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.


  1. Cool. Being specific and detailed on what the characters do is way more engaging than rolling dice, say to search a 10x10 area. Older games encouraged this kind of play by not having a formal system at all. I was just talking about this on the forums for the DCC RPG beta tests.

  2. Okay. So what if none of your players had the brilliant idea of using their pole to catapult the grappling ? I admit the outcome is awesome, but the whole thing relies on your players being creative enough to try this kind of stuff. Lacking this, this waterfall could quickly become a frustrating dead-end, couldn'it ?

  3. Sounds like a fun and productive session!

  4. Great post.

    nigralbus -- Re: dead ends ... that is a feature, not a bug. Adventurers sometimes come to dead ends and have to think of another way. That is one reason most 'old school' dungeons are nonlinear.

  5. The RPG that I wrote and published under Silver Gryphon Games, Ingenium, uses d10+Attribute+X as its base mechanic. It doesn't have skills per se, but many of the Talents in the system (it uses ability trees rather than classes or skills) give bonuses to the d10+Attr roll in specific instances.

    I think that's not incompatible with the old school feel you describe here... what do you think?

  6. @nigralbus: I'm mostly just going to echo what mikemonaco said. If the players hadn't had any ideas concerning how to scale the waterfall, they wouldn't have scaled the waterfall. This would have been especially awkward for them because they were being chased by podmen, and so their previously plural number of options for exiting the dungeon had been narrowed down to scaling the waterfall or facing the podmen. In short, if they had not been able to figure out a way to scale the waterfall, they would have been met with failure, and, in this particular case, with failure of a quite deadly flavor. In other cases, their failure would not have had such dire consequences: they'd just find another way. Without the opportunity for failure, though, success becomes meaningless. If you know you haven't earned an achievement, at least in my way of thinking, then, while you and everyone else might pretend you achieved something, you know you didn't really achieve anything and it is meaningless to you. Does that make sense?

    @Ben Overmyer: I don't think that's necessarily incompatible at all. I don't think that very specific mechanics, especially for games that *aren't* D&D and *are* new, can, because of the particular numbers added to particular dice rolls, cease to be Old School. It's true that the use of Talents in the equation slides Ingenium a bit farther up the spectrum of "skillsiness" than the particular scenarios I described, but I don't think that that has to be a bad thing.

    What I think is important for the "Old School feel" that this post was about is that whatever the game is about- and I don't know what Ingenium is about- isn't reduced to dice-rolling, but gets roleplayed out.

    Old School D&D, as I understand it, is about exploration, broadly defined, so the activities of exploration in the scenarios got roleplayed, with only actions that were uncertain as to outcome, like bluffing and being able to hook the grapple onto a rock, rolled for while, say, the combats that the party got into were abstracted out to one-minute rounds and lots of dice rolls.

  7. "Old School D&D, as I understand it, is about exploration"

    Initially, yes. I think as the years went by, though, even Basic became more about vanquishing evil and discovering fantastic treasure. With every edition, though, the majority of the game rules seem to have been about combat. I daresay that the rules in most RPGs are primarily combat-oriented these days.

  8. What the rules cover with the most detail, though, isn't necessarily what the game, as written, is about, as Trollsmyth points out. But, yes, while I don't have much experience with any editions of D&D other than 3.5 and S&W, the rules, and the focus, from what I read around the OSR blogosphere, and from what I read when I wonder off to check out what other gamers are saying, shift as you progress to later editions. 4e, from what I hear, is very much *about* tactical fighting, while I'm not even sure what 3.5 is about. I never studied it for purposes of running it and I haven't read as much theoretical criticism of it as I have of 4e.

    I also think that's a lot of what the OSR is about, or at least what one of the OSR's conceptual starting points is: reacting against the shift in D&D from a game about exploration to a game about fighting. It's about other things too, and it goes off in new directions, sometimes even taking 4e and homebrewing it with Old School ideas instead of discarding it out-of-hand, but I think that this idea of reacting against a shift in what the point of a game with "D&D" stamped on it is a crucial cornerstone to understanding the OSR.

  9. Sounds like a great gaming session. Your approach to the chances of success sounds very much like what I would do in the DM's chair. Certainly, some of the most enjoyable moments in D&D are when players come up with ideas that completely surprise you, and you have to come up with a "chance of success" at the drop of a hat. Even more fun when they succeed!