Let's Build With These Dice: A Negotiated Skill System

I'm having one of those nights where I'm just feeling cruddy about a bunch of stuff. There were things I meant to get done today that didn't happen. I found out that we'd been double-billed for health insurance and I found it out the hard way. I meant to get some minis painted this afternoon and that didn't happen either. Thus, I feel the need to write something to get me out of the funk. Please forgive the indulgence of everything this far. One way of looking at the rest of this post is that it's Joesky Tax for this paragraph.

So, let's get back to These Dice, shall we?

Today, we're going to concern ourselves initially with the Green Dice. As shown in the picture above, the Green Dice have successes marked on the 5 & 6, meaning that a single Green Die has a 33.33% chance of succeeding at whatever. Let's make that a thing, let's make it skill checks.

A Negotiated Skill System

If your character wants to do a thing, you tell the DM how you're going to do it. If you're convincing enough, the DM agrees and it works (like finding and deactivating/bypassing old school traps). This is the first part of the negotiation: does it make enough sense that it does what the player wants? If the DM isn't convinced, we can go to dice. The player gets one Green Die to roll to see if he succeeds or not.

But maybe there are other factors weighing in the chance of success. Maybe the PC involved is really attentive or has great eyesight or something. Shouldn't those considerations be worth something? This is the second part of the negotiation. For every factor that the player can convince the DM that he can bring to bear on the situation, the player gets to roll an additional Green Die.

Part of the negotiation is that the DM should be prepared to say "no" when he feels a factor will not add enough or will not make a significant difference. Maybe one or two allies helping will add a die, but more than that won't. Who knows? The important part is that the player presents his case and the DM weighs it on its merit rather than reference some foreign, non-diagetic rubric like a rule book.

I used this skill system in my Delving Deeper Quasquetherion session at U Con this year and it worked out so well that it renewed my interest in making a zine for OD&D retroclones after my particular idiom. Then, over the weekend, I just now had an idea to complicate matters even more.

Behavior-Rewarding Skill System

This one works just like the Negotiated Skill System or at least it starts that way. This system exists to emulate a specific type of fiction, in effect creating categories of "behaviors of a sort that you want players to take," "behaviors of the sort that you don't want players to take" and "everything else."

 You're rolling Green Dice for most actions ("everything else), but you reward the types of actions you want your players to take by letting them roll Blue Dice in these circumstances and penalize them for taking the "wrong" types of actions by making them roll Red Dice. Maybe add something on the end where if there are no successes on a roll, things get more complicated for the players.

I had this idea while thinking about what I don't like about just about every Doctor Who RPG I've ever read. The "Tempus Fugitives" idea I've kicked around before (see here) exists to satisfy my need to have a game that scratches the itch left by Douglas Adams/Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and Douglas Adams's books. Let's solve our problems through clever tongues and clever-er plans, not with blasters and karate chops. That's what I want out of the system, and I've never seen a game system that designed to make it work.

Until the other day, when I figured out how I'd do it.

  • If the DM describes your action as CLEVER, you get to roll Blue Dice
  • If the DM describes your action as VIOLENT, you have to roll Red Dice
  • Everything else rolls Green Dice
Add to this a complication if no successes are rolled (like hard and soft moves in Dungeon World). You've now got a system where you're more likely to succeed if you've got a clever plan and more likely to suffer a negative consequence if you charge in guns blazing. While pretty much everyone can figure out when something's violent, not everyone will agree when a plan is clever or not, so the negotiation process is important to look into. 

The Nature of Negotiation

The idea of negotiating skill checks may seem odd or awkward at first, but to me it seems like we already negotiate with dice rolls all the time. "Can I get another +2 because I'm on higher ground?" "Does this game give flanking bonuses?" We do this shizz all the time. At this point, it's largely instinctive, too. "Can I get a bonus to disarming the trap because of my advanced degree in mechanical engineering?" Yeah, it happens all the time. 

I've had this attitude toward the zany schemes of my players that amounts to: "convince me." If you can spin me a good enough story that I'll just accept it out of hand, then we're good. You did your job. You convinced me. Good player. We don't need to subject your good ideas to randomness or probability because you done good. 

If, however, I think that your idea is pretty good, but I'm not completely sold, then we can get down to dice. Maybe you'll get some more dice or a bonus or whatever. This is that wide berth that DMs are given to interpret the realities (such as they may be) of the game to their players. This already happens, as I've outlined above, in pretty much every game ever. The only way my plan differs from the way that most games present stuff is that I'm putting all of my cards on the table and not hiding behind a pretense of a bunch of paper-thin rules that are nothing more than mirrors and smoke obscuring the actual processes involved in adjudicating games.

The idea of upfront negotiation as part of a task- or conflict-resolution system is one that's been dancing around my brain for awhile now. Months? Years? Who can say.