It’s been a long time now since I first cracked the cover of Skyrealms of Jorune and began my detailed examination of this famously strange game. It’s been a pretty slow news week on the D&D Next front, what can I say? So here we are, in Chapter Two (Creating Your Character) of a book that is far more daunting than its 216 pages would imply.
The chapter starts with a bog-standard introduction to roleplaying and the interpretation of dice. Let me just say that my heart really goes out to anyone whose first experience of a roleplaying game is picking up a copy of Skyrealms of Jorune and trying to make something playable out of that. The mind boggles – it is hard to imagine a game less friendly to new players. A twenty-year veteran of roleplaying games (hint: me) would find the game forbidding. The first-timer section should have said, “Okay, you did the right thing in buying our book, but before you play this game, go play something less complicated, like Champions or maybe D&D with all of the options turned on, and also a towering pile of house rules. Once you’re comfortable with that, come play our game.”
Now, part of the reason I say this is to be snarky. The other reason, though, is that Skyrealms of Jorune goes way out of its way to emphasize the subversion of expectations and default behaviors. Much of the effect is lost if the player doesn’t have at least a few other games (and their underlying expectations) under his belt before starting in on this one. Ironically, the last twenty years or so have also seen geek culture (including a whole lot of roleplaying) pervade pop culture and awareness to a continually surprising degree.
The chapter then recapitulates the descriptions of the PC-playable races, in slightly more approachable terms than used in Chapter One. On the other hand, a player coming into this chapter without having read Chapter One will need to look up a word in the Reference section about once every three to four sentences; the text also drops placenames steadily. I think if they had done about 30% less of that, it would be a great bit of text, seeding a ton of evocative names that would intrigue players for later. As it is, the place-names and setting jargon make the text too dense to really absorb on the first or second reading, and nothing quite hooks me.
Next up is the actual game system information. To explain how bizarrely this is arranged, let me just list out the section headers: characteristics, ranks (this is where dice roll resolution shows up), skills, occupations, other character abilities, basic abilities, occupational classes, skills (again), character background, initial equipment, and character improvement. So I’m going to work my way through this. Strap in, folks. this is a doozy.
There are 12 ability scores in Skyrealms: Constitution, Social (non-magical aspects of Charisma), Color (spellcasting stat, sort of), Isho (the primary spellcasting stat), Strength, Education (I don’t really understand this characteristic; it’s existing knowledge, but separate from the huge number of skills in the game), Learn (ability to gain new knowledge and constructively use the knowledge you have), Agility (moving your hands or center of mass, and ability to improve in athletic and weapon skills), Speed (movement over distance), Aim (both aiming with a ranged weapon, and the rate at which you improve with ranged weapons), Spot, and Listen. Taken in the context of the game’s skills, there’s nothing to suggest why Spot, Listen, or really anything else are characteristics rather than skills; maybe something will turn up as I go through this. Interestingly, the game comes right out and says that humans (who cannot use dyshas, the setting’s version of psionics) don’t need Color or Isho.
Ranks (and dice resolution)
Skyrealms uses a d20 roll-under system; 1s always succeed (even if you have negative ranks in whatever you’re rolling), 20s always fail, and both 1s and 20s explode. Exploding failures are used to determine exactly how egregious your failure is, because all failed rolls have consequences of some kind, but that consequence is based on your level of ability. This means that you really desperately need to not roll anything you’re bad at, because failure is punished, and bad luck compounds itself. Because of the way the game handles scaling difficulty, this makes some strange things happen.
A lot of this post’s analysis is negative, in the balance, but I want to point out something that is both a Pretty Good Idea as well as a missed opportunity. In addition to numerical ratings, skills have adjective ratings (Unfamiliar, Familiar, Experienced, Seasoned) that are derived from the numbers. The numerical threshold for a better descriptor is based on the skill’s difficulty. Each descriptor in turn carries an improved outcome; the step up has a feat-like quality, expanding what the player can accomplish with the skill. It’s a pretty solid idea, except that the improvements are linear, “better at what I was doing anyway” kinds of gains, rather than opening up new applications for skills.
This is a problem: your skill determines what you can really even attempt, unless you want to roll and hope for a critical success (less than a 5% chance). Some skills handle this well – for example, the Pick Locks skill improves the time required to pick an easy lock from 5-10 minutes at Familiar down to “a matter of seconds” at Seasoned – just the kind of thing that D&D would handle with a feat, class ability, or very high DC. The particularly bad case shows up in knowledge skills of various kinds – since the skill doesn’t have much to give beyond positive identification of a object or phenomenon, low skill levels probably fail and, when they succeed, don’t accomplish anything interesting, as they were never able to succeed at gaining detailed or unusual information. For some reason, D&D’s way of handling this – setting a DC that a character can’t reach even on a good roll – feels clearer, less prohibitive, to me.
The game’s approach to character creation, at least, means that new characters might start off with a decent value in a variety of skills, based on their Occupation. The Occupations are a mix of invented Skyrealms words and English words, which overall just makes it harder to navigate and choose between them. Now, right off the bat, I want to say that the listed Occupational Classes might or might not be balanced, but the presentation of the information makes that very hard to discern. Even the broadest of them don’t grant points in even a fifth of the game’s 102 core skills (to say nothing of its 50-or-so extra skills to govern Isho use). Still, there are so many skills, and of such specificity, that missing about half of those skills won’t ever come up in play, since players won’t be actively looking for chances to employ them. (Hearkening back to my last post on knowledge skills – how many Sholari do you think are going to hang a lot of storylines on Geology?)
On top of this, you get rank points to distribute based on your ability scores: Education x3 for one class of skills, your Agility score for another, Education x3 for yet another, and (Education – Occupation cost) x3 for the everything-else class of skills. Oh, wait, now it looks like I didn’t understand how to increase skill descriptors? It’s confusing as hell. I mean, I realize that information presentation is an art form unto itself, and one that roleplaying games perform with absolutely famous ineptitude, but this is beyond the pale.
Part of the reason that there are quite so many skills in Skyrealms is that several of them are listed twice: once for the lay person’s understanding and once for “Iscin skills,” doctoral-level study of arts and sciences. These are extremely hard to gain, improve, or (for most of them) use in any particular way. Their inclusion says a lot about how the game’s creators envisioned gameplay. They imagine characters who are completely integrated into the fabric of society (more on this later) and, while possibly skilled with weapons, would never really consider continuing a fight to the death (this is specifically called out later).
The excessive specificity of the game’s skills – there are six different Animal Handling skills, and every in-game language is a separate skill – is still not quite the most extreme case I’ve seen, though this particular application is among the most graceless. The advancement mechanics make this all the worse, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
As I’ve suggested above, the game cares deeply about anchoring characters in Jorune’s society – where they come from, who their parents are (this grants skill ranks), why they left home (if they left home), who their friends are (“number of friends” is actually a derived statistic with a functional range of 1-4 – this doesn’t include other PCs), quirks, racist tendencies, a previous adventure, siblings, city of origin, topic of interest, physical description, and an optional bonus for writing a character history. It’s pretty normal, and I appreciate the desire to attach characters to the setting. The worst I can say about it is that it goes into deep detail on odd things, but overall it’s fine.
The next section is all about gear: normal items, mounts, weapons, armor, and so on. The section throws another huge number of invented words at the reader. Once again, if one is not already completely conversant in the setting’s words, it’s overwhelming and very hard to absorb useful information. There are also a small number of important mechanical stats sprinkled in, but by no means all of the mechanical information on each weapon and armor. These details are, of course, not repeated later in the book with the rest of the stats. Also, the time to string a bow is several times longer than a normal combat – but I’ll get into the bizarre chaos of the game’s action economy in a future post. The text also strongly discourages players from carrying several of the weapons by noting how socially unacceptable they are. This strikes me as strange in a society that establishes adventuring as the path to citizenship.
This is the last section I’m going to cover in this post – the last page-and-a-half of Chapter Two. The game doesn’t use character levels, being entirely skill-driven. Instead of tracking advancement in all 102 skills at once (oh, did I mention that Isho skills have their own independent advancement rules?), the character’s stats allow them to declare from 1-6 Foci – so if you’re expecting a lengthy campaign, make sure your Learn score is as high as possible. Only Focus skills can advance at all, and the character must use them successfully in order for them to advance.
This would be fine, except that characters have so many Unfamiliar (0 or 1 rank) skills that they might want to advance – earning a success in any of those would be prohibitively difficult unless the character finds a way to fail-without-cost repeatedly, for multiple sessions. Attainment points for successful use are awarded per-session – that is, successfully using a skill twice in a session is no better than using it once. The Attainment Points earned increase geometrically each session: 1d6 in the first qualifying session, 2d6 in the next, and so on, until you actually spend them to try to increase a skill. You have the best chance to improve very low skills, but that just means you’re not taking penalties to your attribute check to actually gain a rank.
The geometric increase in Attainment Points encourages players not to test for a rank increase as soon as possible, but to wait until they can pay the Attainment Point cost two or more times over – since that geometric increase starts over again from scratch once you test for a rank increase, regardless of whether or not you succeed. The printed example for skill increase is probably wrong; at the very least it makes no sense and seems to contradict the paragraph before it. Overall this is a convoluted system that set out to solve some of its own problems, and asks the player to make strategic decisions about advancement. The text trumpets this with a bizarre moon language sentence: “The player had the guts to pull it all together — to let luck play on his side of the table.” I really don’t like asking players to make risk-evaluation decisions about when and how they advance, since there’s not even a hint of in-play aspect to the decision-making and it kind of contradicts the fiction.
The player also gains Miscellaneous Attainment Points, which turn out to be the solution to the problem of advancing Unfamiliar skills: up to 12 points per session, plus another d6 points if the player keeps a written journal. Even the existence of these Miscellaneous Attainment Points is easy to overlook – I had gone over the whole section several times before I saw it, but these are pretty much real experience points, excepting only that you can’t spend them on very high-value skills – those have to be a Focus to advance, and the rules ambiguously explain that very high-value skills have a very low chance of advancement. You’ll want to have enough Attainment Points to check at least five or six times, since the odds of improving a skill up in the 15+ range is probably about 5%.
There’s also a means to improve characteristics (that is, ability scores), though the odds are terrible: a 1% chance anytime you increase a skill, or a 25% chance if you spend two of your precious Focus slots on a characteristic for a year of in-game time. The text comes out and says this isn’t a very good idea.
This section is a mess. The apparent goal is to have an entirely skill-based system where advancement depends on use, but campaigns can go on for quite a long time without characters simply maxing out. They accomplish this by encouraging (through geometric increase) patience between attempts to advance. The chance of increasing a skill starts out reasonably high, but bottoms out at a certain point. One imagines players choosing to change up their Focus skills just for the sake of having something to advance that isn’t so frustrating. Still, the game purports to care more about being productive members of society than about being heroes who stand above the crowd, so players are probably well-advised to invest more in the character’s goals and social position than in their stats.
Skyrealms of Jorune is actually an adaptation from someone’s D&D game, from what I’ve read, but this part reads a lot more like someone wanted to convert Chaosium’s BRP rules (roll-under, skill-based, advance-through-use) from d% to d20s, but in doing so they had to solve some granularity issues. Then they had two other problems: they wanted Learn to matter in a big way, and they didn’t want to track Attainment Points on 102 different skills. The decision-making that goes into Foci and Attainment Points really spoils it, though, as well as the highly random nature of advancement – characters in the same party that start about even in power are likely to diverge as the game goes on, and only the extreme diminishing returns of high-end skills brings this back into balance. In all, Skyrealms shows off a lot of the things about game design in the ’80s and ’90s that we would just as soon forget. A skill-based, advance-on-use system is still a reasonable goal, though, so this game shows how awkward that can get.