Unstupid Characters

There's a fine line between genius and buffoonery

In my relentless quest to simplify play, the perennial Knowledge skill has come under harsh scrutiny. Readers of recent posts are already familiar with my machinations in the realm of determining how characters do what they can do: first was the ditching of attributes, then the establishment of a finite roster of Abilities.

Three weeks out, I'm still in a deconstructive mood. So let's postulate the wisdom of an all-encompassing Knowledge skill.

The Current Way of Things

Every game I've seen with a Knowledge skill requires the character to choose a focus, meaning a particular field of study: biology, metallurgy, rope-making, storage jars, etc. I completely understand the intent, which is to give the PC a mechanical way to represent familiarity with a body of knowledge. On paper, it's a good idea. In practice, it's of questionable value.

First issue is the scope and detail of a knowledge skill slot. Most games suggest that the skill's focus be somewhere in between a general field and a specific topic. For example, "biology" is probably too general, while "saprophyte reproduction" is likely too specific. The need for scope moderation is the struggle for usefulness and game balance: an overly broad focus increases its potential application, which opens it up to abuse by players who seek to apply it whenever they can (if you've ever had a player with "Knowledge (tactics)" argue for a combat bonus, you know what I'm talking about). On the other hand, a pinpoint focus can make the Knowledge skill useless. Like a 1st-level magic-user with a single spell, the character with "Knowledge (Pre-Imperial Era Hafling Pottery)" waits for his moment of glory before his contribution to the adventure fades.

The second issue is the all-too-familiar slippery slope: where do Knowledge skills end? Let's assume you figure out a workable scope--you devised a balance between the broad "science" and the highly specific "string theory" called "Knowledge (physics)". By extension, you now have to allow the possibility of a Knowledge skill in every other scientific discipline, at a level of detail on par with "physics." The problem is that these other areas are bound to be sub- or supersets of that level of scientific hierarchy. "Biology" might work, though it's pretty vague. Is "botany" at the same level as, or a subset of, "biology"? Same argument for astrophysics, geology, genetics, cardiology, etc.

Third is the question of usefulness. In most cases, fields of study have little to do with adventuring, unless there's an encounter wherein specific information gives the characters an edge. In my thinking, there are only two instances where this occurs: (1) when the knowledge grants a mechanical advantage (e.g., a die roll bonus), or (2) when the knowledge allows the party to proceed to the next stage of the adventure (e.g., the old "Speak friend and enter" bit). If none of the PCs has the appropriate Knowledge focus (or if he does but fails his skill roll), the party is out of luck and has to cast about for another solution--which was probably available anyway, because a good GM doesn't craft scenarios whose resolution relies on a single roll against a single skill.

My Inevitable Tweak

I submit that we avoid these pitfalls by making a single, catch-all Knowledge skill. This skill (called "Book Smarts" in Chimera 3.0) represents what a character has learned, typically through formal study, but also via the experience gained through adventure. Consider: "formal study" indicates how well the character was schooled; "experience gained" indicates both the sought-after and incidental knowledge that the character picks up as he progresses in his career.

One could argue that the character's Intelligence score (or equivalent) would do the same thing. I agree, but that makes me wonder why we need to complement it with a Knowledge skill at all, especially when an INT 18 character could, for luck of the die, fail the same Intelligence check that an INT 12 PC might make. Plus, Intelligence (as an ability score) doesn't generally improve as the character advances in level. Anyway, the question is moot: I've ditched Attributes. So here's my rationale:

You know smart people--in terms of general education, bookworm-ishness, life experience, etc. There is someone you consider a "go-to" person when you have a question. The smarter this person is, the more general that question can be. He or she may be an expert in a particular field, but also knows a little bit about everything. This is the person you want on your Trivial Pursuit team. He's Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG1, who can figure anything out. He's even that kid in Jerry Maguire: "Dogs and bees smell fear!" or "The human head weighs seven pounds!"

That's Book Smarts. Or Knowledge. Whatever you want to call it. It's what you know, not your expertise in a specific field. It's stuff you remember from your school days, things you pick up from your leisure reading, knowledge you get from a hobby or from watching the History Channel, and workaday know-how you learn simply as a functioning individual. When someone asks you a question, the answer is something you remember learning in school, something from a speech you once memorised, something you saw on TV last week, or something from a book you're reading now. Either way, it's part of your knowledge vault, which you can access via your Book Smarts Ability.

If you want to be really good in a particular area, you can specialise your Book Smarts Ability, but it doesn't change your overall knowledge base. If you're a smart person, specialising won't change the fact that you're a "go-to" person who knows a lot of stuff about a lot of things. You can still be Daniel Jackson, but with an edge in ancient languages, for example.

Mechanical Impact

By now, you may suspect that my Book Smarts Ability has simply replaced the Intelligence ability score in Chimera. Good supporting evidence is the lack of attributes in Chimera--something has to represent a character's Intelligence, right?

There's some truth in that, though while Book Smarts is meant to represent all sorts of accumulated information, it isn't the same as the Intelligence attribute. First, Book Smarts can be improved--as in real life, you can read more books, pick up more information, learn more things. Second, Book Smarts can be specialised if desired--you can simulate a concentration in a specific field if it makes sense in the campaign.

Third, Book Smarts includes languages, which on the face of it doesn't make much sense, but in the context of a rules-lite game, can be made to work. By tying language to Book Smarts, I'm saying that the smarter your character is, the better his chances of translating those old runes or interpreting the chieftain or figuring out the plot without having to read subtitles. This isn't about fluency or speaking without an accent--if you need those things, then you can use Book Smarts to specialise in a language--this is about dealing with campaign languages in a way that acknowledges language barriers without bogging down play to surmount them.

And fast play is really what I'm after. I don't want to spend too much time picking out Knowledge foci or Languages during character generation. And I don't want to tell a player that he can't figure something out because he doesn't have the right Knowledge skill (because when he asks to make an INT check instead, I'll have to say yes, which is tantamount to his having Book Smarts Ability in the first place).

Plus, you can always simulate difficulty with a Target Number modifier. Based on the type of knowledge or language, consider these adjustments:

Field is: Difficulty Modifier Knowledge Example Language Example
Common TN -2 Is that a plant or a mushroom? Is that a dialect or a foreign language?
General TN +0 What kind of mushroom is it? What language is it?
Unusual TN +2 Is it edible or poisonous? What is the word for "hovercraft"?
Complex TN +4 How does the mushroom reproduce? What does this written passage mean?
Obscure TN +8 How do we splice mushroom DNA with a frog's? How do I explain mushroom DNA to this foreign guy?

Final Words

These are the kinds of questions that get asked during (most of my) games. Book Smarts as an all-encompassing Ability doesn't get in the way of character generation and keeps play moving. And, by removing the need to limit Knowledge to a specific focus, it's also the best way I've seen for characters to adopt the role of "smart guy" in the party.

But this is another rules-lite convention, so it's not going to appeal to more granular styles of play. What do you think? Have I crossed the line between genius and buffoonery? If so, where did I end up?

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