You Can’t Do That!

Ever hang out with a child that has learned that he too can say, “No!”? Delightful, isn’t he? Ever play with a GM that has the same propensity? Fun, huh?

Fortunately, most GMs, like most children, outgrow the “No!” stage. Those that don’t, GMs and children, end up being rather unpleasant as adults, which has its own consequences, such as a lack of players (for GMs) or a lack of friends (for adults in general). Oh, sure, there’re probably players who tolerate Negative GMs, but probably more out of a wrong-headed sense of gamer solidarity than a genuine desire to put up with such nonsense.

I’ve encountered Negative GMs a few times over the years. How about some examples to better illustrate what I’m talking about?

Example the First

Many years ago, I was playing in a Forgotten Realms adventure. The GM described how monsters approached rapidly from a distance, obviously intending to attack us.

“How far away are they?” asked a player.

“Do you have the Estimate Distance nonweapon proficiency?” asked the GM.

None of us had that nonweapon proficiency. I’m pretty sure none of us even knew there was such a nonweapon proficiency.

“No, you can’t tell how far away the monsters are,” the GM said.

Example the Second

Even more years ago, I was playing a 1E game, running my paladin Karras the Damned. We were defending a fort from a horde of evil humanoids, ogres, and giants. We were seriously outclassed, but at least we had the advantage of the fort’s defenses. Even still, the horde eventually battered down the gates and flooded into the yard.

“Karras ducks into that narrow hall and attacks the hill giant after it passes him,” I said.

“No,” said the GM.


“You’re a paladin. You can’t attack by surprise.”

Example the Third

Just to show that the problem isn’t always the GM, I offer up an example of the Negative Player. I was running a D&D game. The PCs were fighting a pitched battle on the topmost storey of a large tower. Flying monsters were setting fire to the roof over their heads.

“My character wants to get out onto the roof to fight the flying monsters,” said a player.

“Okay,” said I. “How?”

“Um, he could lean out a window, swing his rope and grappling hook up, and try to latch onto the roof. Then, he could climb up.”

“No,” said the Negative Player. “That won’t work.”

“Really?” said I. “How come?”

The Negative Player launched into a pedantic monologue about gravity, arcs, and roofing materials. I felt sorry for asking.

Jim Butcher Weighs In

At the last Space City Con here in Houston, Texas, author Jim Butcher offered a couple of sessions about writing. When deciding the outcome of a conflict in a story, Mr. Butcher opined that there are only four options available to the writer:

1. Yes
2. Yes, But
3. No
4. No, and Furthermore

Since roleplaying games are a form of shared storytelling, it stands to reason that these four options ought to be available to GMs and the other players. Notice how the possibility of three options other than “No!” could apply to each situation above. For example, in the first example, the GM could’ve said, “Yes, you can estimate the distance to the monsters, but your estimation won’t be as accurate as if you had the Estimate Distance nonweapon proficiency.”

So, you might be wondering, what’s the point, Mark?

Skill Checks for Swords & Wizardry

I like Swords & Wizardry. I also like systems for resolving skill checks, such as determining if a PC can jump across a chasm, identify a monster by its tracks, or repair a suit of armor. On the other hand, I don’t like skill lists. Lists, by their very nature, limit options because no list can account for every possibility. The list’s limitations may end up being the PC’s limitations as well (“Sorry, you can’t tell how far away something is because you don’t have the right skill.”).

On the same other hand, I don’t like skill systems that melt a class’s special snowflakeness. Thieves get to be sneaky, pick locks, and find traps. A skill system that lets other classes do those things steps on thieves’ toes. But, that doesn’t mean a fighter or a wizard can’t be sneaky. A GM ought not simply declare, “Your fighter cannot hide in the shadows or move quietly. Those are thief abilities, and fighters don’t have thief abilities.”

Ergo, what I want for Swords & Wizardry is a skill system that:

1. Doesn’t involve skill lists
2. Doesn’t melt special snowflakes
3. Doesn’t say “No!” as the default answer
4. Doesn’t require modifying Swords & Wizardry any more than minimally necessary

Swords & Wizardry, Meet Barbarians of Lemuria

BoL uses a single dice mechanic for all action resolution. For skill-type checks, the player rolls 2d6 + the PC’s relevant ability score + the PC’s relevant career ranks. Any result of 9 or higher is a success. For example, a PC wants to appraise a gem. The player rolls 2d6 and adds the PC’s Mind and merchant career ranks. (BoL includes possibilities for really bad failures as well as really good successes, but I’m not worried about critical results at the moment.)

A PC may also have boons or flaws. These present situations in which a PC is particularly good or noticeably bad at certain tasks. Either way, the player rolls 3d6 instead of 2d6. For a boon, the player picks the two best dice. For a flaw, he picks the two worst dice. Everything else stays the same.

In order start grafting this sort of system onto Swords & Wizardry, it seems as if I need some careers, a dice mechanic (I’m leaning toward 2d10 with a target number of 15+), and perhaps some sort of boon/flaw mechanic. I’ve got some basic ideas, but I need to put some more thought into them before I take this concept any further.

Until then, good gaming!

November 27th, 2013  in RPG 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “You Can’t Do That!”

  • Oh man! I’ve got strong opinions about this stuff.

    GMs should almost never say, “No.” unless its to shut down a problem or jokey player who is always asking for ridiculous things. For example, “I’m going to scream at my deity until he sends a thousand sugar plum fairies to aid me in this battle.”

    Pretty sure there’s no such thing as an estimated distance non-weapon proficiency. He was just being an asshole. And if there is, that’s another problem with all those skills, feats, and modern do-dads. Once you give something a name along with some numbers, then if someone doesn’t have that he’s at a distinct disadvantage for its absence on their character sheet. As you said, lists are limiting.

    If there’s a question about a maneuver being doable, then just use the dice to decide. Player knowledge is useful, but even all that physics is debatable.

    On trying things, you’ve probably read my thoughts on this already, but if a task is relatively easy or the PC has favorable conditions, experience in that area, etc. then roll 2d6 versus the appropriate ability score. If the result is that number or below, then it’s a success. Standard is 3d6. If the task is especially difficult, unlikely, or something like a fighter in chainmail trying to hide in shadows, then roll 4d6 vs. his dexterity.


  • sam says:

    I’d answer “Yes” to the sugar plum fairies player…

    Of course when they complain that I’ve skipped their action next round the answer will be: “No sugar plum fairies have appeared so you are still screaming at your deity and can’t do anything else”.

  • John Reyst says:

    I’m with you Mark in that I dislike finite skills lists, but also dislike not having a reliable and consistent mechanic for determining if someone can do something or not. I strongly prefer openness wherein a player is expected to describe what he wants to accomplish without resorting to looking at a finite list of abilities and if he doesn’t see something concluding it can’t be done. I also don’t like a flat difficulty target but do like a multi-dice resolution so that the roll range isn’t completely flat. I suppose with all of that said, I’d be more than happy with your 2d10 idea but have varying difficulties. Something like “Oh that’s pretty easy I think. Roll me a 5 or better on 2d10 (and add in a bonus because your background says you do those kinds of things and any ability score bonuses you have)” or “Hmm I think that sounds pretty hard. Roll me 15+ on 2d10 (and add in a bonus due to your background and any ability score bonus.)” etc.

  • admin says:

    Varying difficulties can be achieved by applying a modifier to the 2dx while keeping the static success number.

  • Wodan says:

    Mark, please let me add my two cents. I have played (GM’d) BoL for a few years now, having coming from a D&D and Runequest background.

    While I laud the creator of BoL for making a simple playable system good for its purpose (cinematic sword & sorcery), my group needed it altered for their tastes. Hence we did the following:

    – changed dice mechanic to 2d10

    – changed single threshhold (DC) to multi… Easy=10, Average=13, Difficult=16

    – Boons/Flaws were the largest overhaul. Agreeing with your statement about lists, we altered this about 4-5 times before we had a list that we were comfortable with. Basically, for each Race we had 3-4 boons/flaws that were “typical”. Same for the professions. After that we added about 20 that could be picked by any race/profession.

    – BoL does not use Skills *except for combat skills. We refined this some.

    – we Changed the magic system because we liked another system more

    What resulted was a fast-play, simple system that allowed us to whip-up games within minutes. More so, the GM’s overhead is low and manageable. I think BoL an SW get equal playtime at our table.

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