Thursday, February 29, 2024

How I Designed SKills in Deathtrap Lite

 I'm going to spend the next few articles talking about Deathtrap Lite. This little OSR game was my personal passion project in 2021. 

When we started the World of Weirth campaign, Stephen Smith was looking for a scalable skill system that would allow him to determine the outcome of events without relying on the somewhat "pro-PC" skewed skill system of Low Fantasy Gaming. He adopted a fairly straightforward system from the old blog Taps and Tankard. He adjusted the difficulty levels inherent to that system and added a system for skills to grow as the PCS use them, rather than as they levelled up.

 In practice, however, we found that the players were avoiding tasks that would require rolling using the system if they could. My fellow players found that there was some lack of clarity in the rules. Stephen invited me to write a proposal as how I would rewrite and rejig the system so that the players would be more comfortable using it, which I did in a matter of a few hours. But that got me thinking about how I could build a whole role-playing game system out of it...

This is where Deathtrap Lite came from, tweaking an existing skill system into something new and flexible. I'm going to go over the basics of the system with you here.

Skills are Created As You Go

The first thing to know is that there is no defined list of skills in Deathtrap Lite, or the abstract system I've derived from it which I call the over six engine any tasks to your character does repeatedly can be defined as a skill and added to your sheet.

If you're a campaign includes a lot of toboggan chases, then your characters would start out as "untrained" in "perilous tobogganing", but, the players could choose to add it to their PCs' character sheets.

An untrained character has to roll a d8 and beat six in order to succeed at their task. A character's ability scores, which I've narrowed down to four, can incur a penalty of -1 or -2, for at a bonus of +1 or +2 if they are exceptionally gifted in that area. The GM may choose to add situational modifiers ranging from -2 to +2 as well. Appropriate for excellent equipment might add +1 one or +2. Having no equipment when it is vitally needed might incur a -1 or -2 penalty.

Skills Improve With Practice

If your character succeeds and pulling off of dangerous stunt on a toboggan six times, they have got a knack for it and are considered "trained". Trained characters upgrade from a d8 to a d10, increasing their probability of success significantly.

From there, a PC has six pips to fill in before they get to their next level. They gain some pips when they level up. They can spend their hard-earned treasure on training to fill in pips on any skill on their character sheet, or. Any time they roll the highest face on the appropriate die they gain a pip. 

This means that the more character uses a skill, once they have gotten down the basics, the better they will get at it. So, after several dozen more toboggan-based assaults on monster camps, or sledding escapes, the character is likely to get even better. Namely, once that character has had a combination of natural 10s on their d10, paid for better toboggans and guides to get them to the most dangerous places for training, and putting some of their precious level up points into it, they can become an "expert".

Experts work the same way as trained characters. The only difference is that they roll a d12. This means they have a much higher rate of success, especially if they are smart and stack advantages, carry good gear, or have the natural agility to control the sled. They gain their pip when they roll the natural 12, train, or put points from their level up into it.

This makes improving on expert skill a bit harder and slower than improving on a trained skill. It takes hundreds of repetitions to reach expertise. Once again, much like real life. 

Finally, if an expert can fill in six more pips, they can reach "master" level. At master level they roll 2d8. No further advancement is possible.

You Are What You Do

This in effect makes a character what they do: The more you sneak and steal, the better you will be at it. The more you shoot a bow, the more accurate you will become. 

I drew much of my inspiration here from the elder scrolls games. Especially Skyrim. In Skyrim, your character's natural abilities only give a very slight advantage. Your character gets good at things by either getting training or by simply doing them over and over again. Early on, your character skills develop very quickly. As you proceed, progression stops unless you branch out and do multiple new things.

I even reflect this in my character progression in Deathtrap Lite. Characters gain their experience points in that game by increasing skill levels. They get a small amount by learning new skills, a much greater amount by becoming trained in those skills, and higher still amounts for developing expertise or mastery in those skills.

Classes are a Starting Point

Character classes are, in effect, the characters starting hit points, a list of starting equipment, and a short list of skills in which they begin as trained or expert.

This also gives the GM a little more flexibility. While dead monsters and gold pieces in the bank certainly suggest you have been successful as adventurers, if you aren't after gold, you are smart enough to avoid monsters, or you have bad luck in finding treasure, your character simply doesn't develop, no matter how many adventures they've been on. By tying experience points to your character successfully using their skills, the players advance no matter what kind of challenges there facing, because they are still growing as a person.

This isn't really innovative. It's how character advancement works in Cyberpunk 2020 and Basic Role-Playing, but, I feel that it has a great deal of value if it can be simplified and applied to Fantasy gaming.

There are, of course, certain skills in the game that are special. The classess in my game are defined by skills that are unique to the character class. Warriors have a "mighty deeds of arms" skill. Mages have a "weave a spell" skill. Rogues have a "stroke of good luck" skill. Knaves have a "jack of all trades" skill. The experience for these skills going up is multiplied.

Some Skills Need a Few Extra Rules

Likewise, performing cantrips, alchemy, medicine, using a sixth sense, engaging in melee or ranged combat, and surviving sudden emergencies are all skills that need special mechanics. Those skills are given some detail in the core rule book.

in my other Over Six based system, Midnight Zone, diving, hacking, and gunnery have special mechanics.

I also made certain not to add skills that represent social abilities. I left that purely to role play. If the GM wants to give characters the ability to fast talk their way out of situations using mechanical resolution, they can simply let the players add a "bullshiting" skilled to their character sheet.

In Deathtrap Lite, I have used this skill system to replace most of the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons. Saving throws of being re-imagined as a handful of skills. Spell casting is handled by skills. Combat can even be handled by skills.

However, system works just fine if it's layered on top of an existing role-playing game. My Silver Gull campaign uses Deathtrap Lite for thief skills, magic, alchemy, and any miscellaneous tasks a player character wants to handle. Combat and saving throws still use the d20 systems already present in Swords & Wizardry.

If you are interested in seeing more, here's the cheat sheet from the back of my book:

1 comment:

  1. I would start with a d6 and call it 6+, but yours works and is more forgiving of the untrained. Or just go with the existing Savage Worlds 4+ system. At least you're giving the d8 and d12 some more table time.