Replacing skills with backgrounds

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Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by RainOnTheSun » Thu Apr 26, 2018 4:42 am

This is just me thinking out loud a bit...

My favorite fantasy RPG right now is a d20 game called 13th Age. It's based on dungeons and dragons, like M&M initially was, but it does something interesting with skills: it gets rid of them completely. Instead, it gives characters backgrounds.

Backgrounds are different from skills in two major ways. The first is that they're much broader in application. A character with a detective background doesn't need additional skills for looking for clues, or questioning a witness. Every time they do something that the GM agrees they have experience with as a detective, they they add their detective background to the die roll. The second difference from skills naturally follows the first difference: backgrounds aren't tied to a single ability score. Our example detective wants to study the clues and put together a theory? That's an Intellect check. Go talk to people on the street and see if anyone knows anything? That's a Presence check. Notice a seemingly-inconsequential detail that makes all the pieces fit together? Awareness. You add the same background to each check.

In theory, replacing skills with backgrounds should mean that players never have to worry about forgeting to buy a skill in something that their character should know how to do. It should also make a clearer distinction between ability scores and learned skills, which sometimes overlap awkwardly. The biggest example of this problem for me is Presence, which is an entire ability score made redundant by three skills that do everything Presence can do for less. A third benefit is that a background doesn't just establish what a character can do, it establishes why they can do it. Every background tells you something about a character's history.

Backgrounds would need to cost more than skill ranks because they can be used so much more frequently. I would suggest 2 points per rank, just like ability scores. The downside to this is that it would make it much more expensive to max out a skill bonus or to create a hyper-focused character. I'm not sure yet whether this is a bug or a feature for me. I'm going to have to playtest it a few times.

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by Batgirl III » Thu Apr 26, 2018 5:20 am

How would you handle characters who are not just hyper competent, but hyper competent in a wide variety of disciplines?

I mean, a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” could probably be summed up in one Background. But what about the guy who is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, detective, pilot, escape artist, master of disguise; fluent in Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Latin, German, Russian; mastered 127 styles of martial arts, including taekwondo, judo, muay thai, karate, boxing, jujitsu, ninjitsu; degrees in criminal science, forensics, computer science, chemistry, engineering, biology, advanced chemistry, technology...”
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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by RainOnTheSun » Thu Apr 26, 2018 6:05 am

It's a good question. How broad can a background get? I'd probably look at the suggested Expertise skills for guidelines, if I were the GM and I were making the call.

As a suggestion, I would divide him into three areas: Costumed crime-fighter, brilliant scientist, and playboy philanthropist. Costumed crime-fighter is good for skulking on rooftops, scaring the bejeezus out of people, tracking criminals, and vanishing mysteriously in the middle of a conversation. Brilliant scientist is good for knowing about new scientific developments, recognizing and using advanced technology, and solving crimes with forensic work. Playboy philanthropist is good for turning on the charm in the secret identity and knowing the ins and outs of the corporate world. One for the streets, one for the cave, and one for the boardroom.

The Crime Fighter archetype in the core spends 34 points on non-combat skills, and buys this:
Acrobatics 6, Athletics 6, Deception 6, Expertise: (Choose One) 4, Insight 6, Intimidation 8, Investigation 8, Perception 6, Sleight of Hand 4, Stealth 8, Technology 2, Vehicles 4

Let's take those 34 points and divide them up like this:

City's Greatest Detective 7

Trained by the Order of Sneaky Jerks 7

Business Magnate 3

Comparing this to the Crime Fighter archetype's skills, we get someone who's slightly worse at intimidation, investigation, and stealth, but slightly better at jumping from rooftop to rooftop and crashing through skylights, using feints and misdirection in combat, catching attempts to sneak up on him, and knowing when a terrified stool pigeon is trying to lie to him. He's a fair bit better at planting tracking devices on people without their knowledge and escaping from restraints while people's backs are turned, and he's much better at using advanced technology and figuring out scientific crimes. The GM also knows that the Order of Sneaky Jerks is a plot point that his player might like to see get used, and the character has a reputation as a brilliant detective. He is, however, significantly worse at intimidating people without letting his playboy billionaire facade drop, as well as telling people to their faces that no, of course he isn't the Caped Spooky-Guy, don't be silly.

I think it's an improvement overall, but I might just be biased in favor of my own idea.

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by MacynSnow » Thu Apr 26, 2018 6:43 am

It could work,at least in theory,you may have a brief one-shot to see if it works and check it out for"bugs in the system".I'll help you out,as i already see one.........

Billionaire,Playboy Inventor:let's see how to give our Tony Stark(let's name him Roy Longstreet,head of Texas based Longstreet Oil and Inventor/Operator of the PRECISONdeep drilling Protective Armor,ala' Spitfire) some backgrounds(fair warning,this stuff is literally off the top of my head,so bear with me....)

Chief Operations Officer:While his family owns signifigant shares in Longstreet Oil,Roy himself perferce's to run the day-to-day,light work stuff.....=this Background would give the character bonus' to anything that involves how a company is ran(noticing when a mysterious package is dropped off at the wrong entrance,paperwork being misplaced on purpose,etc.)

Armor Designer:Roy was always 'fiddlin' around" in his Families large Garage,showing just how intelligent he could be when he took apart one of his Dad's Cars and turned into a Mini Tank..=this background would practically speak for itself,so i'm not gonna say anything.

Paparatzi Target:Roy just can't seem to be able to stay out of trouble....=despite the fact that this sounds more like a complication,it's actually quite useful involving the mean side of the Press(calling in favor's from sympathetic celebraties,spotting something off about someone in a Press juncet(?),knowing where the largest amount of reporter's are at any given time,etc.)

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by slade the sniper » Fri Apr 26, 2019 3:22 am

With a good group of players and GM, this would be an ideal "low crunch" narrative way to play. Unfortunately, some groups are not good for this level of abstraction. Sounds great tho...just not for my group.


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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by RainOnTheSun » Fri Apr 26, 2019 10:20 am

How about that? A reply right on the thread's one year anniversary! :)

You're right that it depends a lot on player cooperation. I normally play with a pretty close-knit group, so sometimes I forget that's sort of a rarity.

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by CaptainChaos » Sun Apr 28, 2019 7:36 pm

This is a pretty interesting concept. I may try this the next time I run a game. In theory, this could be used with nearly any system.

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by Doctor Malsyn » Sun Apr 28, 2019 11:02 pm

Considering it's been a year since you first propposed this houseful, have you had the chance to test it out yourself?
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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by RainOnTheSun » Tue Apr 30, 2019 6:45 am

Not yet, I'm afraid. It's hard to find the time to run a game. I might have a chance to soon, though.

Since I'm thinking about this idea again, the biggest problem might be when the table can't decide whether a background should apply to a given situation or not. For that I have two suggestions: the first is to just apply the Impaired(-2) and Disabled(-5) conditions in an edge case. A master of the mystic arts should know all about summoning and teleportation magic, but would he recognize an alien civilization's hyperspace portal as something similar? Maybe give him a roll at -5. The other suggestion is to let the player explain why their background should apply to this, and if they come up with an interesting enough story or a useful enough plot hook, run with it.
Player: Just hitting them isn't working. Can I use my Detective background to think of a weakness they might have?
GM: I don't know if being a Detective really has anything to do with fighting shapechangers.
Player: Well, there was a case a while back where I had to fight a guy who was made of, like, clay, so he could look like anything and he was really hard to hurt. So I had to find out what his weakness was to beat him.
GM: You fight mobsters, serial killers, and... guys made out of clay?
Player: Um, mostly the first two. But there was a... science accident. And he turned into clay.
GM: So what was his name?
Player: It was, uh, Clay... Head. Face. Clayface.
GM: Sure, okay, roll it.
And then the GM makes a little note, and when the Legion of Doom shows up again in a few sessions it's got a new guy called Clayface on it.

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Re: Replacing skills with backgrounds

Post by Davies » Tue Apr 30, 2019 11:47 pm

I think this sounds like a very neat variant, and if it were at all likely that we're going to get a new version of the Mastermind's Manual, I'd be pulling for its inclusion there.

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