Keeping It Simple - Training & skills

In my earlier post about setting target numbers in RPGs, I said that the method I'd come up with might break down when skills are assumed to include some specialist training:

Fixed difficulties can make it hard to model tasks that require advanced training.
For example, if someone wants to open a lock, the GM might think "This is just an ordinary door in a house - the lock is nothing special. I'll make it an average task, 'cause the lock is just an average object." However, this would mean that an untrained person with a decent Dexterity could open the lock with a few tries - not very realistic. 
D&D and many other d20 games deal with this by saying that some skills cannot be used untrained - if you've not invested your skill points in the skill, you just can't do it.
Me, I don't like that so much, as it adds another level of look-up: which skills are prohibited to untrained characters? It's not always intuitive.
... and I promised I'd provide my solution. Well, it's a been a little while (ahem), but here it is.

Do we think this task requires special knowledge?

Usually, this is a yes / no question, and the answer is clear. 

For example, climbing is an innate skill of  human (and other humanoids, depending on your game setting) - yes, skill makes us better at it, but anyone with sufficient mobility can climb. 
Similarly jumping, running, and other raw motor skills. 
Also fighting - we can all fight to some extent, even if that just means flailing the limbs wildly and hoping. 

On the other hand, can you try electronic engineering without knowledge? Not so much.

When there is doubt about whether a skill needs knowledge and training, make a decision for the particular skill check, and move on. After the game, think the decision over - was it right? Don't get stuck on little things during the game itself.

Not knowing the topic imposes a penalty

Once we've decided that special knowledge is required for a given skill check, then we think about whether you know that stuff.

That's easy - make a Knowledge check to know the topic. And because we've already set target numbers for skill checks, we only have to decide if the Knowledge is Easy, Average, Hard, Heroic, or Epic.

For complex systems and tasks (like retro-fitting a turbo to an engine, or deciphering a dead language), we can require multiple Knowledge checks, or higher success. 
For example,  "What are all these symbols?" is an Average task, "Knowing these symbols, what happens when they're arranged like this?" is an Average task, or a Hard task if it's your first roll (so you skip a stage of the process); and it's a Heroic task to establish that "I recognise this arrangement of symbols on sight."

Outside knowledge can be influential, too - in a modern game ,there's loads of information available almost all the time. Does the PC have a manual or some sort of instructions for the task, for example? Then we can allow this to take the place of a Knowledge check success, but probably at a slower pace.

But what does success mean? We're buying off penalties here. If you know little about mechanics, it'll be hard to fix an engine, but it's not impossible - a heroically intelligent PC might be able to figure it out with hard work and perseverance. So we're not changing the DC of the task - the task is the task, it will always have the same DC. What's changing is the PC's understanding of the task.

Setting the penalty

How hampered by a lack of Knowledge will you be in this task? Again, because we've already set a bunch of standard adjustment levels using natural language, this should be easy to decide. Is it a Minor, Major, or Extreme problem? You can decide this from your own experience, or use the Difficulty level to give you a clue to what's appropriate - lack of Easy or Average Knowledge will generally be a Minor penalty, Hard would be Major, and Heroic or Epic would be Extreme.

So if the Knowledge check is failed, it may not be the end of your task attempt - you might only be faced with a Minor penalty. Or it could be Extreme. 

For extended complicated systems, you might be able to work out things as you go along examining the problem. That'll let you make new Knowledge checks after starting. So you can start trying to buy down that penalty to something more manageable - all of which will take in-game time.

That's it

Decide: does this skill check require special knowledge?
Set the Knowledge DC, or DCs for complex tasks.
Set the penalty for lack of knowledge.
Decide: do we allow new Knowledge checks as the task progresses.


Fantastic Toponymy: Inventing Place Names

When we invent a place for a game, we need to name it. We can just mash together some syllables until they sound cool, or we can try to make a name that seems to have history, that sound natural and hints at the culture of the place by using real elements from real cultures. Or if we're really adventurous, we can invent sounds that have invented meaning, and use those to build our place names - like Tolkien famously did.

"Toponymy" is the naming of places, from the Greek "topos" place and "onoma", name. The places all around the Old World have names that have developed over centuries or millennia- names usually derived from a simple description of the place.

The New World, by contrast, is named far more recently, with names that are usually simple, current language terms that are easily understood, or native names perhaps spelled poorly by the settlers. Both follow similar conventions once you look into the language.

Reflecting culture

Where is this place you're naming? What are the people there like? Are this a place of familiar, homely folk, or do you want to invoke a feeling of "otherness" about your invented place?

The names of the British Isles are familiar sounding to we English speakers (even those outside the UK). They can seem homely, even rustic and Olde Worlde (especially to those outside the UK!).

Similarly, the names of other nations' places, made up as they are by different language elements, can seem foreign, but familiar - "Porto Nova" reflects that it's inhabitants speak some Mediterranean, Romance language, so we have a handle on the sort of culture we might find there, just from the name.

A place called "Klak'amtuu" or "Shissiissii" tells us that this is a culture we are not familiar with.

Be careful not to just borrow real world names directly for your fantasy locations, though. Those have cultural baggage that you probably don't want in your game.
Of course, if you deliberately want to bring in the implications of a real-world name to your game, that's up to you - just be sure you're aware of them!
Calling your pseudo-Britain "Albion" (as in the popular CRPG Fable) is fine if you include all the people of Great Britain - the Cornish, English, Scottish and Welsh), but not so good if you just treat them all as English. We have whole political parties here in the UK dedicated to independence for those nations.

Settlements and other places 

Since you're reading this in English, I'll start by looking at English place names.

Nottingham is a worn-down version of "Snotta-ingas-ham", meaning the settlement ("-ham") of the people ("-ingas") of Snotta (a Danish chieftan). That "-ingham" ending is all over England.
Canterbury is from "Cantware-burgh", meaning the Kentish ("Cantware-") Stronghold ("-burgh"). Again, that "-bury" ending, and the related "-burg", "-borough", and "-burgh" ending are all over the British Isles.

So armed with this knowledge, your invented place could be called Notesbury ("Snotta's Stronghold"), or Cantingham ("Settlement of the people of Kent") - some other combination from the name elements appropriate to the culture.

There are plenty of resources for such elements of British place names on the web, so I won't just reproduce a list here.

Similarly, you can find that sort of list for other cultures: Here's a list for Japanese place names, and a short list for Maghreb toponyms.

From these examples, you can see that place names tend to be derived from a few common parts:
  • geographical feature (river, hill, valley, forest, etc)
  • type of settlement (farm, fort, village, town, etc)
  • direction or position (north, south, upper, middle, etc)
  • person of note (founder or clan leader, saint, etc)
  • description (dark, cold, red, windy, etc)
It can be helpful to make up a plain English name with such elements, and then translate it into whatever language is appropriate - for example: Hill Fort Town might be "Lawtonbury" in pseudo-Britian, or "Okajo Machi" in pseudo-Japan.

Country and regional names 

Nations and regions are often named for who lives (or lived) there (usually this is the name given to the place by its inhabitants), or a descriptor of the region (usually this is a name given by outsiders to the region).

Thus we get Scotland, the land of the Scots; France, named for the Franks; and Afghanistan the place of ("-istan") the Afghans, and so on.
While on the other hand we get Cameroon, the land of shrimp (Portuguese "Camaroes", via French "Cameroun"), from the abundance of shrimp found by European explorers in the Wouri River; and Wales, named by the Saxons for the foreigners ("Welisc") who lived there.

This can be useful - dual names for a place can help show historical enmity between the natives and the outsiders who imposed the other name.

Here's a list of country names and etymologies - and a list of regional names for places within countries that aren't on the former list.

You can see from those lists that national names - in the Old World - tend to be derived from a few common elements:
  • people's or tribal name (Franks, Angles, Danes, Sicels, etc)
  • description of people (foreigners, bearded ones, etc)
  • geographical description (green, forest, mountainous, etc)
  • place indicator (place, land, home, etc)
So again using your language of choice to reflect the culture you want to imply, you can name your region in a similar manner to settlements and places, but using these elements.

Geographical feature names

The great geographic features of the land were often named long long ago, in languages far removed from everyday. The new folk invading or colonising a place would just use the local name, not knowing or soon forgetting what it meant.
The River Avon in England means the "River River" - "avon" is derived from an ancient British word for river.

Alternately, the name may be clear and descriptive in the current common language - the Misty Mountains in Tolkien's Middle Earth, for example.

Features like mountains, rivers, lakes, marshes, and headlands will usually include some element that means just that - "mountain", "river", "lake", etc. Together with that element, there will usually be another part that simply describes the feature - "misty", "dark", "wide", or similar - or perhaps the name of a person or tribe.

Once again, we end up with the same sort of naming method, choosing from a this set of word elements.

Alien and bizarre places

To suggest a strange an exotic place, you can use language elements the players will not be familiar with, or invented languages like Klingon, or Quenya - or even your own invented gibberish sounds.

So in Middle Earth, we have Imladris, meaning "Cloven Valley" for Rivendell, and and Hithaeglir meaning literally "Towers of Mist" for Misty Mountains.

One could with relative ease invent a range of place name word element and use them consistently for a new culture. This could work particularly well in contrast with a region of familiar sounding names - for example, Crick Hollow, Buckland, Chetwood, and Weathertop giving way to Khazad-dum, Lothlorien, Gondor and Cirith Gorgul as we progress further away from the homely Shire with Frodo and Company.

Similarly, this technique works even with names that while relatively familiar, don't have that homely feeling created by names like your local region's names - so English name elements giving way to Germanic and Scandinavian names, or Latin names will create an atmosphere that evokes those lands, and all the assumptions that go with them.


Because place names can be evocative, and can be laden with culture, we should be careful not to just use them at random. Names and style choices in game settings will create an atmosphere. With only a little research and work, you can bring life into a place just by speaking its name.


A Coventry Way Challenge

A Coventry Way is a full circumnavigation of the city of Coventry in Warwickshire. It was started in the 70s, and thrashed out over decades of path finding (they literally thrashed it out in some places) by some local runners who were training for mountain marathons by running in the country- side around the city. Here's a link to the association's homepage history:

The Challenge then is to do the whole route in one go. Some walk, some run, some form relay teams. All start when they feel like it on the day - so there's a stretched out circle of tired folk round Coventry from before dawn to after dusk.

Getting ready

In my head, whenever I have an event run to do I always set out my excuses first - it's not part of any planned psychology, it just tends to happen. I think I'm a positive pessimist: by planning for the worst, I'm well prepared - but often pleasantly surprised.
Maps - upside down, too
So this event's excuses are: I had a chest infection that developed into a minor bout of pneumonia over the New Year and into February, so my training has been shortened; I've never run this distance before; it's a self-navigated course, so I might get lost along the way; it's going to be the hottest day of the year so far at a maximum of about 20°C in the shade.
With all those problems to overcome, I decided that I would be pleased if I just finished the course!
Standard rations
Naturally, some part of me also optimistically predicted a finishing time based on my closest similar distances - I tend to complete the 33 miles of the Marlborough Downs Challenge in 6.5 hours - so I guessed between 8 and 9 hours would be pretty good going.
There are checkpoints along the way, with food provided, but I have learned that you can't rely on the world to provide veggie friendly options - I carried my own. It barely fit in my pack! I also took extra isotonic tablets to let me replenish my drink, as I reckoned I'd need to refill my two litres Camelbak once or twice along the way.

Setting out

This year over 200 took part. It was a breezy, very sunny day, and warming up even at 8 am when I arrived. The car park at the Queens Head in Meriden (west of Coventry, just off the A45) was filling up with cars, and people in hiking and / or running gear. I gave in my number, got my start time logged, started my tracking app, and set out.
Straight away, I felt my calves tighten up - I get this sometimes when I'm not properly hydrated. I slowed my pace and drank, and shook it off. The opening section was up hill, in rolling middle-England country side - with an unfortunate stink of cattle (one of the local farms near Meriden is rather intensive in its housing of the cows). Breathing through the nose, I found myself falling in with an ultra-runner called Glyn - he was a Grand Union Canal veteran. We chatted for a long stretch up til check point 1, where I met up with a work colleague Jon and his kids who cheered me on before going off to rugby practice. It's good to get support! This event doesn't draw crowds, so peer support from chatting with fellow runners along the way is key. Lots of gelatin-based snacks, sadly - it's amazing how many running events want to hand out jelly babies and Haribo! - but some Jaffa Cakes were on offer.

Horses - I didn't steal any
Between CP1 and check point 2, we had a diversion because of a golf tournament as we headed out of Kenilworth. Glyn lingered longer than I wanted to at CP2, so I made off on my own.
Through Bubbenhall and on to Ryton-on-Dunsmore, where we ran through some narrow paths among industrial sheds - a bit grim after the open country - and then crossing under the Eastern side of the A45, to head north. I spotted some leisurely horses paddocked by the path - I doubt they'd have made better progress than us runners! As I came up on CP3 I was really grateful for a rest. I'd only done 19 miles by that point!

Halfway and harder going

Motte or Bailey?
From Wolston, I headed off through open fields toward the Fosse Way, over the Avon and along a straight and deeply hoof-pitted bridleway (the mud was like concrete with the dry weather), up to Brinklow. There are the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle at Brinklow - thankfully we didn't have to climb it! Out of Brinklow, at CP4, I refilled my Camelbak - over half way.

The route joins the Oxford Canal path for a few miles, and passes under the M6 (concrete and noisy traffic) and the Nettle Hill Bridge (iron aquaduct, much quieter).

M6 - going under it
Coming off the towpath, headed toward Ansty - and then across what I have come to think of as the Plains of Gorgoroth! Like something out of Mordor - a ploughed field of crumbled earth so dry, it was like staggering across rocks. I swear I could hear Sam Gamgee trying to encourage me onwards.

Once again the course came back to the Oxford Canal, before turning north to Barnacle and into Bedworth.
Urban(e) art
Here, I got lost. Making it to CP5 in a pleasant housing estate, I paused, chatted with other walkers and runners, had a Jaffa cake or two, water, etc. - and then set off in completely the wrong direction. If it hadn't been for a helpful driver at a set of lights about a kilometre away sending me back the way I'd come, I'd have been properly lost!
Back to CP4, and off in the right direction, then. This urban section was the trickiest - the signs were harder to spot, and fellow challengers were harder to see among the usual normal townsfolk. I tagged along for a bit with a challenger who knew his way, going at a brisk walk rather than a jog, and I was grateful not only for the guidance, but for the rest. To be honest, I'd been walking longer sections between jogging by this point - about 30 miles.

M6 again - over it this time
Back over the M6, and down into Corley Moor. I'd been warned this would be a quagmire, but it was hardly even muddy that day! On to Corley Moor village - the Red Lion looking very inviting in the sunshine - but onwards to CP7. I should have refilled my Camelbak again - I ran out of water as I went through Birchley Hays Wood, as I discovered trying to wash down an energy gel to pep me up for the last stretch - but a fellow challenger let me have some of his. Very thankful! The course runs mainly downhill from there, gently enough to ease the legs - and I finally came in sight of the Queens Head again 8 hours and 53 minutes after I'd set off.

Food was being served - mainly carnivorous at a glance, but to be honest, I didn't feel hungry so much as thirsty and tired. I collected my certificate, changed into soft shoes and headed home for a decent thirst quencher.
Reward (unofficial)
Reward (official)


There were lots and lots of kissing gates along the way, which broke one's stride (I tended to walk up to and away from them, rather than run). The course was generally well signed, as the Coventry Way logos were well-placed at turns and gates and so on. The few places that caused confusion were when we passed through built-up areas (just a couple in the whole 40 miles), where it was easier to miss what signs there were.

This is a challenge I will definitely do again! I hope to make better time in future (less wrong turns!) - but the biggest challenge for me is just finishing!