Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

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Agamemnon
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Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Agamemnon » 26 Oct 2018, 22:48

Bare with me here, this may be a long post. There is a relevant point, however. I promise.

What is a Game About?
As a consequence of designing this game, I've processed a whole lot of game design theory and philosophy. If you've ever gone down that rabbit hole, there's a ton of it out there and a lot of it is contradictory. Some of it I agree with, some I don't. One of the pieces I have taken to heart is the notion that for a game to be about something, it has to mechanically support or explicitly incentivize that thing.

By this metric, D&D (here referring to the editions im familiar with, OD&D-3e) is chiefly about overcoming obstacles, and it's about combat, magic, and dungeon delving/exploration. How do we decide this? Overcoming obstacles is the main incentive, and the various editions all feature dedicated subsystems for combat, casting and researching spells, and dungeon delving/exploration. These are things that the game cares about as evidenced by the fact that more detailed rules were written to support it.

D&D is not a game about social conflict. You can include social conflict in your D&D game, but there is nothing in the game that actually supports it. The editions being discussed have, at best, a skill check you can make. By that metric, D&D is at best no more about or interested in social conflict than it is riding horses or using rope.

By contrast, Burning Wheel cares a great deal about social conflict. Duel of Wits is a subsystem every bit as complex as their combat subsystem and arguably used more often.


The Holy Trinity of Fiction
The overwhelming majority of protagonists in fantasy fiction fall squarely into one of three categories: warrior, wizard, or thief. They are a fighty dude, a mystical (or holy) dude, or a sneaky/thiefy/roguish dude. Some characters will fall into multiple camps, being a fighty dude and a magic dude, or a fighty dude and a thiefy dude, but pretty well everyone sits somewhere on that triangle. Even more interestingly, most sci-fi falls under this as well, albeit with magic dude being expanded to "esoteric mental ability" dude, whether that's hacking, science, or psionic ability.

What's interesting is that this translates over to RPG design as well. Aside from games that make this explicit through character classes or similar, you can also see this concept reflected in what games choose to build into the subsystems. Nearly all role-playing games have a dedicated combat system, even if that combat system is just a series of add-on rules for their core mechanic. The immediate example of this to come to mind is the Apocalypse World family of games. While nearly everything in the game is resolved as 'Player rolls 2d6, compares result per move," even AW adds a few extra rules to provide more depth for combat. Fighty dude is covered.

Most games will include a dedicated subsystem for mystic dude. In a fantasy game, you will almost always see a magic subsystem and sometimes several magical subsystems. Either lists of spells you can cast along with rules to do so, or rules for allowing the player to come up with their own. In modern or sci-fi games it's fairly common to see rules for hacking, mad-science/inventing, psionic whatsits, and so on. Mystic/smart dude is almost always covered.

I have never seen a game that particularly emphasizes thief dude. Most games have the option to do thief things, but I struggle to think of any game that treated thief-things as anything other than a skill check, or using their standard task-resolution system. It's generally a skill check vs. lock difficulty. Stealth skill. vs opponent's detect skill. Are there any examples of dedicated subsystems for intrigue, cloak & dagger, or other underhanded shenanigans?


Passion, Violence, & General Skulduggery
There is an obvious degree of self-interest in this topic, as Sword & Scoundrel is supposed to be about certain things. It's called Sword & Scoundrel. This is not an accident. One of the core assumptions is that this is a game where people are pushed to see how far they will go for what they care about. It deliberately assumes that your character will be doing some shady things. They may even be a Scoundrel.

The trouble is that while our system have robust support for Passion and Violence, we fall short in our support of General Skulduggery. Like most games, we have skills that allow you to do various forms of underhanded shenanigans, but they are nowhere near the support we give to combat or have planned for magic. Being a principled man, I find this bothersome because it creates a contradiction between what I believe about game design, what I want for the game, and what the game presently does. So I sat down and tried to think about how to fix this.

The question is: what to do about it? The more I think about it, I'm struggling to come up with anything that would fall into thiefy-dude territory that would actually benefit from a subsystem. I'm not convinced that we gain anything by, for instance, expanding lockpicking into a system wherein we broke Bump, Tap, Push, and Jiggle into different maneuvers for a more detailed lock-picking experience. We've bandied about the idea of making a dedicated stealth system, but even that is such a context-dependent situation that it's difficult to conceive of how to build parameters around it. At best, we wind up with the same sort of full contest/complex skill check setup that you could use for anything.

What sort of systems would you want to see to help support scoundrely play? What games have done this well in the past?
Sword and Scoundrel: On Role-Playing and Fantasy Obscura

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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by dysjunct » 26 Oct 2018, 23:43

Well, great post Malloy. Here’s my take.

What’s a Game About?

Are you familiar with Baker’s concept of the fruitful void? According to that, a game’s rules should never directly touch on what a game is about. They go all around it but never directly address it, because to address it mechanically makes it codified and rote — there’s no sense of exploration or discovery. The rules are instead a path to get at the core concept. So Burning Wheel, e.g., is about how far you will go to pursue your beliefs, and how that pursuit will change you. But there’s no track for how far you’ve gone etc. Instead there’s ways you can push for things via physical conflict, or via social conflict.

(I actually think most good games (or maybe just games I like) are about how far people will go in some way or another. S&S is no different.)

The Holy Trinity

No disagreements here. Thieves are underserved in gaming, and Gygax’s “you’re a thief, now you have a small chance to do something or die trying” doesn’t really help. The only thiefy game I know is Blades In the Dark, which I think is pretty brilliant. It uses a flashback mechanic to represent brilliant (but conveniently offstage) planning, combined with a fail forward system to let the heist go haywire as dramatically appropriate.

I think that’s a pretty solid way to do it. If I were to take a TROSlike mechanical approach to it, I’d maybe have an infiltration pool, divided into Stealth and Progress. Roll stealth to cancel out guards’ perception or patrol or whatever. It’s abstract, but I think it captures the core of thiefy fiction.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Agamemnon » 27 Oct 2018, 00:15

dysjunct wrote:
26 Oct 2018, 23:43
Are you familiar with Baker’s concept of the fruitful void? According to that, a game’s rules should never directly touch on what a game is about. They go all around it but never directly address it, because to address it mechanically makes it codified and rote — there’s no sense of exploration or discovery. The rules are instead a path to get at the core concept. So Burning Wheel, e.g., is about how far you will go to pursue your beliefs, and how that pursuit will change you. But there’s no track for how far you’ve gone etc. Instead there’s ways you can push for things via physical conflict, or via social conflict.
This is why I made a distinction between incentive and support. The core question of "how far will you go" isn't mechanized, but it is the core of the incentive structure.

On the other hand, the game is about fighting for what you believe. The substance of that fighting is where most of the game's support is. Fight, Range & Cover, Duel of Wits, the various Sorcery and Faith systems. These are the big major systems and they are all ways to support the idea of "fighting for what you believe."

The focus of S&S is very similar. We are exploring the same territory, but Scoundrel has a slant that BW doesn't -- Sure, you fight with swords, and words and magic... but we explicitly call out subterfuge. Roguery and Skulduggery. Such a focus deserves something I'm just not sure what.
dysjunct wrote:
26 Oct 2018, 23:43
I’d maybe have an infiltration pool, divided into Stealth and Progress. Roll stealth to cancel out guards’ perception or patrol or whatever. It’s abstract, but I think it captures the core of thiefy fiction.
That's an interesting thought.
Sword and Scoundrel: On Role-Playing and Fantasy Obscura

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by EinBein » 27 Oct 2018, 00:42

BitD is also so brillant in the thiefy aspect, because all the downtime activities are geared towards it as well: heat, vices and wanted levels for example. This all is only possible because BitD chose a very narrow focus, but some elements might be leveraged by you as well.

One thing that I would love to see would be thiefy items. „Tools of the trade“ so to speak. Like glass cutters, lockpicks, special clothing, climbing gear, etc. but also defensive measures like simple alarm systems, traps or whatever people in the Renessaince did to protect their homes. Some early mechanical devices would also spice up the specific setting. This mirrors the extensive focus on weapons and armors (and possibly magic trinkets and artifacts in the future) elsewhere and incentivizes thinking about creative use of the items in-play. In addition, BitD‘s load system helps to always feel competent as a scoundrel, because the required equipment is just a checkmark away.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Korbel » 27 Oct 2018, 05:40

And what is a Scoundrel? Sure he can be a thief. Or assassin. Or the leader of a street gang. The head of noble house. Or maybe he cooks meth or exploits the taxation system, trades illegal weapons or, I don't know, cheats in cards. Do we need a dedicated system for every single activity like these? We have skills which can be tested with more complex rolls, faction rules and so.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Landwalker » 27 Oct 2018, 11:17

Korbel wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 05:40
And what is a Scoundrel? Sure he can be a thief. Or assassin. Or the leader of a street gang. The head of noble house. Or maybe he cooks meth or exploits the taxation system, trades illegal weapons or, I don't know, cheats in cards. Do we need a dedicated system for every single activity like these? We have skills which can be tested with more complex rolls, faction rules and so.
My thoughts exactly. Anyone can be a Scoundrel. A fighter or mage could be a Scoundrel. A Scoundrel might be a cat burglar, a pick-pocket, a back-alley mugger, a highwayman, a corrupt guardsman, the king's Master of Coin, or anything in between.

We look at a system that is ultimately centered around task resolution, and we see the combat mechanics that allow the Fighty Dude to shine, and we see the magic/powers subsystem that allows the Smarty Dude to shine. It's easy to see all of that and think "But what about a system for the Roguey Dude? What about a toolbox for the Scoundrel? To my mind, the entire core system is the Scoundrel's toolbox. The entire premise of a task resolution system is what gives the Scoundrel the many and varied ways to effect the many and varied potential actions and outcomes a Scoundrel may pursue. Scoundrels don't require a subsystem because the core system itself is their playground.

I think that, as system that is fundamentally "fail forward" to begin with, at least so far as I presently understand it, S&S is already well-positioned in this regard. This is clear right from the outset of the rules document:
Page 3 wrote:failing the roll doesn’t mean the character has failed the task, it means that they didn’t get what they want. More often than not, failure is more interesting when interpreted as a sudden shift in the character’s circumstances that introduces new complications while denying them their intent.
This, provided it is coupled with a sufficiently flexible skill system (and a GM willing to allow players the leeway to make use of such a system sufficiently well to realize their visions for their characters, rather than trying to curtail and restrict their behavior), is the province of the Scoundrel.

As you say, the essence of Sword & Scoundrel is about fighting—physically, mentally, socially, and sneakily—for what your character believes in. It's about seeing how far your character is willing to push the boundaries. And as far as I can tell, it is already equipped to accommodate that manner of Skulduggery by coupling its Skills (and the wide array of activities they may cover) with its Drives.

Ultimately, to my mind, the "system" for the Scoundrel is the core system itself. The Scoundrel wields Coercion and Gambling, Manipulation and Legerdemain, Negotiation and Streetwise, in the same way that the Swordsman wields his combat proficiencies. As long as the system allows the Scoundrel that access, then I would say it has that domain well-covered.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Agamemnon » 27 Oct 2018, 16:32

Korbel wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 05:40
And what is a Scoundrel? Sure he can be a thief. Or assassin. Or the leader of a street gang. The head of noble house. Or maybe he cooks meth or exploits the taxation system, trades illegal weapons or, I don't know, cheats in cards. Do we need a dedicated system for every single activity like these? We have skills which can be tested with more complex rolls, faction rules and so.
Landwalker wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 11:17
As you say, the essence of Sword & Scoundrel is about fighting—physically, mentally, socially, and sneakily—for what your character believes in. It's about seeing how far your character is willing to push the boundaries. And as far as I can tell, it is already equipped to accommodate that manner of Skulduggery by coupling its Skills (and the wide array of activities they may cover) with its Drives.

Ultimately, to my mind, the "system" for the Scoundrel is the core system itself. The Scoundrel wields Coercion and Gambling, Manipulation and Legerdemain, Negotiation and Streetwise, in the same way that the Swordsman wields his combat proficiencies. As long as the system allows the Scoundrel that access, then I would say it has that domain well-covered.
I suppose the crux of the issue for me is this:
If you want a campaign focused on fighty-type people, we have a detailed combat system to give depth and substance to your campaign. You have a system set up that gives you something to dig into.

If you're playing social-type characters, we have a basic social conflict system coming out in this coming edition and I'll make a full-on social combat system later (we have notes, but they haven't been tested thoroughly enough to release). So if you have a social campaign, there's mechanics you can dig into there, too.

If you're playing magic type characters, we'll have a hefty magic system to play with as well.

With any one of the above, there is enough meat that you could make your entire campaign be based around that thing and still enjoy it. If you're playing thieves, assassins, and so on.. You really don't have anything to cover their activities in the same way or weight. Everything is ability checks until you get into one of the above arenas. I find this somewhat dissatisfying, but as I mentioned to begin with, I'm not sure what would actually give it more oomph. Thus, my musings on here.
Sword and Scoundrel: On Role-Playing and Fantasy Obscura

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib, the Princess Irulan
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Landwalker » 27 Oct 2018, 18:30

Agamemnon wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 16:32
With any one of the above, there is enough meat that you could make your entire campaign be based around that thing and still enjoy it. If you're playing thieves, assassins, and so on.. You really don't have anything to cover their activities in the same way or weight. Everything is ability checks until you get into one of the above arenas. I find this somewhat dissatisfying, but as I mentioned to begin with, I'm not sure what would actually give it more oomph. Thus, my musings on here.
I suppose I see it almost backwards.

What I understand your position to be: "Fighters and Talkers and Knowers all have (or will have) developed subsystems to support their areas of expertise. Burglars do not, and are underserved by this."

My position, summarized: "Fighters and Talkers and Knowers all have (or will have) ancillary systems to support their areas of expertise, but Burglars' area of expertise is the core system."

In my mind, I don't see anything wrong with thieves being "masters of the ability check."

However, let's suppose one were to try to identify a "sub-core" for the "Burglar" (which I'll use as a catchall for those rogues whose expertise is accessing places they are not meant to access, through non-social means, and relieving property and/or life from their owners, against said owners' will, with the absolute minimum amount of awareness on the part of the owner and/or owner's associates). What would that look like? What actions of the Burglar would constitute a Burgling System?

And that's where I get stumped.

Fighter Fights. Therefore, Combat System.
Mage Casts Spells. Therefore, Magic System.
Face Talks and Listens. Therefore, Socialization System*

(* As an aside, I personally don't see a necessity for this to be broken out as a subsystem rather than encapsulated by the various forms of Ability/Skill Check, though it's something I could come around to with time and experience if it serves its purpose and improves the experience. More importantly, however, it has sufficiently clear "borders" that if one were to want to confine it to a subsystem, it would be at least be a reasonably accommodating candidate.)

Burglar climbs, swims, leaps, and/or disguises his way into targeted locations. He sneaks unseen and unheard. He picks keys, coins, and other valuables from pockets. He picks locks, forces open points of entry. He spots and disarms traps. He cases targets, studies habits. He listens for cues in his environment, and for approaching problems. He finds the secret doors.

The main point being, a Burglar does a lot of stuff, most of which isn't inherently or intuitively related to each other. There aren't clear borders for a Burglar; or if there are, I don't see them.

The other issue at hand is that Combat, and Socializing, and (often, though not always) Magic are not used "solo." If you're engaged in those subsystems, you're almost always engaged in a conflict with another character. Burglary, by contrast, isn't quite "conflict resolution" in the same way that the other specializations are. It's not exactly the manor's steward balancing the books each week, but it's closer to something like Seamanship: You're trying to accomplish various things, and if you botch them things are probably going to get worse for you... but there isn't anybody actively opposing you, or forcing you to react, or otherwise putting you into a defensive state. Now, you might butcher a roll and trip over a loose floorboard and fall down the stairs while trying to sneak up on a guard, but the guard didn't make you fall down the stairs, and the conflict you're about to get into is "Fight System" at that point.

That's a rambling way of getting at the general idea that subsystems are most appropriate, in my mind, for the resolution of conflict, and in particular for the resolution of "back-and-forth" conflict (Magic is kind of an oddball here, since it usually doesn't have a lot of back-and-forth, but magic tends to have other extenuating characteristics that make it naturally disposed to system elaboration). Burgling, in addition to being extremely broad in "activity scope," doesn't really have that "exchange-based conflict" that makes it a natural candidate for mechanical expansion.

I dunno. That's just a bunch of how I see the topic. Subsystems seem most natural to me when they are used for focused subject matter, and Burgling just seems, to me, too broad in its scope. Subsystems seem most natural to me when they are used for dynamic conflict resolution, and Burgling seems (in many instances) to be too static and "solo."

It's all just a long-winded way of saying that I not only don't see any natural, obvious solution to the lack of a Burgling System—I also don't see it as a problem in the first place, and its absence wouldn't hinder my interest in a system. None of that's to say that a Burgling system couldn't be made, and work well. I'm sure it could, and if it were, I'm sure I could get into it.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by dysjunct » 27 Oct 2018, 19:53

Re: no specialized burgling subsystem is needed because there’s a skill system. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and this is how basically every other RPG (except for BITD and maybe that horribly late Will Hindmarch game) does it. It’s not a problem of pragmatic, but one of aesthetics. By putting in special mechanics, it’s a useful signal that this thing is really important to your game.

Re: burgling being too static to deserve a separate subsystem. If it’s a static situation (“can I pick this lock in my workshop while under no time pressure?”) then don’t use the subsystem. Same for non-dynamic violence. “Can I slit the throat of this helpless, unconscious person?” doesn’t need a subsystem either. The subsystems are for dangerous and dynamic situations.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Agamemnon » 27 Oct 2018, 20:11

Landwalker wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 18:30
My position, summarized: "Fighters and Talkers and Knowers all have (or will have) ancillary systems to support their areas of expertise, but Burglars' area of expertise is the core system."
I suppose my chief criticism of this approach is that everyone has access to the core system. It is the default hub upon which everything else turns. In a fighty game, you'll be making a lot of ability checks and leaning into the combat system hard. In a social game, you'll be making a lot of ability checks and also diving into the social system. etc etc.

With a game that has a distinct focus on cloak & dagger rogue gameplay you aren't really adding anything to the game. You're effectively just playing a rules-light(er) version compared to everyone else. Dysjunct gets to the heart of it:
dysjunct wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 19:53
It’s not a problem of pragmatic, but one of aesthetics. By putting in special mechanics, it’s a useful signal that this thing is really important to your game.
Sword and Scoundrel: On Role-Playing and Fantasy Obscura

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib, the Princess Irulan
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Landwalker » 27 Oct 2018, 20:28

Agamemnon wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 20:11
Landwalker wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 18:30
My position, summarized: "Fighters and Talkers and Knowers all have (or will have) ancillary systems to support their areas of expertise, but Burglars' area of expertise is the core system."
I suppose my chief criticism of this approach is that everyone has access to the core system. It is the default hub upon which everything else turns. In a fighty game, you'll be making a lot of ability checks and leaning into the combat system hard. In a social game, you'll be making a lot of ability checks and also diving into the social system. etc etc.

With a game that has a distinct focus on cloak & dagger rogue gameplay you aren't really adding anything to the game. You're effectively just playing a rules-light(er) version compared to everyone else. Dysjunct gets to the heart of it:
dysjunct wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 19:53
It’s not a problem of pragmatic, but one of aesthetics. By putting in special mechanics, it’s a useful signal that this thing is really important to your game.
And that's all perfectly reasonable.

At the end of the day, as long as S&S doesn't fall into the trap of adding systems to the game "just to send a message," so to speak—all of my reservations above can be essentially summed up as this. But provided that such an additional system actually improves and expands the game and, most importantly, makes it a better experience for the players, then I'm all for it.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Agamemnon » 27 Oct 2018, 21:15

Landwalker wrote:
27 Oct 2018, 20:28
But provided that such an additional system actually improves and expands the game and, most importantly, makes it a better experience for the players, then I'm all for it.
That's what makes the entire conversation difficult. Making something complicated for the sake of being complicated is not useful. As stated in the opening post:
Agamemnon wrote:
26 Oct 2018, 22:48
I'm not convinced that we gain anything by, for instance, expanding lockpicking into a system wherein we broke Bump, Tap, Push, and Jiggle into different maneuvers for a more detailed lock-picking experience.
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Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by ChaosFarseer » 27 Oct 2018, 22:01

Maybe there could be core systems which are primarily intended for scoundrel gameplay? Blade in the Dark's Flashbacks and Load systems can be relevant for combat, social or magical conflicts sometimes, but they're mostly used in scoundrel gameplay.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Korbel » 28 Oct 2018, 06:22

In my opinion, thieves are best when it comes to flexibility and having a wide array of tricks. What I expect is, when a player starts designing such a character, he will probably sink most priority points into skills, I believe most will pick tier 4, maybe even 5. And that gives you a lot of points to distribute between various skills.
Let's take a look at a fighty dude for a moment. Most such characters I've seen here had skills about intimidating, riding a horsey, first aid and... Maybe something more, like athletics, but that would generally be it.
And now, what do we expect from a thief? Let's say he's got 50 points under current system to spend on skills. That means he will probably invest in something like 6-12 skills and at worst be at least decent in every single one of them. He will probably have stealth, locks, 2-3 social skills to talk his way out, street wise or survival... Or maybe a different set if he's another kind of scoundrel.
Fighting is dangerous and even the best warriors should avoid every unnecessary combat. Like, if you dance with blades three times a day, you'll be forced to take a shorter or longer break soon enough.
What I'm trying to say, this game is supposed to be reasonably realistic, so to say, mimic the real life. And life is mostly about interacting with other humans, getting informations needed, gathering resources and so. That's where a "thief" will shine and have the opportunity to roll many dice, assuming the DM provides those opportunities. And out of those, dealing with people is probably most complex and interesting, so, a nice Social Combat system should be enough to keep a "thief" satisfied.
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Re: Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Post by Benedict » 29 Oct 2018, 13:49

Reading all the above, I have to ask. What is a scoundrel? Is he a thief? A burglar? Well, I'd say yes and no. Imho Conan, Hamlet, Odysseus - just to name a few - these are all scoundrels. Being Scoundrel has nothing to do with picking locks or pockets per se. I honestly don't believe that a new subsystem around larcenous activities could define scoundrels in any way. The rules could be boring or fun, simple or intricate. It doesn't matter. Cos that's not what a scoundrel is about.

A scoundrel is a person who treats others badly and has no moral principles; or even better a person who treats others badly because he has moral principles to uphold. I think that the best mechanic to define a Scoundrel is already in place : Drives and Drama.
dysjunct wrote:
26 Oct 2018, 23:43
If I were to take a TROSlike mechanical approach to it, I’d maybe have an infiltration pool, divided into Stealth and Progress. Roll stealth to cancel out guards’ perception or patrol or whatever. It’s abstract, but I think it captures the core of thiefy fiction.
Question. Doesn't this comes close to the Cascading mechanic?
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