[Beyond the Wall] A New Take on Skills

Chris Sakkas. For the excellent RPG Beyond the Wall.

Some stories are told of sorcerers and wizards, it is true, but those with magic in their blood and eyes flit around the edges of legend. Perhaps they are too much the stuff of legend themselves for us to care that they face off against brutish giants, mighty dragons and bewitching fey.

How different they to the clear-eyed weaver whose cloth bests that of the gods, or the cunning artificer who can design an inescapable maze. Perhaps our cross-stitch leaves a little to be desired or our inventiveness gets us no further than a slingshot, but we can imagine ourselves to be crafty heroes.

Choose your skills as normal. Be adventurous in your choices: Warg, Shadowplay and Exorcism may suit the mood of your campaign.

During play, you will probably want to do things that are outside the natural limits of your skill. Perhaps you want to do something beyond mortal ability, or only half within the skill, or something that isn’t up to chance. In these instances, you may spend a Fortune Point and describe a ‘trick’. From now on, that trick is something that can do. Depending on the trick and the circumstances, it may require a skill check, or the right materials, or a certain amount of time, or it may simply happen.

At the end of each adventure, count how many Fortune Points you spent (on anything). For each one that you spent, you may pursue a project. A project is anything that takes time and effort to cultivate, that you can tie to one of your skills. They work best when they are permanent or instantaneous – once it’s done, it’s done.

Projects include:

  • Crafting items
  • Researching lore
  • Cultivating a contact
  • Pulling off a heist
  • Picking the pocket of every merchant in town
  • Mapping out the sewer system beneath a city
  • Penning a sonnet
  • Overseeing a building project
  • Crafting a golem
  • Learning a language
  • Getting married
  • Learning how to use an ancient artifact
  • Identifying a mysterious rune
  • Exploring a region
  • Learning a new combat move
  • Inventing a ritual

Of course, an adventure should never rely on you to complete a project. These are side activities that, at best, complement your adventures.


Commentary:

The aim of these rules is to give non-mages something cool to do that (a) is not a spellcasting knockoff, (b) is as varied and cool as cantrips, spells and rituals, (c) gives them narrative power, (d) fits with their existing class features and options and (e) doesn’t overshadow their playbook or characterisation.

An added benefit of these rules is that since they are negotiated between players, they should always fit the mood of the game. An archer who makes exploding arrows will suit some games; a Daedalus-like craftsman with balsam wings and a bronze arm will suit others. Many of the tricks in the examples below may seem cartoonish – that is because they draw from myth, legend and romance, all of which are often absurd and theatrical.


Examples:

A character with the Athletics skill wants to perform a feat of incredible endurance: Run for an Entire Day and Night, or Grip Stone so powerfully that it is remoulded, or Run on Water (without falling in) or Feign Death by stopping all his vital signs and then restarting them in an hour. Any of these would make an excellent trick, if he’s willing to spend the Fortune Point. Probably, none should require a skill check, but that depends on pacing, other threats, the mood of the game, what he’s using them to accomplish, and so on.

At the end of the adventure, he wants to create a landbridge between two islands. A terrific project! He flings great boulders into the deeps to create stepping stones across.

A character with the Burglary skill selects as a trick that he can Hide Any Object on his person so effectively that even the most thorough search cannot find it. Later, he chooses another trick along a similar line: he Always Has a Knife on him.

A character with the Animal Handling skill chooses as a project to Tame a Griffon, or to Breed the First Owlbear from bear and giant owl, or to teach her falcon companion to Scratch out Eyes.

A character joins the ranks of the shadowdancers, mystics who can manipulate shadowstuff and their own bodies. She selects the Shadowplay skill, and makes Shadowplay checks to change shadows (throwing them up on the wall to frighten or confuse people, or draping them over her like a cloak to sneak around, as a veil to stop herself being blinded by sudden light, and so on).

When a lich takes a hostage, she wants to leap into a nearby shadow and out of his own, so she can shield the hostage with her own body. This is thematically in line with the Shadowplay skill, but goes beyond it. She offers to spend a Fortune Point and make it a trick: Leap between Shadows. This is a fair compromise. In this case, because she is leaping out of a hostile creature’s shadow, she also has to make a skill check. To leap into her own shadow or out of a shadow that is miles and miles away might also require a skill check. On the other hand, to leap between two large, stationary shadows probably won’t.

At the end of the adventure, she wants to explore the Shadow World. She creates a Gate to the Shadow World. She also met a drow who burns in light. She knits a Cloak of Shadows that will protect him from the sun.

A character with the Warg skill can use it to see vaguely through her wolf companion’s eyes, to communicate with wolves, and for wolf- and wood-lore. Good tricks might be to take over the wolf’s body, or for man and wolf to attack a creature from both flanks, or to let out a howl that summons wolf packs from miles around.


Expansion:

A way to recover Fortune Points might be good, like compels in FATE, GM intrusions in Numenera or turning keys in Lady Blackbird.

Or take a leaf out of Mortal Coil’s book: each trick has a “but” which explains its cost or risk. Projects might be particularly suited to complications: “you built a causeway BUT you awoke something sleeping beneath the sea”.

A variant is that you must spend Fortune Points to undertake a project, rather than being able to take as many projects as you spent Fortune Points.

Another variant is that each time you rest, you get to undertake one project. It would be a smaller scale project than many of those described above – like scouting ahead, treating a disease, making a scheme, repairing a sundered weapon, identifying looted potions, boiling down a monster for stew, interpretting the dungeon map or preparing a pit trap.

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