of +5 to +15 typically so you’re really only out about 5-8 percentage points on your skills.  It’s a noticeable but fairly small difference that I’m completely comfortable with.

So that’s where I’ll start.  We’ve finally reached the end of this set of posts and we’ll have to see how it goes.

As always, feel free to leave comments, suggestions, or questions below.


Designing Out Loud – Ability Scores – part 3

I thought I was done with this set of ruminations with part 2 but after finishing that post I had a thought:  Would it be possible to combine the two different set of ability scores into something that I like that could work with both skill systems?

Why?  Well my reasoning was this.  I know in the end I want both games.  And I’d like them to be somewhat compatible with each other.  Thus if a character was created in one system it could be ported over to the other.  And that would be easier if the ability scores were the same.  Much like going from Basic D&D to Advanced D&D.  The ability scores were the same and the basic ideas were the same, just some of the details were different. (I don’t know if you could actually port characters between the systems but the foundations were the same.)  The Star Frontiers style version could be my “basic” game and the RuneQuest style could be the “advanced” form.

So let’s see what we can do:

Similarities

This is the easy part.  Many of the ability scores are the same between the two sets, although they might have different names.

  • Strength – This is exactly the same in both sets
  • Constitution and Stamina – These are essentially the same characteristic with different names.  The names have slightly different connotations but mechanically they function the same in both systems as a basis for hit points, resistance to disease and poison, etc.
  • Dexterity – Again basically the same characteristic, although in the one system there is a separate score for gross motor skills and dexterity only applies to fine motor skills.
  • Appearance and Charisma – While charisma is slightly broader than appearance in its application, these two are essentially the same.
  • Intelligence – This is the same in both sets
  • Wisdom – This one exists in both sets but with slightly different application.  In the Star Frontiers style set, it rolls up both the Wisdom and Willpower characteristics of the RuneQuest set.  And it’s one that I added to the RuneQuest set over the RuneQuest model.

Differences

This is where the work is.  These characteristics don’t exist in one or the other set and I’ve got to figure out if they are needed or can be adjusted.

  • Stature – This one is from the RuneQuest set (called Size in RuneQuest) and describes the physical size of the character.  In that game system it has an impact on melee combat as the bigger you are the longer your reach and the earlier you hit in combat.  Plus it is averaged with your Constitution to determine your hit points.  It also has a negative impact on agility and stealth skills as the bigger you are the harder those skills become.  The only other place I remember it being used is as a limit on certain spells, i.e. larger Size required more magic to affect.
  • Willpower – This one is also from RuneQuest where it is just called Power.  In my Star Frontiers set it is subsumed into the Wisdom characteristic.  It forms the basis for magic/psi powers and has influences on a variety of skill categories (communication, magic, perception, and stealth), both positive and negative.
  • Quickness – This comes from the Star Frontiers set (called Reaction Speed in Star Frontiers) and is a measure of gross motor skills and how fast the character responds to sudden changes.  It’s fairly heavily used in that system for ability checks.  In RuneQuest it is basically combined into the Dexterity ability score or covered by skills
  • Leadership – Another ability score from the Star Frontiers set that has no analog at all in the RuneQuest system as everything that this ability score covers is handled by skills in that system.

Is Reconciliation Possible?

One of the great things about thinking out loud and writing things out to explain to others is that it really helps to clarify your thinking and organize your thoughts and ideas in ways that you would never do if you were just bouncing them around in your head.  After writing up the above comparisons of the similarities and differences, I believe the answer is yes.  It would be possible to come up with a single set of ability scores that could be used for both systems.  The question is how many do we end up with.  Let’s dive in and find out.

The Easy Ones

Two of the ability scores, Strength and Intelligence, don’t need any work as they are the same in both systems.

There are two more that are essentially the same but with different names.  First there is Constitution and Stamina.  I think I’d use Stamina as it has a slightly broader definition to me.  The second is Appearance and Charisma.  Again I think Charisma would be the better choice for its broader meaning.  I think these choices are better as they allow the ability score to have it’s full meaning in the Star Frontiers style game and then in the RuneQuest style system, where some of the impact of these ability scores are taken over by skills, they simply have a reduced meaning.  Going the other way is a little harder in my opinion.

That’s four down, moving on.

Dexterity and Quickness

So in once of the sets, this is all lumped under Dexterity while in the other set, they are split out.  Taking a quick survey of other games on my shelf behind me shows about an even split of the two methods.  Some do and some don’t split them apart.  Although the second ability score is usually called agility, which I like and will probably adopt if I use both.

So convention isn’t going to help here.  I like the idea of splitting them into separate ability scores as they really are different things.  I personally have fairly good dexterity but I’m not very agile.  And I see their benefit is the Star Frontiers styled skill system.  In the RuneQuest style skills, most of the actions that would be covered by an ability score check are handled by skills, the main purpose of this ability score would be to affect the skill modifiers in that system.  Which is okay.

I think in this case, I want them separate and so would keep both of them, calling them Dexterity and Agility.

Stature

Other than adding flavor to the system, I don’t know that his one really has any impact in the Star Frontiers style skill system game.  Unless I model the combat mechanic of the game after the RuneQuest style mechanic, something I’m very inclined to do.  Otherwise, it would only affect things like the size of armor you needed and whether or not you’d fit in that escape pod or other such things.

The reverse question is could you live without it in the RuneQuest style skill system?  It’s only a negative skill modifier unless you’re really small so for most characters, removing it would improve their skills, a positive from the player’s perspective.  The implications on spell casting could be ignored or based on a rolled height/weight that is not an ability score.  And the melee modifier isn’t really needed either, it just adds a bit more differentiation in the combat system.

Mostly I see this one, while highly realistic, being more for adding flavor to the system than fundamental to it’s operation.  I can’t see any of the Star Frontiers style skills being based on this ability score.  For now I think we leave it out.  I can always add it back in later if I change my mind.

Leadership

This one I think is unique, at least in my experience, to Star Frontiers.  In RuneQuest, the events covered by this characteristic are handled by various skills.  The only other system I know of that had something similar were the chutzpah and moxie scores in Paranoia.  Although Powers & Perils had Eloquence which was used in combination with other ability scores to compute probabilities for things a Leadership ability score would be used for.

While it’s definitely possible for someone to be very charismatic but completely incapable as a leader, or vice versa, I think this one could be dropped and the areas covered by this ability score lumped in under the Charisma score.  We’ll leave this one off as well.

Willpower and Wisdom

This one is probably the hardest for me to come to a decision on.  Willpower is derived from RuneQuest’s  Power ability score and Wisdom is derived from Star Frontiers Intuition ability score.  Neither one has an analog in the other system although I added Wisdom to my RuneQuest style set and included the nature of Willpower into Wisdom in the Star Frontiers style set.  So I’ve obviously considered them both as a combined ability score and as unique entities.

The real question is which do I prefer and how would they apply in game.  As a general rule I like more detail over less and think that they should be separate for maximum realism.  I can definitely think of people/characters where one would be high and the other low as well as ones where they run together.  Having them separate provides more potential variations.  But how do they apply in-game.

The first to consider is Willpower in the Star Frontiers style skill system.  If separate from Wisdom, it would form the basis for any psi power I included, just like it would in the RuneQuest style system.  Also, since I’ve decided to drop Leadership, some of the checks that might normally fall to that ability score would probably fall to this one instead.  At least anything related to the force of character instead of their charm and likability (which would go to Charisma).  It would also possibly be the go to ability score for things like morale.  So this has a valid use in the Star Frontiers style skill system.

The second is Wisdom in the RuneQuest style system.  I added this one originally simply because I liked having it distinct from Willpower and felt it should be in there, not because I had a strongly perceived need for it.  Although once added, I had it sprinkled throughout the skill system being a positive modifier to a greater or lesser degree for Communication, Knowledge, Perception, and Stealth related skills.  I think it also would be good to have as an ability check as a defense against skills like Bargain, Charm, Fast Talk and the like when someone is trying to pull one over on a character (whether they be a PC or NPC).  However, you could also consider using countering skill rolls and have the Wisdom ability score only play a part via its skill modifier.  So I guess I see it as useful, although to a smaller extent in this system.

Since both characteristics have a use in the system they weren’t originally designed for, I think they are both worth keeping.

Conclusions

If you’ve been keeping track, of the ten original unique ability scores, eight made the cut and were deemed useful in both systems and the other two were maybes whose utility could be subsumed into one of the original eight and so were dropped with the caveat that we might call them back up later on.  This gives us as our final ability score list:

  • Strength – Raw physical power
  • Stamina – Vigor and vitality – will be used for hit points as well as endurance and resistance to disease and poisons
  • Dexterity – Fine motor skills and hand-to-eye coordination
  • Agility – Gross motor skills and ability to react to sudden changes and events
  • Intelligence – Brain power, ability to reason and to learn
  • Wisdom – Intuition, street smarts, and perceptiveness of surroundings
  • Charisma – Appearance and personality/likability
  • Willpower – Force of character and presence.  Will also be the basis for psionic power if included.

It wasn’t intentional but a happy coincidence of this is that there are four physical characteristics and four mental characteristics, giving us a nice even balance.  Plus the two extras are one of each so if they get added back in it will still be balanced.

I’m quite happy with the way this turned out and so I think I’ll use this list going forward.  It’s almost identical to the original Star Frontiers style set but with Quickness renamed agility and Willpower substituted for Leadership and a few of the definitions shifted around.

But Wait, There’s More!

And it looks like there is going to be a part 4 to this series.  As I was writing this I realized that one other thing had to be determined and that is the range for the ability scores, do we go something in the 2-20, 3-30, or 1-100 range?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?  However, this article is long enough already so we’ll save that discussion for part 4.  Stay tuned.


Designing Out Loud – Ability Scores – part 2

In my last article, I mused a bit about the different ability score options and thoughts that have been floating around in my head.  In part two I’m going to discuss my ideas for the two different sets of ability scores and talk a bit about each one.  Maybe by the end of this I’ll have come to a decision.

What Have I Done?

So I have done a little bit of design on characteristics based on both of the two different skill systems that I’m considering.  These were done at completely separate times with out comparing one to the other.  Here’s what I have so far and my thoughts on them.

BRP/RuneQuest Style

RuneQuest 3rd edition ability score list, STR, CON, SIZ, DEX, INT, POW, and APP

The ability scores from RuneQuest 3rd edition

I jotted down the notes for this one at my twins’ Boy Scout summer camp this year.  I was up for a couple of days teaching the Astronomy merit badge and was working on gaming stuff during the day while they were off doing activities.

For this system I settled on eight ability scores, one more than RuneQuest uses:

  • Strength – physical power
  • Constitution – health and vigor
  • Stature – physical size (equivalent to RuneQuest’s Size ability score)
  • Dexterity – fine and gross motor skill
  • Appearance – physical attractiveness
  • Intelligence – brain power
  • Willpower – strength and force of character (equivalent to RuneQuest Power)
  • Wisdom – intuition, street smarts, awareness of surroundings (this is the extra ability score)

My original thoughts were to base these on 3d10 for the ability scores with 16-17 as median and a range from 3-30.  And then use scores above and below 15 to modify skills.  Why?  At some level it was completely arbitrary but based on a few considerations:

  • I’m considering basing the system completely off d10s like Star Frontiers.  So it had to be a multiple of d10′s
  • To couple with the skill system, the ability scores need to be relatively low so that there isn’t a lot of math involved in computing the skill modifiers.  i.e. I wanted simple +/- 1 instead of something like +/- 1 for every 5 points.
  • 3d10 gives a slightly more bell curvy shape than 2d10 which is just a pyramid.  So 3d10 will cluster toward the middle values of 16-17 more than 2d10 will cluster toward 11.
  • 2d10 gives a 2-20 range similar to RuneQuest’s 3-18 range and I wanted to be a little different.  This one is a pretty lame reason.

The more I’ve thought about this, I think that despite 2d10 be less bell curvy, a range up to 20 is really the way to go as it makes other mechanics that use the ability scores directly a little better (i.e. ability score x5 gives you something on the d100 scale).  Although an alternate, if I don’t want to limit to d10s, is to use 3d8 and get ranges from 3-24 and then ability scores x4 puts you on a percentile scale.  Something to consider.

Star Frontiers Style

Star Frontiers ability scores, STR, STA, DEX, RS, INT, LOG, PER, LDR

Ability Scores from Star Frontiers

The notes for this one are contained in a preliminary player’s book I started working up just a month or so before I started this series of blog posts.  In this case I basically used the exact same scores but I renamed a couple of them and I also decoupled their creation so that instead of being generated in pairs, they are each rolled individually.  The ability scores I ended up with are:

  • Strength – raw physical power
  • Stamina – endurance and constitution – this is the basis for the characters hit points
  • Dexterity – fine motor skills (shooting, manipulating objects, etc)
  • Quickness – gross motor skills (responding to sudden events i.e. while driving/flying, dodging blows, etc.)
  • Intelligence – brain power and ability to learn
  • Wisdom – awareness of surroundings, insight into interactions, etc.  It would also form the basis for power in psi abilities if I include them. (This is Star Frontiers Intuition ability score renamed.)
  • Charisma – appearance and likableness. (Star Frontiers’ Personality characteristic renamed.)
  • Leadership – bravado, moxie, chutzpah, and command presence all rolled into one.  This is how well you inspire others to do your will and follow your instructions.

Like in Star Frontiers you would generate the value for these ability scores by rolling d100 and consulting a table to determine the exact starting value.  Since a d100 gives an equal chance of any score, and we want things grouped a little more toward the median, just making the roll the score doesn’t work.  Instead, I generated a probability curve using the awesome Any Dice website that allows you to generate distributions for any combination of dice and modifiers.

I based the distribution off of 10d10-5 (so that the average was 50 and we got a nice bell curve).  I then looked at the probability ranges and generated a table that gives realistic probabilities of generating the range of ability scores I was interested in (namely 30 to 75).  I actually had to stretch out the tails just a little to make the table simpler but the distribution is close.  Here is what it looks like:

Die Roll

1-5

6-10

11-20

21-40

41-60

61-80

81-90

91-95

96-99

100

Ability Score

30

35

40

45

50

55

60

65

70

75

Of course with the resultant values being in 5 point increments, one might ask why I don’t just divide by 5 and go back to a 20 point scale since they are mathematically equivalent?  And who knows, I might.  But with the ability scores on the same range as a d100 it makes ability checks simpler:  just roll against the ability score and you’re done, no math.

Do we have a decision yet?

Not quite.  I’m still exploring ideas.  But I think I’m starting to lean more in one direction than the other.  And the more I look at it, the more I’m convinced that the choice for ability scores is very much coupled with the skill and experience system.  These form the core mechanics of the game and have to be developed in tandem.

As time goes on, I’m starting to feel more like I want to try my hand at the simpler Star Frontiers style skill system and therefore related ability scores.  Maybe that’s just because I’m lazy.  I know that system will be simpler, both to create from a game design stand point as well as simpler for character creation.  Or maybe it’s because I want something compatible with all the Star Frontiers stuff I’ve done over the past 30 years.

On the other hand, I love the crunch of RuneQuest’s skill system and the infinite variations its vocations can give to characters. But I’m a astronomer and computer programmer by training and experience.  I like numbers and math is a no-brainer for me so I don’t see the extra complexity as a negative.

So in the end I’ll probably create both systems.  The real question is which one first?

Thoughts, comments, or suggestions?  Leave a note in the comment section below.

 


Designing Out Loud – Ability Scores – part 1

As I’ve been thinking about this, I wonder if character ability scores are something that should come early in the design process or something that should come later.  I also realized that this is one of those topics that are at least loosely coupled with the choice of skill system, which I discussed in my previous post.

Musings

At some level the choice of ability scores is closely tied to the mechanics of the game system.  One set of mechanics would lean toward one set of ability scores while a different mechanic may lean toward a different set.  And that is both in their mix and their value range.

For example, a system like RuneQuest or Basic Role-Playing (BRP) has mostly physical characteristics (strength, appearance, constitution, etc) and most of what I call the “touchy-feely” bits are handled by skills.  Star Frontiers on the other hand has ability scores like Personality, Leadership, and Intuition as those types of actions are not really covered by skills but rather you use raw ability scores to determine your success.  Thus to some level the ability scores you need are determined by the game mechanics.

Likewise the range of ability scores is influenced by the mechanics as well.  In RuneQuest ability scores are based on 3d6 and lie in the 3-21 range typically.  Plus there are skill category modifiers which are based on your ability scores that can increase or decrease your skills depending on whether the relevant ability score is higher or lower than 10.  While you could do something similar with ability scores that range up to 100, you’d have to impose additional math on your players to keep the modifiers reasonable (effectively giving bonuses for every 5 points above/below 50 instead of simple +/- 1).  Similarly, since Star Frontiers is a percentile based system and uses the ability scores for success checks or as basis for skills, you want the ability scores to potentially range up to 100.  You could do this do this with ability scores in the range of 3-21 but you’d have to multiply by 5 (or roll a d20 instead of d100).

That also brings up the discussion of whether you need the full 1 to 100 range or if 1 to 20 is good enough.  Does the extra gradation on the d100 really mean much? Or is rolling a d20 good enough?  I think in the end, you have to pick something that works best with the rest of your mechanics.

Which brings us back to the original question: Ability scores or mechanics first?  As I’ve been writing this I think that I’ve come to the conclusion, unsurprisingly, that its a little of both and possibly cyclic.  I think you have to start with your skill/experience system.  Once you have that you can chose the ability scores that best compliment that system, but not necessarily their scale.  Then you go off and build the rest of the system and come back an look at your ability scores to determine the scale, range, and distribution that makes the most sense with the other mechanics you’ve written.  Of course you’ll probably make an assumption about the scale as you start but you may find that you are having to make lots of exceptions or are adding in extra steps in the mechanics to accommodate that initial assumption.  That’s a pretty good sign you got it wrong and will guide your choice of the correct values.

Coupled Ability Scores

On a completely orthogonal axis, there is the issue of coupled skills.  In Star Frontiers, skills came in pairs, i.e. Strength and Stamina, Intuition and Logic.  When creating your character, you roll once to determine the value of both ability scores in the pair.  You could shift up to ten points from one to the other but they were tied together to the same baseline.  As I’ve thought about it over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really like this.  There is no reason you couldn’t have a really strong character (high strength) that was sickly or easily hurt (low Stamina which is your character’s hit points).  Or one that is really smart (high Logic) but clueless about the world around him (low Intuition).  I don’t think that the maximum 20 point difference does enough justice.  So if I go that route with the skill system, I won’t be coupling the skills together, you’ll roll separately for each of them.

Coming Next Time

I had originally planned on a longer article but I’m also trying to post at least once a week and the last bit isn’t ready.  As I was writing up the descriptions, I realized there was some more analysis I wanted to include and that simply isn’t going to happen in time for this post.  So next time I’ll talk about what I’ve done in both of the two ability score systems so far.


Designing Out Loud – Choosing a Skill System

I mentioned in my introduction article that I had the idea for two games bouncing around in my head.  In truth they are mostly the same.  Almost all the mechanics would be the same in both systems with one or two possible exceptions.  The main difference is the choice of a skill and experience system.  (The other is probably combat).  I’m torn between two different models that I love.  Both have pros and cons.  In this entry I’ll be exploring those two systems.

This is an important choice as it can have repercussions throughout the game.  At the very least in the way other mechanics are described and in some possible cases the very way they work.  It has fundamental impact on character generation and how characters advance and improve.  If this aspect of the game was modular, I’d write up one as the basic system and have the other as an optional system.  I still might do that but I don’t think it will be possible.  It definitely isn’t possible to switch between the two.  Once you’ve started down one path it’s not really possible to switch to the other without completely revamping the character.

The one thing that is the same about the two systems is that they are both percentile based.  You have a change to succeed with each skill and you roll a d100 to see if you make it.  Beyond that, however, they are quite different.  So let’s dive in and start exploring.

Skills and Experience Points

This first system is inspired by the skill system in Star Frontiers.  In this system each character has a primary skill area (PSA).  Skills that fall in this area cost less, and therefore advance faster, while skills outside this area cost more and it much harder for a character to become proficient in them.  Each beginning level character starts with two skills, one from their PSA and one from any skill area (a second from their PSA or one from any other skill area).

The skills themselves are quite broad: Computers, Medical, Demolitions, etc. and each skill has a number of sub-skills: Operate Computers, Repair Robots, Diagnose Disease, Set Charges, etc.  This sub-skills will either have a based percentage chance or the base percentage will be based off the character’s ability scores.  Skills can be increased up to some maximum level (6 in Star Frontiers) and each level give you a 10% bonus to accomplish the skill.

A variation on this is to eliminate the sub-skills and just give a base percentage based on the character’s ability scores with the bonus for the skill level.  And the ability score used could depend on the task.  i.e. diagnosing a disease may depend on you intelligence while performing minor surgery may depend on your dexterity but both would use the medical skill.

Skill improvement comes by expending experience points (XP) gained through play.  With each level costing more than the one before (i.e. 4 for level 1, 8 more for level 2, 12 more for level 3, etc).  Players will typically earn 3-9 XP per session of play so early levels can be gained fairly quickly but the higher levels will take some time to acquire.

Pros

One of the biggest advantages of this system is that it is fast, both for character generation and during play.  On the character generation side, you can roll up a in just a few minutes.  In Star Frontiers, character generation takes exactly 5 die rolls, 4 for character abilities and on for starting money.  Other than that you choose a race and gender, pick your PSA and a pair of skills, and buy a bit of equipment with your meager starting fund and you’re off on adventure.  While I think my system will have a little more to it than that, the same principle applies.  You can pick your skills quite easily and be on your way.

During play it’s also quick to use the skill system.  Select the sub-skill you want to apply, find the base chance and add 10% per skill level, and add (or subtract) any modifiers given by the GM.  Then roll to see if you succeeded.

Cons

The existence of the sub-skill might also be considered by some to be a con as you have to remember what the sub-skills are and their base percentage chances.  The use of ability scores as the base chance and elimination of the sub-skills removes that issue but adds in the need for the player or GM to make a call on what ability score applies in a given situation.

Another less desirable aspect of this system is lack of differentiation.  One aspect of this is differentiation between different characters.  The skills are very broad.  Any character that has a computer skill can do all the same things that any other character with that skill can do.  The other aspect is lack of differentiation within the skill itself.  Is repairing a computer really the same skill as programming one or simply being able to operate one?  There is a bit of blandness in this skill system that just lumps it all together.

A third con, at least in some extent as I see it, is that there is no coupling between the experience gained and the skills that are improved.  Your character may spend an adventure hacking the computer systems of the rival gang and stealing all their secrets and then spend the experience gained from that session on his laser gun skill.  There is nothing to tie the XP to the skills used.  Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it works fine.  Plus if the GM wants they can place limits on what the characters can an can’t spend XP on but the system really allows it to go anywhere.  It’s a little unrealistic, you typically only get better at things you put effort into or use a lot and I like to see realism reflected in the game mechanics when I can.  So while I wrote the most words on this negative aspect, it may be the least important one.

Skills, Vocations, and Check Boxes

The second option I’m considering  is based on the skills in the Basic Role-playing System or, as I was introduced to it, in RuneQuest.  In this system you have lots of little skills: dodge, fast talk, charm, drive: ground, drive: air, first aid, repair computers, program robot, etc.  Each skill has a base chance that everyone has (maybe dependent on race) and then increases based on the character’s background and experience.  There are also modifiers based on your character’s ability scores that can increase or decrease your skills in broad categories (agility, communication, knowledge, etc.).

This system doesn’t have the concept of experience points or levels baked into it.  Rather each skill is just a percentage chance of success and when you successfully use a skill in a “critical” or meaningful way where failure has consequences, for most skills you get a “check”.  Then at some suitable down time during the adventure, you have a chance to increase your checked skills at which point all “checks” are removed and you can accumulate more.

Like in the other system, earning the higher skill percentages is harder than the lower ones.  In this case, to improve your skill you have to fail a skill roll, which, as you get better, is harder and harder to do.  This system also doesn’t have the concept of a PSA where skills in that area advance faster, every skill uses the same mechanics for improvement.

Additionally, this system carries with it the idea of prior vocations, what your character did in the years before they became adventurers.  Each year of vocation provides skill points (or possibly a skill list and number of points to use) to build up your character’s starting experience.  Thus if you were a machinist, you’d get one set of skills.  If you were a doctor, you’d get different ones.

Pros

No experience points!  This is a personal bias of mine but I really like the idea of no experience points.  I’ve never liked having to give them out or receive them based on some arbitrary judgment of the GM.  This is also a place where the realism can shine through a bit in that you can only improve the skills you use.  If you never once pulled your blaster during an adventure, there is no reason your character should get better at it just from surviving.  The system still allows you to increase unused skills via research or training but experience from adventuring only accrues in the skills you use.

Another area where this system shines is in character customization.  You want to be good hacking computers but not know a thing about building them?  No problem.  You want your doctor to specialize in disease and poisons but not really know about surgery?  Can do.  The more detailed skill lists allow you to customize the details of your character so that even if you are technician with a medical skill, the details will be different from someone else that chose the same idea instead of being generically the same.

This system also plays fast.  Your chance to succeed with any skill is just a percentage written on your character sheet.  Pick a skill to apply roll d100 and see if you succeeded.

Cons

This system would suffer from slower character generation.   With the larger list of skills, more thought would have to go into how to allocate your skill points when making a character.  Plus the vocations that define your background take some thought to pick, especially if there end up being a lot of them.  You’re not going to whip one of these characters out in 10 minutes.

Some would consider the large skill list a con as well.  It definitely means a large portion of the character sheet will be devoted to the skill list so that they are all represented.  Having to decide which of the skills apply to any given situation (or possibly more than one) can sometimes be a hassle or at least an irritation compared to just have a “computer” skill that covers anything related to computers.

Another con for this one is that it is a lot more work for me to set up.  Of course I like world building so it’s not like it will be drudgery but there will be a lot more effort expended.  Once done, it’s fairly easy to use, however, so that effort for the most part isn’t passed on to the players.

Last Thoughts

There really isn’t much more to say.  I like both systems.  One is definitely simpler and more abstract than the other but both are appealing in their own way.  The final decision will come later but feel free to chime in with questions, comments, or suggestions.