Before getting into the main discussion for this week’s post, I want to give an update on the Kickstarter. As of about 2am my time this past Friday, we have reached our main funding goal! I want to extend a big thank you to everyone that has backed so far, and for those who shall be doing so as the campaign progresses. We’ve just announced our first stretch goal, so please check out the update here, please share the campaign around everyone you can, and stay tuned for further developments.

Also want to mention quickly that we now have the schedule posted for FreedoniaCon. You can check it out here, as well as sign up for available game slots. There’s still time to volunteer to run your own game as well. When volunteering for games, don’t feel constrained by the slots shown; since this is all virtual, we can make as many rooms as we need, so just let us know what time slot works for you, and we’ll get you set up.

Okay, announcements over, on with your regularly scheduled blog post:

This week’s post is going to contain another preview of something store for Fort Alice, and a bit of mechanics discussion. It’s only going into one particular item, but one that I think will make quite a few people happy.

A frequent topic of discussion I’ve seen when people have discussed the mechanics of the game in the past is how difficult it can sometimes be to advance skills. The item I’ll be going over today will introduce a new method of advancing skills that ties in with the existing mechanic, but should hopefully help to make it easier for both players and GMs to integrate training and advancement into their game without derailing the action. Before I go over the item itself and the mechanics on how it works, I want to give a brief bit of background information on how and why the advancement mechanics are the way they are currently.

When the RPG portion of 1879 was first being written and developed and we decided to use the CoreStep mechanic that we use in Earthdawn, that was the only game that had ever made use of it. We knew we were setting up a world with a magic level not yet high enough to support Disciplines and Talents, and as such, would need to rely on Skills as what the characters would be using. It is also important thematically, in both game worlds, that Talents are much easier to work with than Skills due to the availability of magic. While the most basic mechanics of how Talents and Skills are actually used are basically the same (as in, add Rank to the base Stat to get Step), the major appeal of Talents are how much easier they are to advance, as you just meditate on them and spend the LPs rather than having to devote (and track) the weeks of training needed to advance them, not to mention that the amount of training time needed increases as you progress. It is also important to make sure the game mechanic reflects the themes involved in the game world, as this is a cornerstone of how we do our world building, and one of the things that sets us apart from a lot of other game lines.

All that said, the game still needs to be playable. If we used the straight Earthdawn mechanic where you had to spend weeks in training to advance your Skills and had no other alternative for gaining abilities in game, I’m quite sure the only reason we wouldn’t have lost our heads to an angry mob is that we wouldn’t have had enough people playing the game to actually form one.

As such, we needed a compromise between the two; something that made Skills easier to advance, but without just taking over the mechanic for Talents so that magic would still present an easier method when available (and one that we could possibly make use of at some point in the future). It’s also important to note that at the time of development for 1879, Earthdawn 4th Edition had not yet been completed, so we were relying on 3rd Edition and Classic rules, which stated that you had to use a Talent in order to advance it, and that idea was preserved in the advancement requirements we were writing for 1879.

Thus, we came up with the idea of tags. The idea and intention behind the mechanic was that, rather than having to spend and track weeks of development, a character would advance in Skill as they go. Each time they use a Skill in a scene, they tag the skill, and once they accumulate enough tags, they’re eligible to advance. The amount of tags needed increases the higher the Skill Rank goes, to represent the increased difficulty in reaching higher and higher levels. This also puts the way to advancement focused directly on the action, as you have to actually go out and adventure in order to make use of your Skills so that you can advance them.

For the most part, this does work, and despite some of the issues (which I’ll get into in a moment), I’ve gotten quite a bit of positive feedback in how this functions. Players frequently try to find unique and interesting ways to make use of their Skills in scenes in order to generate tags for them, and anything that makes people think in new and interesting ways I view as a good thing. It’s also made players think carefully about which Skills they select as they advance in order to select ones that are most useful so they’ll be able to generate tags for it, which I also view as a good thing; choice is important in a game, not only for freedom of choice but also in needing to weigh your options so that those choices have weight and relevance.

The issues I’ve heard primarily lie in certain Skills which are particularly useful, but are either very hard to actually use with any regularity, or which require a significant advancement to get a die roll high enough to have it make any sort of impact. The prime example that gets brought up is Life Check. For ease of reference, here are the stats for it (page 208 of the 1879 Player’s Guide):

Life Check
Step: Rank+TOU
Default: No
Action: Free
Karma: No
Strain: 0
Tier: Journeyman
The character gains a last chance to avoid dying. When the character’s Current Damage equals or exceeds their Death Rating, they make a Life Check Test against a base Target Number of 8, plus the difference between their Current Damage and their Death Rating. If successful, they spend a Recovery Test, gaining +1 step per success on the Life Check Test, and reduce their Current Damage by the result. If the character’s Current Damage is reduced below their Death Rating, they have cheated death and survive to adventure another day. This Skill may be used repeatedly in a single scene, as long as the character has Recovery Tests available and does not fail the Test. An ordinary Test failure does not prevent the application of other means that prevent the character from dying. A Rule of One result means that the character has died and is beyond any possible recovery. This Skill cannot be used if the character has no Recovery Tests remaining for the day.

Useful Skill of course, but the problem with needing to use it in order to train is you have to be on the verge of death to actually use it. If your Rank is low because you haven’t been able to train it, you’re also that much more likely to die in the attempt. Considering that defibrillators weren’t invented until 1965, that’s a fairly steep risk to take just to train.

The other primary issue is that, when your advancement mechanic focuses on action, it means you always have to be in the middle of the action in order to advance. While keeping the action moving in game can be a good thing, you do occasionally need a break. Plot lines may need time to develop, certain members of your party may need time to work on a side project which can leave the others with nothing productive to do, or you may simply be traveling from one location to another. All of this could be time spent on something useful if you have a means to do it.

With this in mind, I give you the new introduction in Fort Alice: Training Books!

Training Books
Skill Rating: 1 | 3 | 5
Price: 10s/25d | 15s/30d | £1/10
Availability: Common | Rare | Very Rare
Description: Training books can be utilized in order to learn a new Skill or to help with advancing an existing Skill. Studying a training book for four hours is equivalent to achieving a Tag in that particular Skill. This time can be broken up into smaller segments if needed, but must the four hours must be accumulated within one week of when the reader started in order to keep the information fresh enough in their mind to gain the Tag. If the hours are not accumulated by the time the week is up, the reader must start over from scratch, as they have to have the foundational knowledge in order to progress into later parts.
Training books have Skill Ratings, which, in addition to determining their cost and availability, determine the maximum Skill Rank a reader can train to using this book. Training beyond the Skill Rating of a book requires a book of a higher Rating or natural field experience, and field experience cannot be combined with a book to push this further. A reader cannot purchase three Skill Rating 1 books and hope to be able to train up to Rank 3, nor can an experienced adventurer with a Skill at Rank 4 advance their abilities further with a Skill Rating 3 book. A Rank 1 book covers sufficient information for a reader to gain one Rank in order to learn a new skill, such as an introductory manual on gardening and growing household plants, where as a Rank 5 book will cover more advanced and in-depth topics such as a text book on horticulture.
The availability and useability of books for specific skills and even specific circumstances may be limited. For example, language books for Earth languages are quite common in the Gruv, mainly for Saurids seeking to learn how to speak with Earthers. Higher Skill Rank books for the Saurid language, however, are much more difficult to come by, as there is still quite a bit of learning to be done. Training books for physical abilities, such as combat skills, are not always effective on their own, as one needs to practice the skill in addition to reading about it. Both availability and viability affect books for magical skills, making them extremely hard to come by and requiring actual practice in order to advance. As these circumstances will be highly situational dependent, discretion is left to the GM to determine which skills have books available and how viable they are to utilize in training for advancement. Prices provided are also only a guideline and may be increased for books that are less freely available.

As you’ll probably be able to see from reading through the information, there are still some limitations here, but this covers a lot of the deficiencies run into with the current system while still using the existing mechanic, and most of the remaining limitations are intentional. First, that the rules as written only list training books going up to Rank 5. The intention behind this is that we still want characters to have to go out into the world to adventure in order to advance to more powerful levels; you want the higher stats, you have to put in the grind. It also still requires more effort to increase a Skill than it does to increase a Talent, so that part of the world building theme is preserved in the mechanic (and does keep the option available for us to possibly play with some other ideas with it in a limited capacity in the future). You’ll also notice the time requirements for advancement, particularly that it must be completed within a week of starting if you break it up. I wanted to keep the option to break up the training time so that you could squeeze in efforts to advance in between points of action, but also wanted to make sure it’s balanced that the bookkeeping is kept simple, and that it remains at least somewhat realistic. It’s a hindrance on everyone to try and remember your character read a training book for an hour three months ago while they were traveling and now wants to pick it back up, and also very unlikely they’d actually remember enough with such a small amount of time devoted to it from that long ago. The week deadline is consistent with previous mechanics used in CoreStep, and is a reasonable time frame to keep track of while also being at least somewhat believable. With this pacing, to get a tag within a week, you could spend 30 minutes reading before going to sleep each night and would just need to find 30 more minutes to squeeze in one more reading session; not too difficult for most people to manage, and of course could be sped up if you are able to devote more time to study.

Finally, the rules are left open for GMs to alter availability and usability for certain skills. This is left open intentionally, as different games and groups have different ideas about how much realism they want in their game versus how much they’re willing to hand wave more realistic aspects and hindrances in order to just get straight into the action. Some like the additional challenge that considerations for reality provide, some just want to get to rolling dice. Both are viable and determined personally for what you consider more fun, so it’s left open for you to strike that balance for yourself. This leaves the possibility open of adding goals to a campaign to track down training material for a particular skill, such as exploring a lost temple to find instructions on using a long forgotten magical Skill, wheeling and dealing to purchase one that is particularly expensive, or even plotting a heist to steal one that’s being selfishly horded.

Game Masters are of course also able to make their own rules to expand this if they feel advancement efforts are still too much of a hindrance to game play, and this mechanic can give a basis for making such rules. You could do things like introduce books of higher Ranks or expand this out to training and practice even without books. For example, a GM could decide a character training in a physical Skill used in combat, say Avoid Blow, could spend time in another activity that teaches the same types of muscle memory in order to gain tags toward that Skill.

So, how do you think this introduction will play out in your game? What sort of Skills would you be most interested in finding books for, and what interesting ways can you think of to integrate it into your game? Let us know in the comments and on Discord. And again, if material like this is interesting to you, be sure to back the Kickstarter, as there’s lot more coming up in Fort Alice Sourcebook!

2 thoughts on “1879: Teaching an Old Character New Tricks”

  1. I actually like tags a lot. My biggest point of confusion with skills actually comes in some of the restrictions and wordage in them. The big one is the magic keyword. Take the Safe Path (magic) skill from pg. 216 of the Player’s Guide. Does the magic keyword restrict taking this skill as a Free Skill unless your character comes from a magical background? Or is it mostly flavor? The keyword and the description of the skill clearly involve magic and practices involving spirits that I would think require a magical nature. That said the Pioneer at Warden Tier gets this very skill. The Pioneer is absolutely not a magically inclined class (at least the character I play in my campaign isn’t). I have grown very confused as to the nature of the magic keyword in skills.

    Also with the introduction of skill book mechanics would it be possible for non-magical characters to learn magical skills like Astral Sight?

    1. Similar to Earthdawn, the use of magic isn’t purely restricted to spellcasters (since any type of Talent is inherently magical), though in 1879 it is a much, much more limited capacity. Thematically speaking, magical skills are those that have some sort of supernatural component either in their results or execution, which if not blatantly obvious is delved into through their description. Using your example of Safe Path, it’s described as being accomplished by making contact with a spirit that is local to the area. You could theoretically make a non-magical version of the skill that would net similar results relying on experience to study the geography of the area, studying weather patterns, taking a look at the local flora and fauna, and so on. Mechanically speaking, the only real difference with magical skills compared to non-magical skills at this point in the game development is whether or not they can be dispelled (magical skills that have a duration can be dispelled; non-magical skills with a duration cannot as there is no magic used to be dispelled). We’re leaving it open to have the potential to play with some of these ideas as we develop further into the game line and the mana level eventually rises further, but nothing being put into place at the moment.

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