The rule of 14 for passive abilities

How Observant

This came up briefly as I was discussing the Observation skill for my superhero, The Commander.

His Observation stacks up SEAL! and Ten-Hut!, and if he’s using a firearm or looking at combat details, Shooter! as well. Because his Perception is 18, this means his overall Observation skill is 29.


A skill like that, as much as his Stealth-27, defines who he is. He’s just that good at spotting things.

+Christopher R. Rice were chatting about how to handle this. I casually threw out that we should just assume that I rolled a 14. Not a good roll. In fact, a fairly poor one. But the chance of rolling 14 or lower on 3d6 is 90%. So if I roll a 14, it means it covers 9 in 10 occurances where I pester the GM for details.

We decided it was a valid way of handling things. Assume a roll of 14, note the margin of success or failure, and then look at the result. For Joe Average with no training (Observation-5), it’s failure by 9. For The Commander, it’s success by 15.

What does that mean?

Well, it means the untrained person will need to spend a very, very long time doing something, and still require things to be obvious enough to provide a +4 or +5 bonus for tactically significant, actionable detail to be relayed to the player as a simple part of the description. That doesn’t mean that he can’t take the time to look – in fact, it requires it. But when he walks into the bank, nothing strikes him as odd unless the bank robbers hiding in the crowd of people are being very obvious about it.

For the commander? He can do a task that usually takes minutes instantly (‘instantly’ doing a long task is often benchmarked at -10) and still absorb -5 in penalties. He walks into that same bank, and the GM will tell him how many people are in it, that five of them are acting out of the ordinary 7 yards away (-3 penalty) and if they’re carrying any weapons with a Holdout penalty of -2 or higher, will probably be able to tell they’re armed. This will be relayed as part of the room description.

Parting Shot

I like this, because it means that the GM and player both have a good idea of what’s going on, and the “hey, I would have noticed that!” factor is much lessened. The extra detail is cool, but also the fact that if things really are that subtle, it will dawn on The Commander over the course of 30s that something isn’t right, and by the end of that time (when he’s back up to no penalty), he’ll have processed the entire tactical situation.

It’s effectively ‘no nuisance rolls,’ but at no point cost, because instead of pestering the GM at every moment “I roll Observation, what do I see?” it’s taken as read that Threat Analysis and OODA are constantly occurring. It’s also a poor enough roll that it only comes into play when you do have a character-defining trait like that.

By setting the assumed roll not at the “average” of 11, but a lower-probability outcome of 14, it means that the GM isn’t forced to reveal every single detail of a situation. The basic Perception (10) and Observation (5) by default is low enough that the assumed roll is a failure by 4 and 9, respectively. That’s a lot of “stop, collaborate, and listen” that has to go on before details of tactical significance are provided. That’s actually normal RPG behavior – you walk in the room, and the five guys with swords screaming ‘deth to adventurs!’ get that +10 bonus and draw immediate attention (but Observation-5 guy only barely notices), but the tripwire strung right in front of the door doesn’t get seen without looking for it. Likewise with hidden doors and treasure.

And just to be clear: It’s not “never roll dice.”

It’s for the GM to say “what is the minimum level of detail I should give this player just because of his skills and attributes that he bought and paid for.” A roll of 14 sucks. I mean, not as much as 16 or a critical failure, but it’s something that you’ll get that or better 90% of the time. And the player can always ask for a more detailed search (move from passively accepting a 14 to having the GM actively make a roll). But it gives a place to start when the GM is deciding what to tell folks about the situation they just walked into.

Let’s say we’ve got bad guys in a restaurant, and our team walks in. Someone with Perception-12 and Observation-7 will only notice particular details if there are bonuses to notice such of at least +2, and if it’s something tactically significant, it will have to be +7 – basically hit-you-in-the-face obvious. The GM will tell the player that there are a bunch of patrons eating. If the player says “I look carefully around for threats as I take my seat,” he might give a +2 or +3 for taking extra time, and make a secret roll vs Observation-10, and give extra info as it merits.

For The Commander, my superhero? He gets this:

Jason Bourne: I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking.

So when The Commander/Jason Bourne walks into the restaurant, the GM knows to let him know which guys seem potentially dangerous, who’s armed with a gun in a shoulder holster but not that skilled in hiding it, and exits and entrances of tactical significance. He gets this all at once because he paid something like 200 points in Wildcard! skills to get it. It ain’t free, and assuming a 14 on the roll is actually a pretty unfavorable assumption, but it gives the GM something to gauge. The penalty for spotting a guy with a hidden gun (-3, say) 10 yards away (-10) in dim light (-2) is rather steep. So unless you’ve got Observation-29 (like the Commander), you won’t see that unless you look, and you will never see that at first glance unless you have Observation-18 (penalties of 15 and a roll of 3). After “taking extra time” to the tune of a +4 bonus, you might see it with Observation-14.

I wonder what other skills this would work for?


4 thoughts on “The rule of 14 for passive abilities

  1. You touch on the two extremes – the guys with 5-10, and the guy with 29, but what about the guy with 14-18? I don't think you mean that having a 14 in a skill means you get to be using this terribly often (not with those severe "-10 for instant" penalties) but does that mean it really only applies once skill reaches the 20's, and only then with some helpful modifiers?

    1. This is really just guidance for what the GM would tell a given player nearly automatically as part of the "what do you see" description of the room.

      So it means that someone with (say) Observation-14 would, on the average, be assumed to make the roll by 0. So anything that came across with basically no penalty – say, something that took 30s to see (+4) but was at a bit of a distance (-2) and concealed (-2) would simply be relayed. Across a crowded hall, he's going to have to mention it specifically.

      The overall post was inspired by sky-high skill levels, but the general principle is a more-specific version of that which animates GUMSHOE – the players get the clues, it's what they do with them that matters. But with GURPS, you get a crap-ton more guidance about what's obviously available, and what requires digging. GUMSHOE requires a lot more of its GM.

  2. Do you ever get to have to make Observation rolls? Or does this completely replace all rolls period? Frex, in some critical moment when you are falling out of an airplane in mid-grapple with an eight-armed chimpanzee and shooting targets on the ground and buckling your parachute harness on, all after being injected with the BBEG's mind-altering truth serum, did you happen to catch the airplane's FAA registry number stenciled just forward of the tail so you can trace who else is working with him?

    1. You ALWAYS can request a roll! The point of this is to provide a general level of leeway and guidance to both the GM and player. By the player knowing that his "Roll of 14" margin is (say) usually 2, he knows that anything that is hidden from him by the GM is more concealed than a -2 penalty.

      This is the background flow of sensory information that you get from "just being there." A roll of 14 is a bad roll. So this is the stuff that's basically always available, 'cause it's just that obvious.

      If you want to ask a particular question, or make an active search – yeah, you roll. This rule of thumb is specifically to avoid expectations mismatch between the player skill levels and GM-provided information flow.

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