Monday, June 24, 2019

Oh My.

I suppose I should know better than to post rants penned in the wee hours of the morning following copious consumption of red wine, but sometimes the urge to hit that little orange "publish" button is so darn hard to ignore. Ah, well.

However, I do know better than to expect any sort of agreement from such a contradictory stance...I mean, it's pretty silly in the light of day to pretend that the game hasn't been doing its damnedest to define the six ability scores as something other than class-assigned mechanics ever since the first set of rule books was published. In fact, it's as ridiculous for me to state otherwise as is the publishers' various attempts to do so.

So why bother doing so? Why get mad about something that already has buy-in from so many D&D players of all stripes and generations? Just because I want to poke the bear? Generate a bunch of comments on my blog.

No, no. It was just the wine, really...loosening my already lax self-restraint. I've been having these particular thoughts lately, see? About the ascendance of importance of ability scores. And it's really started to bug some hard-to-reach itch or a nagging irritation or kink in the neck that you just can't quite work out. Because it IS silly...the mechanical importance that has been attached, over time, to certain descriptive qualities that offered minor adjustments to specific individual game systems. What was once a bit of generosity has instead become all-encompassing definitions of one's fictional persona, leading to all sorts of unwelcome practices: perception rolls, social rolls, etc.

Once upon a time someone asked: "Why must my character be as stupid as me when HE has an intelligence of 18? Why must I, the shy and not-so-smooth gamer geek have to 'role-play' some interaction with an NPC, when my character has this humongous charisma stat? It's not like Bob doesn't get to "bend bars" with his 18/00 strength score...and Bob can't even do a chin-up in real life!"


"The characters are our avatars in the imaginary world. Ability scores provide numbers that describe certain measurable aspects that of the character that directly impact specific systems. Strength measures ability in melee combat and certain physical feats. Intelligence measures mental capacity for working magic and learning languages. Charisma measures the character's ability to make a first impression and engender loyalty in followers. Wisdom measures insight into the "clerical mysteries" and innate resistance to magical attacks. But that's ALL the numbers represent...they are a measure of certain measurable aspects. But just because you have the intelligence to master magic doesn't make you 'smart;' it means you've got a good handle on a particular career path when choosing your character's class."

That's what could have been said. It wasn't. Instead attempts have been made to fit agility, speed, reflexes, hand-eye coordination, depth perception, balance, etc. all under the single heading of "dexterity." Instead pages and pages of internet ink and silly arguments have been made trying to clearly delineate the distinctions between "intelligence" and "wisdom."

And designers from various (MOST) editions of D&D have attempted to use the ability scores as the basis for some type of skill system. And I hate skill systems...especially ones that try to use a universal mechanic to model all skills when clearly nothing could be LESS universal than "skills."

Is carpentry a skill? Is medicine a skill? I have little training in either of these, but I can learn to make a passable birdhouse or picnic table far easier than I could perform surgery. And not because it's easier to saw wood than cut flesh with a knife! But I made a working catapult when I was an eight-year old Cub Scout; I made a (poorly) working crossbow when I was but a year or two older...not that I could, for the life of me, remember now HOW exactly I did these things.

Once upon a time I was a single guy who would get dates with girls. Was this a skill? was a matter of learning particular social cues and finding the courage to talk to women (and the brains to listen to their own subjects of interest and not bore them overly with my own). I'd say it took me a long time to "learn" wasn't until I was 19 or 20 that I really got the knack for it after perhaps a decade of trying. And even afterward it was always a difficult task...always hard to control yourself when you're with a person who's making your emotional self fire off in all sorts of unpredictable ways.

Skill systems also fail to take into account atrophy. I was once a pretty good (stage) actor...though I always had difficulty with the memorization of lines. But it's been a quarter century since the last time I was on stage; I sincerely doubt I could turn in the same kind of performance I could at my "peak," when I was reeling off reams of blank verse and captivating audiences. And it's not because my body has degenerated (the way my knees have...I definitely couldn't fence the way I did when I was in my twenties!)...I just haven't practiced my craft in decades and I've allowed my skills to lapse. This happens...I got pretty expert at laying paving stones a couple summers back when I spent eight weeks doing nothing but landscaping my back yard. Today, I can barely remember the first thing about it.

Still, I'm digressing. Here's the deal: I don't disagree that a strong character shouldn't get some (slight) bonus to a task of physical labor for which she is untrained...nor that a weak character should suffer some penalty to the same. But for the game I play (and, sure, I understand not everyone plays as I do), I feel that a character's class IS the bulk of the character's training...that's where the emphasis should be and ability scores a minor consideration as far as representing a character's "skill."

Apologies for the inflammatory scribbles.


  1. Nothing controversial here, JB. You dislike skill systems. That’s okay.

    I do too, but even if I loved them, there would be no cause for acrimony.

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  3. I posted some of my thought on the matter on my Bat in the Attic blog.

  4. Regarding skill atrophy... there's a saying among musicians attributed to various famous classical and jazz musicians: "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. Two days, and the band knows it. Three days, and the audience knows it."

    How can an RPG skill system model that kind of need for continual practice? The bookkeeping sounds horrible.

  5. I share the same thoughts. I avoid using skill/ability checks when running B/X whenever I can. That's how Moldvay apparently used to do in his games.

    Quoting Moldvay at B4-Lost City "An elf or thief has a 50% chance to hear the hiss of escaping gas." A check completely unrelated to any ability scores or even the "hear noises" skill. It was a new situation, that required some awareness of the surroundings. Not simply hearing skill or "wisdom".

  6. I'm cool with hating on skill systems, especially the sort that mediate all aspects of exploration play to die rolls (perception, intimidate, spot hidden etc.) My suspicion is that the reliance on and expansion of these sorts of systems has a lot to do with the removal of many other mechanics that facilitate exploration play: encumbrance, meaningful timekeeping, supply resources, random encounters etc. When the only meaningful way to indicate that characters have failed at something is to inflict HP damage there's a limited palette for the GM to create exploration obstacles, and resolving such puzzles and obstacles largely becomes a pointless exercise that is made easier by reducing them to a simple pass/fail roll.

    I do wonder how one is supposed to adjudicate swinging through the rigging of a pirate ship or picking a lock without a skill or stat based system of some kind. I'm sticking with Stats and a few skills as a way of doing this that differentiates characters and classes. Even with it though GMs and games tend to require skill rolls too often. You don't need to roll to pick a lock when time isn't important, you don't need to roll to climb rigging when it's not in the adverse conditions of combat or a gale and any GM that makes you roll for it is wasting time.