Thursday, September 23, 2010

Can I play with madness? dabbling in skill systems.

* Edit-
The above image was originally 7th son of a 7th son, an interior illustration from Iron Maiden's 1988 album of the same name. I suppose Photobucket took it down in keeping with their vague,arbitrary enforcement of their terms of service. I'm leaving the censored version up as a tribute to their sniveling obeisance to the dictates of the feckless,dying record industry.

The existence of a skill system in a game, and the willingness to use it, or not, is one of those points which is always a bone of contention in those discussions of, “Is this Old School, or not?”

I got on the D&D roadshow at the Holmes edition, which included the Thief class and its thieving skills matrix, so I’ve never been totally opposed to the idea of skill systems. At least in theory, that is. It’s that gap that exists between the theory of what a skill system can contribute to the game, and the facts of what it actually does in play, that prevents me from employing a fully fleshed skill system in my own game.

Skill systems were added to D&D, and made the heart of later RPGs, with the idea that they would expand the possible actions available to PCs. The perception was that actions not quantified by the rules as written were therefore not possible in the game, and the way to correct this was to add to the rules base.

I think this comes from an assumption that anything not expressly permitted, is forbidden. I have an unsubstantiated gut feeling that, in general, the proportion of the populace which thinks in this manner has been increasing for a long time now. I prefer the opposite mode of thought, that everything not expressly forbidden is permitted. And, you’d better have a really good reason for attempting to forbid me anything.

Anyway, what I’ve seen in games with a heavy reliance on skill systems is that rather than expanding the portfolio of actions available to characters, they actually reduce them. The existence of the skill system encourages an attitude towards viewing your character sheet as an armory or magazine of possible action choices. It is so, partially, but the problem arises when it also is seen as a list of the only actions possible. This is the point where players are in danger of falling into the trap of thinking that, “If it’s not on my character sheet, I can’t do it.”

The general attitude of the Old Guard towards this perception is very well summed up in this quote from a thread on RPGNet by Mike “Old Geezer” Mornard.

Probably the most extreme case is a TETSNBN player wondering how to tie somebody up in my OD&D game because there was no “Use Rope” skill. I mean, Crom, “Use Rope”? What’s next, a “Tie Boots” skill? “Eat Food?” “Take Dump?”

That guy kills me.

First generation skill-less RPGs, by not instituting a frame work of defined skills, leave open the greater possibility of character action. Players of the mindset that requires a defined rule structure are uncomfortable with the rules looseness of Old Guard play. They want things spelled out on their character sheet, and they want a rules coded menu of action options.

I think this is fine, in a beginner level RPG experience, but it’s not the sort of Advanced D&D I like.

Don’t take that as an insult if you are in favor of skill systems, I’m not trying to pull your beard. What I’m saying is that skill systems are fine for what they actually do. And that is providing a structure for players and GMs to use in place of their own judgment. What they don’t actually do is increase the possibilities open to players. In cases where the participants are young and inexperienced, in life as well as in RPGs, skill systems provide a structure and framework which fills in for a lack of the knowledge and experience that’s required to feel comfortable with playing and DMing by fiat.

In a situation where a PC wants to attempt something about which you, the DM, knows nothing of in real life, having a skill system handy provides a guide line you can use to navigate that gap. This is a great help to starter gamers, training wheels if you will. The drawback is that if you have no fear of relying upon your own knowledge and judgment, a skill system becomes a hindrance and an encumbrance, eliminating possibilities and making the game less than it could be.

I will, of course, readily admit that I am somewhat grognardly in my attitude towards the precepts of contemporary gaming culture. I don’t agree that more is better, or that a system must be rigidly interlocking or else be seen as “broken”. I like to think that I’m genial in my disregard for modern gaming though. I don’t go out of my way to attack those who see things differently. The vast and inherent superiority of Old School games is self evident and requires no defense. Heh….

See above image for an illustration of what might be defined as, "somewhat grognardly".

I’ve never had any difficulty in making a judgment call, and sticking to it, in cases where a PC attempts something for which he has no rules defined success/failure mechanism. I consider the relevant factors and assign a probability, or a number to beat, and we go on from there. That’s all a skill system does anyway. I’m just more confident that I can take the relevant factors into account and make a decision on the fly that’s more closely applicable to the situation than a hard coded skill system could provide.

Now, it may be that I get away with this because I have players who have known me for a long time, and understand how I think. They know that if I employ Dungeon Master’s Fiat, it’s principled and reasoned and never arbitrary. I make a note of it when I have to fill in the gaps of the rules as written for expediency’s sake, and this becomes like referring to prior case law when similar situations arise later. I don’t allow the rules, or the lack of them to bog a game down. I encourage and expect “outside the dungeon” thinking from players. Some of the most exciting and entertaining gaming results from forcing PCs out of their comfort zones and into situations that require them to attempt actions for which their character class is totally maladapted, in circumstances most dire.

Skill systems tend to retard the willingness of players who are used to them to attempt actions which they do not specialize in, or have some rules established ability to perform. This is why I don’t, as a general rule, use them. I want players to surprise me with deeds of daring do and outlandish solutions to problems. With all the work that goes into DMing I expect a challenge and some entertainment at my end of the table too.

I do like the idea behind skill systems though, the thing that skill systems are meant to do, but don’t. That is, I think, to enhance the depth of the PC by adding layers of potential abilities.

I do this by breaking “skills” into three categories and administering them in an open ended manner.

Natural Talents, this is a list of traits, abilities, aptitudes, quirks, flaws, etc, which the PC was born with. This is always rolled randomly, no exceptions. The class of the character is of no matter and has no bearing on which Natural Talents he may be born with. I leave it to player choice if they want to roll on the Natural Talents list. Some, of course, have definite ideas about the sort of character they want to create and play and don’t want to chance the random results of the list. Others are happy to let chance have a say in character creation and interested in the challenge of running a possible oddball. There are no character building points involved, this is not a system which can be worked to PC advantage. These things are simply meant to add texture and depth to the PC. Some are advantageous, some are drawbacks, and some are normally neutral.

Learned Skills, This includes trade skills, political skills, folk ways, woods lore, etc, skills which the PC learned as a child or was taught prior to becoming a classed adventurer. I assign no rules mechanism to Learned Skills and administer them in an open-ended and common sense fashion. If a player wants his character to have been the son of a fisherman, we’ll have a discussion about just what Learned Skills the PC is entitled too. (What sort of fishing, where, with what equipment, etc,). I’ll write up a brief outline to add to the character sheet regarding the implications for the character’s abilities in-game, and that’s that. If a player wants to perform an action based on his Learned Skill list that I haven’t previously OK’d, he’s going to have to make a convincing argument for it, and quickly.

Minor Class Abilities, This includes all the small things that come along with learning to be a fighter, or a cleric, or a magic-user, or a thief. Each class has its own unique list of Minor Class Abilities. These also may be altered depending upon the character’s background history.

I do allow the possibility of PCs teaching other PCs Learned Skills and some Minor Class Abilities.

In cases where this is just about developing characterization, it’s only a matter of role playing it out. If the knowledge or skill gained may be used to affect the outcome of combat or other situations where the dice normally come into play, then learning the skill will require the PC to expend experience points. I don’t make this cheap, so the player’s got to really want it to make it worthwhile.

I’ll post the text of these categories when I get it transferred from notebooks to Word.

In other news, I barely avoided getting a ticket today for having an expired plate. I had no idea the thing was out of date, the BMV sent me no notice that it was about to expire. This is the second time this has happened to me, but I did have to pay a ticket last time. I really hate it when one branch of government screws up, and another branch punishes me for it. I won’t miss the BMV when the revolution comes.


rainswept said...

Good, thoughtful post. You have my agreement on all points.

I think of the potential number of skills as tending toward infinity, such that every RPG's skill list is an [Infinity-X] reduction in potential.

So a game eliminates/combines all but 20 skills... I just eliminate about 20 more :)

E.G.Palmer said...

Just so, Rainswept. There is just no chance of a set of rules covering all possibilities and I don't want to be hampered by inapplicable mechanisms.

Unknown said...

I enjoy a skill-based system over specific classes. I do not, however, approach skills as a list of what you may or may not do. I use a home-brewed system and tell my players that the skills they choose are the ones they've developed.

I see skills to be no different than training or schooling in our day to day lives. If someone has not made a true attempt to draw, for example, it doesn't mean they can't create something; chances are it may not be that great. I can try to forge a signature, jump down from a roof, or rob a bank, but I'll more than likely suck at it compared to someone who's experienced in it.

When a player takes a skill, it's an indication to me that they want to see that used in the game. A player who wants to be good at deceiving people will, logically, want to be placed in situations that allow them to use their Deceit skill. And by having broad names like Deceit, the bonus can be applied to anything that is deceitful: forgeries, lying, concealing something, feinting, etc.

I play with a group of experienced and newly-introduced folks, and I've found that skill-systems have not hindered any player yet. A lot of a game's application stems from its referee. If you rule-crunch the game, players will, in turn, play through the rules. If rules stay as guidelines, and role-playing is encouraged, everyone wins.

"I don't want to be hampered by inapplicable mechanisms." I completely agree. I ran away from ADnD because the confining structure of the system, its numerous charts, and tomes of rules.


E.G.Palmer said...

I think we're getting close to the same place by differant definitions, Dustin. It sounds like you're doing something similar to what I do, we're just calling it different names.

Also, don't forget, even though you ran away, AD&D still loves you and will be glad to take you back. Game on,brother.

Jeremy Murphy said...

Um, just as an aside. I am a firefighter, and before joining the department, I would have scoffed with you at the idea of a "use rope" skill. Except... if you don't actually know how to use ropes, how they work, what knots to use and so forth, well. You get to find out why you have to wear that helmet all the time...

E.G.Palmer said...

Fricken Photobucket!