Having promised it in comments, here is my attempt to put forward a very simple, balanced, and pretty much entirely skill-based d20 system. In keeping with previous entries on this topic, it aims to:

  • amalgamate combat, magic and skills under a single compatible skill-based framework
  • get rid of saving throws
  • make armour a damage reduction system

After 20 or so sessions testing my previous attempt at this system, and after playing Exalted, the main things this iteration aims to add are

  • a unified system of damage which extends the wounds and fatigue framework from the previous version and makes it more flexible and useful, including for social attacks a la Exalted
  • a balancing of primary and secondary skills, so that there is never a risk that, like Anna Labrousse, your primary attack is +21 but you have defenses as low as +2

So here’s how it works.

Ability scores

We have the same standard 6 ability scores, ordered in this way: Constitution, Strength, Intelligence, wisdom, Dexterity, Charisma. The ability scores are represented as bonusses only, with a standard human considered to be +0 in everything, heroes having a total distributed bonus of +2. There are no ability scores per se. It will become apparent that we could do away with ability scores altogether, but for historical and aesthetic reasons we won’t.

Skills

We have 6 primary skills, one for each ability, and 6 secondary skills, one for each ability. So each PC has a Constitution (Primary) and a Constitution(Secondary) skill which, as in d20, have a total adjustment calculated as ranks+ability score+magic.

For starters, assume that every primary skill increases by 1 rank per level, and every secondary skill by 1 rank every 2 levels. We could then have points to distribute across both, but that’s just window dressing for diversity. Assume for now 1 point per 3 levels to distribute across primary skills and 1 per 4 levels for secondary skills; assume a maximum rank of lvl+2 for primary and lvl/2+1 for secondary skills.

For example, a 12th level character will have 12 ranks in every primary skill, and 6 in every secondary. They then have an additional 4 points to distribute on primaries and 3 on secondaries; let’s assume 2 primary skills are maxed at rank 14, and there are 3 secondary skills at rank 7. Obviously this is just accounting and can be fiddled for balance.

Disciplines

Each ability has four disciplines, which are: offense, defense, use, state. At first level, a PC starts with four disciplines across all abilities, and can spend feats at later levels to purchase more. If a PC possesses a discipline, then all actions covered by it are resolved using a primary skill for the corresponding ability; otherwise use secondary. So for example, a fighter has offense and defense in strength. When attacking with a melee weapon the fighter uses their primary strength skill; but without offense in dexterity, this fighter will use dexterity secondary skill to attack with missile weapons. Some classic discipline distributions at first level might be

  • Fighter: strength offense, defense; constitution state; charisma state
  • Wizard: intelligence offense, state, use: dexterity defense

Some disciplines will have requirements for their use. Strength defense will require the PC have medium/heavy armour and a shield; constitution defense will require heavy armour and a medium/heavy weapon and/or shield. The disciplines also come with proficiencies, so dexterity offense comes with a proficiency in a single missile weapon of they player’s choice.

The state discipline determines which skill (primary or secondary) is used to determine the maximum wounds a character can take against the corresponding ability before suffering a corresponding penalty. So a fighter with constitution state discipline takes a maximum number of wounds equal to their primary skill in constitution.

Wounds

Wounds incurred against an ability apply a penalty to all skills for abilities at or below the given ability in the order given above. So constitution wounds apply  a penalty to all skills for all abilities; dexterity wounds only apply to dexterity and charisma-related skills. When the number of wounds a PC has taken equal the total of their state score, they suffer a specific state: dying for constitution, unconscious for strength, confusion for intelligence, rage for wisdom, knocked down for dexterity, and, well I’m not sure for charisma but for the moment let’s call it susceptible.

We can construe most standard penalties as wounds. Armour penalties are dexterity wounds. You can’t wear armour that applies a penalty greater than your dexterity state skill will allow, and wearing armour applies a penalty to all charisma-based skills as well, i.e. to all social interactions. It’s hard to pull chicks in full plate. Feeblemind can be construed as intelligence wounds, which means that wisdom-, dexterity-, and charisma-based skills also suffer. It’s hard to do anything requiring judgement, fine motor skills or charming people if you’ve been rendered dumber than you’re used to being.

Charisma wounds are slightly special. If you have charisma wounds they obviously make it hard to resist charm and intimidation-type effects, but they can also be construed as applying a penalty or bonus (depending on the situation) to combat checks against the people who caused the wounds – this is an effect of fear. Also, constitution-based wounds could be considered as wounds against charisma when the person who caused the constitution-based wounds attempts to intimidate the injured party. Once a person has sustained their total in charisma wounds, they’re considered to be unable to act against the person who caused the wounds, and susceptible to further suggestion/intimidation from others. I’m not sure how this would work in practice, but possibly it would mean they can’t apply special social powers to defend against intimidation/charm attempts, and can only take 10 on defensive attempts. Constitution and strength wounds should be seen as bonuses rather than penalties in defenses against non-intimidation checks by the person who inflicted them,

Consequences of this are:

  • Bashing someone helps you to intimidate them but if you subsequently try to bluff or persuade them, the amount of damage you did will be added to their defensive skill check against you
  • Talking to someone before battle in a way that is intended to question their allegiance or scare them (through intimidation) will do charisma-based wounds that are then incurred as a penalty in battle – propaganda, intimidatory displays, and reputation can all work in this way
  • Trying to use diplomacy when you’re pissing blood from multiple wounds generally won’t work, because they give a penalty (but in some circumstances the wound total could be construed as a bonus)
  • Spells like confusion can be partially successful, and there’s a natural mechanic for determining the effects of casting multiple partially successful charm, confusion or fear spells.

Saves

All saves are handled by the appropriate defense discipline for the appropriate attribute, based on the situation. So dodging falling rubble is a dexterity defense, resisting a bard’s attempts to get you to kill yourself is a charisma defense, and so on.

Skill resolution

Ordinary skill-based tasks use the appropriate primary or secondary skill corresponding to an ability’s use discipline (so swimming is strength use, etc.) Target DCs can be determined based on how you want performance to work, so for example if you want a 1st level character to do an easy task 50% of the time and a 5th level character to do a medium task 50% of the time, the appropriate DCs are probably 15 and 20 respectively. These DCs (and the skill points per level, too) can be adjusted for low/high skill or heroic campaigns.

Spells

Spells are cast using the appropriate use discipline against a DC determined by the spell level, and attacks are resolved using the appropriate offense vs defense challenges, with the outcome determining the number of wounds applied. Spells can have various maximums, with a recommended maximum being caster level. A spell like charm person will be assumed not to work if it does less damage than the target’s charisma state; perhaps a spell can have a higher DC in order to bypass the wound mechanic and give a guaranteed effect. So save vs. death is just a higher-level version of inflict wounds. A caster can know that partial success with charm person repeated multiple times will charm their opponent, and the partial success will reduce their effectiveness.

Spell resolution can be sped up by combining use and attack rolls. In either resolution method (1 or 2 die rolls), failure to beat the DC leads to a single wound incurred against the chosen state discipline, which then applies a penalty to all subsequent spell use (and attributes lower in the attribute order). Failure to beat the target (DC-lvl) leads to spell failure plus a wound.

Different magic domains may have different required disciplines, so bardic magic uses charisma, cleric magic uses wisdom, and so on. A cleric who casts too many spells becomes enraged (my god has left me), a wizard becomes confused (my brain has fried) and a bard becomes an antisocial jerk, easily frightened, intimidated or seduced (i have exhausted my charms).

See the section below for taking 10 on defense.

Combat

Combat is a challenged skill check, offense discipline vs. defense, with the difference between the rolls, minus damage reduction from armour, determining the amount of wounds of damage done by the attacker. This damage will have a maximum determined by the weapon, probably capping at about 5 for a 2-handed sword. If the difference is zero or negative the armour is assumed to have absorbed all damage but the target takes a single strength wound.

To speed up combat (and spell-casting if necessary) the defender can be assumed to be only able to take 10 if they also want to attack, so the attacker rolls vs. a DC equal to 10 plus the defender’s appropriate defense skill. The dodge feat will enable the defender to roll for this DC at the beginning of the round, and choose the maximum of 10 or the dice roll. This mechanism can be applied to magic too.

Social combat example

Consider the case of a noted cleric trying to convince the local guardsmen not to attack a witch. The cleric rolls her charisma offense against their defense, and the difference is damage against their state. Failure could, under some circumstances (such as in a debate) be construed as damage to the cleric’s state, representing being swayed to their point of view. Let us further suppose they’re in a wagon going to the witch’s house, and the journey takes 30 minutes. Each persuasion attempt takes 10 minutes, so the cleric has 3 attempts to do enough damage to the guards to render them susceptible. Once susceptible, they can be assumed to do what she wants within reason (reason being determined by the context, the nature of the arguments the player decides the cleric uses, etc.) Critical success could represent a change of worldview by the guards, or some additional outcome (they guard the witch against her true enemy, etc.). Suppose by the time they reach the witch’s house the cleric has been unsuccessful, but has damaged them all with 3 charisma wounds. At the house, the cleric’s companions lie in ambush. When the guards begin to break down the door they attack, and because the guards have taken 3 charisma wounds these are applied as a penalty on the guards’ actions – they’re no longer committed to their task. Let us suppose that the guards all have charisma state values of 5. As soon as any guard takes 2 wounds, fatal or non-fatal, we will assume that these wounds stack with the charisma wounds, and the GM can choose either a) they flee the battle or b) they will stand down as soon as the cleric tells them to (but the cleric has to notice and choose to do so).

That’s the whole system in a nutshell.

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