Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Skills are Dangerous: A Prelude

So, we had a really awesome session tonight. My players, for the first time, made it into the second level of Matt Finch's excellent The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom. The players seem to be getting the hang of the changes to the combat system that I enacted recently, throwing lots of waterskins full of flaming oil to kill things very quickly. Even so, we had two rolls on the Table of Death and Dismemberment, but with the worst to happen being a broken bone.

My players really did me proud this session. Examining some fungus-cages, they tried using crowbars and 3 meter poles to pry them open enough for those inside to get out. When that didn't work, they used potions of diminuation to shrink the captives enough to let them out.

When trying to destroy a machine that was basically a wood-chipper for people, they started dismantling it and then stuck a corner of one of the fungus-cages, which they had been unable to destroy so far, into it and jammed the machine until it broke.

When trying to get past some minions of the Shroom that was chasing them, they pointed to the half-transformed-into-a-podman-minion guy they had rescued and told the podmen that they were clearly friends, I had one player roll under his PC's charisma, with a bonus of +2 to his roll for creativity, and he succeeded… three times.

When faced with a 50-foot tall water-fall they had to scale, one player had his PC tie a loose knot by the grappling hook on a long length of rope and then loop the eye formed by the knot over the end of a 3-meter pole. Swinging the pole like a trebuchet, he sent the grappling hook and line flying. I had him roll under his strength score to get the hook 50 feet high and under his dexterity to actually hook it on anything. It took his PC three tries, and cost a wondering monster check, but it worked.

What do all of these scenarios have in common? They are all scenarios where a later edition of D&D probably would have trained my players to ask to make a skill roll to attempt to achieve their goals. If I had been running a later-edition game tonight, I would have probably still had a fun time- I greatly enjoy my friends, after all- but I would have missed out on the fun I had during these scenarios tonight.

I should emphasize that my players did roll to resolve some of these scenarios. They didn't only roll, though, and they couldn't have rolled without roleplaying first. With the bluffing past the podmen minions, I wouldn't have let the party roll to bluff the podmen until the player who came up with the idea told me what he was going to try to do. Then, after he told me concretely what he was trying to do, I let, no, had him roll. He, the player, told me concretely what he was trying to do; I the referee, told him his chances for success.

My player at the waterfall at first said, "we'll throw a grappling hook up to the top of the waterfall." I asked, "how are you going to throw the grappling hook up 50 feet?" and he came up with his answer, which was creative, entertaining, and plausible enough for me to let him try it, so I told him how to roll. Again, he gave me something concrete for his PC to try and I gave him targets to roll under to succeed.

In both cases, my players asked to do concrete things. They didn't ask to roll the dice- I told them to. That meant that, when they came to a problem, they didn't reach for the dice. Instead, they approached the problems creatively. Once they had figured out how to make problems I had no idea how they were going to get past solve-able, I assigned chances to their success. This process made it so that we all had the immense pleasure of witnessing or practicing creativity. That's one of my favorite parts of roleplaying, and it's especially a pleasure, as I'm refereeing, when my players defeat problems in creative ways I didn't see coming.

And this is why skill systems are dangerous. I'm going to argue in the next few days that skill systems aren't inherently bad or anti-Old School. The important nuance, though, is that skill systems are also dangerous if not handled properly. If I had been using a more invasive skill system tonight, we all could have missed out on a lot of fun. I'm going to argue that a skill system doesn't necessarily have to preclude the kind of fun we had tonight. What's important when designing a skill system, though, is that the designer (and the referee) makes sure that the skill system doesn't train the players to approach concrete problems the PCs face in an abstract way, reaching for the dice, knowing what skill they are going to use.

Training players to use concrete creative problem-solving skills is good. Training players to roll the dice as the only part of problem-solving they engage in is, in my very strong opinion, bad. Any skill system I approve of will have to pass this litmus test.