Friday, July 17, 2009

Cutting Off Your Players' Feet (Skills Suck Part 2)

I can understand how the evolution of skills may be in part due to a dissatisfaction with a GM’s rulings on a particular subject. I mean, that’s what additional rules do: they give us a basis of how to play and something to interpret. If there ain’t a rule for it, a DM can do one of three things:
  • Allow it (“sure, you can scale the mountain even though you’re not a thief…the terrain’s rough”)
  • House rule it (“hmmm…roll under XX attribute,” or “ok, you have 45% chance to do that”)
  • Shut it down (“you can’t do that, IT’S NOT IN THE RULES”)
See, while certainly there are people who feel the need to nail down every part of daily life with a rule system of some kind (GURPS, HERO, FATAL), I think that the development of skills came more from a dissatisfaction of the House Ruling and Shutting It Down results. And the designer’s dissatisfaction could have been as much from bad experience as a GM/DM as bad experience as a player. The intention is to give players a better time (or forestall arguments that might occur between GM and players).

Unfortunately, the net result is limiting the players and their imagination. For games like D20 D&D where skill use applies even to opponents/monsters, the “players limited” include the DM!

I remember when my old gaming group first got the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide for AD&D. Wow…non-weapon proficiencies! This was the first time we’d seen them (we had skipped Oriental Adventures…in the early 1980s, ninjas has not yet swamped popular culture with mutant turtles and bloody video games, and no one was interested).

So I’m reading through the NWP (skill) list. And it occurs to me that some are more useful than others. Some I can see will never get used. And some…well:

Let’s take a look at fire-building. Prior to the DSG, I never realized it was possible my adventurer didn’t know how to build a goddamn fire. I mean, sure…Fili and Kili from The Hobbit were “expert fire builders” but I didn’t realize this was a non-weapon proficiency that needed to be selected (and that the other dwarves were all operating with a non-proficiency penalty).

Swimming. My character can’t swim? For a long time D&D operated with rules about “not swimming in armor.” But now you can’t swim at all without taking a particular NWP?

I myself am a man of many skills. Swimming is NOT one of them. However, I know how to swim…I took lessons when I was 5 or so and again when I was 10. I screw around in the pool when I’m on vacation, and I can do a couple laps. It’s not that hard as an adult with a modicum of good health.

As a young player with the DSG, I found myself taking non-weapon proficiencies just so I could preserve my image of my character…you know, a guy competent enough to build a fire (he was a ranger bard after all) and who knew how to swim (he was a half-elf that bathed)…in other words, my skill choices were made so that my character WOULD NOT SUCK. Not because the skills were necessary for our game world…indeed they were never even used in game play.

Things like fire building and swimming were simply assumed. The players at my table (including the DM) cared more about getting to the next IMPORTANT conflict…you know, combat, saving throws, stuff like that. Stuff that game play was about. Stuff that was important.

However, that’s all fodder for my upcoming post on JB’s Axiom #1.

The point is, once you start pinning activities with skills…categorizing all the things you can do…then IF you limit the number of skill ‘points’ available to a character, THEN you begin to limit the options available to the player in game. If the game includes a fire-building or swimming skill, and a character doesn’t have that skill (because he took, say, spelunking instead) then he begins to avoid swimming and fire-building activities. The character becomes limited in his actions, and thus the player becomes limited in his or her impact on the game.

In addition to frustrating a player’s action (not to mention limiting imagination), this can lead to fairly one-dimensional characters in some instances. Say, I’m playing a non-human fighter with a 9 intelligence in Paizo’s D20 system (3.5, in other words). I get 1 skill point per level. Hmmm. So I can climb maybe. Or jump. You know what? My character is going to spend a lot of time picking fights and bashing away with “feats” because he ain’t got much else going for him. Can he be an acrobatic swashbuckler? Not really without Tumble. How about a savvy fencer? No Bluff. How about a philosophical warrior-monk? Not enough points for knowledge or theology.

You could have any of those types of fighter with normal B/X…of course, there would be no real “in-game” effects. Tumbling or feinting in combat is all subsumed into the abstract combat system…it’s taken into account. A 4th level fighter can make better ‘acrobatic attacks’ than a 1st level fighter because he has a better to hit roll. Simple; no skills nor skill rolls necessary.

When a designer puts explicit rules into a game (like a skill system) the designer is limiting action. Period. If you are afraid the players will be “shut down” by the DM then add a rule that says, the DM should listen to players, encourage their imagination, and give any suggestion a 50/50 chance of being implemented, assuming it doesn’t wreck game balance for the rest of the players.

That’s not very hard to do. Maybe the game designer failed his “game writing” skill roll.


  1. Yeah, we pretty much always assumed the basic tasks could be taken care of (heck, I can start a fire - without matches if ABSOLUTELY necessary and I'm pretty much a city boy...well, small town, but I digress). Anything special became an attribute check. Need a fire in a tundra with the wind howling and no shelter - seems unlikely, so let's say WIS check at -5 or something - or maybe INT. Always did it in conversation with the players when I DM'ed (guess I always had fair minded players - sometimes they'd up the penalty from what I suggested). Yeah, we toyed with skills when 2nd Ed came out - and dumped them really quick...

  2. I think "the dump" was a lot of folk's responses...and yet they kept getting brought up (I'm thinking of the "AD&D2 Complete XX" series with their "kits."

    After awhile it's like "why don't we just go back to playing one of those old Gygax versions...before non-weapon proficiencies." Of course Gygax was out of TSR and it was the 2nd edition stuff that was being supported. I washed my hands of it years ago.

    You can't make me play with skills, dammit!