Skills and learning

As part of a move away from levels, I want to move my players towards adventuring for the adventure and not a “level up” mentality. That will mean a move away from the EP reward system, which my current players aren’t quite ready for yet. What they are ready for is a way to acquire secondary skills by study and I reckon that is a back door waiting to be opened. So the question now becomes how long does it take to really acquire new skills?

Before beginning on deciding how long it takes to learn a skill it is worth reviewing what the skill ranks in MERP/Rolemaster represent. According to the rulebook, 5 ranks in any skill can be acquired during adolescent development, which suggests apprenticeship skill development but no higher. The Rolemaster blog uses chunks of 10 ranks to define relative levels or lore, vocation or skill.

Skill RanksLoreVocationGeneral Skills
1-10Secondary High schoolApprenticeBasic knowledge and abilities skill and simpler sub-skill.
11-20GraduateJourneymenBroad abilities of skill and sub-skills
21+PhD/Post GraduateMasterAdvanced skills and sub-abilities
50+Erudite MasterGuildmaster or similarSingular mastery of skill and inter-related disciplines

Another consideration here is the level of the character – yes I know the aim is to go levelless but bear with me here. Gaming wisdom would put the average soldier at between level 2-4 and the NCO’s at 5-6 rising up to level 10 for experienced heroic fighters. Beyond this, certainly in the Middle Earth, the characters are getting to be legendary. So if the average competent person is around level 4 in their chosen profession then they will have 8 ranks worth of experience, which is about right for the general population.

Armed with a framework of knowledge and understanding it is time to think about how long it will take to acquire these ranks. Gladwell proposed that very successful people take 10,000 hours to master a skill (possibly by misinterpreting another study on elite athletes which was actually looking for a genetic component). For Gladwell 10,000 hours equates to 20 hours a week practise for 10 years although he does seem to bundle those skills into a domain of learning so they are all focussed on one specialism. The original study, by Tucker and Collins, was really looking to see if deliberate practise was more important than genes and could not find a link either way. In fact, it seemed to suggest that a combination of talent and practise produced excellence.

So much for 10,000 hours but I think it still holds a nugget of truth, even if the time is wrong. If we say a level 20 character is a master then it should take 10 years of deliberate practise to achieve this. However, there are some other factors we should consider in this. It requires someone to support you with food and other necessities to allow you that time (achievable for a single skill on two hours a day). Elite athletes generally don’t have a full time career making demands on training time. Bill Gates wasn’t required to go out and collect the harvest or sow the crops. So only a small group of people in a fantasy setting will be able to achieve this rate of development. Thankfully, adventurers would be such a group with their generally above average aptitude (stats) and focussed learning or as I prefer to call it staying alive.

There is further support for this idea when we look at the modern education system. The primary phase of education, which is mostly general (although Maths and Primary language seem to now dominate) takes around 5 years (5-11). Secondary, still developing a wide set of skills, but beginning to specialise is another 5 years (11-16). Tertiary, a really odd phase of specialisation lasts 2-3 years here in the UK. Whereas the quaternary phase (graduate) is anywhere between 3-4 years. The final Quinary phase (post-graduate/PhD) can last from 3 -5 years depending on field of study or practise.

Taking education and as knowledge based skill basic maths skills which are generally above the level required for basic mercantile skills are achieved by the age of 11 (in fact in modern society well above), a total of about 5 years (bear in mind developmental factors will probably have slowed learning in children). The table below extrapolates taught time for courses in UK in 5 rank chunks (for reasons outlined below). The number of hours spent learning to this basic level would be around 43 hours with a teacher present. So with good instruction a basic level of skill can be mastered in just over two weeks at the 20 hours per week level. What the table also demonstrates is that higher levels of knowledge take increasingly longer to gain. Referring back to the table from the Rolemaster Blog, I would suggest that this should be for levels 1-5. A basic addition subtraction activity is unlikely to be tested by a roll. This would make ranks 5-10 take nearly twice as long. There is a nice mathematical progression forming, but it is also perhaps worth remembering that quaternary students spend as much time reviewing and rehearsing learning as they do being taught. So any player expecting to do a job in between might find a penalty for the learning time.


hours/ week number of
weeks
total
h/ year
total
years
total
h per
subject
hours
per
rank
Primary
1 36 36 6 216 43.2
Secondary 2 36 72 5 360 72
Tertiary 10 36 360 2720144
Quaternary 15 30 450 3 1350 270
Quinary 60 50 3000 3 9000 1800

Overall the thesis of ten years to achieve mastery in a field of study still stands with most specialists taking around 10 years to achieve an expert status after the age of 13-15. This even applies to sportsman with premiership footballers achieving first team debuts early but becoming regulars only at around 23. A similar pattern is seen in athletics although I can’t find a study to back this up.

The next part will consider how to balance vocations and individual skills so that the game remains playable without players power gaming every aspect.

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It’s possible to fly

I have been meaning to write a blog post on skills as part of getting my thoughts down on building the levelless mechanism for characters in using MERP/Rolemaster. As always, life has more urgent priorities and I have thought a lot without coming to any firm conclusions. In the meantime, the debate has moved on with some useful thought on other blogs and forums. Yet I am still not satisfied.

Let me clarify, we bandy the phrase “skill” around in RPG and to each of us, it means a different thing. Regardless of the roleplay mechanics used to provide a measure of success, our use of the word skill is a very personal thing and depending on GM mindset can be a contentious issue at the table.

In general, most games divide the skills into weapons/armour skills; adventuring/class skills and the rest. Now the big question that comes out of this is what actually counts as a skill? Is it only the practical/physical aspects, knowledge/theory, or a combination of both. Perhaps using a dictionary definition will help define some terms of reference.

skill


noun

the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well:
Carpentry was one of his many skills.
competent excellence in performance; expertness; dexterity:
The dancers performed with skill.
a craft, trade, or job requiring manual dexterity or special training in which a person has competence and experience:
the skill of cabinetmaking.
Obsolete . understanding; discernment.
Obsolete . reason; cause.

Reading all three definitions you can see a flavour of what for me will be the flavour of my handling of skills moving towards playing without levels. The first two, definitions could be argued to overlap considerably but the third sits off on its own. However, it does rather sit with the MERP secondary skills with the idea that these are pre-adventuring professions.

From my point of view, it makes sense to use the meta-skill idea suggested by the first two definitions. It is easier for the players to handle in terms of recalling their character’s abilities and thus playing more to type. Also, it avoids the gaming the system of having 20 ranks in the Quick-draw skill purely to become fire every nanosecond. Yet having addressed the definition of skill there are a few points to consider.

When you start to think about a meta-skill you realise there are a number of learnt factors that influence your ability to perform. Namely, pragmatic knowledge; physical actions; and theory. To take the carpentry skill this could be types of wood and how to handle them (responding to the knot and grain in the wood); use of measuring and cutting tools; and a theory of all woodworking methods and skills which would allow you to adapt what you know to new situations. In every domain, there are myriad mini-skills which is where the dread RM skill bloat started. Meshing this together, this means that it is possible to be an expert in one of the three domains without being anymore skillful than a rank tyro. This begs the question of how to resolve this potential dissonance without resorting to the fearful skill bloat (an idea I will return to in my thoughts on training time).

Another point to think about is specialisation, which might be less of an issue in a low tech setting, but in a high-tech setting is going to be more important. Keeping to carpenter skill idea. What is the difference between a furniture maker and a structural carpenter? They both have an overlap is some skills and I’m pretty sure (based on my grandfather’s abilities) can make a good job moving from one to the other but perhaps with not the same speed and assuredness. I think this is where the theory domain plays a large role in adapting from one setting to another.

These issues to do with skill are part of my considering how to deal with the time needed to secure additional knowledge and practice in allowing players to create rounded characters who don’t spring miraculously from one state to another overnight. Moreover, they also raise into question how to handling those core primary skills that all adventurers need. Perhaps in a true reductionist sense weapons and armour are all one skill.

Towards a system without levels

Recently,  I had one of those moments of insight that make you want to move on. They usually lead you onto new things and new places but they are also mighty scary and need some time to process and if you are sensible (or just a lot older) require a bit of planning. I’ve had a few in my life and they have led to changes that have only helped me grow, even if the process as not always been enjoyable and yes, dear reader I have learnt to plan for the change through failing to do so previously.

Anyway, to the point in hand, I thought “Why do we have levels and EP?”. I think it grew out of the emulation/simulation debate raised by Gabe and a growing dissatisfaction with the whole EP reward and class system. So I raised the question about if anyone had done it and how it worked on the Rolemaster forums. Of course, there is no need to re-invent the wheel when you know it exists, which given the love of rule mechanics often foisted on RM players, was a surprise to find already invented, if a little diverse.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised because I already knew Runequest used a learned skills system and in some ways, I was thinking about a similar concept. I think that there are several things to consider before I put the mechanics to players as a way forward and inevitable at that stage we may tweak things but when I mentioned it at the post-game beers the other night they didn’t quail.

Here is a list of things I’m thinking about

  • How many hours/days to acquire skill ranks?
  • Are all skills learnt at the same rate?
  • Is the rate of learning linear?
  • What is the effect of a mentor/tutor/school?
  • In game skill development?
  • Natural aptitude vs resilient study?
  • Hierarchy of knowledge or accomplishment within skill levels?
  • Complimentary skills?
  • skill/knowledge fade?
  • How to provide an overall measure of success to the players if no level?
  • How do you encourage adventurers out of school?

Which is a lot of questions to work on, hopefully, I can blog some of my thoughts on the approaches we come up with. I suspect that initially at least we will apply this to the secondary skills in MERP which are almost impossible to develop using the development points given for each level. Certainly, that is what my players would like as a starting point.

Being mature

`So this thought has just cropped up on the ICE MERP Facebook group. “Question I play Rolemaster in Middle Earth why not use a much more mature system but still al the middle earth info/ICE modules etc?” 

Now ignoring the obvious replies that can be made by those of us who graduated to Rolemaster (RM) and in our case reverted back in this incarnation, there is a bigger question. What is a mature system? A system that is mature in my book has a lot to do with my background in biology and medicine. It has a robust interdependency that has over time evolved to provide a stable supporting equilibrium.  So is RM really a mature system? More complex, yes; also it allows more options and certainly more adaptable in terms of the wealth of character options and fighting styles. But more mature, no.

D&D has evolved to suit its different adventuring worlds, well there were rule changes. I’m not sure if they evolved to balance out the world or in response to players complaints about the previous versions, but at least it was in response to the modules and the world. I have no idea how Pathfinder fits into this idea, someone might like to enlighten me.

For Middle Earth there are just different systems basically based on which company managed to acquire a licence from the Tolkien Estate.

  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • ICE Rolemaster/MERP and subsidiary editions
  • Cubicle 7’s “The One Ring”
  • Decipher “The Lord of the Rings”
  • various online and by mail MMPORG

None of which has ever been part of a serious effort to become better at being a reflection of Middle Earth. Now, this has not been a fault of players who have attempted to warp whatever system they play to fit their idea of Middle Earth, some of which can be found on various fan sites and zines. However, I wonder if any of the systems have ever really had a chance to mature into a system that really reflects the rich tapestry of Tolkien’s mythic creation?

Minions

One of the problems with being a GM, especially with Rolemaster, is keeping track of all the NPC in combat. Long ago in a galaxy far away I created some Excel spreadsheets that helped with this sort of thing, but these were sadly lost in PC migration back in the day of 3.5″ floppies. Back in “A road less travelled” I mentioned trying Rolemaster Minion to support me as a GM during combat. So this is a little review of how it has been going.

Initially, I have to say it wasn’t very efficient but this was mostly to do with linking routine OBs to weapon types. It is, after all, Rolemaster, and we are playing MERP but from the players’ point of view, they are not worried if it is a generic table or a weapon specific table. What they do notice is that I am not flipping through a series of tables to find the right weapon (or they are), and I am clearly not cross-referencing a table. I used to use a paper table I prepared with most of the potential protagonists the party would meet and then track on this. This has the potential for many errors when you are pushed including not applying penalties when you should and missing the point of unconsciousness. In Minion, there is none of this as it highlights stunned combatants and when they are incapacitated, and also applies all penalties (unless you switch it off).

In play, there have been a few issues, but I think we can put most of this down to discovering the best way to use the system. You do need to do some preparation work, NPCs and PCs need to all be entered into the program but this is no more than creating a combat recording table. There is a clone function, which is useful for henchmen and guards. The data can be stored through a copy and paste text for a restore. I would recommend keeping a copy of your PC and allies without opponents as this will speed up generating the combat tables. Opponents can be filtered into groups which helps for an adventure with multiple tactical encounters.

There is a facility to roll initiative and play strictly by this order, or as we do, you know which order events occur and then select combatants in each phase. Players can choose to let the auto roll do the work or use their dice roll. Quite frankly, no-one does the former. I mean why would you? Yet it does speed up the NPC combat. Initially, when I was getting the hang of it, I found myself entering the OBs and pulling down menus to select weapons until I got the hang of grabbing from the restore box.  There is also a slight slow down as you check boxes for modifiers for parry and position, but no more than the adjustments made for mental calculation. The benefit is stun and critical penalties are applied automatically. Crit rolls are handled automatically (again players can use their own) but you don’t need to add or subtract from the roll for the crit level.

In addition to the initiative rolling, there is also a dice roll function which can provide hidden rolls for all characters for perception, MM and use item (attunement). Which can be useful for those quick decisions about do they notice, avoid, or use in combat.

There have been a few glitches in play, mostly where I select the wrong character and have to cycle the correct combatants into order (still quicker than looking up results and recording on paper). I did have one occasion where the player and I disagreed on hits, but I’d had a round where the results didn’t appear to have been recorded but I suspect they went in so repeating the attack could have added on. We adjusted in the player’s favour.

Random encounters can cause problems because either you have to quickly enter the details of these or play off the tables. Keeping a backup table of potential encounters is possible but every time the players level up or change OB you will need to go an amend this table and although it appears to be a generic text code I haven’t yet managed to change or add in the raw code without making a mistake somewhere, so you would need to do this in Minion each time.

Overall, I’m much happier with this running the combat than the old pencil and paper method. We now talk more descriptively about the combatants rather than relying on the mechanics to describe the state of injury. “Pick is reeling in front of his foe, blood pouring from his nose like a punch drunk boxer” rather than “Pick is bleeding 2 hits/round with a broken nose and is stunned for 2 rounds”. Currently, we are still double-entry bookkeeping, with players tracking details of their characters, which as we have seen is useful at the moment, but I suspect in time all injuries will be more descriptive. After all, when you break your leg, you know it is probably broken and you are in excruciating pain, how many seconds before you are able to focus clearly is irrelevant you respond either by crumpling in a weeping mess or grit your teeth and try and move. Equally, when bleeding you don’t think “Oh I have 50 secs before I’m incapacitated”; you say “***@@, I’m bleeding badly, I’d better slap a bandage/tourniquet/plaster on that!”. So hopefully, the roleplay experience will be enhanced.

World Anvil update

In my last blog, I introduced the World Anvil site which had been mentioned by the Kind GM. I thought I would give a quick update on my progress as it seems to have occupied a lot of my GM downtime. In addition, there have been some developments that may have widened the appeal to other GMs.

First, the world building, which goes well, The ability to record even brief sketches of a location and the people in one place and link them all is a very nice tool to have. I have been trying this out with my village sketch of Elvenbyen. This seems to work well, owners of establishments can be linked and using categories you can group these into a managed table of contents. I found that linking into broad groups like location, people of note and organisations was about all that was needed. I can upload and access maps linked in this way although I suspect that my conventional paper layout is more accessible in gameplay.  It would be nice if I could hotspot the locations from the map to the descriptions, which I should probably feedback to the developers.

Categories provide the hierarchy for organising your information, however, I have not got two locations on the go and the article list by which each entry is organised is a bit too long for this to work as well as it should. Yes, you can filter into main categories, but what if the character or organisation fits over more than one category.  Also when working on one location you really only want to see those articles, but overall not too much of a problem. Linking to various articles uses drop downs and these currently aren’t linked to the category you are working on. This does mean you have to scroll a lot as your list of characters or locations increases. Again though, another thing that could be fixed.

Overall, the World Anvil site is providing a useful way of organising information for locations I am creating. As it has the crosslinking categories I can keep a database organised and when it comes to publishing the location information it should be a simple matter of taking the online information and putting it in a location-specific document. Of course, my biggest fear is that the website will go defunct and I will lose all the information so my paranoid brain is getting ready to copy all the web pages into an offline version.

A new feature that has been introduced is a Campaign section. I suspect it is going to be most useful to gamers who play online, but the plot functions do intrigue me. I have had a little play and it does have the potential for organising your story arc and individual scenario story. PCs and NPCs can be linked and through the generic table function, I guess stats could be added. Using the image function you could store maps and the 6 point story structure gives everything the basic planning features you would need. I am trying it out to organise some of the ideas I have for the current campaign, much of which is written on paper as sketches. I must say it is helping me think about the details, but in the current format, there are a few things that make it clunky to work with. For example, in a scenario, I might want an NPC antagonist and rather than creating them in the plot, I need to create a character and then go back and link to the plot. The same is true of locations. This makes workflow trickier, well for someone who tends to use multiple sheets of paper it does.

The second part of the Campaign feature is the session tools. There is one for playing and one for reporting on the session itself. I have had a mini play and again it could be a useful tool. Online it probably would work as a playing space, but what if there is no internet! Furthermore, I think a GM is going to need to flip multiple tab windows to track all the information they need. Having paper strewn everywhere may be a bit inconvenient, but you generally can still talk to your players in this state. I wonder if the chat window/video is as accessible or would you need a second computer? In the world of rock paper scissors, paper still beats electronics for overall usability.

So we are not there yet – probably closer for DnD GMs, less so on the plotting and world-building side, but still an interesting project and it does need a download backup function.

Hammer and the Anvil

Depending on the GM, a lot of time can be spent building the locations in which adventures can be set. I know some GMs just take it all from published materials and run without thinking about the big picture. To be honest why would you when your players are just interested in solving the mystery, slaying the beast and getting the gold/girl. For me this works well for one off adventures, but not so well when the characters become involved in a campaign or series of interlinked adventures. I begin to find my players become more interested in the world around them and I have to have a set of reasons why they can’t take over a town as overlords or set up their own bank or…. Well the hundred and one off-the-wall reasons that can be given by players. Which means at the very least you should have some background at your fingertips.

Then there are GMs who write adventures/campaigns creating the content needed to play a game because, well they enjoy the process or don’t like what is available. Finally, there are the world builders who relish the chance to think about the macro and the what ifs. Well I’m one of those, and even though Middle Earth is full of source material, there are plenty of places to build and develop. My computer, and some binders are littered with pen sketches of places, notes on names and characters: along with adventures to run. So it was with interest that I read about World Anvil  on the Kind GM’s blog.

The site provides a way to organise all those pesky bits of paper into a coherent gazetteer. You will have seen some of my latest content appearing on the blog pages, but really that is an awkward way to manage the content.  So I have been plugging in some text of locations that are of interest currently to see if the site will work for me.

The content holders are useful and mostly match with information and ideas that I want to record, and there is a useful way of linking characters into geographical locations. However, there doesn’t appear to be a way of linking the location to the characters, unless they own the site. If you upload maps they can be linked to the site and I guess using a sidebar space I can start adding specific detail from the map.

When I started I just put up one location and started to link characters associated. I soon discovered that when you do this, you will need at least some headline work on races and locations of a top-level nature to tie things together. For example, I needed to create a species man and then subdivide to ethnicity Northman/Riverman to include this information on the character. It is possible to get away without having this information and leaving it very generic, but at some point linking locations and characters into kingdoms etc has to be done. As a result, it is better to do it early and add to each new item rather than retrospectively.

One thing I do like about the design of the site is the ability to put in secret information that is not generally known to the world. This apparently would be available to subscribers of the world stream but not to the casual observer. Quite how this works in practise I don’t know. I guess a player could read the public content and GMs subscribe, but how do I know which is which?

The website allows for collaboration (any budding authors drop me a line), but really without upgrading to a private account, I don’t think the capacity for images is going to be large enough to cope with more than a few maps. So at some point I’m going to run out of space. It also uses BB code (a cut down HTML) which in this day of smart interfaces seems a bit dated. Even the basic WordPress toolbar begins to look science fiction compared to this.

As a trial I’m going to carry on building locations and ideas for Caras Celairnen because it does make organising the content easier. It is a useful tool for creating the correct environment and forces me to think about who lives in a place and what they look like and how they act. However, at some point I will end up taking all the text and relocating in a more published format elsewhere. Like many internet ventures it will only last as long as the server, so it will pay to make a back up.