In the 15 year build up to No Truce With The Furies, one of our main gripes with RPG-s has always been non-combat skill use. In RPGs – even the story-heavy ones – combat is lavished with tactical tension, skill use produces cool chunky animations, you get pulse-raising rewards and punishments, the logos are colourful. Sound effects go “Tring-trang!” and “Pow!”, there are intricate beautiful systems for you to delve into.
Most of this is missing from non-combat skill use. Talking and exploring gets a simplified, non-competitive version of the combat rules. Usually this comes in the form of passive dialogue options: have this much of that required skill and you’ll be able to say this thing. Even the games we truly admire – Planescape: Torment, Mask of the Betrayer, Fallout – have little going on in the rules department when it comes to dialogue. Ditto for most tabletop pen-and-paper role playing systems. The tactical depth of using arguments, employing logic, original thinking, empathy – the skill use that covers 95% of our actual lives – makes up 5% of the rule system. Yet my experience tells me thinking is the ultimate game. It’s nerve-wrecking, conversations are filled with hidden doubts; we struggle to trust each other, manipulate each other, stay sane. There is great strategic depth and tactical tension that goes into talking that games haven’t really – for me – begun to represent yet.
So that’s the first thing we set out to create: a truly in depth non-combat skill system. We have four stats and under each stat there are 6 skills. That gives us 24 skills – all 24 have critical non-combat use. In fact, No Truce With The Furies (the first implementation of our role playing system) will cover their non-combat use almost exclusively. (In the future we want every skill to be a two-faced Janus with somewhat unsymmetrical and unexpected uses in combat and outside it).
I’ll show off the individual skills in a future post. But first I want to talk about how the skills are used in No Truce With The Furies. That is – about skill checks.
In role-playing games the check is the moment the system “checks” if a character has enough points in a skill to perform an action. It’s a “you have to be at least this tall to ride the rollercoaster” kind of deal. Of course there are exceptions and interesting ideas around, but this is how RPGs usually handle skill checks: your character is talking to someone, that someone lies, if your character has 5 INTELLIGENCE you get a dialogue option that says: “You’re not telling me the truth”. Saying that will make the guy admit he lied. This type of check is called passive because you’re doing nothing. Some hours ago you put two points in “seeing through lies skill” and now the software affirms your choice. There’s not a lot of game in there. And certainly not a lot of literature.
When designing our skill checks in dialogues we had two goals:
- Make dialogue more like literature – rethink passive checks
- Make dialogue more like a game – add active checks
In literature dialogues are interspersed with thoughts, emotions, alterior motives and physical phenomenon taking place within the characters while they talk. This comes in the form of parenthesis, streams of consiousness, author interjections etc. A whole plethora of literary devices. We wanted to do that in game form. To depict what’s below the surface: the moment an idea forms, the sense of self delusion, secretly laughing because you came up with a stupid joke. Then trying to figure out if you should say it out or not…
It was surprisingly easy to achieve – your skills talk to you. When we use passive checks they are not dialogue options but extra “characters” who silently interject. Only you, the main character can hear them because they are your thoughts, your sensations. Our passive checks are souffleurs in a play.
Let’s look at a sample situation from the game. And remember: every time the main character speaks they have options to say something else. (I have simplified the choice part of the dialogue for the sake of this example).
You come upon a loitering teenage girl kneeling on the ice with a tape recorder in hand. You approach her, question her, then this happens:
You: “What’s that device you have there?”
Acele: “This? It’s a portable recording device. It’s for field recording. Low quality, but still.”
You: “And the wires?”
Acele: “Actually just one wire, I picked on it ’til the braiding came loose. The wire leads to a contact microphone.”
You: “What is a “contact microphone”?”
Acele: “A contact mic is a microphone that records sounds from inside things. Like this ice.”
TRIVIA (difficult success): Your mangled brain would like you to know there is a boxer called Contact Mike.
You: What am I supposed to do with this?
TRIVIA: No idea.
You: “Does this have anything to do with Contact Mike?”
Acele: “Uh…” She’s confused. “Yeah, I record stuff with it.”
You: “No, I mean the boxer Contact Mike.”
Acele: “Ah! No. This is a *contact microphone*, it’s for recording *inside* solid objects. Contact Mike just beats people up.”
You: “You know, Contact Mike doesn’t “just beat people up”. Contact Mike is a role model.”
You: “On second thought, screw Contact Mike. He’s no true champion – you are! Look at you here in front of a saggy tent, picking your nose to drug-addict music. The world of sports is in awe of your faith and dedication!”
Acele: “Man, you are one weird cop.”
You: “This isn’t about me. This is about your lack of respect for one of boxing’s greats – and for *yourself*.”
This dialogue could have gone differently if you didn’t have a ridiculously detailed (and mostly useless) factual memory. Even then you could have ignored the little connection your mind made, but in this situation the player chose to go off on a tangeant.
What happened was
- First you had a high enough Trivia skill.
- Then your Trivia told you an “interesting” fact.
- Then you had a little conversation with that part of your memory.
- Then you reached a hub of questions to Acele where in addition to normal, situation-appropriate ones you had “Does this have anything to do with Contact Mike?”.
This line we call a black check. It’s a line of dialogue fed to you by a passive check. It’s the closest we have to a “have this much skill to get dialogue option” type of affair, but 1) it’s covert, often you don’t even understand where an idea came from 2) we always have the conception of an idea first: the skill talks to you and then sometimes you can use this idea on whoever you’re talking to. If you choose to. Keeping the tidbit to yourself produces effects down the line too, since we consider all dialogue options seen by the player to be ideas circulating in the character’s psyche. Some just remain unspoken.
On some occasions the passive check just makes little observations that lead to more things later, but remain one-liners for now.
So this is how we’ve re-thought passive checks. The versatility of this simple system – let me just repeat it one more time: YOUR SKILLS TALK TO YOU – is pretty incredible. It is hard for us to imagine writing the game without it already. We can do really weird stuff. Like Half Light – the skill that controls your adrenaline gland and your prey drive – can railroad you into a rage spiral where you hound an innocent suspect on something they clearly didn’t do. And it takes another skill’s intervention for you to get out of it. The next moment a skill can wildly expand the options you have avalable, for example: Drama whispers insane method acting ideas into your ear. Or your Pain Threshold tells you to stab yourself in the hand to make a point. Whatever you do – don’t. Pain Threshold is an unstable masochist. It will only leave you screaming with your hand nailed to the table. And then – while screaming with your hand nailed to the table – Rhetoric to the rescue! Make a political point out of this. Tell them you’re a victim of your own macho mentality. Tell them (with your hand still nailed to the table) that years of chauvinism have led you to this low point in your life.
Now, I just made this situation up because I didn’t want to spoil any more of the game, but you get the point. If “Years of chauvinism have led me to this point!” was just a dialogue option it would come out of the blue. But it’s different to hear the thought form in your head out of great physical discomfort and then be able to converse with it. Should I say that? Do I really mean that? You sometimes let these ideas out, sometimes you carry on. We have a game where you might have to start censoring yourself.
Next time I will talk about active skill checks – our gamey, number crunching, min-maxing counterbalance to the literature-wonk of passive checks.