Arcane Game Lore

Never split the party!

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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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











Ability Score











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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Desiging Out Loud – Introduction

As if I don’t have enough on my plate right now (new job, back in grad school, running two fan magazines and several websites), I think it’s time I sat down and fleshed out my own RPG game system.  Heaven knows we don’t need yet another system out there but I’ve always wanted to try to build one and I’ve got these ideas bursting out of my head.  In fact, I’ve got ideas for two different systems.

So I’m starting up this new thread on the the blog entitled “Designing Out Loud”.  In the posts in this thread I’ll be discussing topics and details of the various aspects of the gaming system as I work through them.  Sometimes I’ll just be posting notes and ideas, literally talking out loud to organize my thoughts.  Other times I’ll be posting polished mechanics.  I don’t know exactly how this will go but I look forward to seeing your comments.

So what kind of game?  It’s going to be a science fiction game since that’s where my passion lies.  Now I love Star Frontiers.  I’ve played it since I was a kid.  I run two fan magazines for the game, the Frontier Explorer and the Star Frontiersman.  But I’ll be the first to admit that some of the rules are a bit wonky.  In fact some make my physics, math, and astronomy brain practically explode with their incomprehensibleness.  As time has gone on, I’ve realized more and more that it’s not the game mechanics that I love but the setting and feel of the game.  I like the way it plays but the details can get under my skin.

On the other hand, I think that mechanics-wise, the all time favorite system that I’ve played or read (and I’ll admit I’m not as well read or played as most) was a game based on RuneQuest 3rd Edition that I played in the late 80s to early 90s when I was in high school and college.  This was a fantasy game.  The mechanics were basically RuneQuest but with an additional magic system and a greatly expanded skill list (250+ skills instead of the standard 40 or so). I’m sure that a large part of the reason I loved this game so much was our GM.  I mean you can be doing too bad when your GM has an Origins Best Role-playing Supplement of the Year award.  The world was very richly developed and by the time we were playing he had been running games in this setting for over 20 years (it might have been over 30, to this day I still don’t know his exact age, I just know when he started playing. Yes, I know that late 80′s minus 20+ years puts you in the 60′s. He started role playing with his friends in high school before D&D was even invented using a 3 page rule set that he developed.  And you might recognize the names of his friends that he introduced to this type of gaming if I mentioned them.)  He still runs this game every Saturday at his home.  I loved the detail, realism, and crunch of that game.

So I’m torn between writing a game that is simple and fast to play like Star Frontiers, and one that has more detail and crunch like RuneQuest.  In the end, I’ll probably find myself somewhere in the middle but for now, I’m going to lean more toward the lighter, simpler system.  I can always add the crunch later.  So come along as I work on this system and let’s see what we can turn up.


The Secret Wars of Gnomes

Revengeoflawngnomes_03Many moons ago, I relayed the Secret War of Gnomes and Leprechauns and it has earned me an unrighteous enmity of the wee folk. I have found my keys missing, holes in my favorite shirt, and I’m fairly certain they put the weevils in my cereal. But this has not deterred me in my quest for gnomish knowledge. I have found that there is a subclass of gnome call gnoamgoyles. Now gnoamgoyles were created by the same wizard that created gargoyles. As legend has it, when the wizard was working on bringing the stone effigies to life, he had many gnome apprentices. These gnomes worked tirelessly for their mentor and were key to him unlocking the secrets to stonelife. Unfortunately, during one ill-fated experiment, the wizard failed to bring the stone gargoyles to life. When his apprentices suddenly stopped working, he realized he had turned the gnomes to stone.

Disenchanted, the wizard quit his experiments until that evening when the gnomes came back to life and besought their mentor to reverse the spell. He agreed and work tirelessly throughout the night to unravel the secrets of stonelife. Now the gnomes continued to help their mentor, waiting for the day they could walking again in the light. After an unknown number of years, the wizard deciphered the secret of stonelife and brought his gargoyle minions to life. The gnomes, learning that their mentor had no plans to restore them to normal, revolted against their master. But by then it was too late. The wizard had number of loyal gargoyles, like magical rottweilers with wings. The gargoyles attacked the gnomes and drove them off into the night. Thus began the war of Gnomes and Gargoyles.

The gnoamgoyles, being able to move under the same conditions as the gargoyles, had no hope of capturing their former master. In one final attempt, the gnoamgoyles convinced their gnomish brethren to spirit away the gargoyle watched dogs during the day and they confronted their former master that same night. The battle between master and student was both great and terrible. The entire country side was laid asunder in the battle and only ended when the gnomes discovered they could convey the unlife of stone another.

When the gargoyles returned, they were finally free beings, but seeing their master cast in stone sparked a hatred for gnomes that has not since been quenched. To this day, gargoyles and gnomes are mortal enemies. Gnoamgoyles has taken up the fight as the nightly defenders of gnomes. Over the years, these silent stone watchmen have been whisked away to decorate many a human garden. Rarely is a garden gnome a gnoamgoyle, but those that are taken are mean and bitter from their curse in life. Beware the gnome you put in your garden, for it may come to life that night and bestow his curse on you.

10 Signs You May Be A Geek

So it has been a while since I posted and wanted to try and start back with something simple. So I came up with a list of  10 signs you may be a geek. This is from my own personal experiences so let’s see if anyone can relate.

1. If you’ve ever lied about your test score so no one accuses you of breaking the curve.
2. If you’ve ever judged a game by the number or type of dice it has.
3. If one of your siblings discovered that the best thing to slide across the floor is polyethylene on top of more polyethylene.
4. If you thought THACO was an easy concept.
5. If somebody has ever told you, “you guys talk about this stuff like you’ve actually done it.”
6. If you’ve ever calculate the ‘volume’ of a fireball in an enclosed space… Or in my case, 32 fireballs detonated at once.
7. If you’ve spent over 30 minutes at a store deciding which mini best represents your character.
8. If you’ve painted minis for other player’s character to enhance combat.
9. If you’ve quietly had wars between your dice while waiting for your turn.
10. If you have two copies of any gaming book, one for use, and one for display.

Variation on a trap

I was playing Star Frontiers with my kids last night and they dreamed up a trap far worse than what was actually there.  They are in the last section of the SF-1: Volturnus, Planet of Mystery module (PDF).

Warning: spoilers for the adventure.  If you’re a player in this module stop reading now!

Trap corridors from the moduleIn this part of the module, the characters have to assault a Sathar artifact.  The module is designed such that the characters can easily find a false entrance that opens up into a small closed set of interconnected tunnels that were circular in cross section (see area labeled 4 in the image at right).  The trap here being that once the characters pass a certain distance in either direction (the dashed lines in the image to the right) the entire tunnel complex flips 180 degrees tossing them about for some damage.  That’s all this area does, continuously.  There is absolutely nothing else here, just empty halls that flip over every time you cross one of those lines.

My kids were smart and were looking for traps but the technician looking barely made his skill roll, so I declared that he saw something at the positions of the dashed lines that looked like a triggering mechanism but didn’t know what it was.  He carefully moved over and made another skill roll to try to figure it out, again barely making it.  He was informed that it seemed that the tunnel system could pivot around a central axis but couldn’t figure out anything else.

At this point they all began speculating wildly about what could happen.  Not being able to see the entire structure (it was dark, they only had flashlights, and couldn’t see around the corners), they came to the conclusion that the corridors were balanced and that if they went too far in any one direction, it would tip over, dropping them to the bottom.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they were also convinced that there were large 2 meter balls in the hidden portions of the tunnels that would roll down and squish them.

They immediately started looking at the weights of the different races (2 Dralasites, a Yazirian, a Vrusk, and 2 combat robots) and trying to send equally weighted characters in opposite directions.  This obviously didn’t work and they got flipped over and there were (luckily) no balls to go rolling through the halls.  After a couple of flips they decided this wasn’t working and found the correct (secret) entrance.

I’ll have to admit though, that the trap they dreamed up was much more interesting (and deadly) than the actual one.  I may just have to use it in a future adventure.

Modern Warehouse Review

Modern Warehouse

Modern Warehouse

I find gaming very tedious these days. My brain does not like to accept rules that do not make sense to me, I have very little time to prepare for games, and even though I type faster than I did 20 years ago, I never seem to have enough time to type things up. It seems the older I get, the more things unrelated to gaming become a higher priority in life. As a result, I do not like to game master anymore. The amount of effort that goes into preparing for a gaming session, never seems to satify the outcome of said session. Instead I decided to help my gamemaster prepare scenarios for our game. In this particular scenario, my character managed to obtain ownership of an old abandoned warehouse on the bad side of town. The warehouse made a perfect staging point for the illicit work he was in. Unfortunately, the warehouse was being squated by a rather large bunch of gangers. After accidently stumbling onto their turf, an all-out gun fight ensued. And while the gangers were driven off, the group lost a couple members and had to quickly vacate the premesis as the police investigated the gunfire (and loud explosions).

Preparing to Enter

Preparing to Enter

The Modern warehouse is a stunning map suitable for use with minitures to create a vivid battle scene. The entire map covers 48″ x 30″ and was more than enough realestate to encompass a battle with 30+ participants. There is plenty of detail on the map that players can use for strategic fighting and plenty of wide open spaces to get caught out in the open. I purchased the physical cards along with the PDF and received the product in about a week.

The map is printed on 8″ x 10″ semi-glossy sheets of cardstock quality. The map showed no wear for the night of gaming that we put it through, and the tape we used on it came off without damaging the map. The durability seems good enough for extended use, as long as you properly stored the map after use. Storing should be easy as the sheets will fit in anything you can store standard letter sized sheets in. The original shipping container can be used to store it if nothing else.

Usability & Re-usability
If you have need of a warehouse for a pipe construction business, this is perfect for you. Of course if you have specific needs, this might not ‘seem‘ to fit in your game. It definitely did not seem  right for ours; it was suppose to be an abandoned warehouse. But, all the detail inspired a backstory as to why the items were still there. We concocted a story of a business that caught fire during a gang turf war, and the building came in dispute after the owners death, to disuse, to eventual abandonment. All the item had reasonable explanations. In game, the detail of the maps proved useful as things like the dumpster would probably have been forgotten on our home drawn maps.

Re-using a map is often difficult in a contemporary game as you are always looking for new places to have interesting encounters. We managed to work this map into focal point of the game so there are many oppurtunities for reuse. It could be revenge of the original inhabitants, in our case gangers, to raids by government agencies. There can also be a follow-up mission where the group may have to break in again. A well planned campaign can make this a reoccurring location.

The Mage and Decker rush in?

The Mage and Decker rush in?

Set-up and Breakdown
The product gives you two ideas on how to set up the map. Consisting of 12 pieces, they have tendency to shift when in use. The two methods are gluing it to a backing board and taping the pieces together. I opted to tape the pieces as I wanted to be able to easily store it afterwards. Taping the pieces together took maybe 10 minutes total. I used a small section of tape on each connecting side and a piece on the corners to prevent them from catching on the miniatures being slid across the map.

Break down took a bit longer 15-20 minutes. This was due to slowly removing the tape to reduce the risk of accidentally tearing the map. Not a single piece of tape resulting in the tearing of the map.

I think the price is acceptable for what it is. It seems a tad bit high for a one time use and would like to see it under $10.00. But we plan on using the map at least 3 times and would roughly estimate $4.33 per use. You can buy the pdf and print it the map out if you have the time to trim the edges. The value of the produce would depend on your personal needs, finances, and time constraints.

Who moved those pipes?

Who moved those pipes?

The only real issues we had with the map is that we had a hard time determining doors and windows. The building wall looks like a solid piece all the way around. It took us a minute or two to determine where the doors were as well as the windows. Also the office room looks like it is suppose to be on the second floor according the picture, but the map doesn’t show a staircase going up to. This did not cause a problem in our game, as the fight did not use the office, but I could see the office as a key defensible position in a real warehouse that can overlook the warehouse floor.

If asked whether I would recommend this for purchase, I would definitely say by the pre-printed cards if you can work in multiple uses. If you are only going to use this as a one-shot fight, printing the map from the PDF may be more cost effective for you.

Product Link: Modern Warehouse