Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Revisiting BECMI Skills

           During my attempt to translate into D&D BECMI game terms the stats of the crew serving on Calidar’s Star Phoenix, it occurred to me that the present system remains pretty limited. It is on a par with the intent of the original rules: to remain as simple and straightforward as possible, in keeping with the nature of D&D’s red box. Though I do appreciate the latter’s intrinsic value, I had to come up with optional mechanics to depict characters whose skills exceed what can be expressed in Basic D&D terms without breaking established rules. I’m referring in particular to the general skills described in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, pages 81-86.
           Before delving into the thick of this article, I should point out the curious absence of guidelines on how to handle the “lack” of a skill. My assumption is that attempting to complete an action without possessing the corresponding skill either: 1. Fails automatically or, 2. Sustains a 50% handicap to the parent ability score at the DM’s discretion. A critical success (rolling a “1”) should still be allowed for the sake of pure, dumb luck, wild guesses, stupefying inspiration, or instants of freakish genius, cuz you know, if you give typewriters to a thousand monkeys, one of them may come up with a Shakespearian quote, right? I wonder if that'd work with trolls... nah. A critical failure (rolling a “20”) always fails, even though the hapless recipient might not realize it at first if the roll was a secret one

Top Illustration: Kerem Beyit ©2004-2008.

The Goal
           My biggest issue concerned specialists and characters with extensive professional backgrounds. As can be anticipated, the basic rules would be at a loss to depict someone like the seasoned captain of a skyship, someone like… you guessed it: Captain Isledemer d’Alberran. Approaches that I saw elsewhere crossed my mind (kudos to game designers who first came up with the idea), consisting in sets of specialized skills as opposed to totally unrelated skills—see “Beginning Skills” on page 81 and “Learning More Skills” on page 86.
           The present system calls for 4 skill slots at level 1 plus Intelligence bonuses, for a maximum of 7 skills. By the book, a seasoned skyship captain at 12th level of experience like Isledemer d’Alberran would therefore have a grand total of 8 general skills. It’s not enough. (Note: I will post his complete stats for D&D BECMI in the next articleclick here.)

A Solution
           Sets of professional aptitudes regrouping multiple related skills should become an option. The idea is to allow more skill slots, but with built-in penalties that are less severe than halving parent ability scores or automatic failures. Any single set of related skills can be acquired at the cost of 1 single slot. A set’s built-in penalty can then be reduced by 1 point the at the cost of another skill slot. The chart below illustrates the different aptitude sets. Skills can still be acquired individually, “à la carte,” which then incur no penalties.

Professional Aptitudes Sets

Number of Skills
Aptitude Sets
Skill Slot Cost:........................................ 1
Number of Skills:.................................... 4
Skill Check Penalty:............................... –2
Skill Slot Cost:........................................ 1
Number of Skills:.................................... 6
Skill Check Penalty:............................... –3
Skill Slot Cost:........................................ 1
Number of Skills:.................................... 8
Skill Check Penalty:............................... –4

           Based on the above numbers, the Limited set provides 4 related skills at the cost of 1 slot, all incurring a –2 penalty. Fully eliminating this set’s penalty would only cost another 2 slots. Therefore, at a total cost of 3 slots a Limited set can provide 4 skills without penalty. Essentially, after negating built-in penalties, the Limited set yields a free skill, two for the moderate set, or three for the extensive set. It’s the advantage of learning “job-related” skills versus totally unrelated ones. Earning extra skills with built-in penalties gives more flexibility when developing a character with few slots available, while it reinforces the logic of concentrating on the character’s key background. This option can be applied without altering any of the Rules Cyclopedia’s existing mechanics. As a final recommendation, once penalties have been eliminated from an entire set, further skill improvements should be handled individually, as the established game mechanics suggest.

Update: 9/27/18The 3 categories (Limited/Moderate/Extensive) aren't meant to imply "experience" but instead to define the number of initial skills, hence the increasing built-in penalty. Actual experience comes from additional slots spent to reduce or eliminate built-in penalties.  

Listing Skills
          Here’s an example of how a skyship’s captain’s with 8 skill slots may be described: General Skills—Set #1 Airship Commander incl. Aerial Navigation (Int), Leadership (Cha), Piloting (Dex), Skyship/Magical Engineering (Int), Skyship Tactics (Wis), and Weather Sense (Wis); Set #2 Swashbuckler –2 incl. Acrobatics (Dex), Alertness (Dex), Bravery (Wis), and Quick Draw (Dex); Individual Skills incl. Alternate Magic (Int), Court Etiquette (Cha), and Horse Riding (Dex).
           The above shows one moderate set listed without a penalty (cost: 4 slots), followed by a Limited set listed with a –2 penalty (cost: 1 slot), plus another 3 individual skills—total cost: 8 slots. Should any of the individual or airship commander skills receive an improvement, add the bonus after the ability, such as: Aerial Navigation (Int +1).

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Examples of Aptitude Sets

Airship Commander
Limited: Aerial Navigation, Leadership, Skyship Tactics, Weather Sense
Moderate: add Piloting + Skyship/Magical Engineering
Extensive: add Deck Weapons + Skyship Lore

Limited: Court Etiquette, Persuasion, Basic History/Geography, Local Politics
Moderate: add Foreign Literature + Law & Justice
Extensive: add Detect Deception + Forgery

Limited: Musical Instrument, Poetry, Singing, Storytelling
Moderate: Compose Music + a second musical instrument
Extensive: Oration + a third musical instrument

Limited: Gambling +2*, Persuasion
Moderate: add Cheating + Deceiving
Extensive: add Alertness + Escape 
(*) Gambling comes with a built-in +2 bonus, eliminating two other skills.

Limited: Horse Riding, Horse Breeding, Horse Care & Training, Cavalry Tactics
Moderate: add Bargaining + Intimidation
Extensive: add Detect Deception + Leadership

Linguist (or Ambassador Set #2)
Limited: 4 additional languages*, conversational
Moderate: add another 2**, read & write all
Extensive: add another 2***
(*) from local or neighboring cultures, (**) from exotic cultures at the DM’s discretion, (***) of monstrous origins at the DM’s discretion.

Limited: Accounting, Appraisal, Bargaining, Knowledge (a type of merchandise**)
Moderate: add Trade* + Knowledge (a 2nd type of merchandise)
Extensive: add Detect Deception + Knowledge (a 3rd type of merchandise)
(*) Understanding the values of currencies and services, local and foreign; 
(**) Types of merchandise include precious metals & gems, items of art, livestock, raw goods (oil, wine, flour, wool, hides, timber, etc.), finished goods (textiles, furniture, leather goods, man-made objects other than artwork, etc.), banking/lending, and real estate.

Limited: Hunting/Fishing, Outdoor Survival, Snares, Tracking*
Moderate: add Endurance + Fire Building
Extensive: add Mountaineering + Nature Lore
(*) If this is kit is used for a character that has Tracking as a class ability, replace with Mimicry.

Palace Courtier/Courtisan
Limited: Court Etiquette, Dancing, Elegance, Calligraphy or a Limited Bard skill
Moderate: add Persuasion + Verbal Joust
Extensive: add Detect Deception + Gambling

Limited: Disguise, Mimicry, Tracking, Stealth (Urban)
Moderate: add Deception + Persuasion
Extensive: add Knowledge of Poisons + Lip Reading

Limited: Acrobatics, Alertness, Bravery, Quick Draw
Moderate: add Acting + Bargaining
Extensive: add Detect Deception + Gambling

Tomb Raider
Limited: Blind Shooting, Caving, Mapping/Cartography, Muscle
Moderate: add Knowledge of Undead + Signaling
Extensive: add Danger Sense + Ancient Tombs Lore

Tribal Shaman
Limited: Ceremony, Healing, Mysticism, Nature Lore
Moderate: add Storytelling + Persuasion
Extensive: add Astrology* + Intuition
(*) Includes knowledge of seasons, moon cycles, stars.

Many of the above kits presume that characters know how to read and write. If this isn't the case (barbarians, peasants, etc.), give the character a free skill slot. DMs can create any number of variations as best fits their games and what their players want. Easy!