In the past, there's been a great deal of speculation in the blogosphere about what makes a roleplaying game experience "old-school". For many, one of the differentiating features of an old-school game is the emphasis on player rather than character skill. In addition to my own cursory remarks on this subject, you can find a couple of other posts on this topic here and here.
I have been giving this matter more thought, as a result of my recent purchase of Dragon Age RPG. On the back cover of the Dragon Age RPG boxed set (for levels 1-5), they make the following, bold pronouncement:
"Welcome to Dragon Age, a roleplaying game of dark fantasy adventure for 2-6 players, age 14 and up ... This is old-school roleplaying, where the story is YOURS to create and the action is driven by YOUR imagination.”
Sometime over the next several days, I will try to share my thoughts on whether Dragon Age RPG delivers on its promise of old-school roleplaying. For now, I want to make a few comments about player vs. character skill.
Many will agree that reliance on Player Skill for problem-resolution is a defining feature of old-school play. By ‘Player Skill’ I mean that the players provide a description of the action they are taking, the method of problem-solving they are using, or they actually roleplay the encounter, and the referee bases the results on how convincing the player’s description was. Sometimes the referee will make an on-the-spot determination that the attempt succeeded, and other times, a probability of success will be estimated and the player will roll to see if they succeeded.
‘Character Skill’, on the other hand, almost always revolves around the rolling of dice, and comparing the result of that dice-roll to a target number related to a specific skill, which is often written on the character sheet.
It can be argued that, even in its earliest iterations, Dungeons and Dragons included Character Skills. For example, opening doors, finding secret doors and listening at doors were three Character Skills, all based on dice-rolls. But before someone grabs that bit of ephemera to demonstrate that D&D has always been a character-skill based system, it should be understood that those skills were universal: any character could attempt any of those actions. When I think of ‘Character Skill’ systems, they have the added feature of specialization: a character can only attempt an action if they have the related skill (some character-skill based RPGs allow you to attempt an unskilled action, but all of those systems still anticipate that a dice-roll will be made to determine your success).
One of the criticisms of old-school play, and particularly in its reliance on Player Skill, is that it disadvantages those who are not ‘quick on their feet’, are unconvincing speakers, or are shy, and that Player Skill is susceptible to referee fiat. Those criticisms are justified, to the extent that, in the past, there were some mediocre referees who were unable to perform their roles as independent arbiters. Among other benefits, Character Skill systems were seen as the panacea to bad DMing: those systems took power out of the hands of those bad DMs, and allowed the players to roll dice to see if they succeeded, rather than having to describe their actions or roleplay an encounter, and depend on the judgment of the referee to determine their success.
And thus was born the comparison between “roll-playing” and “role-playing”.
My preferences clearly lean towards Player Skill, but I understand why some are uncomfortable with that style of play: some have had bad experiences with arbitrary or capricious DMs; others enjoy designing characters as much as they enjoy playing the game; some find comfort and meaning in system-mastery that accompanies many character skill systems; still others prefer the additional certainty that character skill-based systems provide. I’m sure there are many other reasons to prefer character skill-based systems.
I prefer Player Skill systems, because they seem to provide the most opportunity for immersive role-playing. But that is scary for many people (including me) because it requires a measure of vulnerability that can be quite uncomfortable.
As much as I prefer Player Skill, though, one of the problems with Player Skill is its lack of applicability to one significant part of fantasy roleplaying games: combat.
To my knowledge, there has never been any thorough attempt to create a combat system based on Player Skill. I’m not a poker player, so i’m speaking through my hat here, but I imagine a good Player Skill combat system would be a bit like playing poker – knowledge of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, mannerisms and tell-tale clues would translate into your improved ability to defeat them in combat.
There is a measure of player skill currently involved in D&D combat. For example, knowing to use blunt weapons against skeletons, silver weapons against vampires and werewolves, or magical weapons against other creatures. But much of that seeming player skill is really system-mastery, not player deduction. I would love to use a combat system that employs Player Skill, in a meaningful way, to determine success in battle.