Jonathan Walton gave me the great idea of doing a weekly post responding to the Legends and Lore column on D&D. Each week I’ll be posting some thoughts from other games, outside of D&D, that address whatever Legends and Lore covered.
Monte Cook, a designer I really admire, is back on D&D and writing the Legends and Lore column for the first time. I’m psyched to see him back on D&D since Ptolus is still one of the cooler RPG items I own.
Anyway, the column itself focuses on ways of doing perception. Monte boils down the problem to “How does he know what to tell and what not to tell?” His response is a reworking of the passive perception system. It’s an interesting concept, but not much changes from the current passive perception system in 4E. How do some other games tackle the same concepts?
First off, Monte proposes giving everything a rank. Compare your rank to the rank of whatever you’re looking at and you know if they find it without special action. The rank idea seems pretty close to FUDGE and FATE which both use adjectives to describe proficiency in a skill. You might be lucky enough to have “Superb” Perception which, depending on the system and GM, might just mean that you see things that are hidden with a lesser skill.
Just a personal thought here: I’m not a fan of using adjectives for describing degrees of aptitude. They restrain non-rules writing (since I now can’t describe something as “Superb” without possible confusion) and add a step of interpretation where I have to translate that word into some actionable game metric. Not a huge deal, just my own feelings.
How, Not If
Monte’s really focused on a skill system that determines if the players find something, not how. There’s some weaknesses here, where important information can be roadblocked because the players roll badly. That demands the adventure designer set difficulties and plan information very carefully so that no bad roll can completely roadblock the situation. Honestly, that’s a big burden for a designer or DM to have.
Mouse Guard is an example of a game that gets around that by allowing rolls to modify how the character does it, instead of if the action is successful. On a failed roll in Mouse Guard the GM can let the character succeed but with a condition. Sure, you can find the poachers’ trail, but it takes hours of crawling through brambles and by the time you find it you’re Angry (Angry being a concrete condition with mechanical effects and mechanical ways of removing it). It’s a great system that means a bad roll never blocks the action, it just adds complications.
Monte’s system is certainly streamlined but it doesn’t answer one major question I had: when do I roll Perception? When the player says he’s checking the statue’s teeth does that trigger a roll or do I just tell them the outcome of their actions? Does the player just say ‘I percept the area?’
One of my favorite recent developments in games is to predicate the rules on the fictional actions the players take. The rules for searching something in Apocalypse World don’t trigger until the characters search an area, then the rules tell you exactly how to resolve it:
When you read a charged situation, roll+sharp. On a hit, you can ask the MC questions. Whenever you act on one of the MC’s answers, take +1. On a 10+, ask 3. On a 7–9, ask 1:
- where’s my best escape route / way in / way past?
- which enemy is most vulnerable to me?
- which enemy is the biggest threat?
- what should I be on the lookout for?
- what’s my enemy’s true position?
- who’s in control here?
The beauty here is that the rules clearly tell the GM when to have the players roll to search something and what information to give out in response. The GM’s also acting under a set of rules that tell them to portray the world authentically. It’s actually a great fit for D&D (or at least I think so—see Dungeon World). That kind of perception rule can be rewritten just a bit to fit the D&D mold:
When you closely study a situation or person, roll+Wis. On a 10+ ask the GM 3 questions from the list below. On a 7-9 ask 1. Take +1 forward when acting on the answers.
- What happened here recently?
- What is about to happen?
- What should I be on the lookout for?
- What here is useful or valuable to me?
- Who’s really in control here?
- What here is not what it appears to be?
Theses rules don’t skip over the back-and-forth of explicit exploration. In both AW and DW the GM is told to honestly describe the world in response to the players’ actions. When a player says “I climb up the statue, keeping a close eye out for any hollows in the stone, tapping on it, especially the mouth area” that triggers the perception rules, sure, but it also means the GM describes the honest results of their action. “Most of it is solid rock but when you get to the teeth they have some give, roll the dice for perception as you find the hidden space behind it.” (It’s also worth noting that AW and DW have something similar to Mouse Guard where a failure can mean the GM allows success, but with complications or tough choices.)
One thing that you’ll notice about the Apocalypse World and Dungeon World perception-ish rules is that they don’t rely on the GM to set difficulties. The players always roll agains the same target numbers, all the time. At first that seems like a huge shortcoming, and something that Monte’s system serves better. Shouldn’t it be harder to find a scroll hidden behind arcane wards than to find a goblin’s sock full of silver coins?
Well, yeah, it should be, and it is in those systems. The difficulty just doesn’t come from arbitrary GM assignment of a score, it comes from the fictional actions needed to trigger those rules.
Finding a scroll concealed in arcane wards is harder because, to “closely search” it (the trigger in the Dungeon World rules) you have to be searching it. Some hapless fighter with no magical sense doesn’t get information on it just from searching nearby, he has no senses to pick up on the magic. The wizard who scans the area with Detect Magic however is probably closely searching for something hidden by a spell of concealment.
Putting the difficulty in the hands of the fictional situation is a fantastic way to avoid the kind of minutiae tracking that Monte’s system has. If everything has a rank, I have to track all those ranks, constantly comparing them to whoever’s nearby to tell them what they see. When making an adventure I have to decide how hidden something is which probably involves taking into account the fictional situation, how skilled the players are, and maybe some idea of pacing or rewards for conquering it. That’s a lot to plan! In Apocalypse World on the other hand all I have to do is keep track of what this place they’re exploring is like, what’s there, what’s going on. The rules step in as needed, I don’t have to make up a difficulty just so the players can roll against it.
Bringing It All Together
There are a whole lot of indie games that have designed through this same area, covering exploration and the exchange of information. It’s interesting to see some of those ideas trickle into D&D. In fact, I hope they do it more. Just like every indie game, take ideas from other games, mention your sources, and mold them into something your own. I’d love to see what the D&D design crew could do if they used other games as inspiration instead of reinventing the wheel.