Saturday, March 20, 2010

Old-School Gaming: Player vs. Character Skill

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.


adventurematerials said...

Good post, and I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Dragon Age. I have been on the fence about getting it, even though I am very intrigued--I just haven't heard enough about it.

I'm also not sure how the very "new-school" computer game can translate to an old school pen-and-paper.

Cameron said...

The attempt to change RPG combat into something more logical has been a personal hobby horse I've been riding for years. I finally, just today, in fact, gave up the fight, and I've developed a nifty maxim:

"Any attempt to create a fully satisfactory combat system can only succeed in proving that the creation of a fully satisfactory combat system is impossible."

Padre said...

Good post, I always assumed when players made decisions or interacted they were free to do what they wanted unless that was something covered by a specific skill in Dragonquest. The real key was trying to make sure players didn’t rely upon dice rolls for everything. “The GM will stint those players who constantly request use of the perception & other rolls when it comes time for experience awards. A player who allows dice-rolls to usurp the responsibilities of his mind deserves no better.”

Banesfinger said...

One of the advantages of Character skill over player skill is that a DM can give a bonus to a skill roll if that player describes his actions well.
I'm not sure if there is any way that Player skill can benefit from Character skill...

Obiri said...

I love DragonAge and am now playing through my second time. I've seen the RPG and wondered how good it was. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

Talysman said...

I'm not so sure about the early 2 in 6 rolls being a skill system, although I think it wound up being interpreted as such. I think of it more as a chance of misfortune -- the door sticks, the spike slips, a rock comes loose, the rope breaks. These rolls create tricky situations. Player skill can get you out of these situations, or possibly give you a bonus on a saving throw.

Andreas Davour said...

I find your comment about Player Skills in combat most interesting. Food for though, indeed.

Rognar said...

It's not just bad DMs. Even with a good DM, it can be frustrating if the player expectations and the DM rulings are consistently out of sync, something I saw quite frequently in my AD&D days. I or another player would come up with some plan that we thought was awesome with a very high probability of success, while the DM would view it as a long shot and set the probability accordingly. Since it just based on opinions, no one is "wrong", but if it happens frequently, it can be a game killer.

NetherWerks said...

Very well said. The issue is quite possibly going to be a defining one for determining what is and is not Old School, until someone finds a good way to merge the two into a third alternative. I dislike the false notion that one precludes or excludes the other. We just ahve to find a way to make better use of our respective tools both as players and as DMs. But in 30+ years this apparent conflict hasn't gotten settled very well, has it? Maybe it's time for a different approach from another angle?

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Thanks for the comments. If Timeshadows were here, I would again be accused (quite rightly by the way!) of tilting at windmills.

Still, combat is one of those areas where the DM is given no latitude to "just say yes". In fact, the combat matrices are perhaps the original DnD character skill system.

For a while, in the 1990's, I thought the Harn combat system was the answer, but it's just another character skill system, using opposed rolls.

Even in my much-beloved Magic Realm game, the combat system is largely character skill. The only time player skill emerges in MR combat is in PvP play, and only then in the run-away or fight decision, and against a few characters who only have a handful of combat strategies, which their opponents can use to their advantage.

Jarilo said...

Very good article! I really enjoyed reading it and your thoughts about using player-skills in combat are interesting, despite the fact I am still not sure about that. On one hand I am a big friend of player-skills, but on the other hand I still like presence of some chance in the combat. Anyway, I am looking forward to your next article about using player skills in combat =)).

The Lord of Excess said...

I'm debating what to take the plunge on for an old school fantasy RPG ... Dragon Age, Labyrinth Lord, swords and wizardry ... or what. I'm looking to utilize some classic D&D content ... perhaps even an entire 2nd edition setting (Birthright ... and before anyone knocks it ... I like it and have immense nostalgia for it). I've payed LL at a con and had some pretty good fun with it ... but ... I don't know if it would be best for what I'd like whatever system I take the plunge on to do.

Pcount Sigils said...

I am working on bashing together Magic Realm with Fighting Fantasy, and the combat system is starting to look more and more like Magic Realm with a continuous flow of time for each combatant, rather than the clean breaks between rounds of action. No initiative rolls needed, fast combatants get a definite tactical advantage, but the slow and heavies are hard to kill and are deadly when they finally connect. Still a lot of character skill, but the non-random nature of close up combat means that it's more like checkers than craps.

Pcount Sigils said... ... this is a beta-test of how the combat could flow.

boker: a hasty and inept scribe.

Alan Harrison said...

Hey, I'm running a dragon age game right now (play by post):