Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Scoundrel, Part 4: In Defense of Skill Systems

So, to get this out of the way, my take on Dungeon Crawl Classics is that I love the art, the extra dice are awesome, I'd love to be a player in a game or maybe a campaign some time, but I haven't seen anything yet that makes me want to switch over to it for the games I run.

Also, to transition to the subject at hand, in the section on skills, there's this: “Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is necessary to adjudicate a situation. Only make a skill check when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.”

Now go read this. Trollsmyth, by the way, is awesome, though he seems to have slowed down in his blogging recently, which is really too bad. One could do a lot worse than reading through his old posts.

So, after reading that, I'm going to argue two things.
  1. We can define skills as abstractions of actions the characters engage in, usually meshed with dice rolls to quickly determine success or failure.
  2. Skills are used to quickly move past parts of the characters' lives that are not what the particular game is about, but that are necessary supports for the parts of the characters' lives that the game is about.
Using this definition, and this purpose statement, we can see that skill systems in Dungeons and Dragons aren't a question of presence/non-presence but a question of where we're falling on a spectrum of skill systems.

For example, while I haven't actually read 0e, Sham tells me this on his old houserules site for his Solstice setting (click "Dungeon Tasks" on the left): “In OD&D, the following tasks were defined: Find Secret Passage(Door), Elf Sense Secret Door, Listen (Hear) at Door, and Force Open Door.”

These are all "abstractions of actions that characters engage in," adjudicated by dice rolls. For that matter, combat, turning undead and learning new spells (in systems that make you roll for that) are all skills. The game isn't about eavesdropping techniques, SWAT door-busting techniques, medieval combat techniques against imaginary monsters, relationships with imaginary gods that allow sending the undead to their graves, or learning arcane imaginary magical spells. All of these things are activities that are necessary for our PCs to engage in to support their dungeoneering or adventuring, so they need to be a part of the game, but they aren't what the game is about, and they are cumbersome or impossible, for the most part, to act out at a gaming table, so we assign values to chances of success and let the dice, more or less, do the rest.

This, as anyone who has played D&D knows, is both OK and necessary to the game.

Moving, perhaps, up the spectrum a bit, we also see a very loose and informal skills system with attributes. It's what I referenced in my last post: a PC attempts something and the ref decides that the task attempted falls under one or more of the PC's attributes. The PC's player then has to roll the applicable attribute score or under in order to succeed. This is very common in Old School play, from what I understand. It's suggested on pages 10 and 18 of Michael Shorten's Swords and Wizardry Quickstart.

Moving up the spectrum a bit more, we see that the Majestic Wilderlands contains a very simple skill system which has essentially, as I understand it, split each attribute up into smaller domains of actions that are still very, very general. In this way, PCs can have different levels of proficiency in different areas that fall under the same attribute score.

No one argues that Rob Conley and the Majestic Wilderlands aren't Old School. The Majestic Wilderlands are, after all, houserules for a retro-clone of 0e for a campaign setting that is the descendent of the first published D&D setting, and the product of three decades of continuous gaming in that setting, though not all with D&D, so far as I understand, I'll admit.

Moving even farther up the spectrum, and out of the realm of D&D (into other games that I know much less about, so please correct me if I'm wrong) we find that some other games out there that are "Old School" have skill systems. The first edition of Pendragon, for example, includes 36 conventional skills on its character sheet. It instructed me to add three more when I rolled up a character while trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it includes skill categories for 12 personality traits and a varying number of strong emotions, all of which are assigned numbers and which are used, in conjunction with dice, to determine things in the game. This is the game that James Maliszewski describes as "to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played." (I'd also talk about Traveller, which, from what I understand, is far enough up the spectrum that you could call it "skill-based" instead of "class-based," since it doesn't even have classes, but I haven't studied Traveller like I've studied Pendragon, so I won't.)

We can move up the spectrum even more, but I become less and less familiar with what I'm talking about, and the games further up the spectrum generally don't get considered Old School with the same unanimity as the ones I've described. I also think I've made my point: skills, as I've defined them, are compatible with, and even necessary to, Old School D&D and, to an even greater degree, other Old School RPGs. Skills are important for adjudicating actions that aren't what the game is about but that are necessary for what the game is about to be possible for the PCs. Even traveling along the spectrum of "skillsiness" doesn't automatically disqualify a game or house rule from being Old School, as my examples show.

So far as being Old School goes, then, skill system inclusion isn't a binary question, but a question of execution. How is the skill system designed and how does it mesh with the other parts of the game, both with design and actual play? That's the important thing, not whether or not a skill system is included in the game because, if it's a table-top RPG, it has a skill system (except maybe for some of those diceless RPGs, but I'm not even sure about those, since I haven't read them).