Proposed GearHead: Caramel Skill System

Woman with braided hair standing in front of a city at night.

Another advantage of the new coloring routine is that it can handle subtle gradations. No more cel shading! That has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but I wanted to mention it.

I spent much of last weekend thinking about how the GearHead: Caramel skill system is going to work. This is likely to get a bit long-winded, so please bear with me.


These define the untrained abilities of your character. They will not change by much over the course of the game.

Health, Stamina, and Mental

Health measures the distance your character is from death. When health drops to zero, or a character is otherwise incapacitated, they are removed from combat. The party gets to make a Medicine roll to see if the character survives. Permanent injuries (which can be fixed by cybernetics) may result. It is based on Body and the Vitality skill.

Stamina is a measure of physical exhaustion; in game terms it is used to power passive abilities. Passive abilities include secondary defense rolls such as parry, block, and use of anti-missile and ECM systems. So, once your stamina runs out, you become far more vulnerable to attack. It is based on Body, Ego, and the Athletics skill.

Mental is a measure of mental exhaustion. Maybe it needs a better name. It is used to power active abilities, such as repair attempts and certain talents. It is based on Ego, Knowledge, and the Concentration skill.


Skills are trained abilities. These will change quite a bit as you spend experience on them. A skill should be something that your character does. Skills have a rank; if something doesn’t really need a rank, it should be a talent instead of a skill.

A character can have a limited number of key skills. These are skills which the character is particularly good at, and may be improved relatively cheaply. You can learn skills beyond your key skills, but will have to find a skill trainer to teach you at first. Improving non-key skills is more expensive than improving key skills.

There are nine basic skills in the Cavalier Package; every player character starts out with all of these as key skills, and may take a few other key skills in addition. I’ve been referring to the skills outside of the Cavalier Package as Specialist Skills.

Skill usage should be communicated to the player. In previous games, the exact function of many skills was a mystery. This communication can be accomplished in a number of ways: 1) Show when an option is made available because of a skill (maybe even showing options that would be available if the PC had the correct skill), 2) change passive skills to active skills, 3) clearly tell the player when a passive skill accomplishes something.

In general, specialist skills may provide the player with different ways of dealing with a problem. They might get used to short circuit a puzzle or obstacle that can be solved another way. They should not, however, be used to block the player from significant content/rewards.

Also in general, not everyone should need every skill. If your party has one member with a given specialist skill, that should be enough.

The Cavalier Package

These are key skills for all player characters. No matter what other skills you acquire, these can always be improved at the low rate.

Mecha Gunnery, Mecha Fighting, Mecha Piloting

Ranged Combat, Close Combat, Dodge

Vitality, Athletics, Concentration

Specialist Skills

The player will get some of these as key skills- two or three, maybe- and the rest can be acquired as non-key skills (if you can find a trainer). The non-key skills are more expensive to advance than the key skills are.

Repair: The ability to fix mecha and equipment. May allow destroyed mecha to be recovered after battle.

Medicine: The ability to heal people and animals. May allow downed fighters to be recovered after battle.

Biotech: The ability to repair biotechnological constructs and revive downed synths/biomecha. It can be used on dead synths to collect repair parts and other useful items.

Stealth: The ability to hide. This skill will now have to be actively invoked, and will function similar to its use in Dungeon Monkey Eternal.

Science: Used for crafting. You can make robots, improve gear, and so on. It can be used on dead robots to collect repair parts and other useful items.

Computers: This skill takes over Code Breaking and Electronic Warfare. At personal scale it allows doors to be unlocked and computers to be hacked. At mecha scale, it allows the use of active electronic warfare systems. With the right equipment, it may be used to hack certain hostile robots, turning them to the player’s side.

Performance: The ability to play music and get paid for it. This skill may allow Taunt as a talent.

Negotiation: Combines Conversation, Intimidation, and Shopping. Used to activate certain dialogue options. May cause enemy pilots to eject earlier. Improves NPC reaction score. Affects shop prices.

Scouting: Combines Survival and Awareness. This skill passively counteracts Stealth and makes encounters visible on the world map. It helps reveal hidden doors and other concealed things. It may be used on dead animals to collect meat and other useful items.

Dominate Animal: Use it to tame wild animals.

Deleted Skills

Mecha Engineering: Is spending points on Mecha Engineering fun? No, it is not. This skill is nothing but tears and frustration. Instead, I propose that from GHC onward all player characters can modify mecha to their heart’s content without having to learn a new skill.

Cybertech: There were a lot of problems with this skill as well. If a late game character suddenly needed to fix a permanent injury, they were often forced to decide between the injury’s stat penalty and one more skill’s xp penalty.

Weight Lifting, Initiative, Resistance, Spot Weakness: All boost abilities without offering a new play style. This means they are boring.

Investigation: It had no use except in Investigation missions; the thing is, we can still have investigation missions without a dedicated skill, and they’ll be more fun if the player isn’t forced to waste a skill slot.

Pick Pockets: Not nearly as useful as it is in Fallout. I don’t want to write the full burglary simulation that this skill deserves.

Taunt: Was less amusing than I had hoped.

Possible Skills

Meditation: Replaces Mysticism. Using Meditation allows a character to instantly regenerate stamina at the cost of mental. Unlocks martial arts/shaolin monk type talents.

Leadership: In GearHead2, lancemates automatically level up their skills after battle to match the PC’s renown. In future GearHead games, lancemates could automatically level up to match the rank of this skill.

Sniper: I got rid of most of the combat-related skills since they are boring choices. Unfortunately, that means there are few skills for a combat-focused character like a soldier or arena pilot. If I could figure out a way to make an interesting combat skill that is not an automatic must-have, I’d add it.

Areas of Expertise: Many pen and paper RPGs have a ton of knowledge skills. That wouldn’t really work in GearHead, but I thought it might be fun to allow the player to choose several areas of expertise for the PC. In some situations these AOEs would provide additional background information or dialogue options; this wouldn’t normally be useful, but it might be fun. The list of AOEs might include pop music, history, mecha designs, mathematics, recipes, arena champions, architecture, fashion, etc.


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    • nanashi2_jp on July 18, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Interesting line-ups. My some quick thoughts:

    Dominate Animals: In both GH1&2, monster-taming is almost always inferior to player-made robots. Unless you make them more customizable (through equipments or other means) and more forgiving in terms of perma-loss prevention, the taming system will be nothing more than a flavour element that does not deserve a skill dedicated to it.
    In other words, it is too much content-dependant and requires dedicated balancing which irrelevant to any other aspect of the game. In many games, such attempts often ends up either game-breaking or negigible.

    Leadership: Isnt this an another ‘boosting’ thing that does not add any new playstyle you mention in some deleted skills? Hope it is not only way to improve your ally’s strength.

    And in general: after all, a game always need proper contents to make it best out of its game system, and since Gearhead’s speciality lies in its procedure-heavy content generation, it would not be an easy task. In that sense, however, you have shown your talent in both GH1&2, so let me just say I’m looking forward to see more of it.

    1. You are correct about Dominate Animal. I’ll move that one to the proposed skill list for now.

    • Kyle on July 18, 2017 at 7:10 pm


    Skill callouts are a must (or at least should). You could have skill tests indicated as well as where skills passing a threshold indicate an automatic success. If you made an options menu, you could have this be an optional feature for “hardcore” players who prefer to test their luck. I think of Torment: Tides of Numenera as a particularly good example of this being done right.

    I could see combining some skills to make the game a little less complex without too much difficulty. I understand that it has balance issues (which is why I typically prefer to do my design on the tabletop, where I force the GM to deal with it), but if it means characters can be better rounded you avoid hammer-and-nail psychology. Vitality and Athletics, Science and Computers, and dare I say Scouting and Dominate Animal are all candidates. If you added Sniper, I’d combine everything else into CQC, melee and small-arms both. Heavy weapons may deserve their own skill, unless you’re going to 100% segregate SF:0 and SF:1-2 play.

    Biotech, Repair, and Medicine fill a similar ecological niche. You could probably combine Medicine and Biotech, though Repair is probably too powerful on its own to be fully combined. One small issue with these skills is that they’re not always a huge asset to the player if they can find a way out of a hard place before they need to use them.

    Handling Mecha Engineering as a non-skill is interesting. Would there be mechanics (punintended) to govern this process?

    I like the system you suggest with some skills that are easily improved and others that are more difficult. It could be possible to have professions or something provide aptitudes as in the more recent WH40k RPGs (Only War, Dark Heresy 2nd Edition) to make it so that the process of choosing these things is natural and abstracted.

    Performance seems an odd-man-out to me. Perhaps it could be combined with other social skills like Negotiation and Diplomacy into a sort of Presence skill?

    Areas of Expertise could be handled as tags, kind of how Shadowrun Returns handles it; simply having a certain tag opens up certain dialogue options/activities. That way you don’t have to worry about them being skill sinks, and every character can have a couple. It could lead to some very nice branching plots, because you can have paths diverge based on a character’s background and the solutions that would be intuitive to them without having to have them take a skill test. Mysticism could be one of these things rather than a separate skill, IMO.

    1. The only mechanics for Mecha Engineering would be the mecha design mechanics. If you have the parts, you can build whatever you want.

        • Alan Manuel K. Gloria on January 29, 2019 at 5:40 am

        An idea to retain Mecha Engineering would be to have installed components have a bonus ranging from E+0 to E+2. A good Mecha Engineering roll against the component complexity would lead to a +2 bonus while a bad roll leads to E+0, with most rolls being E+0 or E+1.

        For weapons, this bonus translates to additional ACC bonus. For mounts and hands, it transfers the E+ bonus to whatever is equipped into it. For Sensors, Tracking Computers, ECM, and movement components, it translates to a Class bonus.

        For limbs, I’m not certain. Maybe each limb type could have specific bonuses. Legs would have better walk/run/turn speeds with higher E+, Arms might lose their F180 special effect if they are at E+0 and may get a new F270 special effect if they are at E+2. Heads might have the same F90/F180/F270 as Arms and also have the +1/+2/+3 SE bonus when equipping sensors to them adjusted by E+. Wings might be purely decorative at E+0, allow longer jumps at E+1, and only truly fly at E+2. Storage… who willingly uses Storage anyway? 🙂

        For balance, most factory mecha will have most of its installed equipment at +1, and we would adjust the ACC and class of equipment downwards slightly. For example it would be possible to have a Class 0 Sensor E+2 on a factory-fresh mecha that provides an effective +2 SE. A Starburst Rifle would have only +2 ACC because the Luna II’s Hand would have E+1. And so on. This subtly discourages modifying your mecha when you have low Mecha Engineering score. A Class 1 ECM at E+1 from the factory would not be improved by a Class 2 ECM if your Mecha Engineering score won’t let you get at least E+1 reliably, for example.

    • Arturo on July 18, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    On Areas of Expertise:
    They can’t be combat related, or else they’ll dominate the meta. If you can’t buy areas of expertise early, you might compromise the general philosophy of the gameplay. Heck you might not even want them to be *mecha* related

    I like the idea of having *all* the essential skills given to you, but I wish that INT was good for more than just craft and maybe earned you some extra skill points

    1. I was intending for none of the areas of expertise to be combat related; even the Mecha one would relate to trivia about mecha designs rather than any useful combat information. As Kyle mentioned above, this idea is based on the etiquettes from the HareBrained Schemes Shadowrun games.

        • Arturo on July 23, 2017 at 5:23 am

        Gotcha. I loved those games.

        Will there be a failure rate at all with engineering? Will we be able to ‘force’ non-conforming or “too-big” parts as in GH1?

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