As I've played various test-games and run through the demos we've set up, I've come across something that could either be a bug or a feature depending on how you might look at it. Story Aspects form the heart of 'Bastards in many ways. They guide play, they form the reward mechanism, and they keep your butt out of the fire in the process through the bonus dice. In combat, they integrate seamlessly into the flow of things and make the whole thing feel just a little more exciting. Outside of combat, they cause ... weirdness.
The problem rests in the intersection of the way skills, attributes, and SAs are scored. All three are on a 0 or 1-5 range. The unintended side effect of this is that having 5 dice from an SA is functionally identical to having 5 dice in an attribute or a skill. In practice, this means that a someone who with a mediocre attribute and apprentice level training (2+2) for their skill check stands an even chance of beating someone with a high attribute and grandmastery in their skill (4+5) if they just want it bad enough. In my own games, I've watched PCs who were untrained in a skill beat other PCs who had actually invested in said skill because the former had SAs firing (or more accurately, both had SAs firing but one had 5 dots and the other had 1).
The effect is even more pronounced when making unopposed checks. The way the Obs are structured, +5 dice from an SA are +2.5 successes at TN6. If we start talking about exploding dice, things can get even more goofy. If you set the difficulty scale for skill/attribute checks without SAs factored in, then SAs will make difficult things relatively trivial. If you set the difficulty scale in order to account for the influence of SAs, you make difficult checks impossible when they aren't firing.
Now you can make an argument that this is all a feature, rather than a bug. It takes a very Hollywood kind of logic where what's more important than the skill of the character is their passion/desire/the weight of the narrative. Of course Daniel-san can't realistically train hard enough over the summer to beat out the kids who have been doing this for years, but it's way more dramatic if he does. It makes perfect story-telling sense that the character who completely lacks Oratory can get up on stage and make an impassioned speech with their SAs firing that sways the crowd away from the evil vizier who would mislead them. You can certainly make these arguments and defend the system as it stands now.
But I'm not sure I like those arguments.
My gut feeling is that this short-changes people who have actually spent the time and points investing in those skills. Just like the poor bastards from Cobra Kai who have gone to practice twice a week every week since they were in kindergarten and put in the blood, sweat, and broken bones to earn what they have, it feels a bit cheap when someone else can completely school you because they had a training montage and the story was in their favor.
Oddly enough, I keep using The Karate Kid as an example, but it's probably the worst one I could go for. The SA dice seems to work fine for combat.. So why is that?
It's the nature of the die pool. First, you're comparing far differently-sized pools. CP is Agility+Cunning (already the size of a skill pool), plus your proficiency rating which for most combatants will be anywhere from 0-10. Then add in the potential to get in another 0-4 dice from Reach? You're looking at a potential pool of anywhere from 4 to 24 dice. Where +5 dice from SAs can potentially be a 50% boost in total die pool for skills or attribute checks, it may only be a 20% boost to your combat pool. On top of that, the effect is even further diluted by the way you will split your CP in most cases and that activation costs and maneuvers can further manipulate the dice you have to spend. The outcome of a fight between two opponents is far less influenced by SAs than any skill or attribute contest between opponents would be.
So what can be done?
If it's a thing I/we decide to tackle at all, then the crux of the issue rests at the intersection of skills, attributes, and SAs. To help mitigate the effect, we either need to reduce the amount of SA points you can have, or change the way in which skills and attributes are rated.
The former does not thrill me. You'd have to reduce SAs to a maximum of 3 dots or so in order to achieve the effect. Skills and Attributes would still benefit more from SAs than combat does, and I fear that +3 dice in combat might not be enough to make a significant impact in combat. Of course, if +3 is the max, that means most of the time SAs fire, you will only be getting 1 or 2 dice out of it which makes the whole thing slightly less exciting. More worryingly, reducing the total number of SA points you have to play with makes spending them on anything (whether advancement or narrative effects) slightly more painful and a careful process, as to buy anything expensive you may have to wipe out multiple SAs to afford it.
The latter option is doable but requires a significant overhaul of the current skill system. You'd have to bring attributes and skills to a 1-8 or 1-10 scale to bring their numbers more in line with Proficiencies. While this would actually make the individual skill way more important by comparison, you'd have to rework a bunch of things.
- We'd have to toss the X+Y system of attribute/skill interaction, losing the flexibility of being able to differentiate between, say, an acumen/larceny check for knowledge of burglary practices and agility/larceny for the physical act of trying to gain entry. On the other hand, from a GM perspective, it would at least require a tiny bit less computation in play (you wouldn't need to think through "what is the right attribute to pair with this.")
- We'd be required to find a different way to make attributes and skills meaningfully interact since the above is no longer possible.
- Strength and Stamina would need to be balanced as an additional step for the purposes of DR and AV in combat. You'd need to halve them when you put them on your sheet. Dragon Tap and Naked Dwarf are known issues in TROS that stemmed from the difference between Strength and Stamina (or whatever the stat was in TROS) being too swingy.
- We'd have to get rid of the dots, which would probably make Higgins cry. He likes dots.
Give me some feedback. It this all a non-issue? Is it as broken as my gut says? Which fix do you prefer? Do you have any alternate fixes to suggest? Are dots as important as Higgins says?
Let me know.