The Gassy Gnoll: Why aren’t our characters pumping iron, doing katas, or practicing skills?

The Gassy Gnoll has been a slovenly soul for a few years now, growing plumper and slower so that eventually he would be the one devoured at the back of the pack because he really didn’t give a damn. But something changed a few months ago and now he wants to get back into some sort of shape. He’s not ready to hang up his bag of bones yet.

But as he started working out the other day, he wondered why we don’t see characters getting or attempting to stay in shape. Sure, it’s tough to imagine an adventurer who is shaped like a Gelatinous Cube, but if a character isn’t using a skill regularly – why wouldn’t it dull over time?

Gassy Gnoll

Gassy Gnoll

To give you some background here…

Any
time I had a character in the past (up to, but not including 4e) I would put a little dot beside each skill I used during a session. This would tell me not only which skills I’d been relying on in-game, but also how often I’d used them since the last time I leveled up. It was a convenient way to track a rudimentary usage statistic without getting too complicated. Then, when it came time to level up I’d put a skill point or two in those areas that I’d used the most. But I never came up with a good way to model skills getting “rusty”. And 4e throws all that out the window because skills are more static than in previous editions, reacting more to stat and level bumps than individual skill prowess.

And there have always been aging rules you could apply. For example, to model middle-age, you gain Int and Wis, but lose some Str and Con. Youth grants you more Con and less Wis. Being old sucks the Str, Dex, and Con out of you but gives you a little more Wis. Etc. So if you wanted to model a wiser older adventurer going from middle age to “old”, you could handle that pretty well. But other than affecting skills through the stat bumps, it’s really not addressing the whole “dusty” skill problem.

When you apply it to combat skills, it gets even more entertaining.

If you have a true weapon master, the odds are that he or she trains incessantly. Whether it’s through sparring, some form of meditation or kata, or simply going somewhere to hack up a practice dummy or wall. Martial artists must practice and keep their bodies strong and limber. And many marksmen go through thousands and thousands of rounds (or arrows) in a year to keep their shooting skills honed to a fine edge.

During a role-playing campaign, your merry band of adventurers is often out there… on the edge… for days, weeks, months, even years trying to accomplish their goals or make names for themselves. If they’re lucky they may get to use a handful of their skills on a regular basis. They get lean and mean, honing those skills they have to use while they’re on a mission. But what happens to the rest of those skills? If my character has been fighting monsters and slogging through dungeons for years, how much Diplomacy or Insight are they going to have when they return to civilization?

Does anyone have a simple house rule that could take this into account? I just think if it’s been 100 years since your elven mage cast Magic Missile, maybe he’ll have to look it up. Or if it’s been a few months since you used that polearm, should it come back to you like riding a bike?

Maybe it’s unimportant in most campaigns. But I’d love to see a campaign that starts with a group of nobles who have grown old and fat and are called to stop some great evil when they’re out of shape and over the hill.

Who’s with me?

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20 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Why aren’t our characters pumping iron, doing katas, or practicing skills?

  • I am with you. I don’t imagine the degradation of neglected skills in a normal campaign would be the most popular game element ever, but there are a number of good systems which take aging into account, so for those who are into little touches of realism in their game worlds… why not?
    Runeslinger recently posted…Genre and the Modern PrometheusMy Profile

    • Fitz

      Definitely won’t be something for every GM or group, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks it could make things interesting. :) Thanks @Runeslinger!

  • FWIW, my SF game Zap! has a simple rule for performing routine maintenance on equipment that could easily be adapted for personal training. Zap! is available for free on RPGNow ( http://www.rpgnow.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=3855 ), but the gist of the rule is that once per session the characters have to describe a scene where they do some maintenance on some piece of equipment (personal or party), and that stands in for all the maintenance they’re presumably doing. If they skip it because they’re pressed for time or whatever then all their equipment becomes erratic (chance of not working when it’s activated, basically a fumble). This kind of thing would work for pretty much any system: the key is making them take a little bit of play time with training or maintenance the focus and using that as a proxy for all the training and maintenance they’re doing “off screen.” Lots of flavor for almost no bookkeeping.
    Joshua Macy recently posted…Zounds! is here!My Profile

    • Fitz

      @Joshua – Thanks for the little mechanic. That would work beautifully in just about every system I can think of. It’s more an exercise in mindfulness than anything else.

  • forged

    I think this is more an issue for long-running (in-game timewise that is) campaigns. Most campaigns that I have run last only a handful of years at the long-end of the spectrum. I suspect, although I didn’t keep track that most didn’t even extend long enough for most players to debate about having a birthday pass for the characters.

    Of course, that is partly in how I run campaigns and the lack of emphasis I put on that aspect.

    Which leads me to the aging rules. They are usually good guidelines, but unless you are building a character that falls into a certain category range, you seldom cross into a new age category unless something in the campaign forces it. (For example, early editions of D&D ghosts could prematurely age characters.)

    • Fitz

      @forged – Definitely not for every campaign. And much of it could be handled role-playing wise, not roll-playing wise, so the character sheet update aspects may not be needed at all.

  • Skills can degrade if not used (I no longer speak FORTRAN, for example, despite spending over a year working with it)… but they don’t necessarily. I’ve found after leaving a particular skill alone for a while that I come back and I’m better at it than before, probably because I’m now stronger in other, related areas.

    Mostly, though, I think it’s that it’s an administrative hassle that in practice doesn’t provide much gain. I suspect it’s sufficient to handwave it – - at night, your martial guys do kata and practice their martial skills, your wizard meditates and thinks heavy thoughts (in D&D 3.x they gain skills (spells) offstage), and so on.

    Possibly the simplest way to handle this is keep it offstage. In D&D 3.x terms, each time you level you gain skill points, and you can reassign a similar number. Odds are that you focus on the same skills and keep them sharp, but if you want to ‘neglect’ a skill in favor of another you, just move some skill points around to explain it.

    Then again, I’m kind of lazy about some things.
    Keith Davies recently posted…Megadungeon Contest?My Profile

    • Fitz

      @Keith – I don’t think you’re lazy. :) And I think this is more a mechanic for keeping track of what the character has used over time to indicate what hasn’t been used in a while. It’s not going to be for everybody. And that’s perfect! Part of the reason this hobby is so engaging is the wide range of play and GM styles.

      For me it’s just the fact that I’ve started working out (and am feeling the pain of muscles that haven’t been used for a long while) and it made me think about how our characters deal with the same thing. :)

      • I did say ‘about some things’. It usually startles people when I tell them I’m lazy, my work ethic sometimes intimidates people.

        You asked why many games don’t include rules for this sort of thing, and I reckon “too much work for too little gain” is probably the answer. However, as with lifting heavy things and putting them down, many would consider that to be more trouble than it’s worth, too.

        Which reminds me, now that the resolution people are thinning out, it’s time for me to get back to the gym. I just need to find time.

        As with everything else, people like different things. I think it’s best that we do, it provides a wider range of ideas and inspiration to work with.
        Keith Davies recently posted…Megadungeon Contest?My Profile

  • Ultan

    Wasn’t it The Elder Scrolls, where if your character went to prison you lost skill points?

    • Fitz

      @Ultan – Might have been. Sounds like it would be something included there. (I can’t say I ever spent much time locked up in either of the last two Elder Scrolls games, so I never tried it. :) )

  • Philo Pharynx

    I consider it part of the off-screen life of adventurers. After all, most games don’t keep track of everything. (That lembas wafer adds a +5 fiber bonus to your next bowel movement check!)

    This seems to be something where adding a system makes the game more realistic, but also adds a lot of work without adding a corresponding amount of fun.

    • Fitz

      @Philo – And that’s fine. Like I’ve said a few times in the comments I think this is more about being mindful of what you’ve used and not used so you can roleplay that more effectively if you choose to do so. It’s not for everybody and may be an added level of annoyance you don’t want or really need. :)

    • Dausuul

      I agree with Philo. I think that if you add a system like this, what you will see is:

      1. Rule is added so you have to practice a skill to maintain it.
      2. Players make a list of all their skills and devise practice schedules to ensure that their skills remain up to par.
      3. Each game day, all the players announce their characters’ scheduled workout routines. This gets repetitive and annoying.
      4. To save time, everyone agrees to assume that these routines are being carried out daily unless otherwise stated.
      5. The “practice rule” is effectively negated, and we’re back where we started.

      In real life, practice is hard and tiring and eats up a chunk of the day. Those are substantial costs, which limit the time most of us are willing to spend practicing. In the game world, however, practice is as simple as announcing “I spend three hours practicing.” If you want it to be interesting, there has to be a cost (from the player perspective!) to practicing which makes it a meaningful choice.

      • Fitz

        @Dausuul – I agree and disagree, which should come as no surprise. My original idea was for a simple system to encourage players to think about character development a bit. If you know what skills you’ve used (or used a bunch) you can easily see which skills haven’t been used and roleplay the “rustiness” as much as anything else. Same
        with combat. Sure we could put a heavy-handed rule around it, but I like Joshua’s idea – just noting what you’re working on more than anything else.

        Rules are enough of a pain without making it more painful. :)

        To encourage such behavior, I might give out “brownie points” at the table which could be used to add a bonus here or there, ask for a favor, find some key item. One way folks could earn those is by telling me or documenting what their character is doing to keep their equipment and skills in peak shape. Sharpening blades. Fletching arrows. Replacing bow strings. Practicing lock picking on a tough lock the thief just happens to carry around everywhere… That kind of thing.

  • Celebrim

    Because its boring and repetitive, and even in campaigns that assume training, they don’t play it out. There is a reason that most sports movies quickly moving the training into a montage and spend little time on it. It’s just better story telling.

    That AD&D characters don’t need to train to level up was one of the first house rules I ever made (at the age of 12 IIRC). My reasoning then remains sound. Assuming training between adventures works fine, if you assume that the only story to be told is one of going back and forth between a haven where there are trainers and a nearby dungeon, but doesn’t work if the story is a wilderness excursion or a race against time. It is better to level up the characters as they go, so that the story can reach natural climaxes, rather than insist on training that can’t be available because of the setting. In this way, you aren’t restrained by the rules to certain settings.

    It is assumed I think that during the time Wizards are preparing spells and clerics praying, that rogues are juggling coins or idly flipping knives and that fighters are stretching, working out, and polishing their weapons and armor. However, while I’d be impressed in by a PC that made that the context of inter-party RP, few players have that sort of thespian inclination and even if they do, if they insisted in playing it out every single day, I’d be annoyed.

  • Dupin

    I’ve seen a game system or two that actually had rules for this but they were largely ignored just because of the added mess of having to keep track of that. I have done the converse in GURPS, which is skill based rather than level based. I simply made it a rule that you couldn’t spend points you’d earned that play session on a skill you didn’t use that play session.

    Still, in most games, practice on skills is considered to be offscreen.

    • Philo Pharynx

      This just encourages people to try and use skills they aren’t good with in situations where failing isn’t harmful.

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