Gamemaster School 7: The Play’s The Thing

Non-combat encounters to some people comes across as an affront to their sensibilities. Who would want to do something like talking when you could be fighting and getting loot and XP, such as what you see in a lot of satire of the RPG genre. Those Munchkin style players are not wrong  in their own way, such as some of the great Knights Of The Dinner Table stories, but much like I explained how to use social skills, I want to talk about use of other skills for encounters.

Skills to perform or create something are simple enough to incorporate, such as someone using their skill as a cook to get into a place or making art to sell at a museum. However, beyond this, depending on how travelled and/or skilled the person is, it is possible they may have fans and critics who could bump into them. Also, some things can have whole contests designed around performance and craft skills, like the Japanese with tea ceremonies and other formal skills that they would even have things like poetry contests among samurai at court in times of peace.

Hamlet had the quote, as I used as this article’s subtitle, ‘The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king’, talking about how they may be able to use the play to send a message. Other times, performers have been cover to thieves, assassins or kidnappers, thus why people would fear gypsies as criminals. A sort of built in cover while you do what you needed to.

Of course, let us not forget about all those other skills people have.  Some skills can let you find work as something other than adventuring for a while. Appraisal skills can have you in a merchant position, while Heal can make you a doctor or nurse or home care aid worker, each with their own problems. Language skills can make you a translator, possibly getting dragged into some intrigue at the same time.

Knowledge skills are useful for a sage, or any other sort of informational position. Perhaps work as a guide and show people around a city or country. You could work as a chemist and produce items for sale or work under contract for an employer. Depending on ruleset and skills, you could write a book or make some other great creation and use it to get money and fame.

Some skills can be harder to find a non-combat use for. Weapon skills usually do not relate outside of combat, though some like axe have a general purpose of felling trees and Indiana Jones did show us options of what to do with a whip beyond fighting. Physical skills such as being able to carry a lot more, being able to take more abuse, able to jump higher, things like that require more thought beyond ‘I carry heavy things’. Normally you can find some sort of ability you can use, even if it is just to assist or fill in for someone else. I can think of a number of examples, like Eliot in Leverage and Jayne in Firefly, and beyond non-combat interests (Elliot’s cooking skills) and character background (Jayne’s letter from his family), they were mostly seen using physical related skills like combat or intimidation, unless filling a role someone else could have (such as Eliot in the Leverage pilot playing tech support, or attending the auction in Zanzibar Marketplace episode).

This is why I usually try and make characters with a personality first then add skills to fit, since if you try to make a sheet for yourself you need to factor in your school education, peronal interests, job, and so forth, which could leave you with skills like Celebrity Knowledge for the tabloid tv junkies, carpentry basics for the home repair show fans, science skills for the various intellectuals and so forth. For those of you who played Maniac Mansion, it had different paths depending on the choice of characters, like did you send in the demo tape or manuscript or call the Meteor Police?

A good GM can figure out how to make these skills be important for a game. I mentioned the gypsies using their performance to gain access to an area to steal. Elliot’s cooking skills became plot point specific in Leverage on more than one occasion as he played a chef,and the writers even had him talking about growing his own garden in one episode. Not something a PC normally has with their Government Trained Special Operations Combat Machine, when those points could give them another way to kill someone.

What should be looked at for using these skills? How can a player make the skill relevant to the scenario. Does it give them some sort of added benefit knowing how to do this? IE, if you need access to a facility, does knowing how to cook help? Maybe if they were having a catered event or perhaps they can go as a restaurant reviewer or a health inspector, or how to detect that something could be poisoned by realizing it is off. Does the character have a knowledge skill that could be useful, they could use it to figure out what the weak points of some tech thing is, like the exhaust port on the Death Star.

Many people tend to use skill checks as an all or nothing mechanic. If you succeed, you succeed and get all the info. I try instead to use a few different variants depending on requirements; skill challenge, count-off, tally. The skill challenge is to get as many successes as needed before so many failures, count-off is where you determine how many successes are needed and give them different number values in line with dice rolls (1-20, for example) and then the player must roll those numbers (or above, if you want to make it less time consuming), and tally is just simply every success gives a little information until they complete the tests.

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