Skills That Aren't Skills

I’ve been watching a lot of B-movies lately, and it’s shown me something about characters.  Sometimes you can get insights into story writing by seeing it done in a really awkward way.

Take Deathstalker (who is pretty much everything you could hope for in a B movie fantasy hero) as an example; he has high ranks in Riding, Sword Fighting, and Fast Talk… but the traits that really make him Deathstalker aren’t so much the “things he can do” as they are the things about him.

Here’s an example of what I mean: one of the things about Deathstalker is that if a female character needs him to help or rescue her, chances are she’s a princess.  For a big twist, sometimes she’s a princess in disguise.  By the third movie, he’s even joking about it.  So, if Deathstalker was a PC, he’d probably have the ability “Always Gets Mixed Up With Princesses.”  The player would roll it whenever a female NPC got introduced, and if it succeeded, what do you know, she turns out to be a princess. 

OK, but how can “Always Gets Mixed Up With Princesses” be an ability?  Abilities should be things like sword fighting and pickpocketing, shouldn’t they?  Well, on the really basic level, character abilities are really story-influencers.  When a player rolls a die, he’s choosing to influence the story by means of that particular skill/ability.  Similarly, if a player invests in sword fighting, it’s because he wants to influence the story by sword fighting the villains – as opposed to, say, influencing the story by pickpocketing their stuff. 

So choosing character abilities is basically a matter of “I want to play a character who…”  And if someone wants to play a character who gets mixed up with princesses, why stop him?  Always Gets Mixed Up With Princesses works the same way as Sword Fighting, as a story-influencer – except that it influences where the story goes next rather than influencing the outcome of the current encounter.

Now, won’t all that disrupt whatever backstory the GM’s got planned?  Not really.  What was that female NPC going to ask the players for, anyway?  Probably to go on a quest to help her people.  (or, if she wasn’t going to, someone else would have – and the request could be easily transferred to her)  So now the princess-ified NPC will ask them to go on a quest to help her people – except she’ll probably be more bossy about it and insist on going with them; the cash reward will be bigger, and the potential for NPC romance will be intensified. 

That’s easy for you – just keep your same quest, but play this NPC like princess characters you’ve seen in movies! – but it can be huge for the player.  Say the player was really hoping to help out a princess in this campaign (and if he’s modeling his character after Deathstalker, that’s a safe bet).  This is a huge wish-come-true for him, and you know GMGenie is all about granting wishes.

Having these “meta-story” abilities, or “skills that aren’t skills,” can really give your players a chance to make the story their own.  And when you think about it, lots of B-movie characters do have silly abilities like “Can Always Find A Rope To Swing On,” or “Avoids Getting Shot By Just Running Real Fast.”  Now sure, those things aren’t really abilities – they’re cheesy writing.  But they are also things that characters do, and players, above all, want to influence the story by doing things that characters do. 

Letting them have a few of these “cheesy writing” abilities will let them steer the story a little without letting them take it over, it will keep you on your toes as a GM, and it will take the story places you never imagined. 

Come back Thursday for my experimental Deathstalker character sheet!

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