Oh is this your room? Funny how my key worked in your lock…

I have a small solo adventure that I am working on, one day I may finish it as well. It really is a fantasy mix and a spy movie and it got me to thinking as I was laying out secrets and locks to reveal clues how I should handle this during play. Now normally, the time it takes to pick a lock or find a secret door hasn’t been an issue as either there is no one around or they are and depending on whim there is an encounter.

“While Talaras is working on the lock, you hear the sound of footsteps approaching up the corridor”

However, in the adventure the character is required to report in/be seen at various points in time. Also, I started to think about how long do you spend searching a room or picking a lock if you are aware that someone might be in the room next door and how the tension of not knowing and gambling your time against the success of finding an item is actually an important part of the story in the Spy genre.

“Heart pounding, Talaras blinked the sweat from his eyes. He had been struggling with the lock for a minute. Soon the patrol would be returning, dare he continue?”

So I started thinking about the time it would take on average to pick a lock. Thankfully, the internet is full of boasts on how fast different locks can be picked and also, more helpfully, the range of time. In MERP and Rolemaster picking locks is usually handled in a static manouvre roll with success being at 110 and then two partial success categories and one excellent category. In the partial success you roll again and in excellent you do it quicker. Now in roleplay situations this sort of falls down with me as players who make a partial success roll choose if to continue with essentially the same odds as last time even if they nearly had it. This leads to repetitive rolling or not bothering. Really as a GM I want the player to spend as long as they dare on the lock before declaring it unopenable or searching a room before deciding there is nothing to find. After all how long is a piece of string.

Over on the Rolemaster blog there was a post on turning all rolls into 100+ successes and giving percentage success from this. The general thought was that this was not that feasible with the mechanics but there was a suggestion of using the MM table instead. I thought I would explore that option alongside the SM table and compare the results.

Armed with my knowledge of lock pick times and what would be reasonable and what would be difficult I set out on a comparison. I ran into a slight problem with the scaling of the difficulty to a time and so standardised routine to +30 and scaled from there up. This way the difficulty level and time are the same for both. I then went with a roll of 50 plus a nominal skill level to be successful at picking the lock and this would be the base time taken. There is also an argument for the player being able to roll 20 and picking the lock, as this would be statistically relevant in terms of the majority of attempts should be successful if slightly longer. A summary of the results are in the table below. I have left the Excel spreadsheet on the ICE forums for those who want to look at the data.

   SM method     MM method  
competenceskill bonushighest difficulaty locktime to pick (mins)time to pick (Routine (+30)time to pick medium (+0)highest difficulaty locktime to pick (mins)time to pick (Routine (+30)time to pick medium (+0)
Tyro-25Routine (+50)2E Hard800.25
Apprentice15Light104S Folly1000.22
Journeyman50E hard800.22Absurd350.21.1
Master75Absurd1400.21Absurd17.50.21
elite100Absurd70.11Absurd100.10.8

My assumptions were that locks were picked in best conditions; that the time would be the average time; and that absurd locks represented the peak of Dwarven and Elven technology without magic but these still would be short of the most secure locks. I also didn’t want to be playing a level 20 thief spending an hour picking a lock. As a result, the absurd time was set a 7 mins.

Comparing picking locks by SM and MM tables

At the routine level there was little difference in the times of the experts (Journeymen to Elite) with either method. However, at the Apprentice and Tyro levels MM tables allowed for rapid picking, whereas the SM table made it less likely.

A medium level lock (1 min is about the standard for an average modern lock) again the experts were comparable, although Journeymen had a similar time to Masters in the MM table. The unskilled levels could not pick the lock in the SM but were able to do so given 5 minutes on the MM table .

The maximum level of lock likely to be picked was very different for both methods. SM gave a range from a +50 Routine lock for a Tyro to Absurd for the Expert with a reasonable spread of difficulty versus skill level. In contrast with the MM table everyone could potentially pick a lock from Extremely Hard up given enough time.

It is worth noting the times taken for picking at maximum difficulty though. For unskilled these are the maximum times before a fail. Experts have a slightly different pattern. A Journey man is likely to pick an Exteremely hard lock in 80 mins using SM tables but a Sheer Folly lock in 100 mins using MM tables. At Absurd difficulty the SM method gives times for a Master is 140 mins which drops suddenly to 7 mins for an Expert. In contrast, using the MM method this is gradual moving from 17.5 minutes to 10 minutes.

Handling lockpicking

Which method you would prefer to use will depend entirely on how you wish to control your thieves in play. The SM table really does make it an only thieves environment with unskilled finding it difficult to open all but the most basic of locks. There is not difference between the Experts until you get to the most difficult locks. The MM table method gives a more graded response and does allow any player a reasonable chance of opening a lock, a thing that can be useful if you are in the habit of locking plot devices behind doors.

Looking at the difficulty levels as I have constructed them I can see now that most of my “secure” locks are going to start at medium and work up. Locks that even an unskilled person can pick in less than a minute represent the type found on a childs jewelry box and generally smashing the obstruction would work just as well, if a little more noisy.

When coming to pick a lock I can ask the player how long they intend to spend on the task and then after a roll tell them when they were successful or failed. Which would handle the resolution very quickly and neatly. Alternatively, I could reveal the elapsed time and through dialogue the player determines when to quit.

The dice roll can be handled either completely convertly so that the player’s involvement is only to tell the GM the skill bonus applied or they could do the basic roll and difficulty and penalties can be applied covertyly. The latter would give the player a sense of how successful they are being and might lead to gambling extra time because it might be nearly there.

For me I suspect that MM table method will work best for the solo adventure and certainly would quiten those of my players who tell me they opened a really simple lock using nothing but a paperclip. The only thing to do now is play test it to see if it unbalances the game. Now all the tables are ready I can also have a play with searching rooms and create some sensible times to search a room or look for traps from the obvious it is on the floor in front of you to the scrap of paper in the corner of a book.

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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.

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.