Friday, July 17, 2009

Why skills checks?

That's a genuine question, not a rant or a flame or an invitation to beat up on any version.

Why do we have skills checks in RPGs?

This occurred to me as I was reading the new version of the Mechwarrior RPG, and as I perused a prototype AD&D skills system from the Knights & Knave board. In reading and considering an AD&D skill system, and how it would fit into my game, I had to ask "why"?

In game systems I've played since: microlite74, Swords & Wizardy and OSRIC/AD&D - there is no "skill system". That's left up to the Game Referee to houserule.

I can't think of a single time I thought "I wish I had a skill system". Rather, I've looked at situations and used a combination of attribute checks (roll under your attribute and I've assigned modifiers) or simple "x in 6 odds" checks - all of which I've considered including the proverbial +1 or +2/-1 or -2 if applicable. Most of the time, I've used simple logic - Aeli is from noble birth and would most likely know about XYZ legend, so I'll say "yes" and play on. When the situation is truly random, or failure is interesting, I use attribute checks with modifiers based on past play and character development.

Now, admittedly, I use the thief systems "by the book" for AD&D/OSRIC, and I do allow specific checks as called by the rules/mechanics. (e.g. listen, open doors, ranger track) Perhaps they're so ingrained into my game DNA that I don't really think of them as a "system" as much as exceptions to the general rules?

When I read RPG Theory sites like Whitehall Paraindustries, and they talk about skill systems, I tend to ... zzzzz... mainly because I have a mental block on the applicability. There's a lot of time and thought given to them - but there must be something that I missing, because my disinterest must be just me?

To be honest, the only skill system that felt simple and right enough to me was the microlite20 skill mechanic which worked as thus:
There are just 4 skills : Physical, Subterfuge, Knowledge and Communication. Roll higher than the given Difficulty Class to succeed.
  • Skill rank = your level + any bonus due to your class or race.
  • Skill roll = d20 + skill rank + whatever stat bonus is most applicable to the use + situation modifiers

For example, Climbing would use Physical + STR bonus. Dodging a falling rock is Physical + DEX bonus. Finding a trap is Subterfuge + MIND bonus. Disabling a trap is Subterfuge + DEX bonus.

(It should be noted that m20 has 3 attributes: STR, DEX and MIND (think combo of INT and WIS)

I also found that I conceptually the Mechwarrior RPG mechanic of combining two relevant attributes for a check (so climbing would be STR+DEX, dodging a rock would be DEX+WIS, finding a trap would be INT+WIS and disabling it would be DEX+INT, for example.) I have no idea how I'd adjudicate this with the d20 or 3d6 roll system - I'm sure I could munge something up, but at the end of the day, the power/simplicity of the d6 (or d10) appeals to me.

Is this just me not seeing something that I'm missing?

48 comments:

Will Douglas said...

If you are missing something, I'm missing it too.

Mad Brew said...

I guess it comes down to how much Verisimilitude and variety you like in your game.

While using straight ability score modifiers and/or level to help determine the likelyhood of a character being able to accomplish something is fine and simple, some people like more.

You mention you use the thief skills without question, why? Why don't you just use a combination of attribute checks or odds?

Well, I would guess because you don't think that just anybody should be able to accomplish those actions because they require skill and training.

People who like skill systems include more tasks than just the thief or ranger skills in the category of "not just anyone should be able to do this."

You could also make an arguement that just because the guy has massive strenght doesn't mean he can climb well or jump far. Also, just because the wizard is smart, doesn't mean he has read anything about a specific lore.

You could also get by without a full blown skill system by allowing players to assign a few traits to their characters, such as "climber," "long jump champion," or "learned in the secrets of Yog-Sothoth." Then when their characters encounter situations dealing with these traits, they get better odds or bonuses.

So I guess what I am trying to say is, skills lend a more realistic approach to determining the outcome of an action and also allow players to separate their character from the pack and give them more opportunities to shine.

jamused said...

It allows differentiation between characters that are true to life, without proliferating classes. Michael Jordan possessed phenomenal stats and many levels in his class, but despite being a candidate for best basketball player of all time, wasn't even adequate to play Major League baseball. That would be impossible in a system where his class was Athlete, so if you want to make that kind of distinction between characters--which many players do--you either have to have Basketball Player and Baseball Player as separate classes, a GM willing to basically override everything the stats and levels say in order to impose those distinctions, or you represent it via Skills. Skills seem the obvious way to go, since it neatly answers the questions of what the character's background has prepared him for, and what does he have to do to get better at it?

That doesn't mean you have to go whole-hog with an elaborate point-buy system where every character has 30 skills neatly categorized as ones everybody can do versus trained only versus class-only, but it is really desirable and pretty simple to at least allow someone to be awesome at some specialty while being mediocre or worse at some other specialty.

Fitzerman said...

Well, why have any systems at all, right? Games have rules, and different games emphasize different styles of play. I'm really happy with the skill system in Burning Wheel for instance, because it promotes an interesting style of play. On the other hand, I think D&D is the most fun when its style is light and breezy, so if I'm going to play any variant of D&D I'd prefer that the skills be kept in the background as much as possible.

I'm using a rudimentary skill system in my current Swords and Wizardry game that I think works out just about perfectly for my preferred D&D style. Each player chooses 2 things that their character is good at (picking locks, seducing women, whatever) and it's assumed that they're better at those things than anyone who doesn't have them written down. When there's a need to resolve a situation involving one of those "skills", they just remind me that they're good at it and I either let them do it or factor that into the resolution roll somehow. It's worked out really well so far!

Tacoma said...

I think the skill system thing is there because people have a system for determination of fighting and spellcasting but not for anything else. They feel like if you roll to see if you hit someone, you should have to roll to see if you can fix the wagon.

And maybe there should be some roll, in some cases, since things can often come down to luck.

Personally, for stuff that isn't fighting, I use just one system. I decide whether the action is guaranteed to succeed, or if its success is in question, or if it is guaranteed to fail.

If success is questionable, you get to roll d6 and add the appropriate statistic modifier (-1 if less than 6, +1 if more than 14, +2 if more than 18). You need a 4+.

Thieves gain 1/3 their level as a bonus to thiefy type skills. Rangers get 1/3 level bonus to wilderness skills.
NPC "normal men" have a profession class - like Sailor or Blacksmith. They get +1/3 level to rolls for their profession.

And that's pretty much it. Most things fall into "you succeed" or "you fail" so rolls don't happen all the time.

The Rusty Battle Axe said...

I have never been excited about skill sets in my early Holmes Basic and AD&D gaming experiences. We're playing Castles & Crusades now without skill rules. Gygax did create skill rule set for C&C that is, for the most part, a repristination of the AD&D system. We haven't used them. C&C has the Siege Engine system, which can be used to resolve just about anything, and we have only used it for resolving the class abilities of thieves and rangers (abilities presented in their class descriptions) and opening stuck doors/lifting gates. I don't have a dogmatic reason to not use skill sets, but our sessions go well without them and the players are happy with things as they are.

JB said...

Oh, my, god...I've been typing up a three-part rant on this EXACT SAME SUBJECT all morning. And here I thought I was finally steering clear of other blogger's subjects. Damn damn damn!

: )

Matthew James Stanham said...

I suspect it is because people "love their characters". They want to know how good they are at cooking, singing, push ups, swimming, etcetera, and they want to be able to numerically compare those abilities with other characters so that they can gauge how good they are at them.

Chgowiz said...

@MadBrew - I use thief skills out of habit. I agree, it doesn't make sense, but it's more adjudicating what a thief does via rules as written. Does it make sense or balance? No, but I'm OK with that and the players that play AD&D are OK with that - so far. Now, could I do this with attribute checks? Yes, I have - when non-thief characters have tried to do thief things. The thief gets special privileges in AD&D, so I leave it at that.

In my wife's Swords & Wizardry, there are no thief skills, so trap disarmament has been her bashing doors. LOL. No, seriously. Aeli doesn't do things in subtle fashion. (@theprincesswife will no doubt give me hell for that comment...) The vast majority of her "checks" when skills were involved are the d6 +/- some modifier I apply.

So I'm hearing you say "skills give some realism" - OK, that's a very valid point. I will admit that I probably chuck realism out the window in favor of simplicity and abstractness. To be honest, I haven't missed it. Is your use of skills a personal preference or something your players have asked for? Or just doing rules as written?

PatrickWR said...

Skills are applicable in situations where they truly represent skilled labor: crafts, trades or techniques that legitimately separate one character from another. A blacksmith with a Craft or Trade of 4 should be better than a blacksmith with a Craft or Trade of 1 (just pulling numbers/stats from thin air).

Chgowiz said...

@jamused - then why have attributes? See, this is where it gets all stuck in my head. Attributes = the raw characteristics, e.g. Michael Jordan's raw athletic ability. Skills = ??? I can't say experience because XP and level would reflect that - and combat skills appropriately. If I had MJ doing that final fade basket, I'd do a d6 check, give it a 50/50 and give him a +2 for what I know about him - awesome godlike basketball player. If I had him swinging a baseball bat, he'd get straight 50/50.

To me, the experienced characters doing something they're good at gets the +1 or +2 - which I guess is my substitute for the skills.

So I'm hearing you say "It's a way of giving characters differences so they can be unique, above and beyond their 'raw talent' (attributes)."

OK, I can see that - I think I already do that? It's not codified in rules, but it's how I referee the game. Is that a bad thing?

Chgowiz said...

@Fitzerman - that's what I'm trying to figure out - why have a skills system? What's the purpose? I've never really tried to do skills.

Now, your system of awarding penalties and bonuses sounds a lot like what I do, but I apply it to a d6/d10 and it's not codified in a player's background, more that it comes out in play as it goes. How do you avoid too generic of a statement? Just a negotiation with the player?

Chgowiz said...

@Tacoma - the "anything else" category - OK, so I hear you saying that skills fits in where combat/stated mechanics don't - so it sounds like my attributes or odds is just another way of saying "skills" with GM adjudication of when someone gets better odds than others. So maybe I'm not missing anything?

Donny_the_DM said...

Without skills, the attributes do all of the talking.

Then you have a situation where a smart player will "game" the free-form system using their own personal "skills" to effect a desireable result.

Having a character sitting on a INT score of 16+ is a good example. 16 INT is genius level or above...how many people have you played with that could actually beat stephen Hawking at chess?

Or a WIS 18 cleric...shouldn't he be able to solve pretty much any riddle posed to him in minutes?

Skills (and their asociated points) are IMO, a necessary level of abstraction between the character sheet, and the very real and usually (relatively) unremarkeable person running it.

If we always made characters that were ourselves on paper - it wouldn't be much of an issue, but that's not why we play :)

Chgowiz said...

@Patrick - since you've played in some of my games - do you think skills were missed/needed? If so, why?

I'm really honestly asking, because now I'm curious if I'm "missing something" from my games that my own prejudices (the desire for extremely light/simple rules/mechanics) have kept me from.

Timeshadows said...

I don't know how to break this to you, Chg', but you just made your own Skill Check System.

Chgowiz said...

@Donny:
Skills (and their associated points) are IMO, a necessary level of abstraction between the character sheet, and the very real and usually (relatively) unremarkeable person running it.




OK, so I'm hearing you say abstraction, MadBrew says realism, jamused says "differentiation". What I'm hearing is that there's no real simple "plug in point" to using skills, versus a simple plug in point to using a combat mechanic.

Interesting. That may explain why skill systems always felt awkward to me and why thief skills don't. Almost like thief skills are a simple "beat the odds mini game" with specific things - and skills were far more generic.

The thing is that I encourage play and the player's execution of their character's actions as more important than playing off their character record sheet. (CRS) I think too much concentration on the CRS leads to min/max style of play. Like I said in an earlier comment, I think I have a prejudice against anything that feels complicated or "min/max"ish.

@Timeshadows - I already knew that my attributes/odds were a "Do something" mechanic - but I see so much emphasis and thought on Skill Systems, I wanted to know what I was missing. Apparently -- it's not as bad as I thought?

PatrickWR said...

@Chgowiz: No, I don't think we need skills. I trust that you'll give me fair odds for a particular task. When in doubt, I'll just grab a d6 and "roll low" as you so often tell us to do! :)

Chgowiz said...

No, I don't think we need skills. I trust that you'll give me fair odds for a particular task. When in doubt, I'll just grab a d6 and "roll low" as you so often tell us to do! :)


I wonder if that's where the need for skill systems arose - coming up with a codified way of giving someone odds on doing a task that doesn't deserve an automatic yes/no? That players couldn't/wouldn't trust the GM to run a good game? (Not that I'm saying I run a good game, but the player trusts me to give him good odds, which actually really humbles me.)

jamused said...

See, I think an attribute check is more min-max-ish, since that means that somebody with high Dex, say, outperforms somebody with lower Dex in every conceivable task that relates to Dexterity.

Chgowiz said...

@jamused - not necessarily.

If I take two characters, one has 14 DEX, one has 10 DEX - the 14 (or 16) DEX character only has a +1 bonus to most things. That's pretty important to me.

I also think that a 16 DEX is indeed going to outperform a 10 DEX character. That is as it should be. The 16 DEX was a straight legal 3d6 roll and the character gets the benefit. That also is important to me.

So, if the check is to climb a sheer wall, or walk along a tightrope, then the 16 DEX is going to outperform, hands down. In fact, in my world, I would probably just say "yes" in this case to the 16 and say "roll" to the 10.

However, someone who is disarming a trap doesn't automatically win with a 16 DEX - I'm going to look at their WIS and/or INT and/or experience. The +1 probably will come into play, but someone with 10 DEX and 16 WIS/INT has just a good of chance of disarming a trap as the other, in my game.

Now I'm sure you could shoot holes in that all day, I'm sure we could shoot holes in any approach. :D I guess my point to this is that I was trying to see if I'm missing something by not embracing a skills system.

Alan said...

@Chgowiz - but should someone with a Dex of 16 be better at acrobatics than someone with a Dex of 12 that has trained in it for some time?

I see skills as accomplishing two things: (i) reducing the emphasis of stats [not eliminating, but reducing], and (ii) allowing for a bit of differentiation between characters of the same class.

However, I can't say that I've found a good skills system to graft onto Basic D&D, and so have done without for now. It seems that most skill systems add too much "fiddlyness" and take away from the quick simplicity of BD&D.

Chgowiz said...

@Alan - in your example, if I knew that the character for whatever reason was highly skilled at acrobatics, even with DEX 10, I'd give them better odds than DEX 10 w/out background.

Like I said, we could poke holes all day. I think I'm getting the sense from this conversation that I'm really not missing anything as long as I don't feel like I'm missing anything, or my players aren't rising up in revolt. Heh.

Uthred said...

I think the point behind skills is they allow for more granularity than using general attributes, and they allow for characters to specialize in a subset of what attributes cover. The attribute associated with a skill is the base for the unspecialized, where extra experience or study allows for more expertise. It's a more real-world approach. Consider intelligence; if someone has a high intelligence, they have a higher base chance of understanding most things based on life experience. They could conceivably master anything that requires that attribute. This does not mean they automatically excel in everything they do not choose to study. As a real-world example, someone who choses to study physics would be more adept in that area than someone with a much higher IQ who has never studied physics. Just using attributes, the higher INT will always have the edge, regardless of the task. I agree that Just using attributes is much simpler, but too simplistic for players who prefer more specialization to make their characters stand out. Some players enjoy that extra layer of detail, where some think it complicates the action. One more thing - things like feats or skills allow for players to participate more depending on the situation and their skill sets. Otherwise, tasks will always tend to be performed by the same characters who possess the highest value for the necessary attribute.

thanuir said...

Skills are exactly as necessary as a combat system - that is, not at all.

They are still nice, however. They help players in decision making; if they don't know what to do, they can look at the character sheet for inspiration. (My character is a good cook; how might I use it here?)

They help the GM in decision making. It is easier to say that a task is easy/difficult/hard/near impossible for an average character and then let the skills sort it out than it is to declare how difficult a particular task is for a particular character. Takes less thinking.

Skills allow players to say things about their characters. Want to use persuasion or intimidation?

Skills can be used to make different species or cultures actually different. Maybe some culture does not have access to firebuilding as a skill, or maybe orcs only have one social skill that involves intimidating, lying and threatening; they can't try any more benign approach.

Skills transfer information about the characters. Knowing that the character has mechanics at 1 means that he is pretty good at repairing stuff; someone with mechanics 2 would be true professional.

Skills allow characters to develop mechanically at whatever speed the designers and the GM want.

As a summary: Skills help at communication and have other minor benefits. Communication is more difficult the more players there are involved and hence skills become more useful in those situations.

Chgowiz said...

@thanuir and uthred -

I get why you guys like skill systems - yet I can't help but think that I'd rather my players define their characters through play and through how they do things. I'd rather learn that said player is good at mechanics through his/her taking part in situations where that's necessary - and her play defines her as a mechanic versus as a computer jock. I guess I like my games to have the play define the person, not the CRS.

One thing I will definitely say:
Skills allow players to say things about their characters. Want to use persuasion or intimidation?

I will not allow a dice roll to dictate if a player persuades a guard to turn the other way, or if a player scares the bejeezus out of a goblin enough to get information - in my games, that's where the role playing comes in. That's where player skill (as versus character/on paper skill) is something I want to encourage at my table.

Badelaire said...

"I will not allow a dice roll to dictate if a player persuades a guard to turn the other way, or if a player scares the bejeezus out of a goblin enough to get information - in my games, that's where the role playing comes in. That's where player skill (as versus character/on paper skill) is something I want to encourage at my table."

Then, my good man, skill systems are not for you.

I'm coming into this discussion late, and most people have said what I have to say. Heck, in my T&B RPG, there are no "Attributes"; everything a character can do is represented by a "skill" which is a combination of a number of factors, including natural talent, learned skill, etc..

It's all about system design. Statistically, as long as you're reaching the same statistical probabilities and it's not taking any more effort, call 'em whatever you want; attributes, skills, perks, schticks, whatever. The point is to determine how good a character is at doing something.

However, if one is a GM who just can't "let go", and has to meddle in how everything is done, then skills-based systems might not be good for that GM. I personally do not approach writing or designing systems with the understanding that the person "behind the screen" is able to make the right call every time - thus the skills and difficulty levels / target numbers / percentile chances / whatever serve as the guidelines for success and/or failure.

I did write a column about "skills" and D&D a while back. Not sure if it's exactly germane to the discussion here, but it shows that really, skills are just a resolution mechanic. D&D is filled with, literally, dozens of different resolution mechanics, many of which improve as a character grows in ability, which I consider the definition of a "character skill"; a non-inherent ability that can become more effective over time and experience.

Ultimately, if you don't need 'em, don't use them, but in many systems (i.e., not D&D), they are very well implemented.

Chgowiz said...

@Beldaire
I personally do not approach writing or designing systems with the understanding that the person "behind the screen" is able to make the right call every time - thus the skills and difficulty levels / target numbers / percentile chances / whatever serve as the guidelines for success and/or failure.

I don't think I'll get it right every single time, which is why I'll enter into that negotiation with the player. "Hmm.. you want to swing across the boiling hot lava, toss a photon torpedeo into a hole no bigger than a whomprat, then swing back over and land on the idol's shoulder and take his eye out. OK, you've done something crazy like that before, and what's your Dex? 16? OK, I'll give you a 2 in 6 that works. What do you think?" and we'll go back and forth.

If that's meddling, then it's a good thing, at my table. :)

You're right - everything is ultimately a resolution and I'm using one thing versus another. Like I said, it's probably a prejudice born of too many skills/feats/powers that end up making the game something I don't want to play.

I've not gotten into the Mechwarrior 3e skill mechanics enough to decide whether I like 'em, but I do know that the simpler and fewer, the better for me. I think that encourages a person to truly "play" versus read a number off a sheet and roll against it.

It's been really interesting to see how people feel about it though.

Badelaire said...

What you described in your dialogue is, simply put, setting a difficulty/percentage chance/whathaveyou. Skill systems do it all the time; you're just winging it every time you do it.

As many other people have noted, players (and GMs) like to know where characters stand in terms of what they are capable of. If I've got a stealth of 75%, then I know that in a general situation without a lot of oddball circumstances, I've got a three-out-of-four chance of successfully being sneaky. If I have to let my GM hem and haw over what my chances of success are every time, I will quickly get annoyed.

Skills provide benchmark values for certain tasks. If the benchmark has to be re-envisioned every time from scratch, then the players are constantly working from a place of vague uncertainty. Some players don't mind that, some do.

Now, that doesn't mean character play and development and the abilities of the player can't have input - that's where GM fiat, I think, becomes very important. If a player plays a character as very good when making snap decisions, then perhaps give them a little positive "nudge" when the character leaps before they look. If a character is from a noble family, give 'em a bump up when dealing with other aristocrats. But frankly, rather than having to "wing it", most half decent skill systems can just take this into account ("Diplomacy 60%, +10% when dealing with Aristocrats").

Again, D&D is, I think, somewhat unique in that the strong class-based abilities design, plus leveling, take the place of a lot of "skill development", and therefore adding another "skill system" layer feels awkward. On the other hand, systems like Rolemaster have, I think, pretty successfully mated levels and skills. That it is awkward in D&D is more due to the fact that it's usually "bolted on" than any notion that skills are bad in D&D.

Chgowiz said...

I can think of where skills did make a difference in a game - Traveller. Now I will admit that I've only played Traveller a few times, and the vast majority were almost 25 years ago - but Traveller was a game where skills were your character - more so than attributes (at least that is how we played it... which may have been wrong :D )

Andreas Davour said...

I'm in a hurry so I'll be sloppy and post without reading all the comments...

I just realized one thing about T&T. Everything you do is based on stats. Even the system with Talents in 7th ed, which is a weak "skill" system, is a stat roll.

So, compare this to Call of Cthulhu, where you never do anything at all with our stats after character generation.

The game mechanics are in principle just the same. Your way of making a stat check is a skill system. :)

Andrew Modro said...

Wow, quite the discussion!

I like skill systems because I design my characters from the inside out. I build a mechanical skeleton, and that provides me a foundation on which to build. (That's part of why I don't like "define your own trait" systems, I think -- I feel like I have nothing to grab hold of or build onto.) I like to take a look at what I've built and ask myself, "What kind of person would this be? What would these experiences do to his or her personality? What does this indicate is important to him/her?"

I also like to have a more concrete definition of just what the character can do. I don't mind GM fiat -- I won't play with GMs I don't trust -- but I like having something to fall back on, or something to check at a glance. That's just my preference, of course.

Regarding this:

I will not allow a dice roll to dictate if a player persuades a guard to turn the other way, or if a player scares the bejeezus out of a goblin enough to get information - in my games, that's where the role playing comes in. That's where player skill (as versus character/on paper skill) is something I want to encourage at my table.

I don't believe players should be penalized for wanting to play something they aren't by having something like that hinge on player capability. If a shy, quiet player wants to play the charismatic party "face", I say game on, and let the character's skills handle it. Now, I don't think this should replace all roleplaying, but I don't think such a player should be restricted from being able to play such a character simply because he/she isn't that charismatic personally.

James V said...

I lack the attention span today to read the entire thread, but I would like to argue that sometimes emulation of a particular millieu inspires the need for skill checks and systems, particularly milieus that seek out the "realistic" portrayal of PCs, in a way like jamused mentions, emphasizing the existence of people with certain sets of knowledge and skill within a game's established classes..

Player of Kee said...

Personally, I love skill-sets for characters. I sometimes build a skill-set first, and then backtrack to think about what sort of person their skills would make them.

Why? Because I have a lot of characters in a lot of different games. A good percentage of them are *very* different than me. Some of that can be made up with good roleplaying, true.

But some of it can't. It gives me satisfaction akin to rolling a natural 20 when my quick-witted character does something... well, quick-witted. I'm intelligent enough, but I freeze when I'm put on the spot - instantly dumber than a box of rocks.

I don't see making skill checks much differently than rolling to hit. Success in either is a thrill! *shrugs*

-Benjamin said...

Chgowiz said, "in your example, if I knew that the character for whatever reason was highly skilled at acrobatics, even with DEX 10, I'd give them better odds than DEX 10 w/out background."

That is exactly what a skill system does, only a skill system has the advantages of consistency and predictability.

The reason I prefer gaming systems with good skill systems is that it positively affirms an action the PC who has the skill can preform and their chance for success. Makes my life easier because then I don't have to make something up and makes the game more fair because it doesn't matter how you get your bonus to the skill check everyone has to overcome the same obstacle when attempting the same task.

Chgowiz said...

It's an amazingly good discussion. I find myself nodding in understanding, and even perhaps rethinking my original stance a bit. While "realism" is not a high priority with me - I go more for feeling and adventure and exploration with light rules - I can understand the attractiveness of a skill system.

I don't think such a player should be restricted from being able to play such a character simply because he/she isn't that charismatic personally.

I don't either. If a person doesn't speak to me in the exact words, or using the exact tone I'm not going to penalize him.

Here's the examples in my head:

- Example of play that I don't want in my games

DM: The guard turns towards you, he's sneering in disgust as he thinks you're a wimp.

Player: I roll to completely intimidate him with my awesomeness [rattle] Oh look, an 18 plus my charisma bonus, plus my guard knowledge, plus my...

(You get the idea...)

Example 2

DM: The guard turns towards you, he's sneering in disgust as he thinks you're a wimp.

Player: Ah ha! You obviously think that I'm not worthy of your time, but let me tell you something! I am here on the Lord's business and I have his seal right here (I flash the scroll in his face) so you'd better knock that attitude off before you're in front of the Lord looking for a new job!

DM: He looks very intimidated and scurries out of your way...

Now, in your example, if the player is not so bombastic or adept at intimidation as a *player*, here's how I'd handle it.

Example 3 -

DM: The guard turns towards you, he's sneering in disgust as he thinks you're a wimp.

Player: Uhh hmm...

DM: He looks like a bully. What would you like to do?

Player: Well, I'd like to intimidate him... not sure how...

DM: Well, you're a fighter in armor, on the Lord's business...

Player: OK...

DM: Do you want to tell him that or try some other way of convincing him you're his better?

Player: Well, I'll try to tell him I'm on the Lord's business and he'd better let me pass.

DM: The guard seems a bit unsure now, you might be onto something...

Player: OK...

DM: Do you want to keep it up or try to go stronger or back off?

Player: I'll push it!

DM: OK, the guard is looking cowed - maybe you have something that you could do or show him?

Player: I have the summons from the Lord...

DM: OK, the guard would probably be very convinced.

...

So yea... I wouldn't leave a player out to dry - that's not fair - however, I *am* teaching the player, through example and play, how to role play. It doesn't mean you have to be an actor, just tell me what you think your character would do.

To me, THAT is the point of the table - otherwise it's all dice to me and I don't want that kind of game.

Chgowiz said...

@Player of Kee - I can see that, and I know that about you, so let me ask you this... what makes the Dark Ages games work then, considering that skills aren't as emphasized as perhaps 3E?

Chgowiz said...

Benjamin - I think there's a perception that without such codifications, DMs are unfair? I don't get the sense that I'm personally unfair or that players think I'm unfair - and I think I probably err on the side of "Yes" more than "roll dice".

Maybe because I trust the players at my table to participate and think and play, I give them my fullest and fairest odds and decisions. I'm not for them or against them.

K. Bailey said...

Skill systems do make players feel like their character is more real. In a sense it is enumerating a character background. This can be good for DM's because it can save them having to listen to said backgrounds ;) and it forestalls some stuff like: "But my character is a prince who was tutored among elves then fought in a war waaah."

Of course it is often just replaced with, "but I have 'elven ettiquette' at +3 waaaah," but at least you know they had to sacrifice the part about fighting in a war...

(As for Classic Traveller, your skills are who you are because they're the output of the "what's my background?" generator.)

Of course, Another thing skills are used for is to embed mechanisms and resolution mechanics; e.g. 3E sets concrete rules on jumping right there in the Jump skill. Your game probably doesn't have much use for that aspect of skill systems, and indeed this is why many people avoid and/or loathe them. Designers like to write them, players love exploiting them, good DM's hate being having to master them simply to be bound by them.

Skills don't have to come laden with mechanisms, or be measured in numbers that only make sense in terms of mechanisms. One DM I had, the skill numbers were actually derived straight from game-time spent training, and the impact of those numbers on the game mechanisms we resolved at the DM's fiat. You could say "Blacksmith-5" which is the skill of someone who has been a professional blacksmith for five years. Mechanism-free and universal.

It sounds like you might enjoy playing with something that gives you enumerated backgrounds, but that is fairly rules-light. I like the "list 2 things your character is good at" that Fitzerman describes as a supplement to S&W. (Though I despise "tag" systems when they get writ large; e.g. Over the Edge, Dogs in the Vineyard.)

Player of Kee said...

I can see that, and I know that about you, so let me ask you this... what makes the Dark Ages games work then, considering that skills aren't as emphasized as perhaps 3E?

Kee is a sullen teen-aged fighter - nothing hard about that. She's a sailor with some elven knowledge, but I haven't had the opportunity to really exercise that aspect of the character.

The Dark Ages game works for me in spite of the lack of concrete skills, not because of the lack of concrete skills. I'm not very satisfied with Kee as a character yet. I'm happy with her progress in fighting skills, though.

The Dark Ages game has some interesting flavor. I want to gain enough treasure to continue to adventure, and gain enough experience to find out what the deal is with the Sphere that fell, and learn the fate of Irecia.

I guess I'm plot-driven. (Uh-oh...) I want to find out what happens next.

Uthred said...

This seems to come down to the age-old comparison of role-playing vs roll-playing. Specific skills work well in both groups, but definitely help players who cannot role play well. I agree that good role playing should always trump dice rolling in any situation outside of combat, but sometimes players (and DMs) are caught flatfooted and freeze up. A skill or attribute roll is a fast way to keep the action moving. Ideally for me, is a balanced mix of the two. BTW - I agree that this is a great discussion!

BlUsKrEEm said...

In my games I use to use alot of Attribute checks (d20 less than the attribute is a success.)

In a few games I've used Backgrounds to allow for a little more customization. Each character would pick two carriers / crafts / cliches / what ever. Whenever an attribute check was called that involved something covered by a background the player would get to roll two D20 and choose the better of the two.

I almost succumbed to using the BECMI/ RC skill system. I like that the system allows you to dabble in a bit of other class abilities, and I love the use of attribute checks, but I have never had much luck using it in a real game.

Fitzerman said...

@Fitzerman - that's what I'm trying to figure out - why have a skills system? What's the purpose? I've never really tried to do skills.

The reason we do it is because we enjoy having differentiated characters. Why have it as a limited number of slots instead of just in the player's head? Well, I think of it as just having a little tag jotted down to remind both player and GM that this is part of who the character is, and maybe encourage them to try to utilize those things.

How do you avoid too generic of a statement? Just a negotiation with the player?

Exactly. I told them that they could use a generic statement to encompass a bunch of related skills, no single one of which would be likely used in a dungeoncrawl type situation ("politics" say, or "herbalism"), but to keep it very specific for things that would be likely to crop up a lot ("lock picking" for instance, or "dodging").

So far it's worked out really well, and because the "skills" come from the players and not some list, it's encouraged some interesting out-of-the-box thinking at character generation. The fighter, for instance, decided that he was good at "combat while drunk". Awesome, he gets some extra leeway for fancy maneuvers when he's taken pains to get smashed first. The magic user is good at "building contraptions". Weird, but why not? She's always on the look-out to rig up some Rube Goldberg device to get something accomplished.

Not for everyone, and I understand that, but it's pretty fun for us.

Timeshadows said...

"I already knew that my attributes/odds were a "Do something" mechanic - but I see so much emphasis and thought on Skill Systems, I wanted to know what I was missing. Apparently -- it's not as bad as I thought?" -- Chg'

If it works, and keeps the players coming back for more, that's all that's important.

The whole idea is the Skill Set, as it has been discussed here. If you get a good enough idea of what a character's training/experience/speciality is, and that determines your n in d6 chance (or n in 2d6, 3d6, etc.) method, it's all good.

I dropped the n in d6 because I don't like reality operating in 16.67% chunks. I own d% and I would rather a finer gradient. I tell my players that higher is always better (d20 or d%), and have them add their bonus in whatever form (+1 or +5 or 10 or 15% depending on the 'difficulty')to that roll.
--My having specific things they can spend XP on to get better with on those rolls is my skill system. It's their paperwork; they enjoy having fine control knobs; the dice still dictate how well/poorly they did, and we still adjudicate by circumstance.

As you noted, it frees me from looking like a spiteful or at best, arbitrary [w]itch. ;)

In any case, 'play how ya' like'

Chgowiz said...

@Fitzerman - Interesting - out of all the skill systems/hacks for D&D, I like something that is player driven and not mechanical/dicey/minmax in nature. I might give this a whirl in my wife's solo game and see how it plays.

@Timeshadow - oh I always do. :) The question was more of a thought exercise into what I was missing rather than seriously wanting a system. It's pretty interesting to see how the different games play out - and I'm VERY happy no editions were flamed in this discussion :)

thanuir said...

Chgowiz;

you said "I get why you guys like skill systems - yet I can't help but think that I'd rather my players define their characters through play and through how they do things."

I'd argue that skill system does not prevent play from defining the character. Especially a skill system where characters can be developed, or only develop, in play. (E.g. variations of basic roleplay, and Burning Wheel.) Even more importantly, skills can only define the character if the competence of characters is what most matters. In my games, the direction players take the game via their characters is at least as big a concern as how competent the characters are. The play's the thing; rules are only supporting it.

You also said: "I will not allow a dice roll to dictate if a player persuades a guard to turn the other way, or if a player scares the bejeezus out of a goblin enough to get information - in my games, that's where the role playing comes in."

My approach is to play in detail what is happening and what people are saying until I no longer how an NPC would react, in which situation dice come to play. Sometimes there is dice, sometimes not. It takes the burden of deciding how someone would act off me. A roll or two are usually enough per an NPC, in that after them the character is typically established enough for the rolls to no longer be necessary.

Based on the example you provide later, I'd say our styles are pretty similar, but I would certainly have resorted to dice in the third example, after finding out how the character is approaching the situation.

Evernevermore said...

Wow - I get dragged out of town for a funeral and something really cool like this pops up... sigh just my luck.

Skill checks have to fit the genre in my mind for them to work. I've always viewed skills as being better suited to modern/sci-fi games over fantasy. For example a character that would fit into a Philip K Dick or Gibson cyberpunk book is much more "skilled" then endowed with amazing abilities, in my mind. A game like Mechwarrior or Traveler needs skills as characters really shouldnt be fantastically able in abilites but instead have specialized talents. On the other hand the average character in a fantasy game, even one as odd as a Dark Sun game, is much less specialized as the world they live in is less specialized. A household is able to, in fact must, produce alot more of its needs then anything in the modern day (excluding those people who are that fanatical about being self sufficient)

I really like the pick 2 things your good at - I'll be using that in either a Dark Sun or Gamma World game if I can get the players I need together.

tzunder said...

I like skills because I like to look at a character sheet and have an idea of what my PC can do and how good they are at it. But that's why I play skill driven games like RuneQuest and Savage Worlds and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. In fact I favour games like HeroQuest or Wordplay where the skills are the whole of the character sheet and all else has gone. But you're playing a D&D type game.. and I have to say the SIEGE idea of an attribute check modified by half your level as a bonus sounds very very appropriate for an old skool D&D game looking for a simply core mechanic. But then again, I'd say why not handle combat the same.. and then we'd part company!