So how should games be designed to allow logically possible actions of PCs? In many games, things default to something else like an attribute. The problem here is that many GMs are bad GM’s that ignore that aspect or are not aware of the rule because it is two sentences long in one section of the book. Thus, when people play games, many times PCs cannot perform actions because they lack the skill even though common sense says they should be able to. Consider a game set in contemporary times. Almost everyone above the age of 18 in a modern society can drive. Yet, there are dramatic differences in a person’s talent for driving. Some can barely make it a few blocks without hitting parked cars. Other people can pull off driving that you see in action films. This means that if you have a driving skill you will want the ability to measure the differences in ability. Now, what happens if someone does not have the skill? Does that mean they cannot drive a car? Certainly, anyone who has been a passenger in a car will know how to turn it on, turn the steering wheel, and know to press the pedals to move and stop. Now, could such a person drive to the store without hitting something or getting into a ticket? Maybe. However, they certainly could get the pickup truck to move in a field to get away from the zombies.
In designing SteamCraft I made the decision to make it obvious to players and the GM that PCs at least have a chance to perform logically possible actions. I had considered just putting in a rule to default to 10% of an attribute’s value. That raised concerns for me. It is basically saying that each PC already has some skill in everything. If that is the case, then isn’t it unfair to make players spend extra points? Let me explain. Suppose you have 60 in Agility. That means the PC has 6 by default in Ranged Weapons even if the PC does not select that skill. Now suppose the player selects Ranged Weapons at 40. That would cost 40 points. However, if he already has a default at 6, isn’t it unfair to make the player spend those 6 points? Shouldn’t the player spend 34 points instead?
I also had a concern that in many games I have played, both the players and GM assumes that if you had nothing in a skill, you could not do those actions. But that is just illogical. I mean if you live in a time where everyone rides horses, then the PCs will be able to ride a horse. I needed a way to make it obvious to both the player and the GM they could try almost anything. I also wanted to make sure that the players are being treated fairly and not having to spend extra points. Because of that, I had the players record 10% of an attributes value for each associated skill. Once that was done, then they player could spend more points. This made it clear to everyone that players had a chance and it resolved the fairness issue I was having.
However, there were two unintended consequences. First, some people viewed it as unnecessarily complicated. The second issue had to do with many people felt having a 5% chance to do something was worthless. However, the 5% chance is misleading. The ratings just conveyed general knowledge and basic ability. It is to enable the person in a runaway train to have the knowledge to pull the brake lever. It isn’t to allow them to build a train. The ability also is meant to be used in stressful situations. Mundane situations gain bonuses.
In retrospect, I wonder if it would have been better for me to be less fair. I could just put in a default box that players put in 10% of the attribute’s value. So, under Agility it would say default 6 if the attribute was 60. However, players would not have 6 in every skill meaning they would need to spend that 6 points. It is less fair, less logical, but it would speed up character creation and address a perception issue some people have about character creation when they read through it.
On thinking through this issue it does seem clear that sometimes having better game design means making illogical or unfair decisions in the rules for the sake of better game play. There seems to be a balancing act that must be done and sometimes you are never exactly sure what way to go, especially if it is a minor issue like a few extra points being able to be spent on skill during character creation. Is being fair and spending a couple more minutes or character creation better? Or, would it be better to be less fair, speed things up, and be better received by the players when they read through the rules?