Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Question of Skills

Over at Hack & Slash, -C posted recently about skills and skill use in RPGs. The post cites extensive skill options as being an obstacle to new gamers, an impediment to gameplay for skilled players, and unnecessarily complex. The core question being presented was:

How is selecting a limited number of options from a list a superior method of customizing your character compared to using a limitless number of verbal options (words) to describe what your character is like?

There were a lot of good comments, and the dialog highlighted the debate between rules-light and rules-heavy gaming. Personal preference plays a major role in the choice between the two, but is there a happy medium out there? And, if so, has it been published, or is it still waiting to be published by a game designer or hobbyist?

Image from Players Handbook 2 published by WotC
Several commenters expressed an interest in scaling skill complexities. That is, general skills that could be approached from a rules-light perspective, allowing more on-the-fly adjudication by the GM, and then progressing to checks for more specialized options. A bone of contention involves the calculation of difficulty ratings for challenges and whether or not an exhaustive list of situational modifiers is necessary.

After our most recent D&D Encounters session I had an interesting chat with one of my players who had spent much of his RPGing career playing 4e D&D. He expressed some reservations about having a GM calculating difficulties, and a preference for clear and accessible modifiers that could be calculated by both GM and player. I respect his right to expect this when playing 4e D&D (considering that many of the modifiers in question are, in fact, presented in various portions of the rules) but I don’t believe it is realistic to require a GM with a table full of people to entertain to make such involved calculations on-the-fly. Some compromise has to be made. (Now, if someone were to create an app for GMs that, when the skill in question was entered, supplied a list of all possible circumstantial modifiers, I might sing a different tune.)

In play some players prefer to implement skill use by rolling a die for a check and indicating which skill they’re using, while others prefer to describe a proposed action and then enter into a negotiation with the GM about which skill would be appropriate for the check. Without getting into the specifics of individual skills (examples of which can be provided to illustrate the advantages of either of the play preferences cited above) I think both styles of play can coexist at the table. That said however, in my after-Encounters conversation, the point was presented that a player adhering strictly to the rules system in use might feel slighted by other players being allowed to check skills in an alternate manner.

When we sit down to play a classic board game, there are some agreed-upon rules that we follow, and everyone at the table is expected to abide by them, or work to achieve a consensus on how they are to be interpreted. By nature, an RPG promotes a variety of play styles, and actual play often involves a range of rule-use depending on the situations presented. The ultimate goal being not so much to “win”, as to resolve the conflicts that occur on the way to the end of the story or adventure. As a player, you have rights and responsibilities within the framework agreed upon by the group. The GM has a large influence on this, as they have agreed to act as an impartial actor in the game, presenting situations and adjudicating conflict resolution as necessary.

So, which is preferable, a range of codified skills, or the freedom of extemporaneous skill use?

Clearly, we need to consider player expectations, GM workload, and group consensus. Compromise becomes a necessary ingredient in order to make the game work. As we agree on the compromise of a combat system, or other RPG sub-systems, we need to do so with skills. There are many available models, ranging from no specifically-defined skills, to a few general skills, to a wide range of clearly defined skills. What does your play group choose?

What I’ve implemented at home is a tiered model. I have a long skill list of specific skills that players are free to purchase proficiencies in. I also explain to players that they may propose actions for which they do not have skill-specific expertise. I use the modified 4e difficulty ratings that include easy, moderate and hard options for different levels of challenges. The level of a challenge is something I either pre-assign, or adjudicate on the fly based on my interpretation of the circumstances (is it an Epic action like plugging a volcano to prevent the destruction of a city, or a Paragon action like convincing the Lord to evacuate the city due to it’s impending destruction, or an Heroic action like leaping across a lava flow with a baby in your arms as the city is engulfed?) Once I have determined the level, I can judge whether or not the task will be easy, moderate or hard for the character.

If a character is trained in a skill that applies to a challenge, the target for their roll is drawn from the range at the base level of the challenge. If a character is not trained, they may use the appropriate ability modifier to add to their roll, but the level of the challenge will be considered higher (reflecting the fact that they are not trained, but may have some innate capacities.)

It is not a perfect system, but it is modular and has several ranges for difficulty modification that may be applied, and negotiated with the player, without necessitating consulting a rulebook to determine the specific modifiers for climbing a rain-slicked wall covered with algae (for example.) My goal is to provide some expected structure for those players that feel more comfortable with that, while allowing others who prefer a looser approach the freedom to attempt virtually any action that they can imagine.

It’s a challenging question, and underlines one of the key play-style differences between vintage and modern RPGs. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts and opinions on the matter!


  1. I think 4th has (my) balance down: a list of skills that are a good starting point. Page 42 of the DM's Guide is very clear that powers are not the end, but the starting, point.

    Good to finally comment on your page, sir! I'm impressed.

  2. I like the 4e skill list, but I've found that many of my players seem to struggle with it. Either not enough specificity, or inspirational material to get them going. Of course, some of that may have been due to my GMing, but I find that while there were some eloquent bits in the various Players Handbooks and Dungeon Masters Guides, not enough people seem to read them...