Monday, October 27, 2014

One Point Makes the Difference

Since yesterday, I've been breaking apart the spell and cantrip lists on the wiki for the cleric and illusionist, creating more than 130 new pages.  I hadn't really considered what a monumental task it is to rewrite all the spell lists - but in breaking them up, I'm getting a sense for that.

Yet, it is also encouraging to know that I've done at least this much.  And it is encouraging me to apply myself once again to the sage tables, something I've left off for three months now.  I can sense the motivation, like a train whistle that announces itself far in the distance.

I'm in an organizational frame of mind.  For weeks I've been transforming and working on the distance tables for the trade system.  While I'll continue with that, I'm also thinking about the wiki and whether or not to keep the work blog (I don't think that idea worked), while gearing up to work on the new book.  I wrote a few thousand words last week on that project, just enough to get my feet wet; I hope to have some sort of working first draft by Christmas.  Sorry that I'm not ready to talk about it yet - I don't want to cripple the muse that is kindly possessing me.

There's no question that the completion of How to Run shattered me a bit, forcing me to draw back and regroup.  I'm pleased that it did as well as it did - I still think there are many more people who would gain from reading it.  I believe the readers who liked it are helping me send that message; there are signs of that in the book's sales.

I wanted to talk about those sage tables, however, that are proving to be every inch the gargantuan task that the spells represent.

A quick overview - different classes are provided with a set of knowledge paths which players can choose, which provide both mundane and exquisite abilities that can be applied to every day running. I don't mean for this knowledge to be applied to making the characters more powerful in combat, so even for the fighters it does not include weapon use or additional bonuses.  The knowledge is more like 'support' for managing the environment, handling equipment, organizing the world and making use of things.

Knowledge is divided into four basic orders, amateur, authority, master and sage, based upon the number of points accumulated over levels.  Each level allows a die to be rolled which increases points, depending on the path chosen by the character.  Never mind the details right now.

Amateur starts at 10 points; authority at 20, master at 40 and sage at 80.  The point system is, not surprisingly, troublesome - not only in itself, but also in its presentation.  For reasons I can't put my finger on, I find myself chafing against declaring a skill to be something only a master can perform. I know it has to be that way.   It's like the thing with dogs and cars.

Yet I can see it from the player's perspective.  Let us say, for instance, that the player chooses to know something about geology.  10 points would indicate that the player is an amateur geologist. Yet the player only has 9 points.  Surely, those 9 points mean something, yes?

I have to argue that they don't, not because they shouldn't but because it would be impractical to allow hair-splitting on these lines.  I understand the arguments.  A person doesn't *poof* become an amateur geologist.  It takes time.  There's a recognition of common features and items before one becomes able to recognize a wider range.  'Obviously,' if the character gets one more point and suddenly becomes an instant amateur, while having no knowledge previously, then there's something wrong.

The solution, as anyone would propose, would be to have a percentage roll that decides whether or not the character knows something.  There we go, problem solved.

Except . . . well, I tried that and it doesn't work.

Players would ask to roll the percentage at every opportunity, which was fair but which also presented their knowledge as entirely hit and miss grab bag.  At no time did the player ever really believe that they had any ability or knowledge - they simply saw the possibility of knowing something like a magic 'genie' they could ask questions and hopefully get a right answer.  The skill didn't play out like a character building device - largely because randomness is a really shitty game delivery system.

I realized that sage abilities would have to function like other player abilities - the fighter does not roll to see if knowledge of the sword's use is present!  A geologist does not randomly guess at the meaning behind a given rock formation.  Knowledge simply IS.

If this means in game terms that the player instantly goes from knowing nothing to being an amateur, then it does.  Many features of the game work exactly that way.  We're just used to those features and we don't think about them much.  Unless, of course, we're still flummoxed that this is a game.

It means that having 9 points in the understanding of geology is equivalent to having zero understanding.  That's just the way it has to work.  Dogs and cars.

At the same time, it also means the character with 10 points can be sure of their amateur status.  We have a fairly good concept of what amateur status in a field means.  We understand the main stream, but we don't create knowledge and we tend to miss hidden details or the odd and absurd.  We understand the basic tools, such as a touchstone, but we're foggy on why precisely the tool works. We have knowledge of use but not theory.

Within that framework, we can assess the character's skill without needing to roll dice.  We can apply our own experience to the question - is this something an amateur geologist would know?  If yes, then we can assume the character ought to know as well.

This gives the character a clear sense of their ability and their power - and in turn allows the character to make predictions about what value their assessments will have.  Is this the sort of rock formation that contains caves?  Yes it is.  If we keep searching, we're certain to find a cave.  This is not a guess.

The benefit of that is, I think, worth the inconvenience of one point making the difference.

There is an alternative - but it's unthinkable.  Assign a specific knowledge set to every point gained. Shake the knowledge set so that different amateurs get slightly different mixtures of knowable things, gauged throughout the process, until ultimately every sage knows everything.

GAH.  I'll be at it until doomsday.