Tuesday, June 21, 2011

House Rule: The Aliens Skill

Some of you might recall that, in my long rant about the Crafts skill, I briefly wondered if that particular skill hadn’t been added to the system for the sole purpose of having a nice, well-rounded list of twelve skills (as opposed to an “ugly, uneven eleven”). Now, after two full seasons of DWAITAS-running, I think I’ll fill this twelfth skill niche with a more directly useful and Who-esque candidate – a skill called Aliens.

What would it cover? Well, essentially, knowledge of alien beings in general, with areas of expertise covering specific cultures or races (e.g. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans etc). In fact, I’m pretty sure I read on a DWAITAS-related forum or newsboard the initial draft of the game included an Alien Cultures skill, which was eventually subsumed into Knowledge, as shown in the description of this skill (see Gamemaster’s Guide, p 27), perhaps to make the skill list more tightly-packed, to give Knowledge more pizzazz or (who knows?) to make space for that darned Crafts skill.

So, if the DWAITAS designers decided to subsume aliens into general Knowledge, why should we choose to go the other way? Well, simply because including aliens into Knowledge does not make that much sense, when you come to think of it. Why? Don’t worry – I won’t go into a long rant about this (I’m pretty sure you already had enough with the one on the Crafts skill, not to mention my various posts on Story points). I’ll limit my argument to what we might call the Bookworm Paradox: if alien cultures are covered by Knowledge, then characters with a high Knowledge skill (such as academics and other scholars) will always have a better instinctive grasp of alien cultures than characters who should logically possess such knowledge, like UNIT officers or Torchwood operatives - unless we assume that such characters all have a very high Knowledge skill, which is obviously not the case.

Sure, the description of the Knowledge skill explicitly states that alien cultures should not be available as areas of expertise for beginning characters – but if we follow the rules as written, NOT having an area of expertise does not give you any sort of disadvantage. In other words, any character could, at least in theory, apply his Knowledge skill to alien matters, regardless of his actual experience or background; sure, the GM can always call on common sense here but wouldn’t it better to have a simple, clean rule here instead of having to make arbitrary decisions – especially for a topic which may have such a significant incidence in play?

So how do we avoid the Bookworm Paradox? Simply by making Aliens a separate skill, not available to beginning characters, unless they happen to be Torchwood agents, UNIT operatives, Time Lords or other characters who might reasonably have access to such special knowledge.

The Knowledge skill should only cover general knowledge – which is why, for instance, fields of study like Science and Medicine get their own specific skill – and this “general knowledge” should always be understood as pertaining to the character’s culture of origin – which is why knowledge of alien cultures should be treated as a separate skill. This approach simply removes the aforementioned Bookworm Paradox: earthborn academic are no longer potential founts of alien knowledge, while Torchwood or UNIT agents no longer have to be walking encyclopedias to know their Daleks from their Cybermen.

Speaking of the Knowledge skill, it should be noted that the “contents” of this skill tends to vary a lot from character to character: having a Knowledge skill of 5, for instance, does not mean the same thing if you are an Elizabethan scholar or a 21st century academic. Thus, Knowledge is what we might call a “relative” skill – one whose actual contents (in terms of information and, well, knowledge) varies according to each character’s background and culture of origin. This is evidently the simplest way to handle such things in game terms without resorting to over-specialized knowledge skills. And since this ‘relative approach’ already applies to Knowledge, there is no reason why it shouldn’t apply to our Aliens skill too: a character’s Knowledge skill should always be associated with his culture of origin, with the Aliens skill covering the cultures of other species. In other words, a Time Lord raised on Gallifrey would use his Aliens skill to know facts about Earth history or human civilizations, while his Knowledge skill would cover Gallifreyan culture and history.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Tech Levels.