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How to make secondary skills useful?

Upstart

Indie Hippy Gamer
Validated User
When it comes to adventure-oriented games, the players often use one specialist for everything they can: one character makes all social rolls, one character all lockpick rolls, one character all navigation rolls. This makes other characters' social, lockpick and navigation skills useless. How do you make them useful?

I don't consider "players agree this is not fun" as an interesting solution, as it can resolve most design problems anyway.

There are some solutions I'm interested in, but have some problems: personal costs for characters and support mechanics.
 

Litpho

Wandering stranger
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Depends on the game. When I played Vampire in the nineties, not every character was able to go everywhere (or be everywhere at once - split parties were quite common). So the problem more or less solved itself.

Games that encourage you to never split the party and/or require max investment of your specialist to have a decent chance of success? Well, they're basically like a special forces unit - you'd have crosstraining for when your specialist is not available, but the backup will usually only use those skills when something has gone wrong (demolitions expert has taken a bullet or something). This is not necessarily all that fun in an RPG context.
 

Heavy Arms

Registered User
Validated User
Teamwork is usually the easiest way to make this the case. If there's a teamwork bonus relative to ratings of lower ranked characters, then they can contribute even if one player is doing the primary rolling. I guess this counts as "support mechanics" but what's the problem with them?

There's also simply encouraging scenario designs where one person can't handle everything. If multiple characters can significantly invest in a skill, it should be a skill that comes up often enough that one character can't do it all for the group. In D&D you could constantly make combat encounters that the fighter can handle alone, but that'd be boring without any need for mechanics. Since all D&D characters inherently invest in combat ability on some level, it works that combat encounters are encouraged to be something it takes the whole group to do.
 

Upstart

Indie Hippy Gamer
Validated User
Depends on the game. When I played Vampire in the nineties, not every character was able to go everywhere (or be everywhere at once - split parties were quite common). So the problem more or less solved itself.

Games that encourage you to never split the party and/or require max investment of your specialist to have a decent chance of success? Well, they're basically like a special forces unit - you'd have crosstraining for when your specialist is not available, but the backup will usually only use those skills when something has gone wrong (demolitions expert has taken a bullet or something). This is not necessarily all that fun in an RPG context.
I mean from a game design standpoint. :)

Split parties aren't that fun, IMO, but they're really common. Backup skills are an interesting solution, with all their problems.

Teamwork is usually the easiest way to make this the case. If there's a teamwork bonus relative to ratings of lower ranked characters, then they can contribute even if one player is doing the primary rolling. I guess this counts as "support mechanics" but what's the problem with them?

There's also simply encouraging scenario designs where one person can't handle everything. If multiple characters can significantly invest in a skill, it should be a skill that comes up often enough that one character can't do it all for the group. In D&D you could constantly make combat encounters that the fighter can handle alone, but that'd be boring without any need for mechanics. Since all D&D characters inherently invest in combat ability on some level, it works that combat encounters are encouraged to be something it takes the whole group to do.
I think the concept of teamwork/support mechanics is good, but they are difficult to balance. Often assisted rolls tend to be super-easy, because the default difficulty level is set for a single character. Can you describe me an implementation you find successful?

I kind of lost you in the encouraging scenario design part. Do you mean leaving the specifics to the GM?
 

1of3

Registered User
Validated User
If you feel this a problem, why have these skills at all? You might fare better with a system of advantages, feats, gifts or whatever you call that. That is, do not give the non-navigators a navigation stat at all.

Or you can split things. Say, there are no social skills. There are just people you get along with. So you can choose such a group that you are good with, hence you are the party face, when acting towards that group. You also become much worse with opposing groups, as an additional enticement.
 

Octiron

Insufficiently Hopeful
Validated User
When it comes to adventure-oriented games, the players often use one specialist for everything they can: one character makes all social rolls, one character all lockpick rolls, one character all navigation rolls. This makes other characters' social, lockpick and navigation skills useless. How do you make them useful?

I don't consider "players agree this is not fun" as an interesting solution, as it can resolve most design problems anyway.

There are some solutions I'm interested in, but have some problems: personal costs for characters and support mechanics.
I've got to say that this comes up all the time and is frustrating, particularly in published games. Some skills everyone can get use out of, like Stealth, while others will only be used by the one whose rank is the highest (mechanics, computer, cooking, etc.).

In early Marvel Super Heroes/FASERIP the closest thing to a satisfactory answer for me was giving a +1 bonus if two players with ratings up to a point away worked together on something. But, the more I look back on it the more that seems a bit middling.
 

Heavy Arms

Registered User
Validated User
I think the concept of teamwork/support mechanics is good, but they are difficult to balance. Often assisted rolls tend to be super-easy, because the default difficulty level is set for a single character. Can you describe me an implementation you find successful?
This is pretty system dependent.

What you can do with teamwork/support mechanics is limited by what the system allows. If a system only allows basic +/- modifiers to a roll, and there's no margin of success, there's a lot room than a system that has a lot of potential modifiers to a roll.

I kind of lost you in the encouraging scenario design part. Do you mean leaving the specifics to the GM?
Not exactly. The GM is important, but the mechanics the game puts in matter. Again, if you look at D&D, there's no problem with 'support' skills in combat, because the combat mechanics are built with the idea that everyone will contributor in some way to fighting. There's problems with 'support' skills outside of combat, because bluffing past guard isn't built with the same mechanical framework for anything but the best bluffer to step in. Even if the GM is free to adjust things how they want, they're going to follow the cues of the game's mechanics.
 

baakyocalder

Member
RPGnet Member
Validated User
I like GURPS Action 2: Exploits and how it has skills complementing other skills. So, if the hacker is trying to hack video cameras and someone has skills in security and electronics, the hacker gets a bonus from their colleague's help. There are so many complementary skills and while a bonus of 1 point (2 points on critical success) seems small, in GURPS modifiers don't get that crazy. -10 is a very hard task outside of insane combat moves.

Also, there is a rule 'Got You Covered,' which lets players with the skill cover those who lack it. So, having just a little skill lets you cover for a teammate who lacks the skill.

In general, secondary skills are useful if characters can use them in the game or they provide flavor. Cooking wasn't the most awesome skill in HackMaster, but one of my groups really liked it and we called ourselves the Hackcooks because everyone had it. Anytime we found a monster or a plant to eat, then we could process it and turn it into food.
 

Bankuei

Master of Folding Chair
Validated User
I think you may want to take a look at Burning Wheel. It has several things going on that make it useful for characters in cross training skills.

First, if you're using a skill and a secondary skill or two would help, you can get bonus dice from those secondary skills. "I'm trying to convince the Prince the safest path would be this way" might be Persuasion with a bonus die from Navigation, and another from Ambush-wise as a skill. So, a wide array of appropriate secondary skills can often give someone 1-3 bonus dice which is useful.

Second, if you're Helping another player, they can get a bonus die from you. Helping dice do not have to come from the same skill exactly, if you can find a way to justify how your skill applies. So, if one player is convincing the Prince in the previous example, another player with Tactics could chime in and give another bonus die. A few things limit Help dice however:

1) It has to contextually make sense. A party of 6 probably can't ALL chime in with something useful in a short 5 minute debate over a map and functionally produce a good message. You find most situations limit to 1-2 helping characters unless it's a longer term project and/or people have a plan or very specific situation ("We're a long boat, everyone grab an oar and row")

2) You establish consequences for failure before dice get rolled - if you Help, you also become open to taking consequences for failure. So maybe the Prince thinks you're incompetent/untrustworthy and now there's a penalty to anything else you try to convince him of? The more people who jumped in, they, too, get the penalty.

3) Players require higher and higher difficulties to actually advance their skills. So there's times when you'd rather not take any bonus dice to get the advancement. (Or, operate under penalties/injury to get a similar effect). Of course, if you're really high skilled and you either Help a low skilled person or teach them a skill, you can get advancement as well.

Burning Wheel is one of the few games that makes secondary skills pretty useful and great all around. Of course, it also has a lot of "civilian" skills your adventurer may only use once in a while, and balancing out how much you need adventure skills vs. civilian skills is a key point of play too.

- Chris
 

cryptc

Registered User
Validated User
I think one possible solution for making secondary skills more easily picked and used in an rpg is to have it use a different resource or less resources than main skills. If a player gets to pick between increasing in his cooking or his sword skill by 1, it's never a surprise when they pick the latter.

2nd edition d&d had somewhat at an attempt of this, both with Secondary Skills (I think they were called exactly that), or Non-weapon Proficiencies. Both were mostly inconsequential to a characters adventuring skills, and thus was easier to deal with.

In the rpg I'm designing, I'm attempting to instead just have skills that cost more to increase as they get higher, and have the system be very lenient to pick up enough of a skill to be okay at it. So instead of picking between +1 cooking/swords, it would either be "spend a couple of days learning enough cooking to not embarrass yourself" or "spend a month to improve your already very high sword skill slightly". Although, that might just mean players instead pick up other secondary fighting skills cheaply... It's my attempt atleast.
 
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