When building a campaign setting or starting a new campaign one of the things that you must decide as a GM is what skills are important, what skills exist, and what skills don’t exist. For campaigns with magic, psionics, and other “paranormal powers” one of the key jobs a GM has is to decide what powers there are and how they impact the game world. But more importantly, the GM needs to decide how the players can know about such abilities from within the game itself. I’ve made some mistakes in the past regarding this sort of thing and I’ve come up with a few guidelines to make it easier on me when I create new settings.
The Rule of 12
If you can help it – never have more than 12 Hidden Lore skills (at most 14). Why 12? Because that’s the equivalent of buying a Wildcard skill at IQ-1 – the same as twelve Hidden Lore skills with one point in them. Also, at some point your players are to be annoyed at the massive amount of buy-ins to know the inner workings of a campaign.
Where You Can Lump, Lump
From a game-mechanical perspective “zombies” and “ghouls” are not that different. Both are undead, both eat flesh, both are affected by true faith, and so on. No matter how different in game they are, it’s the out of game context that you want to follow. This is for two reasons – 1) players will naturally assume that it’s out of game contextual vs. in game and 2) it’ll help you as the GM in the long run.
Where You Can’t, Don’t
If you’ve got something zany or weird in your campaign and it defies being put in the corner (“Nobody puts the GM’s babies in a corner!”) then don’t. If they are that weird then give them their own skill and be done with it.
Picking Over the Bones
I know this seems like a bit of obvious advice – but for many (including myself a decade ago) it wasn’t. I’d have Hidden Lores for all sorts of things that didn’t need them and that led to skill bloat in a game engine that already has that problem as is. I hope this helps some poor GM out there struggling with the same issues.
So what standby rules do you have for Hidden Lore?
I would personally pick no more than 4-6, even for a campaign with a lot of hidden stuff. If I were doing something more like the Chronicles of Darkness with lots of powerful splats with their own realms of secrts, it might get CLOSE to twelve.
In a world I'll have lots of hidden lore. In a campaign however only one or two types any more than that and it can be too much to explore. I will add that multiple scholastic characters could justify an additional hidden lore per character. Have enough to let the players explore the world through their characters eyes without giving yourself a confusing mess to deal with
I like to run a three tiered Lore set-up:
Occultism – This covers the "what every superstitious person knows" about the subject. Almost nothing get's exempted from this unless it's really /truly/ hidden. However, while someone has the possibility of having picked up a potent secret along the way, I apply these penalties: Should it be better covered by a Professional Skill? -5. Should it be better covered by Hidden Lore? -10.
Professional Skills – These are things like Biology, Theology, Alchemy, Naturalist, skills that in a world with actual real secret might have the chance of covering in part or whole without actually understanding it should be a secret. For instance in a world with 'secretive' undead (vampires, or even zombies where it's not a 'viral' creation system) then Theology would probably have some info on it, even if those who could have uncovered this lore might consider it 'superstitious nonsense'. In a world where these are 'open' secrets, theology definitely covers Undead. However, if the creature, item, or situation seems best handled by Hidden Lore, these skills get a -5 (for example knowing that religious symbols only work for True Believers or those with Holiness). This skill would get a +2 bonus on Lore checks that "everyone should know" (frex: garlic does repel vampires).
Hidden Lore – This skill get's corresponding bonuses based on where the Lore would 'naturally fall' stuff like 'everyone knows' (Vampires are repelled by garlic) +5, stuff only "professionals" might know +2 (that it's an ashwood stake that 'permanently' stops Vampires, any other wood just stuns them for a few seconds), and no bonuses on the truly secret details (it's actual Holiness, not just waving around a religious symbol).
Yeah, I know Hidden Lore is an Average skill, but I like rewarding Players who take those Hard and Very Hard skills that don't have much application in an Action game (Naturalist, Biology, Theology, Veterinary, etc. Also this idea comes from Monster Hunters which I adapted a lot of my 'house rules' from when it came out.
I've flirted with the idea of just making "Hidden Lore" a technique off of professional skills… but that always feels too complicated. Also I usually fall into the "there should be a skill just to cover the wackiness that isn't also dealing with everyday life". Specifically for the idea of 'professional' monster hunters.
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This is the problem I'm having right now with Ceteri. I REALLY need to mod the list.
Useful post. It's not always obvious that you should sit down and sort this out in a game that uses Hidden Lore. Having some steps and guidance is genuinely useful.
I probably should have an example – I might follow up with one later.