GM Field Guide #12: Skill Rolls
Updated: Apr 26
(A Challenge for GMs)
Skill Checks and Skill Rolls are a very pertinent part of the Rifts RPG. I mean, it’s one of the reasons Character Generation takes longer than perhaps expected for newer players. Yet, use of skills during game play is typically a haphazard approach, one typically at the behest of the Player in reaction to a scenario presented by the GM. By paying a little more mind to the use of skills in your adventure, I truly believe you will find a different aspect of the game to explore, one that leans away from reliance on d20 rolls to advance the adventure.
Context. Unlike the d20 systems out there, Rifts doesn’t have a significant series of pre-built adventure modules. These kind of modules don’t necessarily answer the mail for what we’re discussing here, but they frame and support the adventure. For Palladium Books fans, there are innumerable Hook Line and Sinkers (HLS) out there and loads of information in the Rifts Adventure Guide. While many GMs out there leverage their own imagination in producing their adventures, there are likely just as many that are challenged in developing adventures from scratch or an HLS. Hopefully this and upcoming posts provide this target audience something to help them along; for others, perhaps food for thought is enough. The intent of this post is neither to try and tell any GMs out there “how to suck an egg,” nor an attempt to make you into project managers. Some will find this post pedantic or blindingly obvious, which is fair; others are experiencing Rifts for the first time and could use a lending hand.
The Skill Tax. Unlike many d20 Systems out there, there is no “optimized” mix of OCCs that makes a Rifts game "more manageable." Given the disparity among the Classes with respect to the different parts of the game, one could easily believe there is no such thing as an optimized PC Group in Rifts – I certainly don’t! What could more readily be accepted is that *most* PCs are combat oriented, albeit the source of that ability is flavoured by technology (e.g. Juicer, GB Pilot), magic (e.g. LLW, Battle Magus), psionics (e.g. Burster, Psi-Warrior) or natural abilities (e.g. Dragon Hatchling, Rahu-Man). Skills choices during Character Generation often support maximizing combat rolls, ergo you see a lot of PCs that are functionally gym rats and skills that support their specialty. This is entirely Player choice but demonstrates a particular weakness in the way Skills function, if Physical Skills are mostly chosen simply because of the bonuses. As such, many Players see the Skills part as a tax on their time, both in Character Generation and in-game. The problem is, what is a GM to do when you mix in a ‘skill jockey’ kind of character amongst combat and raw power Classes?
Experience Point Table. The ‘skill jockey’ Classes have an uphill battle to fight (pardon the pun), both in terms of their likely survivability compared to their combat comrades, but also in how they can leverage the strengths of their particular OCC. While not as effective in combat, they typically have *many* more skills to apply during a gaming session that are not related to a Weapon Proficiency or Strike/Parry/Dodge. This is also one of the elements this kind of character would be leveraging to gain Experience Points.
Combat. The combat segment of the XP Table has four entries, dependent on the difficulty of the encounter – anywhere from 0 to 400 points.
Other Actions, Reasoning & RolePlaying. This table has sixteen(!) entries. By that ratio, combat should be only 20% of the game, right? Well, no. But many of these entries can be more easily tapped into with a PC sporting a few more skills and the imagination to use them.
Plan Adventure Accordingly. By this I mean the GM needs to consider both the Players and PCs when planning the adventure. This doesn’t mean pander to them, but it would behoove you to provide them the opportunities they expect from the gaming experience. Much of this comes down to an effective Session Zero, the subject for another post. Once you’ve established your PCs and taken care of the basics, you want to try and strike that balance between the role-playing elements with the combat encounters. Everyone loves the excitement of the combat encounter; the role-playing and skills-based segments are harder to make as compelling. This may be because of the group dynamic, but it is also possibly haphazardly applied. Player: "Can this skill be applied?" is followed by a natural pause as the group awaits a response (and what could it mean….). Does the Player receive a bonus or a negative modifier, and what amount is fair? By ignoring or paying lip-service to the Skills, of which there are over 200 to choose from, you are possibly missing out on a massively impactful element!
Adventure Flow Chart. I don’t mean get into Gantt Charts or Project Management tools, wasting time worrying about symbols and how the arrows should look. What I mean is have the major muscle movements of the adventure plotted.
Locations. Locations are a great one for this. Draw a “goose egg” on a piece of paper labeled Town and you have the PC’s start point. Say they are following up a contract to track down a group of miners that disappeared. Another “goose egg” somewhere on the paper will be the mine. Connect those with a line and you now have a basic flowchart: start at Town, drive to the Mine, explore the Mine, return to Town.
Alternate Routes. In the above example, perhaps there are two possible routes the miners *could* have taken. Now we have two lines connecting the Town and Mine. In each of these instances, if there are specific lanes that must be respected to get from A to B and back, or to other locales, sketch them out. Make sure you take into account geographic boundaries (e.g. rivers, lakes, mountain ranges).
Adjacent Locations. On each of those routes could be key landmarks, other towns, or instances where a random encounter may occur. These become their own “goose eggs,” which then require a description of the locale that supports the encounter. When we plan these combat encounters, we naturally begin to formulate the flow of the story and then let the PC decisions and dice decide the outcome. But what about role-playing sandboxes (e.g. town, a travelling circus)?
Role-Playing Sandboxes. It should come as no surprise this freeform kind of “encounter” can rapidly tax a GM’s capabilities as they try to keep things interesting and keep the flow moving. You likely have an idea of what kind of businesses the PCs can interact with (e.g. local mechanic, gunsmith, saloon). These should have *some* details associated with them, such as store names, NPC names (including dispositions, and *relevant* bonuses or skills). Ensuring you have *something* to refer to means you won’t have to think on the fly.
Pre-Planned Combat Encounters. As with the previous point, you likely have several pre-planned combat encounters. Have these details pre-planned to include relevant information, such as MDC, bonuses, and basic strategy.
Random Combat Encounters. I use these as well, but for the most part already have a series of go-to monsters with reference data at hand. I also limit the range of the table to no more than 10 selections, a few of which are one-time only rolls, while the others are a variation in terms of numbers and capabilities (e.g. slight change to MDC or bonuses/skills)
Skill Entries. You’ll notice that nowhere in the previous list did I mention anything involving Skill Checks. Simply put, all of them could have Skill Check rolls. My suggestion is simply that the GM take some time to consider the details of each “goose egg” and assign most likely or key Skill Checks to be done, as well as any applicable bonuses/penalties. You have access to the PC Character Sheets, so it should not be too difficult to identify specific skill rolls that could be called for. This isn’t necessarily about micro-managing the Skill Checks but putting some thought into the scenario presented to the PCs and what penalties you apply or bonuses you allow. Some examples:
Rivers involve Swimming (duh….), but those rapids and jagged rocks might incur a -15% penalty.
A Saloon might have a local card shark playing. Players willing to play better roll up on their Gamble (Standard or Dirty Tricks).
A combat situation may require a Lore: Demons & Monsters, but this unknown foe just emerged from a dimensional Rift, incurring a -40% penalty.
An Operator is provided some workspace and use of tools in trade to repair their body armour, providing a +25% bonus to Mechanical, Electrical, and applicable Technical Skill Checks. The apprentice, if asked nicely, can help, adding another +10% bonus.
The opportunities for role-playing and leveraging the Skills each PC brings to the party’s collective whole can make impactful changes in the flow of the adventure. When we are creating an adventure, we almost exclusively research and imagine what the combat situations would look like, but very rarely are the Skills side of gaming given the same significance. By keeping an eye out for their non-combat capabilities, you can open considerable opportunities for your Players. By letting them explore this part of the game, they can also find several unique solutions to the problems you present them, or at least give them some creative outlets that earn them Experience Points outside of a combat encounter.
Secondarily it reduces the burden on you the GM. By forecasting what skills are most likely or definitively would be applied, you can craft the descriptions of the locale in greater depth, leading to bonuses or penalties that make the game state more compelling. It’s not just any river they have to cross: a successful Perception roll informs them “there is a deep, swift current and there are several sub-surface rock structures that will make things a little more difficult than initially planned.” It also allows you to formulate what modifiers would make sense, saving you from making “on the fly” adjustments to game mechanics.
By no means a “Caramilk Solution,” the hope is this provides some GMs with an idea on how to possibly employ more Skill Checks into their adventures, providing opportunities for their Players to expand on an oft-overlooked part of the game. If not for yourself, consider your Players and how they might be able to leverage the game state and make a few Skill Checks for some Experience Points, perhaps even move the story along.
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