The Subjective Nature of Skill Rolls

by mshrm

The GURPS rules largely exempt PCs from being manipulated by others’ social skills. Perhaps because of this, I’m seeing a different class of skill being used for intrigue among the PCs. I’m not sure what to call them – In fact, that’s why I’m writing this particular post, to work through and organize my thoughts about the matter – but they seem to be the skills that involve a contest.

The most common example would be the regular pouch-snatching, where there’s a contest of the thief’s skill against the Perception of any observers. (According to the Rules As Written, the thief should be using Filch, but I made the decision early on to fold that skill in with Pickpocket. Perhaps an error on my part, now that I think of it with the benefit of hindsight…) Given a high enough level of skill, the thief can pretty much count on getting that purse. As we’ve seen, though, when circumstances conspire to raise the observers’ Perception score, as with Mississippi Jed’s PER+Magery roll to see magic when Needles lifted the ogre’s pouch, it’s not always a sure thing.

Another example came up during discussion, as a pure hypothetical. Like most of our hypothetical discussions, it concerned PC-on-PC crime. The question was, could Jed be trusted to sell off the loot? If he left with the goods, and returned with cash, how could the others know he hadn’t pocketed much of the proceeds already? One of the other PCs offered to simply go along and keep an eye on him. That put the kibosh on any intricate plan to just stick the money in his own pocket, but… Jed has the Merchant skill, and the observer doesn’t. What if he gets tricky, as con-men are wont to do?

Well, I reasoned, if Jed were to go out of his way to perform some white-collar crime (as a sideline to the more blue-collar crime that the entire party engages in, as a regular thing), and wanted to conceal it, we’d be talking about a contest of Merchant versus Merchant. Likely IQ-based for the con-man, and PER-based for the observer. (I dunno, I could see IQ-based for the observer as well, if it matters.) At that point, considering the relative effective skills, either the dice gods speak an unlikely judgement, or Jed wins and takes the money.

What would this look like?  Any transaction more complicated than “same time, man, I don’t know you!“, I would say. Once the two hagglers start talking about delivery fees, and handling, and points*, and… well, let’s just say they can snow an unskilled observer.

A skilled magician can fool the untrained eye. As far as the person watching is concerned, that coin vanished. They could swear in court that that is what they saw. Because their PER roll couldn’t beat the magician’s Sleight of Hand.

A ninja assassin creeps up behind her target. Contest of Stealth vs Perception. When the ninja wins the contest, the target never knows what hit him.

In combat, there’s the Feint. If the rolls go against you, you don’t know you’re being set up until it’s too late.

There was actually a great example that came up, over and over, in the Space Cowboys game, and it even had to do with the Merchant skill:  when the PC goes out to do wheelin’ and dealin’, that PC almost always comes back thinking it was a job well done. He took the deal, after all. If you know the contract is going to screw you over, you don’t sign! It’s only in time, if at all, that the PC might notice that he lost the contest of Merchant after all, and let the cargo go for less than the going rate… even if the player knows immediately that he rolled a critical failure.

No matter what the skill, there’s a point where the expert can just overwhelm the layman. There’s a point where the layman just can’t tell the difference between “this is over my head” and “this is bogus”. In GURPS terms, we find that point with a contest of skills.

Revisiting the question of an unskilled observer keeping an eye on Jed, who’s out to line his pockets at the expense of the group**:  what’s the observer to do?  Sure, he could step in and put a stop to anything he doesn’t understand, but then, at best, we’re talking about using the observer’s Merchant skill with Jed’s reaction bonus. I’d have to be feeling really generous to allow that, even. More likely, in that situation, I would say it’s really the observer who’s attempting the roll, so it’s the observer’s stats that count… but with a -1 or -2 penalty for the annoying backseat driving.  Imagine two bankers trying to negotiate a mortgage deal while one is constantly interrupted by a kid saying “I don’t understand that” and “Why don’t you just do this”.

If they want to reap the benefits of the high skill, they have to give that PC a free hand to operate. A character with a skill of 18 is going to do things that the character with a skill of 6 never thought of. The character with the 18 might even do things that the character with a 6 knows as mistakes!  (“Don’t try this at home, kids. We’re experts.”) But, then, by definition, this means that the actions of the character with 18 can’t be followed by the character with 6.

Even if one PC can’t Fast-Talk another, they can still manipulate one another. They just have to manipulate each other’s subjective reality, by controlling the available information. If you never see it, if you never perceive it, it doesn’t exist for you.

* Please keep in mind, all of this is just fluffy background for a Quick Contest of Merchant. I’m not at all advocating any sort of complex financial arrangements in Dungeon Fantasy. Personally, I’m pondering on how much further streamlining of the loot-selling process I want to do…

** Also keep in mind that, to my knowledge, Jed hasn’t actually done anything like this, nor really offered to do anything like this. As far as I know, he was playing as straight as a crooked man can… until the party mentioned how they had whacked his former partner. I’m not sure what his mental state is, after that.