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Runequest Thursday #136 - Alternate Rules for EXPerience Checks!

Clint Staples

In my ongoing Brightwater campaign, the PCs are approaching Rune Level, and I find myself impatient for them to get there. We have been playing regularly for over three years and I think the players are ready for it.

I know I am.

I have things I want to have happen – things that Rune Levels can take a hand in, where lower experience characters would struggle, be overlooked, or just seem out of place. I mean, with Krogar Wolfhelm, Griselda and Jarang Bladesong running around, why would lesser characters be tapped for serious stuff.

I know – it is the PCs campaign, and the other name-characters are busy doing other-name-level things. But the Brightwaters have investigated a sunken piece of Robcradle, they have chased a coven of ogres out of the North Marsh; they killed a shark demon that was forming a cult of carcharids into an army of invading chaos-tainted sharkoid; They survived everything the Clanking Ruin could throw at them and stole the Wyverns from the Lunar Garrison. They traveled to the Blue Moon and awakened its goddess, aided her in rewriting her myth cycle and becoming the White Moon goddess.

They are ready.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with the Experience rules in classic Runequest. For those who are unfamiliar or need a refresher, here it is in a Nutshell: You note a the first successful use of a skill in a stressful situation with a check on your character sheet. Later, between adventures when you have down time, you have the opportunity to “roll your Checks” to see if you character learned something about the skills she used. The Formula to derive your chance to progress is 100 + your EXPerience Bonus – Your Current Skill%. So for a 60%, You would subtract 60 from 100 + your EXP bonus. You would need to roll under that number on percentile dice.

On the one hand – I love the idea that you progress in the things you do.  This models life better (at least to me) than any class or level system. And it lets the players tell you the sorts of things they are interested in by what skill they are using, and gaining in.

On the other hand, it can be a slow slog. Since only a portion of the checks you get in any single session of rolling for experience succeed, you know that it is going to take a while to get good at things.

The system as written is very good at getting people up to an acceptable standard of success, but makes it very difficult to attain Mastery (defined as 90% or higher is a skill). So when you are progressing from the base skill percentages up to around 55-65%, you can be reasonably sure you will make a significant number of your rolls. But as you get up over 70%, you chances drop off. And getting to 90% (the level required for Rune Level Skills) means you are probably only making one roll out of every five or six times you have a check. Add this to the fact that the Rules As Written require that you have a week or two of downtime before you get to make your checks, and you are in it for the long haul.

I have been reading the official Runequest Design Blog as it comes out (and you should too). I like a lot of what they are saying. In one recently, they noted that their experience (sorry) with in-house and others’ games is that they often never reach Rune Level, or only do so as the campaign starts to peter out. I have also found this. While this is not terrible, it does remove some of the really fun stuff that come along with Rune Level play.

So here are some changes I have made to help increase skill experience checks. They have been subjected to some playtesting, and do not seem to unbalance things:

  • I have changed the Experience Roll Formula to add INT bonus + Renown of the roller to the Success chance. SO – you subtract your current skill percentage from 100+ EXP bpnus, then add to this your Renown. The idea is that, people with more fame can attract better training and input into their development, and are generally surrounded by more people who can help them learn. Mechanically, Renown usually increases as your heroes do heroic stuff and get a reputation for doing so. So it can counteract the reduced progression that occurs as a skill reaches the higher percentiles.

Example: With a sword skill of 85%, and a Renown of 16, Raena would have a 100-85=15 +16 + EXP bonus to go up. (Instead of 15+INT bonus). This about doubles the likelihood of success.

  • The amount your increase is 1d4+1% if you succeed, and 1% if you fail. So even if you fail, you still learn a little something. The amount this has made rolling for XP more enjoyable for the players is palpable. Because they know that every roll will benefit from the opportunity to “make your checks” – at least a little. It has also had the benefit of cutting down on the tendency that sometimes arises where players switch skills all the time to get as many skills progressing as possible.  
  • Lately, I have instituted a rule that – if you critical a skill check in a stressful situation, you automatically raise the skill by 1%, in addition to getting a check. In addition to working against the tendency for high skill percentages to resist increase, this is intended to model those moments of insight into your ability, which are likely to occur when you do something as spectacular as rolling a critical. Of course, as heroes gain higher skill levels, they are going to critical more often, which means they will go up slowly but steadily in these high level skills. This change has not had as much playtesting, but so far has not skewed things unduly. But I admit, at present – I WANT my PCs to get to Rune Level.

Here are a couple of other ideas that I have not tried, but might work in some circumstances. Some of them DO NOT work with the normal EXP roll system at all, and may not mesh well with the alterations I have outlined above. I might Implement one of these in a new RQ game that I am just starting up.

  • Checks as Experience Points: Players note their checks during play as usual. Each check generates a set number of Percentiles, which can be added to ANY skill the player chooses. If she chooses a checked Skill, she can add up to 5%. If she chooses and Unchecked skill, she can only add 3%. You could expand this system to allow players to spend these Points on things like Attribute Improvement, even Spell Acquisition.
  • Class Skills without the Classes: When the Character is Created, the player specifies a number of Core Skills (determined by the GM, but probably no more than 5) to their concept. These skills always go up by 5% when EXPerience Checks are made (rather than rolling 1d4+1% or whatever).
  • EXPerience as Wish List: Each Character can select a number of checks equal to their INT Bonus for automatic Advancement. Roll 1d4% to see how much they go up. Then roll EXPerience Checks normally, even for the skills that just advanced.

If you have any alternates that you have created, I would be interested in hearing about them. Feel free to include them in the comments. Or just chime in there with what you think of these ones.