Last time I talked about our passive skills checks – ideas involuntarily forming in your head, sensations creeping up your spine. An active skill check on the other hand, is the moment where you force your mind and body to react in a certain way. You direct a skill to go off.
Every dialogue has at least one active skill check moment. Think of these as important shots in a combat sequence, mini showdowns that form a knot in the scene. This is what the story has been building towards. Have they been lying to you all along? Can you dance, or will you grab the mic and sing karaoke? We want every appearance of an active skill check to feel weighty. It’s a dramatic juncture: either a closed door or a fork in the road.
In No Truce With The Furies an active check appears in the form of a special dialogue option. This usually happens deep in the conversation. It looks like a regular dialogue option, but highlighted:
The phrasing of this special dialogue option tells you what you are trying to do, not what you will do. A tooltip menu tells you what your chances of succeeding are:
The task and your ability to perform it face each other like armies on a battlefield. You vs the world. On your side are your stats (character creation), your learned skill (leveling up) plus the items in your inventory and the thoughts you’re thinking. On the opposing side – the difficulty of the task.
An element of chance determines the outcome of this attempt, the game roll two six sided die. But before you do you should prepare, nudge the odds in your favour a bit.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
You can prop up your side by rummaging through your Thought Cabinet and changing stuff around: maybe it would pay to be a radical feminist at this juncture? Or wait, no! Better to think really, really hardcore racist thoughts. That’ll do the trick, dazzle them with your advanced race theory! But would your character do that? Do you want to take your character in that direction?
Maybe you should just use drugs and face the consequences later – or put points in the appropriate skill if you have any saved up. We want to bring min-maxing (upgrading your character on the fly), potion use (drug use in our case) and inventory management (changing thoughts in your Thought Cabinet) to dialogues. We want you to buff yourself up mid-dialogue and play it like a turn-based combat encounter.
ON THE OPPOSING SIDE
It’s not only you who can change. The task at hand becomes harder or easier depending on the changes you’ve made to the world. Wanted to “get” what “the kids nowadays” are listening to? Maybe the music happens to be a bit more “basic” today because you waited? Wanted to convince your partner to get drunk on the job? Something you said has him reaching for the bottle. Wanted to come up with an exciting mystery? A shadow on the wall in the evening light has inspired you. All these things can make checks harder or easier. These modifiers give us a nifty little tool to show the player the game is taking note of their actions in the world.
So okay, you’ve seen the odds and you’ve seen the modifiers. Now it’s time to either click on the check or not. If you do, what – if any – are the risks in failure? This is where my favourite thing about our active checks comes in. Notice how we use two colours of highlighting?
That’s because there are two types: white checks and red checks. What happens once you roll depends on the type of check. The first is safer.
If you fail a white check you suffer damage (mental or physical), but nothing happens in the world, no negative consequences – just the lack of positive ones. You don’t “get” that wacky music, your partner tells you to stop trying to get him fired. The proverbial door in the dungeon remains closed, the treasure out of reach. The white check becomes greyed out. You can try again later once you’re better at it (put more points into the skill), or you can make the task easier by changing the environment.
But if you do succeed you get access to a special nook in the content: a bunch of clever things to say that build your character, or inadvertedly solving a problem somewhere else. You may even find an entirely new side-case to take on, or new project for your Thought Cabinet to process. And yes, even a bigger gun, we’re not above those. White checks are locked gates for content and rewards. (Which we think of as one and the same). Even finding the gates counts as progress. Part of the game is mapping out these “closed doors” and then returning later once you think you need what is behind them – or if you’re just curious.
Our Art Director compares white checks to using dynamite to mine more content out of the game. It’s relatively safe if you plan your rolls carefully.
… on the other hand are dangerously unsafe.
If you roll this bad boy – THE NEGATIVE RESULT IS PLAYED OUT TOO. Say you were trying to come up with an idea and you fail a red check. You don’t just stand there clueless, you come up with a bad idea. A really bad one. An utterly idiotic one. Tell your friends to fuck off. Tell them all to fuck off because they’re “cramping you’re style.” Your character will not be able to tell the difference, they will think it’s a good idea. You the player are stuck saying something truly idiotic with a winning grin on your chartacter’s face – or doing something very dangerous.
You can always come back to white checks but red checks can only be rolled once: here and now. If you don’t they are lost forever. Think of red checks as forks in the path – if you don’t try it now you will never get the chance to. The suspect will leave the hallway, the train will leave the station. But you might fail if you do.
FAILURE IS FUN
Players almost always try red checks. The negative content is fuel for role playing, and it’s also – dare I say – fun. Failure puts you in the skin of your character. You can be embarrassing. Weak. Ridiculous. Full of yourself. Just plain wrong. Paranoid. Idiotic. Every director knows that actors build characters out of failures and fears, not heroics. We’ve noticed players instinctively feel the same way. They begin to search for red checks to fail at. Especially the right ones – the ones that fit their character. They do this for character building, but also because they’re curious of the outcome. It feels like playing with fire.
This adds an interesting effect to Skills and spending experience to improve them. It can be useful not to. It’s rewarding to be bad at some things because it produces interesting red check failures.
You’re right to raise an eyebrow. “In our game you are defined equally by your strengths and weaknesses” is the type of wonk a lot of designers would like to utter. But I think we’re slowly earning our right to. Week by week, month by month of development.
You’ll be the judge of it of course. Either way, I bet you’ll pull that red trigger 90% of the time.
Next week I’ll introduce our four main stats and how they shape your character. Til then.