Phantasmal Killer—The Skill Trap

Welcome back to Phantasmal Killer, a blog delving into weird and fun game mechanics and how you can take advantage of them to bring new ideas to life at your tabletop. In each article I look at using a game system in unexpected ways to create unique or bizarre characters to pummel your players.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The pressure is on and time is tight! A hero must unlock a door as the water rises to the knees, their waist, their chest! Or a sparking panel needs to be repaired in the radiation-flooded engine room! Or the bomb ticks down as a shaky pair of hands vacillate between the red wire and the blue—cutting the correct wire will save the day, but failure will spell disaster! These are all common tropes in books and film, but the skill systems in many RPGs just don’t bear out that risk and tension. If you screw up diffusing that bomb, the campaign ends. So obviously everyone knows that bomb will be safely diffused. Most RPGs just don’t have a skill system that provides tiered drawbacks for failed skills the way they do combat.

Or do they?

There’s at least one category of skill checks most RPGs provide level-adjusted consequences for, but for a very narrow model of play: Traps!

The Skill Trap is a very simple concept: You lift the guidelines and rules for your system’s traps and apply them to other skill checks, using the skill in question in place of the usual check to disarm a trap. A failed repair check might result in exhaustion from time wasted, damage from feedback, or loss of special equipment. A failed check to influence a major NPC might mean a Condition-style penalty to all your other social checks for as rumor of your self-own spreads across town. A failed pilot check might damage your ship, or it might inflict damage on everyone inside as panels explode into a shower of sparks. Tier your challenges so the consequences are appropriate to your PCs’ level, and remember to award experience for overcoming the challenging scenario just as if they’d overcome a trap.

One of the challenges to keep in mind with Skill Traps is that characters should have some chance of knowing the risks going in. Just as a thief can make a Perception, Notice, or Senses check to spot a trap, an experienced zoologist has a chance to know the risks of a failed check to calm a wild animal. For many of these you can use the normal perception rules, but in many cases an appropriate knowledge- or profession-type skill is a better fit, and for social encounters a Sense Motive or other insight-based skill helps a PC better read the consequences of their actions.

Another element of traps that you should make sure to import is any check or save that can mitigate effects. If a successful saving throw would save a thief from the injury of a pit trap, a low-level socialize should be able to dodge the effects of a failed lie with a show of will or a quick followup lie to cover her “misspeak.”

Not every skill check needs the risk of severe injury or public humiliation. Plenty can still be the simple pass/fail we rely on for everyday tasks. Skill Traps exist to add an element of consequence to dangerous or dramatic situations. Once you start breaking down the trap rules, there are plenty of fun ways to bring additional danger to your skill-focused scenes!

Examples – Starfinder

Starfinder is ripe for unusual, trap-like skill situations. The Analyze entry replaces the Perception entry for traps, and indicates both the skill and DC for characters to get a sense of the skill trap’s difficulty and the consequences for failure.

First Impressions (CR 4)

The heroes need to contact an important NPC at a social event and have the chance to present themselves in the best possible like… or humiliate themselves in front of the city’s movers and shakers. A failed check results in the NPC dressing them down, humiliating them after some brief verbal sparring, or laughing in their face. The results are the same: the character’s faith in themselves is shaken and they become pariahs for a time. Being rendered Catatonic by a bad first impression reflects a character breaking down sobbing or crushingly depressed, unable to effectively interact with the world.

At least one character must succeed at the Disable check to finally make contact, but characters may retry as often as they like. Each failed Disable check counts as a separate exposure to the Charisma poison.

Type Social; Analyze Sense Motive DC 26; Disable Diplomacy or Profession DC 21

Trigger Interaction; Reset automatic

Track Charisma; Frequency 1/hour

Effect public humiliation (Stunned for 1d4 rounds and Charisma poison; Will DC 15)

Leaky Reactor  (CR 10)

A deadly radiation leak in engineering has disrupted the entire ship, killing power on every deck and leaving the crew at the mercy of hostile aliens or deadly natural phenomenon. But the needs of the man outweigh the needs of the few, and so someone must repair the reactor and restore power to the ship!

The reactor core is assumed to be a high radiation level, requiring a DC 22 Fortitude save each round in addition to the danger of a failed skill check.

Type Skill; Analyze Physical Sciences DC 35; Disable Engineering DC 30

Trigger location; Reset automatic

Effect deadly discharge (10d12 E damage; Reflex DC 19 half)

Crystal Frasier