Thursday, August 30, 2012

Skills vs. Skilz

One of the arguments I've heard against relying on player narrative where character skills are concerned is that it rewards players who are good narrators at the expense of those who are not. The counter argument, which I seldom hear, is that relying on a numerical system to resolve skill use rewards players who are good number maximizers at the expense of those who are not. By favoring one approach over the other, aren't we just swapping one type of player talent for another?

I've played both approaches--games where every action had an associated number on the character sheet and almost nothing was narrated, and games where characters had no ratings at all beyond a name and a concept, and every action they took involved negotiation between player and GM. In my experience, the presence or absence of rigidly defined character abilities had little impact on whether I enjoyed the game. More than any other factors, my enjoyment depended on who I was playing with and how well the GM handled the session.

That might sound like a cop-out, but RPGs are funny animals. They violate many of the conventions by which we define "a game." I've argued that D&D isn't really a game at all; it's a structured play activity, more akin to building a tower from wooden blocks with a group of friends than to playing parcheesi or Pandemic with friends.

In that regard, isn't trying to shoehorn the standard conventions of games into an RPG a disservice to the RPG? Is it analogous to trying to force elements of poker into chess? Choker might turn out to be a fine game, but it would not be chess, and I suspect that the hybrid would lack the spark that makes both chess and poker shine so brightly.

Experience confirms to me that players who enjoy narrating their characters' skill use are good at narrative, while players who prefer numbers are those who manipulate numbers well. Nothing's wrong with either of those positions, as long as we recognize that both of them introduce their own brand of bias into events around the D&D table.


  1. As in all things in life, seeking a balance is the way to go. I encourage players of all stripes to combine creative, descriptive play with using the numbers on their character sheets. For instance, when playing C&C games, I encourage players to describe what their characters are doing, and either declare success due to what I consider a thorough description or give bonuses to subsequent ability checks. Seek the balance, my friends! In this way, you can work to accomodate many types of players.

    1. I agree. Few things are so black or white as they're represented to be in an internet forum discussion.

  2. John The Philosopher here.

    As I play and understand it, all die rolls, be they skill checks or attacks, are used to decide when there is an element of chance in the outcome.

    Using die rolls to test skill avoids moments like this:

    Player - I climb the outside of the warlock's tower, unlock the window, and slit the mage's throat in his sleep.

    DM - The tower is like 80% mold and crumbling rock. How did you make it to the top without falling or alerting the warlock ?

    Player - I climbed really carefully. I'm a stealthy rogue. I'm just awsome, that's how.

    As I have said before, skill checks do not always need to be used. It is a judgment call. Normally, if there is little doubt of the outcome, or the players roleplayed / argued their point well, I allow that to be the deciding factor.

    You should also consider having the DM create puzzles representative of the challenges players face. Perhaps the lock on the Mage's study is a puzzle lock. The rogue cannot pick it simply by rolling die. The gamer has to figure it out. I find this technique helps draw the player into the struggle of his character.

    If I can't think of an original puzzle, I often steal one from mensa books.

  3. Great post and comments. I actually agree with everyone. :)

    I particularly like Mr. Winter's comment about things not being as black and white as some forums would make them see. I couldn't agree more with that.

    A couple of days ago one of my players and I were discussing the issue at length. The point he brought up is that mechanical rolls for skills were good, but the lack of them (in the earlier editions) 'forced' players to creatively describe what they were doing to receive the best chance to do so (assigned by the GM).

    I think the best GM's still require (or reward) that creative description of how skills are used even if there is still a dice roll. Often, when a GM simply calls for a roll there's a feeling of something being missing.

    I'm not sure which way I prefer. I do like skills, and I definitely like role-playing.

    On a related topic, we were also discussing how relatively 'weak' you started out in basic D&D. If you had a small group and played 'by the rules' large numbers of randomly appearing monsters would soon kill you 'by the rules' which by necessity forced you to improvise and role-play.

    While I'm not necessarily in favor of everyone starting out 'super weak' some of my most memorable games were with relatively low powered characters where I had to think like a demon to survive and thrive. It was more challenging and interesting than messing around with statistics.

    I once had a 1e wizard with 1 hit point, a d4 staff, and a single magic missile spell per day. Needless to say, I had to improvise and role-play a lot--If you listen you can probably still hear the screams of bad guys falling off of high places and the cackling of a wizard.

    Thanks for the great post and comments!